Tag Archives: startups

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Be Nimble: Keeping Milestone Optionality

Identifying milestones for your company’s development is beneficial for an early stage startup for many reasons: the first is that planning milestones allow you to focus what you will be working on, secondly the process of identifying and planning them make you question when and in what order you and your team should try and execute something, and lastly, from a fundraising perspective (something I cover in more detail in my blog post on milestones) milestones are useful to tie together what you need to accomplish with how much money it will take to get there, and fundraise accordingly.

On this post, however, I’d like to address a very important concept that should be considered during this process of outlining and planning milestones. I call it, “keeping milestone optionality”.

The principle is very simple… even though you plan your company’s future growth and associated cash needs, you can’t lose sight of the fact that you’re a nimble startup.. not a large corporate that has to report to analysts and public market shareholders. Your nimbleness is your strength. A startup’s growth plan isn’t linear, it’s more like a series of zig zags. As such, whilst it is useful to forecast your milestones so that you have a plan, and understand your cash needs, it is also useful to look at that plan with one eye, while the other eye looks out for actions which might be more beneficial to your company than what you had originally envisaged or agreed with existing shareholders.

On my post on 7 reasons for founders to avoid tranched investments  I spoke about how a future tranche (a glorified milestone, if you will) could have a negative impact by dictating what a company should do, even if midway through its execution it turns out that it was a bad idea for the company to have that goal. For example, imagine if your plan had in place a monetization strategy (and associated revenue stream) kicking off in month 6 of your operations. Month 6 comes along and well, uptake is poor and your revenues are not coming in as expected. You have some chats with your customers and you find out that actually, the value they are getting from your product is mostly around the emerging network effect of your product, and because the network is still small, your early monetization is stifling the value they are getting because the barrier for new users to sign up is still high, and thus those that would be likely to pay are reluctant to pay.

Well, if you (or your investors) held you strictly to your original plan for the sake of ‘keeping to the plan’, you’d kill your company quite quickly, but by staying nimble and adapting your milestones to what you think should be the new direction, you might actually be better off than you would have been before. Naturally, this optionality comes at a cost, as your original plan will have changed and thus your cash burn will change and your goals (KPIs) will change as well… and that’s ok as long as you are aware how.

Good early stage investors (particularly those that invest in pre product-market fit companies) know that this kind of change mid-way through their funding is a possibility and they should be backing you in your ability to make these difficult calls even if it means a deviation from the plan they invested in. However, you should be mindful that there are many investors out there, that for some reason, still believe highly in the adherence to a stated plan. If you can, avoid taking money from them. At the very early stages in a company’s development, particularly during the pre product-market fit phase, investors should invest in you for your ability to adapt to changing and evolving circumstances, and not in your ability to predict the future 18 months in advance and stick to the plan when it clearly isn’t working.

Of course, this isn’t a recommendation to throw out all forms of planning, it still helps to create a milestone plan based around your hypothesis of growth (and relevant KPIs), cash needs, for you can’t be changing strategies every month and you need to keep an eye on cash burn. At the same time, however, you should constantly monitor whether there is another milestone optionality play coming up. If you do find, however, that you are constantly questioning your original hypothesis for growth, perhaps there is a bigger problem you are facing, but by keeping an eye open for milestone optionality events, you might fare better than if you exert uber discipline to a rigid plan that was built before you learned many new things.

In conclusion, as a founder, plan for the future, identify key milestones to grow towards, but always keep milestone optionality, particularly in pre product-market fit companies.

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Why startups need to constantly communicate with their customers

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Originally published on Oct 17, 2013 on TNW

A lot of entrepreneurs talk about optimizing their products so they run faster, look better, go viral – but it’s important to remember that none of this can happen unless you are constantly getting feedback from your most valuable asset: Your customers.

