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Monday, 21 October 2013 08:16
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There is an unspoken rule: to launch a startup, you need to build a product, and to do that you need someone that can write code.

Whether that means chasing down a technical co-founder, learning to code, or even building that "Lean MVP" - the conventional wisdom is that without tech abilities you're nothing more than a dude (or dudette) with a Powerpoint.rocket launch

A growing number of startups, however, are quietly disproving this assumption. 

They're getting their first customers with minimal technology, and often no code at all. Instead of building fancy technology from the outset, they're hacking together inexpensive online tools such as online forms, drag-and-drop site builders, advanced Wordpress plugins, and eCommerce providers. 

They're jumping right in to serve customers in any way possible - heading right for their first paying customers. 

Most importantly, unlike the majority of their peers, by the time they start building a product, they already have a humming business.

How are they doing it?

Focus on Serving Customers Instead of Building a Product

Successful founders all know one thing: it's more important to serve a customer than it is to build a product.

This is the mindset you must get into when you start out. Most entrepreneurs are narrowly set on building a product that they lose sight of the real goal - to solve a problem for a customer.

Or, as Ben Yoskovitz eloquently put it,

"Customers don’t care how you get things done – just that you get it done and solve their pain."

Replace Technology with People

Think about the hardest part of the business you want to build. The part that would require the most complex development - the true innovation that no one else does.

Can a real person perform these tasks manually? 

For many startups, this was the secret to massive success:

David Quail is a super talented software engineer, with one exit already under his belt. He wanted to solve his ultimate annoyance: scheduling meetings over email. 

David's original idea was to build an artificial intelligence tool that could read an email chain and automatically schedule the event. But this would take months if not years. 

His shortcut to launching a business ASAP? He simply set up an email address for his customers to "CC" that forwarded to him, and did the work manually at first to prove that customers were willing to pay.

Over time he automated more of the service - but not before he already knew there was clear demand and was making revenues.

Another example - a marketplace:

Tastemaker is a marketplace connecting interior designers with homeowners for small design gigs. They started by contacting interior designers and building a physical list of those interested in extra work. 

They then asked their network who needed help with interior design - and made the connection, processing payment themselves. 

The Tastemaker founders used pen and paper to solve their customer's needs and prove the market. They then built their online platform in parallel (which eventually became their core business).

You've probably heard many famous stories like ZenLike and Tastemaker. They range all the way from companies like Groupon or Yipit (raised $7.3M), to Aardvark (acquired by Google) and Diapers.com (acquired by Amazon). 

What did they have in common starting out? At the core of many businesses, instead of fancy algorithms, you would have found the founders themselves, like the "man behind the curtain" in the Wizard of Oz, working hard, acting as the secret sauce.

Use These Off the Shelf Solutions

While your core tech might in fact be a service starting out, you can wrap it with an online presence, digital interactions, and the administration of a true technology business. 

In short, you can act, look, and smell like a fully automated online company that employs a posse of software developers and an in-house graphic designer.

* Use e-commerce services to accept payments and even subscriptions using "hosted payment pages" - requiring zero code.

* Let your customers interact with you through sophisticated online forms you can publish (and brand) using drag-and-drop editors.

* Build a support knowledge base and community forum with Zendesk, Uservoice, or GetSatisfaction

* Use copy-paste widgets from around the web like contact forms, Skype buttons, live chat, etc.

* Use simple-yet-sophisticated website creators to publish your central website and glue together all the tools into one presence. Strikingly and Unbounce are great for beautifully designed landing pages. 

I could go on listing these forever (well, I did here). As you can see, the web is full of tools that let you conjure entire features with the click of a mouse. 

The key is to always search for what you want before reinventing the wheel. Chances are someone has already thought of how to make your life easier.

The Hidden Treasures of Wordpress

To most of us, the Wordpress brand connotes a free blog, or a simple way to create a content website for non-technical folks.

But the true magic of Wordpress is the ability to extend its functionality to create many kinds of web platforms - while keeping your hands (mostly) free of code.

Wordpress itself is free, and you can purchase inexpensive plugins that automatically transform your website into a membership site, ecommerce portal, social network, and even daily deals site.

Instead of spending thousands on a designer, you can buy a high-end theme for around $40 and customize it to your brand. If you have a bit more saved up, you can hire a local Wordpress expert for a few hours of their time for small custom tweaks and a personal tutorial. And, if you don't want hosting headaches, you can use WPEngine (hi, Jason!).

Wordpress is one of the most incredible tools on the web for non-technical entrepreneurs. There's a bit of a learning curve, depending on how you want to use it, but definitely a faster option than finding a developer or learning to code. 

It puts fate into your own hands.

Put It All Together

Go back to that core customer need, and think of how to satisfy it by any means. Now how can you make that solution accessible? What would the process be for finding you and reaching out? How can you charge and provide support? 

Chances are good that you can pull it all off yourself. If not, consider starting a bit smaller than you originally imagined, if only to start generating revenues today and fund your development.

Once you have your first few customers, you'll have a very good picture of where your business is going, and what technology you absolutely need to build - and very clear motivation. 

Does working this way pay off? 

Tech companies started this way have sold for between $50-$540 million, or have gone public. They are growing at double digit rates. And they launched in a matter of weeks or months - not years.

If this approach makes you uncomfortable - that's great. It's a sign that you're learning to think differently. However, entrepreneurs presented with this approach often have similar gut feelings:

What Will Investors Think?

They will think you are clever, resourceful, flexible, persistent - and know how to focus on the right things.

To quote one of our investors, Len Brody, on his portfolio: "I call them the workaround culture... [they] just work around anything - and you have to."

If for any reason they are put off by your creativity and resourcefulness, then you're not talking to the right investors.

What About Scaling?

This is a very understandable fear. It's a scary situation to think, "Great, we got our customers, and now we're going to disappoint them."

Don't let that thought paralyze you. Growth is rarely if ever a black and white, rocket-ship-spike. It's a steady process that leaves you plenty of time to transition between solutions.

In other words, there's a spectrum between do-it-yourself and full-robot-revolution. You might hire a few people in the meantime (with the revenue that their hire would naturally generate) while also developing a scalable technology.

As most entrepreneurs will tell you the way you get your first 50 customers certainly won't be the way you get your first 5,000. 

For those of you feeling held back by your lack of technical skills - or deep in development muck  - ask yourself, what can you do *today* to get your first customer. 

Give it a shot. In contrast to paying a developer, you don't have a lot to lose. Do whatever you need to do to get your business going. 

Remember: you're not here to build a product - you're here to solve a problem. And you certainly have the skills to do that.

***

Want more specifics, examples, and tools? Check out my newest Skillshare course, How to Launch Your Startup Without Any Code (use code ONSTRTPS for %15 off)

This is a guest post by Tal Raviv.  He is the co-founder of Ecquire.


Looking for other startup fanatics?  Request access to the OnStartups LinkedIn Group.  130,000+ members and growing daily.

Oh, and by the way, you should follow me on twitter: @dharmesh.


Monday, 14 October 2013 08:46
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tl;dr:  If you work in the business of software the one must-attend event is the Business of Software (Boston, Oct 28th  –  30th 2013)

Note from Dharmesh:  This is a guest post from Patrick Foley.  I normally don't post articles that promote an event — but Business of Software is not a normal event.  It's the ONLY conference that I've spoken at 5 years in a row (an am speaking again this year).  It's the only conference for which I stay at a hotel in Boston (5 miles from where I live) just so I can hang out with the people attending the conference as much as possible.  It's that good. You should attend.  (Note: I am not affiliated with the organizers, my selfish reason for convincing you to go is so I can meet more awesome people).business of software

ABSTRACT: If you’re not satisfied with some aspect of your career, go to a great conference like Business of Software. The best conferences can dramatically alter your perspective and ultimately change you.

Four years ago, I attended my first Business of Software conference. Back then, I was a technical evangelist for Microsoft, and since my customers were other software companies, I thought I knew all I needed to know about this “business of software.”

Obviously, I was wrong. For three days I listened to amazing speakers like Jason Cohen (founder, WPEngine) explain how the different personal goals of founders have an enormous impact on their business actions – meaning you should pay more attention to advice from founders with similar personal goals. I was inspired to hear Peldi Guillizoni (founder, Balsamiq) explain how he built his business – and how his journey actually started while working for a big company (hey, just like me!). I was shocked to hear Joel Spolsky’s very intimate description of how funding really works. I learned measurement concepts from Dharmesh Shah (founder, HubSpot) that I didn’t even know were knowable. I was genuinely moved by the stories from these founders and all the other brilliant speakers. And that was just the first year for me (more great speaker videos from 2010, 2011 and 2012).

At a great conference, the attendees are as important as the speakers. Many of the people I’ve met at Business of Software have become my friends and advisors. One became my cofounder in my first effort at a building a software company (a story for another day). There’s a bond that develops among Business of Software attendees that’s hard to describe. Part of it is that the speakers are highly engaged attendees themselves – something you don’t see often – this is their community, their tribe, and the speakers clearly look forward to being a part of the event from both sides of the stage.

There was something about attending that conference in person that shook me to my core and sparked a passion for learning how software companies really work and what makes them successful (spoiler alert: it’s freaking hard). Yes, I already worked for one, but Microsoft is HUGE – I was a deckhand on a battleship. Although I was working with other software companies, I was ultimately selling to them … you don’t learn how things really work in that situation. I even had a podcast that allowed me to speak with some brilliant founders … but it took being in a room with all these people at once to change me. BoS changed me. (I wrote about that special year and even have a manic podcast episode describing it.)

