The other day I was having a Clarity call with an entrepreneur about generating initial traction for his startup idea. The entrepreneur wanted me to share some of the strategies that we had implemented (with success) at WooThemes over the years. But he had a proviso:
“I know quite a bit about many inbound and outbound marketing strategies and activities, but most of them only work when you already have visitors on your website. I would for example love to use a messaging schedule to increase my conversions, but how do I go about getting those initial visitors on my website?”
He had a point here. Starting up is hard and all of the interwebs has become congested. It definitely is difficult to get noticed.
My suggestion to the entrepreneur was to use some form of cold-calling. His product lent itself to target specific individuals on LinkedIn with an “I've built this thing and think you may like it. Can I tell you a little more?”-type e-mail.
Not the most scaleable or efficient way to get the initial traction, but it's direct and unless you have a really bad product, it's likely to get you that initial traction (worst case scenario, you get some good feedback about your product).
This got me thinking about scaleability and why we've developed such an inherent desire to scale everything we do from Day 1.
In the above example, cold-calling will never scale; it's simply not possible for one entrepreneur to contact thousands of people every day. But initially if it allows you to reach 50 people per day, that's a great start.
When I asked around in my network, Nathan Kontny told me that before he built Draft, he put up a sales page for a new idea and started taking actual orders (with actual money) before he had a working prototype. Instead he provided the value proposition via a consulting agreement instead, which meant he could manually validate the idea before building the product.
“But Aardvark didn’t actually build products right away. The service connects people with questions to those in their broader social network with corresponding answers, but for nine months, a human being was involved in every single interaction — a kind of “Wizard of Oz” that classified the query and otherwise managed the conversation from behind the scenes.”
All of the above examples share a few recurring themes:
You'll get to doing the cool stuff eventually; initially though it doesn't have to be pretty and it can be mostly manual. Scale only becomes important a long time after gaining that initial traction.
It's not important to have all the technology to automate things and it is actually possible to adopt a “service-first” approach. In a recent e-mail, Alex Godin summed this up so well: “Some businesses aren't really technology businesses. They're businesses that are enabled by technology, but the core product isn't digital; it's physical.”
Outsource the stuff that you don't necessarily need to do yourself or even do at all. Keep your team lean and rather use skills marketplaces such as oDesk, get a virtual assistant on Zirtual or make more time in your life by getting TaskRabbit to take care of your chores. Do whatever you need to do, to get ahead.
Build your business at all costs. Be smart, don't sweat the small stuff and don't try to have all of the best and coolest tech on Day 1.
Be scrappy. Think outside the box. Get help. Don't give up. Be passionate. Let the adrenaline fuel you. Do your best.
(This essay is part of a collaborative blogging experiment to answer the question, 'how do you invest in yourself?')
In the last year or two, I've learnt that the safest and best investment that I can make is the investment I make in myself; not by putting money into the bank or by backing a new startup during their angel round.
This investment into myself also hasn't necessarily been financial, but has instead taking a much more holistic approach to ensure that I'm best-equipped to deliver an appropriate ROI.
I believe that as an individual - and specifically as an entrepreneur - I'll always be in beta. I'm not perfect (never will be) and the only way I can stay ahead is to keep learning & improving every single day.
I love how this post describes that process as building “soft assets”, which will some day materialize in actual, hard assets (of some kind).
In that context, I believe that any amount of money or energy I can put into my own growth will outrank any alternative investment that I can make. In my mind, I'd be contradicting myself if I didn't do that, because I'd be saying that I'd rather diversify my investments (into other entrepreneurs), instead of just swinging for the fences.
So investing in myself is literally putting the money where my mouth is. :)
I wanted to share a couple of things that I've done in the past and some things that I do on an ongoing basis to make sure that I nurture and grow this personal investment:
1) I Got Help.
I'm borderline arrogant and a tad egotistical, but I would never have achieved what I've achieved if it wasn't for the help that I've gotten along the way. This help has come from various sources for various reasons:
My wife, who is my biggest fan, critic and cheerleader. She doubles as being the co-founder in every decision that I make, which means I'm never in it alone.
I've put a lot of effort into meeting & making friends with seasoned entrepreneurs, many of whom have played some kind of “mentorship” role in my life. Being able to avoid certain mistakes by listening to them sharing their experiences has been invaluable.
I joined EO, where I can connect with like-minded individuals and share (similar) trials & tribulations. This helps me to not go insane. :)
About two years ago, I hired an executive / CEO coach to work with me one-on-one for 6 months and help me figure out what kind of person and leader I wanted to be in WooThemes.
And so that list can continue to grow… The point here is that various people have helped me get better at different aspects of my life, which is something that directly translates to a growth in the investment.
2) I used WooThemes to build my own reputation.
WooThemes has been massive success and continues to grow 5 significantly 5 years after its inception.
