I’ve had this presentation open in my browser since it came out, so I think it’s time to post a link and close the tab. Ben Evans does a great job showing the impact of mobile.
We’ve recently been putting the finishing touches on a new product at work. I’ve been taking it around town and chatting about it to friends and founders, seeing what their response is. I’ve been tuning the story and figuring out reactions.
One of the intriguing questions that people ask me when I demo it is “How long do you thing it’d take for someone to clone it?”
It’s a flattering question, because it implies that we might have created something valuable enough here to be worth ripping off. It’s also an immensely scary question, because it means that someone might steal our thunder out from under us. Normally you can push that thought out of your head, but it’s difficult when everyone keeps asking.
“I don’t know,” I say, “Under three months.”
I wish that number was a bit larger.
One of my favourite parts of telling people my side projects is watching their face light up when they really get it. If you can do it in the first five seconds, you’ve figured out a way to tell the story.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a natural storyteller. I have to practice and hone a story until I have a good way to tell it.
So you throw the explanation against one person. Then another. Another. You note down when they start to really understand what you’re talking about. More often than not, I bury the lead so hard that the first few people I talk to are only listening out of politeness.
It’s not just about getting the story down smooth. You have to mix it up and see if you can grab attention earlier. You have to find out the hook and move it up front.
Eventually you have a real pitch. You never really stop fine tuning it, but you’ve got something worth telling.
Last night I was at the Victoria Startup Meetup. There was a panel discussion about growing your company. One of the presenters pointed out that the most important thing to help educate customers was to introduce them to specific examples, right out of the gate.
My partner was an English major in University. He’s done plenty of analysis of specific pieces of work. Whenever we talk about them, he gets frustrated, because I tend to look at specific examples and try to extrapolate the general concept.
Generalizations help experts solve problems.
My first instinct in writing marketing copy is to go general. I know all the use cases, and I’ll try to write something that fits them all. Instead, to get good marketing copy, I try to fight the urge to generalize and focus on the specifics.
Specifics help people understand.
When you’re a developer, you think of software in terms of features. The app does this, that, and the other thing. It’s pretty easy to talk about what’s in the app, you just use enough bullet points.
Where I run into trouble is writing marketing copy. It’s not just about listing features. Instead it’s about creating a compelling narrative about why my product will make your life so much better that you’ll pay for it.
You have to bring an incredibly different sentiment when writing marketing materials. I wish I was better at it.
It was just over six years ago that I spent a lot of time thinking about web apps. I was a Mac developer working on a couple of different shareware apps. The software world was very different, especially if you live in the Apple ecosystem. There were no App Stores and the iPhone didn’t have a native SDK.
There were a lot of exciting things happening in the web sphere. Frameworks like Cappuccino and SproutCore were making the desktop approach obsolescence. At least that’s how I felt.
That’s not something I worry about anymore. If anything, I feel like web apps have stopped approaching with such ferocity and are idling. Part of that is that mobile development has drained a lot of the developer talent off the web. Part of that is that we’re reaching the limits of what’s practical to do in modern browsers. And part of that is the App Stores, helping to nullify the web app distribution advantage.
Or maybe this is just a pause while mobile specs catch up to the point where the native / web gap doesn’t matter on phones and tablets. Who knows? Any who cares? This could be what maturity feels like – I care less about the technology we use to build a thing and more about the cool things we can do.
I’m convinced that the web has pioneered quite a few business models that we’re starting to adapt to. Small regular payments instead of lump sums for their use. Ad supported business models. Free-to-use for the 99% of users that don’t need expert features. There are a lot of good ideas here. We’re going to use them.
Now that I’m not seeing the web as the enemy, I can see the good parts much more clearly.
I used to be terrible at answering email. These days I maintain inbox zero.
For a long time, I didn’t like answering emails unless I had a solution. I loved writing the email that showed how smart and efficient I was. The problem was fixed already!
It never failed to impress.
Except, of course, not everything can be fixed immediately.
