7 Lessons Learned While Building Up My Startup

A month ago, I led a team that won Taipei’s inaugural Startup Weekend. I wrote an article on lessons learned from that weekend that to date is the most read article on my blog. So I thought I would capitalize on that by releasing a follow up article, on the 7 lessons I’ve learned in the month that has followed.

1. Know your Market

It’s hard enough trying to build a business in your own backyard. Try doing so in a different country with a different language and culture!

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

Foodjing Market Research
Performing Market Research

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

Weekly Updates BlogThe 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.

Practice your PitchDuring 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.

Team FoodjingOnce 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.

How to Finance your First Business

© by epSos.de

We read articles on Techcrunch everyday of new companies getting huge investments for their next breakthrough product. We dream that one day our own ideas can attract that much excitement (and investment).  So what are your funding options for starting an online business?

1. Borrow from people you know.

Ah yes, borrow from the three Fs – friends, family and fools!  I have done this a couple of times, with three different projects.  I had friends who had money, but no ideas.  I had tons of ideas but no money. It was a match made in heaven!

Make sure you have a backup plan if things don’t go according to plan (which they rarely do).  Your relationships should come first – so find a way to pay them back, if things don’t work out.

2. Borrow from people you don’t know.

This would of course be third party investment from angel investors or venture capitalists.  There would have to be some particular reason for them to invest in you though.  You may have the greatest idea in the world, but investors prefer to see the ability to execute first.  You could show them this ability to execute by doing any of the following:

  1. Have previous experience in startups.  Of course this becomes a chicken and egg situation – how do you have experience if they won’t give you the funding first?  Maybe try option 1 or 3 for your first few projects then, before coming to option 2.
  2. Have a great education from a name brand university.  One benefit of graduating from a good university is the connections that come along with it.  If you’re fortunate enough to have these connections, make use of them!
  3. Win a contest!  Join a startup weekend – go through the process and see what happens.  You’ll be able to make great connections, and even form a team of talented people willing to help you. Heck, if you’re good enough and lucky enough, you may even win.

3. Bootstrap: 

Bootstrapping refers to starting a business on your own, without any external help.  Just tap into that huge trust fund you have, and you’ll be all set!

What, you don’t have a trust fund?!  In that case, you’re in even better shape!  One of the benefits of bootstrapping is that you learn quickly to make your business profitable, since it’s the only way it’ll survive otherwise.

Figure out the cheapest, viable way to get your business started.  Reinvest any profits back into the business to keep improving it.  Raise prices as you raise the quality of your product.  Lather, rinse and repeat.

I’ve done this over and over with projects that look big and complicated today, but which started off as tiny projects, with incremental improvements over time.

Bootstrapping lets you prove your business worth to yourself and others.  Start with $100 and see if you can turn that into $200.  Then move up to $1000 and see if you can turn that into $2000.  Then work your way up to $10 000, $100 000 and later a million dollars!

Bootstrapping will take you through the school of hard knocks.  The pressure is all on you to perform. The buck stops with you.  Can you motivate yourself to succeed?  If you can’t, then how do you expect to lead a larger team later on?

If you fail, then figure out your mistakes and start again on a new project, until you can succeed.  No sense in moving to the next grade, if you can’t pass your current one.

Work your Way Up

In my short business career, I started with bootstrapping my first site, then later my own apps.  This experience gave me the courage to get friends to invest in me on bigger projects.  From there, I moved on to Startup Weekend, which the team I led recently won.  We are now working on a project that would be my biggest to date.

Every journey begins with the first step.  So don’t fret if the end seems so far away.  Work your way up. Enjoy the process.  Enjoy the scenery.  Make lots of friends.  You may need to borrow money from them later.

10 Lessons Learned at Startup Weekend

Startup Weekend Taipei

This past weekend, I attended Startup Weekend Taipei.  If you’re not familiar with what a startup weekend is, it is a weekend event that attracts developers, designers, marketers and anyone with an idea.  They get together to form a team, develop an idea over two days, then pitch it in front of judges for a prize on the final evening.


The event was sold out and had attracted around 120 attendees.  Each attendee wore a name tag with a dot to identify their skill set.  Mine was red, signifying “Business / Marketing”.  The joke going around was that these were the people with no specific skills.

I had come in with several ideas of my own, and was toying with which one was the best for this event.  To date, all my projects have been developed on my own, through outsourcing.  This was the first time that I would be able to form my own team and manage everyone from the same room.  I was looking forward to the process, experience, and the contacts I hoped to make along the way.  For most people, the networking is their biggest gain from this event, and I too expected to gain from that.

The pitch I ended up doing was an app (web and mobile) to help users search for food items they were craving, and find restaurants nearby that served them.  There was a long line-up of about 30 people waiting to present, and I was in the middle of the pack.  I didn’t want my pitch to get lost in the shuffle, and wanted a way to stand out so people would remember it.

I noticed that most pitches were done in Chinese, since the event was held in Taiwan.  I thought about doing my pitch in Chinese as well, but then decided to do it in English.  I figured that I wanted the members of my team to be able to speak English, so doing the pitch in English would eliminate non English speakers from joining.  It would also make my pitch stand out among English only speakers.

Lesson 1: You don’t always need to target the biggest market.  It can sometimes be better to be a big fish in a small pond, than a small fish in a big pond.

Rather than just describing the problem that I hoped to solve with my product, I told a story of how my pregnant wife always had cravings for particular foods (true story!).  For example, she might suddenly want a Kung Pao chicken (宮保雞丁) and would send me out on my scooter to find this food.  I talked about how frustrating it was to not know which restaurants served those particular foods, without being able to see their menu first.

