FailCon: Startup Reality

November 3, 2011

I didn’t know what to expect going into FailCon, but it turned out to be the best conference I’ve been to. Why? Because it’s a startup event grounded in reality. It completely challenges the fantasy of overnight success. It turns out most startups take years to build, and that most successful founders have had multiple startups fail on the path to success.

Highlights Included:

  • Joe Gebbia of Airbnb talking about their years-long trough of sorrow. Rather than “fail fast”, they stuck with their vision for years before finding product-market fit.
  • Travis Kalanick of Uber talking about his previous startup, which dragged on for something like 9 years – with no pay until exit.
  • Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures talking about failure. Favorite quote: “My willingness to fail gives me the ability to succeed”.

Having recently launched a startup and entered the trough of sorrow, this event’s timing couldn’t be any better. Entrepreneurs need to know that the trough of sorrow is normal, and that it typically takes years to get to product-market fit. Ideally, entrepreneurs should know this before they get started. I worry that it’s not clear to many people getting started that, even in today’s market, their startup is likely to take 3-7 years to succeed, and is even more likely to fail.


TechCrunch Disrupt: The Volunteers

September 16, 2011

As an entrepreneur and recent transplant to San Francisco, volunteering at Disrupt was a dream come true. I was able to experience the energy of the bay area startup scene first-hand, gaining insights from leaders and learning from new companies as they pitched on stage. I was even able to meet many of the speakers, since volunteering often meant walking them backstage. But the biggest surprise was my interactions with other volunteers. As panels were taking place on stage, there was an army of entrepreneurs-turned-volunteers hustling behind the scenes. The true entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well at TechCrunch Disrupt, and you didn’t need a $2,000 ticket to participate.

While the average attendee probably assumed they were dealing with college students, almost everyone I met was an entrepreneur. After all, that’s why I was there. As the co-founder of a bootstrapped startup named LazyMeter, I decided to volunteer and save myself the $2,000+ for a badge or table. And clearly I wasn’t the only one who thought of this. I met a 16-year-old from Chicago with a growing startup – his ability to position himself backstage and approach anyone he saw put my networking skills to shame. I met a partner in a fund in Utah who brought his portfolio out as volunteers to save money. I met a senior at Brandeis University in Boston who won a business plan competition at Harvard and had the foresight to check out the startup scene a year in advance of graduation day. I shared passionate conversations with other volunteers about seeking independence and a good life for our families, the sacrifices we made, and why high salaries at corporations have no appeal.

As you walk down the hall at a conference like Disrupt, the crowd doesn’t look at your face – they look at your nametag. When they see “volunteer”, they keep on walking. This is a mistake. Don’t underestimate the people in green shirts. For all you know, they may be building the next big thing. All the volunteers I met had one thing in common: they had a vision, and they did what’s necessary to make it happen. If you can get backstage at TechCrunch, anything is possible.

The Power of One

June 14, 2011

Most meetings are non-eventful. You say you’ll keep in touch, and maybe you’re introduced to others. While the entrepreneur may fantasize about someone jumping out of their seat with excitement, it’s more likely they’ll see someone that just wants to get through the day.

It’s natural to feel like the goal of meetings is to make everyone excited about your product. But I’ve recently learned the goal at the beginning should be to find one more person truly passionate about your topic. Someone as excited about the problem you’re solving as you were when you took the plunge. Someone so excited that they want to jump in with you. This is true whether you’re talking to a potential advisor, investor or user.

Move forward. As you share your vision more openly, don’t be disenchanted by meetings that go nowhere. It only takes a single meeting to change things. A single person can change everything for your startup. Suddenly, the less productive meetings make sense, and don’t matter. Remember that even the best pitches will often be ignored.

Make your goals achievable, and keep moving. Start with 1, and then seek 1 more. If you can get 1 advisor, you can get 1 more. If you can get 1 fanatical user, you can get 1 more. If you can get 1 customer, you can get 1 more. Forget the dreams of overnight success. You’re doing a startup, and that means you’re building from the ground up.

Land Ho: The Product/Vision Click

May 17, 2011

Even if you know the problem you’re solving, it’s possible that you don’t know exactly what you’re building. While common advice says to build your product and get to market, this advice glazes over a key step: getting out of your head. As you think through the detailed solution that your market demands, it’s discouraging to look at startups that have found their mojo. Their founders talk about their vision as if it takes no thought at all; their product and marketing are remarkably focused and harmonious.

For most startups, finding this harmony is a tremendous amount of work. Fortunately, there’s a recognizable moment when your vision and product click. Suddenly your whole startup falls into place. The vision leaves your head, and the product becomes its voice. With each deploy, you immediately know what to build next. Your marketing goes from wordy and disjointed to short and sweet. Users respond positively, some fanatically. It’s a beautiful moment, especially if it takes you months to get there.

At LazyMeter, getting from “we’re building a task manager that doesn’t suck” to “the cure for your overwhelming to-do list” didn’t happen overnight. It may seem like a small leap, but it’s brought laser-sharp focus to our product development. We’re still at the beginning and we definitely have our work cut out for us. But fortunately, when it clicks, the product takes on a life of its own, and the whole team knows exactly where it’s going. It’s as if you’ve been lost at sea, and finally spot land in the distance.

Don’t Blow Your Load: Plan Your PR

April 18, 2011

You know the saying that everyone gets 15 minutes of fame? It also applies to startups. Most startups will get one shot at attention; after that, they risk being old news. So I’m confused when I see startups go on a PR spree before their product is ready for the resulting traffic.

