Three years and two weeks ago, I attended my first Startup Weekend. And last week, the business we built that weekend finally launched.
It feels like a good time to reflect on the last three years – and to share some of the things I’ve learned with other budding entrepreneurs who might be where I am in three years’ time (or a bit sooner!)
So here are four ways my life has been different after my Startup Weekend experience:
Less Time Surfing
Which is kind of ironic, because our whole business is based around surfing. But I soon found that running a startup means putting in the hours at the weekends, the evenings, even the early mornings. So pretty much all the times I’d usually be at the beach.
But here’s the thing – it’s all worth it. The excitement of building a business from scratch is a buzz that is (nearly) comparable to riding a big wave.
However, it is important to step away and keep some perspective as well. A bit of time in the ocean is a great way to do this, but whatever you enjoyed doing before starting your business, make sure you make a little time for it afterwards too. (Notice the sub head for this point isn’t No time surfing!)
Better at my Day Job
I came into Startup Weekend a true novice to the entrepreneurial world. I was a copywriter before (and still am for half my working week). But I learned more about marketing and promoting a business in the first six months than I had in the previous five years of my career.
I don’t think this scale of learning is unique to marketers either. Start to run your own business and you’re picking up transferable skills all over the place.
You’ll have a lot more to put on your C.V after launching your own startup. Only problem is, you might never want to be employed again!
I never had any intention of running a startup. But once my idea was selected, I knew I had to run with it.
That meant doing a few things that were not natural to me. Standing up and pitching, for one. Putting on a jacket and going to meetings with potential investors. Networking.
I found that the more you do these things, the easier they become. After a while, I even started to enjoy the experience.
People really aren’t as scary as you think they are!
So take it from me – if I can overcome the nerves of getting up on stage or approaching someone ‘cold’ to ask for help, anyone can. And your business will be all the better for it.
More Ideas than Ever
I don’t remember ever having an idea for a business before I thought up Johnny on the Spot.
But now I’ve been through the process of taking a business from idea to launch – now I’ve spent time learning from other founders, and now I’ve read countless books and articles on building a business – I’m having a new idea every week.
The fundamental principle behind every business is the same – you are finding a better solution for a problem than anything currently available. As an entrepreneur, your outlook changes – you learn to see problems in a different way and to ask ‘How can that be better?’
Learning to focus on just the one idea at a time is important. But constantly looking to improve the status quo is a quality that will serve you beyond the success or failure of any business.
Last year, I attended my first ever Startup Weekend. I had no idea I was going to leave the event with a new company, or that the following 12 months were going to be such a wild ride. I’m proud to say that so far, my team and I have managed to avoid becoming another failing Startup statistic! Johnny on the Spot, the surfer’s personal diary, has launched in the Apple store with a much improved version coming to both iOS and Android very soon.
Some of you have JUST attended a Startup Weekend for the first time. In a year’s time you might feel just as I felt: excited; exhausted; and armed with a whole lot of knowledge you didn’t have 12 months ago.
Starting and owning an entrepreneurial business is one of the steepest learning curves you will ever go through. I would like to take this opportunity to share a bit of what I’ve learned over the last year.
Start Marketing Now
You spend countless hours perfecting your product. You love it, and you’re sure the world is going to love it too.
But the telephones don’t start ringing. Your inbox isn’t bursting. Something must be wrong. But the truth is, no matter how good your product is, it takes a lot to get people to sit up and take notice.
Use the months (maybe even years) before you launch to build up a network of people who are going to care about your product.
Create a blog. Use it to build your brand name without pushing your product. Post articles that give your target customers value and create a positive image.
If you’re not sure what to write, hire a good copywriter. They’re worth their weight in gold.
Find other blogs in your field and guest for them. Again, don’t push your product – just choose a subject area of interest to your target market. This article about an issue related to our product saw us shoot to the top of the App Store for a week.
Make connections with other companies and referral partners. Find out how you can help them. Who is the one person that by mentioning your product will give you more interest than you could muster in a month? A blogger? An industry expert? An ambassador? Find them, and be very, very nice.
Engage in Twitter conversations with other people in your industry. Start Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook accounts. Use the time to work out which channels work best for you.
But don’t, most definitely don’t, leave all this until the last minute!
