This post is going to seem a bit contrary to the advice most people give you. Whenever you start a new venture, you are advised to write a detailed business plan to get you where you want to go, and keep you on track. The trouble is (especially in the online world) most businesses don’t go according to plan. New technologies are coming out all the time that render previous ways of doing business obsolete. In order to succeed, you’ll need to remain flexible and be open to changing paths where necessary.
Instead, I recommend setting a clear vision of your company and where you would like to be six months from now, a year from now, two years from now etc. However keep the paths that get you closer to your vision open. Be on the lookout for new ideas that can get you to where you want to go faster.
When I first had the idea to teach Chinese online, I had no idea what a podcast was, leave alone that it would form the hub of my business model. Later, mobile apps became a big part of my business strategy. In both cases, I was able to get on board fairly early, which played a big part in my success. Had I been a few years late to get on board, the results might have told a very different story.
Keep tabs on your biggest customers (especially early on). Find out what they like about your business, and what they think can be improved. Strive to keep them happy. Set up a Google alert on your company name, to find out what others are saying about you or your company. Many times, such alerts have led me into forums that were talking about me that provided extremely valuable insight. Such feedback was then used to tweak the system, keep improving and take me closer to the goals I had set for the business.
If you have written a business plan already, make sure it’s a living, breathing document that can be altered and changed where necessary.
We are living in an unprecedented time in the history of innovations. What used to take companies decades to achieve is now being done in a few years. Companies like Google and Facebook have come from nowhere to become multi-billion dollar behemoths in no time. Five years from now there will be other massively huge companies out there, that you haven’t even heard of today.
Maybe you have the next billion dollar idea in you, but you don’t know it. Or maybe you do know it, but are scared away by competitors with billions of dollars in their pockets. How are you supposed to compete with them? The trick is to think big, but act small!
What kinds of advantages does being small give you? Take a look at the website of your favorite tech company. How easy is it to contact them? Send them an email and see how long it takes to get a reply. As we speak, I am currently trying to negotiate a refund from a company for a product I canceled two months ago. Very poor service indeed. Most users of my products who email me are surprised at the speed at which I reply to them, as well as how fast I can process their requests. That’s the advantage of acting small!
Any time Facebook makes changes to their site, there are massive protests from their user base. Several times they have had to remove changes they have made in order to placate their users. This is what happens when you’re big. It becomes much harder to adapt and change to the marketplace. Look at companies like Nokia, RIM and Microsoft, that had to make huge changes to their smartphone business when Apple and Google came out with their new models. They weren’t able to make the changes in time, and as a result have lost huge market share to newcomers to the industry.
When I started my first site, I began scouring the forums of my biggest competitor to see what gripes their user base had with them. I then designed my site to address those issues and win over that base.
The next time you are trying to compete, see if you can take one of your competitor’s strengths and use it against them.
Ok, you have a great idea for a new website or product that you think will revolutionize the world. You have all kinds of ideas for new custom features that you think will set it apart from the competition. Perhaps you’ve already been working on this product for a while, but it doesn’t seem ready for release yet, or the costs to get it up to par seem daunting.
My advice to you – unless you’re already an established company with brand identity behind you, get the product out there as soon as you can, in its simplest, usable form. Don’t get me wrong – take the time first to make sure everything it promises it can do now works, but don’t worry about the custom redesign or advanced features yet. Get users out there using it now, and use their feedback to improve the product further.
I launched the first version of Chinese Learn Online like this. I used a default wordpress theme and recorded the first podcast in my basement and got it out there. A few weeks later, I got my first paid subscriber, who sent me a cheque in the mail. That slowly led to another subscriber, and another, until I had enough money to hire a graphic designer to redesign the site for $275. And that’s how it began.
Since then, I’ve used a lot of customer feedback and sales from the early subscribers to reinvest in the site and improve upon it substantially. As more services were offered, I raised the cost of subscriptions, but let early subscribers hang on to their original plans to reward them for their early support. There have been two advantages to this approach:
I was able to get started much quicker than if I had tried to raise the funds to build the site with all its features to begin with.
Much of the changes that were made to the site later on came from customer feedback from early users. This was feedback that I wouldn’t have been able to generate on my own. These early users were happy to see the changes they suggested being incorporated which made them evangelists and help promote the site further.
I later used this same approach to launch my STL Contacts Manager app on the app store. That app has gone through several updates and releases, mainly from customer feedback. The funds from early sales helped pay for future updates, and the app today is much more feature packed than anything I could ever have come up with (or afforded) had I tried to do so in the beginning.
Do you have any projects that you have been working on, that have taken forever to launch? Is there anything you can do to simplify it, in order to get a functional, early release out there?
I’m working on a new project at the moment, that requires me to find a new developer to outsource to. Over the years, I’ve found several good people on outsourcing sites, from countries around the world, who I’ll return to when I have a project that matches their skill set. Every now and then however, I’ll expand into a new area that requires new people with new skills, so that requires posting the project online and soliciting bids from interested developers.