During Seedcamp’s recent U.S. trip, we met with many companies like Return Path, Erply, Zemanta, Percolate, OneFineStay, BarkBox, GrabCad, Pinterest, Airbnb, and RunKeeper, to name a few. The consensus from these conversations is that you must continually talk to your customers. Without doing so, you won’t be able to focus on what’s most important: Providing them the value you promised.

In concept, customer communication seems relatively straightforward. But in practice, everyone we spoke with shared that they all experienced varying degrees of difficulty.

Here are the two main reasons why it can be tough to continue listening.

1. It’s hard to tell who you should really please

As a startup, you have the pressure of fundraising and needing to articulate to potential investors a “big vision,” which in many ways can be an extension of your original value proposition. However, that can sometimes lead to an over-extension in order to give the appearance of not thinking too small.

The problem is that unless your customers validate your assumptions shortly after your successful fundraise, you may find yourself going down the wrong path to keep up an “appearance” rather than refocusing on what you know to be the real value to your customer. This may, in turn, burn valuable resources along the way.

It’s a tough call to make, but it is one that could literally cost you your startup if made too late.

2. Not everyone’s needs can be addressed

When you personally believe a product feature or functionality is what will provide value, you may suffer from self-confirmation bias rather than resorting to a real understanding of the needs of the customer. This could result in creating too many features that were requested by your customers (or yourself), thus distracting you from building on the core proposition.

When turning down feature requests from customers, you don’t always have to coldly reject the critique with a big “No.” Rather, as Jason Jacobs, CEO and founder of Boston-based startup Runkeeper suggests, think about whether their comments can be useful in the future, and tell your customers,”Not yet.”

But you still must focus on customer conversations

Continuing to listen is only half the battle. The first half is identifying who your customers are and knowing how to speak to them effectively.

Rob Fitzpatrick’s new book, “The Mom Test,” does a nice job highlighting the methodical process which you can use to avoid the typical pitfalls of customer conversations. This could include confirmation bias and looking for compliments rather than actual feedback. You may think your product is the best thing out there, but be prepared to hear otherwise from the people who matter.

Secondly, it’s important to know who your customers are in the first place. In typical B2C companies, that might be more straightforward, but for non-B2C companies, it can take a little bit more work.

Take B2B2C models for example. These cases pose a unique challenge because it can be tempting to stop short of talking to the end customer and primarily focus on the immediate buyer, partner, or distributor. Don’t forget that the “C” stands for consumer, therefore, it is crucial that the customer that derives most value from your proposition in your marketplace.

In the example of a B2B2C business, you will want to have a relationship with the end customer if you want to keep control of your brand and what it stands for. Your marketing message will likely still have to be targeted to them and you will have to invest in those efforts to reach them, even if there is an intermediary step of the ultimate “buyer.”

Customer conversations should involve understanding the dynamics of both the end user and the B2B side of things. With customers, you must communicate with them to position your product vis-a-vis the competitors. You can do this better than your distributors or partners may be able to, even if they are helping you reach them.

Focusing too much on partners may leave you with a product that the end customer doesn’t care about or is wrongly adapted to their needs because you spent too much time caring about distributors.

Another form of customer conversation that needs to be done in tandem is one that is part of a two-sided marketplace. Yes, it will be twice as much work, but it is necessary in order to make sure you aren’t building an “unbalanced” customer acquisition process and product development. Below are some of the articles that thoughtfully discusses the topic.

Keep in mind who you are talking to

The most complex situation is when the customer is not various individuals, but many people disguised as a single figure. This usually happens in situations where the end user is not empowered to actually make the decision to buy. Rather, there is a series of people within an organization that jointly make a purchasing decision.

In slides 49 to 51, Michael J. Skok has a good break down of what he calls the Decision Making Unit (DMU). He discusses the potential constituents of a DMU, and encourages you to think of them as a unit. This means “speaking to your customer” equates to speaking to all of them as they jointly make the decision. Not all organizations have all the components of Skok’s full DMU list, so it’s just about finding the ones that are required to make a decision – and think of those as the DMU.

