Friday 21 September 2018

Startup diary: When we all need to stop the dreaming and get stuff done

At some point, every startup needs to get down to the basics of 'operationalising': sorting processes, assigning people to them and measuring progress. The voxgig founder explains how that is taking effect at his soon-to-be launched firm

Stock image
Stock image

Richard Rodger

LET'S take our startup diary back to practical day-to-day matters. In the last two articles we got quite theoretical and focused on the fundamentals of our competitive strategy. Let's take a look now at some of the tactics that we are using to make this strategy happen. What are the core activities that the voxgig team is spending time on?

To set some context, if you're just joining us, voxgig is a startup that is building a platform to connect technology conference speakers, organisers, sponsors and exhibitors. All these stakeholders spend a lot of time using spreadsheets and email to manage their work, and we think that's pretty inefficient. If you are thinking of doing a startup yourself, and looking for ideas, I can very much recommend the simple approach of looking for industries where people are stuck in a mire of spreadsheets and email. Just make their lives easier with software.

Here's a little insider secret: turning spreadsheets into custom software is the primary business model of management consultancy these days. And if you decide to bring in McKinsey, BCG, or any of the big firms to help you, you'll get fancy powerpoint presentations as well as software. It's up to you to decide if that's worth it.

As for voxgig, our core activities this quarter are: operationalising the newsletter; running private customer trials; building the next release of the system; and launching a new meet-up.

Let's take those in turn.

The newsletter now has 2167 subscribers and an open rate of 17pc. That is not bad going for GDPR week, when people were getting bombarded by even more annoying marketing emails than ever.

Our newsletter is for the speaker community, and contains content that is actually useful to speakers - it's not a traditional marketing newsletter at all, so our readership is very engaged and loyal. You can't have it both ways, and while we might have to hide our light under a bushel in the short term, providing long-term value to our readers will build into a supernova of goodwill.

Reaching the 2000-plus subscriber level has not happened by accident. We examined our production and promotion process for the newsletter, and built a team around that to deliver high quality each week, and also to promote, mostly using direct engagement on LinkedIn. There is now a process in place, ongoing measurement, goals, a team, and a directly responsible person. This is what I mean when I say the newsletter has been "operationalised". Sure, it's one of those awful pieces of corporate jargon, but it really does express the facts on the ground.

In my mind, the newsletter was always our first product. Yes, strictly it falls under marketing, but by treating it as a product, we have focused ourselves on the delivery of value. This is an important mind-set to adopt. Really great businesses always generate more value for their customers than they take for themselves. Bill Gates used to boast that he only captured 1pc of the value of Microsoft Office. This was a good thing for Microsoft, because it solidified its monopoly. (Not so good legally in the end, of course.)

Where do we go from here? There is a lot more work to do on the operational side. We still have great scope to increase quality. We've only just begun to start bringing external contributors on-board. Well-known people who speak at conferences will add greatly to the value of the newsletter. Making this happen in practice is an example of the difference between a good idea, and a business. Good ideas are worthless by themselves. Even making them happen once or twice doesn't count for much - that's just brute force. Creating an operational structure that can sustain continued high-quality execution - that's the hard part.

Let's look at an example as to what that means for external contributors to our newsletter. Specifically, who finds them? Who invites them to contribute? Who validates that they are legitimate? Who manages the workflow that takes us from email to a written document? How do we handle editing? How frequently do we use each one? How do we give them feedback? All these things need to be considered. Creating an operational structure that can deliver is a lot like creating software: lots and lots of very detailed cogs and levers and measurements that need to fit together. It's not easy and takes time to refine. But it is an absolutely essential part of making a business work. It is impossible simply to "work harder". That just ends up as sleep deprivation and "working stupider". I've done that too, and it's no fun.

There's a military slogan that is often used by special forces that is apt here: "slow is smooth, smooth is fast". I find it's a good way to resist the temptation to skip putting effort into operational details. There's one little caveat: you should only bother with operational work once you have proven that the thing you are doing has value. It's very much OK to be inefficient in the early days, and then kill an idea if it isn't working. It's a much worse mistake to invest significant effort into operationalising an unproven activity.

The second big thing that we are doing is running private trials of our system. This is a really important part of our market validation. We have to make sure that what we are building works, and solves real problems. To this end, we are selecting about five potential customers to work with us. Running trials is really important for getting future investment as it proves that outsiders think we have something of value.

It is a big deal for a company to commit people, never mind money, to a new system. You only do it if you have real pain that can't be solved another way. For our potential customers, stuck using email and spreadsheets to manage their events, this pain is real. We've tried to cover all the different stakeholders in the technology conference scene. We have conference organisers and agencies, and speakers. We will need to find one or two sponsoring or exhibiting companies to start a trial.

We're not treating the trials as a single project. Each customer gets unique and individual treatment, and is assigned a specific member of staff. It's really important for us to learn as much as possible about what we are missing, and what we've got wrong. Although our system is meant to be used without needing hands-on support, we're a long way from that level of completeness, so having somebody babysit each project reduces the risk for everyone.

Running trials is very expensive. We're only doing this now because our initial sales work is going well, giving us confidence that there is a market, and because we've already launched a minimum viable product, and got feedback from that. If you're not pricing the cost of trials (remember, you're looking for information to narrow your feature set for product-market fit) into your funding needs, you have a nasty hole in your cashflow that will catch up with you faster than you think. You will not make money on your first customers - you're not a consultancy.

We're also hard at work building software. This is driven by the needs of the trial customers. It turns out that we missed some key features and some critical hygiene factors (such as two-factor authentication, where you get an SMS code to login), so we have to build those to start the trials. We're trying to balance the need to keep our infrastructure solid while delivering the needed depth of functionality.

We are taking out what is known in the trade as "technical debt". This is a somewhat pejorative term that means you are short-changing technical quality to hit a deadline. It's a deliberate strategy that can be very effective, just as financial debt can help you build a business. But you must have a plan it down, and you must understand that you are incurring higher development costs. Engineering is all about trade-offs, and this is just one more that you have to make (I feel an article about this topic coming on - as ever, there are easy mistakes to avoid, and practical approaches that make success more likely).

Finally, we're launching a new meet-up, the Dublin Event Professionals meet-up. The first event is on next Thursday - you'll find all the details on meetup.com. The aim is build trust in voxgig as a member of the event organiser community. Pop along if you're in Dublin and you can confirm for yourself if this startup diary is fake news or not.

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