Entrepreneur? Just Make Something

November 21, 2010

My weekly post from Seattle 2.0 (overwhelmed by the response so far!).

A startup begins with uncertainty. From idea to launch you will have breakthroughs and setbacks, and you will often question yourself. You will put a lot on the line, and the process will take longer than you expect. But there’s a moment when the fears subside, when you can see the light on the other end of the tunnel – it’s when you use your product for the first time.

Nothing beats the feeling of using your own product – experiencing your idea turned into reality. Think of the first time you used the products that you use on a daily basis. We all try and reject a lot of betas, but sometimes you get to use products like Facebook or Google for the first time. These products immediately scream “This is the future.  You need this. Use it.” It’s truly exciting to find a new product you will use every day. Now imagine that feeling for something you’ve created.

The most fulfilling day since I left Microsoft was when I used LazyMeter, my startup’s product, for the first time. I immediately lost all doubts about the effort and risks.  There’s a unique satisfaction that comes from making something; I have seen a vision come to life, and even if no one uses it I have solved a pain point in my own life. No matter what happens from here on, I am happy to have built something.

Since leaving Microsoft, I’ve realized how important creativity is in my life. This doesn’t just apply to startups. If I have to go back to a full-time job, I will make sure that I continue to create. No longer void of energy after a day’s work, I’ve written code, made homemade wine and countless meals, learned guitar, and written posts like this one. In this culture of consumption, I find it fascinating how much satisfaction I get from something as simple as preparing a meal.

The tie that binds entrepreneurs is an innate need to create something instead of just consume. When denied this need, we feel empty. This is why we’ll put so much on the line, why we’ll get right back up again when we fail, and it’s also why the startup community is so supportive. The good news is that anyone can make something, whatever situation they’re in.

Whether or not you are doing a startup, I ask you: What have you made lately? And what will you make next?


Top 10 Signs Your Pitch Needs Fine-Tuning

November 9, 2010

My weekly post on Seattle 2.0.


As someone with a big idea, it’s easy to feel confident in what you’re doing. It’s harder to explain it. Perfecting your pitch is critical for acquiring a team, users and funding. It’s also critical to ensure you understand what you’re working on and building the right solution.

The pitch for LazyMeter progressed significantly since we started. It began as “a new approach to task management.” Along the way it was also “a task-based, personal-communication system” and “a to-do list with social features & game mechanics”. Today, it is simply “we are ending procrastination and forgetting.” At each stage, the pitch was received better, and we could eventually win over the audience with a conversation. But it wasn’t until the current version that the power of a strong pitch became clear. Our audience instantly understands the problem we are working to solve, their questions are more about specific features than explaining the pitch, and they actively make an effort to get involved. I no longer feel like a salesman, and gain a wealth of insight about the ideal feature set.

Based on our experience fine-tuning our pitch, here are the top warning signs that your pitch needs more work:

  1. They don’t get excited: Interest is not enough – they should be excited by the opportunity of what you’re doing.
  2. They ask you to explain your pitch: When your pitch needs work, the questions you get are mostly about clarifying what you just said. Listen to these questions, as they will help you fine-tune your pitch the most.
  3. They don’t ask you about specific features: Getting feature requests is a very good sign. It means they understand the product, and tells you what it would take for them to use it.
  4. They don’t give you positive feedback: Most people are polite, so don’t feel confident if they don’t give you negative feedback. Realize that no positive feedback may equate to negative feedback.
  5. “I want that” vs. “good luck”: An easy way to determine if you’ve gotten through to them is that they want to know when they can try your product, and they ask how to follow your progress, versus just saying “good luck with that.”
  6. Your mailing list doesn’t grow: Many people will ask for your business card and/or URL. What’s more important is whether you see any quantifiable results, such as your mailing list increasing after events where you’ve pitched, or an increase in twitter followers.
  7. They don’t remember you: If you see people you’ve pitched to, and they act like they’ve never met you, then try again from a different angle.
  8. You’re selling: An imperfect pitch requires a lot of effort to sell the idea after the pitch, while after a perfect pitch it’s more likely you’ll have to listen.
  9. You don’t like pitching: You avoid pitching because you don’t want to explain your startup again.
  10. They tell you about another product that does exactly the same thing: Sometimes mastering the problem you’re working on is not enough – you also need to differentiate your solution.

By recognizing these signs, you can work to improve your pitch. Pay close attention to how your audience reacts, and start by changing what doesn’t work. For LazyMeter, we quickly found the technical term “task management” was too confusing, and switched to “to-do list”.  While it’s important to use different terminology, you should also re-generate your pitch completely to get to the core problem you’re solving (in our case, we finally realized that procrastination and forgetting is the problem, and not to-do lists which are actually a solution). Keep playing with completely new ways to describe your project, especially when with a less formal audience.  You’ll be amazed by the progress and how people react to the same idea when presented differently, and when you nail your pitch, you will know it.