Now that I’ve had the experience of attending two startup weekends – one as a participant and one as a speaker, I’ve been exposed to pitches from several other startups. Add to that, all the news on startups coming in from sites likeTechCrunch and AngelList and I’m starting to notice a disturbing trend.
People are focusing on ideas, rather than solving problems.
The good news is that we are not asking you to solve world hunger or broker peace in the middle east (although that would be nice). All you need to do is solve problems that real users have.
How do you find these problems?
Take a look at your Facebook and Twitter streams and see what people are complaining about. Join forums and discussion groups to see what kinds of problems people are having.
See if you can do any of the following:
Take something that is complicated and make it simpler. Perhaps by reducing the number of steps involved.
Take something inconvenient and make it more convenient.
Take something that is currently expensive and find a way to do it for cheaper, or even for free!
Take something that is of low quality, and create a higher quality version that you can charge more for.
Take something that is currently boring, and make it more exciting.
When I listen to a startup pitch, it should be clear to me what the problem is that they are solving. Let’s take a look at some famous examples.
It’s clear what problem Evernote is trying to solve. People tend to forget a lot of things. Evernote helps them remember by making it easy to take notes.
Facebook solves the problem of us losing connection with our family and friends, as we live our busy lives.
Both these products are quite clear, and require little convincing. As a result, both companies are huge with millions of users around the world.
If you have to explain to me what my problem is, or try to convince me that I have a problem that I previously didn’t know exist, then it may be hard to get traction.
Better yet would be to find users with the problems you are solving and introduce your product to them directly. If they continue using your product, you know you’re onto something. If they don’t come back, then follow up with them and find out why.
Part of developing my new startup has required me to do a lot more networking than I’ve ever had to do in the past. This has meant attending networking events both in my local city and in nearby cities. I’ve noticed that in the process of attending such events, my approach towards them has also changed.
In the past, I would only attend events where I had a clear purpose and reason to attend. If I didn’t know the people well, or it seemed outside my area of interest or expertise, I would skip it. Why waste my time otherwise, right?
However over the past few weeks, after attending several networking events, I’ve noticed that my expectations going in and what I came out with were often very different. This has opened my mind to such situations and I’m now more liberal in the choices of events that I’ll attend. In fact, I’m now even begun attending (and speaking at) functions outside my regular base, as doing so provides the following benefits:
Practice your Pitch
Each time I attend an event where I’m introduced to new people, this gives me the opportunity to pitch my product again. I’ve talked about the benefits of this before but it’s worth repeating. The more you practice pitching your product, the better you will get at it. In the process, people will ask you questions about your products that you will need to know the answer to.
When I began, I found my initial pitch to be several minutes long, glossing over details that I later found to be unimportant. The questions that people asked, helped me refine the pitch to focus on the important details of the business. Being able to make a short, to the point pitch gives you two benefits:
If the person you are talking to isn’t really interested in your product, it saves you and them time.
If the person you are talking to is interested in your product, then you will be providing him with just enough information to know that he is interested, so that he will want to continue talking to you. The last thing you want to do is bore a potentially interested party with uninteresting details. They get pitches like this all the time, so it’s important to pique their curiosity early!
If it turns out that the people you are talking to can’t help you directly as a potential investor, adviser or team member, they may still be able to provide you with valuable market research. Perhaps they fit the profile of the type of person who would use your product or service. Take this opportunity to find out what they think of your product from that point of view. Do they use competing products? What do they like or dislike about those products? Does your product or service solve any problems they are currently having.
These past few weeks, I’ve walked into several events, looking to make contacts with potential investors, advisers or team members. While I wasn’t able to find those, I was able to come away with valuable market research advice, that made attending the event very worthwhile.
One of your first investments as a company, should be in a set of business cards. Also get yourself a business card holder to put all these cards in. Replace the cards you give out, with cards you receive in return.
Create a system of making connections. If you’re receiving cards, separate relevant ones that you want to follow up with separately. Write notes on the cards if there are important details you want to remember.
If you have specific needs, ASK. Tell the people “Hey I’m looking for someone who can help me with…” Just because they may not be able to help you directly, doesn’t mean they don’t know someone who can!
This also extends to people you haven’t met in person. If there’s someone in the community you would like to meet, touch base with them on Twitter first. I did so with the CEO of a huge company in the similar market. That tweet led to a direct phone call, and now a regular email relationship. Who would have thought?!
