I just wanted to take a minute to share some of the projects I’ve been working on the last 6 weeks.
My new course at UCSB:
I piloted a new course at UCSB’s graduate school of education. I partnered with assistant professor Diana Arya to take 8 students studying STEM literacy through a five week course on innovation and customer development.
The students developed new applications and programs to help solve some of our greatest challenges in K12 STEM Literacy. It was a huge success. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this soon!
My goal is to spread this type of course to every university level education program across the country. Over the next few months you should expect to see some great feature articles about our work.
If anyone has ideas for how to spread this. Let me know!
A course on building viral pre-launch campaigns:
I launched a free online course called ViralRails. In the course I teach people how to use open source code to build a landing page with a built in referral system to incentivizes subscribers to share with their friends. I have 350 subscribers 3 weeks since launching.
Building a SaaS business based on feedback from the course.
I reached out to over 50 of my students who signed up for the course. Their all looking to either create referral programs for their business or gather emails for a new idea.
I’ve even had a few of them pay me to build the app for them! Naturally, I decided to start a SaaS business. I built a landing page generator so you can create these types of campaigns in just a few minutes. I’m opening up the app to pilot users for the first public release. If you know anyone who’s launching a new product or wants to test referral systems please send them my way!
Feel free to share it with friends! I’ve learned a lot through my customer interviews and I’ll be sharing my product’s evolution as I progress. Hint: It’s going to be a lot more than just a landing page generator:)
P.S. Let me know if you have any feedback. Just shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org
Whenever I’m testing a new business model or new feature, I always think, “What’s the fastest way for me to get enough information to validate or invalidate this idea?”. This is basically the definition of a Minimum Viable Product. I did this in just 24 hours for my latest project using only a landing page, a simple email template, and by leveraging existing networks for lead generation. Here’s how I got from idea to my first $40 in revenue.
Entrepreneurs will pay to have access to a curated database that organizes companies by industry and by similar business model. This database could also include other information that founders might need, such as market size and/or a list of influencers/bloggers who are active in their industry.
Key elements of the experiment:
Keep it simple and manual
Leverage existing networks
Get feedback and iterate
Don’t be afraid to ask for payment
Keep it simple and manual:
Trying to build a sophisticated algorithm to search the web for similar companies, and bloggers who’ve written about them, would take tons of time and money. In the end, customers might not even value the data enough to pay for it. So, I decided to offer the service by first gathering the basic information about a customer’s company, then conducting research manually by googling and using some existing databases. Through this manual process I could prove that a customer is willing to pay and learn exactly what kind of data they want. The only cost for me is my time.
Leverage Existing Network (R/Entrepreneur):
I hypothesized that my early adopters would be first time entrepreneurs who are looking for a way to research their ideas. The best place online for me to find plenty of first time entrepreneurs is reddit’s r/Entrepreneur. For those of you who are unfamiliar with r/Entrepreneur, it’s a forum where first time entrepreneurs go to share information and interact online. I wrote a quick post asking for feedback on the idea in order to drive traffic to a simple landing page I built.
Note: r/Entrepreneur is pretty fickle about self promotion so I made sure to offer free advice to anyone who needed help with market validation.
Time Spent: 1 hour to pick a name and build the landing page, 5 minutes to create the post.
Measure Visitors, Clicks, and Conversions:
I used a website called Optimizely to A/B test headlines on my landing page. The headlines I tested either offered customers a list of competitor companies or a list of bloggers/influencers who’ve written articles about your competitors. You can visit the landing page here. For a great course on how to build a landing page checkout One Month’s Growth Hacking Course.
Time Spent: 10 minutes to set up Optimizely with a free trial, 10 minutes to setup google analytics.
Get feedback and iterate:
Luckily the post was well received and I started to get direct messages and comments. You’ll notice that I responded to each person’s feedback and made changes when necessary. I learned some critical steps in the customer’s decision making process: They really wanted to see a case study, how the data was collected, and some social proof from other customers.
Time spent: 24 hours monitoring the post, 2 hours responding to comments.
