Vanity Celebrations

[Editor's Note: This is a guest post by Brydon Gilliss  founded the shared office space ThreeFortyNine in Guelph where he plays with Startupify.Me, Ontario Startup Train and 20 Skaters. A serial entrepreneur and fervent community builder, he’s also busy organizing a train-full of founders for this summer’s International Startup Festival.]

The moments we choose to celebrate say a lot about what we consider important. They’re a proxy for the metrics we value, because we’re signalling to others by their very celebration. And yet, I’ve always been of the belief that startups tend to celebrate the wrong things.

If that’s true, what signals are we sending? We celebrate product launches, government grant acceptance, fundraising, winning pitch contests, and so on. Too often, these are the vanity metrics of our startup ecosystem.

Of course, some of these events are worthy of celebration. A grant lets us live to fight another day; a winning pitch might drive sales or help us to hire a key employee. But they would be way down on my list, personally, if my goal was to build a real business. Let’s stop concentrating on celebrating events like taking on debt or winning what is often little more than a beauty contest—and focus instead on what we should celebrate but rarely do.

At ThreeFortyNine, we celebrate the achievements that matter to the business model. Consider, for example, the first time you sell something to a complete stranger. That’s worth celebrating because it’s the first sign your business might have legs of its own. In our Founder’s Club events, we celebrate selling our first train tickets to strangers; Foldigo celebrated its first-ever sale to a stranger. Our plan is to build up this list and move it into our monthly socials.

We’re building our Startupify.Me program around the concept that talented developers stepping into startup life need options. Incubators, accelerators and government grant programs funnel them into a single, traditional path thereby discouraging experimentation. We want our cohort to have the option to create a lifestyle business or a even a small, local business—if they choose. Of course, any of them can still try and swing for the fences, but they have all options in front of them.

“We didn’t get to where we are today thanks to policy makers – but thanks to the appetite for risks and errors of a certain class of people we need to encourage, protect, and respect” – Nassim Taleb

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Only in recent years have books like Lean Analytics begun to draw out the real risks of obsessing over feel-good data that does little for the business—so-called “vanity metrics”. There’s a very real danger if a young entrepreneur believes that success comes in the form of taking on debt, winning a pitch contest and launching a product. Those may be required for some businesses but they shouldn’t be misconstrued as success.

Part of the challenge here is the proliferation of what I call success turnstiles in our ecosystem. These are entities whose prime motivation is to funnel as many businesses as possible through their turnstile. It’s a pure numbers game for them as they chase their success metrics. These entities tend to be government funded and these success metrics are defined by bureaucrats and can be tracked up the organizational hierarchy to a speech-writer’s desk.

We need to lead real conversations about what success is because it comes in many shapes and forms. Advocates of this more mindful form of celebration include Jason Cohen imploring founders to get 150 customers instead of 1000 fans and Rob Walling helping startups to start, and stay, small.

Here’s an initial list of milestones and accomplishments worth celebrating to get you started.

  • Performed 30 interviews with real potential users.
  • First customer acquired.
  • First customer acquired and you have no idea where they came from.
  • Covering your monthly personal costs.
  • Identifying the first product feature a potential customer will pay cash for.

Which vanity metrics need to stop being celebrated? What do we need to celebrate more?

Hardware and Startups

[Editor's Note: This is a guest post by Gideon Hayden LinkedIn , associate at OMERS Ventures and previously founder of Tradyo. Full disclosure: I work with Gideon at OMERS Venture and I have tracked his progress at Tradyo with his partner Eran Henig over the past few years.]

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“You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people “here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen.

And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do….

And it’s that process that is the magic.” – Steve Jobs quote as quoted by Travis Jeffery of 37 Signals

The lifecycle of consumer hardware startups is undergoing a rapid transformation (see Chris Dixon’s Hardware Startups). Consider the well known Pebble Smartwatch; the first example of a company that perhaps unintentionally used crowdfunding to demonstrate demand for their concept long before they had the ability to produce it at scale. The $10.7M raised significantly decreased the upfront risk for the company, allowed them to avoid dilution by avoiding traditional financing methods, and decreased their inventory risk due to this ability to accurately forecast demand before production.

