I'm writing a startup diary. This is the story of metsitaba, in real time, as the company is created. Each week I write an article describing the decisions I am taking, and my thinking behind them. I also discuss how previous decisions played out.
The purpose of the diary is to create a public decision journal. It prevents me from fooling myself because I have to make my decisions public before I know the consequences. This provides a useful insight into the process of building a startup, as it happens, and is intended to be more accurate and truthful than autobiographies written after the fact.
The diary articles are published first each week in the Irish Independent newspaper.
When you found a startup there is one fundamental truth that you cannot avoid: you will make mistakes. The trick is to avoid making fatal mistakes.
So long as you have some money in the bank, a few customers and a small team, you can always find a way forward. The best strategy is to avoid making mistakes in the first place. The second best is to recognise mistakes that are under way so that you can correct them.
I started this company, Voxgig, as a single founder. That's a pretty big no-no in the world of startups.
I've been lucky enough to subsequently find a co-founder, Natalie Gray, who fills in the gaps on the business side. But finding a co-founder was by no means guaranteed, and as we entered a period of initial fund-raising over the subsequent 12 months, I could easily have faced quite a few closed doors from investors as a result.
I recently wrote about the importance of selling and about using your network to branch out and meet new prospects. Let's talk about what you do with those prospects when you find them.
This is a particularly pertinent issue for voxgig at the moment. We are building a small group of early customers, and running a series of product trials with them. Getting somebody to agree to use your product, even on a trial basis, can be just as much effort as getting a sale, especially in the early days. They have to develop enough trust in you to commit their time.
As an entrepreneur I have a short list of favourite "business" films. One that you absolutely must see is 'Glengarry Glen Ross'. The film covers two days in the life of a bunch of "loser" real-estate salesmen. The cast is impressive for such an unpromising subject: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, and more. The salesmen are deplorable characters one and all, and yet it gets under your skin, and helps you get into "sales" mode.
When you found a startup, you learn that you need to develop the skill of getting inside people's heads.
The best founders, in general, have a great deal of empathy. That might seem like a strange thing to say - the cliche of the ruthless startup CEO hiring and firing, and making tough decisions, is very strong in popular culture.
This is the diary of a technology startup, but I have been remiss in not discussing technology for the last few weeks. What has been happening on the software front since our soft-launch in March?
The question of how to get your software built is a very pressing one for many startups. I'm a technical adviser to a number of Dublin-based startups and this really is one of the biggest challenges that they face. It also comes up in many casual conversations that I have with other founders.
LET'S take our startup diary back to practical day-to-day matters. In the last two articles we got quite theoretical and focused on the fundamentals of our competitive strategy. Let's take a look now at some of the tactics that we are using to make this strategy happen. What are the core activities that the voxgig team is spending time on?
Last week I discussed all the ways we won't be trying to compete: on service quality; on user experience and design; on geography; on depth of features; on price; and on being the first-mover. If we're not going to use any of those to compete, what are we going to do?
I talk to a lot of startups and I always ask a few key questions pretty early on in the discussion. One of them is "what makes you different?"
A startup needs to be different to achieve scale. You can't find hyper-growth (which is the whole point of a startup), if you don't have some angle.
There are many good, solid, businesses that don't need an angle. They just need good execution. To take an example from one of my past lives: IT consultancy.
When I began this startup diary, I explained that it was a place to make and explain decisions, and follow up on the consequences of those decisions. A good example is the decision to go fully remote-working. This strategy is a response to our location in Waterford, and neatly solves the difficulty of hiring with a small local population.
When you found a business, you become overloaded with choices. Choices are everywhere. If you desire to start your own business so that you can be your own boss, I would say, "be careful what you wish for". Most of the time, there are no right answers, and you're literally just guessing and hoping for the best. Anyone who claims otherwise is a lucky fool, and should look up the Wikipedia article on "regression toward the mean" - luck goes up and down in equal measure.
Who are your deadly enemies? Every startup has them. You will sometimes hear the statement "we have no competitors" from founders who are very wet behind the ears. Never indulge that delusion-you always have competitors.
What is the difference between launching a startup and gambling? In both cases you're putting money on the line in the hopes of a big payoff. For both, you need a large appetite for risk. For both, you need the universe to co-operate and give you a little luck.
It's time for another investor update. Although I'm lucky enough to be self-funded for now, it's important to get into the mind-set of regularly reporting on the state of the business. This is "real-time" startup diary, so you get the inside track on what we are up to every week. The weekly updates tend to be very focused, so this will be a monthly update on the overall state of the business.
If you think startup life is hard before you launch your website, you should try living with the consequences afterward. Last week was the first full week of proper sales meetings. As in, persuade someone to let you talk to them for an hour, put on nice clothes (no more startup hoodies!), get your sales deck out, and try to make strangers give you money.
Last week we launched our website, voxgig.com. Reaction so far has been enthusiastic, although we have not done any publicity. We have decided to do a soft launch after all. Being live changes everything and is a big step forward.
We are live! We soft-launched voxgig.com on Tuesday this week, and it was wonderfully uneventful.
If you've read my previous entries on software development for startups, you'll know that we practice a very rapid, very iterative approach. We've had a system 'live' for the last three weeks or so, and have been pushing updates to it on an almost daily basis.
We are soft-launching our product next Tuesday, March 13. It's a pretty intense week. You may have the impression from the articles in this diary that I know exactly what I am doing and have everything under control. But there is a difference between theory and practice - and the real world has a way of throwing curve balls at you.
Within weeks of founding a startup, some well-meaning person will advise you to read Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'. Startups are best seen as military operations, they tell you, and the application of ancient Chinese battlefield tactics are the quickest path to victory (against public companies a thousand times bigger than your little firm).
When you finally do get business angels to invest in your startup, one of the first pieces of advice you get is to send them regular update emails. There's nothing worse than investing in a company, not hearing anything for a year, and then getting a frantic phone call looking for more money.
Our startup is building a social network for conference speakers and organisers. In this weekly diary I write about our decisions, why we make them, and what happens afterwards. The idea from the start has been to write about the startup experience as it happens. Now it's time to talk about the launch of our system. We're going to have a soft launch, and there won't be any outrageous parties, but it's still a big deal for us.
As your startup grows, you'll need to start hiring. How do you conduct interviews for your startup to help you recruit the best candidates?
If you're been following this startup diary, you might recognise that as a trick question. Traditional interviews are a low information ritual at best, and a serious waste of everybody's time at worst. Time, more than money, is your most precious resource when you are building a company.
My startup is building our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and this startup diary will give you a ringside seat as we go from broken pieces on the floor to a live web site with mobile apps. I've written previously in this diary about the process we are using to build the MVP. We have a weekly demo meeting, where everybody shows their work. This keeps the process honest and gives everybody a feel for the true state of the software system.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an Irish entrepreneur in possession of a good idea must be in want of state aid. However little known the business plans of such a person, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of friends and family, that he or she is told to consider any and all available grants to be their rightful property.
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.
In this startup diary I report on the good and bad things that happen to the business as it grows. I messed up the choice of name, and we're working on a new name. Lesson: you need to validate the sound of your name when it is spoken. Word of mouth is pretty important.
I started writing this startup diary as a way to make better business decisions. It has clarified my thinking and I hope it has provided you with some insight into the choices that a startup faces. 2018 will be a decisive year for our startup, so let's get back to work!
This is the last startup diary entry for 2017. We've had 12 entries so far, each one documenting our progress in real time.
I write about my decisions as CEO as they happen, as I make them with the data that I have. There is no sugar coating. This is not a self-serving ghost-written autobiography. It is a decision-journal.
It's purpose is threefold: to let you observe a startup from genesis to product-market fit and beyond; to allow me review and analyse my decision-making after the fact, and thus hopefully free from subjective bias; and to provide a radically open forum for internal and external communication. At year end, let's review how this has all worked out.
In this startup diary I'm documenting my decisions as I go.
Whether I ultimately succeed or fail, it should offer a more accurate view into the decisions that anyone faces when building a technology company in Ireland. I can't unpublish these articles to embellish history, which is the problem with many success stories told after the fact.
We live in wonderful times. A technology startup has never been easier to launch. The online tools have never been more powerful, and the knowledge has never been more accessible. You literally cannot watch or listen to all the great videos and podcasts given by successful entrepreneurs themselves.