Richard Rodger: 'My startups (and downs) of what's been an educational 12 months'
The purpose of this diary is to document our decisions as a startup. There's not much point doing that if we don't review them afterwards. So how did we do in 2018? Did voxgig make good decisions? Let's break things down by functional area to see how we did.
1 Product: We decided to build and release a conference search engine as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) in the first quarter of the year. The basic decision was to follow the MVP strategy rather than building a more complete product. An MVP lets you get to feedback from users much more quickly, and then iterate on that feedback to improve your product. It's a great way to ensure you build what your customers want.
If you're a non-technical founder starting an online software-based business, don't be tempted to try to be specific on everything about the software first and then get it built. That's a way to lose a lot of money quickly. Instead, find a development partner who can work with you ("iterate", as it's known) to improve your system over time.
The worst place to end up is with a live version (1.0) and no way to fix bugs and respond to customer feedback.
We used our MVP for a different purpose. We originally intended to build it to iterate, but then we used it to close deals with a few trials clients instead. We ended up iterating directly with those clients, building out the features they needed. You'll soon see these features when we launch at the end of January next year, but we haven't made them public yet.
This was a big strategic decision. The more usual path would have been to start adding a way for users to register and start adding features - the initial target would have been conference speakers. We will, in fact, be doing this from February next year.
What we realised was that while we had a good understanding of conference speakers and their needs (I am one), we did not have a good understanding of conference organisers.
And because we wanted speakers and organisers to invite each other onto the system, we needed to have a great set of features for organisers too.
To develop these features and really understand what organisers need, we had to work privately with them to build out this feature set. This was suboptimal.
With hindsight I should have decided to stick to private trials entirely and not release an MVP.
The MVP has not hurt us, as such, but it has been frustrating not to be able to show public progress. We could probably have supported another full scale trial client if we had not build the MVP, and we could have started the trials sooner.
Lesson: choose deliberately between an MVP or private trials-you'll be able to focus your energies more effectively.
2 Marketing: We decided to build a community by launching a newsletter for speakers, and started to run meet-ups for event organisers. We've also just launched a podcast and a newsletter for event organisers as well. The decision to spend money and time on marketing in the early part of company's life has been very successful.
We wanted to create an initial set of users who would be loyal and trust us and I think we've managed to do this extremely well. Once we open the shop doors next year, this will really pay off.
There have been a few hiccups along the way. I set some outlandish and unachievable targets for the team, and probably demotivated them a little as a result.
Lesson: don't let your founder enthusiasm get out of control - stay grounded. And, this is a subtle one, don't plan based on what you could achieve if you worked on something full-time because you just won't be able to. In a startup there's far too much going on.
Even if you have the personal freedom and energy to work 100+ hour weeks, that's still only 2 ½ major projects in the terms of your old non-startup life.
Startups usually involve far more individual projects than that.
As a founder you have to work about sales, marketing, product, recruiting, managing, operations, … it never ends. And because you have to task-switch all the time, your productivity on any one thing is going to be reduced.
3 Culture: Being based in Waterford, a small city in the south-east corner of Ireland, means that you have some big challenges when it comes to finding great people. We've turned this weakness into a strength by adopting a remote-working and flexible model.
Our team is based in Waterford, Carlow, London, Spain, Romania and India. We've been able to hire some great people precisely because we are flexible about how, when, and where they work.
This recruiting strategy has been so successful that I would recommend it even if you're locating in a major technology hub city - you won't have to compete so heavily against other companies for talent.
4 Business model: This is the big one! Did we choose a good industry, and will our potential customers pay? We've done a lot of work to validate that this is the case - customer discovery, market research, private trials, even an MVP. We can't answer this question just yet. It will take all of 2019 to answer this question - it's going to be a fantastic journey!
5 Marketing update: the speakers newsletter is at 5,332 subscribers, and has an open rate of 15pc. The podcast had 44 downloads.
We've decided to restart the 'eventprofs' newsletter subscriber base.
We had initially started with the notification list from our meetups, but it turns out this audience was not seeing much value from a more general newsletter.
When your audience isn't happy, you stop and listen - there's no point chasing subscribers numbers for their own sake, you need to be providing value to people.
We're pausing to review the content, and figure out how to promote to the right audience.
- Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford.