Over the past couple of posts in this series, I’ve been talking about my Supermug project. I was focused on this project back in 1999 through about 2002 – so right in the middle of the DOT COM bubble and burst.
At the time, I was already living in NY and working a full time job (initially at <KPE> and then at Reviews.com) and while I was very aware of the DOT COM hype, I had no real concept or understanding of venture capital.
I thought the only way you could turn a business into a full time thing was by getting enough sales to make enough profit to replace your regular salary (btw, I now know there are other ways, but this is actually still how I try to operate).
Anyway, I bring this period in history up because it helps shine the light on one of the other big mistakes I made at the time.
I spent way too much time on product and planning…and not nearly enough on selling or quitting.
It’s actually another classic problem I see (developer run) startups make.
The easy thing to do is build product, to add features, to plan solutions to hypothetical questions, problems, and roadblocks.
The hard thing to do is actually go make real sales. Get people to give you money – or at the very least, get them to promise to give you money at a specific milestone (which, btw, still doesn’t guarantee anything).
In my specific case, I kept my full time gig (and various freelance projects) throughout this period, and it was pre-kids…so while I spent a ton of my free time, including many late late nights, putting Supermug together, I had no real sense of urgency.
In my mind, it had lots of potential upside and yet very little risk. I could take my time and do it right.
Partially because of that lack of urgency, but if I’m being totally honest, mostly because it was hard work that would take me way out of my comfort zone…I simply put off sales until “later”.
Don’t get me wrong, I spent a lot of time putting together sales, marketing, and PR plans - including putting together a complete, highly designed, media kit.
And I read just about every book I could get my hands on about how to do sales, marketing, and PR.
But I didn’t actually go out into the world and try to make real sales!
It sounds crazy looking back (and I wish I could go back and slap myself silly), but that’s what fear does…it makes you act in completely ridiculous (but justifiable in your own head at the time) ways.
How was Supermug going to turn into a business without sales? Honestly, I was basically hoping the internet was going to be a magical path that would lead people to my better mouse trap (I never said I wasn’t an idiot or didn’t fall for the DOT COM hype as well).
If I were doing it now, I would have gone to the actual bars right at the start and had actual conversations with them about my approach. I would have done this for as long as it took, and as many different bars as it took, until I had at least one or two that were ‘on the hook’ and willing to work with me to develop a system for their specific bar.
This would have done a bunch of things to give Supermug a real chance as success.
First it would have forced the product to be molded to what bars actually wanted and would use.
Second it would have brought in users (and money) from the start, which would have helped fuel overall growth.
Third and probably most important it would have revealed how many, if any, actually needed something like Supermug…and that third thing would have clearly revealed that the timing was not yet right at all (and hence I should have quit much faster).
So here’s a few things I learned from looking back on these specific mistakes:
1. Especially in B2B efforts - Sell first. Sell second. Sell third. Then build a little and sell some more.
2. Figure out a way to add urgency to your business. Without it, it’s too easy to sit still.
3. There are potentially other ways to turn a project into a full time thing (but sales is still the best way to make it an actual business).
4. If you aren’t selling, stop. Move on to something you can, will, and want to sell (or get out of the 'starting a business’ game all together).
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Kevin has a day job as CTO of Veritonic and is spending nights & weekends hacking on Share Game Tape. You can also check out some of his open source code on GitHub or connect with him on Twitter @falicon or via email at kevin at falicon.com.
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