In my last post, I shared how I teach myself new things by asking lots of questions. So how do I find people to answer the questions? Where do I find experts on the business I’m building? How do I get them involved?
Advisory boards are a good way for startup companies to get a broader network of people engaged in the business. Advisors can help you think through business challenges, make key introductions and/or offer personal/management advice. They also help build credibility for your startup. Venture Hacks wrote a great post about the nuts and bolts of advisors here.
To create an advisory board, start by identifying your key business challenges based on the current stage of your business. Are you focused on building a world-class consumer experience? Do you need to sell your product into key partners? Are you looking to learn how to market your product to consumers in a certain vertical? Do you need to figure out how to scale your business?
Once you’ve determined your key business needs, make a list of the people in your direct network and beyond that could help with your problems. Take consumer experience, for example. Who do you know that’s good at building consumer products? Who do you know that may know other people that built leading consumer products? Who are the industry experts on consumer experiences? A month ago I probably wouldn’t have included the last question, but I’m reading “The 4-Hour Workweek” on vacation this week and I’m inspired by Tim Ferriss.
Start reaching out to the people you know and set up meetings (preferably face to face). For people you don’t know, do a little research. Find out who in your network may know the person, research their work and personal interests and ask for introductions. People generally like being helpful, and most people will take a meeting with an ambitious entrepreneur working on a good idea if they get a personal introduction.
When you have the meeting, be clear about the advice you’re seeking: “I recently started X business. I’m currently facing a challenge doing Y. Given your experience with A,B and C, I wanted to ask you how you’ve solved this type of problem in the past.” Based on this first interaction, you can gauge whether the person will be helpful and whether you have good personal chemistry. If you think they are good fit, ask them to be an advisor. Most people are flattered by this request and enjoy sharing their personal experiences. Even if they cannot do it, they will be glad that you asked. If they say “no”, ask them to recommend someone else who may be a better fit.
Building your advisory board should be an ongoing part of your business planning. At each stage of your business, always think about whom else you should bring on board to help you with specific business needs. I would recommend doing this monthly and each time you face a new business challenge.
With inSparq, we currently have almost a dozen advisors helping us with different aspects of our business. Since it’s the end of the year, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank them, so I’m including them in this post:
- Barry Appelman – offers amazing product and user experience advice
- Roger Dickey – awesome at thinking through metrics and virality
- Jonathan Edson – incredible CEO mentor, offers very wise startup advice
- Jorge Espinel – great at helping us develop product distribution strategy with publishers
- Bob Gifford – very helpful at thinking through enterprise needs and sales
- Mark Herschberg – brilliant technical mind, has helped with screening and recruiting tech talent
- Jerremie Miller – great advice on engineering management and open source development
- Dan Olschwang – excellent general startup management advice and mentorship from a CEO who has successfully run a startup for 5 years
- Marc Rishner – very helpful with product distribution strategy
- Marcus Trevisani – my goto person on all things technical – offers advice, support and plugs holes when needed
We could not do what we’re doing without our advisory board. They have been incredibly supportive and I’m grateful to have them engaged with our company.
If you have additional thoughts or advice on building an advisory board, please feel free to share it here. Have a Happy New Year!
There is no book, manual or class that can fully prepare you for being an entrepreneur. Even if you read a lot (which I did), there is not one correct way to build a business and you will always encounter something you didn’t expect. That’s just the reality with startups.
Paul Bragiel from i/o Ventures told me that becoming an entrepreneur is like jumping off a cliff and building your plane on the way down. I like to think there is a little more planning involved, but even if you built your aircraft, the weather may change, a part may break or something else may happen that you just didn’t expect. That’s why pilots put in hundreds of hours of training – to prepare for the unexpected.
So what do you do if you’re a first time entrepreneur? If you can find a partner that has started a venture before, you have an advantage. You will learn a lot from them. If you cannot, don’t be discouraged. Keep following your passion, learning from your mistakes and most importantly just keep going.
Even if you have a serial entrepreneur as a business partner, I would still recommend that you develop a network of mentors, friends and business associates that have started businesses or been involved in early stage ventures. Learning how to ask for advice is critical to your success and be prepared that you may not get the same answer twice. When I was deciding between forming Double Dutch Studios as an LLC, C-Corp or S-Corp, I literally got 6 different opinions, all valid and good recommendations.
So how do you find the right answer? The key is knowing that there is not always a right answer to be had. My friend Pavia Rosati had a great way of saying it: “There is not one way to make tomato sauce. Similarly, there is not one way to start a business.”
I like to ask same the question to three different people that I trust and respect. I ask them:
1. What they would do?
2. Why they recommend that approach?
3. What they read or would recommend reading on the topic?
I then do my research and make a decision. I have a lot of smart people around me, so that approach has served me well.
My next blog post will be about developing a network of mentors. Stay tuned.