There is a misconception that people have about asking for advice. It doesn’t cost anything, so ask for it! In the beginning, I shied away from the bigwigs at such events – big investors or other famous people in attendance. Why would they want to talk to little ole me?
What surprised me was that not only were they willing to talk to me, they were also willing to provide free advice! Take advantage of it. Establish connections with them on Twitter and other social networks and get the ball rolling. If they don’t want to talk to you, let them make that decision, but more often than not they will!
Have balance in your life. Not all meetings have to be about business and how to increase profits. It is also perfectly okay to just have a good time. Share funny stories. Become friends and nothing else. Enjoy the journey and take a break whenever you need it. You’ll get more out of life that way.
Our product is a website that lets you search menus of restaurants nearby to find the exact dish you are looking for. Although I was already sold on this idea, one of the requirements of startup weekend is that you first survey your market to find a pressing need that you’re trying to solve. This took a while for us – finding just the right questions to ask, and then going out and finding people to complete our survey.
Was all of this effort really necessary?
Well it turns out it was. Not only did it validate our business model – people like to search for new restaurants in Taiwan, they like to see a menu before entering a restaurant, but currently most restaurants don’t have searchable menus online – but it also pointed us in the right direction. We now knew that the quality of food was more important than the location of the restaurant. It also pointed us towards some of the current solutions that people were using, that they were finding inadequate.
Even now, a month later, I find myself constantly going back to the results of that survey, when deciding how to move our product forward.
2. Test your Assumptions
As you build your business forward, it is important to make sure you are on the right track at all times. You can find out by constantly testing your product with your users, and evaluating their feedback.
Since we didn’t have a product to begin with, we began by picking a small area of our city, and gathering menus from 250 restaurants in that area. We then built our website around that data and showcased it to passers by in the area. Their feedback was quite valuable. In addition to validating our model further, we were able to gather feedback on our user interface and ways to improve it.
I was quite prepared for them to tell me they hated the site and wouldn’t use it, in which case I would have wanted to know why. However that wasn’t the case this time around.
We plan to revisit this approach, each time we make new changes.
3. Share your Progress
The startup culture is fairly new in Taiwan, so we have a close relationship with the community. After the success of my initial lessons learned post, I decided to release weekly updates on our startup blog. I noticed a couple of side effects to this process.
It forced me to organize and get on track. Every week I had to compile a list of all our accomplishments, as well as targets for the following week. I found myself working harder to make sure I had something to write about at the end of the week!
It put the pressure on us to follow through. Knowing that people are reading about our goals forces us to be more accountable towards reaching them.
It promotes you, your team and product. In the events that have followed Startup Weekend, I’ve been surprised to meet people who already knew a lot about my team, from the updates I’ve been posting. This way, if an investor or someone who can advise you comes along, they can find out all they need to know about you. If a blogger wants to do some background research on you before writing an article, you’ve provided all the research needed!
4. Make Connections.
I joined Startup Weekend to meet people who could join my team, and find potential investors. Since then however I’ve discussed that everyone you meet can help you out in some way or the other. Here are the types of people I’ve met:
Other team members. They have been a great source of encouragement as well as learning. Hearing about the challenges and issues that other teams are going through gets me thinking about ways to avoid the same issues on my team. Hearing about their successes inspires me to do the same with my team.
Media. Winning Startup Weekend brought us attention through all the media articles that were written about us. Since then, I’ve realized the value of talking to bloggers, who may be the key to getting you noticed in the future.
Investors. It goes without saying that you want to make sure you are on the radar of all potential investors. The best way to do that is by talking to them, and having them get to know you. Most investments are made in the team themselves, rather than the idea, so start the process by chatting with them.
Advisers. Even if people aren’t willing to invest direct in you, they can still provide you a lot of value through their guidance and advice. Several high quality mentors have been made available to us in the process. It would be much harder to find these people on your own, so take advantage of them by asking any questions that come along.
People who know people. Even if someone looks like they are not in any of the above categories, it is still in your interest to get to know them. After all, they may know someone who can be of direct help, and an introduction by them may be just what you need!
5. Practice your Pitch.
During the initial startup weekend, I got tired of constantly having to explain my idea to each mentor or person that came along to check in on us. However I noticed an interesting side effect of the process. I began to get better at it!
In the beginning, it might have taken me 10 minutes to explain our business model. However with each additional conversation, I was able to get rid of more fluff, until I was eventually able to explain the complete model in a minute or two.
Take advantage of such opportunities to keep refining your pitch. Listen to the questions that are being asked, and practice your answers to them. This process went a long way towards helping us win Startup Weekend through our presentation and being able to answer the questions the judges later asked.