After hearing many founders share their stories, it is clear that you need to constantly keep in touch with your customers as you continue to evolve your proposition and maintaining focus on what delivers value. The further you are from the reference customer, the more you need to be mindful of not losing touch with your users and their needs, for that can be fatal in an early stage business.

In Which Country Should I Incorporate My Company?

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An important decision that companies often ask when starting a company outside of the USA is ‘where should I incorporate?’.

The reason why this question comes up is often because there are a series of benefits pulling founders in different directions and many times founders can receive conflicted advice from well-intending advisors. Some of the issues that founders may be balancing as part of a decision on where to incorporate include things like tax implications (tax breaks or penalties), local grants, and paperwork. This is particularly the case when they are also thinking that the USA might be where they will end up in the future.

Therefore, the purpose of this post is to identify WHAT ISSUES to think about when making the decision so that you can feel more confident about it and it is NOT about recommending a specific jurisdiction to incorporate.

Let’s start by stating that, for the most part, incorporation decisions aren’t necessarily permanent. Yes, there are cases where you make things increasingly hard for you to ‘flip’ your company (flip = taking your company from one legal jurisdiction to another), but for the most part, you can almost always find a way to move your company later if it benefits you to do so. Generally, the cost of doing this will be proportional to the complexity and legal jujitsu your lawyers will have to do in order to make this happen (more on this later). So while not permanent, worth considering all options before taking the easiest or most obvious choice.

Now that you perhaps feel a bit more ‘relieved’ about the not-so-permanent nature of your decision, let’s look at some key factors to consider which will affect your decisions down the road:

1) Tax implications & Tax treaties – One of the key things that can really impact your personal returns and that of your investors, now and in the future, is whether there will be a tax impact to you (and your employees and co-founders). Consider things such as tax relief on returns as a founder or if you flip to a different geography in the future. Consider income tax liabilities as well as capital gains liabilities (note: links are to UK site, but there for definitions, which are universal). Additionally, for potential future investors, consider whether your local jurisdiction has a negative tax impact further down the line for them. These questions can sometimes be answered by tax specialists within your lawyer’s firm (particularly if your law firm has offices abroad) or your accountants.

2) Investor implications – As mentioned above, one reason why the jurisdiction of choice matters is because investors are optimising around what they know their tax implications are, but additionally, there are other matters in the final legal docs which they may prefer dealing with in their local jurisdiction rather than in new ones they are less familiar with. Additionally, they may have a preference where you incorporate due to tax relief they may receive as part of investing in your company. Company governance may also be affected by where you are incorporated. Certain company governance structures are enforced on your company depending on where you incorporate and investors may have an opinion on that one way or another.

3) Paperwork implications – Paperwork is clearly one of the bigger headaches of making this decision. This includes the interval in which you need to report as well as other requirements such as company filings required by Company’s Law of the country where you incorporate.

4) Residency implications – Some geographies may have a residency requirement for the founders, but others not. Keep this in mind, in particular if you don’t have the appropriate immigration status or it is hard to get it.

5) Human Resources implications – In some countries it may be harder for your employees to move to if necessary, and/or hiring may also be a problem because of lack of human capital or cost to hire and retain. Additionally, there may be restrictions on how you can hire / fire employees that might affect how you upscale / downscale your company’s employees. João Abiul Menano of CrowdProcess also suggests: “One should also considered tax over labor, in some cases a tax incentive given to an early stage start-up can largely help to keep the burn rate low (more important even for companies in which labor costs account between 70% and 90% of monthly expenses)”

6) Governance implicationsCorporate Governance requirements tends to vary from country to country. Since you’ll have to abide some of these requirements, you might as well familiarize yourself with these variables before making your decision.

