Category: Startups

We need to talk

Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.
– Japanese Proverb

During the last couple of months I’ve participated in about 30 mentoring sessions. I was part of Ajujaht program with Achoo and attended a couple of events in Garage48 hub; this resulted in fruitful discussions with the likes of Jon Bradford and Andy Lopata. At the other side of the table I mentored Startup Wise Guys teams and have been insistingly offering my 2 cents to kid brother’s startup project and HoseWear.

And a piece of knowledge sunk in during this period. Which is that if there is such as thing as “the most important thing for early stage startups” it is not capital, office space, rockstar team or pitching contests.

The most important thing for startups is feedback.

The best source of feedback is customers, but at the earliest stages a startup team is often not too sure about what they do, and who for. Second best feedback sources are people that know technology, business, the process of customer development and/or other people. Mentors and advisors, that is.

Feedback is important for the same that you glance at a mirror before heading out for an important meeting or date. Because you’re _in_ your clothes you don’t see that this striped shirt (or hoodie, for this demographic) doesn’t go with those jeans. They just don’t match. Similarly, if you’re a team living and breathing your startup idea, you don’t recognise all the things that could be improved with your proposition, business model, technology, team, etc.

So, what should (new) incubators focus on

It’s become a popular meme to criticise the growing number incubator and accelerator programs that are popping up around the world. In my view more is better because natural selection quickly weeds out the best accelerators, as well as the best teams within each accelerator. I would just encourage placing focus on access to mentors and advisors, not on grants, foosball tables in the office and such. If startup teams have access to a pool of top mentors and advisors, results will come.

Ajujaht, Garage48, Start Smart and others that have given startups in the region access to great people so far – kudos for doing what you’re doing.

Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs amd Communications, that I hear is busy summoning an accelerator backed by the Estonian government, I hope you’re listening.

Instant proof of concept for Achoo

So last week we publicly launched Achoo which was kindly covered by TheNextWeb and ArcticStartup. It’s a big thing for me but until we have good lessons to share, I won’t bore you with details. I’ll share just one thing that made me smile the day before the launch. Someone contacted me on LinkedIn, saying:

Hi Andrus! In Ducksboard we are big fans of sales CRM company Pipedrive emails, and I saw in Achoo that you were responsible of the copywriting. Would you be interested in a freelance position as a copywriter?

So heartwarming! Being able to track down people behind work you like was one of the main reasons we set out to create the service. And not just to hire them but to know what they’re up to, learn from them and ask questions from them. If you’ve accompished something you’re proud of, and haven’t added it to Achoo yet, you may be missing out..

“Earn this” – Achoo, the €2000 prize and motivation

We applied to the Estonian Ajujaht upstart competition with Achoo, and got selected to pitch at the finals in May. This also earned us a €2000 prize that we’ll happily put to work for the site.

This vote of confidence had an interesting effect. It didn’t trigger a celebratory mood, because the success of this venture is not up to any jury to decide, but users (also, €2000 is not enough for three people to retire on). Rather, it had a positive effect on the motivation because failing to do a great public beta launch soon would not only make our team look a bit silly, but also the people in the jury that voted for Achoo instead of many of the other ideas.

The emotion wasn’t quite as strong as in the finale of Saving Private Ryan, but I like the effect this had, and cheers to Shy CTO for nudging us to apply to Ajujaht.

On a side note, we’re bootstrapping Achoo for the time being – but I guess I’ll know more about “motivation through indebtedness” if and when we raise funds for Achoo.

The story of Storymarks

Placebook_FB_v1.pngSome postmodern stories have parallel endings, this one has several beginnings.

It could be that the story begun last Sunday. Driving back from a canoeing trip on a flooded river we passed a house by the roadside. A house that looked remarkably average. There’s a story with that house, said my friend. It a house someone won with lottery, probably the only house of that kind in Estonia. Not the most exciting story arguably but it did make that house stand out from hundreds of other houses we passed that day.

It may also be that the story begun a year ago at the first Garage48 event when myself and a hardworking team gave a stab at geo-tagging books and movies. We were underpowered and I guess our vision wasn’t visionary enough, so the project died its painless death after the event. R.I.P. Talepath, you taught the whole team many good lessons.

Another possible beginning is Garage mentor feedback session earlier this week. I pitched my geo-tagging idea again with some improvements, and heard back that it’s still not visionary enough. But it could be if one could geo-tag more than just books and movies. One of the mentors kindly repeated his thoughts over lunch yesterday.

Finally, perhaps Storymarks began last night around 9pm when a group of people walked up to the piece of paper that said something about connecting stories to places and said they liked the idea and wanted to spend the next 48 hours fleshing it out.