From day one though, it was important for me to use my endeavours within WooThemes as a foundation to build my own reputation. I've always believed that most businesses will have run through its life cycle (however long that will be), but at the end of one cycle, I want to start up a new cycle using my reputation.
To do this, I've had to put myself out there and share my / our experiences related to WooThemes and just related to being an entrepreneur. I've written about it and I've spoken at conferences; all with the aim of sharing my knowledge and experience to build a reputation.
3) I run. Often.
I'm a different person when I exercise regularly and running as often as possible, has been the best way for me to maintain a stable mix of oxygen and endorphins flowing to my brain. :)
I'm not a great or natural runner, which is why I love running so much. It's something where I can be ambitious and a tad obsessed (to run further, faster and more often), so it aligns well with my characteristics and personality.
I've found that running is the one thing that is so far removed from my work and I actually manage to just be myself whilst running. After a long day, even a quick run seems like detoxing from everything that happened during the day.
You'll notice that the recurring theme in all of the above is an almost-selfish focus on myself.
I'm unashamed to say there's loads of things I'm implementing in my life where I have put my own wellbeing ahead of other considerations. In some cases, it's been such a priority and as such it has resulted in compromise or sacrifice elsewhere.
This past weekend I completed my fourth half marathon, but my first in over 2 years.
I went into the race with 4 weeks training, having missed out on training from mid-January to mid-March due to injury. So I was probably under-prepared. :) But that also meant that I was running without any pressure; I didn't train hard or long enough to have a concrete goal or expectation of myself. I just wanted to finish the race without being completely dead.
I started the race feeling good, but soon found myself being pulled into running a much quicker pace than I wanted to run (due to everyone else's adrenaline and excitement). At times I was literally running more than a minute / kilometre quicker than the pace I had trained at and I knew that I had not trained enough to keep that up over 21km's. There was no way I could finish the race this way.
During the race, I started thinking about my personal best quite a bit. What did it even mean to me and what did it mean in the context of the race I was running?
This got me thinking about the other things that I do in my life - both professionally & personally - where I allow myself to be pushed & pulled out of my comfort zone. Sometimes that's a good thing, but sometimes it just feels like I'm running someone else's race in their way at their pace.
Why do I do that? I dunno. Human nature I guess.
For one, I know that I want to feel relevant, which means I sometimes do things and make decisions that would help me stay relevant in the eyes of my peers.
I also sometimes make decisions to be diplomatic or to avoid conflict. And the cherry on the cake (ironically) is when I make the kind of decisions because “I think it's the right thing to do” and when “I only have the best intentions at heart”.
When I do these things, I'm not running my own race.
If you know me, you'll know I'm not a selfish person at all and I'm not advocating that. Neither am I advocating any kind of narcism here. :)
I do however believe that there are some (personal) decisions we should never compromise on. For those decisions, we should focus on our personal best and running our own race, our way and at our own pace.
Back to my race.
During those first couple of kilometres I allowed myself to be pulled into something that I didn't want to be pulled into. I was exceeding myself and I allowed the runners around me to push my pace out of my personal comfort zone. I definitely wasn't running my own race.
It took me until about 8km's into the race before I finally settled into a more comfortable pace, which I felt I could keep going until the end. After the halfway mark, I started to feel really great and I actually managed to push on quite a bit.
See, when I eventually settled into my own rhythm and remembered that “my personal best” was all that mattered (and that's how I could win this race), I ran like I've never run before.
A couple of weeks ago I read Ben Huh's post about how he got really depressed and contemplated suicide. One thing really stuck with me:
“Failure is an option, and a real risk. Failure and risk something entrepreneurs understand well, and learn to manage. However, death isn’t an option, it’s an inevitability. *And before I die, I want to take as many swings at the fence as I can.**”*
Swinging for the fences.
I'm only 28 years old. I haven't had a near-death experience. I'm relatively healthy and my life expectancy is good.
I've also had a good - maybe even great - life thus far. I'm married to my beautiful wife, who doubles as my soulmate, best friend & muse. I have a 16-month old son that is starting to look & act more like I do every day. I had the opportunity to take a chance (on myself) when I was quite young and that chance has lead to immense success at WooThemes (which has in turned spawned more opportunities).
But if you ask me how many times I've taken a swing for the fences, I could count those attempts on two hands.
Ever since reading Ben's post, I've felt this desire & passion to take a few more swings.
As I settled into bed last night, I opened up Twitter to do some pre-sleep reading when I stumbled onto various tweets about the Boston Marathon bombings. I subsequently struggled to go to sleep and when I eventually dozed off, it was an uneasy sleep at best.
When I woke this morning, I enjoyed my coffee along with CNN's special coverage of the bombings. The same uneasiness that I took into dreamland was still there.