7) M&A implications – When your company does eventually get sold or merged or floated, it’ll have to go through a process. In some countries this process is straight forward and simple and easy for potential acquirers to understand and do quickly. In other countries, it may be less known and thus may cause delays or complications.

8) Free Information Availability –  Although you will likely have a Lawyer helping you through many of these topics, it’s always great when you can learn on your own from others’ experiences. Some jurisdictions have more founders sharing on forums and the like, how they overcame their specific problems. This can be a very valuable way of reducing your cost to learn and thus reducing your legal costs as you know which issues to flag to your lawyers.

Having reviewed all of these issues with your current and/or future shareholders, you should at least have a better starting point to make a well thought-out decision.To further elaborate on these topics, and to be more specific about one particularly common case for UK founders, let’s look at UK vs US incorporation.

Tina Baker, of JagShaw Baker breaks down what the key pros and cons are of incorporation in each:

UK Pros -

· Simple to set up

· Form (Template) documents available (Seedsummit and BVCA)

· Good for companies with international investor base – The UK is one of the most friendly of the European jurisdictions

· SEIS/EIS tax relief for investors may be available for your company –  helps more investors take an interest in investing in early stage

· EMI (for employees) may be available – helps to attract talented staff

US Pros -

· Well-developed template documents for seed investment (lowers legal cost)

· Lighter touch, more founder friendly

· Simpler mechanisms to issue shares (except for US securities laws)

· Document execution streamlined – can be easier than the UK at times

· Privacy – company information (board, shareholders) and financial information not publicly available for private companies

· Large and seasoned US investor base

· Can sell easily to US buyer via merger mechanism

UK Cons - 

· Many US investors will not invest in foreign entities (even if the UK is probably the best 2nd option if International)

· Information about the company (board, shareholders) and financial information publicly available (in some circles, this is seen as a pro….)

· Depending on investors funding rounds can be over-complicated – not all investors are familiar with using the streamlined forms that are readily available

· If you have US investors that are funds, you may be required to give tax covenants/indemnities

· Merger mechanism may not be possible if there is a sale to a US buyer, so exits may be more complicated

· A US listing may be more complicated

US Cons -

· Can be expensive, especially if there is no business in the US

· May not be as easy or as tax efficient to operate in Europe through a branch

· Possibly inefficient tax-wise if not generating major revenue in the US

· US Securities Laws are more complicated

· Filings required with the US Department of Commerce

· SEIS/EIS and EMI may not be available

While this decision is clearly not a black and white one, hopefully, the 8 factors to consider before incorporating highlighted above + the UK vs US example help you better understand how to approach making this decision for your specific case and which questions to ask your lawyers. It may very well be that there are some similarities between the above two countries and your own, but the best way to finalise this decision is by having a conversation with your lawyers about what is best for you, your investors and the jurisdictions in question.

If you have any additional points for founders to consider as they go through this process, feel free to post them in the comments below. Additionally, if you have any feedback on the points above or have a good story to tell about your experience through this process, feel free to post as well.

 

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The Product / Market Fit Cycle

ProductMarketFitCycleProduct / Market fit can be loosely defined as the point in time when your product has evolved to the point that a market segment finds it attractive so that you can grow your product / company scalably. In many ways, finding Product Market fit quickly allows you to focus on company growth rather than spending a lot of time and money on iterating your product to find that fit. Many companies linger in that limbo for quite some time unfortunately. Without this product market fit, it’s hard to inject nitroglycerin to generate the desired growth rate that all investors want when they invest.

Having spent time with several companies that have gone through the process of finding product market fit, I have observed that many get hung up on iterating only the ‘product’ part of product / market fit, rather than thinking of ‘product’ in a larger context. Speficially, the three things I notice are being omitted by several companies that have been religiously using the “Lean Methodology” product dev model alone to achieve PM fit, but failing to find it are:

1) A definition of a Minimum Viable (customer) Segment – As originally defined by Michael J. Skok
2) The testing of a well thought out positioning strategy alongside the testing of an MVP
3) The testing of a complimentary go to market / marketing strategy that tests your product vis-a-vis the chosen positioning strategy above

If you think of the three above as a bullet, visualise them as the lead pellet (product), the shell (positioning), and the gunpowder (go to market) that makes a bullet work. They only work when tested all-together, not separately. Testing only the lead pellet, doesn’t get your bullet very far.