After the pitches were completed, attendees got to vote on which ideas they wanted to see continue.  The top 15 ideas were then selected.  Many people came up to me and recognized my pitch among the rest.  “You’re the one with the pregnant wife”.

Lesson 2: Use stories where possible.  People remember stories.

As our team was forming, I realized that we needed the right match of skills.  We had three coders, a mobile and a marketing person.  I was informed that we needed a designer.  I sent one of the members out to recruit a designer.  He did well, and returned with one shortly.  Our team was complete.

Lesson 3: Form a team with skills that complement each other well.  Your idea is only as good as the team that surrounds it.

Our mission that evening was to come up with a team name.  This was tough for us, because our target market was local Taiwanese, so traditional English names wouldn’t necessarily work with them.  We ran through several combinations.

Foodjing Logo

We found some that we really liked, that were promptly rejected by the local Taiwanese members of our team as not being “local friendly”.  Eventually we settled on Food Jing, a play on the word 附近 in Chinese which means “nearby”.

Lesson 4: Choose a name that resonates with the market being served.


The coding team, led by Dobes and Greg spent all day developing the front and back-end of the product, working in tandem with our talented designer, Quaint.  Will worked on the mobile aspect.  In the mean time, Hao who had previously claimed to have “no relevant experience” was one of the hardest workers on the team – developing a comprehensive customer survey, and then interviewing a lot of people to get feedback on the problem we were trying to solve.  Later, he would visit twenty restaurants (the Taipei rains didn’t help his cause) to get feedback from owners there as well.

Lesson 5: There are no small roles.  Every member of your team can contribute somehow.

During the day, several mentors who had been assigned to assist teams, came to visit us to monitor progress.  They asked questions about our business model and there were several that I couldn’t answer.  After each visit, I found myself redoing parts of the plan to address the raised issue.  It seemed that just when we thought we had thought of everything, someone new would point out something we had overlooked.

Lesson 6: You can’t see the forest for the trees. When you are truly invested in a project, it is easy to get too focused on the details.  Outside opinions can be extremely valuable at these times.  If they don’t get it, there’s probably a problem to be fixed.

By the end of the day, we had made good progress, but there was still something missing.  Our Facebook fan page hadn’t gotten the traction we had hoped it would get. (We would later find out that we had accidentally restricted it to fans in Taiwan only, which blocked a lot of fans from getting through – oops!).   So we needed something to get us back some momentum.

As part of the marketing team, I noticed that the word foodjing could be used in many creative ways.  So I found a freelancer online to create a parody video of “Killing Me Softly” by the Fugees.  We would later release it as being by the Food Jies.  Fans loved it, and it helped market our brand as being a little zany and over the top.

Lesson 7: Problems and challenges will arise in any venture.  It’s how you overcome and rise from them that determines your future success.


The final day was spent completing the demo and working on our presentation.  I decided to build on the momentum we had from the previous day, by ordering tshirts with our logo, for our team to wear on stage.  This proved extremely difficult to get done in a single day (on a Sunday no less).  Once again, Hao came to the rescue, running across town from vendor to vendor until he found one who could print just one for us.  We took it!

During the practice presentations, I had worked to overcome all the questions that the mentors had given me the previous day.  I invited more to grill me further.  Mark Koester recalled a stunt that his startup team performed during their final presentation.  They had ordered a hot dog during the demo, that was later delivered on stage.  We decided to do the same thing in ours by ordering a taco during our demo.

Lesson 8: Find ways to make your presentations different from the rest of the pack, so it will be noticed by the judges and audience.

One of the visitors who gave us advice, would later turn out to be one of our judges.  He asked me about where our revenue would come from.  I told him that while Taiwan had a lot of smaller, mom and pop restaurants, we planned to focus on the larger restaurants that could afford to use our services.  He frowned and commented that if it was him, he would be focusing on those smaller restaurants, rather than the bigger ones, since that’s where the real opportunity was.

I thought about his comment a lot and realized it made sense.  I refocused our presentation to emhasize the smaller restaurants and the long tail of food.  This also further differentiated our product from competing ones on the market.

Lesson 9: The mentors are provided for a reason.  Listen to their advice and follow it!

It was presentation time.  Pandey started us off with massive enthusiasm.  During the demo, he showed how a taco could be ordered.  During my half of the presentation, the taco was delivered on stage to a thunderous ovation.  I wore our branded tshirt underneath, and revealed it during the presentation, which also drew applause.  Finally it was down to the judge’s questions.  Practice makes perfect.  No surprise questions there, so no problem with the answers.  The crowd seemed to like the extra touches we had prepared.

Lesson 10: Have fun with it.  People like to deal with happy people.

FoodJing Team

Judging from the responses, I suspected we had a chance at a top three finish.

As the second and third place winners were first revealed, I wondered if coming in first place was possible.  Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I noticed Sascha Pallenberg aim his camera phone at me, as if expecting to see us win.  Sure enough, we were announced as the winners and pandemonium ensued on our team.  All the work we had put in had paid off, and we had come away as winners!

Later, I had a chance to mingle with the judges to ask what specifically they had liked about our team.  The feedback given included having a clear message of the product we were trying to sell, as well as execution of this idea.  Business cards were exchanged.  New relationships were formed.

The Future:

Now that startup weekend has ended, a new chapter begins.  There has been great support on our fan page, which has inspired us to continue this process.  Meetings have been arranged this week and next, and the business plan has been honed down further.  I realize that there is a long road ahead of us, but it’s one that I’m looking forward to traveling.  I hope to document more details on this blog as they happen.