So please give a warm welcome to Storymarks, a site where people can connect factoids, news, urban legends, movies and books to real places. We think it’ll make travelling even more interesting than it is today – think learning about an unbelievable story involving fire ladders and a baby rescue just next doors to the hotel you are staying in, or that Pink Floyd once laid 700 iron beds on the beach you’re laying on, just to snap an album cover.

It may start the movement ‘wannabe-travelling’ where you look at your home street with a fresh pair of eyes; eyes filled with moving personal stories, tragic wartime events and the time when someone famous once got arrested nextdoors.

Even the most boring buildings have great stories behind them, some real and some (urban) legends. And famous buildings have hundreds of them. We want to create a place for all these stories, add a story layer to the world, if you will. Please check out Storymarks, become a fan, follow it, give us feedback and add a story for a place you know. If you can’t do all of the above, feel free to skip one :)

Learning how to make the best of customer complaints – the hard way

Knickermail-lg.jpgWe’ve had a good number of KnickerMail orders since the launch in December. It’s hardly the next Amazon, but a healthy niche e-commerce site that makes a bit of money and puts smiles on faces of customers around the world.

What I love most about KnickerMail is that it’s taught me more about ecommerce in a couple months that I’ve learned in the last ten years. And one of the biggest lessons has been solving customer complaints.

Before starting KnickerMail we knew what Royal Mail could and couldn’t do in the UK but we weren’t counting on receiving the majority of orders from the US and mainland Europe. Royal Mail’s website led us to believe that the basic delivery service works almost as good as the more expensive options, so that’s what we usually opted for. Big mistake. The basic service works well about seven times out of ten and is hopelessly late rest of the time.

This meant we’ve gotten around ten emails from worried customers. Some have just enquired about the delivery time, others have been less forgiving and have asked for a refund right away.

How do you deal with an unhappy customer?

I wasn’t sure. I had read books, and had spent a good couple of days working at the customer service team back at my Skype days. But I wasn’t sure what to reply when the first less than friendly emails started to arrive.

It didn’t help that at first we weren’t sure what the problem was. Might the delivery be done on the next day? Was this related to one particular area? Are they simply not happy with the purchase and are looking for a delicate way to get their money back?

I decided to use the mantra that Skype employed back in the day – delight the user. This meant offering a full refund straight away if the customer wasn’t happy. I figured it would take the pressure off if people knew that all they needed to do is say the word and they’d have all their money back. And I thought this would open them up to wait a little and, if worse came to worst, accept a new delivery instead of refund (which was better from our perspective – selling with lower margins vs. not selling anything at all).

Naturally, I also wanted to apologise straight away and answer as quickly as humanly possible. Apparently that’s the best thing you can do with an unhappy customer, as I vaguely recalled from some book or article. This sometimes meant typing emails to people in the US at 2AM from my phone in a mildly intoxicated state. The emails went something like this:

Hi name,

Really sorry to hear the recipient hasn’t received the package yet. The delivery time to US is usually around a week but we’ve learned that it can take up to two weeks to for KnickerMail to arrive to the US. I’ve updated the information on our site but I know this doesn’t help you much right now.

If KnickerMail doesn’t arrive in a couple of days please do let me know and I’ll either get you a full refund or send you a new package with the most expensive courier service out there. Really hope this didn’t dampen any plans!

Andrus I KnickerMail


Did it work?

Absolutely. Only one of the ten or so people that had contacted us have asked us for a refund (and immediately gotten it). And with many of the people I’ve developed a friendly email exchange where we’re both looking for ways to get KnickerMail to the lucky recipient. And in the end we’ve received emails like:

Thanks again for this example of good customer service. I’ll be sure to recommend your service to others.

or:

I want to thank you for your customer service and timely response and effort, it says a lot about the people behind the product and I do intend to use it again and spread the word.

I don’t really see the need for a refund, so hope I can come back to you for your offer of a next time free order as soon as you have new models available.

Heartwarming to get emails like this from people you’ve kind of let down.

PS. We’ve added a section with pessimistic delivery times to the site and are using premium postage services now. Perhaps the best way of dealing with a problem is eliminating it in the first place.

How to market your startup at SXSW

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SXSW Interactive is a super-sized festival for technology enthusiasts, early adopters, influencers, visionaries and web innovators, or ‘spring break for geeks’ in other words. Among other things it’s an ideal platform for marketing for startups as a large part of their target audience is handily in one place. It is this Austin event where Twitter and Foursquare got serious wind in their sails. The challenge is that there are almost as many startups marketing as there are participants, so a bit of planning is in order. Here are my two cents on how to make the most of SXSW as a marketer after my first gig there.

In a nutshell, SXSW is a collection of panels, random or nor-so-random chats, and entertainment. So there’s your formula for a successful SXSW promotion – panels, parties and people.