It’s official — I’m a full time entrepreneur. My last day at Jumptap was Tuesday, October 5th and I c
ouldn’t be more excited to giveDouble Dutch Studios 100% of my time! My entrepreneur friends warned me that this week could be difficult – that I may feel lost or disconnected. This has not been the case.
I don’t know if it’s because I had a slow transition (I gave Jumptap notice at the beginning of the summer) or because I have an amazing team, but I couldn’t be more energized about what we’re doing. I’m laser focused on my massive ‘to do’ list and want to launch as quickly as possible!
It’s been a while since I updated this blog, so I should fill you in on the team. We found a very talented technical cofounder, Dan Chote. Dan came highly recommended by one of our advisors, Jeremie Miller, and has experience architecting and building large-scale communication systems (yes, he’s a good find). We also brought on Bob Gifford, as head of Enterprise, so we can plan our monetization strategy from the start. Bob rounds out the team with a wealth of enterprise relationships and general startup expertise. We’re also very close to hiring a designer and another developer. I guess I could have a second career as a recruiter if Double Dutch Studios doesn’t pan out
Now that the team is in place, we’re refining our product strategy and specifications, updating the business plan, and most importantly, starting to code. It’s exciting to hit the ground running!
Thanks again for following my journey!
We recently pivoted the business from building a social dating site to developing a communication tool for organizing your friends and conversations across social networks and communication channels. We’re calling the service inSparq. For now, the details are confidential, but I’ll definitely share more about inSparq down the road.
First, we put together a job spec describing our company, team and what we were looking for. If you’re curious, you can check out our spec on startuphire.com: http://www.startuphire.com/search/details.php?job=101711.
We sent out the spec and scheduled face-to-face meetings with people who are well connected in our network. We also posted the spec on sites that techies would visit, including NY Tech Meetup, Startuply, PHP Mailing list, etc. One of my favorite sites for posting was StartupHire, which Hilary Mason recommended. StartUpHire allows you to post the job spec and easily promote it through social media: Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Through these channels, we generated a lot of interest and quite a robust pipeline of candidates. So how do we screen them?
Through trial and error, we developed a four part screening process. First, we asked candidates to answer a couple of written questions:
1) How do you use social networks today? What do you view as some of the challenges with existing social networks and communication platforms?
2) If you were to look at the four key skills for a tech cofounder, how would you rank yourself in each of these areas (that is, what is your percentile rank as compared to the developer community)?
c) Ability to lead/manage a team
d) Communication skills
The first question helped us identify whether the candidates got the problem we’re solving and the second question helped us understand how they ranked their skills across the key dimensions we’re looking for.
Once candidates passed the first screen, we scheduled either a phone or in-person interview. We had the candidates sign an NDA, so we could show them our wireframes (site specifications) and go into detail on our strategy. We then used the following questions to screen:
- How would the inSparq services help you?
- How would you build the system? Why did you make those choices?
- What is the most important thing for us to think about in building the service?
- What will be the most challenging piece to build?
- What is your technical experience/expertise?
- Why is “usability” important when building a website?
- How do you teach yourself new skills?
- How do you keep current/learn about new technologies?
- Describe your optimal: management/development, product management/development , QA/development, operations/development relationships. Pick two examples.
This interview process helps us gauge how the candidates think and their ability to work with others. Once folks pass this step, we have them go through the final technical screen with our friend, Mark Herschberg, who is a brilliant technical mind. Mark has been great at helping us screen candidates and refining our selection process.
Anyone who gets a passing score from Mark is short listed for a reference check. Our process is still ongoing, but we’re very pleased with the folks we’ve been meeting to date.
If you know of anyone that would be a good fit, please feel free to send them my way. Also, please share your ideas or tips for finding and screening technical candidates.
Last Thursday I went to an Ultra Light Startups event on Web Design. It offered a great overview of the key elements of web design and some good tips to consider when making design decisions. Since web design is a key concern for many tech entrepreneurs, I thought I would share what I learned on the topic.
To give you some background, Ultra Light Startups is a New York organization that offers monthly events for tech entrepreneurs (and the broader community). Their events feature pitching, networking and a moderated panel discussion. If you’re not already on their list, I would recommend you subscribe.
Web Design for Startups – Panel Discussion:
- Christopher Fahey, Principal, User Experience Director at Behavior Design
- Seth Giammanco, Principal, Technology Lead at Minds On Design Lab
- Dan Maccarone, Co-Founder at Hard Candy Shell
- Gloria Petron, President of the New York City Usability Professionals’ Association
Notes from Panel:
As you speak to designers, it helps to understand the six key elements of web design:
- Graphic visual design – aesthetics, visual experience, style (graphics, fonts, etc.)
- Interaction design – usability of the site; communicating the message in a manner that drives your desired behavior
- Information architecture – how information is organized on a site – this is both how data is classified/tagged and how information is presented
- User experience – how user feels after they interact with your site
- Research/ usability testing – tests users on what features are expected; helps with prioritizing features
- Branding and identity – represents who you are and what your product is about – this includes your name, logo, jingle, customer experience, etc.
The HCI (Human Computer Interaction) Method (developed by Julian Missig, 2006) is a framework for putting the various elements of web design into context and helps give you concrete steps for thinking through design. The chart below summarizes this methodology.
As you are designing your website, user design and copy should support the brand positioning that you are trying to deliver against (e.g., easy, fun, organic). Content and voice is also a key part of design strategy.
Some questions to think about before designing your website:
1. What problem does this solve? Does this problem exist for anyone but me?
2. How are you going to solve the problem?
3. How are you going to make money?
4. Who is your audience? Who will be the early adopters?
5. Who are you? What is the personality of your company.
The answer to these questions will help inform your web design strategy and should be communicated as part of the brief to your designer(s). Also, it is important that your designer(s) and tech people work together to ensure your design is technically feasible.
If you’re budget constrained, the panel suggested spending money on interface and user experience; NOT branding. Their perspective is that it’s more important to get early feedback on the usability and key metrics than developing a brand name. They recommended standing up the site as soon as you have a minimally viable product, so you can quickly iterate on the design.
Finally, the panel suggested writing all the steps into the wireframes (so designers understand each action) and including the relevant copy in the wireframes. Here’s a great resource for additional information on how to do wireframes from Smashing Magazine.
My Personal Experience:
I’m now working on the second set of wireframes and use cases for my business. I found this process to be invaluable in helping me think through the user experience and interaction design. I tend to start out sketching the screens using OmniGraffle. I prefer it to Photoshop because they have some basic stencils for core page elements (e.g., drop down boxes, radial buttons, communication widgets, etc.).
Once I finish the wireframes, I write out the use cases in Powerpoint. I copy the wireframe screens into Powerpoint and document each step in bullet points. This process helps me think through every user interaction and determine whether it can be simplified. I’m not quite ready to share my project publicly, but I found the following use case on slideshare.com – it is very similar in structure to what I develop. My mother used to say “measure twice, cut once”. This lesson also applies to good wireframes & use cases – done right, they make design and development much easier (and cheaper).
We tend to wear a lot of hats in early stage startups. Product is a new one for me, but I’m really enjoying it!
Share your experience in creating your website. Did you go through a similar process? What additional tips do you have for entrepreneurs currently thinking about web design? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Many people ask why I decided to call my blog ‘12 Months to Launch.’ They assumed that I’m going to spend the next 12 months building my social networking business and launch it on the 12th month. Aaron Schildkrout from HowAboutWe.com encouragingly suggested I rename the blog 6 Months to Launch to accelerate the process (thanks Aaron!). This made me realize that a name is only as good as the story behind it. So here is my story.
I have wanted to start my own venture for 2 years now. I had been chewing on a number of ideas, but wasn’t ready to take the leap until the start of this year. As I became more serious about becoming an entrepreneur, I started shoring up my finances in preparation for leaving my job. I saved enough money for seed funding (to get the product built) and 12 months of living expenses.
To stay self-employed, which is my goal, I have to actually “launch” the business (not just the product) in 12 months. This means building the product, validating key metrics, getting funding (the nature of our business makes bootstrapping difficult) and showing market traction. Our plan is to launch the product in beta by end of this year, so we have enough time to put all the pieces in place. If we can’t make this happen, I will have to explore other options (including finding a job).
As I was telling my friends about my plans, they suggested I start this blog to share my journey. My intention is to discuss the highs, lows and lessons learned as I go through the process of launching the business. I want to use this blog to foster a supportive community for entrepreneurs (especially women) and become a resource for anyone looking to launch their own venture.
Twelve months gives me a nice framework because it helps define my commitment to this project. Technically, the 12 months start in September when I finish my full-time position at Jumptap, but I wanted to get an early start.
In going out on my own, one of the first things I did was join/form an entrepreneur support group. It is a big transition to go from being an employee in a company (even if it is a startup) to launching your own company. It is helpful to have people outside of your direct business offer perspective and support.
Our group consists of four powerful women launching three game-changing businesses: Adrienne Meisels (MyPlanit – she put the group together), Heather Raymond (EmpowrX), Kalinda Ukanwa Zeiger and me (Double Dutch Studios). Below is a picture from our meeting on Monday.
There are five key benefits to having an entrepreneur support group:
- Help with Ideation – It is important to have a group that can help you develop/ iterate your idea. A good support group will take a germ of an idea and create a positive environment for it to grow. They will provide constructive feedback, but deliver it in a way that will develop the idea into something better (and not crush the concept).
