Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Wow I’m tired. Tired and energized. In the past few weeks we’ve had the typical ups and downs of every startup. We’ve let in a number of alpha users, got another hundred signed up thanks to a very minor TechCrunch mention, and realized our Minimum Viable Product wasn’t minimum enough.

We started building our site with a basic premise that entrepreneurs were willing to post their pitches to attract co-founders and investment. We confirmed this hypothesis through numerous customer interviews and surveys. We test drove our site with a limited number of alpha users and despite the clunky interface we were pleased by the results. We pushed people through a rather long survey and got an 82.9% completion rate, far higher than we would’ve thought. So we knew that people were willing to fill out some forms.

So you can imagine our surprise when our first chunk of 50 alpha users decided not to post any business ideas or pitches. Oops. Continue reading

The Taxonomy of the Lean Startup Pivot

(warning: this post may be highly theoretical / geeky)

Last week I was planning for the worst. Having gone through 51 iterations of my mockups and gathered as much as feedback as I could with our primitive alpha, I feel confident about our basic customer problem hypothesis. Still, I play a lot of chess and like to think at least five moves ahead in the five most likely futures. So I decided to make a list of my potential pivots.

(note: For those not familiar with the term, pivot is a lean startup vocab word that states in it’s simplest form: If your business model isn’t working, change something. More on this below.) Continue reading

Customer Development: Fight or Flight

Motivations are unimportant if you happened to be B.F. Skinner. But since he’s dead let’s assume you’re not him. Here’s the obvious question, why do you want to start a business?

Let’s start off topic with a ridiculously simplistic dichotomy: Fight or Flight

Those are the two basic choices we all have when faced with a conflict situation and it’s deeply ingrained in our physiology. Even when faced with something as non-threatening as public speaking, our basic instincts can take over and flood us with adrenaline. Our instincts tell us we have to fight or run away. But as in so many modern day stress or conflict situations, fighting is useless (you cannot punch out a public speaking opportunity) so we generally go for the second option: escape the situation. Continue reading

Clever Hans and Photoshop Iteration

It’s been over two weeks since we released a bare bones alpha of our site and started letting people in one at a time. Since then we’ve been through approximately:

  • 10 iterations of our “view idea” page
  • 6 iterations of “browse ideas” page and 3 of “browse people” page
  • 10 “profile” pages
  • 8 of our “p-home” page (this is the page you see when you log in)
  • 3 “search result” versions
  • and a whopping 14 basic template revisions

That’s a total of 51 revisions in 18 days, almost all of which are iterations based on feedback from users without writing a single line of code. Continue reading

How to Practice Shutting Up (Customer Development Practice)

I’ve discovered a great new method of growing bigger ears. Ready? Wait for it… go listen to sales pitches from startup consultants.

If you’re an entrepreneur, then you probably don’t like being bossed around and you might think your own opinion is pretty damn good. If you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t be starting your own company. (I’ll admit it, I have both of those flaws to varying degrees.)

Given those two features, you may or may not have a tough time (like me) really shutting up and listening to your customers. It’s always tempting to interject your own opinion, and even if you think you’re just asking a clarifying question, you’re probably adding some spin to it to try to nudge your customer’s responses the way you want…the way you expect…the way you know your customers ought to be thinking. Continue reading

Impending Doom and Early Releases

This week we’ll be letting a few users into our early release of startupSQUARE.com and we’re rather embarrassed about it. It’s buggy, it’s ugly, and it probably just won’t work. But we’re going to throw it out there anyway for a few select people who can mock us about it to our face so we can get early feedback.

Improvement via Trauma

One of the things we’d like to achieve with this early alpha release is a bit of trauma. Continue reading

I Need Bigger Ears (Customer Development Mistakes)

I realized today that I have been taking the axiom of “talk to customers” far too literally. While the quality of my feedback has been reasonably good and I’ve gotten a number of good ideas, there’s a big difference between talking to customers and listening to customers. I’ve been having far to much of a two way dialog and not letting my product speak for itself.

Screen-shot Demo

I got a call today from Performable.com which is developing a new A/B testing tool. I signed up for their beta test a few weeks ago and they gave me a call to ask if I would be willing to walk through a demo with them. Within a minute, they had a screen share up and were showing me a live demo. Although I had no control, it was definitely not a walk through in the traditional sense. it wasn’t a guided tour so much as an exploration. They showed me a screen and started peppering me with questions. Some of my favorites:

  • What do you think this page does?
  • What do you think will happen if you click this button?
  • What do you think this wording means? Continue reading

Controlled Burns and Firebreaks

As startupSQUARE closes in on it’s first friends and family release the work is piling up and I’m reminded of the need to develop firebreaks for the company. Those are the areas where a lack of vegetation, natural such as in the case of a river or man-made as in the case of a road, prevents a fire from spreading. In work context, a firebreak is any sort of barrier which prevents a mistake from starting a domino effect and becoming a catastrophe.

In my last company the exec team spoke frequently of running around putting out fires all day. This was almost a badge of honor. Theses were brief, flare up emergencies with customers, personnel, cash flows, etc. which would threaten our business. But our main problem wasn’t all these small fires, it was that the execs spent so much time dealing with the emergencies that there was no time left over to work on the underlying problems which were creating the fires: poor hiring practices, poor customer service, and a poor product not well fit to the market. Continue reading

Someone Please Write a Blog Post about Minimum Viable Strategy

Watching Dave McClure‘s presentation today, I started to think about how a lot of the lean startup and customer development folks talk about creating the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), Release Early / Release Often, Product / Market Fit, Pivoting, etc., etc., but there’s very little talk about choosing your market or your product strategically. (At least not that I’ve noticed, feel free to correct me.) I’d like to read that blog post.

A lot of the advice out there ultimately mitigates risks. Here is my horribly unfair summary:

  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – Spend less on creating your product, therefore you are risking less time and money on a bad product.
  • Release Early / Release Often – Learn in small increments, therefore you are risking less time and money on a bad product.
  • Product / Market Fit – Either change your product to fit the market or choose a different market for your product before you start spending money on marketing, therefore you are risking less time and money on a bad product.
  • Pivoting – If you have a bad product, change it to something else.

Continue reading

Why I’m Not Raising Money (Yet)

If you count Mom and Pop shops, the average entrepreneurial venture requires about $25k in startup cash. Talking to Web 2.0 guys, it seems like everyone is out to raise a couple million to put their plans into action and pay their salaries during early stage growth. I was particularly struck by this article and Nivi’s responses which state you should raise “As much as possible“. I’ve also been advised more than once that I should look to add people to our advisory board who can introduce us to sources of possible funding (in other words: VCs and Angels). For better or worse, we’re bootstrapping for now.

A couple of things have led us to this decision and an understanding of when we’re going to have to change our minds.

Continue reading