I have spent a lot of time reading books, articles, and blogs all about business, marketing, and startups. I don’t think it was wasted, but I don’t think it really prepares you to do much either. I think I’m better prepared to see mistakes coming for others, but I find that I tend to justify why my situation is different before learning the hard way that it is most certainly not.
I don’t think this is a bad thing. Experience is a superlative instructor. ( It reminds me of the Stanford Machine Learning course introduction to neural networks. The brain only has one really versatile learning algorithm and experience is the input. ) I expected the recent ‘You’re Overthinking It‘ article to be more along these lines. An exhortation to do more stuff, but it was not to be.
Do more stuff! Lean process emphasizes shortening the iteration cycle in order to speed up product development. Faster development with customers driving the process just might yield a profitable business before you run out of cash or motivation. I’m actively combining this simple and widely applied insight with another related one, “Practice makes perfect.” ( Boy, was Solomon right: There is nothing new under the sun. )
I’m thinking a little less about doing the perfect thing at the perfect time. I’m trying to build a large quantity of short, fast iterations in each area I want to improve. I have started adding small projects that let me get those experiences with less commitment and more focus. This is all one reason why I support Rob’s thinking behind acquisition. I’m planning to do a bit of that on a small scale myself. It’s a (hopefully?) great way to get instant reps.
A Defense of Reading
I know there are a lot of techniques I’ve learned through reading that gave me the chance to go out and get key experience. I think the mental models that analysis and synthesis of different perspectives develops can help me a lot. Even if that help is only deeper understanding after (re-)learning a hard lesson. I also think that connecting to these things motivates me. It makes me put on my startup/business/developer/marketer hat and act accordingly. That is useful to me on a long day, but I’ve got to balance reading with doing. Doing is the only one that really puts me closer to my goals.
Many of my goals to start 2011 were related to my products at that time: Whitetail Census and Whitetail Scout. I spent the first 8 months of the year developing and executing on a variety of marketing strategies for those. I wish I had read Chet Holmes a year earlier. I did not meet my goals for Census. I discovered that some (recent) laws/guidelines in Texas make it really difficult for anyone to use game cameras for census data in the context of the Ag Tax Exemptions. It was tantamount to learning that your market is now 90% smaller.
I did manage to develop multiple mailing lists, experiment with pricing, integrate payment systems, start mailing lists, relaunch Scout, and attend conferences like MicroConf and the Wildlife Expo. I am happy with my blogging efforts, but this year I should have some scheduled content for December.
You can’t replace experience with books and philosophies. You have to go out, kill it, and drag it home yourself. I love Eric Ries, Jason Cohen, Bob Walsh, Eric Sink, Rob Walling, Patrick McKenzie, etc. for sharing so much insight on strategy and tactics, but it is not useful unless you are throwing a ton of things at the wall and finding what works through experience. Your market is not theirs. Your skills, network, and experience are different. You should read this stuff. Get inspired. Try using it. Keep what works for you in your context. Some of it won’t.
Do more. A lot more. I had some unexpected success with cold calling tactics to the point where I’m planning to write an ebook. I also received inbound consulting work because of my blogging and open source efforts. The more you do…the more you are doing that works. Soundfamiliar?
High-touch sales is a great vehicle to build a business, but it probably shouldn’t be your first business in your spare time.
Consulting is not often touted as a route to building products, but it appears to be incredibly common. It can be a good way to validate ideas and you build some useful skills that you won’t get in a day job.
Great content rules the Internet.
Mastermind groups are a great way for solo entrepreneurs to stay connected, motivated, and bounce ideas around.
I’ve got an idea for a product. I’ve talked to some people. I know some people in the industry. I have been cold calling others. The idea is promising. The price point people have agreed with is about where I would like it to be. I’ve shown some mockups around and iterated on them. Now, I feel the need to start writing code because, well, I like writing code. And I’m comfortable writing code.But I see lean people.
Steve Blank, Eric Ries, Jason Cohen, Ash Maurya, and a thousand other blogs think I should talk to X people in Y stages. I have followed much of the methodology rigidly to this point, but I have come to a realization. I don’t see many examples of products in the lean world that have markets that aren’t primarily online. Many of the products are technical in nature. This doesn’t overlap with my idea.
