Venezuela reisikiri: Chavezi “avastamata pärlit” avastamas


Tänapäeval on üks korralik reis selline, millel on mingi kiiks juures. Näiteks läbid kontinendi CO2 jalajälge jätmata või siis sooritad rännaku käigus ekstreemsusi nagu üle lõunapooluse suusatamine või kaks aastat järjest Tätte laulude kuulamine. Meie reis oli hoopis vähem ambitsioonikas, läksime lihtsalt Kaasaga kuskile soojemasse kohta talve selgroogu murdma.

Reisi peamiseks sihtkohaks oli Adicora, tuuline kaluriküla Venezuela rannikul, ja pigem avastamata pärli kui turismimeka. Kuna miski kirjeldustes ei lõhnanud liigsete mugavuste järele, otsustasime reisile natuke väikekodanlikkust juurde pookida nii, et peatusime teel sinna mõned ööd ka Miamis ja Arubal.

Aruba

Aruba on üks parajalt väike, turvaline, mugav, mõne jaoks võibolla ka igav saareke Kariibi mere lõunaosas. Saar on oma loosungiks võtnud “One happy island”, mis iseendast sobis sinna hästi, aga “happy” on selgelt rahulolu, mitte õnnelik olemise tähenduses. Rahul paistsid nii Ameerika turistid, kes ühes paljudest headest söögikohtadest ennast suuremaks sõid või hotelli päikesevarju all lebasid, kui kohalikud, kelle tasku turistide raha ühel või teisel moel sattus. Aga südamest õnnelikke inimesi me eriti ei kohanud, nii et Aruba võiks kaaluda ka loosungi vahetamist “One island that looks like it’s on Prozac” vastu.

Saare suurust iseloomustas hästi üks reisijuht: äraeksimiseks on vaja erilist annet. Kui sa ei tea, kas oled õigel teel, siis jätka samas suunas sõitmist ja statistiliselt on tõenäoline, et jõuad igal juhul õige pea sinna, kuhu vaja. Suurem arv suunanäitusid oleks sellegipoolest saarele ainult kasuks olnud. Ringisõitmiseks oli põnevam saare tuulepealne külg koos Arikoki rahvuspargiga, edelarannikult leiab ainult rohkem või vähem rahvarohkeid randasid.

Ööbisime rendikorteris Noordi piirkonnas, suurtest hotellimürakatest veidi eemal. Otsisime rahu ja vaikust, aga kohe esimesel ööl oli katuselt kosta müra, mis oli selgelt liiga vali ka priskemate kasside või lindude kohta. Hiljem saime korteriomanikult, et katusel elavad kuus iguaani, koertest ja muudest tüütustest ohutus kõrguses. Verandaservale ronides oli iguaane vahel ka päikese käes peesitamas näha. Mõttega harjusime varsti, aga kolinaga mitte, ja nii mõnigi kord ärkasin selle peale keset kõige mõnusamat und üles.

Minu kättemaks oli magus, sõna otseses mõttes. Ühest kohalike roogade restoranist leidsin iguaanisupi ja tellisin selle kõhklemata. Kuidas iguaan külale…

Nelja päevaga saime söödud, ringi sõidetud ning esimesed surfitriibud tehtud ja oli aeg edasi Venezuela poole asuda.

Venezuala: Adicora ja Coro

Kui mõni päev enne reisi Välisministeeriumi kodulehele sattusime, ei teinud rõõmu Venezuela kohta öeldud “vältige võimalusel riiki reisimist”. Sama soovitas ka Miamis kohatud sõbra sõber, kes oli Venezuelast pärit. Röövimised ja mõrvad olid tema andmetel viimastel aastatel enneolematult sagedaseks saanud, ja just sama päeva hommikul oli uudistes juttu olnud kellestki saksa turistist, kes oli röövimise käigus tapetud. Sellest hoolimata otsustasime saatusele püstipäi vastu astuda ning ikkagi Venezuelasse sõita .