Throughout the day, I wasn't able to think about much else than the bombings. When I heard the news that the first (confirmed) victim was a 8-year-old boy, I immediately felt the need to hug my own son and hold him close. I also hugged my wife.
I felt vulnerable. Life felt fragile.
Even though I was about 8000 miles away from Boston and the bombings, I felt the emotional impact as if I was there.
I'm not one to crawl into a corner. I needed a nudge in the opposite direction today.
“Instead, she quit her job and started an eBay page to sell some of the vintage designer items she found rummaging through Goodwill bins. She bought a Chanel jacket at a Salvation Army store for $8 and sold it for $1,000. She found Yves Saint Laurent clothing online on the cheap by Googling misspellings of the designer’s name, reasoning that anyone who didn’t know how to spell Yves Saint Laurent probably didn’t realize his value.”
Reading this, I could reminisce about my early days as an entrepreneur, where I tried a whole bunch of really whack ideas:
I started an alternative music label, mostly because I really wanted to be cool and go to all the shows;
I convinced female students on university campus to join my girl-next-door modelling agency; and
I persuaded wine estates to pay me ridiculous amounts of money to be featured on my “wine classifieds”-type website.
Not my proudest moments, but all of these got me from point A to B and made a little money too. I wasn't solving world problems either, but I was working hard trying to build a business. And that's what appealed to me about the Nasty Gal article.
I think that there's some true entrepreneurial character traits, tips & tricks that shines through in the Nasty Gal article:
1. Constraints breeds creativity. Most businesses start out not having the kind of resources to compete against the incumbents. Establishing a new startup is hard work and requires a kind of scrappiness to succeed. It's within those constraints though where entrepreneurs have the kind of creativity to solve a problem in a way that no one else saw.
2. No obstacle is too big. How do you go about creating a $100m clothing business? You start buying $8 garments from the Salvation Army. If that latter bit, creating a $100m company seems an arduous task that most people will never take on, purely because they don't believe that it's possible.
3. Your business only needs one believer. Unlike organized religion (that needs millions of believers for it to gain traction), your business only needs one: you. Other people will think you're crazy for buying $8 garments from the Salvation Army and they'll discount your vision as a result. As an entrepreneur, you just need to believe in your vision and execute accordingly regardless of what others say or think.
4. Leverage the knowledge gap. Never ignore how valuable the knowledge gap (between yourself & your customers) can be. The fact that you know how / where to source something (and your customers don't), means you can sell that onto them at whatever cost. Customers love convenience, so if you're making it easier for them, they'll pay you to bridge that gap.
Entrepreneurs are a different breed altogether. To some it comes easier than others, but the above character traits can be learnt. It just requires a different way of thinking about taking a chance & executing on your vision / passion.
Ever since Google announced that they'd be shutting down Google Reader, I've been observing what's been happening in the space of RSS readers / tools. What's been interesting is that some companies / tools have been able to leverage this situation to their advantage by being an alternative option (to which ex-Google Reader customers could migrate to).
One of the companies that seems to have gained a lot of traction as a result is feedly (according to their traffic stats).
The thing about feedly is that I've been seeing it mentioned quite a few times in the Twitterverse in the last couple of months. It's been touted as a great app, with a superior UI, and many of the people I follow (and regard as influencers to some extent) have adopted feedly (in favour of whatever they were using before).
Due to the work that they did until now, feedly was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of changes elsewhere in the ecosystem.
In a similar vein, whilst Posthaven seemed to pop up just at the right place and time as an alternative to Posterous, who announced they'll be shutting down at the end of April. On the surface that seems lucky and coincidental (especially in terms of the timing), but Garry Tan's involvement (former founder of Posterous and now founder of Posthaven) is anything but lucky & coincidental.
Sometimes it seems as if an entrepreneur or company just got lucky, but that's rarely the case. The golfing legend Gary Player used to say, “the more I practice, the luckier I get”, which is what I'm reminded of when I see “coincidences” like these.
Both feedly and Posthaven were in the right place at the right time to leverage an opportunity. Being there and being ready required a lot of hard work prior to that though, which meant they were afforded an exclusive opportunity that most of us won't have been privy to.
As an example, I'm sure that many entrepreneurs thought of using the shutting down of Google Reader to create a new RSS reading app. But by the time you could've put a V1 together from scratch the likes of feedly would've already beaten you.
Similarly, if anyone else built “a new Posterous” after it was announced that Posterous would close down, I bet it would've failed. That anyone else obviously excludes the former founders of Posterous though.
I think there's a couple of things that every startup and company should be doing that would give them the ability to execute and exploit these lucky opportunities:
As an entrepreneur, build your soft assets and continuously improve your skills;
Build a great team;
Build a great product; and
Don't waste money and have reserve kitty in your bank account.
Being in the right place at the right time is anything but being lucky. You only earn that privilege by putting in the hard yards long before that opportunity presents itself.
