12 July 2011

3 Keys to a successful startup: Engage-Build-Sell

Choosing what to focus on after getting started can be rather confusing for the startup founders. In most cases founders lose out on crucial time, right after starting, by focusing on wrong things like fund-raising, team building, deep market research, building a fully functional product as their first release to go public!

When a startup gets started, it should have 4 things:

1. A founding team (or a founder ) committed to making things work against all odds

2. An important problem that impacts a significant set of customers, and hypothesis for the potential solution(s) that needs to be proven right or wrong

3. Have skills to hand-create solution to the problem, combined with the initial subject matter expertise in the domain they are working on

4. Some basic money to survive and work on the problem / solution

The above ingredients are usually a resultant of:

An 'ah-ha' moment of finding the right idea / problem to solve

A natural coming together of a team which has one main goal - solving the same pain-point
Once the problem to solve is identified, the team should spend time in figuring out the best way to executing it. So where does one start, anyway?

What to focus on?

When a team gets started, there are far too many things to take care of. Focusing on things that do not matter may happen unconsciously or unintentionally. The one guideline that perhaps will help in choosing one task over the other maybe in asking the question "How big is the impact of the task I'll do to the lives of my potential/existing customers". This is true not just for teams that are starting out, but all startups across (even helpful for executives in large companies in prioritizing their tasks).

Simply put, a startup should not spend anytime in things that do not impact its end customers / audience, as getting their attention and making an impact early is important.

Broadly classified, early stage startups should focus on only 3 things and keep the customer in mind at all times:

Engage: It is important to engage with potential customers to convert strangers to friends. First, think of who these potential customers are going to be. Every section of potential customers will have an early adopter category. These are people who are quick to use a product that seems useful, quick to give feedback, are largely forgiving and have a sense of what else is there in the market in the same domain. These are also influencers who will bring other users to your product. Look for such influencers in the potential customer segment you are going after. Reaching out to them, engaging in a dialogue will help in building a community that is listening to you or giving you attention, even before the initial product is launched.

How do you reach out and start a dialogue with them? Today, there are various cost-efficient or no-cost avenues of reaching out to strangers and making friends. Startup teams can simply start with their own blogs & establish their authority over the problem they are trying to solve. Social networks, micro-blogging sites and relevant online / offline forums are good start points to engaging the potential customer initially. Let the communication be focused to reach out to a few, strong followers. Do not spread thin. It's not about spamming a list of email ids; but reaching out with your thoughts so that people who are interested will organically engage with you.

A startup building efficient ways of securing servers for businesses can engage with their potential customers by organizing seminars or events that teaches people how to secure their servers by themselves or how to pick the best tools for that job. These events should be designed to give the potential customer a lot of value. This will lead to building of confidence, trust and respect about the product/brand/startup in the minds of the potential customers. But, at not point should these avenues be used to sell directly. The idea is to influence and hog larger mindshare, so that they pick you when they have to make a buying decision. Like how McDonald's is for burgers!

Build: The first version of the product/solution that a startup will build must be something that aims to solve an important / acute problem for a specific set of small potential customers. It can be incomplete or imperfect. What is built can be a small part of the large problem the startup is trying to solve. But, it must be something that can be executed quickly and with the resources available within the startup team. It's important to build and push out to early adopters.

The scope of the initial product must be narrowed down to a very myopic level. This minimum useful product must have one compelling reason for customers to use it. If it's scrappy and looks alpha-like its fine (in fact the early adopters prefer it that - so that they can help you polish it).

Remember using the initial versions of the internet? Connecting the modem to a telephone line, waiting for dial-tone, dialing in multiple times before it gets connected! As early internet users, we had all the patience of dialing a hundred times and endlessly waiting for pages to load - only because that was the only way to connect to the internet!

Sell: Once you have a quick and dirty version of your product ready, reach out to the customers you've engaged with and sell it to them. Here sell does not necessarily mean in exchange for money; it also means getting end customers to use your product. It is important to get as many customers to use your product to get constructive, relevant feedback to build on the next version.

It is important to start selling early. To reach out to potential customers, pitch them the value proposition, sign them up to use the product / solution. The earlier a startup does this, the better, as they have real audience to validate their product and give feedback.

Though there was multiple email applications, most of us flocked to get beta invites of gmail. This was because google had engaged with us and had enticed us enough for us to get wishful about the 'invite only' gmail. Or do you remember signing up as a test user for any of the products in the market today? I am sure you'll be able to relate to the value that test users like you could provide to a product that's being built.

The above 3 things are always iterative and can work in parallel. Engage while you Build, Sell & Engage.

In all building a great product is a slow, iterative and painful process. It's important to believe completely in what you are doing, when you get started, but be agile and keep an open mind to change as you go along. Focus, Engage, Build Quick, Interact, Sell, Get users, Engage, Build again, Sell again, and Repeat all.