Instead, emails would sit in my inbox for a day or two, gnawing at my conscience while I got the problem taken care of. Because it doubled as a todo list, both my todo list and my inbox were disaster zones. And since new email kept coming in, things would eventually get lost in the shuffle.
Then, a couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of working with a really good communicator. He explained that the biggest thing to do right is business communications is expectation management. It’s more important to tell people you heard them than it is to respond with an immediate solution.
The good business guys know how to set expectations. “I’ll get back to you with an update by Monday”, or even just a good old “Thanks for the heads up, we’ll put it on the list!”
Disentangling my todo list from my email was helpful. Getting over my ego and responding with the expectation instead of the fix was a revelation.
Now my rule is that I just have to set the expectation and put the item on my todo list immediately. Each new email is a ticket in the bug tracker rather than a crisis that has to be handled now.
It’s been good for my customers, my reputation, and my sanity.
 Or at least unread zero. I’ve never seen the point of moving everything to a different folder if ‘read’ == ‘taken care of’.
I recently had coffee with a business student working on his capstone project. He wasn’t sure about a few things, and his professor had given him my number.
He told me about his plan and showed me his spreadsheets, along with business plan drafts his classmates were sharing. They had a lot of great ideas about product, but great product isn’t enough to launch a business.
These students had just spent four years learning about entrepreneurship, but they lacked practical experience.
A lot of what I’ll say here applies only to businesses where sales take place predominantly online. Here are four things you should know when you’re putting together a business plan:
Your Time Has Value
Every business plan had the assumption that any tasks the student could perform on their own cost nothing. The most extreme case was one woman who was proficient at web design and was coding up her own site. She had written down the cost of the website as equalling the cost of hosting it.
These business plans were extremely optimistic about when they’d start showing profit because they left out their major expense.
If you had to hire someone to do these tasks, how much would that cost? That’s the amount you have to account for your time. Otherwise your financial projections are dishonest.
Lots of people work without pay when they’re starting their company, but you should be aware that you’re borrowing money from yourself to do it.
You Don’t Have a Business Plan Without a Sales Plan 
Every one of the business plans I saw had a neat idea for a company. They had distinctive flairs that existing companies in the space didn’t have, they took unique advantage of emerging technology, they had products that seemed like they would be purchasable for reasonable amounts of money.
None of them described how they were going to promote and sell the product.
How will people hear about your business? How will they find it, decide that they trust it, and learn how your product makes their life better?
“We’ll have a website” isn’t a full answer to any of those questions.
Network Effects Matter
When he told me about his business plan, he emphasized that there was a huge market. Thousands of local buyers used the existing competitors to purchase high value items every month.
If he could get just a few sellers posting to his site every month, that would bring in enough income to make the business worth running. How hard could it be to convince 1 or 2% of sellers to list on his site as well?
My guess would be ‘very hard’. And if you could succeed in getting sellers to move at all, you’d probably get a lot more than 2% of the local market. Some businesses are subject to network effects – the reason you go there is because everyone else goes there too.
Network effects mean that it’s a hell of a lot harder to convince the first few people to use your service. Remember this every time you think about launching anything where the value is in the other users.
Your local sandwich shop doesn’t have this problem.
You Can Test a Business Without Spending All The Money
When you have a vision of the product in your head, it’s tempting to spend all the time, effort, and money of building the thing before you test out the business side of things. You know you’ve got a winner, you know people are going to buy, so build it and they will come. But that’s a terrible idea.
You can’t be sure that someone is going to buy until you’ve actually got their money in your pocket. It’s worth testing that you have a market before you pump tens of thousands of dollars into a bet that might not pay out.
My preferred way of testing is to build a ‘coming soon’ landing page. You can buy a theme for a few dollars, spend an hour putting up the page, and buy a few ads to see if you’re getting anyone interested.
Take pre-orders, but make sure that the customer is aware it’s a pre-order and it’ll take a little while to fulfill. Don’t promise anything that you’re not certain you can achieve in a reasonable timeframe.
If you run your sales process for a week or two and don’t get any bites, make some changes to your plan and try again.
 The corollary to this is that you don’t have a business without sales.