Company shares don’t have to be complex
Financial shares, and how to divide them up, are one of the most difficult issues facing a Startup. The more you start looking into them, the more complicated they become. What class of share should everyone have? Do I give them share options? Voting Shares? Non-voting shares? And how on earth do you decide who gets what?
One thing to bear in mind with shares. You are not going to get it right.
I’ve really gone full circle with this with regards to Johnny on the Spot. Everything was fine until I began to realize that some people weren’t putting in the effort they’d originally promised and some people were much more valuable than I thought.
I looked into ways of calculating team members’ individual value and came across the Grunt Fund concept, essentially a spread sheet into which you put all the hours you work and it calculates your ‘piece of the pie’. We combined this with a system that worked out your hourly rate based on age, experience and job type. All really useful, but in practice very time consuming. Considering we’re all still working around regular jobs on the project, I wanted every hour possible to be going into getting it ready for launch.
Example company using the Grunt Fund calculator.
For me, going back to my original, simple approach has been the most refreshing decision I’ve made in ages. We agreed percentages based on everyone’s contribution to date and signed an agreement that stipulated they would get them when we launch the next version.
My final piece of advice would be to leave divvying up shares for as long as you can. A year down the line and I’m only just allocating shares for Johnny on the Spot. I’m very glad I didn’t do it any sooner.
It also makes you far more attractive to media. Going to people with just a product can be really hard. Going to them with a story about how you are trying to raise funds for a product and why is a much more appealing approach. What’s more, when you get funded, they may well do a follow up story about how they helped you get funded.
A word of warning – Crowdfunding isn’t easy and if you choose to go down this route you need to prepare for one hell of a month, and to do everything you can to make sure you get funded. Including funding it yourself if needs be. But the rewards, even if they don’t end up being financial, will be well worth the effort.
After the excitement of Startup Weekend, there are going to be some huge anti-climaxes. Long periods of frustration where it seems like nothing is happening. Late, unrewarding nights. Welcome to the trough of disillusionment.
Don’t worry. It’s all part of the process. If your idea is good enough for a team of people to believe in, and you have the passion, then you’ll see this through. Embrace the hard times and do what it takes to get through them. However good an idea is it takes more work than you can imagine to bring it to market.
Ask for Help
Starting with the Startup Weekend you are going to be surrounded by people who have been through the exact same process you are about to embark on and are more than willing to offer their help. Make sure you ask them! Once the Startup Weekend is over and you’re out in the real world, seek out potential mentors. There aren’t many people who are too busy to be bought a cup of coffee. Admitting we’re feeling a bit lost and need some help doesn’t come easily to most of us, but getting over that and mining the knowledge of those more experienced than yourself is one of the best uses of your time as a Startup entrepreneur.
It’s your product
By taking the leap of faith and putting time, money, sweat and heartache into your product, you are doing something really interesting and exciting. Everyone, from friends and family to the bloke down the pub (bar) is going to be interested, and they will all have an opinion on how you should go about it. “It would be awesome if the app could do this…” “Why don’t you add this…”
Feedback can be great and you’d be foolish not to take it on board, especially if it comes from a potential customer. But don’t forget this is your product. Everyone is going to have their ideas, but not everyone is going to be sitting up until 2 in the morning working out marketing strategies. Don’t try and incorporate everything to please everyone. Stick to your core concept and make it happen!
This post is written by Ben Martin, Startup Weekend Alum and founder of Johnny on the Spot – The Surfers Personal Diary.
Back in November 2013 I had one of the best surfs of my life. I was buzzing for a week afterwards.
The following weekend I attended a Startup Weekend and talked about an idea I’d had after that surf session that would help me do more of what I love.
I had no business experience. No programming skills. No previous thoughts of ever owning a tech startup. What I did have was an immense amount of passion, and less than six months later, Johnny on the Spot, the Surfer’s Personal Diary, is in the App Store.
Here’s why I think turning your passion into your business is a great way to go.
You are the expert
I’d spent the last decade traveling around the world, looking for the best waves and working out what makes them happen. Without trying, I’d built up a vast knowledge that became essential as we built Johnny on the Spot. Create something around what you love and you’ll be amazed by just how much you know, and how useful this suddenly is.
