Work Hard and Play Just Enough

Image attribution to vamapaull

Image attribution to vamapaull

I read a few posts recently saying that you don’t need to work crazy hours to be successful in a startup. The articles were interesting, but I respectfully disagree.

It all depends on your definition of success. Clearly you can build a company that does millions in sales with a 4-day workweek, just look at Treehouse. And for most people, that’s an awesome success. But there’s different classes of success. Putting it in baseball terms, there’s singles, doubles, triples and home runs. If you want to hit a home run, you’re not making it home for dinner every night.

Think about it. How many billion dollar businesses had founders with a great work/life balance? Not many. Do you think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs & Jeff Bezos put in a 40-hour workweek? Probably not.

Now admittedly, I’m young (24) and don’t mind putting in the crazy hours. I’m your typical “balls to the wall” founder that will sacrifice all for the sake of the startup. But all the data points I’ve personally experienced reinforce that.

For example, I work out of the VeloCity Garage in Waterloo, Canada. The most recent successes to come out of there are BufferBox & Thalmic Labs. Both are also YC companies. BufferBox sold to Google back in November & Thalmic sold $1.5M in gesture control armbands in 2 days. You know what those companies had in common? They were easily the hardest working teams in the whole workspace. By a long shot.

BufferBox jokingly referred to their work hours as the new 9-5; 9am to 5am. And after rooming with a couple of the Thalmic founders for 6 months, I can verify that they were on the same schedule.

The companies that weren’t? Still toiling away. The notion that you need to work like crazy doesn’t come out of the blue, there’s data to back it up. Are there outliers, like Treehouse, that buck the trend? Absolutely. But startups are hard enough as it is without pushing your luck.

That’s why you need to work hard and play just enough to keep going. Stepping away from work every once in a while is good for you. It keeps your morale, productivity and creativity high. But you don’t need a perfect work/life balance to achieve that. I can work 70 hours a week consistently and be fine. Any more than that and I start to make bad decisions.

That’s my line. It isn’t a balanced life, but historically, it gives me the best chance to succeed. And since I’m going for a home run, that’s the line I need to walk.

A Failed Attempt at Growth Hacking

Travel News Screenshot

Ever since I struggled to build a repeatable customer acquisition process for my first startup, GooseChase, I’ve been fascinated by growth and how to achieve it. There’s so many traction verticals, it’s hard to know which to focus on and what will convert the best. And with my new startup, Tripzaar, being a P2P marketplace for trips, it’s doubly important since I need to build supply & demand in parallel.

So as an experiment, during the early signup phase for Tripzaar, I created a Travel News section on the site (a la Hacker News for travel) to try and build an early community. It seemed relatively low risk, so we launched the MVP and promoted it for just over a month. After a completely lack-luster performance, we decided to kill it last week, and nobody complained.

Hindsight is 20/20

Having an experiment completely fail sucks, but there’s at least 3 main takeaways that I’ve found valuable.

  1. If your growth hack requires an amount of effort similar to building an actual startup, it’s not a good idea. Building a community is hard. Building one for a product that’s not your core product (that’s also being built at the same time) is even harder. If we were going to really make this work, we would have needed at least one person dedicated to it, not a couple people posting sporadically throughout the day. We didn’t have that kind of manpower and couldn’t get the critical mass required to make it work.
  2. Growth hacks should directly augment your startup. While the Travel News page was under the same site as the primary one, it’s purpose was very different. If you’ve read Andrew Chen’s Airbnb Case Study, he talks about Airbnb’s hack to post listings on Airbnb & Craigslist at once. That was effective because it made their product substantially more useful. Our Travel News page didn’t directly benefit our core product or make it more useful, so we would have had to make a concerted effort to convert people from the news site to our main one.
  3. The 90-9-1 rule is very, very real. While we didn’t have a ton of traffic to the site, the traffic we did have didn’t post much content. Just like the early days of Reddit, we were the only ones posting. A few people were clicking the links and reading the articles, but only a couple of people upvoted and commented. In the month or so we had the Travel News site live (~140 external uniques), only 1 article was posted and <10 upvotes were submitted by people other than us. It’s a well-known rule, but running the numbers ahead of time with these ratios will give you a good idea of the kind of traffic you’ll need to succeed.

All in all, failure sucks, but fortunately it wasn’t too damaging of a failure. We wasted a bit of time, but not too much. As a bonus side effect, we’ve been tweeting the articles we would normally have posted on Travel News and have had a much better response. Always a silver lining.

A travel news community didn’t work for us, what other growth hacks have failed for you?

