how to launch a successful start-up


Fanfare please.  We’ve launched, our neighbourhood community site.  Whoop whoop!  The good people of SW17 and SW19 do not know how lucky they are to be our pilot subjects.

It’s funny – with my corporate background, I’ve done my share of mega-ton deals.  I’ve met with a load of powerful people, controlling a lot of money.  Didn’t really faze me.  Just got on with it.

And yet, the time comes for me to send an email to a few dozen people (the ones that had filled out the Be Neighbourly survey back in March) to unveil the site, and anxiety has basically liquefied my insides.

What would they think of it?  Would it live up to their expectations?  Do they like the colour scheme?  The bee logo?

Turns out I needn’t have worried.  Most of them were on holiday…

what a difference two weeks makes

That was two weeks ago.  We’ve had over 70 people sign up since then and we’re starting to see a little bit of user-generated life on the site, which is really encouraging.  Although our numbers are modest, our conversion rates are high – a good chunk of people who visit the site register, so we’re doing something right.  I think it’s the bees…

Our whiteboard is now earning its keep.  We have a war map, charting our target areas for flyering (highlighter-boundaried and numbered “zones”; little crosses to denote sign-ups).  We have our daily tasks written in big letters to shame us into doing at least some of them.  And we have our weekly sign-up figures – which we update on a Friday in a scene reminiscent of the number round on Countdown, but with The Mack as Carol Vorderman.

The launch anxiety has been superseded by the reality of trying to get things off the ground.  I already feel very differently towards Be Neighbourly than I did just two weeks ago.  I’m less scared, more focused.  I’m now thinking about 3 versions ahead, whilst trying to build traction for version 1.  I’m much more comfortable talking about it as an actual business, now that there is something tangible I can point to.  I feel more gung-ho American about it, less mortified British.

And I’ve learned a heck of a lot about start-up life in these past two weeks.  So I’m going to share my new-found wisdom in the hope it helps others in a similar position.

things to remember when you’re launching a start-up

Right now, the only person who cares is you:  The fact that you’ve been living your start-up for several months and spending all of your spare time working on the concept, the workflow, the design of little bees and miniature hams etc., does not mean that anyone else has, or will, give it a second thought.  It is your business to care about your start-up.  And it is your business to make other people care about your start-up. “Their” job, generally, is to ignore it until it becomes commonplace.  For examples, see everything, ever.

This is just the beginning:  Launch is just the end of the idea phase and the beginning of the gruntwork phase.  It doesn’t matter how much audience testing you’ve done till now.  The fact is, you don’t know what people really want until you put it in front of them and see their reactions.  Now is the time to muster all your courage and your energy.  Because getting to the bottom of what people want takes time, patience and the hide of a rhino.  My friend Tes has a great web app helping school PTAs to spread the organisational burden amongst more parents and letting time-poor parents get involved in their child’s PTA without having to over-commit themselves (  It’s taken her a year of hard work, but she just secured her first sale and she’s much closer to knowing what her customers want.

Always be closing.  You may think that your start-up concept is a no brainer.  Local happiness?  Friendly neighbours?  A fulfilling life supported by a loving, sociable community?  I mean, it’s even written in the bible.  Surely everyone gets it?  Dream on, dreamer.  Truth is, you’re in sales now and the same rules apply to selling social connection as to selling widgets.  You’d better get comfortable hawking your product, because this is your only job now.  And don’t expect anyone to get it first time – we reckon that for most people, around 3 – 4 “touches” (i.e. the number of times they come into contact with us or is what it takes to convert a registration.

Get used to a million mini fails.  Like trying to hand out flyers outside Colliers Wood tube station on a Monday night.  Sure, it may be sunny.  You may be offering haribo and gingerbread men as sweeteners.  But this is still London.  And these people are still miserable.  You stand between them and home.  Your chances of survival are not good.  Move on (preferably at a run).


Don’t obsess over the data.  When you launch, the temptation is there to check your google analytic stats and user sign ups every 18 seconds.  STOP.  Take it from a master, it’s a monumentally distracting procrastination habit.  Pick a day of the week and make it stats day.  Buy some rosettes and streamers if you must and really go to town.  The only things I check on a daily basis are new registrations (because I send them a personal welcome email) and bounce rate (to check that there isn’t a major technical issue with the site).

Laser beam focus on the positives.  It doesn’t matter what they are. At Be Neighbourly HQ (aka our lounge), we daddy splash if we’re up and at ’em before 10am.  Forget your old measures of success.  These don’t have any place in start-up world.  In our world, the small, first wins are everything, because they are usually the hardest to get.  70 registrations in two weeks for us is phenomenal and surpasses our best expectations.  Now all we have to do is get them fully engaged…

Don’t be tempted to skip steps.  We’re have a strategy for each of our start-ups and we’re super-gluing ourselves to it.  Sure, we add to it as we go along, as we figure out what works (more cryptic marketing messages, evening flyering, contacting local organisations) and what doesn’t work (flyering outside of a tube, or a supermarket, or with The Mack handing out sweets to young children…).  But we don’t jump ahead of ourselves.  Our only job at this point in time is to get new users into the top of our funnel (ooh er), get ’em registered and get ’em interacting on the site.  This doesn’t mean I don’t have grand plans to take over the world with Be Neighbourly ***strokes large fluffy white cat.***  But I’m not an idiot.  We’re nowhere near anywhere yet.  So we’re sticking to the plan and absolutely no wandering off.

That’ll do pig.  Done is better than perfect.  Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Don’t overthink it.  Don’t anticipate problems.  Fuck it.  All of these are the right attitude towards building a start-up.  Mine (inherent perfectionism combined with a lawyer’s attention to detail) is not.  Last night I screeched that Be Neighbourly was an absolute sack of shit and it was utterly pointless continuing with it, because I realised that the way the developers had programmed the site doesn’t allow us to link to individual listings.  This morning I’ve taken a long, hard, look at myself and got over it.  For today at least.

Try to enjoy it.  Hahahahahahaha.  LOLZ.  ROFL.  etc.  Not really possible, but we’ll give it a go anyway.  I’ll admit it’s a very weird thing to be doing (and most people assume that it’s a hobby rather than a business – and in fairness, it is a hobby until it starts generating some revenue), but It still beats working for a living. See also: Positives; That’ll do Pig.

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