6. Don’t Scale Too Early.
Once you do have your business model going, while it is tempting to expand as quick as possible, so you can take over the world, do so in logical steps. Facebook is the biggest social network in the world today. However they began by first targeting individual universities and colleges and solving any problems that came up there, before eventually growing to new markets.
Keep getting to know your market. Keep testing your assumptions to make sure you’re on the right track. This may slow your growth initially but it will help you discover mistakes early on, before they spiral out of control.
7. Enjoy the Journey.
For many of us, this is the first time we are part of a business that has the chance to really go somewhere, with support from people with deep pockets. Take advantage of all the opportunities given to you. Even if your business doesn’t become the next Google, make those connections and learn from your experiences. The more times you do it, the better you’ll get at it.
We’ve been taught in school that failure is bad. Exam questions only have one right answer. Get too many wrong, and you won’t be going to law school. You may have to repeat a grade, which could set you back another year.
What if we lived in a society where failure was an option? A place where you could actually move up by failing! What if the greatest leaders were actually the ones who failed the most?
Well, in reality that is the case, for the most part. Even though our education system teaches us to avoid mistakes at all costs, those who succeed are the ones who use failure as part of their process.
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over in my life. And that’s why I succeed!” – Michael Jordan
So how does this apply to business? We come in wanting to hit a home run at our first at-bat. It doesn’t work that way. Colonel Sanders took 1000 rejections before KFC ever became famous. At what point would you have given up?
Business is an iterative process. Figure out what the customer wants, then give it to them. As the market changes, be prepared to adapt. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose.
When a pilot sets his destination on his plane, the plane doesn’t directly fly in a straight line to its destination. Neither does a ship on course. In both cases, they continually veer off course, but are constantly brought back on course through over and under steering.
Keep talking to your customers. Keep improving. Keep releasing updates.
Eliminate the approaches that don’t work. Build on the approaches that do.
When people look at someone successful, they often attribute it to luck or circumstance – being at the right place at the right time!
Is it all luck though? Pure, random, coincidence? Or is there more to it?
What if there was a way to create your own luck? A way for you to be at the right place at the right time, just when you needed to be! Well, my friend, you’re in luck, because there is such a way! Today’s your lucky day (good thing you chose to stop by!). Here is my patented (I wish!) 4 step system to creating all the luck you want!
Before we begin, let me define what I mean by luck. I’m not talking about winning the lottery here (although you could try!). I’m talking luck like someone developing a silly game for the iPhone about flinging birds at pigs. WHAM! #1 game on the app store for how many years now? How lucky is that?!?
I’ve had my share of luck over the years. A couple of years after I started CLO, the dean of the university I was studying Chinese at, asked me to introduce my site to her. She then discussed what it would take for me to create such a site for her language center. 6 months later, my new site for her was launched. And 3 years later, I still earn a monthly revenue from it. How lucky was I to be at her language center right when she wanted someone to create such a site!
Well if you’re following along, you’ve probably guessed that there is more to that story than I’ve told. And you’d be right. Just like there is more to the Rovio story of how they got “lucky” with Angry Birds.
What you didn’t hear in those stories was about all the years of preparation, rejection and failures that happened before luck struck. Let’s take a look at the 5 principles and how they apply to my story and Rovio (not that I could compare my itty bitty success with them otherwise!).
Step 1: Know what it is that you want. Really clearly!
What is it that you hope to get lucky with? Before you do anything, take the time to figure this out. Write it down if you can. The more clear you are in this step, the luckier you can get later. Luck can’t help you if you yourself don’t know what it is that you want.
In my case, while CLO was doing well internationally, I was looking for a way to tap into local foreigners in Taiwan who wanted to learn Chinese. The only way to purchase access on CLO was by using a credit card, which was something that many local foreigners didn’t have.
Their needs were also different. Since they already lived in a Chinese speaking environment. I would have to create a new product for them with a new payment system. So I was on the lookout for such an opportunity. Had I not been, the opportunity would have slipped by without me ever noticing.
In the case of Rovio, they are a games company in Finland that was started in 2003. The had launched 51 titles (yes you read that correctly) before having their first hit with Angry Birds. In fact, just prior to the launch of Angry Birds, business was not very good. They had reduced their staff from a peak of 50 to just 12. They needed a hit, and they needed one fast!
