Thursday 26 April 2018

Startup diary: Writing a book is a great tactic for your startup plan

Writing a book and getting it published is a great marketing tactic for helping a new business take off. Stock image
Writing a book and getting it published is a great marketing tactic for helping a new business take off. Stock image

Richard Rodger

This startup diary aims to document my decisions and their consequences for the startup that I am building. One decision, to defer software development until we had some validation from marketing activities (primarily publishing a newsletter) means that we are only now starting to build the product, and we are already four months in. That is frustrating.

But our activities, and the response to them, also give me confidence that the software we build will be the right software. I've seen many a startup waste far more than four months building the wrong thing.

We are currently bedding down our Minimum Viable Product development process. This is a weekly routine that aims to deliver a new version of the product every week, each time with a few new features.

Small steps are much less risky than large leaps. Startups are all about risk - reducing it, that is! My recent articles in this series go into more depth on the process, and I'll have a lot more to say about it over the coming weeks.

And this is where some consequences kick in.

I decided to build a remote-working company. The team are all physically separate. Not only that, but we also have external contractors.

This gives us a lot of flexibility, and allows us to find great talent by removing some of the usual barriers. Our people do not need to put their bums on seats to prove they are working.

Nor do they need to work full-time. Those are the positive consequences.

The negative consequences are that I have allowed myself to become the critical information blocker for the development effort.

As I have put the technical team together I have given each of them a window into the technical vision, but have not put the effort into communicating the entire vision to each team member. Further, the team do not really know each other, and I have failed to build these cross-team relationships effectively.

The thing to realise here is that this is mostly inevitable with this fully distributed team structure. Such teams just do take longer to get off the ground, as individuals have to learn about each other from email and Skype rather than sitting down for coffee each day.

This is why many advisers in the startup scene will want you to have a small onsite team - preferably all living together.

I had not entirely anticipated the effort needed to fully bootstrap this team. Although I have set up and worked with remote teams before, we always had a core group on-site. So I have to accept the consequence of my current structure. It is a longer play. There is more up-front effort. The decision to do this is based on the belief that we will have a stronger and more flexible team as the year progresses.

But critically we now need to adjust the scope of the Minimum Viable Product. I had intended the first live version to support user accounts.

We would let people register, even though we did not have much functionality. This is too much to aim for if we are also trying to establish good team communication and process.

The first live version will therefore focus on search functionality first. This is a much narrower technical scope, and therefore easier to communicate and define as a shared vision.

What is the search functionality?

In the events and conferences industry, there is a search deficit. Nobody provides really high-quality search results. Sure you can use Google, but you get all sorts of other things crowding out what you need. And Google doesn't understand the structure of the data. You might be looking for speakers. Or conferences to speak at, or attend. Or venues. Or caterers. If you're running a conference might be looking for sponsors and exhibitors.

All this knowledge is locked up in people's heads and is not readily accessible.

As an example, I've just finished writing a technical book, and one of my tasks this year is to promote the book by speaking at conferences.

I need to find the right conferences to speak at, balancing audience size, ability to get on the speakers list, and travel costs. This is a lot of work.

There are so many conferences these days that it is not just a case of picking the few big conferences and attending those. You have a hard job getting accepted as a speaker at these anyway. But there are no good search engines for me, so I'm going to build one. Part of the reason I'm starting this business is a classic one: to scratch my own itch.

As an aside, writing a book and getting it published is a great marketing tactic for promoting a new business.

I did it for my last company, nearForm.com, on the subject of mobile apps, and it helped us win a lot of early business by establishing our technical credibility. This time around, my new book will help more on the recruiting side, rather than sales.

Writing a book to promote a business is not something I can really advise you to do. But it is an example of using the specific skills that you have to create an unfair advantage in one way or another. Life isn't fair and neither is business.

If you are thinking of starting a business, first consider what unique angle you can bring to the table. I can write, so I use that. You definitely have something, and in the new world of millionaire youTubers and the like, it's getting easier to find a good angle.

Is it a good use of my time to speak at technical conferences promoting a technical book when that is not the main focus of my startup? Good question.

The decision here is based on the belief that I need to be a conference speaker to build good tools for conference speakers. You need to understand your customer's pain by living it.

This is not a small decision, and we'll see when the year is done if this was a good use of my time.

So we're building a search engine first. This is a much simpler user interface than a full online system. Ironically, I think this means we'll have a live site up and running a bit sooner than originally planned.

Newsletter numbers: we have 567 subscribers and a 26pc open rate. Last week we had 513 and 27pc, respectively.

We are executing our existing promotional strategy, which should get us to 4,000 odd subscribers by year end. But our new goal is to 10x this, and find a way to get to 40,000.

Apart from a few sleepless nights, we've yet to really start thinking about how to make this happen. But that's the point-the impossible goal makes us rethink our strategy.

Richard Rodger is the founder of Metsitaba, a Waterford-based startup. He is a former co-founder of tech consultancy Nearform.

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