In order to fit these three points into a more familiar framework, I have borrowed the Lean Methodology’s Build-Measure-Learn loop and expanded on it to create a larger loop designed specifically to help guide you achieve a series of test loops to achieve product/market fit. This isn’t perfect (and would appreciate any feedback on how to improve it) but I figure it’ll help provide a framework by which to test all in conjunction.

Here is the Product/Market Fit Cycle Model I propose (see attachment for illustration at bottom of post):

Start with a Product Hypothesis / Idea

This is effectively the way YOU think of your product the day you conceived it.
This should also have the rudimentary aspects of a defined value proposition for a set of customers.

Identify a Minimum Viable Segment (Customer Base)

The concept of an MVS comes from Michael J Skok’s observation of one of the flaws of the standard Lean Model. You can see his work on this here: http://www.mjskok.com/resource/gtm-segmentation. In summary, a Minimum Viable Segment allows you to test your product on a focused segment rather than leaving it too open ended across several segments, each giving your potentially different outcomes. The benefit of identifying a minimum viable segment is it allows for better differentiation of your product within your market segment, thus, you get easier referrals from this group as well as more efficient use of capital to acquire them.

Questions to ask yourself as you define your MVS:

*Who are my potential customers?
*How do I find them? (which blogs, which media, which social networks, which retail locations, which distributors, etc)
*What will they be willing to pay? (you may not know this off the start, but you’ll be able to determine this as you test it in the next step)

Build a Minimum Viable Business Model

The Business Model Canvas helps a lot in identifying a lot of the components needed for a fully operational Death Star, but what we are trying to test here is more ‘does it work’, rather than filling in all the components of the Business Model Canvas too early, and which you may not know at a start.

The three parts to the Minimum Viable Business Model include: A positioning strategy, an MVP, and a Go 2 Market Strategy.

*Build a Positioning strategy

As you create your positioning strategy, make sure it will resonate with your MVS and product hypothesis, or otherwise iterate these so that they are harmonious with each other. No point in having your positioning not be something that your MVS values, for example.
If you are not familiar with what a positioning strategy is, read the following book, it is the gold standard: Positioning by Jack Trout & Al Ries

*Build an Minimum Viable Product that fits the above positioning strategy

Most tech founders generally rock at this bit, so nothing I can really add here. However, take a look at my previous post on growth hacking summarising Traity’s experience in optimising their product to yield better conversions if you want to optimise your product for growth and reduce the potential of your product getting in the way of conversions: http://thedrawingboard.me/2013/04/15/on-growth-virality-loops-and-customer-acquisition/

*Build a Go 2 market strategy

A Go 2 Market Strategy is, simply put, a strategy that attempts to cost-effectively deliver the value proposition to the selected target segment(s). It is a strategy to help get the product or service out in the marketplace and includes pricing strategies, sales strategies, and marketing methods (internet marketing, direct marketing, PR, etc). It can include things like identifying key distribution channels and key partnerships required to get your product to the identified minimum viable segment. Clearly this will be different for B2B companies than B2C companies. The aim is to build a Go 2Market strategy that targets you MVS with your selected positioning strategy for best effect.

Once having completed and packaged the above three in a minimum viable form, assign a “cost” (what money you are going to spend on validating it) to the combination and set some expectations around target figures upon which to analyse your resulting metrics. How many users are you expecting, what constitutes an ‘active’ user? A churned user? A conversion? etc. Effectively, you want to have ‘targets’ for what you experiment will yield.

