Monday 27 May 2019

Startup diary: Time to take stock: are we doing okay or can we do more?


Screen test: Developing a new look and main system needs delegation on the technical and coding front to stop projects falling behind schedule and becoming more costly. Stock image
Screen test: Developing a new look and main system needs delegation on the technical and coding front to stop projects falling behind schedule and becoming more costly. Stock image

Richard Rodger, Voxgig founder

One of easiest ways to keep your investors happy is to provide them with regular updates on the company.

Previously, I've provided you with a small insight into what these updates contain. We haven't had a update in a while, as there have been many other things to write about. But let's correct that with a proper update.

If you remember from the last update, these have a specific structure: First, we review the basic assumptions underlying the business model; Second, we review the raw numbers to see if the assumptions are being validated; Third, we look at the current team; Fourth, we review recent key events; Fifth, we look at challenges that we are facing. Sixth, money - how much is left? Seventh, you put your investors to work by asking for their help.

Assumptions: Most people in the events and conferences industry are using email and spreadsheets, to get their jobs done, along with a smattering of general-purpose tools (like online project management sites) and it's just not working. Event management software is used, but it's only really useful for event managers. Even then, over half of event managers don't even use it. Everybody else is underserved. This assumption has not changed, and indeed we've picked up quite enough evidence now to say that this is an assumption in name only. To refine on this basis, we further assume that there is enough pain and need out there that people in the events industry will pay us to automate their manual workflows. We assume that this need equates to a Total Addressable Market (see my previous article on that fun little exercise) of about €700m annually. That's good enough to keep going.

Validation for these assumptions comes from our continued engagement with trial customers - we have eight organisations and several hundred users (not all active, however) using the system, and more to follow. Our conference agenda builder is live on two conference websites, and will be live on more soon. Reaction to our community-based marketing and events continues to support the hypotheses on which the business is based. We're about to activate a trial cohort of 200 speakers on the system in about two weeks, and that will provide some great feedback and measurement. It's good to be moving beyond pure demos, and into actual usage.

Numbers: I've been publishing and commenting on our numbers in a more structured way as an addendum to these articles for quite some time, so you should be up to date on those. We will need to put in place some reporting on actual user numbers, and that's when the fun will really start.

In reviewing my last update, I predicted that the speakers newsletter would grow at about 500 subscribers a month, and reach at least 5,000 by the end of 2018 if we did not change our promotional tactics. Well, we signed up some trial customers, and had no capacity left for any changes to newsletter promotion - so that's exactly what happened. As a minor plus, at least our prediction was accurate. But while it has been frustrating not to grow the newsletter to its full potential, we have to remind ourselves that we are not a newsletter company. We are a Business-to-Business Software-as-a-Service platform, and the purpose of the newsletters, and the marketing activities is to increase the 'top of the funnel', to bring high-quality visitors to our website who have some interest in using our system. We have seen about 3pc "conversion" from the newsletter into our first speaker test cohort, which is pretty good (1pc was expected).

Just because you can do something, does not mean you should. Still, I'll get it to 40,000 subscribers one way or another.

Team: the company now has 10 employees, five of which are part-time, with two based in London, and an additional four contract software developers, all working remotely or from co-working spaces. We have a full management team covering sales, marketing, engineering, and operations. This is actually pretty good for a seed stage startup and while it does mean our burn rate is higher than average, we're doing very well on the execution side. For a tech startup, our gender ratio is very good - about 60pc female. We also now have a board, with four members, and two advisers. This is really great for me as a solo founder, and is helping to fill some of the gaps in my perspective, especially on the funding side.

Key events: The Dublin EventProfs meetup is now well-established, runs every month, and has an average of about 30 attendees. This is exactly on target. London has been running for a few months, and is still growing. We've taken the decision to run a small conference in November in Dublin. This will be focused on event managers in the technology industry - I'll be writing several articles on this soon.

Challenges: we do have a challenge with the London meetup. It's proving hard to get the attendance we want. Our target, as with Dublin, is 30 attendees on average every month. The tactics we employed in Dublin don't seem to be working as well, and we're not sure why. We're starting a new series of experiments to move this forward.

On the development side we have built a new look and feel based on demo feedback. It's ready to go, but because mainline development has progressed in the meantime, is now going to be difficult to merge into the main system. And it will break things. This is probably the last time we'll be able to make such extensive changes, and still be able to merge them back into the main system in a reasonable timeframe.

Even so, we've been caught out, and it's difficult. There is a reason of course. When we started the update, we were short of developers, and I decided to tackle this project myself, since I'm also a coder. That was a mistake. I'm also CEO and that comes first. That meant my technical work, which should have been a two-week job, took two months. That allowed changes to accumulate, and means merging is now much more expensive. This diary is about documenting decisions, and their consequences. This is a perfect example of 'hero' logic and lack of delegation - the curse of the technical CEO. I still made this bad decision even though I knew it was probably wrong. Hopefully the pain of writing about it in a national newspaper will dissuade me the next time. And yes, the board was not sympathetic.

Money: Unfortunately this is the one section I have to censor. We're not quite when it comes to transparency. That said, we have great investors, and we'll be around for a little while yet.

Help: Instead of asking for help, I'm going to say thank you. There have been many people in the last year that gave really helped us move forward. Everybody who works at Voxgig is of course on the front lines and deserves great thanks. But I also mean the wider community of people out there in the technology and events industries that have helped us because they are great people, and they believe in our mission. It's a very hard road making a startup work, and every little leap of faith from others is a big boost - thank you.

Search engine statistics: Technology conferences are at a count of 2,254, with 6,173 speakers, 4,956 exhibitors, and 993 venues. We've started work on some new processes to build this data in a more automated fashion. In a few weeks we'll be able to start measuring them. Stay tuned.

Marketing update: speakers newsletter: 6,140 subscribers, open rate 12pc. EventProfs newsletter: 636 subscribers, open rate of 30pc. The podcast is at 67 downloads. We've taken the decision to finish up what has been a very successful LinkedIn outreach campaign.

As we prepare for the full public availability of the system, we need to start putting together a customer success function (as I discussed in my recent article).

We've decided we can live with a lower growth rate on newsletter for a little while to make this happen. We shall see how much impact it has, as we've now achieved some scale and organic growth is quite good - the only question is... how good?

Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford.

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