Tiibadega trolli meenutav lennuk viis meid Arubalt Punto Fijo lennujaama, sealt edasi Adicorasse oli tunnise autosõidu tee. Esmamulje Adicorast tõi meelde hulgaliselt lapsepõlvemalestusi, aga mitte helged perega Kloogarannas veedetud päevad, vaid poistekambaga Mustamäe tee garaazhide taga tühermaal mängimise. Kuigi pilti olid lisandunud palmid ja meri, andsid dominantse tooni hoopis halvasti ehitatud majad ning veepiiri pitsina palistav prügiriba.

Ehk siis avastasime end “avastamata pärlist”, mis oli väidetavalt ohtlik, aga selle eest kole. Isegi see osa minust, mis on koduks seiklusejanulisele rändurile, laiutas osavõtmatult käsi ning ei teinud vähimatki katset lohutada seda teist osa, mis otsis mõnusat rannapuhkust Kaasaga. Nimetatud Kaasa tegi küll vaprat nägu, aga oli selgelt aru saada, et ta pidas sel hetkel Välisministeeriumi usaldusväärsemaks allikaks kui mind.

Juhuslikult olin samal päeval Daniel Kahnemani “Thinking, fast and slow” raamatuga jõudnud sellesse peatükki, mis kirjeldab läbi mitme psühholoogilise eksperimendi värvikalt, kuidas nii elulugude, valusate meditsiiniliste protseduuride kui puhkuste puhul loeb kõige rohkem lõpp, mitte kestus ega kogetud ebameeldivuse hulk. Meil oli veel 12 päeva puhkust ees, ja oli veel aega lõppu mõni puhtam ja sõbralikum sihtkoht sokutada. Mul oli veel lootust!

Praktilise poole pealt on Venezuelasse vaja kaasa pakkida kaks asja. Esiteks hispaania keele oskus, sest inglise keelt rääkisid seal üsna vähesed. Ja teiseks sularaha. Kuigi kaardiga sai siin-seal maksta, oleks see elu pea kolm korda kallimaks muutnud. Nii nagu soome markadega mehkeldamise ajastu alguses Eestis, kehtis seal paralleelselt kaks valuutakurssi. Lennujaamas oli küll olemas ametlik valuutavahetuspunkt, aga sinna polnud isegi vaevutud inimest tööle võtma. Raha sai vahetada teise korruse söögikohas, mida naljatamisi restoraniks kutsuti. Vastavalt sellele, kas su näoilme oli näljane või küsiv, tõi ettekandja lauda kas menüü või bolivaride paki. Ühte silma uksel hoides (ju siis oli lennujaamas ka paar “määrimata” politseinikku) korraldas ta tehingu kiiresti ära, väike närvikõdi oli klientidele kauba peale.

 

Jahedale esmamuljele Venezuelast ja Adicorast lisandus puhkuse jooksul ka positiivset. Rand oli küll kasimata, aga tehnilisest küljest üks parimaid lohesurfikohti, mida näinud olen. Lai, liivane, inimtühi, ja nii ühtlase tuulega, et vabalt oleks saanud üksi vastu tuult sulgpalli mängida.

Tahaksin siia juurde öelda ka “ning inimesed olid jutukad ja sõbralikud”, aga see ei oleks päris tõsi. Jah, kohtasime tõeliselt toredaid inimesi, ja pidasin oma vigases hispaania keeles maha nii mõnegi lõbusa vestluse. Aga leidus ka neid, kes meiesuguseid turiste vaid pika altkulmu pilguga kostitasid. Teistsuguse pilguga, kui seda mujal Ladina-Ameerikas kohanud olen. Ilma Venezuela ajalooga tutvumata oleks olnud raske mõista, millest tuleneb selline ebasõbralikkus ja miks kuritegevust on nii palju. Aga kui riiki ikka peaaegu kogu selle ajaloo vältel juhitud sama hoolsalt nagu põrkeautot lõbustuspargis, on igati loogiline, et muutuvad väärtushinnangud ja osa ühiskonnast läheb tsivilisatsiooni vääramatut teed mööda vales suunas.

Ka süüa sai hästi ja rohkem või vähem ametlikumaid söögikohti oli päris palju. Küla parima roa otsing viis meid kord ühte sellisesse, kus toit oli sööklatoidu väljanägemisega ning tugevalt üle soolatud. “Kokk on vist armunud”, arvas Kaasa lustakalt. Nõustusin, ja nentisin, et mulle on tööalaselt kõvasti liiga tehtud. Kui toit on soolane nagu jeekim, siis on põhjuseks koka hästisujuv armuelu. Kui aga mina mõne arusaamatu kampaania korraldaksin, ei ütleks keegi kelmikalt, et “näe, turundusinimene on vist armunud”. Kahtlustan, et samamoodi tehakse iga päev liiga ka poliitikutele, arstidele ja ilmselt ka sulle, hea lugeja.

Vahetasime oma põhjamaise dieedi vist liiga kiiresti ja täielikult mereandide vastu, ja reisi teisel poolel kimbutasid seetõttu kõhuhädad. Tundsin ennast nagu läbikukkunud luuraja – ei suutnud midagi enda sees hoida. Huvitav seik oli asja juures see, et meie posada-pidaja, kes meie vaevustest kuulis, soovitas leevenduseks pepsit sidruniga. Esimest korda kogesin kultuuri, mille rahvameditsiin ei soovita kanget alkoholi. Kuigi võib ka olla, et see oli lihtsalt Pepsi erakordselt efektiivse reklaamimise tulemus.

Meie puhkuserutiin oli umbes selline: ärkad, jalutad merre ujuma, ostad puuvilja-veoautost imemaitsvad banaanid ja ananassi, surfad natuke, kirud elektri- või veekatkestust, sööd, ruttad kohe peale sööki tualetti, loed võrkkiiges, vaatad tähti. Päevad olid nii sarnased, et isegi sääski teadsime reisi lõpuks nimepidi.

Sellisest tihedast graafikust hoolimata õnnestus veidi ka lähiümbruse vaatamisväärsustega tutvuda. Vähem kui tunnise autosõidu kaugusel asus Venezuela kunagine pealinn ning ühtlasi riigi vanim linn Santa Ana de Coro. Coro koloniaalarhitektuur oli ilus, suures osas korda tehtud ja vanalinna osas oli igati mõnus jalutada.

Meil oli plaanis reisi lõppuossa paar päeva midagi helesinist ja mugavat plaanida (mul olid veel värskelt meeles Kahnemani raamatust loetud tarkused), aga seoses läheneva karnevali-nädalavahetuse ning lennufirma Tiara graafikumuudatusega, mis jättis ära kõik lennud 3 päeva järjest, jäime Adicorasse sisuliselt puhkuse lõpuni.

Hüvastijätt Venezuelaga oli intensiivne ja emotsiooniküllane. Peale check-ini tegemist käsutati kõik reisijad väikeste gruppide kaupa ruumi, kus pidi pealt vaatama, kuidas pahurad mundrimehed kogu su korralikult kokkuvolditud pagasi pahupidi keeravad. Proovisin alguses sellise hooletu tegutsemise vastu protesteerida, aga siis peatus pilk pikemalt mundrimehe kummikinnastel. See siin võiks ka palju hullem olla, mõtlesin ja lasin kaosel sündida. Viis lendu hiljem olime tagasi kodus.

Epiloog. Maailma Majandusfoorum valis Venezuela äsja maailma kõige ebasõbralikumaks riigiks turistide jaoks. See tundub liialdusena, aga kui keegi reisisoovitust küsib, siis ma ootaks veidi Venezuelasse minekuga. Las see riik puhkab end Chavezist korralikult välja, enne kui sinna minna.

Ilmus ka Ekspressi Kohvris.

What you know, doesn’t matter

The Achoo autopsy post has gotten good feedback and resulted in many good conversations. It wasn’t always pleasant to talk about the failure, but it helped to cement the learnings and, in a way, “get over it” faster.