Their problem in the years prior had to do with distribution. Any time they came up with a new mobile game, they had to negotiate deals with each mobile carrier and phone manufacturer separately to distribute their game for them. So they were on the look out for a better distribution model.
When Apple launched the app store for the iPhone in 2008, they pounced on it! Their goal was to create a popular app for the iPhone first, and then use that success to expand to other platforms later.
Have you ever been in the market for a new car, and then suddenly noticed that same car being driven around you by so many people? How did that car get so popular all of a sudden?
Well of course it didn’t. It just seems that way. The cars were always there, you just didn’t notice them before. It’s the same thing with luck.
Opportunities are always around you. You just need to be aware of them. Knowing exactly what you want helps you become aware.
Step 2: Do your homework.
Ok, you know what you want, and you’ve written it down. Good job! Now it’s time to do your homework.
When opportunity does come along, will you have what it takes to take advantage of it? If you’re looking for that dream job, do you have the qualifications for it, if an opportunity opened up tomorrow?
In my case, when the university wanted their site, I already had CLO to show them. I also already had a plan of what I could create for them that would meet their needs. If I didn’t have this ready, the deal wouldn’t have gone through.
In Rovio’s case, they researched what types of apps were successful. As Wired reports:
It should be physics-based (popular on Flash websites at the time); there should be no tutorial; loading times should be minimal, so that you could play happily for just one minute; and it needed an icon which would stand out in the App store.
Angry Birds was created to match all the criteria they had researched for successful apps. Their homework paid off!
Step 3: Make Connections.
Now that you know what you want and have done your homework on it, it’s time to find the people to help you make it happen. These could be the people who help you create the product on the back-end, or the connections on the front end who introduce you to the right people.
In my case, I already had a programmer on standby who had helped me create CLO. He later implemented the changes for the new site for me. I also had a teacher who became one of my biggest supporters. She introduced my site, and later me to the dean. Without her, this project wouldn’t have gone through.
To give their app maximum opportunity, Rovio used an independent publisher Chillingo, who had several successful titles under their belt already. Chillingo also had a good relationship with Apple, which set the stage for Angry Birds to be a front page featured app.
Make a list of the type of people you need to become lucky. If you can’t reach them directly, find an intermediary to help you make the right connections.
Step 4: Be prepared.
Once you have gotten to this stage, make sure you’re able to follow through. The last thing you want is for opportunity to come knocking tomorrow, but you’re too busy to answer the door!
The dean was ready to use my site, if I could have it ready for the fall semester. That didn’t leave me much time to get a prototype ready, and have students try it out and give feedback before the final version was ready. However I did what it took to make it happen.
In Rovio’s case, they made sure they too were prepared for their eventual success.
On February 11, 2010, Apple agreed to feature Angry Birds on the front page of the UK App Store as game of the week. In preparation, Rovio made a YouTube trailer, only the second ever for an iPhone game, which has now had over 17 million views. The company also created 42 new levels, which went far beyond those of the simplistic first episode in imagination and design. Finally, Rovio made a free, Lite version. All three were released within three days. After it was featured, the app jumped from the around 600th to first in the App Store. “The sales hit a different level,” says Mikael. “It was April when we went to number one in the US.” It hasn’t budged from the top-ten since. Rovio had their hit.
Step 5: Maintain Momentum
Congratulations! Lighting struck, and you took advantage of it. Now what? You could sit back and relax on a beach somewhere. Or you could maintain the momentum you’ve earned so far and try to take it to the next level.
Having one university under my belt gave me the credibility to approach other universities in Taiwan since then. I have since been approached by one other university and am currently working on an even bigger project for another educational institute.
Hopefully you got something from the above. Yes, some people certainly seem luckier than others. But if you go behind the scenes, you’ll usually find that there was a lot of work that went on to create that luck!
The good news is that you too can create this same luck, with a bit of effort and preparation. As they say, you have to be lucky to be good, and be good to be lucky!
It’s how you pick yourself up, and what you learn from your experiences that matter. While we have all heard of Apple’s many iSuccesses, there were many failures early on for both Jobs and Apple. Some of Apple’s early products, like the Apple III and the Apple Lisa had to be canceled after not meeting sales expectations. That didn’t stop them from continuing on however.
Of course Steve Jobs’ biggest failure was being forced to resign in 1985, from the company he founded. How would you react to such a situation?
Jobs reacted by starting a new computer company – NeXT, that he would later sell back to Apple for a huge sum. He also purchased a small company named Pixar, that isn’t so small anymore. Not bad for a failure!
