Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Start Line

Looking at my personal history of startup attempts, if you can call them attempts, I feel sad that they never got anywhere.  But the fact is that if I take a good hard look at myself, I know I am the only one to blame.  I just couldn't execute.  The fact is, I couldn't even get to the start line to join the race.

I love Derek Sivers' thought that ideas are a multiplier of execution.  I've had a nice history of great ideas, validated by the market, most of which my friends and I actually tried to do.  However, looking back at those times, many of my friends will say, "It was an awesome idea!  We could have made millions!"  As I work more and more trying to do startups, the more I realize the proper thought should be, "It doesn't matter.  We didn't execute."  Here's the list of all the startup visions I failed to deliver.

Now I'm working with some friends on SocialCheck.me.  Well, here I go again.  After going back to the normal work world due to having eaten up all my savings doing the other stuff, I am once again trying to do a startup project with friends.  After all my efforts, I only conclude that I probably still don't know what I'm doing.  Here's my pitch for SocialCheck.me.

So what am I doing differently this time, especially since I've eaten up all my savings and still need to work a day job to pay the bills?  What makes this web startup different?

Sometimes Rational Dedication Means Letting Go
You need your coding people to be dedicated.  These are the people making the product, after all.  My friends and I have actually been at this for a year now.  I was so focused on being the do-it-all guy that I refused to look at my options.  Part of it was driven by me reading The Accidental Billionaires.  I know a lot of people say this book paints Mark Zuckerberg as a bad guy, and Saverin and the Winklevoss twins as the good guys.  But honestly, I didn't feel that way after reading this book.  I was blown away by how hard Zuckerberg worked.  I was also annoyed at how little Saverin and the Winklevoss twins brought to the table.  I decided after reading that book that I needed to do my own coding, even though my own coding ability was nothing special.  I didn't want to be a Saverin.  I certainly didn't want to be a Winklevoss.

I had completed a full design document, describing everything from use case scenarios and vision to data architecture.  My code was based on that design document.  My friend worked as the UI designer.  But we accomplished zilch.  Nada.  Part of it was my day job, which relegated me to coding only during evenings and weekends.  That was hard because sometimes my brain felt overworked.  Finally, my friend looked me hard in the eye and asked if we should reconsider outsourcing the code.  She's one of those people who runs multiple businesses at once and collapses every now and then on the weekend.  I wanted to pull my weight and be like her.  I wanted to say no, but fact was, I wasn't getting it done.

Outsourcing our code was the best decision we ever made because we got stuff done.  We ran into some trouble with the first contractor (a revolution in the middle east changed up his life priorities), and so switched gears to another development shop.  These Proudcloud guys are amazing.  We've accomplished in 2 months everything I could have hoped for.  We have a working prototype going through alpha-testing, with a Ruby and MongoDB backend (tech platform choice was a monstrous debate, but that's another story).  We'll be set to launch early access within a matter of weeks, if not days (depending on how current debugging efforts and last-minute feature implementations go).

Outsourcing the development work was an order of magnitude better than me and my crappy coding skills.  For our dev team, it may be a day job, but that also hopefully means they're dedicated rock stars.  My friend literally traveled across the ocean to find the right guys, since she had to be across the ocean for other business work anyway.  For me, now I can just focus on product vision and feature development, managing our timeline and budget, QA, and long-term strategy.  We're getting a lot more done.  In economics, the concept is comparative advantage.

It doesn't work if you don't find the right development team.  I know all the arguments why you want your tech expertise to be in-house.  I'm just saying that I wasn't up to par, so outsourcing worked for us.  It did significantly help that I had already documented a detailed product vision and design, and also had already made some prototypes with a PHP CodeIgniter and MySQL backend.  But I realize now I'm more of a business founder.  Can multiple business founders make a web startup with no tech founders?  We're about to find out.  So far, this is working for us.  But remember that we at least still know what code is.  I'm still convinced that all business founders for web ventures need to understand how to code, even if they won't be the ones doing it day to day.  And obviously, you need to pay cash.  But you get what you pay for, so don't go too cheap.

Sales Is Hard
I learned it the first few times around.  Sales is hard.  SocialCheck.me has a little bit of a viral thing going for it, but not enough for us to depend on viral marketing as our main strategy for customer acquisition.  We're pitching to both enterprise and small businesses, specifically to hiring managers and HR departments.  As such, we're tapping our networks like crazy to get customer leads, and already have some good ones; in fact, a couple of them are currently taking part in our alpha-stage testing.  Hopefully, we'll be able to close all of them to become real paying customers, including the real big hitters, the companies with national presence.

When you work in the real corporate world, you develop a network throughout your career.  Don't neglect it and don't forget it.  It could provide you with amazing opportunities when you're running your startup.  We're miles ahead of where I was in my other experiences, just because we have some solid leads.  Now the real work starts in trying to close them.

The Start Line
As a naive youngster, I used to think that just working on a startup was amazing.  While I haven't lost that sentiment, I now also realize that all the pre-launch work you put in is really just to get to the start line.  The hellish hours, for those who can afford the risk, throwing away your savings and career (been there done that, little older and more cautious now), the fights about features, all these things are only the work required to get you to the start line.  It's like the trials they have at the Olympics.  Participating in the qualification round doesn't guarantee you a spot in the competition round.

It's as if the Tour de France forced every competitor to assemble their own bikes.  When you launch, your bike is finally done.  Then you can go to the start line.  Some people may have finished assembling their bikes weeks ahead of you, and they're now miles ahead.  Others may still yet be assembling their bikes.  But the fact is you can't race until your bike is ready.  Now similarly, I don't think you can say you're an entrepreneur until you have a product (or service) that's ready to launch.  Until then, you're working on something, who knows what, but nothing real to show for it except for sweat, blood, and tears.  It'll make for a nice story at your next job interview, but it won't earn you respect from other entrepreneurs, investors, and perhaps most importantly, all those friends and family who never understood what you were doing every day.  People can only see and discuss what gets shipped.

And even after you finally get to the start line and enter the race, the race is a long one.  I look at examples like Groupon who's about to IPO.  Even at that stage, they have serious questions, where some people are even thinking they're at best a very risky play, or at worst, a scam.  There's an opportunity to do something really cool there, but it'll be up to Groupon's leadership to steer the company down the path of Amazon (which lost money for years while it built up scale to be profitable), instead of webvan (which is the poster child for losing money in the Dotcom 1.0 days).

Passion and Drive
The more I learn from other people's experiences, the more I realize that entrepreneurship is a long hard fight. That's perhaps the biggest change in me.  Before, I didn't have the endurance for this fight and would have given up by now.  So what fuels the tank to keep fighting?  I had no such thing to keep me motivated in previous entrepreneurial attempts.  I was never personally tuned into the pain I was trying to solve.

This time around, the idea was sparked by incredulity I had about some hires with whom I needed to work.  That lit a fire in me to help organizations get more insight into the people they were recruiting.  Hiring is a process notorious for having one-sided information.  You can never get the full picture of somebody.  Someone who's a superstar may come across as a dud, and vice versa.  We really believe we can make the world better, that what we're doing is important.  Now in the final sprint to the start line, doubts are starting to creep in that maybe this won't work, maybe we won't launch, etc.  It seems there's always something new to learn.  But my original incredulity is fueling my passion to keep moving.  There's something that we can and should fix in this world.

It's up to us to finally launch.  And it's only then that the real competition will start.  Wish us luck and please check it out!  :)

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