Among other chats I did a largish Q&A session at a co-working space where I could go into more detail about the different mistakes we had made. Another thing to point out is that most of the time, we were aware of the mistakes we were making. We knew that focus is key to startups and that any successful social products always grow out of a tight small groups. But we thought “our product is so great, this doesn’t necessarily apply to us” and went with several target groups anyway. Same with our other mistakes. Just like a smoker knows that smoking is bad for health, but lights the next one anyway.

What you know, doesn’t necessarily matter, for startups and for other walks of life.

Closing Achoo, or how I learned that it’s all about the team

After around 18 months of (non-full time) work we’re shutting down Achoo. 13542 unique visitors, 1000+ users and one pivot later it’s a good time to move on to other things. Achoo won’t become the professional social network that shows what one has accomplished, and with whom. Mark my words: someone will crack that nut soon, and probably a startup not LinkedIn.

We made many popular startup mistakes but if I had to pick one I’d say the main reason we failed was that our servers kept crashing under the load. I wish:) The real reason lies in the words non-full time. We, and I should really say I, failed to get to a setup where the team can focus and take lots of shots at the goal. We were 3 people: a designer, a coder and a marketer, all good at what we do. And though we put in lots of hours, too many of them were evening hours away from each other.

All team members had other commitments of various levels, and our thinking was to moonlight until first signs of traction, and then go full time. Sounded good on paper, but this setup slowed us down and mostly working in Skype chats and Google docs limited our creativity. On a different level co-founders are also co-believers and if the team is not there for each other emotionally, you won’t get the 101% output necessary to bring a world-changing idea to life.

At this stage it’s worth pointing out that it’s not a dramatic divorce. We have the same view on closing Achoo and we might work together again – just not on another 18-month moonlighting project.

If the resourcing wasn’t enough we also got the process wrong. I fell in love with the idea rather than followed the process of getting user feedback before starting to build. Our comprehensive piece of market research was a month after our public beta launch, not before. And while I talked to lots of people about Achoo, I didn’t do enough of talking to our target group. Which neatly leads to the next mistake.

We lacked focus. Our go-to-market plan didn’t focus on one particular group of people. We had freelancers in mind but we also wanted to target a couple of other types (“let’s throw some spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks”), and so we never properly penetrated any one target group. Which is not how you grow a social product.

Despite all this there are several things to be proud of – the design of Achoo, our hackatlon-like periods before major releases with intense pace and high spirits, our PR results and a couple of smaller wins. It’s just that in this day and age you need to get more than a couple of things right. You need to get almost all things right, and you definitely need to get all hands on the deck for a good while.

Big thank you to my co-founders for the journey, for mentors at various stages and to Ajujaht (the prize money we won there greatly helped to cover our outsourced development, marketing and travel costs)! The outcome isn’t great and it wasn’t always pleasant, but all in all it was fun and I learned how not to build a startup.

What next?

Not 100% sure yet, but I know I won’t be hoping to be the exception whose idea doesn’t need validation before building and I’ll work in a motivated team. I’ve started customer development for a marketing tracking tool, but for a month or two I’ll be keeping my ears open (as well as take my first long holiday in 2 years). You’re welcome to share this post and/or get in touch.

Hosewear makes bags out of recycled firehose

Hosewear is a young Estonian company (or dare I say startup) that makes bags out of recycled firehose. Ironically, written-off firehouse would otherwise be burnt. Ivar, the young man behind the project, contacted me about a year ago to discuss this up-cycling idea he had. I once led a successful project which made carrier bags out of used PVC ad banners of a supermarket chain, which were then sold in the very same chain, hence the contact.

Ivar was toying with the idea of using PVC banners for something, but ended up using firehose as the material. I like the idea of up-cycling and I liked the bag designs, so I volunteered to help with marketing and copywriting matters. This summer I also made a small investment in Hosewear.

Hosewear will not save the world, but there will be a little less smoke and waste due to its up-cycled bags, plus I hope you’ll agree the bags look damn good. Feedback and ideas welcome.