Great conferences like Business of Software aren’t cheap, but they’re a great investment. Microsoft paid my way to a couple of conferences a year – that’s a HUGE perk of working for an established company! If you work for a company that has multiple layers of management, then they probably have a conference budget already. Use it! I attended Business of Software on Microsoft’s dime in 2010 and 2011. Last year, I took vacation time and paid my own way, because I was preparing to leave my job.

This year took me in another direction. When it became clear that my product company wasn’t going to work, it was still time to leave Microsoft, so I reluctantly returned to consulting. I was a consultant for 14 years before joining Microsoft, and I’m pretty good at it – but I still felt defeated. Sometimes you just gotta lick your wounds, recover, and figure out a new path. I figured I’d build up my financial resources for a few years as a consultant and then try again to build a software company.

But then a crazy thing happened … a few weeks ago, a couple of friends that I met at Business of Software contacted me about a job. They have a small, very successful software company, and they think I could help with their next stage of growth. WOW! I didn’t see that coming. I’ll have my hands in all parts of the business, improving anything I can and learning everything I can. It’s not a startup (they’ve already found product/market fit), but it’s actually a better fit for me at this point in my life, because it provides greater financial stability, and it will allow me to experience how a successful company operates. A while back, I asked Jason Cohen for life/career advice, and this was exactly the sort of situation he said I should be looking for. It’s PERFECT.

I’m sure you can guess the call-to-action of this post by now … sign up for Business of Software and GO. It just might change your life. The best work I did for Microsoft stemmed from Business of Software. Then it inspired me to leave Microsoft and pursue work that I like even better. And now my dream job FOUND ME because I went to Business of Software.

My new company and I haven’t actually finalized my role or my start date yet … we’re going to formalize things in 2 weeks at Business of Software … I hope to see you there! It’s going to sell out, so you need to jump online and order your ticket now. My understanding is that it’s going to be several hundred dollars more expensive next week (if you can get in at all). If you’re on the fence about going, feel free to contact me (pf@patrickfoley.com) to talk about it.


Looking for other startup fanatics?  Request access to the OnStartups LinkedIn Group.  130,000+ members and growing daily.

Oh, and by the way, you should follow me on twitter: @dharmesh.


Friday, 20 September 2013 08:56
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Every company has ideas that come up (sometimes frequently).  And, based on the stage of the startup and the degree to which the idea is unconventional, there are always good, rational reasons why the given idea can't possibly work.  There are also bad, irrational reasons too.  The problem is, it's hard to tell the difference.bad idea

Here are some of common reasons why something won't work:

1) We've debated this several times before and have decided it wouldn't work.

2) We've tried this before, it didn't work.

3) Doesn't really fit our sales model.

4) It's not appropriate for our industry.

5) It might work for tiny/small/large/huge companies, but we sell to tiny/small/large/huge companies, and it won't work for them.

6) Our investors/board would never agree to it.

7) It might work, but we can't afford the risk that it won't.  (Note: When someone says “it might work…but…” they're almost always thinking: It won't work)

8) Our team/plan/pitch-deck is not really setup for that.

9) We could try it, but it's a distraction.  (Note: This often means “I've already decided it's not going to work, but I can tell I need to convince you we shouldn't try it…”)

There are many, many more reasons why any given idea won't work, but the above are a sufficient sample for this article. Oh, and by the way, I have at various points in time made all of these very same arguments myself (“I have met the enemy” and all that)

2 Mental Exercises To Try

Now, here are a couple of mental exercises to try when you or you or your team is stuck.

Exercise #1: What if I told you that it's working really, really well for XYZ Company?  How do you think they made it work?

The idea here is to assume the idea is good and has worked for a company very similar to yours.  Then, ask yourself (or your team):  Now that we know it worked for them, what do we think they did to make it work? 

What this does is mentally nudge you to think about how to work through whatever the obvious limitations to the idea already are.

Example: I know that nobody in our industry uses a freemium model because the infrastructure/support costs are just too high.  But, we just learned that XYZ Company is launching a free version.  What do we think they did to make it work?

Exercise #2: What if we had the proverbial gun held to our heads and we had to do [x]?

The idea here is to assume/accept that the decision to implement the idea has already been made — presumably by some higher authority.  Now, assuming that, what would you do to make the best of it?

Example: Our major investors just told us that before they can agree to funding our next round, we need to build an inside sales team.  They think inside sales teams are the bomb.  We can't afford not to listen to them — what do we do to make the best of the situation?  If we had to build an inside sales team, how would we go about doing it?

