My Sustainable, Repeatable, Scalable Startup Lessons Learned

A startup is a temporary organization formed to search for a sustainable*, repeatable and scalable business model.

Steve Blank (*Ash Maurya helped me with “sustainable”)

My Prezi Startup Lessons Learned - #1 Lesson
My Prezi Startup Lessons Learned - #1 Lesson

Mantra

This is my #1 lesson learned. Regardless of the situation, the first questions that come to mind when considering any course of action is

  1. Is it sustainable?
  2. Is it repeatable?
  3. Is it scalable?

Used Car Pivot Scenario

For AnotherSocialEconomy’s used car vertical, we experimented using Google Adwords for our used car Customer Channel. We had a daily budget of $10 for our English Campaign & $10 for our French Campaign, both set to the greater Montreal area. Initially, our Cost Per Clicks were around $2 but after some tweaking & some special sauce we got them down to $0.72. (Read the documentation. It’s all in the Quality Score!) And within 10 days, we actual “sold” a car. Not bad, eh? That’s the good news.

Based on our Customer Interviews, we wanted to validate our hypothesis that car dealers would be willing to subscribe to our lead generation service, once we proved we can deliver leads – despite spending one tenth (ultra conservative) of what they’d spend on their monthly advertising.

Business Model

Revenue

The beta would be free but with the understanding that dealers would pay a monthly subscription of $250 – which includes 25 free Proposals.  After that, it would be $10 a Proposal.  Since many managers also were skeptical of their sales reps being able to deal with the emails, we’d also offer a Managed Service for double the price.

Costs

We were spending less than $600 a month on creating Demand. But there were hidden costs. Each new Consumer’s email address had to be validated. Then each new Demand had to be qualified since most of them were for something like “BMW 335i”.

From the car dealer’s perspective, we wanted more than a URL and “Have your customer call me” response. We wanted them to take advantage of the situation and offer some incentive for the Consumer to contact them.  We wanted them to think like a “Nordie”.

Lesson Learned

Is it sustainable?

No. The Car Dealer Pivot Customer Channel was simply too expensive to sustain with the current Revenue Model. However, while none of the dealers wanted to pay subscription fees, most were willing to pay a finder’s fee which could justify the Adwords expense.

Is it repeatable?

No. The Car Dealer Pivot was simply too complicated. Our original idea was to go after Consumers looking to buy something more precise – like a “Wii Super Mario game”. Something that a retailer either has in stock, or, doesn’t. There’s just too many variables in used cars to repeat the process in another vertical.

Is it scalable?

No. The Car Dealer Pivot required a lot of manual intervention on both the Consumer side, as well as, the Retailer side.

Bad Pivot?

No. The Car Dealer Pivot was not a bad move because we learned a lot. For example:

  1. Customer Development: We should have interviewed more dealers. Although we did have enough Early Adopters to launch the beta, we should have qualified them better. We didn’t want to take any money until we knew we could deliver qualified leads. And when it came time to “sign” they crapped out.
  2. Customer Channel: We learned a lot about Google Adwords and I think we got pretty could at it even after only a few weeks.  I still think it’s a good channel for us to find Consumers. Our biggest oversight was the dealers’ unwillingness to participate.  We still don’t understand why someone making commission on a used car won’t reach out to a local prospect.
  3. Unique Value Proposition: We should have stuck to our original vision of connecting Consumers who know exactly what they want – like a “Wii Super Mario game”, to local Retailers who either have it, or, don’t have it in stock.
  4. Get Out of the Building: We definitely got out of the building. We definitely exercised our bits.
  5. Problem/Solution Fit: Every Consumer we spoke to outside of the Building can identify with the Problem/Solution. However, that’s not the case for used car dealers (Retailers). Their Solution requires the Managed Service which, unless funded by the car Manufacturers, is simply too expensive for us to pursue. And while we have a Pitch for that, even “validated” by a few insiders, we already learned our lesson and choose to move on.

Up next

Stay tuned as I drill-down into my My Prezi Startup Lessons Learned.

Startup Lessons Learned 2011. Has It Been a Year Already?

You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.

– Steve Jobs’ Stanford University Commencement address (2005)

 

 

Garr Reynolds' "Career Advice '08"

Background

I was preparing a Prezi presentation on my startup Lessons Learned, looking back to my blog and and our Cynapse cyn.in social software suite for help in tracing my steps and it hit me.  OMG! It’s been two years since I posted about this Steve Jobs quote & Garr Reynolds’ images are still stuck in my mind’s eye. It’s been one year since I posted about my first Pivot – inspired by Startup Lesson Learned 2010 conference and the Retrospective (Agile) has simply compelled me to blog about my dots and where they have led me.

My Lessons Learned Sprints

My Lessons Learned Prezi may still be a work in process but the dots seem to be in place.  Trying to blog about the entire Retrospective is just too daunting. So in the spirit of Agile, I’ll break the Prezi up into dot-size sprints and will change the posted dates accordingly.

In the meantime, you can read about my favorite part of  Startup Lessons Learned Conference 2011Steve Blank’s Lean Launch Lab beta, as chronicled by Morgan Linton.

 

Lean Lectures #1 with Ash Maurya

Systematically iterate your product from Plan A to a plan that works.

Ash Maurya, Running Lean

Background

My first encounter with the Lean startup movement was last April at the Startup Lessons Learned. (BTW, according to Raymond Luk, Montreal had the greatest number of attendees!) I was amazed to say the least. It was Agile software development for startups! And while Dom & I practice an Agile approach to developing AnotherSocialEconomy, we weren’t doing so from the business side of things. To be fair, I’ve already lived through the highs & lows of a startup life back in the dot com days, so I do have a few of my own Lesson Learned, plus I’m a big fan of Guy Kawasaki. This time around, things are different. But now the question begs to be asked; “Are they different enough?”.