YCE Awards experience (In short: it was awesome)

I’ve just gotten back from London where I took part in YCE Media week. British Council had flown 17 young creative entrepreneurs* (hence the YCE acronym) from around the world to London – to network, get to know the UK and have a bit of fun in the process.

The group consisted of people either in film or interactive field. We had film makers, shoe designers, studio owners, web startup hustlers like yours truly (I was there representing Achoo), event organisers and more. Geography wise there were people from Indonesia to Colombia, from Ghana to Russia.


On the photo: Bassem from Egypt dancing with a 3D algorithmic being (the invisible one just next to Bassem) at Inition. Both busted some good moves.

The program was as diverse as our group. We visited startup hubs like The HUB Westminster and Seedcamp, companies like Mind Candy (maker of Moshi Monsters) and Inition (who do 3D wizardry. In medieval times this team would have burnt on stake, no questions asked) and agencies like Mother and Poke. On two days we were taken to Power to the Pixel festival and, last but not least, the MiniBar team put together a special event with us 17 giving pitches to the local scene. Lion’s share of the activities were with the whole group, but some days film folks were split from us geeks, visiting people at organisations like BAFTA.

As you might imagine, this resulted in many a good conversations, friendships, contacts made and beers had. I got a look on London from a new angle but most importantly each of us met people we would otherwise have not met.

Quadruple thanks to British Council for organising and letting yours truly be part of this! And dear reader, if you ever happen to stumble upon an opportunity to apply to YCE awards, take it!

* Clear discrimination against old unimaginative salarymen, but such is life.

Photo by British Council, more here

Tips & tricks for promoting events: hustling is the new normal

I didn’t enjoy last Sunday too much. I had 4 days to go until my next british stand-up comedy night and I had sold less than half the tickets needed to break even. I stared at the computer screen and refreshed the ticketing site’s page a couple of more times. Needless to say, this didn’t improve the situation.

Background: this was my 9th comedy night and since this is more of a hobby than work, I had treated the marketing side of things accordingly. A Facebook event, a fan page, a couple of tweets, a ticket giveway and the occasional radio or newspaper slot. First shows sold out effortlessly but each time I had had to work a little bit harder to sell the seats. This time it was crisis. It was time to put on my best hustling hat. This was my action plan:

Try promoted posts of Facebook. I promoted one of my Page posts to people that had “liked” the page and their friends, and though I don’t fully trust Facebook stats, it seems I got good value from my 11 dollars.

Go “creative”. “Share and win”-type Facebook promotions are primitive and probably not in agreement with T&C’s, but they appear to bloody work. I’ve been quite methodic about cleaning my news feed, but I keep seeing them promotions. I didn’t have an iPhone 5 to give away, so I did a parody promotion, taking advantage of the fact that the word for “share” and “divide by” is the same in Estonian. This got 13 shares – with average friend count at 150, this was around 2000 eyeballs. In a situation like this, every little helps.

This promotion, coupled with the promoted post and a couple of “normal” posts resulted in FB (vanity) metrics going through the roof. Looks nice, but I knew I had to do more than Facebook.

Set up an email list. Facebook has become increasingly noisy. Too many promotional messages, people turning off updates from Pages and email notifications. Sensing that, I had set up an email list a week before and gotten more than 100 people to sign up. I sent out my first ever newsletter.

Do a Google Plus listing. (This might be opening a can of worms, I know.) No-one’s on G+ to see your listing, but adding it has two benefits. It sends a good-looking email to everyone you invite (because people haven’t yet turned off notifications). More importantly you’ll secure some real estate in people’s Google Calendar.

Good old media. I asked a few friendly media contacts to see if and how they could spread the word. Obviously this requires establishing contacts beforehand, cold calling at this stage would have been an uphill battle.

Last but not least – the most powerful channel: asking nicely. I skyped, texted and emailed to a bunch of friends, acquaintances and people I thought would be interested, asking them to buy a ticket, spread the word, or both. It’s not the most pleasant thing to do, but it’s much more pleasant than having lots of empty seats on the night. A big thank you to all who helped!

Result: full house and a very good night of laughter. Plus, the fact that I had had to hustle made the whole thing even more rewarding.