I know some civil engineers that think the world of project management in their field is ripe for revolution, but do I know enough of them? How many should I talk to? 5 cialis generika schweiz preis? 30? 100? Do I need 10 customers before I begin? What if finding people to interview using cold calls takes more time than building a product? Building relationships in an industry can take more time than building an MVP. What if I have one guy willing to pay me to start? What if all the advice I read seems disconnected from the market I’m targeting?
Am I ignoring sage advice because I want to be comfortable and write code or am I wasting time with techniques for validation that may or may not improve the odds of success? How much validation is enough?
There isn’t one true answer. This is what the journey of the startup is. I’m not sure what I should do next. I don’t have enough information to pick the best path. No amount of Lean Startup validation is going to ensure success. No one doubts the value of getting out of the building and talking to customers, but I’ve come to realize that even that is a tradeoff. It takes time to organize interviews with busy business people. It takes time to cultivate contacts. I believe it is just as possible to waste time validating an idea as it is to waste time building something no one will buy.
Eventually you have to make a call. I’ve decided to set a goal. If I can find 5 more people that are in on this idea in the next 30 days: it’s a go. If I can’t find five people who are excited about the idea then I may have a bad idea, a difficult market, a lack of motivation, or a dozen other problems. I like what Derek Sivers had to say in his book: keep looking until you find a hit.
Recently I have done a large slate of customer development interviews focused on some niche applications for project management software. Many of the interviews follow the typical scripted path that I have put together for the purpose. My starting point for the script was Ash Maurya’s excellent book, Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works, on the matter. Sometimes the interviews don’t follow the path. It is difficult for people to understand the lean process. You can explain it, but it deviates from the purpose of the meeting and may remove precious time from your chance to learn from your customer. This is a common question or objection I see. You should have a scripted, practiced response to this and any other questions you get repeatedly.
Why it should be scripted:
Reduce the time required to respond effectively.
Reduce your tendency to be defensive or emotional.
Make the interviews (experiments) consistent and thus measurable.
Some of my common generic responses:
“How does this make my customer happier?”
This is your chance to really sell them on the benefits of your idea. What is the problem you are trying to solve and what benefit does it have to their business that matters to their customers?
Example: When I build Whitetail Census I could tell ranchers that instead of pair-wise comparisons for X thousand photos they could upload them and get an email with the results for less than they spent on most other types of surveys. They save tremendous time and can pass that on to the customers as improved service or reduced costs.
“Are you trying to sell me something?”
No. I have nothing to sell. I don’t have a product. I am performing something akin to market research that will help me determine if there is a market for building a product. I have a hypothesis about what problems this potential product needs to solve, but I am likely wrong and I expect to learn what the real problems are through conversations like this one.
“Are you with some company?”
I run a software startup that develops niche products, but we do not currently have a product or even a commitment to building one in this niche at the moment. We are simply doing our research.
“I don’t need software that does X.”
That is great news! I don’t have a product. I only have a hypothesis about what problems this potential product needs to solve, but I am likely wrong and I expect to learn what the real problems are through conversations like this one. I’m excited to hear your problems.
“Why is the pricing model recurring?”
Benefits of the recurring (web) pricing model:
Incentives aligned: I need to keep you happy in order to make money instead of ignoring you after a big payday.
Low upfront cost to you.
Support is built-in and would typically be a recurring fee anyway.
I’ve started a product before because I wanted to play with new technologies. It’s a superlative way to learn a new technology. It is a terrible way to start a business. Don’t rationalize or theorize about who will buy your new product before you build it. Find those people.
Again, before you build anything: find people who will buy your product. You can use a mini-sales site or take a check from customers in person. In either case, you should try that before you build something. Look for customers that are willing to pay real money for your idea. Cash money is the only evidence that you are building a business and not engaged in a hobby.
Create a sales and marketing site devoted to your product. Make it as realistic and compelling as the vision you have for your product. Use the language and jargon you have learned talking to prospects. You can use a fake checkout process, fake ‘buy now’ button, or simply capture contact information. Rob Walling’s book is an excellent place to learn more about these types of sites.
I have built several using VPS servers and also Unbounce. I would recommend Unbounce to start. It will do what you need with less time investment. Maintaining a VPS with a WordPress installation is more overhead than you need at the outset. It may help to run the site by people as close to your niche as you can.
