If you want to support your startup friend, buy their stuff

Jason Preston
May 13, 2015 · 4 min read

I HAVE AN entrepreneurial friend who recently launched a travel app that’s pretty cool. It’s an alert system that will tell you whenever there’s a greater than 50% discount on a cool flight somewhere, and it’s called Amazing Airfare.

These days, with two little (amazing) kids, a startup of my own, and a wife who is doing her own awesome podcast startup, the spontaneous cool vacation/travel thing is not so much in my wheelhouse. But I wanted to support him, so I started drafting an email to my friend that basically said: “Hey, how can I help?”

…and then I came to my senses and deleted the email, unsent.

If someone asked me that cookie-cutter question: “What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started your company?” — my answer would be:

I wish someone would have told me how unbe-effing-leavably hard it is to get people to buy your stuff.

To be fair, someone probably did tell me, but since entrepreneurs mostly like to blog and talk about building products or getting funded, that means that the real work of selling your product can be a surprise to first time entrepreneurs like myself.

Case in point: after doing a lot of venue research, getting a very cool logo made, building out our website, and writing up the press release, my co-founder and I announced the first Dent conference to be held in March of 2013.

Our gathering is by invitation-only, so we have a much smaller pool of potential customers, and a lot of them are really important people who are used to getting stuff for free. We launched in August 2012, and we found the first qualified Denter with wallet in hand by?

January of 2013.

The first customer is the hardest get. By contrast: more people have already registered for Dent 2016, ten months out, than had at this point in all prior years combined.

The sentiment that made me draft that email to my friend Zac with Amazing Airfare is a great one. It’s a big part of the reason startups do occasionally succeed: people like to root for an underdog. Especially if they like them.

But ultimately, an entrepreneur is trying to conjure something from nothing. Without cash, that doesn’t work. Luckily, there’s a way you can give your startup friend cash and get something valuable in return. It’s built right into the business model:

Just buy their stuff.

You probably won’t even need to tell them you did it! We use Stripe to process payments for our conference registrations, so my phone buzzes with a notification every time someone registers — for some reason people like to register while I’m on a date with my wife, which makes me super popular with her on date nights. ☺

So I know exactly who every one of my paying attendees is.

Yes, a conference is more of a high-touch, low-volume business than a lot of “consumer facing startups,” (and pricier — so obviously I don’t expect all of my friends to shell out $2,000 for a conference just to “be supportive.”)

But the point is: I bet all founders know who their first hundred paying customers are.

In other words, I already knew how I could help my friend Zac with Amazing Airfare. So I’ve just signed up for it, despite the fact that I’m super unlikely to actually use any of the deals that come my way.

I have also, by the way, recently decided to vote with my wallet to help out a few other friends I know who are doing interesting things (in case you also want to support my friends):

  • I bought the latest book by science fiction author Ramez Naam, APEX. You should also read the prior two books in the trilogy.
  • I grabbed an audiobook from the new independent audiobook store Libro.fm, founded by publisher Mark Pearson.
  • I just piled on to the Kickstarter for Scout, a new tech journalism meets Sci-fi startup from media entrepreneurs Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath.

(As a side note, I think one of Kickstarter’s great gifts to entrepreneurs is the ability to ask for money without being labeled an evil-doing “capitalist” by your friends.)

The next time you hear from a friend who’s starting something cool, either as a side project or “for realsies,” and you feel that friendly urge to support what they’re doing…

Instead of sending them an email asking “how can I help?” — which for a starving entrepreneur is just as likely to be read as: “how can I not pay you but still pretend like I’m helping?” — just pull out your wallet and pony up.

Trust me, it’s how you can help.

Startup Lessons Learned

Lessons learned the hard way — submissions tweet…

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