Quick survey: it’s all about social

Today I did a quick follow-up survey with ansr.io* to sense check. And though the results** heavily skewed towards Facebook (where I shared the link) it confirmed my gut feel that in event promotion it’s all about social. Social as in Facebook and the old-fashioned social of talking to people. Naturally, what you promote must be worth talking to a friend about.

Hustling is the new normal

Going forward I don’t expect any of the things described above to work. I expect to sell few tickets if I do what I’ve always done before. And I’ll be prepared to hustle and look for new ways to get the word out. Marketing comedy events is very similar to marketing startups in that sense.

* Ansr.io is a promising and much needed tool, because SurveyMonkey is just one big collection of Upgrade buttons these days. But I’d give Teller and team another couple of weeks to iron out the bugs before you jump aboard.

** Tried to use Infogram for the graph but their service was so slow and unresponsive that I gave up. Not easy being an early adopter.

Keep it simple, talk to users – how Toggl has gotten to 20.000 paid users, and counting

I attended one of lunch talks at Garage48 Hub yesterday, the guest was Alari Aho, co-founder of Toggl. Toggl is a SaaS time tracking app that is doing well. They have more than 300.000 registered users and around 20.000 paying users. It’s a freemium product that is free to up to 5 users per team.

Due to the nature of the lunch (no slides, people ask questions, and sometimes very random questions) talks Alari didn’t go too deep into any topic, but he openly shared what Toggl has done and have his suggestions for other SaaS startups. In this post I’ve tried to structure Alari’s nuggets under different “headers”.

The first lesson is focus

Toggl was started as a side project in a software development house back in 2006. For the first couple of years it didn’t make any money and growth was rather flat. Things kicked into gear when client work stopped due to recession and the team properly focused on building the product.

Another aspect of focus is building an app that does one thing very well, and talks to other apps, not a “swiss-army knife”. To provide more value Toggl has introduced additional products like Planner or made Toggl better by making it simpler (eg. remove features that are being used by 1% of users) and faster to use.

Toggl has some very specific target groups like lawyers or designers, and the company has been toying with the idea of making dedicated apps for each one. But so far users in different verticals have rather homogeneous needs, and there hasn’t been a real need for that.

For wantrepreneurs Alari’s advice was to do one thing at a time rather than build several products and “see what sticks”, because it takes time to do something properly. He advises to plan 2 years for getting something done properly, and not counting on much income during that period.

Talk to users a lot

When probed about the most important things that have led to Toggl’s success, Alari emphasised the importance of talking to customers. They frequently travel to US or UK with the sole aim of visiting customers, seeing first-hand how they use the product and getting feedback. He brought the example that sometimes a feature that works well in the office simply doesn’t work in real life.

Toggl has also introduced some scalable means of talking to users. For example, when they found out that conversion to paid is much higher for users that have invited the whole team, they set up an email that encouraged users to do just that. 14% of people who received the email invited the team vs. 7% for those that didn’t.

Be very pragmatic about marketing

Toggl only hired their first marketing person a couple of months ago. This is not to say Toggl hasn’t done any marketing, they’ve just been very pragmatic about it (like the email example above).

A whopping 75% of traffic to Toggl comes from non-branded search (try googling “time tracking”). And this hasn’t come by itself – they’ve invested into SEO-friendly website and good copy. It also helps when you’ve been around since 2006 and been linked to by LifeHacker and lots of forum posts and discussions.

To get the word out Toggls emailed around 20 relevant bloggers back in 2006, and – lo an behold – one of them wrote about Toggl. This trickled over into posts downstream and the company hasn’t had to work hard for PR later.

Today Toggl does lots of marketing experiments. For example, Dropbox-style “refer people to get free service” didn’t work well – there were some signups but they didn’t convert.

Raise prices when you can, and raise money only when you need to
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Toggl started out by charging $1 per user and now charges $5, without introducing new features. With the latest price hike, existing users kept the old price for 3 months, and could lock in the price for 12 months thereafter by paying in advance. 5% of customers decided to leave but because 10% decided to pay upfront, revenue increased both in short and long term.