2. Forums or Community Sites
Do research on where people in your market hang out online. You may be able to inject yourself into the conversation. Search Google, Blog Search, and Google News. Use the AdWords Keyword Tools to discover how others are searching. Setup Google Alerts for your keywords to find topical and active sites for content.
I have tried this tactic myself. I think it can succeed when there are very high quality communities that you spend significant time contributing to without self promotion. The real win here is to get a feel for what the community talks about. What words do they use? If they talk specifically about the pain you are trying to solve…engage them on the subject.
3. Friends and Family
Ask a few favors from friends and family to give you a warm introduction to someone in your target market. If you have friends and contacts in the industry, use them. End each such conversation with a request for additional contacts. Ask for an introduction.
You don’t want your ten people to be family and close friends, but it is okay to start there. I met a nearly a dozen entrepreneurs at MicroConf who built some software for their brothers-in-law or someone similar before turning it into a successful business. You don’t want the business to be based on what your mom thinks, but if she is in your target market, you’d be silly not to start there.
Find a local event that your prospect will attend. A chamber of commerce meeting. A lean startup weekend. A beauty pageant. People attending these events are already invested in your market. Find a few that also like to chat. Going it alone at an event can be a struggle, but it will force you to start conversations. Go to the event with a goal in mind such as, ‘I will speak to 12 people.’ Don’t talk to one guy and go home feeling good about all you accomplished unless he handed you a check.
5. Colds Calls
Pull numbers off the web, buy a phone list online, or track down key prospects on social networks. Try to find a way to warm up the call. Have something they want to offer them. You can make talking to you a win-win.
I have made a lot of cold calls compared to most software engineers. I still don’t relish the idea. It was a serious fear of mine before I tried doing it. I put it off for days. Sometimes I still put it off for days. I’d say this is good practice to build up your resilience and persistence in the face of rejection. It will come in handy. Another bonus is just creating more contacts that might think of you if they develop the problem you are trying to solve. I’ve had people that I cold emailed or cold called get in touch with me 9-12 months later and ask if I had solved the problem yet.
6. Cold Visits
Stroll up to their place of business with a smile and a lot of patience. Have a name in mind for who you are there to see. Don’t expect a warm reception and be open to returning another time. Use any site visit as a way to learn more about your prospects. Having a positive, confident, but unassuming attitude can earn you a lot of goodwill.
Research their back links for customers and promoters. Search Twitter and Google for places where the competitors are mentioned. Reach out to the afflicted.
8. Free Seminars or Webinars
Put on a free seminar that interests people in your market. Education-based marketing is effective. Read Chet Holmes’s Ultimate Sales Machine for more on education in marketing. This type of marketing establishes credibility, adds value for people, and costs only your time.
9. White Papers, Reports, and Ebooks
Write a 10-page report that can help prospects solve a problem. Give away value…for an email address.
People are a lot more likely to listen to you if you establish that they stand to gain something from talking to you and you have some basic credibility. Writing can do both. Learning enough about your niche to write a meaningful report will also make you a lot more likely to engage people when you start conversations.
I have both attended and run a booth at conferences. At an early stage, you should attend and not run a booth. Keep metrics on who responds to which pitches you use. Be active in starting conversation. Focus on the social events. Get a feel for the problems and concerns of the people before you attend. Plan a specific number of people you will speak with at the show.
Find the most focused magazines and learn what you can from reading them. If you don’t have enough insight to pursue another avenue such as an article or op-ed, consider a classified.
Pull the rate cards for the magazines to understand more about the demographics for your market. People who make magazines are in the business of providing access and content to your niche. Learn from them.
Post an ad looking for a particular type of person. Someone at MicroConf recommended this and has had success with it. I have not seen success in any niches I have pursued. I expect you would have the best chance of success in a technical or especially web-savvy niche.
13. Professional Organizations
Join up and attend some events. Or crash an event where possible. Many professional organizations have directories that you can use to call or email others.
I have had mixed experiences with this option. I joined an organization with a directory that mailed it about three months after I had moved on from the idea and more than six months after it was promised. They were the most popular and credible organization in the market. Be careful that your expectations of membership are in line with the reality.
