Scholarly Weekly Update #4

Hey there,

My name’s Evan. I’m the lead backend developer of Scholarly, a web app that allows students to find, complete, and apply for scholarships, all in one place. These articles serve as a way to chronicle our week-to-week startup adventures, and to give some insight into the challenges/obstacles we face.

New Features

Fortunately, Max came up to Ottawa this week, so we had the opportunity of working side by side. I don’t know why working in-person is so much more effective than over Skype, but Max and I get the most done when we’re in the same room.

In those few days we spent together, we built our first iteration of what we call the ‘donor dashboard’. Donors will now be able to create scholarships and manage their applications, all in one place. All of our users that are eligible for the awards created by donors will be able to apply as normal.

We plan on incorporating in-site payment and winner-selection, so donors can avoid cutting cheques, long paper-trails of applications, and worst of all, using the mail (shudder).

We’re still tightening up the donor dashboard, so it should be rolled out in a few days — stay tuned!

Cold Outreach — The good, the bad, and the unbelievably painful

Many of my friends have told me that I always take a very engineering-y approach to the things I do in life. Up until recently I’ve brushed it off as a lighthearted joke, but it as it turns out, most of the time, no one gives a shit about the technical details of the product, especially potential customers. People just want to know how it’s going to make their life easier. This seems obvious, but spending 60+ hours a week around programmers can make it easy to go tone deaf to these sorts of things.

I experienced my ineptitude for talking to customers firsthand as I was sending cold emails this week. Trying to appeal to the needs of the many scholarship donors, I sent over a hundred emails blabbering on about how students love our product and how our amazing matching algorithm is perfecting for donors looking find the right audience.

After drafting up a few novelette-length cold emails, I was confident I was going to be drowning in responses. Of course, my delusions of grandeur were quickly met with reality.

Even though cold emails are typically not responded to, it was clear that mine were going to be very much not responded to.

After about five days of no responses, I received my first.

Not interested.

I’m not sure if that was more or less painful than if I hadn’t gotten that response at all. I think I’m leaning towards less painful, as it was confirmation that my emails probably aren’t getting caught in spam filters.

Ready to change my tactics, I reached out to Andre, a friend of mine with lots of marketing and cold email experience. After describing my approach to him, he very politely explained why my strategy was horrendous.

“You need to provide value first”

As soon as he said this, I sat back in my chair. It was so beautifully simple, and perfectly true. Never once in my first batch of emails did I try to help the donor in a meaningful way. I looked like a sleazy door-to-door salesman, and it garnered the response one would expect.

By the time we finished meeting, I had a completely new perspective on how to reach out to potential customers. I was trying way too hard to be a salesperson, when all I needed to do was try to be helpful.

Online marketing — getting our feet wet

After having the Facebook advertising platform recommended to me by 10+ people, I decided to check it out. After doing some research, we’ve decided that social media might be the best way to cheaply generate a steady flow of users.

In Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, he mentioned how the IMVU team dedicated 5 dollars per day to advertising. Although the growth was marginal, it helped them find fresh users to test new features on. We plan on doing exactly this.

Advertising from Facebook will help us test features, compare revenue models, and hopefully increase overall user feedback. We’ll likely set up a few social media pages in the next week and hopefully place some ads in the next 5–10 days.

A chance for redemption — YC Startup School

Just yesterday, I received an email from YC. As Max and I are in YC’s Startup School, I expected it to be another one of the bi-weekly lectures. To my surprise, it was much, much better.

“If you are interested in applying for funding for YC’s Summer 2017 batch, submit your application by 11:59pm PDT, Sunday, May 14th”

I messaged Max at the speed of light.

“Holy fuck, we can apply to YC summer again”

Y Combinator opened up applications for their summer batch for startup school companies.

We didn’t believe it, and we frankly are still a little shell shocked. Brainstorming how to change our application, we realized that we would have to film a new founders video. I don’t remember who suggested the idea first, but within an hour, I had booked a train ticked to Montreal for the weekend. In fact, I’m on the bus as I write this article!

Although YC only gave us about 4 days notice, we’re going to capitalize as much as we can. This weekend’s gonna be filled with caffeine, long hours, and maybe a little bit of hope.

Thanks for reading

— evan