The best PR is held back to coincide with a product’s release. I have seen several cases of eager startups generating a blast of coverage well before their launch. While there’s nothing wrong with building awareness, the problem is news sources often won’t cover you again. Plus, the passionate early adopters that tried to use your product before probably won’t return. While you can capture traffic with a mailing list, it’s a problem if you can’t bring such a large group back when the product is actually ready. This issue was experienced by Freshdesk when they had 25,000 visitors from a post on Hacker News. In a blog post, they said “We had 150 new signups – too bad we didn’t have the product ready. I think we could have had much more if we had the product ready instead of having people signup and wait for the beta.”

One of my favorite startup blog posts is How We Knew When to Launch Our Startup by Vinicius Vacanti, co-founder of YipIt. He clearly explains why startups should not seek PR until they retain users and (preferably) they refer others. He says “You are a fisherman, your startup is your net and your goal is to catch as many of these fish as possible. If your net (your startup) isn’t well-built and ready for them, the fish will swim right by you and they’ll never come back.” First impressions are critical, and you only get one. Robert Scoble recently wrote about why “first experiences matter and are mattering more every day” in response to the launch of Color.

People ask for access to LazyMeter every day. While we diligently track each request, most are still waiting for their invitation because we’re obsessed with their first experience. Instead of letting everyone in, we grant access to cohorts that are the smallest size needed to monitor first experience and gather detailed feedback. After seeing how the users respond, we improve the product and then invite the next cohort. This strategy has worked extremely well: we collect very actionable feedback and focus our attention on improving the product versus supporting many more users. While we regret that some have had to wait months for access, we prefer they have a better first experience – both with the product and individual attention – so that they’re more likely to become loyal users. We will launch and seek PR when we see our new users returning, and asking to bring their friends. Call us old fashioned, but we don’t put out until launch day.

Start With The Bread

March 22, 2011

I’m a foodie. If you want to know what I miss the most about my Microsoft salary, it’s my restaurant budget. Which is probably why I’m eating a lot of sandwiches lately.

Every time I bite into a great sandwich, I notice the bread. When you order a gourmet sandwich, the bread is the last thing on your mind. Yet any great chef knows a great sandwich cannot exist without the perfect bread. A great sandwich can exist without the perfect ingredients; some bread is so good it doesn’t matter what you pair it with (if anything).

If you’ve ever been to Paseo in Fremont or Ballard for a Cuban sandwich, you know what I’m talking about. You can’t go wrong ordering any sandwich on their menu. Not to undermine the perfection of what goes on inside their sandwiches, they just wouldn’t succeed without the Macrina bread. And they know it: the bread is so important, they stop selling sandwiches when they run out instead of sending a runner to another bakery. If you think the meat is the most important thing, order the onion sandwich and thank me later. Likewise, bread is (part of) the reason so many people eat the mystery meat at Subway.

In contrast, I was very disappointed when I went to Salumi, Mario Batali’s father’s restaurant famous for its artisan cured meats. While I’m a fan of their meats, I would never order a sandwich from them again. The bread is so thick and dry that you can’t taste the meat. Great ingredients do not a great sandwich make. Sandwiches fail when the focus is on what’s inside, and the bread is an after-thought.

When you build your product, start with the bread. It’s easy to get caught up in the ingredients – the wonderful features – and overlook the importance of the structural platform that ties it all together. Yes, that BBQ brisket may be delicious, but if you put it in-between wonderbread you’ve failed.

At LazyMeter, we’ve already logged 100 features for task management, but we also know that those features are useless without a workflow that actually helps people get things done. There are countless task manager products with every feature from SMS alerts to collaboration, but there’s a reason most people don’t use one – none offer a workflow requiring less time and providing more satisfaction than pen and paper. They’ve ignored the bread.

My advice: start with the bread.

Can Part-Time Jobs Boost Startups?

February 28, 2011

Startups everywhere struggle to find good talent, which has recently become very apparent in Seattle. In February, SEOmoz announced $12,000 for employee referrals, and EnergySavvy offered $10,000. Despite so many engineers at large corporations in Seattle – many interested in joining a startup – hiring is very difficult.

Based on conversations I’ve had with local engineers, I’d like to suggest a new hiring strategy: part-time jobs. Rather than pay for referrals, startups could create part-time contracts. Engineers often want to explore a startup of their own, and stick with the corporation to maximize their salary until they take the plunge.  An alternative is to offer them a way to transition to a startup.  They can continue to make a good income, with the opportunity to pursue their own ideas and experience startup life. It’s likely many part-time employees would find that they enjoy working for a startup and stay on full-time.  Part-time jobs provide a way to lure highly qualified employees from their comfortable jobs and salaries, but unfortunately these opportunities are currently very rare.

Since leaving Microsoft, I’ve been surprised that it’s so difficult to find part-time work. Especially in this economy, I’d expect more businesses to be open to part-time employees. It’s understandable that companies want to invest in employees they know will stick around, but with a shortage of talent, part-time employees get the work done and are likely to grow into full-time employees, either directly or indirectly.  This alternative is also a great opportunity to move away from 40-hour weeks; some employees will be just as effective in half the time.

Part-time jobs are at best an effective recruiting mechanism, and at worst a way to support the local startup scene, whose progress benefits everyone.  It allows startups to test employees, and employees to test startups.  If startup and employee get along, it’s likely they will find an opportunity to work together gain; at the very least, they will provide referrals – for free.

I’m eager to know what you think. Would you be willing to work part-time while pursuing your idea? Does your startup have a reason for not offering part-time jobs?

Aaron Franklin is co-founder of LazyMeter, an application designed to end procrastination and forgetting. He works as a part-time consultant to support his startup.