When I started my first site, there were two ways for people to find it – by landing on the main site itself or by finding it on its iTunes podcast page. The main medium for the content was MP3 audio lessons that could be downloaded and listened to on your iPod.
Later, users asked if I could provide them with a PDF transcript of the lessons. That became the start of the subscription model – free audio and pay for PDF transcripts.
A couple of years later, the iPhone was released and subsequently, apps started appearing for it. People asked for a CLO app, so we created one for it.
Later, it became clear that YouTube was a big source of users, so we created a CLO YouTube page with some intro videos there. Since some users like to learn using video, I have recently started offering a CLO video course on Udemy.
In this day and age, it’s become clear that in order to expand our market, instead of driving users to our main site, we have to push our content to other platforms. So we have started to become more active on Facebook and Twitter.
Obviously there are other formats we could expand to. We have an empty Google+ page and still don’t have an Android or an iPad app, even though both have been requested.
Assuming that you have an existing winning product, your users will expect you to be where they are and provide them the formats they expect. Fortunately, there are a lot of tools available to help with this process and let you manage multiple social networks at once. It still up to you to take the initiative and put your brand out there. If not, then your competition will gladly fill the void.
While my last post talked about what steps you should take when creating a new product, this post is meant for those with existing products. From the different projects I’ve worked on, Chinese Learn Online is the site I’ve had and maintained for the longest time. There are several customers there who have stuck through from the very beginning and continue to remain on the site. What is the reason for that, and how can I ensure that my future projects also attract similarly loyal customers?
1. Ask for Feedback
Make sure you keep in touch with your customers, especially your top ones. Find out what it is that they like about your service. What is it that they feel can be improved? Some of my most loyal customers have been ones who initially approached me with a complaint or concern about the site. They liked that I took their feedback seriously and used it to improve the site. This caused them to give me further suggestions to improve the site – suggestions that I wouldn’t have heard about otherwise – which resulted in further improvements to the site. Who wouldn’t support an organization that constantly listened to you and made the exact suggestions you gave them?
2. Update and Innovate
We live in a world that is constantly changing. Technology is constantly changing, and people’s expectations of the products they use change with them. Look at sites like Facebook, Google and Amazon and compare them with what they looked like a few years ago. Does your site have a mobile app to go with it? Do you have a Facebook page to communicate with your customers? These are all expectations that users have today, and if you don’t provide them, they may end up leaving for someone who does.
3. Respect them
If you have customers who have been with you for a while, make sure they know how much you value them. After all, it’s much more cost effective to keep an existing customer than to constantly have to acquire new ones. Some of the approaches I’ve used here including grandfathering them in on cheaper plans that are not available for new customers, and letting them earn download credits for being long term users. Make it difficult for them to leave because of all the data or services they would lose by leaving.
Compare that to many mobile phone companies who reward new customers with new phones and plans that are not available to older customers who have been with them for extended periods. Does this inspire you to be loyal to them?
Many articles have been written about why so many startups failed. Inevitably it comes down to any of the following reasons:
Not having the right product
Not being able to market the product successfully
Running out of money
So as a startup, what can you do to overcome these issues or at least set yourself up for the maximum potential success?
1. Focus on the MVP
Don’t worry about how you will market the product, how much you will charge for it or any of those details at this point. Just focus on the minimal viable product (MVP) that people would enjoy using (and potentially pay for). The idea should be to get this into the hands of users as quickly as possible. Leave the fancy and frill features for later on, once you have validated your product. This way you will know if you’re on the right track, without having wasted time and money by going in the wrong direction.
2. Find Early Users
Find people around you who match the audience you are planning to target. If members of your friends and family match this description, get them involved testing early versions of your product and (more importantly) get feedback from them. Is this a product they would use? Ideally, try to find people who have the very problem that your product is trying to fix.
There are other sites you can use to get beta testers to give you feedback, so use those if required.
After the initial testing, if they continue to use the product, that is a good sign that you may be on to something. If they stop using the product even after your constant prodding then assume that either they don’t match your target demographic or that your product still needs some polishing before it is ready for mass release.
3. Keep Iterating
If you find that users are not returning to your product, find out why. Many times people who are close to you may lie to you for your own benefit, in order to give you support and not discourage you. So ask questions like:
What would you change about this product?
Are there any features you would like to see added?
Use the feedback given to improve the product and release new versions that incorporate that feedback. If the users helping out really have the problem that you’re trying to solve, then it’s in their interest for your product to succeed so that their problem can be solved. They should be more than happy to test new versions and give you genuine feedback on whether the product has improved or not. I have used this approach for many of my products.
4. Market when Ready
One mistake I’ve seen a lot of startups make is to start marketing a half baked product. The few users they do have rarely use their product, so they assume that their problem is not having enough users. In fact, the problem is that their product isn’t good enough!