Using refollow for pre-product growth

One of the most efficient early growth tools I’ve used is Refollow for Twitter. For those that aren’t familiar with it, Refollow allows you to find and follow/unfollow a selection Twitter users. The most common strategy is to follow a bunch of people in your area and then unfollow those that don’t follow you back a couple days later.

It’s based on the psychological idea of reciprocation, meaning that people will feel like they should follow you back if you follow them first. The major risk is that it plays in a grey zone in Twitter’s Terms of Service, so you can’t go crazy with the follows and unfollows, but a slow and steady approach (~200 follows & unfollows a day with a 10-20% conversion rate) usually works really well.

At first I thought it was a little sleazy to follow people in bulk. I’d been told by a couple startups that I should use Refollow, but avoided it since I thought it would make my account look spammy. But after struggling with growth for my previous startup GooseChase, I decided to give it a go for my new company Tripzaar, using both the company’s account and my own Twitter account.

@Tripzaar & @Andrcross Twitter Follower Growth

Follower count for @Tripzaar & @andrcross on Twitter

After about a month and a half of using it, I’m sold. Apart from the obvious increase in Twitter followers (100 to 1350 in that time for Tripzaar, 475 to 1750 for me), there’s been a couple side benefits as well.

  • Our early sign-up page gets 5-10 signups on days I use Refollow. On days I don’t, we’re lucky to get 1 or 2.
  • Having more followers means we get more engagement with travel links we Tweet. To give a rough metric, a month ago, we’d get an average of one retweet per five articles. Now we’ve almost doubled that to once every couple of articles. By no means are these mind-blowing numbers, but it’s a slow and steady improvement.
  • We’ve started to build up a small community of travellers we can talk to. We’ve already received a few feature requests from people who got what we’re trying to do and wanted to let us know what they would find useful. We wouldn’t have found these people without following them on Twitter.

One of the hardest things when you’re starting is finding those initial people who will be willing to try out your new service. Using something like Refollow is a great way to find them. We’re definitely more connected with the traveller community as a result. And ironically, instead of it being a one-sided ploy to get more users like I thought it would, the whole community benefits when you participate. In my opinion, it’s a net-win for everyone and is something most startups should play around with.

For such a valuable community building tool, I’m surprised no one really talks about it. I suppose no one wants to admit that they use a tool to follow people en masse, but when you look at how many accounts have huge numbers of people they’re following, it’s clearly not a secret.

What I’m curious about is, other than Refollow, what are alternative ways to get early momentum?

Growth Strategies Hackpad

Inspired by Fred Wilson‘s Revenue Model hackpad, I decided to create a hackpad for growth strategies. There’s a lot of very effective methods out there that don’t get covered because they seem spammy (e.g. Twitter refollow). My goal is to get all the strategies, spammy or not, in one place. That way founders can pick and choose which ones make sense for them.

I’ve started the hackpad off with a few obvious strategies, but please add all the ones that I’m missing.

https://hackpad.com/0tkoCTWDdHg#Growth-Strategies

For the first time in my life I have a chip on my shoulder

Last week I received a rejection email from YC for the winter batch. It’s not the first time I’ve been rejected, I had an interview a year ago and didn’t get in, but it’s the first time I’ve really felt the pain. What made it sting even more was the fact that the 6 other companies that applied from my co-working space all got interviews. Startups are all about beating the odds, we just beat the wrong ones. But there’s a silver lining:

For the first time in my life, I have a chip on my shoulder.

Over the last few years, I’ve read countless articles about entrepreneurs having chips on their shoulders. Investors look for it since it’s an indicator of persistance. When you’ve got something to prove, you’re more likely to blast your way to success. But how do you actually get this fire?

Some people have it as part of their personality. Others get it from being told they can’t do something and needing to prove their detractors wrong.

Me? I’ve never really had it. That’s not to say I haven’t been working really hard, just that there’s a gap between “hard-working” and “needing to prove something”. I’ve always been told that “you’ll do well in whatever you do”, and while I realize how lucky I am to have such a supportive group of family & friends, blind positivity doesn’t exactly light a fire under you.

But now I have it.

Instead of shrugging it off like any other rejection, this one was internalized. The picture above is the rejection email that I’ve taped on the wall next to my desk. I see it countless times throughout the day. And with a chip on my shoulder, I find myself more focused, thinking more clearly and getting stuff done. It’s been one of the most productive weeks of my life. And I love it. By no means is it the way I wanted it to happen, but at the end of the day, it’s been a huge net positive.

