Entrepreneurial Milestones

In his latest post, NYC Investor Chris Dixon talks about the dangers of defining your company’s worth by  the vanity milestones that you hit(investment, partnerships, press, etc)…

What is worrisome is when founders equate vanity milestones with success. The attention will go away very quickly if your company fails.

I couldn’t agree more.  Young entrepreneurs especially are getting the wrong idea.  While getting written up in TechCrunch isn’t bad, it can actually help you acquire new users & investors, it’s not success.  Success is building a successful and sustainable business.

So… do we need to create a culture where we are more transparent about the real milestones that we hit?   What if we all started disclosing more about the revenue we make or don’t make?    Could we change how we judge success?

Start a Revolution!

Twitter Chairman & Square CEO Jack Dorsey spoke at the TechCrunch Disrupt Conference.  From the article on his talk…

Dorsey asked founders and entrepreneurs to “pick a movement, a revolution, and join it” — as if to say that anything is worse than not being a part of something, contributing to a movement forward, rather than adding friction and moving against.

I totally agree.  When you’re starting a company, do something that changes/adds to the world.   Have a cause.   This will allow you to build an amazing community, both inside and outside the company.   It gives people a reason to work hard.  They realize they’re working on/for something bigger than themselves.  I’ve seen this first hand at HelloWallet.

Fear of Feedback

Ilya Lichtenstein wrote a great post about how startups overly extend their product’s free beta periods and don’t charge out of a fear for actually having to find out whether your product can turn into a sustainable business.

Definitely recommend the post for every existing and budding entrepreneur but there’s an even deeper fear that plagues entrepreneurs from achieving greatness or from becoming entrepreneurs in the first place. It’s a fear of feedback.

I have lots of friends with great ideas for businesses but they’d never act on them. The notion of putting their ideas or something they created out into the public consciousness is paralyzing. There’s a fear that people won’t like what they do or that they’d fail so they never put themselves out there.

This disease strikes existing entrepreneurs as well. Once you have a business and a product, it’s easy to stick your head in the sand and not actually talk to your customers. You think that your initial product success with a core audience predicts bigger success but you don’t realize that you need to be talking to your users so you can continue to evolve & optimize to really create something great.

Or… maybe you need to go in a different direction with your product. The only way to know your new direction is if you talk to your users and find what they think, what they want, and what will really meet their need.

I get it. Putting yourself out there is scary. You don’t want to extend your hand because you’re afraid someone will take an axe and chop it off.

I’ve done customer service and taken countless amounts of feedback about how we were performing. And yes it’s hard and draining. We had customers that weren’t happy with us for whatever reason.

The key is getting beyond the anger or frustration and to hear what they’re really saying. That’s where the magic lies. You can hear and understand the heart of your customer. You can understand where the felt need is and learn how to meet and exceed it.

Isn’t that the best feeling? I love knowing that something that I did or worked on made the difference in the lives of others.

But none of that is possible if you don’t put yourself out there. You have to open yourself to feedback.

Surprise and delight your users. Give them chocolate chip cookies.

On Saturday, Lauren and I caught a flight from San Francisco to New York City’s JFK airport.  Tomorrow is the last investor demo day for Umba Box as part of the 500 Startups summer program.

Our flight was at 3pm and got us into JFK at 11pm.  If you haven’t flown into JFK before, it’s actually pretty far away from Manhattan.  It took us 30-45mins to get to our hotel by taxi.   Once we got to our hotel, I was tired and a little cranky.

We were finishing up checking-in for the room and the guy behind the desk said “And to start off your stay on the right foot,  here’s a warm chocolate chip cookie.”  I then noticed that he had a warmer-thingy behind the check-in counter filled with cookies.  SCORE!

The cookie caught me off guard.  It made me smile and feel a little less tired & cranky.  It made me feel good about the hotel we are staying and it did start my trip off on the right foot.  🙂

It got me thinking more generally about the web & technology space.  We need to do more to surprise & delight our users.  We may not be able to give them chocolate chip cookies but there are other things we can do.

Tony Hsieh of Zappos is the class example that everyone likes to bring up.  He gave people free overnight shipping, even when they didn’t pay for it.