14. Direct Mail
Direct mail is most successful as a tool used consistently. It also helps to use an education-based approach. Bring something to the table and make the experience a win-win. This can also be a tactic that gets you a warmer phone call or a bridge past a gatekeeper. Tell them you’d like to talk to Bob (the CEO) and that you had a question about a letter you sent him.
Most people quit too soon. Many won’t try at all. If you try a lot of these tactics and you still can’t find anyone interested in your product: consider a new idea. It’s a lot easier to sell something to excited people that want you to remove their pain.
Choosing tactics depends on your contacts, skills, market, and more. Combining certain techniques increases their power. That said, my top five looks like:
Friends and Family
Writing a Report
Mini Sales Site
Finding people who will purchase your product before you build anything is the only real way to gather evidence that your idea is worth pursuit. It’s depressing to start with no contacts in a target market with a goal of finding 10 people who will hand you money. People tend to wilt when faced with a challenge like that. Change the internal conversation. Set goals to use these techniques for a specific period of time or on a specific number of contacts. Look at action items like ‘Call Bob at XYZ Inc. with script #4′ or ‘Write a 5 page report on X Ways You Can Improve Your Business in Y Industry.’ It isn’t always fun to hear about why your idea won’t work. Think of it as someone saving you time spent on an idea that you can’t make work. Thank people for positive or negative input.
Jason Roberts and Justin Vincent make a very entertaining podcast that covers a variety of subjects. For the purposes of bootstrapping, the early episodes where Justin starts TweetMiner (aka Pluggio) and learns many lessons are instructive. The show was twice a week like clockwork for a long time with a discussion show and an interview show. Lately they’ve slowed down, but I think they’re just busy building another startup.
3. Internet Marketing (Site Visibility with Andy White and Kelvin Newman)
I recently discovered this on the recommendation of Rob Walling. The content isn’t magical or novel, but the podcasts are usually short and have useful tips. As a bonus there are tips for all sorts of marketing and PR efforts. SEO veterans will probably pick up things here or there. Kelvin Newman knows his business.
Bob Walsh and Patrick Foley headline this podcast that focuses on interview shows with entrepreneurs. It is less actionable that most of the others in the list, but it is good for inspiration. I have found that surrounding yourself with startups (or any pursuit) is a good way to remain excited and focused. I found this to be true when learning new sports or doing CrossFit. Engaging with it daily and making it a part of your mindset is powerful.
Put your favorites in the comments. I’m sure I’ve missed a few gems.
Run it back: project management is the janitorial service of SaaS. It is also similar to paving driveways and collecting sewage from Port-a-Potties. It’s relatively boring, but people need it. It’s not a sexy business to be in, but there is definitely a business there. I have admired unsexy business ideas ever since I read The Millionaire Next Door. Those guys spent a lifetime studying American millionaires. It turns out that most of them are first generation American, they spend little, and run their own boring businesses.
I think there is worthy strategic thinking in picking something undesirable to pursue. In some cases, boring but profitable enterprises have little competition. I’ve known people that drove private waste collection trucks and those businesses grew into a fleet of such trucks. Amazon started as a relatively boring business idea: sell books. There is software to guide heavy construction equipment and farm equipment. Project management isn’t the only example of this kind of business in the software world, but it might be the most famous. Project management has a lot of competition because it touches most other businesses. The market is too large and the work isn’t that objectionable. There are big examples like Basecamp. There are smaller examples like MyClientSpot and Moraware. There are big enterprise examples. It’s a good business.
Google will tell you that project management related keywords are some of the most hotly contested out there. I think one reason is because people searching for these things are looking to have a real problem solved and are willing to pay money for it. Real money. Right now. Competition is often a validation for a business model and a market. It’s probably not a great strategy to try to compete directly with 37signals, but there are plenty of niche opportunities if you can gain some contacts or learn a domain well.
One troubling question starting in a small niche is how to grow out of that niche if you decide you need to. Dave Churchville at MyClientSpot talked about that problem and it sounds to me like Rob Walling has had some similar experiences with DotNetInvoice. Growing beyond a niche is, for most people, one of those good problems to have.