5-10 years from now, when the majority of people are using Tripzaar to plan their trips, I want this rejection to look ridiculous. For hindsight to be “how could anyone have thought this was a bad idea?”. That’s the goal I’m obsessed with now.

So thank you YC. Thank you for the rejection and lighting a fire under my ass. I have no hard feelings to you (or others that got the interview), and will likely apply again in the future. But I have every intention of using this rejection as my Leroy Smith.

 

Stop building your startup in a vacuum

Over the last couple of years, customer acquisition has been one of my biggest blind spots. Creating awesome products is my passion, not selling them, so it’s easy to push acquisition to the bottom of my to-do list. Why cold email 100 people when I can build a nice-to-have feature instead? Heck, it might even bring in 100 hits by itself once people start talking about it! Sure it sounds ridiculous now, but it’s really easy to delude yourself.

Yet at the end of the day, this “schlepping” is what gets you ahead. If you aren’t schlepping, you aren’t growing. And if you aren’t growing, you’re dying. The golden rule of startups seems to be “make something people want”. Well if that’s the #1 rule, #2 should be “get them using it”.

The problem is everyone thinks getting users will be easy once their product is ready. I know I did for GooseChase: “Why wouldn’t people want to share their scavenger hunt photos onto Facebook & Twitter?” and “Why wouldn’t their friends remember those photos the next time they were running a scavenger hunt?”. It’s obvious in hindsight that this was far from a guarantee, but at the time it just seemed logical.

Only a few startups have the fortune of legitimate viral growth. The rest of us have to slog it out. Firing an email to Techcrunch & posting on Hacker News isn’t an acquisition strategy. Neither is a blog post at launch. Can Techcrunch articles & blog posts help? Absolutely. But it’s something you build up over a long time, not a strategy you just flip on at the beginning. A) You probably won’t get covered by Techcrunch and B) your blog posts only have value once you have an audience.

I started to grasp this while watching a video interview with Noah Kagan on his pre-launch marketing strategy for Mint. It was his full-time job to fill up the acquisition funnel before they even launched. Think about that. Not a couple hours a day by one of the founders, but a full-time guy. Compare that with the couple hours a week that most of us do. No wonder Mint killed it. Obviously they had a great product too, but they didn’t leave customer acquisition up to chance. They had it down well before launch. Write-ups confirmed, references locked-in, etc. Amazing.

You need to get people hyped up about your startup before doing your big launch. If you want to get covered by the big blogs, start building relationships with the bloggers now. Leo from Buffer has an excellent guide on this, but the short version is to be someone to them before you ask for a write-up. If your plan is to blog, start writing and build your audience way before you launch. Or follow and engage with people on Twitter who might be interested in your product. Anything. Just start early enough so the benefit is there when you need it.

Are there hacks to speed up the process? Absolutely. Think of Airbnb’s Craigslist hack. But these still require a hefty amount of work and are often only useful for speeding up the acquisition process, not jumpstarting it.

At the end of the day, if you’re not working on your customer acquisition strategy well before launch, you’re building in a vacuum. And just like a real vacuum (not the cleaning kind), yell all you want, no one’s going to hear you. Can you recover from it? Sure. But you’re putting yourself in a hole from the beginning. Startups are tough enough as it is, you don’t need to start at a disadvantage as well.

 

A few things I’ve learned after being in the startup game for a couple years.

By no means am I an expert in startups and I realize there’s a lot I don’t know. However, there’s a few things I do understand now which I didn’t when I started. Here’s a few big ones for me.

1) When you have a meeting with someone and they ask if you want an introduction, it’s up to you to follow up afterwards and make it happen. All you need to do is send an email reminding them. e.g.

Hey, thanks again for taking the time to meet me. As we discussed, you were going to introduce me to Person A. Cheers, Andrew

If you don’t follow up, that’s fine, no one’s going to think less of you. But the opportunity to meet that person will be gone and you’ll miss out.

2) Startups fudge their numbers. Whether it’s complete fabrication or just getting creative with the definition of a “user”, the numbers you hear are almost certainly inflated. That’s why a number at any given time is useless, but movement over the long run is more telling. It becomes a lot harder to fudge growth when you have exponential compounding in play.

3) Any idea that seems like any easy way to make a money is a terrible idea. There’s no quick bucks anymore. Just hard, gruelling marathons and harder, more gruelling marathons. If you’re not willing to spend years working on your idea,  you’ll fail. Writing a blog post on your company’s industry should be exciting. When it’s not, consider that a flag.