Note:  In neither case am I suggesting that you mislead your team (or yourself, in case you're like me and have conversations with yourself late at night).  These are meant to be mental exercises, just to help drive discussion and analysis.  Though I'll confess, there is a small part of me that wonders what would happen if one did make the hypothetical seem real (at least for a short period of time).

What do you think?  Any mental tricks or tactics you've used (or thought of using) to help break-through conventional thinking?


Looking for other startup fanatics?  Request access to the OnStartups LinkedIn Group.  130,000+ members and growing daily.

Oh, and by the way, you should follow me on twitter: @dharmesh.


Tuesday, 27 August 2013 03:56
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After conducting nearly 100 interviews with some of the world’s best growth hackers on Growth Hacker TV, I have become keenly aware of a certain tension that is in the growth hacking ecosystem. Some growth hackers choose to emphasize the process of growth hacking while others choose to see growth hacking as a set of tactics that can be applied to various scenarios.


First, let me define the growth hacker’s process. There is no one single agreed upon order of operations, but a growth hacker’s process is based loosely on the scientific method. If you can remember high school, the scientific method is basically the following:


  1. Question - Why do visitors leave our registration flow after the first page?

  2. Hypothesis - They might be leaving because page two has too many form fields present and this scares them away.

  3. Prediction - If we have more registration pages, but less form fields on each page, then our completed registrations will increase in statistically significant ways that could not be the product of chance.

  4. Testing - For the first 2 weeks of September we will run an A/B test, showing 50% of new visitors our current registration flow, and showing the other 50% our new registration flow which increases the number pages but decreases the fields per page.

  5. Analysis - The results show that our new registration flow had 27% more completions than our current registration flow, and this is statistically significant enough to conclude that we should implement our new registration flow.


Here is where things get interesting. Some startups will actually use this scientific method (or something similar) as a means of gaining insights about their product, thereby enabling them to make progress. Others, however, will not have a rigorous process like that listed above, but they will instead use the results of other people’s experiments. Put another way, some startups have a process, other startups just implement the tactics (best practices) that are the results of someone else’s process. If someone read about the above experiment on Quora then they might adapt their registration flow without a scientific process in place to support such a move.scale tradeoffs


The question is, which kind of startup should be applauded and which should be reprimanded? It might seem obvious to celebrate the rigors of the scientific method and side with any startup that uses such a process. However, I think there is a case to be made for both kinds of companies. Obviously, if someone doesn’t run the experiments then we will never arrive at the tactics in the first place. The tactics are the byproduct of someone’s hard work and that should be appreciated, but think about how the scientific community actually operates. The scientific method is a tool that serves the entire scientific community, and the results of that tool are often fair game for the community. Scientists don’t expect each other to run every relevant experiment for their personal endeavors. Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Why can’t a startup simply use the results, as discovered by their fellow entrepreneurs in lab coats, as a benefit of the community?


The truth is, there are pros to both ways of thinking, which I’ll list below, but I don’t want us to view growth hacking as only a process or only a set of tactics and simultaneously miss the community aspect of our enterprise. Here is how I see things:


  • Pros of Process Oriented Startups

    • Without process oriented startups we would have no tactics.

    • They are able to find new growth hacks when old ones cease to work.

    • By understanding the process, their implementation of any given tactic will be more nuanced and effective.

    • They are more self sustaining, able to use the community, but not be entirely dependent on it.

  • Pros of Tactic Oriented Thinking

    • Allows smaller startups, with less funding, to implement tactics very cheaply.

    • It is an entry point into growth hacking which is more accessible than experimentation, even though it might lead to experimentation later on.

    • Not every experiment needs to be ran by everyone. Some best practices are near universal and can just be applied. We all do this to some degree whether we realize it or not.


So, what is the answer to the dilemma? Is growth hacking a process or a set of tactics? Well, both, and here is what that means practically. If you are in an organization that has a growth hacking process in place then see yourself as a part of a larger community. We are grateful for your work, but you don’t need to be pompous about your place in the universe. Share what you find, grow our collective knowledge base, and understand that not every company will imitate you, and that’s ok. If you are in a non-process oriented startup that is still trying to use growth hacking principles then be extremely appreciative of the companies that are supplying these best practices, and consider creating your own process so that you can give back to the community as much as you take from it.


Startups aren’t going anywhere, and growth hacking is here to stay as a robust methodology for growing them. Whether you are in the lab, or reading the research paper that was spawned from someone else’s lab, understand that this is a community, not a zero sum game.


This article was a guest post by Bronson Taylor who is the host and co-founder of Growth Hacker TV, where the experts on startup growth reveal their secrets.


Looking for other startup fanatics?  Request access to the OnStartups LinkedIn Group.  130,000+ members and growing daily.

Oh, and by the way, you should follow me on twitter: @dharmesh.


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