Get on a panel

By far the best way to get the word out there is being on a panel. Thousands of people will look at the description and speakers, tens or hundreds will be there in person, you can invite your partners and followers (and hand them out some swag) and can get your community involved before the event – even if they’re not present at SXSW.

The good thing with SXSW is that you have a straightforward way of getting onto the schedule. Any- and everyone can submit their ideas, and the festival’s panel picker has a 30% influence in separating the wheat from the chaff (SXSW staff is 30% and experts decide the rest). This presentation has more background on which kinds of topics are submitted and picked. Hint: apparently the design topics are underserved.

I asked the good people doing the said presentation what were some of the common mistakes that people submitting their ideas make. Their advice was blindingly obvious:
– Specialise your content ie. don’t submit a generic or obviously self-promotional idea.
– Avoid a ‘funny’ headline for the submission, it’s substance over form at this stage.
– Take time to write well and make sure to avoid typos.

Throw a party

Of course, not everyone can get on a panel. Another good cornerstone for your SXSW marketing is throwing a party, or sponsoring one. Larry Chiang is the crowned king of throwing parties for the tech crowd, very much unlike yours truly, so take his words.

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My educated guess is that parties work best if you’re well-networked and/or you your startup is already burning hot. If you don’t tick either of these boxes, it’s down to the third marketing cornerstone – the hustle.

Try Hustle A or Hustle B

There’s two kinds of hustling. One is when you know exactly who to talk to and make your way to these people via networking, rounds of drinks, clever use of social media and such. The more you prepare the more you’ll get out of SXSW. At the very minimum let everyone know about your SXSW plans and keep an eye on Plancast and Twitter updates of people you’d like to meet. Do that, follow Colette Ballou’s evergreen networking tips and you’ll do fine.

The only thing I would add is: don’t be a human logo. If you wear a colourful branded T-shirt, you kind of stand out but perhaps not in a good way. There’s a trade show at SXSW, you may come across as someone that has escaped from handing out pins in the booth, not the respected co-founder of the next Facebook.

The other kind of hustling is when you just want to get the word out there without spending an arm or a leg of your startup aka guerilla marketing. There’s a ton of it SXSW, some good and some really bad. My advice is straightforward

Keep your promotion related to the product. Example: Squarespace was giving out free meals a block from the convention centre with an enormous banner next to it. The banner didn’t talk much about creating websites, neither did the cardboard flyers they handed out to people in the queue. I know what Squarespace does but I’m sure the company doesn’t have a 100% awareness even with the SXSW crowd. For someone lured in just with the promise of free junk food it’s too easy to forget what the product behind it was.
Simply showing your logo is not enough. GroupedIn had plastered their logo all over Austin but I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one who just couldn’t bother to check out what the company actually does.
Random handing out swag like T-shirts is as effective as always. Not very effective, that is. The real influencers have their swag bags filled already, and only relatively random people will stop.
– A side-note on T-shirts – if you do decide to hand them out, for instance to people coming to hear your panel, then keep in mind it’s not the real America. I made the mistake of trying to be clever and ordering more XL T-shirts to be handed out, only to find out that the crowd is more European sized than the Europeans. Bring lots and lots of M-size shirts.
Stickers and posters get overstickered and overpostered (two new words!). Relying on impromptu poster, flyer and sticker distribution can work as a support whatever else you are doing, but doing this alone won’t get you too far as there is too much noise. Every available space gets more than three layers of posters and stickers on it every day.
No babes handing out swag. A couple of startups tried that on street corners, somehow felt very our of place at a festival about innovation.

There is also a fourth way promote yourself at SXSW, which is to rise at the level of creativity (and budgets) of AOL and Microsoft marketers and become an official sponsor, and/or have a booth at the trade show. I’ll not cover this here, there are much more reputable blogs and books for that.

Additional reading:
Quore: What have been the best and worst promotional investments for startups at SXSW 2011?
How to promote your startup for free at SXSW

Hope this was helpful, and happy to answer any questions regarding promoting at SXSW, just comment below or email.

Flattr at SXSW

I was at SXSW with Flattr, the social micropayments service. My brief, which I received a whole two weeks before the event was to think of ways to leverage Flattr’s panel presence at the festival. I recommended the classic “Educate, leave breadcrumbs, save the world, amuse — and then fix if it doesn’t work” – strategy.

I’m pleased to say this worked rather well.

The focus was on demonstrating the product through amusing. Flattr is sometimes described as the tip jar for the internet. And a couple of months ago the company launched Flattr Offline, which makes any real-live object flattrable. I wanted to put the two things together, so we hired a couple of street artists that did their thing and had Flattr posters instead of hats.

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The results? Flattr accounts of artists kickstarted, hundreds of visits to their mobile Flattr pages, thousands of south-byers seeing the performers and banners and many more learning about Flattr at SXSW from blog posts and tweets:
Guardian’s Jemima Kiss
t3n.de
alt1040.com
BBC News (scroll to 3.32)
Upvery.com
Tweet example

Screen%20shot%202011-03-29%20at%2001.46.10.pngThe T-shirts we printed were not given out randomly but handed to people that came to listen to the Flattr panel. The shirts featured a QR-code which, if scanned with a smartphone (do not try this at home or at a non-geek conference, at least not for another 1-2 years), took people to mobile-optimised Flattr pages of known charities. Close to the product, yet not over-promotional, wouldn’t you agree?

The breadcrumbs bit ie. plastering stickers with mysterious charity QR codes was something we prepared for but didn’t end up doing too much, after we saw how fast they are covered with a new layer of fellow stickers. But owing mostly to luck, and in small part to the ingenious idea behind the stickers, Guardian used it as the main illustration for their long SXSW piece. A nice cherry on top.

Who on Earth would pay 39 pounds to send someone a pair of knickers?

Lots of people, we hope. Here’s what happened:

Kriss Soonik is a London-based lingerie and loungerie designer, and a good friend. Last year around the Valentine’s day she noticed that many people chose a different delivery address when buying knickers from her online store. It’s cute to send knickers via mail, she thought. If this was a service one would call it KnickerMail. She registered the domain and filed this idea under the label ‘One day’ in her mental cabinet.

That day arrived a couple of months later when yours truly had quit his job at Skype with a view to create cool startups. I could watch pictures of girls in sexy lingerie and call it work, I thought and teamed up with Kriss to take care of the web and marketing side of the site.

So please welcome and be gentle to KnickerMail. It won’t cure malaria or become the next semi-semantic communications platform for the Y-generation but it’s a rather sexy way to say hello, wouldn’t you agree?

For some reason my friendly neighbourhood blogging engine doesn’t allow adding images to this post. Maybe it thinks it’s too raunchy for readers of this blog, which it is not. So go see for yourself, or even better, try sending KnickerMail. Next up: a post describing the bootstrapping money-saving crowd-sourcing approach of creating the site.

What we did in the garage

A lot has been said about Garage48 (including my own summary over at Skype’s Estonian blog), so there is no need to waste many more pixels and bytes on it. In summary the thing I enjoyed the most was the mindset to get stuff done fast. It takes 10 minutes to tweak functionality and no more than 10 second to change copy on the live front page. From a certain size on you can’t maintain that pace without yourself of your users going crazy but it was fun. Yup, sitting on the floor or windowless meeting room for most of the weekend with mostly guys, and drinking industrial quantities of notably bad coffee was fun.

Our team launched Talepath – a service that connects books and movies to real-life places. Feel free to take a peak but as we’re continuing to work on it please don’t bother adding your faves just yet. Wait for further announcements here or on our Facebook page.

MiniBar London

Reedel avastasin, et minu transformatsioon tavalisest (valges pakendis) turundusinimesest nohik-turundusinimeseks hakkab lõpule jõudma. Tööpäeva lõpus leidsin ennast Ida-Londoni baaris, kus naiste osakaal oli alla 10 protsendi ning kus inimesed tegid üksteisega rääkides oma iPhone’i või Blackberrysse märkmeid — ja seejuures oli mul seal kõike muud kui igav. Seni, kuni ma olukorra tõsiduse ning võimalike meetmete üle aru pean, räägin, millega tegu.
Üritus oli MiniBar London, mis on põhimõtteliselt samasugune asi nagu Jüri Kaljundi vedamisel toimuv OpenCoffee. Ehk siis koht, kus tehnoloogiainimesed, ideed, raha, ettevõtjad ja muidu huvilised kokku saavad. Selle erinevusega, et üritus toimub õhtul, mitte hommikul ja pakutakse (tasuta) õlut, mitte kohvi. Mastaap on ka mõistagi suurem; nii mõnigi inimene, kellega rääkisin, ütles ürituse kohta, et MiniBar on Londonis Silicon Valleyle kõige lähemal asuv punkt.
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Õhtu põhiline väärtus on inimestega rääkimine. Mitte midagi elu muutvat, aga kahe tunni jooksul sain targemaks kolme-nelja uue tehnoloogiamõtte jagu, mõistlikku tagasisidet oma ideedele, ühe hea Facebooki rakenduste teostaja kontakti, ühe (koos)tööpakkumise; ja seda ei olegi ju nii vähe. Lisaks oli uute ideede ja tehnoloogiate demo, kus kõige sügavama mulje jättis GraffyWall ehk lõpmatu “internetikangas”, millel ilmselt on tulevikku näiteks kunstis ja õppimises/õpetamises.
Lähen kindlasti tagasi. Tasuta õlu ikkagi.