What are other examples where folks have gone above & beyond and it’s absolutely enamored you with their business?

The tyranny of too many beer choices

Last Saturday, Lauren and I were having beer & pizza tonight.  Had ordered a pizza and wanted to pick up some beer on the way to picking up the pizza.  Stopped at speciality beverage store BevMo.

If you haven’t been to BevMo, it’s the size of a small grocery store filled with wine, beer, and liquor of all shapes and sizes. If you’re a craft beer fan like myself, this is a great place to find breweries that you’re not going to find at your typical grocery store.

But here in lies the problem.  There are too many beers.  It’s hard to decide what you want.  I can easily sit for 15 minutes going through the aisles being totally frozen in indecision as I try to decide on region of the world, lager vs ale,  light vs dark, cheap vs reasonable vs expensive, and hoppy vs not.

You see similar overwhelmed faces when you patronize my favorite beer bars like DC’s ChurchKey & Bier Baron.  You see the 50+ taps with delight.  It all changes when the waitress hands you the binder of a beer menu.   You just page through all the options and wonder where you should start first.

I almost want these beer mecca’s to have their own iPhone app, where they knew what I liked and made recommendations.   If it’s at a restaurant, the beer app could take into consideration what I’ve already drank that evening or what aspect of the meal that I’m in.   A very bitter beer could nuke my palette and spoil my ability to taste a meet.  So I should probably steer clear till the dessert course.

We see this phenomenon not just in beer but in a lot of things.  For example in online, we’ve given everyone the ability to publish whatever they want online.  To look at my wife’s company Umba Box, sites like Etsy have given everyone the ability to publish their store to sell their handmade goods.   It’s awesome BUT… this means there’s a lot of crap being sold online and there are just TOO many choices.   We need someone like Lauren & Umba Box who can come in and make recommendations for the best handmade products to buy.

If you’re angel investor, keeping track of all the new startups that pop up on a daily basis is darn need impossible.  There are just too many out there.   Sites like Angel List help curate and let you track the best of what’s out there.

Foursquare’s another one that helps you tackled a crowded world.  They use the check-in data from their users to help figure out where are the hidden gems of restaurants, cafes, pubs, and bistros for you to patronize.  When you’re traveling its an amazing way to figure out the cool places to eat & drink.

Pinterest is the ultimate in helping you discover what’s out there.  The entire premise of the application is around users making lists/pin boards of the things that people love.   And… it’s taken off.

We live in a crowded world.   There’s lots of room for innovation around helping us navigate it.

Make products people love.

I’m totally fascinated by the relationship that people have with products & companies.   It’s easy to make a product that fills a need.  You find it, you use it, it’s helpful, and that’s awesome.  Thing is that this relationship only creates a user and doesn’t create an advocate or evangelist.

If you wanna create a product that people love, you have to solve a higher level issue.  You have to fulfill an emotional need.    Everyone’s favorite example is Apple.  Buying an iPad or Mac Book Air gives you the feeling of empowerment.   You’re creative in a way that wasn’t before possible.

It’s been a lot of fun to watch the evolution of my wife’s company, Umba Box.  She’s created a great way of connecting artisans and their products with people that want to buy them.  But… it’s more than that.

Umba Box has been wildly successful because it delights its users.   The women who subscribe love getting a surprise in the mail every month.   My wife Lauren is kind of like My Space’s Tom.  She’s every Umba Box subscribers friend that sends you package just for you in the mail.     This relationship is what keeps retention high.

To stay with subscription commerce for a minute, I’d hate to be the guys at Dollar Shave Club.  They created a GENIUS video.   I’m sure it sold a lot of razor subscriptions.   But when the buzz wears off, all the subscribers are just getting is razors in a box shipped to them every month.  It’d be just as easy to get this from Amazon.com or anyone else.  There’s no added delight.   Yes, Dollar Shave Club is great and it fills a need but that’s it.   People can easily go somewhere else.

What are the products that you use, love, and can’t live without?

PS: If you wanna read a great book about topic, I’d HIGHLY recommend PEAK.