This change in the stage of demand generation represents a new paradigm for hardware startups. Whereas before they likely had to build and scale manufacturing prior to generating demand for their product, they can now accurately forecast this simply by gauging reactions to a proof of concept video.

However, the purpose of this post is not to highlight all the good stuff surrounding this method of funding for hardware startups; I think those are largely well known and accepted. Instead, I’d like to address what other impacts this change has on the lifecycle and trajectory of a company.

Exploring the Impacts

Firstly, with large surges of excitement and accompanying pre-orders surrounding these campaigns, a company has to jump from a conceptual and iterative stage to become an operational company thereby skipping a lot of crucial steps in between. Perhaps one of the most important steps they must skip is the pricing strategy for each unit. Without sufficient vision into QA, returns, defective products and COGS, they can’t accurately work these costs into the price of the product. Furthermore, if we look solely at the numbers, the outlook for the company is bleak as they’ve already locked into a certain price with their pre-orders, as well as a specific timeline, and this can end up costing the company huge amounts of money down the road.

See below to visualize this change:

Old World:

Team → Concept → Seed → Prototype → Financing → Design/Manufacture/QA → Iteration → Pricing of product → Pre orders → Distribute

New World:

Team → Concept → Seed → Prototype → Pricing of product /Timeline commitment → Video launch → Pre orders → Financing (maybe) → Design/manufacture/QA → Distribute → Iteration

In the new world, companies price their product very early on, and jump from video launch to production. This places them on a trajectory that perhaps they aren’t ready for.

Let’s consider other impacts of this change:

  • Risk is transferred from the company to the consumer
    • In the old world, consumers saw a pre-order to launch time of 2-3 weeks. In this model it changes to around 9 months to 1 year.
    • The increase in time from demand generation to product in market is far longer in the new world. No Kickstarter hardware campaign has brought their product to market in less than 9 months from the close of their pre-orders – meaning consumers have to wait far longer than they’re use to for the product.
    • The 9 months to 1 year is long in terms of time from pre-order to time of distribution, but actually very short when we put this in the context of the stage of the company and the typical time between conception of a product to larger scale distribution.
    • Effectively what this means is the risk is transferred from the company to the consumer. In the old world, companies would have to take shots in the dark and validate their concept after an upfront investment in manufacturing. Today even if the product is a flop consumers will have to pay.
  • Less appetite from consumers for second chances
    • Whereas in the past consumers may have given hardware products second chances (see Jawbone UP V1 vs. V2), by the time these products are in the consumers hands there may be less interest and far less enthusiasm to give the product a second chance.
    • The amount of time from showing intent to gratifying their demand is so long in this case, that they may have even written it off even by the time they receive it. All this means is you better strike some resonance with the consumer on this first push.
  • Feedback Cycle Lengthened
    • The cycle between launch and iterations to the product is far harder to manage in this model. By the time you’ve scaled operations feedback is just beginning to roll in – and you may lack the resources to implement the needed changes to the product.
    • Perhaps the more important feedback cycle in the new world has become the software iteration cycle that sits on top of the hardware. Often this takes a backseat as scaling manufacturing is a massive task unto itself, but in today’s world, this is where the real value stems from.
  • Shipping incomplete products
    • As mentioned, much of the value stems from the SDK attached to the hardware and providing the infrastructure to allow developers to build applications on top of the platform.
    • With an underestimation of the time required to scale manufacturing, SDK’s often take a back seat and the products ship with limited functionality – far more limited than demonstrated in the concept videos.
    • Furthermore by accelerating the demand, companies often miss out on the experimentation/iterative phase of prototype development. They commit to a timeline and have to choose a solution before they may be ready.
    • With the demand to scale operations so quickly, the QA process inevitably takes a hit as well and can result in higher costs down the road.
  • Discovery and experimentation phase cut
    • In the new world, the video launch occurs before scaling of production happens. This process can teach a company a tremendous amount, but because they have often committed to a timeline and promised a certain product, they’ve locked themselves into something that is great conceptually, but may not be feasible in reality.
    • This discovery and experimentation phase is shortened greatly, and as Steve Jobs mentioned, this is the process that is magic.
  • Inaccurate Timelines
    • 84% of kickstarter/pre-order projects will miss their deadlines.
  • Threat From Incumbents to Pick Off Technology
    • Proven demand with an inability to act allows bigger competitors to jump in and launch competitive products really quickly – seeing this now with Apple/Sony and Pebble

One of the classic problems that lead to startup’s demise that we hear of all the time is pre-scaling. Companies start building out the core features of their business without truly knowing what they are. As they increase their burn rate to high levels, their margin for error becomes extremely low by the time they reach market. If that initial product doesn’t hit a nice trajectory, they’d better find it fast because the cash in the bank will only last them so long before they have to raise again, and if they haven’t proven anything by that time, it likely won’t be an attractive prospect for investors resulting in a down round, or worse.