When I wrote about being born an entrepreneur, I did so to communicate what I felt / thought in an effort to be validated. Because if I can be validated, if I can find others like me, then surely it means that I'm not crazy. Right?
“In general, though, many believe that running startups can drive people to experience intense ups and downs. While this is true, it’s often the other way around: People in the bipolar spectrum are attracted to entrepreneurship. Building businesses can be a great way for hypomanic entrepreneurs to apply their energy and creativity.
Some people are more vulnerable to mood fluctuations and can also experience episodes of dark depression that may include feelings of hopelessness, irritability, fatigue, concentration problems, and feelings of worthlessness.”*
In October last year, my wife & I had an argument (can't even remember what it was about) and at one point she turned to me to say: “You need to spend time with your son, not because you need to manage him, but because you really want to spend time with him.”
Those very serious words hit me very hard and I left me speechless. What my wife had said was true; not because it was my intention, but it was the consequence of so many other decisions that I was making.
I left the room and upon reflection, I had to admit that deep-down I was incredibly unhappy. So I decided to see my therapist (who had I had been seeing on & off), who suggested that I definitely have a mild case of depression.
To hear those words from a therapist was tough. I had never considered myself depressed or an unhappy person; instead I'm an extrovert that always wants to be happy, optimistic & proactive.
Hearing these words from my wife (who is the one person in this world that really knows me) and my therapist though, pushed me to explore other aspects of my life & thoughts that might not have been as obvious. I found that I used the ups to disguise and forget about the downs. As such I was able to cope, but every now & again that coping mechanism completely failed as the ups would just not come quickly enough.
I had to admit & accept that regardless of how successful or happy I was, part of me was imperfect & broken.
Since then I've done a couple of things to help me cope on what is a pretty rollercoaster ride when being an entrepreneur:
I write about the things that are in my head. Instead of writing about “5 Steps to Grow Your Business” or commenting on what's happening with other companies, I prefer to just share what is going on in my head & heart. This has helped me to cleanse my mind of some things that I grapple with daily and also helps me to distill those thoughts.
I joined EO, where I meet with a group of like-minded entrepreneurs every month to get help. I see this as some kind of Entrepreneurs Anonymous, where I can just be me, be vulnerable and ask fo help.
All of the tweaks that I've made in my life in the last couple of months aren't necessarily something that I need every, single day. But I'm putting money in the bank and when those downs hit, I have an asset-base on which I can rely to help me cope (as an entrepreneur).
If someone heard that you were a great company to work with (and decides to use your product / service / app because of that) and they then experience the exact opposite, it's not only a neutral outcome. Instead that customer has an exponentially bad experience, because their expectation was that much more / better than they got.
As a company, you weren't thus competing on neutral footing; you had to deliver (at least) on par with your reputation and thus the expectation of that customer. Anything less than those lofty goals and you've failed that customer in their expectation & perception of how things would be when they take the plunge to work with you.
So here's the thing then… What does your brand & reputation promise? Can you live up those promises? Can you actually execute?
Or are you just great at marketing and have essentially set up all your future customers to be disappointed?
I've seen many odd e-mails from (*odd?*) customers over the years, but to this day, I'm always most surprised when I see e-mails that includes snippets like these:
“Wow! You got back to me!”
“Thank you for responding to my e-mail. I thought that I was just sending my e-mail into a blackhole.”
“Thanks for helping me out & answering all my questions. My previous experiences trying to get help from software companies have been really bad.”
In an age, where every Tom, Dick & Harry are saying that their companies are offering their customers good service, I'm surprised to see customers with so many scars relating to previous experiences. I mean, I think we treat our customers well at Woo, but we're in no way perfect; yet they really appreciate the experiences they have with us.
I don't need to speculate on what other companies are or aren't doing with regards to customer service; all I know is that there's still large amounts of customers that have had exclusively bad experiences with other companies in the past and by giving them a good experience, you are being their breath of fresh air.
Over the years, I've been involved in hiring 30+ team members to WooThemes, of which 24 remains on the team today. If I had to distill all of that experience into one piece advice it would be this:
When hiring someone that you really want to join your team, it's critical that the individual wants to join the team as badly as you want them to join.
My wife always tells me that her dad used to warn her about potential boyfriends when she was younger. He would always say: “Never chase after a boy or a bus.”
This resonates with my experiences of growing our team; when I've aggressively chased a hire and compromised on what exactly I wanted (i.e. salary, exact job description, benefits, etc.), it generally meant that our relationship started on the wrong foot.
Instead we've had most success hiring the individuals that would do everything in their power to be part of our team. On paper, these individuals probably won't be considered the best candidate, but in practice - due to their passion for our company, our team and our customers - they've exceeded all of our expectations.
(This also reminds me of how important hiring according to company culture is. I love Dharmesh Shah's words in this regards: “Culture is to recruiting what marketing is to product.”)