4) Setting up problem & solution interviews with warm leads is way more enjoyable than cold calling. Just make sure these “friendlies” give it to you straight. It’s natural to try to avoid hurting someone’s feelings when you know them or have been connected by a friend.

5) Seeing people enjoy your product in person is one of the best feelings in life. Most people don’t realize how terrifying it is to build something and put it out there. After spending so much time and effort on it, it feels like an extension of you. So for you & your product to get validated, it’s incredible. Something everyone should experience in life.

Learning to Code: A couple months in

It’s been a couple months now since I started learning how to code. By no means am I able to code up a prod-ready app, but I feel like I finally have a grasp of what’s going on, at least in Python & Django. Compared to where I was when I started and how little time I’ve been able to put into it, I’m happy with that.

Here’s what I’ve done recently.

Steps Taken

-Since I’m not making my email app a gmail plugin anymore, I’ve been able to focus on getting data to and from the database. It took me a while, but I’ve finally got it working properly for all my forms. It’s still not formatted & styled properly, but that will come later.

-To push myself more and start making a technical contribution to GooseChase, I started working on a couple pages we are redesigning. Just simple stuff first (register page), but I started working on more complicated stuff later (rankings page). I still need help from time to time, but I was able to handle it without too much guidance.

Learnings

  1. Working on something that will be used by thousands of people is awesome. I can completely see why producing code that millions of people will use is a highly attractive proposition.
  2. Learning syntax for a ton of different languages is just painful and confusing (python, django-formatting, javascript, html, etc.). I can see why there’s a lot of work going on to make javascript work for client and server side right now.
  3. The need for explicitness still blows my mind. I ran into an issue where I was trying to update data, but when I hit save it would just create new records in the database. I wasn’t explicitly searching for those records and updating, which is obvious in hindsight, but as a non-technical guy you don’t fully comprehend the need for explicitness until you get there.

Next Up

There’s still a few more pieces of the GooseChase rankings page that need to be finished. Since they involve ajax/javascript, which I’m still not comfortable with, I saved them for the end.

I also need to adjust the database models to track a few extra components. It’s not that hard, but I’m paranoid that I’m going to screw something up. Playing around on a local server is one thing, but changing the database that will be pushed live is something else.

Check out my other posts on learning to code:

-Learning to Code as a Startup CEO: Getting Started

-Learning to Code: 2 Weeks In

-Learning to Code: 6 Weeks In

A chance for Microsoft to be cool

Credit to Andrew Kim for the image.

Making the rounds today is an incredible Microsoft rebranding concept by Andrew Kim. I wouldn’t go so far as saying I’m an Apple fan-boy (although my co-founders would tell you otherwise), but Microsoft products typically rank well behind Apple on my technology purchase list. They just aren’t beautifully designed.

But that’s starting to change. The UI of the Windows Phone is awesome (just not enough apps for me) & the new Surface tablet is gorgeous – especially the keypad in the cover. Yet they are still screwing up their marketing & branding. The “Windows 7 was my idea” campaign sucked. I want Microsoft to become a legitimate competitor to Apple & Google to spur innovation onward, but their marketing has let them down. They don’t have the cool factor.

That’s why this concept, or something similar, needs to happen. It would give Microsoft a new swagger, make it a more attractive place to work and (hopefully) keep them pumping out solid products. I doubt it will fly while Ballmer is the CEO, but if it does, it would be a major turning point. Here’s to hoping that it will.

If you haven’t seen the rebranding concept yet, you need to go take a look.

http://www.minimallyminimal.com/journal/2012/7/3/the-next-microsoft.html

Interesting Post on Start-Up Chile

I’ve been back in Canada for a little over a month now and I have to admit, I’ve really enjoyed being back. The things you take for granted (bagels!) are that much better. I do miss Chile a little bit, but I don’t see myself going back anytime soon. Too many other places to explore.

However, as an alumni of Start-Up Chile, I do pay very close attention to how the program’s doing and the startups that come out of it. I’ve weighed in on the program a little bit before, but today one of the other participants wrote her take on it, sparking quite the discussion. She takes a little bit more of a negative approach than I would, but the problems she brings up are very real.

As Ian mentioned in the Hacker News discussion, these concerns are shared by quite a few people and we’ve raised them with the Start-Up Chile staff. But from the sounds of things, they are making progress and iterating like a startup themselves. At the end of the day, as long as you know what you are getting into and what to expect, you can still have a great experience with the program.

http://liispeetermann.tumblr.com/post/26064265686/start-up-chile-is-ok-nothing-more