Uber makes everything better.

Everyone’s favorite private town car service Uber has announced that on Friday, in addition to summoning black sedans from your mobile phone, you’ll be able to summon ice cream to your location if you’re in one of their major markets.

I think what we’re seeing is that Uber is SO much more than a town car service.  It’s a logistics efficiency platform.  Uber’s able to plug into any real world market that has supply & demand to better… more efficiently match their supply with the existing demand that’s happening in real-time.  Users declare their intent to purchase and Uber’s able to match that user with someone who can fulfill that need & do it quickly, in order to give the best user experience.

We’ve seen this play out with their sedan/suv/towncar service.   When Lauren  and I were in Austin,  they made pedicabs & bbq available on demand.   And… now it’s ice cream.  What’s next?

Uber’s ability to leverage big data to help increase the efficiency of the logistics within markets within any market is the reason why they’re going to be a big f’n business.

I see Uber as being super competitive with something like TaskRabbit.

A bootstrapped story

If you read technology/startup blog TechCrunch like I do, everyday there’s another story of some company that has/hasn’t launched their startup yet and they’ve raised millions of dollars and that’s very exciting.

Today, TechCrunch reported that programming code repository GitHub raised $100M dollars from top VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.  Great, right? Absolutely.

What makes this story amazing is that this $100M investment is their FIRST infusion of VC money ever.  They’ve been able to get the company to where it is now with no external capital before now.  That’s amazing.

Congrats to GitHub!

A/B testing the words you say…

Working on the web is glorious.  With your audience, you can test and optimize for whatever goal that you want to achieve.  It’s relatively easy to setup an A/B test and you see what version of a homepage is going to better drive someone to make a purchase.

But what about the offline?  There are ways to optimize how your communicating.  Trade shows or cocktail parties are amazing because you get the opportunity to talk about what you do over and over and over and over again.   Take the opportunity A/B test how you talk about yourself and see how people react.  Look at peoples faces.  Do they look like they get it or do they clueless?  If they look clueless, try explaining it differently on the next guy.

Today, I’m at the Urban Craft Uprising craft show in Seattle with Lauren, where Umba Box is sponsoring.   We’ll be able talk to thousands of people who eat, live, and breathe handmade goods.  So, it’s the perfect audience for Umba Box and thus the perfect opportunity to optimize the pitch for this audience.

Selling a great user experience…

So yeah…  I’m a bit of a craft beer fan.  Whenever I travel, I try to find a local beer that I can’t get back home. This weekend we’re in Seattle, Washington.  Lauren & Umba Box are sponsoring the Urban Craft Uprising craft show and I’m helping to man the Umba Box booth.

After we finished setting up our booth, I went off to find pizza & beer to bring back to the team.  I went to the grocery store and had forgotten that you could get Churchkey Can Co’s Pilsner in Seattle. I of course grabbed a six-pack.

In case you’re not familiar,  Churchkey Can Co has gotten a lot of press & excitement because they’re going back to the flat tops for the beer cans where you actually have to use a churchkey to make a divot in the top of the can to get the beer out.   I remember back when I was 5 or 6.  We’d get Juicy Juice cans like this.  Apparently, up until recently, all canned beer was opened with a churchkey.

Was drinking the beer, which is delicious by the way.  What struck me was that the company is positioning their entire brand around the beer experience versus the actual beer itself.   It’s not Delicious Beer Can Co.  It’s Churchkey Can Co.    They’re selling the experience.  But… is it that revolutionary… is it that different that it’s going to make that much of splash?  Apparently, their pitch was good enough that it got some top tech investors interested.

Selling a great user experience as a differentiator is something that we’re seeing a lot of in the online world.   Instagram wasn’t anything that crazy but it created an amazing user experience by bringing together photos, filters, mobile, and social.   Flipboard just displays content via Twitter curation.  It’s nothing crazy but they’ve created an awesome experience that’s made it a top-selling app.

So… can Churchkey Can Co see a similar fate?  Well, we’ll see.   What are other industries that could use a shakeup by giving people a brand new user experience?

While you’re thinking about it, watch the Churchkey Can Co intro video…