- Reviewing Materials – It helps to have a dedicated group for reviewing pitches, business plans and wireframes. That way you have people from outside your direct line of business provide feedback along the way.
- Sharing Resources – Discovering resources takes time. Having a group to share recommendations for lawyers, design firms, web developers, mentors, etc. saves time and money. We also share Web resources and relevant articles we’ve read. The Resources for Entrepreneurs page on this blog includes some of my favorite Web resources, but there are a lot more in our Google group. Please feel free to share sites that you find helpful.
- Training & Development – There is so much to learn as a first-time entrepreneur. We leverage the group to have experts come in and teach us stuff (either by phone or in person). Whether we need tips for using Twitter (thanks Diana!) or advice on thinking through product vision, we bring in coaches to support the group and we teach each other what we learn along the way.
- Dedicated Listening/Commiserating – Any entrepreneur knows there are highs and lows to launching a business. Going through this with others helps you process some of the issues and creatively find solutions. Trust me, you don’t want to dump all your problems on your friends and family.
Having this type of network is important, especially for a first-time entrepreneur because the learning curve is quite steep. It is exciting to be your own boss, but it is also very risky. I find it quite helpful to have people around me that are going through the same thing.
I started my venture with an idea. I wanted to build a better dating site using the social web. As a single woman (and user of online dating sites), I saw a gap in the market and had a unique idea for closing that gap.
I recruited some friends to help out with the venture. We played around with different versions of the idea, developed business models and wrote business plans. It was a lot of work, but the business was going nowhere.
I then recruited Richie Hecker as an advisor. Richie is great because he has a lot of experience launching startups and is very familiar with the market. However, the most valuable thing Richie did was help me find Marcus Trevisani (my CTO and technical co-founder). Until I found Marcus, my venture had no legs.
You see, my strengths are business development, sales and strategy. I have a fairly sizable network of business leaders and potential investors, but I have no idea how to code. I have a general understanding of what is technically possible, but I don’t know the trade offs between using PHP and Ruby. I don’t know how to manage a team of engineers. And, I certainly don’t know how to architect a scalable website.
I recently heard some folks in the NY tech community say they were learning how to code as a way to start their venture. Although this is a very commendable effort, I don’t think this is the most efficient approach. To launch a successful business, you need all types of people. Yes, VCs like to invest in really smart hackers – they can build products fast and can launch with a really lean operation.
However, not everyone can (or wants) to be a hacker and you should not be discouraged from launching a venture just because you don’t code. Business people founded two of the companies I worked for: Steve Case (a marketing guy) founded AOL and Jorey Ramer (a product/business development guy) founded Jumptap. Also, Quattro Wireless (one of Jumptap’s competitors) was founded by Andy Miller (a business development guy) and was recently bought by Apple for a very nice sum.
I believe you should focus on your strengths. If you’re a good sales/business development person, use those skills to attract the right team, clients and investors. You should definitely have a technical co-founder to launch your venture, but successful companies need both smart engineers and good business people.
I’m very fortunate to have put together a great team for my venture. Each of us brings something unique to the table and we complement each other’s strengths. It is our collaborative efforts that really make our venture strong. More importantly, it is because of our different perspectives that we were able to shift the venture from a dating site to the business we’re currently developing (more on that later).
As I shared the wireframes with friends and advisers, people challenged me to:
1) crystallize the problem statement in one sentence;
2) document the use cases; and
3) show how we’re solving the problem better than the existing sites.
I dutifully executed these assignments. I didn’t feel like we had great answers, but kept pushing to get something built by early fall. I figured we could leverage our partners to help us get the concept right.
As I was about to sign the first contract to commit our company to a major expense, Richie shook some sense into me. Instead of challenging me to do another homework assignment, he told me very directly that we are not ready. He was right.
I had gone into tunnel vision mode. Focusing on immediate deliverables over strategy, I lost sight of the bigger picture and now I had to put on the brakes.
I was worried about putting everything on pause because we had been running so hard for the last few months. I was afraid people would think I was indecisive. I was wrong.
As we spoke to our partners, I was surprised by how supportive they were of our decision. They thought it was smart to take a step back and crystallize the vision. After all, our partners chose to work with us (for free or at discounted rates) because they want to be part of a successful venture. Taking a few more weeks to get things right is worthwhile if it improves our chance for success.
As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to go full throttle towards an idea. You don’t have anyone looking over your shoulder and it’s tempting to think you can just tweak things later. Especially in early stage ventures, it takes discipline to stop and check your strategy.
So now, after taking a 1-week break, we’re sitting down to rethink the problem statement and the simplest way to solve it. It may take us another week or two to figure this out, but we already have the best team in place to build the product once we’re ready.
We’re also starting to build in weekly checkpoints to validate our strategy/ approach. The market is moving fast and I want to minimize the tunnel vision going forward.