Don’t be afraid to ask for payment (even in the early stage of your product):
I immediately followed up with every single comment and personal message with a reply trying to close a sale. Paypal has a great service called Paypal.me that allows you to easily accept payment. This allows you to validate not only the idea, but the willingness to pay, and eventually the amount they are willing to pay.
Here’s one example response:
Hope you had a great new year. We’d love to help you find other startups in your industry. Just send me the name of your startup, url, a brief description, and the industry you’re in. Just send me $20 using this link and I’ll get started paypal.me/kehaya/20. I’ll refund you if you’re not satisfied.
What are your thoughts?
Time spent: Writing template 10 minutes, 0 minutes building payment feature
Traffic: 149 visitors
Click through rate: 8.72%
Paying customers (so far): 2
Total Revenue: $40
Total Time Spent: 24 hrs
What I learned:
I had a 50/50 split between those who wanted a list of competitors versus those who wanted a list of bloggers/influencers, so its unclear which one is more compelling. What I do know is that people are willing to pay for this service and that it’s probably worth spending more time to continue validating. I got a good amount of quantitative data and plenty of leads to conduct in person or Skype interviews to elicit more qualitative data. I’ve already done two such interviews and gained some valuable information about what data I really need to collect.
My next step will be to complete a few more sales, get more customer interviews, and test how to create repeatable business model that will scale the service.
BOTTOM LINE. When you’re testing a new idea think about the fastest way for you to prove people really want your product or service by building as little as possible and interacting with real customers.
Happy testing! Feel free to reach out to me with questions.
Last week I had the opportunity to meet with the leaders of one of Santa Barbara County’s local Boys and Girls Club. Together we’re planning a 6 week (1 day a week) after school entrepreneurial studies program as part of a broader STEM initiative. Our goal is to inspire students to pursue studies in math and science.
Why would you include entrepreneurship as part of this program?
I’ve built and taught several courses teaching students to discover problems and create innovative solutions. I’ve adapted Steve Blank’s curriculum, The Lean Launchpad, to help students systematically create and test hypotheses about the problem they wish to solve and the solution they imagine creating. Sounds familiar to a common process in teaching STEM courses, right? You guessed it, at it’s most basic level, this curriculum utilizes the scientific method.
Here’s why I think this is important.
Teaches Students Real Skills
The process of customer development and testing an idea helps students develop skills that will help them be more attractive to employers. Here are just a few of the skills that are developed through these types of programs.
Learn how to develop a hypothesis
Learn how to build a business model
Learn how to test a hypothesis
Learn how to communicate an idea and share your findings
Learn how to work with others
Real Problem Based Learning
By challenging students to solve real problems for real people they begin to own their learning process.
This forces them to gather knowledge about subjects that they otherwise might not have found interesting.
Creates a process of introspection that leads to understanding the “why” behind the subjects they are learning.
What challenges will we face with this program?
Limited amount of time.
Students have a lot of other things going on.
These students may have had limited exposure to both technology and entrepreneurship in general.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to document how I build out the curriculum and share it openly via my blog. During the course, I’ll write about what my students are discovering and how the course evolved over time. It’s going to be a ton of fun and I hope that others will engage with their ideas!
How do you find an idea that matches your skill and passion? Here’s how one entrepreneur I met with phrased the question.
“I’m a telecom expert looking to try and come up with an innovative idea as a service. I’m tired of selling my hours for dollars, but I’m not sure how to convert my expertise into a service I can sell online.
Do you have any tips for helping me discover potential ideas someone with my skill-set can build off of?”
I’ve spoken with many entrepreneurs who are in the same boat as this telecom expert. They’ve got a lot of professional experience, have been learning to code, and want to build a service that is at the intersection of both their passion, skill, and experience. They just need help finding the right idea to test. Here are a few strategies you can use to come up with an idea.
Ask yourself, Who do I want to work with?
It’s critical that you first think about the people you enjoy working with. Your customers are the most important part of your business, if you hate interacting with them on a daily basis then you are destined to burn out and/or be very unhappy. What are you passionate about? Where does your passion meet your skill and experience? Take a few minutes and create a list of potential markets where you feel there are customers who might need your help.