Toggl was initially funded by proceeds from software development services, and is profitable today. They haven’t felt the need to raise addiotnal funds and, as of now, are planning to self-finance future growth.

Photo courtesy: Kadri Uljas of Garage48Hub

Estonian for dummies

When I joined Skype’s marketing team in London back in 2007 I was one of the few Estonians in the office. My new colleagues often pinged me to get linguistic help – to learn expressions for rapport building and jokes, or to understand a comment made in that cryptic language.

So I produced a Lunch & Learn session to share the basics of Estonian and teach some critical expressions like Can I get a receipt for that order of 18 sambucas. Not only did the session prove popular, dozens of people have asked me for the materials later. The last request was yesterday, so it only makes sense to finally publish the materials here.

Estonian in a nutshell

  • Spoken by about 1.1 million people
  • One of the few sources of character Õ
  • Belongs to the Finnic branch of the Finno-Ugric languages.
  • Grammar, albeit reformed, is a nightmare.
  • 14 cases for nouns and adjectives. For example ‘idu’ vs. ‘eo’ vs. ‘eolt’ – it’s the same word!
  • No grammatical gender

Pronunciation

  • Vocals and most consonants exactly like in Spanish
  • The most rolling Spanish/Scottish R ever
  • Not a single letter goes unpronounced
  • Pronounce double vocals like you mean it. Tiit = Tiiiit.
  • PS. Capital of Estonia in not Tallin!

Estonian cheat sheet

Estonian cheat sheet

Originally, there was also a slide deck, but that doesn’t make much sense without notes. Maybe one day when there’s more time (than 24 hours in a day)..

Telling stories at Seedcamp London

I can’t say attending Seedcamp with Talentag yesterday was “great fun”. It was intense, and while we had a good time, it left us exhausted and overwhelmed by the end of the day. But it was useful as hell for getting quality feedback and meeting people. Seeing so many smart people who have done it before, and that are doing it in front of your eyes, also gave a nice motivational boost (after a night’s sleep).

Timo Rein has written a great post about the benefits of attending Seedcamp, and tips on preparing, and there’s no point repeating his points. Instead, I’d like to summarise a masterclass by Saul Klein and Chris Riley on telling stories.

The black line on the wall

Saul kicked off the talk by showing one of his holiday snaps. Slightly sharper than the ones my grandmother used to torture me with, but otherwise a rather unremarkable photo of his family in an ancient-looking place with a black line across the wall. Because of this line a few people in the audience recognised the place as Masada, the 2000 year-old fortress in Israel. This line makes Masala different from thousands of other old fortresses, and any holiday pic featuring said line is instantly recognised.

It was this metaphorical black line that the session encouraged us to look for and develop in our startups. Some of Saul’s sound bites that resonated with me were:

You need to tell your story to a class of 7 year-olds. Not to mention that you need to be able to tell the story to your friends and family.
Great storytellers know their audience. That said, Saul insisting that great storytellers “sleep in customer’s beds” got the response that this not scalable, and also depends on the product in question. :)
Pick a field big enough for a never ending story.
Saul concluded that a crap product doesn’t fly even with the best of stories, marketers and agencies.

Chris Riley started with a clip that he claimed to about the most exciting thing in his (rather exciting by most standards) professional life. If was the first couple of minutes from this video:

Not a word about technology. Rather a story of Apple and the industries the company had revolutionised. At that very moment I acknowledged that I was taking notes on the said “breakthrough internet communications device”. Which kind of proved Jobs’s point.

Jobs’s storytelling greatness is even more evident in this video, contrasted with Gill Emilio’s lifeless style.

More examples of great storys

Mini. The idea of Mini has outlasted the original product. Current incarnation of Mini has nothing to do with the original because it’s made by Germans, works reliably etc. But today’s Mini stands for the same things than a Mini back in 1960’s.

ALO Audio. Selling the quality of sound through traditions of electronics manufacturing.