Lesson #1

Last night I attended the first in a series of presentations to be hosted by YearOne Labs on the Lean Movement – this one presented by Ash Maurya. Ash’s presentation is based on his book Running Lean, where he describes the systematic approach he’s learned and practiced over the years. (You can download the first two chapters which help explain the slides above.)

I won’t try summarizing Ash’s content since you’d be better served by visiting his site those he mentions like Eric Ries and Steve Blank. You can watch a few of their interviews on Vator TV Eric Ries and his ‘lean startup’ awakening, Entrepreneurship: a faith-based endeavor and What is the job of a CEO?.

Customer Development from Day 1?

OK, we didn’t do that. However, we did not completely live in a vacuum either and have actually Pivoted several times. And with each Pivot, we stayed true to the underlying value proposition: Save both consumers and retailers time, aggravation and money by connecting those who shop online and purchase locally offline.

I Regret Not Asking

The one question I should have asked Ash when I had the chance was: “How do you balance Customer Development with Defensibility?”.

Anyone care to suggest any answers?



The Yin Yang of Techie Start Ups

yin yangIn Chinese philosophy, the concept of yin yang is used to describe how polar or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other in turn… Yin yang are complementary opposites within a greater whole. Everything has both yin and yang aspects,.. constantly interacting, never existing in absolute stasis.
Yin and yang – Wikipedia

Background

We’ve reached our techie milestone. We have quality code running in the Google AppEngine clouds. We’ve validated our concept with as many people that will listen to us. We’re at the point now where we have to validate with the market. We need users. More specifically, we need Consumers and we need Retailers. We need marketing & we need public relations (PR).

Challenge

So while the real techie – Dom Derrien, can breath a little easier, the other – me, with my techie background, has to go out and market the crap out of Twetailer. But, I’m not really a marketing kind of guy. While I absolutely love demoing and presenting and evangelizing, I’m not particularly strong at finding the right people to get in front of. So, I need to find myself a marketing guru. But being an ultra-light start up (read “living of my wife and kids”), I need to find a marketing guru – preferably one shooting for the social networking sphere, who’s willing to drink the Kool-Aid. Fortunately, Marc Bienstock likes Kool-Aid.

Lesson Learned

Twetailer was conceived and originally targeted for techies like ourselves – cube dwellers. Which is fine, since we never planned on using the line “If only 1% of China…”. So demoing to techies was never a real problem, despite some minor usability issues. But in order to get to the next level, we had to demo to prospective partners, prospective CEOs, prospective Consumers and prospective Retailers. And the further away we got from the cube dwellers, the greater the usability issue became for those higher up in the org chart – tower dwellers. Thankfully, everyone got the true value of Twetailer’s service:  “Brokering Consumer Demand with local Retailers’ available Supply – via simple messages, for f(r)ee, or, Reverse Retailing”. But even our own accountant and lawyer turned on us with comments like “Can’t I just have one button to press? I’m not very comfortable with all this texting stuff. Hey, I have a great idea! How about an app for my Blackberry?”. Not bad for tower-dwellers, eh? 🙂

So now I think I understand. While I originally intended to service techie consumers, I needed non-techies to help me get that service to them. In other words, my techie solution had a non-techie dependency.

Time to Pivot

It pays to get out of the basement. Last April, I attended the Montreal venue for the Startup Lessons Learned Conference where among other gems, I was introduced to what Steve Blank calls Customer Development process and Eric Ries calls the The Pivot:

“Pivoting” is when you change a fundamental part of the business model. It can be as simple as recognizing that your product was priced incorrectly. It can be more complex if you find your target customer or users need to change or the feature set is wrong or you need to “repackage” a monolithic product into a family of products or you chose the wrong sales channel or your customer acquisition programs were ineffective.

Modified Business Model

Originally, the fee plan was to charge both Consumer & Retailer a transaction fee similar to that of Amazon Flexible Payments Service fees (about 3%). But after speaking to several people, it became clear we couldn’t build a sustainable business like that. The common thought was the best idea is to solve a real business problem and charge money for it. So we’re going to charge a monthly subscription fee for registered Retailers. And because Marc felt Twetailer was too generalized and people needed a sense of urgency to use it, we’ve also introduced a Reseller distribution channel with our first one being targeted towards golfers & golf courses. (Congrats to Marc for being our first Reseller!) And to address usability issues, we’re offering a Managed Service for those non-techie Retailers out there.

Modified Development Roadmap

As much as I didn’t want to go down this route until there was actual income to pay for it, I seem to be in a Catch 22: If we don’t build it, they won’t come. If they don’t come, then I can’t afford to build it. So we re-prioritized some things & built it – an Android app targeted for the Golfer (Consumer) wanting to find a local Golf Course (Retailer). And since Twetailer is vertical agnostic, we’re making the app open source so other’s out there may be encouraged to built their own vertical, or, reseller market using our open application programming interface (API). Oh and by the way,  for those of you like my good buddy Rick Boretsky who think only techies have Android mobile devices, I encourage you to take a look a the First quarter 2010 information from The NPD Group’s Mobile Phone Track which reveals a shift in the smartphone market, as Android OS edged out Apple’s OS for the number-two position behind RIM.

Golf Pivot Videos

Please take a look at our pivot trilogy (less than 10 minutes) and let me know your thoughts. The first is intended to address our target audience with the second identifying their pain and the third illustrating our solution (for non-techies and techies alike).

Reflection

What do you think? Am I setting a bad precedence? Am I clouding my inability to market/sell my start up by throwing more code, time & energy at the problem, as opposed to, finding/solving the root-cause? Or, do you think this is a step in the right direction?

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