There seem to be a lot of great companies out there, who all have great experience, who all have great ratings and who all bid on your project at similar prices. So how do you pick which one to go with? Here are a few tips I’ve developed that have worked well for me.
Initiate a conversation: At the end of the day, no matter how good the person looks like on paper, I want to talk to them to get a real feel for them. This is the same approach I have used when interviewing people for a real job. Their resumes may look great on paper, but I still want to get them talking during the interview just to see what they sound like. I may ask a question about one of their previous projects, or ask what their approach to a solution would be. Their answers will tell me a few things:
Are they likable, approachable people? What kind of vibe do they give me? Trust your intuition – if you are getting a bad feeling, there may be an underlying reason.
What is their level of English like? Poor English doesn’t necessarily translate into poor quality – many of my best people over their years are not native English speakers. However I want to make sure it’s good enough to communicate with, that they understand me, and I understand them.
What is their response time? A good sign is when I ask a question and it gets responded to immediately, or fairly quickly. A bad sign is when it takes a day or two to get a response. If that is how long they take to respond during the “interview” process, then how long will they take when a deadline is approaching and I really need an answer from them?
What communication tools do they use? I personally use Google Talk myself for text conversations, since it’s less intrusive, and doesn’t require me to have other software programs running. I also use Skype for video and audio calls where necessary. If the other party wants to use Yahoo, MSN or some other protocol that I’m not using, then that would make working with him less attractive than another person who was using the same tools as me. I’ve also worked with people who don’t use any communication tools other than email. Figure out what approach works best for you.
What software platforms do they use? Depending on the nature of the project, you might prefer that the other party uses the same software tools that you’re familiar with. For example, if it’s a designer you’re working with, you might want him to send you the source images in a file your programmer can manipulate, or your local print shop can print from. I’ve worked with designers that used custom software, whose source files weren’t as useful to me as other ones. So this might be an area to confirj, if it applies to you.
What payment methods do they prefer? Initially, you may choose to use the escrow function that your freelance website uses. If your relationship moves beyond the freelance website, then you will need a system to pay them directly. Paypal is far and away the most popular system, however not everyone uses it. Several companies in India for example, can’t accept payments from Paypal. It is also not supported in certain smaller countries. It is in your interest to confirm the payment method they use, and make sure it is one you’re comfortable with.
Get them to ask you the right questions. Sometimes in my project description, I may purposely leave out some crucial details. This forces them to ask me the right questions before they can submit a realistic bid. Doing so tells me that they have read my proposal, rather than blindly making a generic bid. It also indicates to me their level of competence.
Analyze their bid pricing. When analyzing bids, the lowest priced may not always be the best. If a bid is significantly lower than other bids, initiate a conversation or do some research to find out why. In some cases it may be legitimate. Individuals and companies without a lot of experience may submit attractive bids, in order to get consideration. If I initiate a conversation with them and have a good feel for them, I may be willing to try them out. This has worked well for me with projects that are more speculative in nature, with flexible deadlines. The upside here is that you can get work done for significantly cheaper than it would have cost to get someone with more experience. If your deadline is less flexible, then be willing to pay more for a company with more experience.
Match their experience with your project. Take a look at their portfolios and previous customer ratings to see whether their past experience matches what you’re looking for. Their 5 star reviews and positive reviews may not mean much if they were obtained in projects unrelated to yours.
In future posts, I’ll talk about other aspects of outsourcing, and tips I have learned that have been successful for me.
I’m a big fan of finding ways to stand out from the crowd. One way is to do things your competition doesn’t do and raise your customer’s expectations. If you can do this consistently, you can charge a premium for your product and still have a long line of customers waiting for you.
I encountered such an experience today at an upscale barbecue restaurant here in Taiwan. This is a restaurant that I’ve been to before. The food is really good and the decor is really done well. However what I really noted was the service and attention to detail, from start to finish. It began when we sat down at the table for dinner with my wife and her parents. The waiter brought an extra cushion for my wife, who is pregnant, without her asking for one. My menu was in English while everyone else’s was in Chinese (as I was the only non Chinese person at the table). Again, this was done without my asking. He then showed us how to barbecue our meat on the grill in front of us. He took a sample of meat from each person’s plate to make sure nobody was left out. The meat was also placed on the grill in such a way that there was no cross contamination between different meats. I thought that was a nice touch.
As this was a six course meal, there were several waiters bringing in dishes at various times throughout the night. I noticed that in addition to serving the dishes ordered, they had also noted which person had ordered each dish, so the correct dish was placed in front of you each time, without you having to identify it. By the time dessert was ready to be served, we had made a fine mess at our table from everyone barbecuing their own portions. However the waiters not only took away the plates, but also quickly wiped and cleaned the table before serving dessert.
I’m normally not a fan of upscale restaurants, as I usually find their portions smaller, leaving me with a dissatisfied feeling when I compare the price of the meal with the size of the portions. In this case however, I left very full from the meal and very impressed with the service and showmanship showed throughout the meal. I don’t mind paying extra in this case since I truly feel I got more for my money than I would’ve elsewhere.
Do your customers feel the same way after using your services?