Again, very little about the car, lots and lots of stories. (Eminem’s story, history of Detroit, hint to Ford installing Microsoft Sync in their cars). By the way, it sold lots of cars.

Path that tells a story of its own with design.

There are more story examples on Saul’s Checkthis page.

Discussions, conclusion

Riley pointed out that 90% of the work of storytelling, whether by Jobs or auto manufacturers from Detroit, is done by the audience, not on the stage. The full story is formed in people’s heads. For example, of the Nike ads in the 1990s, not everyone understood every commercial, but “curiosity was up” and there was strong interest to find out what was up.

When someone in the audience remarked that startups can’t afford to have superstars appear in their TV clips, Riley pointed out that Apple’s “Think different” commercial used copyright-free images and was without any special effects.

When asked whether startups should mention competitors in their story, Riley encouraged to certainly show how one is different from competitors (and showed this video).

In conclusion, always be telling a story and make sure to apply to Seedcamp. Seedcamp Budapest is in October already.

Last orders for KnickerMail

I helped to launch a service called KnickerMail in December 2010, it was a service that let people send designer lingerie as a greeting card. Our ambitious objective to “see what happens”. Kriss Soonik had started to get an increasing amount of orders where the person making the order and the recipient were two different people, so she wanted to see whether sending lingerie would work as a standalone service. I had recently quit his day job and wanted to explore different startup projects, so I created the site based on a Shopify template. It was a very lean operation, costing just a couple of hundred dollars and a couple of evenings worth of work, as documented by ArcticStartup.

We managed to get a good amount of press (UrbanSpoon NYC, Glamour, etc.) as a result of active blogger outreach and this quickly trickled into sales. It turned out that people, mostly Americans, were happy to shell out more than $60 for a pair of knickers in the mail. We passed our first $1000 in revenue fairly quickly and it seemed we had created a profitable niche operation.

Today, about 20 months later we’ve found out that this was only partially true. The nature of the business doesn’t accommodate much repeat business and virality, so in order to sell we needed to create a steady stream of new traffic. PR proved much more difficult at times other than Valentine’s Day, no matter whether we did it ourselves or hired a freelancer, though we had some success. Inbound marketing generated some traffic from guest posts and SEO but the sales this generated wasn’t substantial. And paid channel trials didn’t convert into sales profitably. All in all KnickerMail proved to be an extremely niche business that generated some sales seasonally but that demanded some money (Shopify fees, marketing) and attention (the most pricey resource of all) all year round.

We had a couple of ideas how to grow out of our tiny niche, for example add designers or add products beyond just lingerie, but neither of us felt this was our battle. We had learned great lessons in ecommerce and customer service, and we’re glad to have given this a profitable shot. Nevertheless we’ve decided to go for a solution that Schumpeter would be happy with. We’re doing a little “creative destruction” and will shut down KnickerMail as it exists today. This will free up time for other, bigger ideas.

If this made you feel like sending a lingerie greeting card to someone, do it before Sunday 29th.

Lessons learned:

  • If you have an idea, put it out there with lean startup methodology. Shopify is awesome for all things related to selling stuff online.
  • When doing PR outreach, start as far upstream as possible. My first pitch (via someone “neutral” tipping them off) was to SpringWise which is read by cool curators all around the world, and this got us on the radar or UrbanSpoon NYC, which got us more coverage in turn.
  • Be generous and proactive with unhappy customers
  • It’s relatively easy to start ranking for long-tail keywords. We got many first page position for phrases like romantic long distance relationship gifts by just putting out a post, without any link building.
  • The most important thing is team. Although this project turned out be a loss-maker (when I factor in time I could have spent on other projects) I’m very glad I participated, because working with someone as creative, no-BS, fun and ambitious as Kriss is a benefit in itself. Not our last project together, I’m sure (No pressure, Kriss :) )
  • Niche is good, but watch out for niches that are simply too small. Not enough money to be made, but perhaps more importantly risk of losing motivation.
  • Know when to stop. Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” concept can be a bit painful to execute, but it’s the only way to get to bigger projects and successes.