Test & Measure

As you know, a key part of understanding forensically whats happened after a test, you will need to have set up good tests to start with and also adequate data. A good book on this is: http://leananalyticsbook.com/  I’m in the middle of reading it, but so far it seems in line with what I’ve seen several startups doing.

Tests will include quantitative (Kissmetrics & http://newrelic.com/) and/or qualitative tests about how the product is perceived based on people that didn’t activate. Using the output from your tests find out how your users are behaving to gain intelligence.

However, keep in mind that testing will be different between the different phases of startups in how you can test. In the words of Andreas Klinger (co-founder of Lookk):

 I personally see product dev as a spiral. The further you go outside (mature) the more quantitative your approaches can be, the further you are yet on the inside the more qualitative. You repeat the same phases (build,measure,learn etc) but you use different tools.

 Most startups are in that inner core of that spiral but play games of outer ends. We can call this premature scaling or just inefficient behaviour (e.g. using metrics when there is no clear data). Many product hypotheses/ideas and especially customer segments can already be eliminated very cheaply before MVPs – eg by qualitative approaches (eg customer interviews).

Metrics are for me personally a bit further down the spiral.

Once you go down the path of metrics, use the Pirate Metrics framework (summarized below) to forensically analyse why (http://500hats.typepad.com/500blogs/2007/09/startup-metrics.html)  -

* Arrivals & Acquisition – How many people landed on your website coming from a marketing campaign that you are tracking and then you acquire the user. For a SaaS product, this usually means a sign up.
* Activation – The user uses your product.
* Retention – What is your churn? How many of the users you have in your userbase are active? How many stopped being active and why?
* Referral -How many of the users that are using your product are willing to refer to others?
* Revenue -How many users are willing to pay you of the ones that are using the service?

Learn/Debug your Minimum Viable Business Model (MVB – yeah ok, too many MV* acronyms, but too long to spell out)

Questions to ask yourself as you are reviewing the metrics:

Are you having high arrivals but poor Acquisition/Conversion? – Perhaps your Positioning is working, but your product isn’t living up to expectations. Think about this as you talked about a great party but when people showed up they thought the party (product) was lame.

Are you having high acquisition/conversions but poor arrivals? – Perhaps your positioning/marketing strategy is not working, and for those few people that are in your MVS that land on your site by luck, convert because they find the product useful. Perhaps you didn’t allocate enough cash to your Go 2 Market, or rather the cost of acquisition of the chosen MVS is higher than expected so you are just aren’t getting enough eyeballs on the site, but when they do they convert.

Are you having so-so arrivals, and acquisition at your target figure? – Perhaps your Go 2 Market strategy is not cost effective, or you didnt find the most efficient channels. Perhaps you didn’t allocate enough money to the Go 2 Market strategy.

Are you having high Arrivals, high Acquisition & Activation, but poor Retention? Then likely your product is failing in delivering ongoing value. There is something wrong with it. Use product analytics to find key churn out points and qualitative studies to find out what is pissing people off.

Are you having a hard time monetizing? – Perhaps there isn’t enough value in the product hypothesis for the MVS if you can’t get anyone to pay even if they are engaged (not enough of a pain).

No referrals? Well, likely a function of the above as well. Perhaps you haven’t build enough virality into your product (see Juan Cartagena’s work on this).

Decision point & New Ideas

Now that you have the output and a series of metrics and potential red flags as to where things went wrong.. you can consider various options before you go through the loop again:

Do I iterate on one of the factors of the Minimum Viable Payload? (try a different positioning strategy, go 2 market strategy, or product revision?)
Do I pivot to a different product hypothesis?
Do I pivot to a different minimum viable segment?

In conclusion, I hope you find this framework useful in helping you diagnose what you should try out. Let me know what you think and if you’d add/subtract anything to it.

Click here to see the full diagram of the Product / Market Fit Cycle.

Here is the slide share of a recent presentation I gave on the subject: