For the last few months I’ve been unusually quiet online.
I’ve been keeping up my usual rate of life-observations and banter on my Twitter account, but other than that I’ve been keeping myself to myself.
“What have you been up to recently?” has become a common conversation starter from friends. I’ve been filling people in on what I’ve been doing in person, but not online, until now.
Don’t worry, I’m not doing the “stealth mode” thing. So what’s this new found quietness about? Surely if you’re working on a project, then you want to get maximum exposure and people talking about how amazing your new idea is?
Well, maybe not straight away. Maybe it’s wise to keep yourself to yourself while you’re getting something new off the ground. Maybe you actively don’t want PR, at least from the “startup scene”.
A few years ago I was working at a studio called Makeshift doing lots of small prototypes and trying to turn some of them into businesses. For the last year I’ve been doing similar in another studio. We relied on our collective “startup” network to get people to use the things we were building. We courted the Techcrunches and Nextwebs of the world, and it was a pretty good approach because we wanted to make things that appealed to that audience.
My new project is quite different and appeals to a different type of person than you’d find at startup meetups. We’re doing a community-first approach instead of “let’s try some landing pages and see what sticks”. On top of that, we’re following a very experiment-driven, lean approach. Those three factors mean we’re going about things in a slightly quieter way than I’ve done in the past.
Let’s say I have a website, and I want people who are of a particular inclination or from a particular demographic to visit it.
I spend money on adverts. I write lots of blog posts. I put all my energy into talking to, listening to and measuring what those people do. And I use the insights I gain from the process to send more of those people to that website, and on we go.
Through that process I’m learning. I gather insights about what people want to do. I establish what language appeals to them. What times of day or days of the week are great for reaching them, and which ones aren’t. I might even get them to buy the thing I’m selling and start getting repeat customers. Amazing!
Then, let’s say I do a bunch of PR to the tech press. A few sites write something about the business I’m building, and I get one of those Slashdot (showing my age) style traffic surges. Amazing, you might say! You just got tons of new users! Look at the uptick on your stats! Wow.
If I’m still in super-early learning mode, a surge in visitors could be a disaster for my stats unless those people are bang-on the kind of audience that I’m looking for. And the likelihood of that is very low!
On top of that, let’s say one of the ways that you’re growing your fledgling business is to have a tracking pixel on your website. Facebook, Twitter, Google, they all offer these. The idea is that once someone has visited your site who is currently signed in on one of those services, you can then send them ads, promoted posts and offers. It’s called “retargeting”. I won’t get into the ethics here — I’m nowadays in the “it’s okay as long as you act responsibly” camp (with responsibly being open to interpretation).
You’ve just thrown a load of irrelevant people at your website. Suddenly all of your “promote this post to all visitors of the website in the last 30 days” work gets really, really expensive. You get punished by the algorithms because you’re sending promoted posts to people who visited your site once because they saw you on Product Hunt and bounced. Not great.
It’s almost as bad as buying followers on Instagram and likes on Facebook. It’s a vanity metric, but it’s worse than that — you get a big number to attract other people, but in the process you’re going to be paying through the nose forever more to get any of the real people to see the content you’re sharing.
Far better to have a smaller, active set of people who like your stuff, than a ton of irrelevant, disengaged folk. That’s what I call “Quiet Data”. It’s data you’ve gathered without too much noise, that’s relatively easy to understand and to work with. Small team? You want small amounts of decent data. Bigger team? You can probably throw more time and money at the problem.
So. I’ve put my head down and made the decision in my new thing that I wasn’t going to seek approval or validation from the startup scene for what I’m working on.
I have bigger things to validate than my ego here — do the people I’m building my new product and business around really want the thing that we’re offering? Is our proposed solution valuable to them? Does it help them solve their problems? And because we’re bootstrapping instead of doing the VC dance, are we charging the right amount? Are we offering sensible prices for different types of product?
To answer all of those questions we design experiments and measure behaviour. I need to know what people do, not what they say they might do because they “love your idea”. I need to know if the people who pay for what we offer actually get benefits. And all of that comes down to having clean, clear, analytics that answers clear questions.
A real bonus of being quiet is that you don’t have to promise to your network that you’re absolutely definitely going to be working on exactly this idea for the foreseeable future.
I’ve done a bunch of that in the past — making promises about an idea — when really you should be telling people that you’re investigating something and trying to validate an idea, or maybe one of many. It’s usually regretful.
Sure, there’s all that “fail fast” thinking, but seriously, the older folk in your family in all likelihood won’t have read those blog posts. They will keep looking worried when you’re telling them what you’re up to. Especially if you’re doing a startup when you have kids!
Validating things in a slightly quieter way, as a side project perhaps, removes some of that risk until you’re at least a little bit surer that what you’re going for has potential to be a good business.
A quiet pitch
I noticed something further that’s different here, in comparison to past ventures. It’s in how I respond to people asking me the “so what are you up to at the moment” question.
I tell a story that starts with an experiment. “Over Summer we did an experiment to see if…” and then “that went well, so we built some tech to make it easier for us to…”.
The story to date ends with “that went well, so I quit what I was doing and now I’m working on it full time” and then “our revenue this month is now ten times what it was five months ago”.
My story often ends without me having told the person I’m addressing exactly what the idea is! I love the idea — it’s super simple, but I’m just as interesting in sharing and discussing the way we’re doing what we do, not just the thing itself.
This isn’t the kind of pitch that you’d get points for on an accelerator programme. That’s because the pitch format is tailored to closing a round of investment. Investors want to hear a coherent, simplified story and they want to know whether or not you’re the kind of person who’s going to follow through and give them a return.
But we’re bootstrapping. So I don’t really need to pitch any investors right now. And I’m not necessarily “pitching” when I’m telling the people I meet about what I’m doing.
Do I really need to hard sell people to sign up for something when we just met? Not really – it’s pretty unlikely that they will given the percentages I see on my landing pages. We have word of mouth from happy customers, Facebook ads, landing pages… I’d rather have an interesting chat about the “how” than the “what” at that point.
A nimble approach
I’ve decided to start writing about what we’ve been up to. I’ll run the risk that some of you folk might click on a link or two and might see the occasional mis-promoted post as a result!
This isn’t a “content marketing” thing, though. I just think that there’s some useful stuff that’s emerged from the way of working that we’ve adopted and I’d be interested in connecting with other people who are taking a similar path.
I think it’s going to be much more interesting and useful for me to write about what we’re doing, what problems we’re facing and how we’re getting around them, than writing another one of those “why our startup failed” or “why I’m so grateful for being so successful and here’s how you can be too” posts.
I’ll be writing about bootstrapping. As in, funding your own growth based on — I know, crazy talk — revenues from paying customers.
I’ll be talking about applying some of the lean principles in a thoughtful way. About being pragmatic with technology. About doing the right thing at the right time. Fitting startup life into family life. Growing a community-led business in a way that’s honest and doesn’t exploit that community whilst still growing it. About reputation, creativity and inspiring other people.
But above all, the next few posts are about building a fledgling business that doesn’t really fit the “VC backed” path. Not because I disagree with that way of building businesses — far from it. Just because there are tons of great people working on ideas that just don’t fit that path.
There’s another way. A more nimble way.
If you’d like to follow along, press the follow button. Cheers. Oh, the startup I’m working on? I’ll tell you about that along the way.