Prioritizing Like A Survivor – Lessons From The Backcountry

Gotta feed the block, niggaz starvin’, they got appitites
And this is er’day, it never gets old…
This aint a rap song, nigga this is my life

-Young Jeezy, Soul Survivor

Learning to prioritize for yourself and others is a vital skill to run a team and your life. It also happens to be very difficult for the hustler startup founder to develop. By our nature we are constantly looking to expand our opportunities by chasing the next big thing.

My backcountry adventures (especially those with my brother, an amazing backcountry survivalist) have taught me a lot of lessons in prioritization and focus.

  1. Only worry about what you can control
    The wilderness removes a lot of unnecessary responsibilities and distractions. The day you get on trail, you are faced with the very real fact that you do not have control over your surroundings. It is freeing, you can stop worrying about whether things will go right and concentrating on those things you can control.
  2. Multi-tasking keeps you from accomplishing high priority items
    Your top priorities in the backcountry are finding shelter, water and food. As soon as any one of those things is missing, you become hyper focused on rectifying the situation. Anyone that has realized a water source they were depending on is not available can tell you that they thought of nothing else until they found water. I’ve learned that it is much more efficient to work this way and I now keep a prioritized task list (made every morning while I eat breakfast) that I work down one by one.
  3. Switching costs are high, reprioritize only when necessary
    On the trail you find that every decision that you make comes with very clear costs and benefits. “Do I try for the next water spot tonight or double back 6 miles where I know there is water.” Clearly you are not going to start heading for the new water source and then double back half-way through that part of the journey. Business decisions don’t always have clear switching costs. “Should we build this new feature that will get us new customers or rebuild our back-end so we can develop new features faster.” I’ve become acutely aware of these switching costs. This past Easter, we decided to do a last minute promo and I relearned the lesson on switching costs…

The wilderness offers so many lessons and this won’t be the last post to draw on what I’ve learned there. Do you have other lessons you’ve learned from your adventures, tell everyone in the comments!

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Prioritizing Like A Survivor – Lessons From The Backcountry

A small highly-motivated user base that loves your product is better than a massive uninterested one

He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks
-Sun Tzu (The Art of War)

I would rather command a company of Marines than a brigade of volunteers.
– Capt. John R.F. Tattnal

I’ve spent the last 7 months actively nurturing a community of greeting card artists into existence. Despite my “go big” entrepreneur mentality, it is clear to me now that going slower and developing a small highly-motivated core group of users was vital. Swinging for the fences right away and having a massive but uninterested user base shouldn’t be considered a success. The slow growth has allowed us to work with them personally and has endeared them to our cause. They tell their friends to buy from us, they actively recruit their favorite artists for us and they help each other through issues instead of requesting support.

The word of mouth that these users generate is incredible. A full 25% of all our traffic is new direct visits (people typing CardGnome.com into their browser after they are told about us) and 95% of our new artist acceptance has come from word-of-mouth referrals. They are starting to cost us less to support because they take the time to know the system better, and because they ask each other for support on our forums instead of emailing us.

They spend more, they cost us less to support, they recruit artists and they find us new customers. I don’t just view this in terms of economics, but they lower our cost of customer acquisition and increase our average lifetime value. If you are just starting, focus on making a few users extremely happy instead of spending money to acquire uninterested ones.

A small highly-motivated user base that loves your product is better than a massive uninterested one

5 lessons before launching your startup

“Nine to five is how to survive – I ain’t trying to survive… I’m trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot”

-Jay-Z

Last week I had a discussion with someone considering leaving their job to launch a startup.  They wanted some honest feedback on their business model. It occurred to me that objectively evaluating a startup idea is a skill that can only be learned through experience and that I finally felt marginally comfortable giving advice on the topic. After 8 months of making mistakes, listening to great mentors and thinking through many ideas it felt great to give back. For those of you I haven’t spoken with, I wanted to jot down some of the key lessons I’ve picked up along the way.

1 – Understand your goals – You need to be honest with yourself about whether you want a massive business or a lifestyle supporting income source.  All your thoughts about the startup must flow through the answer to this question.

2 – Passion – If you are creating the next big thing, realize you’ll need to have the passion to devote 70+ hours a week for 3-5 years to make it a success. Is this an industry and product you will stay excited about? Note that I’m not saying the product has to be sexy, plenty of people make huge profits on products others didn’t even consider working on.

3 – Test instead of talk – Try to test your idea without spending money and time on development. If your core-product is a consumer website, there are ways to test your prototype extremely cheaply. Once its built, give it to customers and ask them if they are willing to pay for it. Try to avoid the echo chamber of your friends and family. Their support will carry you through the tough times, but they are terrible judges of what constitutes a great business idea.