You are your target market
Whether your passion is surfing, cycling, trainspotting or playing the banjo, you have a unique knowledge of something that is very hard for an outsider to understand. There will be terminology and jargon specific to your passion. There will be a huge range of personality types, but at the end of the day they are all turned on by the same thing. As an insider, you speak their language and you understand their needs. That kind of knowledge is gold when it comes to marketing your product.
People don’t buy what you do…
They buy why you do it. I didn’t say this – it’s the motif of a TED talk that a friend sent to me towards the end of the process. It helped me realize why the Startup Weekend judges picked my idea ahead of several others which I thought more commercially viable. It helped me to understand why a 5-strong team of busy developers and designers have all worked without pay for the last six months. And why, now it’s released, the reception has been better than I could ever have imagined. My primary motivation behind Johnny on the Spot was never money – it was a desire to do more of what I love. People pick up on this, and genuine passion goes a long, long way.
You won’t give up
I thought I knew busy before I started this business. I was wrong. I could never have predicted how all-consuming this project would become. I’ve talked to enough other start-up entrepreneurs now to be confident that I’m not alone. Whatever you do as a startup, it’s almost certainly going to take up your time like nothing else, so bear this in mind when you embark on your new project. Would you rather be working late into the night on a commercially viable idea that means little to you, or grafting away to solve a problem that’s dear to your heart? Any Startup venture requires huge reserves of tenacity, and you’re far more likely to stick with it if you genuinely care about the end result.
There are people like you
Whatever your passion is, you can be sure that there are others who share it. So next time you are rock-climbing, embroidering, parasailing or searching for rare vinyl and you think… ‘Wouldn’t it be good if…?’ it’s very likely that a lot of other people will think so too. Do it, and see what happens.
Here’s what happened as a result of pitching my passion. If you know others who share my passion, please push this in their direction. I’m confident they’ll thank you for it. Now go and work on yours!
Back in November, British surfer Ben Martin entered one of our Startup Weekends. 4 months on, his surf app, Johnny on the Spot, is just about to launch. He got in touch to tell us why the skills he’s learned in the water over the years have proved essential to launching his new business.
It’s all about the Hustle
Surfing isn’t as mellow and laid back as those picture-perfect images of Malibu sunsets make it look. Out in the water can be a real hustle. Very often you’ve got to paddle out into a line-up of established and hostile faces and stake your claim for a right to be there. Sound familiar?
Think outside the box
As with business, it’s very often the people who don’t follow the crowd that reap the rewards in surfing. Those people who are prepared to take a chance and go a long way out of their way to search for new spots are the pioneers. Guaranteed they’re surfing perfect waves other people have never heard of right now. And when the bandwagon finds them, they’ll find somewhere new. Always one step ahead of the game.
Surfing teaches you failure
Like nothing else. (Except maybe business!) When you first start out you’re gonna try, try and try and fail, fail and fail. Cold water will rush through your sinuses. Your arms will feel like someone’s tried to rip them from your body. People will shout at you telling you to get out of their way. And yet, you can see those guys, just beyond the breakers, gliding along the face of the waves like they were raised by a pod of dolphins. Don’t let the failure hurt you. Get back on your board, stick with it, and you’ll get there. Once again – sound familiar?
Live on a shoestring
Surfers know how to exist with very little. They can make $100 dollars last longer than most people would imagine possible. They don’t go on holidays, they go on expeditions, and they want to stay away for as long as they possibly can. Two months on a remote Indonesian island eating nothing but rice and bananas? If the waves are good it’s all worth it. Surfers make sacrifices for their passion, just like the most successful startups.
See the bigger picture
When you’re starting a business, it’s so easy to let it become your world. Tunnel vision kicks in and you can’t think of anything except the next list of potential clients you’ve got to email or what a blogger said about you on Twitter. Here’s where surfers have an advantage. A little time spent in the ocean reminds you that there’s a much bigger world out there; that you’re just a tiny part of it. That kind of perspective can be helpful when you’re stressing about how many Facebook likes you got this week.
Johnny on the Spot, The Surfer’s Personal Diary, will be available free in the App Store on 30/03/2014. To find out more about the app and what it does, check out their Kickstarter and please…donate!