On the other hand, if you do have a product that users are happy with, then now is the time to start marketing it. One way to know if you’re at this stage is if you can get testimonials or positive reviews from users with ease. After all, if they are happy with the product, then chances are good that there will be others out there who would also benefit from this product.
By using this approach, you can ensure that you’re spending money where needed. It’s very easy for startups to run out of money by spending money developing unnecessary features early on, or by trying to market half baked products. Instead if that money was spent on building the core product with a loyal base, before beginning to market it, then their chances of success would be much higher!
These past couple of weeks, I had the opportunity to submit a new app to the appstore for my new startup. While I’ve submitted several apps in the past, this was the first time I had an app that I needed to submit for a deadline, so speed was of the essence. For PR purposes, you may have a date in time that you want to start promoting your app. It is in your interest to get as many downloads as you can over a short period of time (ideally the same day) if you want to rank in the charts, so having your app ready for download on your advertised day is crucial.
Here are some of the tricks I learned in the process:
Check the current speed of app store review submissions. Here’s a good site that shows the approximate review times of apps currently being submitted. Be careful with this one since it refers to events in the past and not present. So for example, at the time of this blog post it shows this 11 days for apps. App store review times may have improved or gotten worse since then, but it still gives you a rough idea of how long it’s taking other apps to get approved at the moment. This way you can schedule enough time for your submission.
Set the launch date with Apple. When submitting your app, you can choose to have the app automatically released when it is approved, or have it released on a specific day. So for example, if you wanted to launch your product in 3 weeks, you could submit your app now, but tell them not to release your app until the launch date in 3 weeks. Obviously this would only work if the launch date is AFTER they have approved your app. If the approval goes past your release date, then there’s not much you can do. This of course doesn’t make the approval any faster, but is useful for advertising your grand launch date.
Ask for an expedited review. Not many people know this (I didn’t). Apple has a form you can fill out to ask for an expedited review of your app. They take a couple of days to review your request before deciding if your circumstance warrants an expedited review or not. They may also choose to ignore you if you regularly make such requests. If your circumstance is genuine though, you can do so.
Create a test account. If your app requires a user to login before they can do anything in the app, then create a test account for the Apple review team to use. Otherwise you risk them not seeing parts of the app that require a user to be logged in. Include the test account details in the review notes (see next point).
Fill in the review notes. Whenever you’re submitting an app, it doesn’t hurt to fill in details in the review notes. Even stating things that may be obvious won’t hurt (better safe than sorry). For example in my case, I had to state that my app was only for release in Taiwan, and so would not show any content in the US (where the reviewers were located).
Include a video. If there are parts of the app that the review team won’t be able to see (eg. future levels of a game or location specific features) then include a demo video that showcases the other parts.
The bottom line is that the easier you make it for the app review team to understand your app, then the faster they will take to approve it. So any steps you can take during the submission process to help them will end up helping you.
My team was fortunate enough to have been picked for Startup Labs’ inaugural Incubator program in Taipei, Taiwan from February 10 to March 2. In addition to seed funding, we were housed in a coworkspace for three weeks and encouraged to set and reach goals that honed our concept and focused on user acquisition during this short time. While there were many lows and highs during the time, we came away a lot stronger than we were going in. Here are 7 benefits that I found quite helpful from the program. If you are looking to join an incubation program, consider these benefits in addition to any funding you receive.
In my team’s case, all four members moved to Taipei from a neighboring city for three weeks. This meant that we ended up spending a lot more time together than we normally would. In some cases, this could be a bad thing, but in our case, getting to know each other better was a positive! We got to see each other in stressful times when there was a deadline coming, when ideas weren’t coming together or after a long day when we were just tired and hungry! We also saw got to see each other in after hours settings, when it was time to unwind.
In each case, we got to see a different side of each other – one that we wouldn’t normally see, but that was good to know about. I’m now more confident going forward that we have assembled the right team of individuals who will have what it takes to perform when the going gets tough.
Vet your Idea
As part of the incubation process, mentors, investors and other visitors were constantly pouring through the building to see what we were up to. Each time, I would present our idea and the progress we were making. This was a great way to get feedback and reactions from a broad group of people. Some of their ideas were added to our own to improve the concept.
Having mentors on hand also made it easy to just shout out to the next table “Hey David, what do you think about this idea?” I realized that our regular routine of working out of our own office kept us in a bubble of sorts, as we were not exposed to the regular feedback we were getting here.
Deadlines and Pressure
The main purpose of this incubation process was to show a delta in progress from our opening day pitch to our final demo. Goals and targets were assigned to each team early on, and pressure was applied to make sure we hit these targets. We were not used to such deadlines, but in this case, having them forced us to dig in and work 12 hour days to reach them. It also forced us to refine our plans to ones that could be tested and applied in much shorter time frames than what we would normally have. Instead of building a site and testing it out, we were forced to test mockup concepts first. This process saved us a lot of time, since it allowed us to throw away concepts that weren’t received well, rather than having to build it first to find this out.
