is the Best Way to Start?
In the past few weeks, I have found myself answering the same question for a series of different friends and former co-workers who want to launch their own tech startup.
The question at hand (discussed over 3 lunches, 1 dinner, and 4 coffees in the last 2 weeks) was:
How do I get started?
Good question. If you haven't done it before, it's really easy to get wrapped up in the hype of "I'm going to build something, get 5M users, sell it to google, and retire". For those from the outside, The Social Network has Sex-ified the world of tech startups. The news reports on $1B valuations in only a few years post launch, surging tech IPOs and cool office perks has created a culture that does not accurately show how hard it is to get something off the ground.
With that said, if tech isn't the core of your business (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Snapchat, Venmo, Instagram, etc.) there is a very clear way to get started:
Find a customer.
Don't focus your time on sourcing a tech team, product tweaks, debating what tools to use and dumping tens of thousands into creating version 1.0. Find one person that
wants to buy your product, and sell it to them. You don't have a business without a customer and building technology is expensive.
"But how can I do that without an actual product? That makes no sense." - Said almost everyone, instantly.
- Key Takeaway: Don't think it's possible to get a customer before you have a product? I'd be happy to refer you to multiple companies who have done just that and built amazing businesses.
Break it Down by Customer
Every new person I met with wanted to try and tackle a different customer base. From big fortune 500 companies, to small businesses to the average consumer. The first question asked was from a buddy who spent 5 years selling estate,
"What if I my ideas is for a large company?"
Build a Prototype on Keynote
Have a great idea for a new business solution that will streamline X, simplify Y, and perfect Z for large companies?
Great. Time to start selling. Build it in keynote and go get a customer. Keynote is an incredibly simple and powerful tool that allows you to mock up prototypes quickly (and accurately). Sell that as your solution. It will help you think through the user experience and help move you from idea to "Product" in less than a few weeks. If it goes well, get a commitment to pilot for a nominal fee (hint: if you find the right person in enterprise, they can often sign off on up to $10,000 to pilot different tools).
Take that cash and go build with your first customer already waiting to
adorn the masthead of your website!
- Key Takeaway: Don't spend a year perfecting a serious piece of tech before you have a handful of customers signed, sealed and delivered.
"Big companies don't interest me. What if I want to build a direct to consumer company"?
1) Create the Experience Without Writing a Line of Code
Do you want to start the next great "On-demand" service? Tap your phone and have "X" delivered right to you? Great, start doing it. Tell 30 of your friends if they text you, "Pick me up", you'll come grab them and drop them off wherever
they want for a small fee. Sound familiar? That's essentially the premise behind Uber & Lyft.
AirBnB was hatched out of a problem: A few guys couldn't afford their rent. They decided to make a little extra $ by renting out spare space in their apartment using a really basic site & piggybacking off a set of behaviors that were already happening on Craiglist.
2) Fake it Until People are Screaming at You to Make It
With the Kickstarter's & Indiegogo's of the world, it's become incredibly easy to test customer validation. Invest a little upfront in creating your brand, product specs, and an explainer video. Then launch it. Focus on getting the word out as much and as soon as possible.If enough people buy it, you know you have a product that people actually want. You can then figure out the whole "How to make" issue with some cash in hand. If it flops, no big deal. You saved a ton of money, time and stress from building a product that didn't have an end customer.
- Key Takeaway: Prove consumers want it. Once they want it, they'll want it again. The best consumer businesses piggyback off of a behavior that's already happening and find a way to make it easy on the consumer. After all, Uber is booking a cab right?
One of my friends exclaimed he wanted to "Sell his tech to every local small business near me!" Great. Here's a thought on how to to get up and running:
1) Nail it and Scale it as Manually, Un-techy, and Ugly as Possible
Groupon (After is started as The Point) launched with a word-press site and a lot of "Off the shelf" technology. They convinced one retailer on the prospect that if they could get a bunch of people to buy a coupon for a pizza up front, they would all get a 50% discount. Turns out that four years later and an almost $8B market cap, it was a good idea.
Bellycard hardcoded an iPad app, walked into a comic book store, and sold one customer. After that they sat and watched. Once they realized that their iPad, software, and a app / card increased engagement and loyalty between that business and it's customer, they were off to the races signing up as many SMB's as possible.
• Key Takeaway: Prove your experience, not your product
Finally, last but not least, "What if I want to build the next great social
network, without a clear path to revenue?"
I would challenge first time founders to think less about how killer their "Group Photo-sharing app for clubs after midnight" is going to be, and more about how they plan to ACTUALLY acquire users.
For every Snapchat, there are tens of thousands of social apps trying to become the next "This for that". Your bread and butter is going to come from proving an engaging and addicting experience and having a compelling way to get it
in front of the right people. Here's a few thoughts to keep you focused:
1) Focus your marketing / user acquisition efforts on densely populated areas
There is a reason why Snapchat, Tinder, and Facebook all gained traction on college campuses. They're dense, intimately connected and populated with tremendous network effects
2) Be Amazing at One Thing
Feature overload will leave you with an app / site that no one has any clue how to use. Do one thing, better than anyone else in the world. Wow them with that one thing
3) Simple Wins
I'm talking something so simple that your grandma or 5-year- old niece can pick it up and figure it out. That's how high the bar is set today for digital products.
- Key Takeaway: If you're thinking about going this route, make sure you're a whiz at product and understand growth hacking. If you don't, I would HIGHLY encourage you to try something else. The benchmark for getting venture funding is a TON of engagement as the days of getting a venture check for a prototype or napkin idea are long gone.
Hopefully this helps a few people get off the ground on their next great idea.