how to launch a successful start-up

BeNeighbourlyLogo

Fanfare please.  We’ve launched BeNeighbourly.com, 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The launch anxiety has been superseded by the reality of trying to get things off the ground.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 (www.PTAsocial.com).  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 beneighbourly.com) 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).

Advert6-HiveSW17

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.

eliminating obstacles to success…one at a time

I realised today, whilst strolling along deserted beaches to a beautiful lagoon in Tibau do Sul, Brazil, that I’ve written a lot recently about my travels and not quite so much about my business. Which probably leads most of you to think that all this “business” stuff is just my way of saying that I couldn’t hack it in the rat race and have decided to give myself the rest of my life off.

Nearly, but not quite.

If you remember, the idea wasn’t so much to drop off the grid entirely, it was more to set the grid to roaming. Seeing if it were possible to have a work/travel/bank balance.  Not spending more than 4 months at a time in the UK unless there was a very good reason (either I was incarcerated, or in traction, or my mum simply forbade me from flitting off again).  But getting some sort of business up and running to pay for the travels, so that I wasn’t burning through my cash.

Again.  Nearly, but not quite.  (Getting there.)

At the time I started all this, I hadn’t factored on The Mack getting in on the act.  With hindsight, it’s probably one of the reasons that we got together.  But I was so busy thinking that he’d Derren Brown-ed me into being his girlfriend that I wasn’t paying attention.  All that tappety-tap-tapping my shoulder and repeating seemingly innocuous words.  And leaving a trail of gingerbread men on my route to our first date.  I mean.  The Mack is ginger.  And he’s a man.  The fact that I didn’t see them because they’d been squashed by passing commuters didn’t stop their subliminal power.

Anyway, much as I would love to lay the blame for my lack of results squarely at The Mack’s door by saying that he’s diverted my focus, jumped on the start-up bandwagon, addled my brain with wantrepreneurial jargon… that would be (1) wrong, (2) wrong and (3) wrong.  Because, if the truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have got as far as I have if it weren’t for him.

Thanks to The Mack, I’ve identified the top 3 things that have been stopping me making progress on the business side of things and I’ve figured out a solution to each of them.

Issue #1:  Never Seeing Anything Through to the End

I am excellent at starting things.  And doing a nice design.  I am less successful when it comes to completing anything.  Or caring at all after about 2 weeks.  Or when someone distracts me with something shiny.

Apparently, this lack of motivation for really pushing through on my projects is down to my inherent pessimism.

You say pessimist, I say realist.  Let’s call the whole thing off…

Solution #1:  Learned Optimism

The Mack bought me a great book by a guy who made up the idea that you can learn to be more optimistic and that it will transform your life.  I was a little sceptical.  Oh wait…

I started reading it and my productivity levels went right up.

Unfortunately, I **accidentally** left it in the seat back of the plane to Buenos Aires.

What a downer.

Issue #2:  Contrasting Working Styles

I have discovered through this process that I’m quite difficult to work with.  I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why that is, but it seems to have something to do with the fact that I need to get my own way on everything because my way is the right way and everybody else is stupid and wrong.

I don’t know.  It might be that.  It probably isn’t though.  Probably it’s The Mack’s fault.  For being stupid and wrong.

Solution #2:  Working Space

I think that space is very important when you’re a couple working together.  Right now it’s about 4,500 miles and things seems to be going well.

Issue #3:  Hating the Game

I have a slight problem with the whole start up scene.  I think it’s the combination of self-congratulation and jaw-dropping naivety that sticks in my craw.  And when I say slight problem: what I mean is utter contempt.

I’m not even sure how I ended up working on start ups.  I think my plan was just to have my own business.  I don’t remember ever talking about wanting to build a start up.  Tappety-tap-tap….

Solution #3:  Hate the Player

Hell, this one’s easy.  Every time I catch The Mack reading one of Paul Graham’s essays or signing up to a General Assembly workshop, I openly despise him.

I think now that I’ve eliminated these issues, progress will come in leaps and bounds.  Stay tuned, people.