As a young kid, I knew entrepreneurship was my calling. In elementary school I had a thriving baseball card trading ring going, and in middle school I created a portable candy shop and made money selling candy to my classmates. In high school, at age 16, I started a computer store in a Sarasota, Florida shopping mall. I couldn’t even legally sign the mall lease, but I did anyway (I don’t think the mall manager realized I was quite so young). When I got to college, I started the predecessor to my digital product development agency, 352 Inc., from my fraternity house. While running 352 Inc. for the last 17 years, I’ve started several other ventures and mentored many bright young entrepreneurs.
Like most entrepreneurs, I’ve had my share of failures. I’m proud of my failures – I consider them a badge of honor. The failures taught me important lessons. Some of what I learned from those lessons I have shared below. If you’re starting a new venture or creating a new product, here are some things I think you should think about along the way:
In the Beginning, Less is Always More
Many young or first-time entrepreneurs are focused on more: more funding, more features, more users, more “Pop!” in that logo. A valuable lesson I’ve learned from my ventures is that less is more. When you’re starting out, having limited money is far better than having too much money. Stretching each dollar forces you to be more creative and make smarter decisions when it comes to feature prioritization, staffing decisions, marketing and more. Keeping your budget lean at the start allows you to reserve capital for future growth, which is important, because your initial launch is just the beginning.
The choices you make as you launch a new venture will affect you for years to come. When you have too much money, it’s easy to spend without feeling its impact. You can overbuild your technology, spend fearlessly on splashy marketing that yields minimal results, lock yourself into a long-term contract that you’ll later regret or invest heavily in the wrong partnerships. If you do any of this, you’ll be dead in the water before you know it.
Discover and Embrace Your Why
Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why” should be required reading for new businesses at this point, because it’s vital for you and your team to truly understand why your product is important to the market and your prospective users. Successful products and companies exude a sense of purpose and belief, but more importantly, they are able to reflect that purpose onto their customers. Sinek famously explains that Apple’s iPod was able to beat other (arguably superior) MP3 players by selling the lifestyle an iPod could provide, rather than the features of a digital music player.
Of course, it’s not enough for you or your leadership team to understand your why. As our EVP of Strategy explains, it’s a leader’s job to make sure employees at every level understand why your product exists and believes in that purpose. Once you know why you’re doing something, you need to tell people about it.
Exude Personality and Tell Your Story
If you’re familiar with Simon Sinek, you know that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The best way to communicate that “why” to potential customers is through strong storytelling. Your product story is the one thing that can’t be duplicated by your competitors. Technology can be copied and branding can mirrored, but your story sets you apart from everyone. As you’re building an audience and searching for clients, it’s your story that will help you carve out a niche in which you can thrive. The more personality you inject into that story, the more people will find it compelling and want to share.
Find a Niche and Own It
At 352, we’ve had plenty of entrepreneurs come to us for help building “the next Facebook” or “it’s like Uber for (insert audience here),” which has always made me nervous. When we ask, “Who are we building this for?” I’m typically shocked at the number of these folks who say: Everyone.
Casting a wide net is great for fishing, but it rarely works for business. Unless you start with a niche, your chances of succeeding are almost nil. Many entrepreneurs forget that Facebook launched as an online yearbook for Harvard students. That’s quite a narrow niche. Then it expanded to nearby Ivy League schools, followed by large universities and high schools. By the time Facebook tried to target “everyone,” it had years of refinement, feedback and loyal users to support its growth. Many other successful ventures, like Uber and Groupon, started with a geographical niche, focusing on serving just one city (and serving it very well) before expanding.
When you’re a new company, it’s vital to narrow your focus to a niche audience and build a product that delivers value to them. When my wife and I started to build SocialNewsDesk, we decided to leverage her background in journalism to create the only social media management tool for newsrooms. Rather than going head-to-head with established social tools like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite and competing for a wide audience, we listened directly to our audience, built features specifically for journalists and iterated quickly to capture a dedicated user base.
Find People Who Hate Your Ideas
Part of refining your product is realizing that you don’t have all the answers, and the answers you think you have are probably wrong. You need people who will be hypercritical – your friends and family will often tell you that your ideas are awesome. You need people who are willing to poke holes in your plans and tell you that you’re doing everything all wrong. Naysayers challenge you, they help you adjust to find your niche or refine your why. It’s easier to find people who agree with you, but it’s far more valuable to have someone tell you all the reasons you’re an idiot.
If You Aren’t Big, Be Smooth
Many entrepreneurs worry about being perceived as small, but being small can often be a feather in your cap when pursuing large clients. A number of years ago we were bidding on a really big UX design project for Wells Fargo bank. During our pitch, we didn’t try to hide that we were a smaller design agency, and it played to our advantage. As president of 352, I was able to sit in our pitch meetings and show the personal commitment that 352 would bring to the project.
Big companies often like working with small ones; they like how quickly smaller companies can react. It pays to be nimble and flexible where enterprise clients are bureaucratic and cumbersome. You don’t need to be big, but you do need to be polished.
Remember when I mentioned 352 was started from my fraternity house? In an effort to make the company look professional, I ran a 1-800 number into the house and trained my fraternity brothers to politely (and soberly) answer the phone when I had to go to class. While that may have been a risk, it made the company seem larger and more responsive than we actually were. Creativity and polish count for a lot when you’re small.
Get Into the Pretty Girls Club
There’s a classic episode of “Seinfeld” in which George decides that he wants to date a model. He figures his best chance of getting a model girlfriend is to show that he has dated pretty girls in the past, so he cuts a model photo out of a magazine and claims it is his ex. What George realized – in all his twisted wisdom – is that to get high-level clients, you need to have done work for other clients in that club.
I had a number of friends who worked for Microsoft, and we tried for years to crack their circle of vendors. Eventually, Microsoft approached us with a nearly impossible task that all of their other vendors said they couldn’t deliver, and they gave us a shot. We worked nearly 24 hours a day on a tight deadline, and we delivered. Microsoft soon turned into our largest client. More importantly, it showed clients like Wells Fargo that we had the chops to run in the big leagues.
When you get your shot to get do anything for a large client (even if for free), seize the moment and do everything you can to knock it out of the park. And then promote that work to bring in other big clients.
Get to Market, Quickly
Remember those failures I mentioned at the top? The biggest of them was a massive football-themed online game called Camp Pete. Rather than quickly building an MVP (minimal viable product) and getting user feedback, my team spent more than a year in development perfecting a zillion features and designing an unbelievably rich game experience. In that year, competitors started to crop up and the economy started to take a nosedive. When we finally launched, competitors had already staked their claims, and we discovered that our target audience (kids) didn’t care for our biggest features and instead preferred game features that we hadn’t considered important or spent much time on.
When you’re developing a new product, launch it quickly to your niche audience and let the market determine how your product will grow through user feedback. Since my failure with Camp Pete, I’ve made user feedback and iteration a core component of every digital product we build at 352, whether it’s an internal project like the new PlanningPoker.com or a client product for AutoTrader or Cummins. Ultimately, there is no replacement for putting your product in front of potential users, gathering feedback and delivering new features that make it more valuable for them.
Launching a new product or business isn’t easy, but here is my simple checklist for success:
- Start lean and be ready to pivot
- Discover what motivates you and tell your story with much personality
- Don’t listen to Yes Men – find some people who will rip your ideas apart
- Focus on a well-defined niche audience first, then scale later
- Embrace being small and nimble, but look polished and show you are capable of big things
- Launch quickly, refine quicker
Most importantly, remember that a failed product isn’t the end of the world – it’s merely an opportunity to learn and try something new.