Search for pain
Now that you have some ideas for who you want to work with, it’s time to discover problems that are a high priority for those customers and that you think you can solve. Write a short paragraph about the day in the life of this customer. This will help you think about where you can find these types of people. Here are some questions you should be looking to answer:
What are the challenges they face in their business or life?
What are their top 3 pain points? What keeps them up at night?
You want to avoid solving problems that aren’t critical.
If it’s a business, How are they running the business today?
What types of software do they use to run their business?
What do they like about their current software? What do they not like?
Leverage existing networks
How can I reach out to my first customers? Leverage existing networks that have a built in audience. Look for a forum, a facebook group, or meetup.com group where these tyes of customers go regularly. If the group is online, here’s an example post I did on Reddit when searching for small business to build software for:
Hey everyone, I’m a developer/entrepreneur and am looking to build my next SaaS product. I’m searching for pain points that businesses face that I can solve.
What business are you in?
What’s process/challenge causing you to lose money or time?
What pain points do you have?
What thoughts do you have for where I can search for pain?
Thanks for your help!
Believe it or not I got a bunch of ideas from this. I ended up testing one and invalidating it and am now searching for my next one. The responses to my post for this particular market all suggested that the current software was really poor quality. After narrowing down my idea, I found local business that matched my target and I spent a week going to each one and introducing myself to the owner.
Here’s my pitch:
“Hey, I’m Alex, I’m a local entrepreneur and I’m looking to build a new software product for (name type of business that customer is in or describe type of customer). I’m not selling anything yet and am just hoping to learn more, What are your thoughts on taking a few minutes to talk?”
Note: These interviews are best done in person but if you have to you can try cold calling. Also, try and record everything. The information you get will be very useful later on when you’re trying to define the problem you’re solving.
Most people were very open to talk because they truly hated their existing solution. I ended up invalidating this idea because the market was too fragmented and the MVP needed to be too complex for too small a niche of that market to sell. (More on that in a separate post)
Map out your idea
Now that you’ve got an idea, it’s time to get organized. Get out a business model canvas and begin the process of customer development. I’ve linked to more resources on that. Once you’ve mapped out your idea, you understand your customer, how that market is divided up, and the problem you are trying to solve it’s time to build your first Minimum Viable Product (MVP). This is where the ability to code may or may not come into play. I love Paul Graham’s essay Build Things that Don’t Scale because it’s a good example of how you can build an MVP that tests your model without writing any code. I also recommend checking out Ryan Hoover’s post The Wisdom of The 20 Minute Startup. This should give you some ideas. What other ways do you think you could find an idea for your next business?
A young entrepreneur recently asked me this question:
“I have an idea for an app but I have no idea how to code or build it. What do I do? Where can I start with my idea?”
We’ve all been there at some point early on in our entrepreneurial journey. You have a great idea and you want to just build and start selling. However, this is the wrong place to start. You need to follow the process of customer development popularized by Steve Blank. I won’t spend time writing about this process because there is a ton of information out there. Rather, I’ll give you a few actionable steps you can follow to get started with your app today.
Let’s say you’re working on an app to allow gym goers to meet-up and do fitness related activities together. * I’m writing this article to help an entrepreneur working on a similar idea.
1. You don’t need to write code. (yet)
I’m a huge fan of learning to code and believe the skill is very important. I think it’ll give you a much better understanding of the development process ultimately save you time and money, and allow you to iterate on your model with speed.
That said, you can get this idea off the ground without writing a single line of code. It’s very important to have this mindset because it will help you discover what features your users will actually value before you spend tons of resources and energy writing code.
Forget all the features you think you need to build and focus on solving the problem. Think of ways that you could help people solve this problem in a manual way and by using existing networks or platforms.
Here are some ideas:
Meetup.com- start organizing a community meetup that targets your customer base. See if you can get people to pay you for the event.
Facebook groups- Think of some of the features that are built into facebook, Notifications, likes, comments ect… see if you can build and engag with an audience of potential users through this platform.
Use an existing website builder. When I launched NextMover (Uber for Moving) I tested the idea by leveraging a platform called Sharetribe. It was an out of the box marketplace much like AirBnB that we were able to white label. We then used a service called PhoneGap to get it on the app store (iOS) and then just started trying to acquire customers.
