Five things I learned being a part-time Entrepreneur

Last year I started Saucedrop, a hot sauce subscription box business. I did this as a way to gain practical experience and deeper insight into the nuances of starting, running and growing a business as part of my personal development. My interests as a Product Designer have gravitated towards understanding how the internet enables the creation and evolution of new business models — something that I see every day with client work at ustwo, but seldom get free reign to truly experiment with.

Luckily for me, ustwo as a company has always had an ethos that embraces experimentation, so my ambition to undertake Saucedrop while balancing my full time job has been met with support and encouragement from my colleagues. ustwo has also allowed me to trial a policy which I developed alongside our leadership team that allows employees to re-purpose their training budget to use as seed capital to support the initial funding of any new product or service idea. This open minded approach is refreshing but also symbiotic, as it has allowed me to bring back some of the lessons I have learnt from Saucedrop back into our core client services business.

I also hope that over time others within ustwo follow this approach and not only expand our competencies as individuals, but also allow us to collaborate more meaningfully with startups, who are currently under-represented on our client matrix.

Below is a digest of the biggest challenges i’ve encountered since starting Saucedrop in 2015:

1. Managing my time with work/entrepreneurial pursuits

This one is probably the one i’ve struggled with the most, because I enjoy my work, but I also enjoy the autonomy of running my business. Since I started Saucedrop, I realized just how much my day-to-day routine needed to change in order to accommodate all the extra responsibilities to keep the business running. Now, almost every spare minute of time I have — mornings, evenings, lunchtimes and weekends — is spent on Saucedrop. The result of this is that I have had to become more organized — purely to stay on top of things. It has also changed the way I prioritize the way I use my time — making me scrutinize things which I would have ordinarily never thought twice about. I’m still trying to figure out the right balance, because focussing too much on being productive is exhausting and not sustainable.

I have also tried to be as responsible as I can with keeping work/Saucedrop separate, but this is harder than it seems due to the cost of context switching. Having said that, there has also been an upside to this, as I feel the insights and skills I have gleaned from Saucedrop have helped me create higher quality work for ustwo client projects.

One additional observation I have come to appreciate throughout this whole process is that the traditional 9 to 5 work pattern is worthy of further inspection. From observations of my own output, and that of others in the creative industry in the last few years, I have come to the conclusion that creativity/productivity are not inherently linear. This means that the 9 to 5, 40 hour a week mental model we are all familiar with is a very poor yardstick for which to measure creative output.

In future, one thing I would love to try is to tweak our definition of ‘work time’ as a client services company. I would love to evaluate a trial run of a 4 day week (as long as the work gets done and it’s cool with the team), leaving 1 day a week for people to pursue side projects or improve quality of life.

2. Identifying my own areas of weakness

When Saucedrop first started I figured that I would be ok dealing with things I didn’t really know that much about — I would figure it out on my own, after all how hard could it be? However after a while, I noticed some tasks were taking up disproportionate amounts of my time with lackluster results. I realized that my time was actually better spent asking others to help me, freeing myself up to do things I was actually good at. This seems like a fairly self-evident concept, but it’s a hard one to get to grips with, particularly if you’re a stickler for detail.

One example of something I definitely need help with is marketing. Having come from a very design-heavy background, my understanding of marketing has always been hazy at best. This became very evident when after 6 months of doing what I thought was ‘marketing’ — essentially amounted to shouting into the void, posting to Instagram/FB/Twitter without much thought about who I was actually trying to reach. This approach naturally yielded utterly dismal results. Further reading taught me that marketing begins by rigorous planning, identifying segments of the market that may find value in your product and service, and then trying to reach them effectively through a variety of channels in an iterative fashion, treating each as a separate experiment. This realization took months of reading and research to arrive to.

I now understand that marketing is one of the crucial elements of successful product building. I have a newfound appreciation of how the distinct but inter-related disciplines of Strategy, Design, Development, Marketing, Operations and Optimization are the pillars that form product companies and that the design and build phase that I am familiar with as a Product Designer is in fact just the infant fraction of a product’s life cycle.

3. Understanding data and avoiding distractions

Over the past 12 months I have had all the various components of Saucedrop generating data, but I genuinely did not know how to use it in a meaningful way. My approach had simply been to just act on requests made by customers, or my own hunches. This proved to be an ineffective approach, as I ended up implementing features which provided little value and turned out to be red herrings.This prompted some reflection which made me question myself a lot about my own skills as a designer. I’d had many years of experience helping clients build products and services, but when it came to my simple website selling hot sauce, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I wasn’t making more progress. It then struck me that the role I found myself in was an area I hadn’t been exposed to much in my professional experience.

The skillset required to run the business was totally different to the skills I had. I decided to spend time learning about data-driven businesses, understanding the nuances of subscription ecommerce, creating goals and KPIs and setting up my analytics dashboard to report back the data I needed to begin making better decisions about the business. I began to view everything I did as a science experiment — like the ones everyone used to do at school. First a hypothesis had to be formed, then a method for testing it, followed by data gathering and comparing with a control. This new approach has begun to bear fruit — helping identify key areas of strength and weakness — and allowing me to craft more hypotheses to test helping to shed light on where I should focus my efforts next.

4. Access to perspective and mentorship

I have had a hard time with this purely because I am running Saucedrop primarily by myself and am aware this is largely a self-inflicted issue. I am lucky to have people like my wife, colleagues, other founders to offer me general counsel from time to time. However I have struggled to find people within my immediate network that have significant industry experience in the domains I am tackling (subscription ecommerce, fulfillment and logistics, manufacturing + marketing and distribution of food products).

Some of the ways I have attempted to deal with the above have been following entrepreneurship forums, attending events and supporting companies involved in the Foodtech scene in New York as well as reading/listening to a lot of books to beef up my knowledge. I also try to keep a regular journal of my thoughts and decisions, which helps me reflect and make better decisions.

5. Access to funding/resources

This hasn’t really begun to be a problem yet because we’re entirely bootstrapped, and we have pretty much zero overhead/payroll to take into account as we do everything ourselves. Having very few resources/tiny budget has actually proven to be a fantastic challenge in terms of being resourceful and solving problems in unconventional ways.

I don’t feel I have truly found Product/Market fit with Saucedrop, or whether the market is large enough to support our current value proposition. Bearing this in mind, I am still focussing on refining our product and business model until we find something that gets us more traction. The modest amount of revenue we get every month covers all our costs and keep us going, but my concern is around how i’ll be able to ramp up the company when we do hit on something that we want to grow significantly. I guess now more than ever there are many ways to access capital, but raising money is definitely way outside of my comfort zone right now, and I wouldn’t know where to begin — but I am mindful of that situation may come up sooner or later.

Conclusion

One of the things I try to keep in mind is that classic startup cliché — the one that says that starting a company is a marathon; not a sprint. I can definitely identify with that, given my circumstances as a full time employee my timeline for growing Saucedrop, or whatever it becomes, is likely going to be considerably more drawn out than most other businesses. The aspects that I’ve found to be most rewarding include these constraints that force me to be creative in unusual ways paired with the continual sense of feeling challenged and out of my comfort zone. Ultimately I hope these skills will be helpful as the role of Product Designer continues evolving. As long as i’m continually making mistakes and learning from them, that will continue to be the motivating force.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, or have any views, thoughts or comments — i’d love to hear from you. Give me a shout on Twitter - Dave Fisher

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