There will always be room for the big visionaries. The world changers. And the exciting social/mobile cutting edge new new thing. I think people should do what makes them happy. Me? I’m happy to work on things others might eschew. I like solving people’s everyday problems. There is a real impact there as well. There are interesting problems to solve that do not involve code. I welcome discussion on this topic.
This past week I attended the 2011 Land and Wildlife Expo in Nashville, TN. The Quality Deer Management Association National Convention was held in conjunction with that event this year. QDMA has inspired a lot of the work I have done. They are also a popular organization with a lot of members that could be customers. There were about 200 exhibitors and ten to twenty thousand attendees.
What follows is a post-mortem that includes my experiences running a booth at a trade show, useful tips, and data I collected.
Should you be at a trade show?
The best way to answer this question is to run the numbers. What is the total cost to go and run a booth? Include printing brochures and business cards, banners or displays, demos on TVs or laptops, and the cost of services from the contractors for the show. Internet access can cost you hundreds. Travel expenses? Food?
Do your research. Ask the other show attendees what kind of traffic they have seen and if they have conversion data. How many prospects can you speak with at the show? If you sell to 0.5% of the people you speak to can you break even? 1%? Talk to some sales people with experience at trade shows and try to learn what kind of conversion rate you can expect in your industry. It will also vary based on how well the show fits your customers.
If you don’t have a product to sell or you don’t have any customers: don’t spend the money on a trade show with an unproven idea. You may get some benefit from attending a trade show in order to network or learn from other attendees, but I wouldn’t invest in that too early.
Dressing up the booth
This bit can get expensive, but you need to do some things to attract attention and be taken seriously. It is important to get quality materials that make you look professional and attract attention. It is also important not to go overboard. If you spend thousands on the show, you need to make a lot of sales to break even. Rent most materials before you buy. If you have a quality product and look professional, you can do well. Don’t go overboard here. My booth got as much traffic as most of my neighbors and my setup was dramatically simpler. I brought a banner and some brochures. I got a great deal on design and printing from my friend, Chad Wright. I don’t have any kind of referral deal with Chad.
Connecting to walk up traffic
Be active. I read the blog post from RJ Metrics before I ran this show and I tried my own experiments. Asking specific questions that cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ makes a big difference in how many people will speak to you. You don’t have to be a carnival barker, but if someone looks passingly interested or at least isn’t looking away and rushing past then you should ask them a question from a list. Make several options that you know (or expect) will connect to your customers. I run software to manage records and trail camera surveys for hunters, ranchers, and breeders. I asked a few questions:
How many trail cameras do you have in the field?
How many trail cam photos did you take last year?
How much time do you spend sifting through trail cam photos?
Do you know your average main beam length for the last 5 years?
Can you say if your food plots have improved antler characteristics?
How much time do you spend generating reports each year from your records?
What do you use to manage your records now?
Notice that none of these questions have a yes or no answer. Don’t let prospects off the hook that easily. All of these questions address specific needs for the people in my market. If a prospect was disinterested by these questions I knew I could move on.
I kept stats on:
how many people I spoke with
what questions I asked
interest from a question
how many business cards I gave out
how many people I signed up on the spot (or immediately after)
how many people took a flyer
We spoke to 105 prospects. We gave out 65 flyers. I handed out 23 business cards. We asked the trail camera questions 52 times with 28 positive responses. We asked the records questions 34 times with 16 positive responses. The first and last questions in the list were the most effective and most common we used. We signed up 6 at the show or immediately after.
We kept a bowl of candy on the table for Saturday and Sunday. About 45 people came just to take some candy and didn’t end up talking seriously with us. 10 of those people were what we termed ‘ashamed candy grabbers.’ They asked about the product because they felt like they had to in exchange for the candy. Snickers was by far the most popular candy. All of the chocolate was taken before the hard candy.
Before I went to the conference I got some advice from Harry Hollander of Moraware. He had a few tips I’d like to pass on that really helped me.
Don’t go alone. Just don’t.
Keep the messaging clear, don’t overuse text.
‘Always be leaving’ — keep a look out for people losing interest and let them go
Rent equipment and watch your costs. Be cheap. If you have a compelling product, it’ll work.
I decided to call as many prospects as I could to learn more about my target market and develop some relationships. Learning the problems is the point of the interviews, even when you start with a set of hypotheses about their problems. I tried a simple call asking for a 10-15 minute interview as someone who had a business idea around solving their problems. I tried to script the interaction. I tried to ask the most important questions while they were on the phone. Most people expected a sales pitch. Even the polite ones checked out before I could get very far.
So I changed tack. Scripts, honesty, and a willing ear for their problems proved ineffective for me. Many people will tell you that prospects love to talk about their problems. They do — once they get to talking. Unfortunately, most people won’t unload their problems on strangers without first developing some level of trust. Smelling like a salesman torpedoes that potential relationship. It was imperative to build some trust up front.
I needed to build the relationship from my end first. I had to offer them value before asking for it. I could offer them education about their business. Delivering useful information to begin the relationship would get more positive responses. Unfortunately, I was cold calling these people in order to get educated. The next best option was one many people are familiar with, but isn’t always used in this context. Give something away for free. The trick was, what could I give them? I don’t yet understand them or their business problems.
I changed the script to something like:
Hi, <name>. I’m Robert. I run <name of blog> about the <industry> and I’m looking to have conversations with people about what they’ve learned running their businesses in <industry>. I’ll use the talk and a tour of your facility to write up a post on you guys and link you up on the blog.
Every person I got on the phone with this pitch said yes. I got so many yeses I had to stop calling people because the scheduled visits were running out too far in the future. I need content for my customer focused blog. They need exposure. This appears to be a great way to start a relationship with prospects. I don’t feel like I’m calling all of these people and simply asking for a favor. Prospects don’t confuse me with a salesman. I’m going to get a lot more information using this approach than I have with past tactics.
There were a few skeptics on the phone that wanted to know what I was getting out of the arrangement. I replied with the truth:
I am working on a business idea around software in <industry>. I am looking to validate a need for software by learning from people in <industry> before I build anything. I don’t have anything to sell. I’d like to know more about <industry> and I’m happy to offer some exposure to people for that much.
Scale — Customer development does not need to scale well. You only need 10-20 data points at each stage. It could save you months or years of wasted development effort.
Biased response — Compensation can bias people’s responses. This is a real problem, but I’d rather have this to consider than no one to interview. I prefer a bias to needing 10x or 100x as many calls to get interview numbers. Many people use friends and family for early customer development. That can easily lead to bias as well.
No media outlet — There isn’t a reason you can’t put this on a blog that isn’t 100% focused on the niche. There is also no reason you can’t start a WordPress blog about your niche. Many people are happy to have the exposure with or without attached traffic. These posts are also a great way to get relevant back links from the interviewees. Those targeted links are great for SEO purposes.
Wins all around. They get exposure. I get back links, interviews, relationships, and content for my blog(s). It won’t work for every context, but I think it’s a great tool for the tool box. Happy hunting.
I recently put down Chet Holmes’s The Ultimate Sales Machine. It is one of the best business and marketing books I’ve ever read. And I read way too many. I will attempt to summarize it in one hundred words.
Schedule six tasks everyday. Work on your business from different angles with people in your business once a week for an hour on a specific topic. Train constantly. Drill sales techniques. Use what works for your best people. Build your sales into an education department. Teach them about their market. Give away value. Connect with affiliates. Target your dream customers. Be consistent in your education-based approach. Be unique. Get noticed. Be the trade association. Follow up like crazy. Send a letter now. Call later. Send them something to help with their business. Be personal. Make life long friends. Think positive.
This resonates with what I’ve read from John Jantsch, Noah Kagan, and Jason Fried. It has made me really focused on education. I have a few specific things added to my todo list now:
Create a great whitepaper and landing page(s) meant to collect email addresses. I have a way for people to subscribe now, but it has no focus.
6 item scheduled todo lists everyday. This really works for me. I am dramatically more focused and productive.
Plan out the specifics of a Dream 100 marketing effort.
The last item is a big one. I need to plan mailouts, followup calls, gifts, and compare costs to customer lifetime value. I need to collect contact information for a targeted list of customers. Finally, I need to execute all of it over months and be immune to rejection. Persistence in the face of (sometimes personal) rejection is a basic sales skill, but it is far from a common skill among software developers. I have the resolve and thick skin, but something about this sort of persistence isn’t natural to me. I think it should be.