The best teams are impatient hard-working hustlers. While they wait for people to get back to them they keep busy trying other things. If the customer says no they ask why and drill into the problem more. Other teams go into paralysis until they get a response but see this as ‘working’.
Talking to people
You have to talk to people that you think are your target customers. Face to face is mandatory at least initially. Yes you’ll have to travel about but the feedback you get is invaluable. Can’t I just send an email or a typeform? No. At least pick up the bloody phone. Can’t actually get anyone to talk to you? Maybe time for a rethink.
Sounds obvious but some actually are relying on trust and fairy dust with nothing written down. That may work when you have nothing but everything changes when money gets involved. Just get it sorted.
Most small teams worked well together with clearly defined and distinct roles but also the capacity to cover for the other at least partially. Bigger teams can run into the issue of a few people really putting in the hard yards but others basically doing the “yay I’m in a startup!” thing. In principal the agreement (above) should be a mechanism for managing this, one way or the other.
Some sole founders did OK despite the obvious issue of being the only person in the team – if you’re down then your startup is down. And life certainly threw some curve-balls their way. A few managed to get enough traction to hire help which is always a challenge but basically essential for growth.
Full time vs part time founders
I get it – you have to feed yourself and pay the rent. But all the time you’re working, your startup is lying dormant. Some teams saved up then went full tilt for as long as their runway lasted. A few asked for and got a leave of absence from their employers which shows huge smartness on both sides. Some team members shot off to do short high-paying gigs to replenish the coffers leaving their co-founders to cover. Basically being a part-time startup founder is not optimal for your job or the startup, but you do what you have to.
Successful existing business
This is a slightly better variant of the above. Better in the sense that the existing business should be providing some sort of revenue which can fund your startup. But like a demanding child, it will also demand your attention when your startup can least afford it. And/or you leave it alone too much and you return to find it half dead. And/or your existing customers get upset because you’re not around. And/or you talk to them about the new idea and they wonder about the existing arrangements. So it’s not a bad position but really plan it out.
Solution before problem
Whilst mildly admiring their persistence, some startups have got their solution fixed in their minds and then spend literally months trying to find a Customer Segment / Problem fit, aka anyone that gives a shit. This desperate flailing about for a market can seem like productive work but is basically the wrong way around.
This is an annoying variant on the above. You are really keen on, say, blockchain. So you try and match everything with that, somehow thinking that a magic combo will pop up! Blockchain for pet ownership! Blockchain for soap provenance! Jeez. By all means be a subject matter expert – that’s a great secret sauce. Go to meetups, talk to people using the tech. But be on the lookout for problems rather than hoping for a magic recipe.
Customer segment understanding
The best startups have deep and personal experience in their chosen customer segment, to the extent where this becomes their “unfair advantage”. They are confident to talk to potential customers about their problems because they know the scene. Of course you might not have that in which case you just need to get out and about. See “Talking” above.
The sooner someone gives you money for your half-arsed MVP or pasted-together smoke-and-mirrors service, the sooner you can convince everyone (including yourself) that your idea has some sort of merit. The best teams got out and sold stuff because their customer segment’s problem was so bad that anything better was worth a go. If you’re not getting any bites maybe it’s not that the MVP isn’t ready but rather than no-one really cares enough to change.
Sure listen to your customer about what they want. But beware the “Oh that’s great but I can’t commit until you can do this” loop of doom. Try and get enough consensus on the initial feature set that they will commit to using and paying for. This will mean saying “maybe later” so get used to it.
Basically if your customers are not complaining about the cost, you are probably undercharging. That’s fine for the first few brave early adopters but not for the next 1,000 customers. Make sure the special pricing agreements for your pioneers is clearly time-limited before you offer it. And continually A/B test different pricing models.
The more detailed the better. Show what’s included as well as what’s not. Don’t be nervous to charge what seems fair. Lots will say no, but as long as a few say yes you’re good!
The best were clear, exciting and elicited interest and questions from the target audience. They showed deep understanding of existing pain points and explained the ideas intended to address these. The worst pitches were garbled jargon, dull and often petered out into an awkward silence. If you can’t get your customer segment interested in talking to you then maybe get (an/other) idea.
I have to say that even the presentations by startups I didn’t resonate with were impressive, so well done. I know for a fact that some were shaking in their shoes but they got up and did it anyway! Some were remarkably unprepared for the interest they got after the presentations so make sure you have plenty of people, collateral, rolling demos, boxes for business cards, signup screens, the bloody lot!
Making physical stuff
Boy this is hard even if you know what you’re doing, which by definition is usually not the case. Without in-team talent it may be impossible. There are plenty of companies out there who are happy to take your money to help. Do your homework and get real referees you can talk to, even better if you have a mutual acquaintance so you can gauge the level of veracity. And getting a prototype that sort of works is just the beginning. Where is the actual product going to get made? What about QA, protecting your IP, packing, shipping, returns, aarrgh.
Software is the easy part
For non-technical founders software seems like an impenetrable mystery. Let me tell you it’s everything else that will blow your mind, usually related to people - your co-founders, advisors, suppliers, potential customers, employees, sub-contractors, investors and probably your entire family as well. “But when are you going to get a real job?” Having said that, there are also plenty of companies offering software development services. See above for how to try not to get burned. Frankly I’d say just get someone on board who can do it. It doesn’t need to be that fancy.
Are you sure you are actually allowed to do what you intend? It’s all very nice to say that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, until you get a cease and desist letter. Do you need special insurance or permits? Sure about your name? Got legal licenses for the software you use? Etc. Boring I know. Sorry not sorry.
Not my specialty at all but there seem to be plenty around and lots of startups are getting them, which worries me a bit. Over and above the fact that being audited and found wanting would be painful, applying for a grant takes time and is not actually working on your startup as such. Proceed with caution.
The common theme is that no-one wants to invest when you need the money, but as soon as you don’t they will probably be queuing up. Go figure.
eBikes and scooters
Please just no!
It’s been an action packed 2018 and I’ve been lucky in that I mostly get to pick the startups I work with. Thanks to all you cats who listened to me as well as those that didn’t but were gracious enough to say they should have. I have also learned a lot of obscure stuff myself which is always fun. Have a wild 2019. When in doubt, do something.