Even before we used Sharetribe, we built simple landing page with a form to assess what you needed moved, where you were located, and where you needed it delivered. When someone filled out the form, I started calling truck owners and making sure someone was available. We then took payments with Venmo. Ultimately, I decided to shut the business down because LTV and CAC numbers didn’t add up.
The point is, think about the most important problem you’re solving for your customer/users and try and build a manual test. It takes hustle but it proves that people value your product or service. This traction will be the evidence you need to get investment and more importantly, inspire others to join your team. Which leads me to my next point.
2. You need a team.
A big part of being an entrepreneur is being able to inspire others to join you. You must sell your vision to people around you who have the skills necessary to help you build the company. In order to do this, you’ll need to map out your business model (check out business model generation for more on this). This will help you be able to easily talk about your idea and it’s potential but I’ll save more tips on this for a separate post.
Finding the right people to work with takes time and is extremely important. Startups and businesses in general are very stressful so you need to make sure that the people you’re partnering with are people that you enjoy being around, have similar values, and that your goals for the business are aligned. Know that while it takes time to build these relationships it’s the most valuable investment you can make. Whether it’s this idea or 10 down the road the more relationships you build the more people you’ll be able to draw from when you hit the right idea.
How can you find these people and build these relationships?
I love this event. In 54 hours, you pitch an idea, people vote, form teams, and the top ideas get worked on. It’s a great way to meet other entrepreneurs who have the skills you need. More importantly, it puts you in a faced paced scenario where you can experience their work ethic and vet their skill level.
Network with Entrepreneurship and Computer Science programs near you.
Almost every college has some sort of entrepreneurship and CS program. Go out to your local college and network. Go to all the startup events, meet people and start sharing about your idea.
Test Potential Team Members
Once you find someone you think you’d like to work with, test them out. Do a small project on the side with them to make sure that you enjoy working with them. I’ve written a more in-depth article on how to form a startup team here.
Links to other inspiring articles and tools to get you started.
A student recently came to me with a problem. He was having trouble with some of his team dynamics and asked me for strategies and best practices around maintaining a positive and productive group dynamic. This is an important question for early stage startups.
When you’re bootstrapping, starting your own company can be especially difficult because you and your team all have jobs that put food on your table and a roof over your head. Essentially, you work one full time job and another more than full time job. This is the main reason that startups rarely get off the ground with just one person. You need a team of passionate people who have complementary strengths and skills. These co-founders and early employees comprise the core of your business and should be selected with great caution. Many startups have failed due to a break down in team dynamics. In order to avoid this pitfall, you need to get your team together and undress all the hard issues from the beginning.
Here’s how I built a great team dynamic in my startup,NextMover, from day one.
Expectations and Commitment
It’s very important to get everyone’s expectations and level of commitment out on the table from the start. The early days are the most exciting. You’ve got a BIG IDEA and you and your co-founder(s) want to take over the world. The problem is that many people don’t realize how much time they can really commit to the company or exactly what they expect as far as compensation or equity. Getting everyone’s commitment out on the table lets you know how much value each person can really add to the company. You need to know that everyone on your early team is in it for the long haul.
Answering questions about equity at this stage might seem premature. But putting it out there makes everyone’s intentions clear when it comes time to sign your first term sheet and raise your millions. If you wait to cover this topic it can become a huge distraction later on. When you’re working with reasonable people it can be as easy as asking, “what do you expect to get out of this project?”.
I’ve found that those who intend to work on your startup full time as a second job will rightfully expect a lot of equity. I’ve also found that people who can’t commit a lot of time may have unrealistic expectations of what they should receive in terms of equity. A great book to read about raising money through venture capitol is Venture Deals by Brad Feld. After reading it you will realize how important every percentage point of equity is to you and your company’s future. Be careful giving it away to people who aren’t fully committed in the early days.
I have a strong sense of values. These values guide me in everything that I do in both my personal and professional life. It is important to develop a set of values that guide your company. It is critical that your team share your company values. NextMover’s values are a direct reflection of my own personal values. These values drive our business forward; they are the foundation of the company’s culture. A great exercise for determining company values is to do a “Brain Dump”. Gather your team for about one hour and do the following:
The Brain Dump:
Get a large sheet of paper or a white board.