This is not to say that this new process is a negative shock to the ecosystem, quite the opposite actually. I think crowdfunding and proof of concept similar to that of concept cars spurs innovation and creativity, and encourages new entrants to shoot for the stars; something we always need more of.

However, the risks of the new world have not yet been explored in depth, nor have they actualized as many of the relevant companies are still very young. Many processes like QA and iterative industrial design inevitably decrease in quality and leads to lower quality products shipped, higher cost of returns, and inaccurate pricing of the product; a dangerous game to play.

Crowdfunding and pre-orders is definitely a good thing, but perhaps we need to recognize where along the lifecycle of a company this process exists, and what exactly it proves. It does not mean the company is successful, but merely represents one proof point out of many needed along the journey to building a great company.

Making the business case

I have spent a lot of time in Halifax in the past year. I have been out for HPX Digital and for 2 workshops with Toon Nagtegaal (LinkedIn). It has allowed me the privilege of hanging out with Atlantic Canadian entrepreneurs. I’m going to try to spend additional time in Moncton, Saint John, Charlottetown and hopefully St. John’s (but a road trip like that will require additional planning and spousal support).

My next 2 trip are very different. The first is another workshop with Toon. The second is to attend Atlantic Venture Forum (still working on travel plans).

We are looking for startups that are “at the point where you have to push your business or business idea to the next level”.

The Workshop

Subset of PhaseMap by Toon Nagetaal

The workshops with Toon are interesting. You can read Peter Moreira’s piece on the workshops. The workshop is a Thursday to Sunday ordeal. It’s called an Investor Readiness Workshop. The goal is to put companies through an artificially intense meat grinder and focus on building a stronger investment presentation. The goal is to walk through your business plan, your assumptions, and your traction. Toon provides his guidance from his experience funding companies in Europe and North America. I provide my experiences as an entrepreneur and what I’ve learned living for a short period of time on the other side of the table.

The goal is to provide Atlantic Canadian founders practical advice about refining their business plan. It revolves around Toon’s PhaseMap methodology and software tools.

The PhaseMap methodology helps define and articulate a business case around 4 questions:

  • Do customers need and want my product? = Value Proposition
  • Is there a market, big enough and ready to pay now? = Market
  • Do customers wan to buy from me? = Positioning
  • Can I deliver? = Execution

Why?

  • Learn how focusing on your customers pain is the key to defining your value proposition, market and position. Practical real world, in the trenches advice about raising financing from both sides of the table
  • To provide the team with methods and tools they can use to learn more about customers and product/market fit.
  • Provide individual feedback to startup teams throughout the session, both to guide the iteration and strengthening of their startups and to provide strong group learning

Who?

Ideally, founders either written a business plan, started the investment circuit, and/or generated a few business models or a Lean Canvas or two. The target audience is companies that are actively raising investment capital. The focus is on how to make the case for your business. How good is your business case and how well you are able to present it? These are the crucial factors founders will learn in how to convince others of the quality of your plans.

How much?

Update: I’ve been informed that if companies are willing to cover their own travel expenses, the good folks at ACOA are willing to make exceptions for companies from across Canada.

The workshop is sponsored by ACOA. If you are a founder based in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, PEI or New Brunswick you are eligible for ACOA sponsorship. The ACOA team has informed me that the workshop is open to any Canadian startup willing to cover their own travel expenses to the region. The fees are divided between the founders and ACOA. Fees for founders are $750 for up to 2 founders to attend. This covers hotel and food costs. The remaining fees are covered by ACOA.

When?

The next workshop is June 6-9, 2013 in Halifax.

Attend

It’s a fun, intense weekend that is designed to help startups and founders.

  • Program is open to all Canadian controlled privately-held corporations