2. Surround yourself with really good people.
While Steve Jobs deserves a lot of the credit for founding Apple, and building its resurgence, he deserves equal credit for finding and associating himself with the right people. Starting with Steve Wozniak who cofounded Apple with Steve Jobs, to Jonathan Ive, who has led Apple’s strong design, and new CEO Tim Cook, who has been instrumental in Apple’s logistics. You are only as good as the team around you.
3. Get inspiration from outside your circles.
A famous Steve Jobs anecdote recalls how he attended a calligraphy class in college, which later inspired the fonts that made up the Mac OS. A lot of inspiration in the tech world comes from taking events from daily life and finding ways to incorporate them online. Gamification is another concept that takes daily, mundane tasks and makes them more interesting by adding game life elements to them.
What inspiration have you drawn from life, that you have adapted into your business?
4. Think Different.
Apple’s famous Think Different commercial from the late 90s wasn’t just a marketing ploy. It represents a philosophy that the whole company believes in. In 1997, Steve Jobs ended a speech by saying:
You always had to be a little different to buy an Apple computer. When we shipped the Apple II, you had to think differently about computers. Computers were these things you saw in movies, they occupied giant rooms. They weren’t these things you had on your desktop. You had to think differently because there wasn’t any software at the beginning… I think you had to think differently when you bought a Mac. It was a totally different computer, worked in a totally different way and used a totally different part of your brain… I think you still have to think differently to buy an Apple computer. And I think the people who do buy them do think differently. They are the creative spirits in the world. They are the people who are not just out to get a job done, they are out to change the world and they are out to change the world using whatever great tools they can get. And we make tools for those kinds of people.
While Microsoft and Google have preferred to license their OS to others in order to gain market share, Apple has preferred a closed system, where they control both the hardware and the software.
While Android phones market themselves to power users who demand a lot of features, Apple focuses on its simplicity in doing a few things right.
When PC manufacturers raced to release low end netbooks, Apple chose a different route.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, one of his first acts of business was to reduce the number of products Apple sold from 350 to a mere 10. Android phones are known for having more features and options than the iPhone. Yet Apple prefers to keep things simple. According to Steve Jobs,
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.
Newer versions of Apple products have been famous for what they don’t have in addition to what they do have. The iMac was famous for not having a floppy drive. Apple’s Macbook Air laptops don’t have optical drives or ethernet ports. And of course iPhones don’t have keyboards.
(Incidentally, this blog post was initially titled “13 Things I learned About Business from Steve Jobs”, however I found a way to say no to 3 points!)
7. Competition doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.
Through the early 90s, Apple and Microsoft were bitter enemies, engaged in high profile lawsuits. Yet in 1997, Steve Jobs negotiated a significant investment in Apple from Microsoft. In response to critics of the deal, Jobs said:
We have to let go of the notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft needs to lose.
Since then, although Microsoft and Apple continue to compete with each on several fronts including desktop and mobile operating systems, as well as browsing software, they have teamed up as allies on occasion, where it benefits them.
8. Emotion is a powerful tool.
Apple knows how to bottle up emotion and sell it. Instead of touting features and specifications, Apple ads prefer to focus on the emotion of users.
How much would Apple competitors be willing to pay to get this type of publicity for their own product launches?
10. Trust your intuition.
In separate commencement speeches, both former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and current Apple CEO Tim Cook talk about trusting your intuition. Jobs famously made the decision to drop out of college. At the time, he wondered if he was doing the right thing, but he followed his gut, and we know how that turned out.
In Tim Cook’s speech, he talked about his decision to leave Compaq when it was the world’s top PC maker, and join Apple, who was losing money at the time. All the advice he was given suggested that staying at Compaq would be a better decision, yet he too trusted his intuition and took the job at Apple. In retrospect, that too was a pretty good move for him.
My Own Apple Experience
My first experience with Apple products began in 2006 when I purchased my first iPod. I was enamored by all the podcasts that were available on iTunes for free. I was especially interested in the ones teaching languages. That prompted me to start my first business later that year – Chinese Learn Online. Over 80% of the initial traffic to the site came from iTunes.
A couple of years later, I purchased my first iPhone. That introduced me to the app store and how mobile apps could be a part of my business. Later that year, I released my first app. Since then, I’ve released several additional apps that form a significant part of my revenue. I’m now working on my first iPad app.
Needless to say, I’ve been a big fan of Apple ever since. They make great products that people love, while allowing individuals like me to build our businesses around. Thanks Steve!