Ask your team to list out their core values.
Write everything down, grouping the words into lists by similarity.
Narrow your list down to 4-5 values.
This simple exercise will show you what your co-founders’ values are and if these values are a good fit for your company. Once you can agree on a simple set of values, you can hold each other accountable to these values and refer to the m when making important decisions.
Strengths and Weaknesses
In a startup, there are no real roles; no CEO, no VP of Sales— just a lot of jobs and tasks that need to get done. Everyone on your team will wear a lot of different hats and take on a lot of responsibility. When you’re strapped for time and trying to execute your business model with limited resources, it is extremely important to stay focused on what you’re good at. Diversity of strengths and weaknesses is a good thing because you want people that can complement your skill set. Identifying your teams strengths and weaknesses is essential to empowering your team to make decisions. Here’s how my co-founder and I figured out our strengths and weaknesses. A word of warning: it’s important to set expectations for this exercise. Start by emphasizing to your team the importance of being open and honest with each other.
Time to undress:
Make a list of your personal strengths and weaknesses.
Make a list of each of your team members’ strengths and weaknesses.
Set the example and read your personal first.
Now listen your team’s lists about you.
Repeat with each person.
Now you can have an open conversation around who owns what tasks. It sounds like it might be a tough exercise but it’s not as hard as it seems. After you’ve identified your team strengths and weaknesses you can easily decide what tasks are best suited to each person. For example, I’m not a designer but my co-founder is really great at design, therefor, it’s up to him to make decisions about design. We work collaboratively but at the end of the day the final decision on issues related to design fall to him. I trust in his ability and give him the freedom to work within his strengths. By the end of this exercise you should have a list (or a venn diagram) of who’s in charge of what tasks. Where there is clear overlap, you can agree to decide as a group.
Customer Development Team
Practicing evidence-based entrepreneurship is critical to your team’s success. If you don’t know about customer development read, Steve Blank’s blog or check out Patrick Vlaskovits book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development. Talking and listening to your customers is at the core of building any successful startup. When you incorporate customer development into your team philosophy, you will increase your chances of success greatly. Make sure that everyone on your team buys in to this process.
If anyone doesn’t buy in, then they may not be a good fit for your team.
The process involves a lot of hard work and the realization that your BIG IDEA is just a hypothesis that needs to be validated or invalidated. You are searching for a repeatable and scalable business model and your team needs to be mentally prepared to pivot.
If a team member is unfamiliar with this philosophy have them watch Steve Blank’s course, “How to Build a Startup” on Udacity.com and read Patrick Vlaskovits’ book. It’s time well spent to make sure you are all on the same page.
Respect Your Time
Time is highly valuable. Be respectful of both your personal time and that of your team. It is just as important to make time for your friends and family as it is for you to dedicate time to growing your business. Here are few ways to find the balance.
Schedule one day a week just for family and friends—be present. This is a time to avoid anything work related. Just enjoy being together.
Set a schedule for working on your startup and stick to it. I meet with my team twice a week in person for an hour. We also commit to completing a minimum of ten customer interviews together a week.
Define objectives for each meeting with your team. This ensures that everyone is prepared and knows why your are meeting.
Come prepared. Don’t show up to a meeting with your team without your work completed.
Bring energy and enthusiasm, even if you fake it, because positivity is infectious. Startups are hard and your attitude directly affects your team. Everyone on your team at this point has agreed to be in the trenches with you so make it as positive as possible.
Launching a startup is a long and draining process. Establishing core values, building the right team, and keeping the balance are three ways to help you stay on track to success.
I originally wrote this article after my launching my previous startup, NextMover. It’s now up on my medium account. It’ve gotten a lot of great feedback about the original post so I thought I’d add it here as well. I hope that this article adds value to your process as you’re getting your team and startup off the ground. I’d love to hear your thoughts so either leave a comment in the margin or tweet me @afkehaya.
I write about market validation, growth hacking, and entrepreneurship education.