If you focus on nothing else…
Being a startup, you’re always fighting against the odds. CB insights recently released a post-mortem on 101 startups, boiling down the 20 top reasons why startups fail. While there are likely 100 more reasons that they don’t list as to why a business can fail, as a founder, you’re out there trying to desperately balance hundreds of things to prevent failure, let alone, succeed.
Someone recently asked me what a ‘day in a life’ looks like for me. I answered with a blank stare. I haven’t had a typical day for the last 2 years. There’s so much to do that even if I worked 24x7, I still wouldn’t make a dent. Some days feel like you’re pushing a boulder up a hill and others, the boulder rolls back down and knocks you flat! It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and it’s certainly not what the media portrays, but hey, it’s reality.
In the first year after launching MoveSnap, I struggled with prioritizing. I played the CEO, chief janitor, accountant, product designer, sales guy, social media marketer and of course, my alter-ego, “Kelly”, was our customer support professional. Every time something else came up, it distracted me from what I was trying to accomplish. They say every entrepreneur has some form of A.D.D, but it felt like I was experiencing the severest form. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t focus on anything for more than 5 minutes. Everything was getting done, but in reality, nothing was getting done.
What’s worse is that progress is an entrepreneur’s most untapped power. It fuels motivation and performance like no other incentive. On the other hand, if you’re not making progress, sooner or later, you’ll enter the infamous ‘trough of sorrow’; a dark place where every founder has been. Getting out of the trough takes a huge chunk out of you. It’s almost the equivalent of a hard reset on your smartphone (sorry, bad metaphor, I know…). Some founders never quite find that reset button inside them. They never make it out of the trough.
I knew I had to change my approach, and fast. I needed a singular focus. A major like in university, per-se. As Reid Hoffman (Co-founder of LinkedIn) said in one of his recent episodes of Masters of Scale podcast, “Deciding which fires you let burn can mean the difference between success and failure”. The funny thing is I already knew this. Much like strategy is more so about deciding what not to do, as opposed to do, being a startup founder is about knowing which problems NOT to solve, as much as knowing how to solve them. However, it’s easy to lose track when you’re in the daily grind and put out three fires by 8am each day. I knew that if I didn’t take immediate action, there are only a couple of ways this will end — both weren’t pretty.
So ok, let’s focus on one thing and do it well, right? Hmmm…easier said than done. Focus on the wrong thing and put all your energy into it, and you’re dead in the water. So how do you know what the right thing is? Do I focus on sales? Marketing? Product? Raising money? Hiring? For me, it involved going back to the number one reason why startups succeed or fail — Having a great product that solves a real problem. It’s market need and how you go about creating value in that market.
I went back and chatted with my team. We knew we were solving a huge problem (have you ever met anyone who enjoyed moving and doing the dozens of tedious tasks in prep for their move?). The market was also there, with millions of people relocating each year. The question was how well are we solving it? Do our users kinda like us, or are we REALLY making a difference in people’s lives?
We asked ourselves tough questions. “What if we pulled the plug tomorrow? Would anybody really care?”. It was a tough discussion. Lots of questions, not enough answers, but what that conversation really did, was unite us all around the same focus; making a product that people L-O-V-E. We decided, if nothing else, from this moment forward, all we will obsess about are our clients and our partners. It was no longer the zillion metrics that every startup blog encourages you to adapt that mattered. We stopped fretting about MRR, CAC, user counts, ratios, and whole bunch of other jargon. Instead we laser-focused on delivering an amazing experience that our customers and partners love.
We found ways to better connect with our customers. The office became alive as we spoke to hundreds of people who were in various stages of the moving process. Almost every conversation came with nuggets that we could incorporate into our service, and the more we dug in, the better we understood what our future vision might like. We took in the good, the bad, and darn ugly. Celebrated successes and debriefed on where we failed and made mistakes (and we made a ton of them, but how else would we have learned?). We obsessed about making every user and every partner into a raving fan. Doing whatever it took with our limited resources to make sure every user turns into a promoter.
Four months into 2017, new government rules intended to cool down the housing market in Toronto kicked in. Almost immediately, our primary market reported sales volume drops of 21%, followed by 38% and 41% in the following months. In the blink of an eye, we went from a company that was somewhat thriving into one that could have a tough time surviving. The following months were just as rough with 35% volume declines, yet despite all the turmoil, our user volumes, market share and revenues grew exponentially. We were firing on all cylinders. Revenue was growing, our user counts were growing, as did our market share. Our phones, which only saw outbound calls for the first 16 months, suddenly started ringing with interest from new partners. Even prospects who ignored us in our first year or said they weren’t interested were now calling, asking to schedule meetings and demos. So what happened?
The word got out. Without even knowing it, by focusing on our customer’s success and delivering a service they love, we had developed a small, but mighty army of raving fans. Whether partners commented on dozens of Facebook threads saying how great our service is and how their clients love us, to users spreading the word to their friends and family, the big bet we made to focus on making a product that people love was actually paying off (and at a time when we needed it most).
It felt like we finally turned a big corner. We’d go to a trade show and have customers drag their colleagues into our booth saying “You gotta meet these MoveSnap guys!”. Recently, one of our largest partners came up for their subscription renewal. This partner took 6 months of chasing down before they finally agreed to join our service. They are a big deal! I felt sick to my stomach when I got an email notification that their credit card got declined when we went to charge for the renewal. “Shit.. they’re not gonna renew”, I thought in my head. Five minutes later, an email comes in from the partner: “Yes I have a new card… please call me to update it”.
That moment we knew we had the answer to the tough questions we asked ourselves months before. If we pulled the plug tomorrow, people would ACTUALLY care. Yes they would!
Lesson learned: If you focus on nothing else, obsess about your customers. Create a product that people LOVE. Everything else will fall into place.