4 – Financial resources – You need to eat, you need a roof and you need to provide for your family. If you can’t do this while devoting the time and effort for a startup, then its not for you. Getting funding is a long and arduous process and will likely require that you’ve already gotten traction with your product.

5 –  Product-Resource Fit (Viability) – What resources do you need to make your company successful? Do you have, or can you acquire, the skills, money and other resources needed to implement your idea? Be optimistic but honest. In order to make your dream a reality you will need to fully believe you can do it.

A lot of you are founders of companies, use that comment box to talk about your own lessons or expand on mine.

5 lessons before launching your startup

What kind of company culture are we building?

Over the past few weeks Chad and I have been recruiting engineers to join our Card Gnome team. It has forced us to be introspective and verbalize our company culture to prospects. It has been illuminating to look at how our personal belief systems have manifested themselves into an operating entity. It comes down to 4 core tenants:

Passion/Motivation: Life is short so we believe it should be spent doing things we are passionate about. We truly believe that intrinsic motivation produces the best long term value and we foster that in ourselves and others. Money by itself is not a motivator, only an indicator that your business has added value. We are trying to build an amazing organization of passionate individuals, therefore acceptance of mediocrity is unacceptable.

Independent Debate: Chad and I are both fiercely independent thinkers with nearly opposite personalities and core skillsets. Our debates are epic but always respectful. We put all the details on the table and force each other to justify our thinking. It has given us a deep appreciation for how the other person thinks, which only serves to make the debates more honest. At the end of each debate though we come to a conclusion and agree on a path forward. I cannot, at this moment, think of a situation in which we were not in complete agreement on the correct decision. There is very little grey area, we both agree that a decision is the correct course or we keep talking. Compromise has its place, but it generally doesn’t build a compelling product.

Experimentation: We  are wiling to implement our ideas purely to learn what will happen. In fact, adding printed cards was originally one of these ideas. A few people had asked whether we could print our eCards for them and so we decided to give it a try. A week later, after receiving amazing feedback from consumers and artists, we decided to change our core business. Other trials have been failures, but the freedom to try something new is what makes us entrepreneurs, and heck its fun.

Respect for others: Our company is not just about profits, its also about meaningfully improving the lives of our customers, employees, partners and ourselves. When we make decisions we think deeply about how the decision will effect our stakeholders.  Making them happy and treating them fairly is the only way to build a great company.

We haven’t written a formal values statement yet, and there are certainly things I’ve left out, but this post is a good start. Use the comments below to let us know what you think about it.

What kind of company culture are we building?

Pivoting to success

A pivot is the term for a company that changes its business model in order to take advantage of an opportunity.  The opportunity is often only visible after the founders have progressed with their initial concept enough to learn about their market and its needs. Many of the hottest companies today, from YouTube (which started as a dating site) to Flikr (which was a videogame) are examples of great pivots.  The founders in these companies tested their hypothesis and realized they wouldn’t work, so they moved in the direction that would. The affectionate name for this is “failing fast” and its a good thing.  Chad and I did just this about 3 weeks ago when we changed our underlying business model.

Our previous idea was a marketplace for creative messaging services, from funny eCards to custom phone calls from voice impersonators.  What we found was that people wanted ways to interact, but our product offering was too wide.  We were talking with too many different target markets. We needed a much more narrow product offering which would enable us to target just one demographic and build a core user group. Our customers and artists told us repeatedly that they were interested in printed cards.  We heard “I love the eCards but I want you to mail it as a real card” and “I hate going to the store to buy cards, I end up not sending them! Can you make some of your eCards available to print?”

We started researching the greeting card market and realized that it is massive. Over 7.5 billion greeting cards are bought each year in the US, representing a $11B market with over 3,000 independent publishers. Only a handful of small companies currently print and mail cards from a web marketplace and none of them are executing the concept particularly well.  Chad quipped that we could do to greeting cards what NetFlix did for videos, bring the card buying process online.  As soon as that came out of his mouth, we both instantly realized the market potential.  We were hooked.

That was 3 weeks ago.  Since then we’ve repurposed our website and launched the new features as a minimum viable product.  Try it out, you can actually have us print and mail a card for you right now. Don’t forget to let us know what you think of this new direction in the comments.

Pivoting to success

How Boulder increases our company’s chance of success

We moved to Boulder four months ago and it was a fantastic decision. The town’s values, and abundance of willing mentors make it a perfect place for new entrepreneurs trying to learn the ropes. It’s a place that values risk takers and those that take big swings to try and make a difference in the world. There are just under 100k residents here and yet it contains an outsized number of accomplished people and budding superstars who are willing to help the newcomers.

Risk taking and lifestyle design aren’t desirable career traits everywhere but in Boulder they are admired. This attitude has drawn hundreds of startups to town and the passion and energy from those endeavors is infectious. When we’re working at coffeeshops we’re surrounded by our fellow bootstrappers and it gives us energy to try even harder. Of course there are failed endeavors, but people view those founders as wiser and experienced from the ordeal rather than as personal failures. Its a positive environment where we are not afraid to take big swings.

The mentorship driven growth strategy made famous by TechStars is at the heart of what makes Boulder a great place for startups. The town has an absolute plethora of accomplished entrepreneurs, financiers and academics that are passionate about business and willing to give honest feedback. Some of the most popular VCs attend networking events like the Boulder Open Coffee Club and even hold office hours so people can chat with them. Breaking into the startup ecosystem was one of our top priorities and thanks to the collaborative environment here, we’ve had access to the level of mentors we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

Boulder has given us confidence, mentors and fundamentally shaped our thinking about startups in a positive way. Its budding reputation as an important startup hub is evidence that outsiders are starting to see what the locals already know. If you are thinking about moving your business here, do it! Call us when you do, we’d love to give newcomers the welcome that we received.

How Boulder increases our company’s chance of success

Why do 80% of our visitors not sign-up?

For the past two months we’ve been developing functionality for our site at a breakneck speed. Simultaneously learning to code, learning to design and trying to keep up with the suggestions from users. As you can expect our front-end could be a lot better. So over the past week we’ve invested some of our free time in improving our UI using 3 learning methods.

First, we turned to Google Analytics to see what was happening on our site. Our main question was whether we are effectively explaining our concept and getting artists to sign-up and provide content? The short answer is that we’re not yet… we have been getting between 20 and 100 unique visitors daily for a couple weeks but less than 20% are signing up and even fewer are providing content. We use the analytics to highlight where in the user “funnel” from the landing page to the sign-up form to the nudge creation screen people were leaving. We noticed that most artists never even entered the funnel we setup, 90% of all users searched for nudges to send rather than signing up to be artists. We needed to do a better job of funneling artists to a sign-up and create a content funnel that was separate from the normal search process. We’ve now changed the landing page (in dev anyway) to direct artists to an FAQ and sign-up page rather than the view available nudges page. We are using this page to explain that we’re in alpha mode, explain the vision and preemptively answer questions that if left unanswered may lead a user to leave our site in confusion.

Secondly, we’ve been using online tutorials and shamelessly copying the best design elements. We use a tool called CSSedit along with firebug to analyze how our favorite sites do things. A big thank you goes out to sites like REI, Tumblr, Etsy, and Everlater. We don’t just copy the site, we take small elements and design cues and create something completely original. It’s the equivalent of Pretty Lights taking Biggie Smalls quotes and inserting them in their songs. Hopefully the owners of those sites will read this and feel pride in our love of their front ends. If you want some other great examples for your own site, check out the webby award winners, their sites are amazing. In addition check out Smashing Magazine for tutorials on creating great tables, forms and everything else.

Our third method is to listen to experts. There are plenty of them around Boulder, including Lyn Bain of Chili Interactive. She has advanced degrees in psychology and a storied career in usability testing and design. Out of pure serendipity we met her at a coffee shop and she offered to give us a few minutes to critique our site. Some of the key take-aways were:
1 – Laptop and mobile users don’t fiddle with their mice so they don’t see rollover elements. (We’re removing ours now)
2 – Buttons need to be descriptive of the very next screen, so instead of our button saying “send a nudge” it might say “Select this nudge and fill in delivery details.” This way they aren’t scared that something will be sent before they put in the right details.
3 – Users give you 3 seconds to understand your site and decide whether to heed a call to action. Make your messaging clear and your calls to action obvious.

If you want similar feedback, Lyn is giving back to the entrepreneurial community in a HUGE way, with UsableFeedback.com where you can get video walkthrough with actionable feedback from her company’s experts for only $139. This is a tiny fraction of her usual billing rate and is being done solely to help startups and small businesses! There are other fantastic designers around Boulder, people like @AndyInColor and @StirlingOlson. Can designers reading this give us one rule of thumb you think all startups should know when designing their sites?

The bottom line is that we improved our UI significantly by using statistics on how our users interact with our site, copying design elements from the best sites and reaching out to experts for unbiased feedback. We still have a long way to go in both design and UI, so keep giving us honest feedback. As a reminder, we’ll be buying beers for people who give us suggestions!

Why do 80% of our visitors not sign-up?