About this time last year, I embarked on a business venture with a small team that I’d met whilst teaching a web development course at General Assembly in London. A year later and that business has all but run out of steam, money, focus and direction. I’ve had to return to paid work to keep a roof over my head. To make matters more complex, my partner has been out of work for 4 months due to a sharp decline in contract work opportunities in her field.
Instead of moaning about bad luck and misfortune, we’ve decided to hustle our way out of these circumstances and are going all guns blazing into a new business. A business in which we have no previous experience. No contacts and no network.
We’re starting an online magazine in the food and food-tech space. I’m a web developer, she’s an Oracle database administrator. What could possibly go wrong?
Despite the odds being stacked against us, having gone through this process of starting a business before, I’ve learned many things — about what to do and what not to do in business. I thought I’d share what I’ve learned to date along with what we’re planning to do differently next time.
Having the right people is key to any project. The right people may come in the form of people with the right skills but the right people also means people who work well together.
In the previous attempt, everyone involved had different, complimentary skills. But we had different interests, different beliefs, different attitudes to work and different attitudes to downtime. The cultural fit was completely off and there was no sense of camaraderie.
This time, I’m going into business with my long-term partner. We know each other well, we know how to support each other and how to pull the other up when they’re down.
People often say that being startup co-founders is like being married so why not start a business with someone that I’m practically married to anyway?
The right amount of time
Success in business (or any skill for that matter) comes from putting in the time to master it. A lot of startups are bootstrapped and the team try to build something on the side, on top of full-time jobs. A lot of startups end up end up working remotely to save on office costs. Both these factors can lead to inconsistent progress and large periods of inactivity — both in product development and discussion about strategy and goals (if they even exist in the first place!)
Working closely with my significant other means we’re always together and always able to discuss, strategise, and hypothesise. To some that might sound over-bearing and a complete nightmare but it works for us. There is a very real challenge of not achieving “work-life balance” but we never really had much of that in the first place. I’ve always felt that my work (designing and building websites) is more like play than work anyway so I’m happy to have a work-heavy balance to my life.
With the first business, the other two co-founders came to me with an idea they wanted to build. I like building websites and apps and liked the concept so I got stuck in. We used words like MVP and prototype but in reality we spent 3–6 months developing something that didn’t work that well that we had no idea if people wanted.
I’ve heard it a thousand times in hundreds of books and podcasts (I’ve even written about it myself) but until you’ve done it, I don’t think it really sinks in:
Don’t spend too long building something before you know it’s something that people actually want.
Learning from that this time round, we spent 1 day designing a visual language and 2 days building out a simple site; homepage, about page and landing page.
Testing the market
In the first business, we built the product and then started thinking about how to get it out there. Whilst I was writing code and designing pages the rest of the team could have started market research, surveying potential users and starting the social media drive. A even better approach would have been to do all of that up front and then build a product based on that initial testing and feedback.
This time round we started testing first. We threw together a Facebook page and a friend of mine put together a “like campaign” to kick-start some initial social proof and to gather some data.
For around £40 and within 3 days we had enough data to start seeing who was interested in the idea and the kind of messaging and imagery that was getting the best response.
Asking the right questions
Getting user feedback can be tough. Some even debate should you listen to your users at all? But sometimes you have to ask to check you’re on the right track — or totally off-piste.
In the previous business a couple of attempts were made to gather user feedback but nothing particularly targeted or intentional. This time round, we’re asking for feedback up front by way of a small button on every page of the site. This links off to a Typeform (a great, beautiful way to build feedback/survey forms) and aims to find out what our potential audience are really interested in. We’re also trying to gauge the medium they respond best to (words, video, audio) and whether they’d like a free product supported by ads or a premium, ads-free product. If you’re a foodie yourself and would like to let us know your thoughts, please do have your say.
The term MVP (Minimum Viable Product for anyone not in the know) is thrown around a lot these days. I remember hearing a quote from Seth Godin that most people don’t seem to understand the words minimum or viable in this context.
We’ve already launched a bare-bones landing page to gather email optins but we’re currently building the actual minimum viable product that will let us know whether we’re hitting the mark or not. As the goal is to create an online magazine, we need to build something similar as the MVP. We need to build (and test) a small, focused version of the bigger product to properly gauge the reaction.
So we’re going to do just that. In 10 days.
On Wednesday 15th October, we’ll be publishing Issue 0 (we’re geeks so our issues are 0-indexed) featuring interviews, opinion pieces, London food events details and the latest news in global food innovation and food tech.
Not only that, but we’ll be doing the whole thing “in the open”, blogging about what’s working, what’s not, what we’ve learned and the mistakes we’ve made. I hope you come along with us for the ride and find some value in what we’re up to.