In addition to getting to know our own teammates, being housed in the coworkspace with four other teams helped us get to know others who were in the same position as we were in. While each team had their own challenges, it was very helpful to have members of other teams present to bounce ideas off of, celebrate in their achievements and provide encouragement and support where possible. It was also helpful to listen to advice being given to other teams and look for areas where that same advice could be relevant to us as well.
Another benefit of having 5 teams together in the same coworkspace was that we had access to great resources and presenters. At various times during the three weeks, we had visitors from a local law firm who represented startups, Google, Microsoft, Facebook’s local ad representative and local and international bloggers, all providing advice in different areas. These were people we might not have had the opportunity to meet with on our own, but now had access to in the future.
While most of the time was spent working out of the coworkspace, after hour events were organized to get to know the investors and mentors in more informal settings. These were great, not only for letting off steam, but also for getting to know the people we were working with better. Who knew that they were real people with their own lives, families and issues?
Honing your Pitch
At the end of the 22 days, a final demo was organized for local and international investors, media and government representatives. In the days before the pitch, we were encouraged to practice our pitches in front of mentors, who would then provide advice on how to improve them. The advice provided was very good, and applied before the final demo. After the demo, many investors commented on how much better the final presentations were than the original ones on day one.
Now that the event is over, and we are back to our regular lives, the real work begins. Can we take the advice we learned and build something real with it? Stay tuned to find out!
We are living in a society that is unprecedented throughout the ages, as far as making money is concerned. In the past, businesses catered to local markets within their town or neighborhood. As they made money, that could be reinvested into expanding into more locations across the city, or even to other cities.
Then the internet came along and changed everything. Now businesses could market themselves to the world from a single location. Businesses moved from physical products to digital ones that could be instantly downloaded from anywhere. No more worrying about inventories and shipping costs.
It took me a while to start my first internet business, since I had limited skills, and required the money to:
Create a website and associated tools
Design a logo and graphics
Help me market the website
Handle the customer service
And this was assuming I already have a product to sell. If not, I would have had to add the costs of developing the product to the mix.
If I was to hire someone local (in a western country) to handle all these duties, I could easily be looking at investing several thousands of dollars before I had my first sale. While this would still be cheaper than opening a conventional bricks and mortar store, I certainly didn’t have the funds or the skills to get into it right away.
Fast forward five years later. Through the power of outsourcing, I was able to find specialists in each of the above categories to help me out in all aspects of my business, for a fraction of the cost I would normally have had to pay.
Why is outsourcing so much cheaper?
Many specialists are located in developing countries, where their costs are much cheaper.
Many specialists work from home, and don’t have the overhead of an office and other employees to pay.
Since I only pay for a project at a time, I don’t pay the additional administrative costs of hiring someone full time.
Now of course, in life many argue that you get what you pay for. So if I was hiring someone for $10 an hour, would his work be of the same quality as someone charging $150 an hour?
In some cases it was. In other cases it wasn’t. Like anything in life, a little due diligence was required.
There are several highly skilled individuals in developing countries who have many years of experience taking on projects in various areas, and have become very good at them in the process. Where my project matched their skill set, I got a very good deal.
In other cases, their quality wasn’t be very good at all. Or they were using my project as an educational opportunity to expand their skill set.
In either case, I was able to spot which type of person I was dealing with beforehand, by communicating with them and looking at reviews from previous projects they had handled.
As I got good at outsourcing, I started expanding to other projects that I would never have dreamed of doing before, but now had the resources to create. If I had a tight deadline and wanted something of the top most quality, I would look for someone experienced. In other cases, I had pet projects that were flexible – so I was willing to hire people with less experience for less money. Some of them worked out, some didn’t. However I did become better at vetting, in the process.
As I got more confident in outsourcing, I was able to outsource more aspects of the business that I hadn’t thought of before. This allowed me to create very professional looking products, for much less than it would have cost to have done in traditional ways. As an example, each of the elements below was outsourced to a different person in a different part of the world:
Logo, theme and graphic design for my first website (Russia)
Coding and custom features for the website (Hong Kong)
Composing audio that was used as an intro in my podcast (Argentina)
Editing of a YouTube video (Taiwan)
Development of my first iPhone app (Ukraine)
Custom icons and UI design for other iPhone apps (Canada)
Audio editing with music and sound effects for other podcasts (Philippines)
Singing of a cover song on a YouTube video (USA)
I’ve developed relationships with several of the people above. One side benefit of having them across different parts of the world is that in some cases I could assign some tasks overnight, and have them ready for me when I woke up the next day!
So nowadays I am free to dream up new projects, that can quickly be assigned and developed for a fraction of a cost that competing companies would pay for having such employees on board full time.
What types of things would you be able to do or create for your own business, if you had your own team of highly skilled individuals waiting for your command?