Tuesday 18 June 2019

Startup diary: We're dodging curve balls and snowballs as startup launch looms

There have been compromises along the way but as the big day approaches for newly-named voxgig, things are falling into place

Stock image
Stock image

Richard Rodger

We are soft-launching our product next Tuesday, March 13. It's a pretty intense week. You may have the impression from the articles in this diary that I know exactly what I am doing and have everything under control. But there is a difference between theory and practice - and the real world has a way of throwing curve balls at you.

Or should I say snowballs? Yes, the recent bad weather has had an impact on our little project. We've cut even more features to stay on track. But such is startup life. We'll definitely be embarrassed by our first release (as one should: 'perfect is the enemy of done'), but at least we'll be live!

I also promised to formally unveil the new name of the company once we got to this point.

Our new name is 'voxgig', as in 'voice performance'. Given that we are a software-as-a-service business for the conference speakers and organisers, this fits rather well.

As you'll know from reading earlier articles in this series, finding a good name has not been easy.

You'll be pleased to hear that we have the dotcom, the Twitter handle, and the trademark. And people can even spell the name. And it's only six characters. We got there in the end.

Nearly everything in startup life is like this. You just have to get stuff done despite living under ridiculous constraints.

I basically couldn't tell people the name of my company for two months, because what was the point of giving them the old name? And I couldn't give them the new name until it was secure.

We are actually live right now. If you go to www.voxgig.com you'll see our logo. But everything else is password-protected. The conference and speakers search engine is up and running. Going live will not be some great dramatic event - we'll just remove the password.

We have entered the next phase in the technical delivery of the system. Each feature is pushed live as soon as it is built. There are no releases as such, just a continuous stream of improvements.

Setting up the infrastructure to support this has taken some time (and it's still a work in progress). It has delayed our go-live, but it was a judgement call given our circumstances: a fully remote team.

You need a good support structure to make distributed teams work. At this point we have people (mostly part-time), working in Ireland, the UK, Spain, and the US.

The other thing that I have found difficult to manage is pulling together all the strategic threads that we have put in place.

Our activities are as follows:

We run small events, for ourselves, and others. I try to go to most of these. Event management is no joke and is a high-stress job. A big motivation for building our system is to make event management easier. Our experiences on the ground feed back into our product.

But running events in parallel with the high intensity period of a software project just before go-live? That's tough. It's a consequence of my decision to run events and I have to accept the cost.

Despite the pressure, I'm still very much convinced that we are doing the right thing. By 'eating our own dog food', we are learning the real pain points of our customers first-hand, and generating lots of product feature ideas that are grounded in reality, not opinion. But as a successful business owner said to me years ago: "Graft before gravy!"

We publish a weekly newsletter for conference speakers. We went with a design that is focused on high-quality content. It's a significant effort to generate and deliver each week.

We are doing great here - there's a good content team in place, and I've handed over day-to-day management of the newsletter to a growth marketing expert who is, frankly, quite a bit better at it than I am - as in, I'm clueless. Remember those reddit.com ads from last November with 0.1pc conversion rates? Ouch.

We'll be publishing podcasts and e-books and all sorts of things to build the subscriber numbers. (Speaking of which, for you folks that like your numbers, this week we have 913 subscribers, and an open rate of 19pc. Oh, so close to breaking 1,000!)

Perhaps you've heard of the '1,000 true fans' strategy'? It was first developed by a blogger called Kevin Kelly in 2008, before Kickstarter and crowdfunding had made an appearance.

The basic idea is that if you have 1,000 people who like what you do so much that they will eagerly read, or use, or listen, or buy each thing that you create, then you have enough sustainable interest to build a business out of whatever it is you are passionate about.

I'm pretty passionate about conference speaking, so I've always been tempted to try this idea out. I'm rather relieved that it seems to be working! (For the full essay see: http://kk.org/thetechnium/1000-true-fans/).

I have also been very lucky to have found a fantastic head of business development based in London.

She is deeply connected with the technical conference community and has been able to validate a lot of our market assumptions with real data from (potential) customer interviews.

We've decided to start building some projects for these customers, using our software platform as a foundation.

This will be an important part of the business, especially in the early years when we will need to continue gathering insights into what our customers need. What better way to find out what they need than to work with them to solve real problems that they have right now.

Execution is the hard part here - somehow we'll have to build out a sales process and software integration team that can work alongside our core development team. This is consuming a lot of my management headspace at the moment.

And finally, of course, there's the little matter of building and delivering a new software platform, and a new company website, all to go live next week. I have to put my CTO hat on to get this delivered, and it is a very different style of thinking to business development.

Swapping between the two modes of thought is not efficient, but there's no other option at the moment. As a founder you do end up wearing many hats in a business. It sounds much more exciting than a traditional job, and it is, but there is a lot of mental strain.

There's so much to do, and so many priorities, that you literally suffer from decision paralysis. You just can't decide what to do next, so you end up reading detailed Wikipedia articles about the use of the German umlaut in heavy metal band names (Mötley Crüe, Motörhead, and friends). This is my fourth startup, and the third time I've read that article!

My first startup was not very successful, so decision paralysis was never an issue. This sort of thing is exactly the sort of problem that entrepreneurs gloss over in autobiographies, but is part of the mental challenge of building a business.

The snow did have one side benefit. I managed to complete and submit a small funding application that would never have been finished otherwise.

It's probably going to be far more important to the long-term success of the company than the features we had to cut (and will build anyway soon enough). But would I have made the decision to prioritise it if the sun had been shining outside? Probably not.

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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