Sick Start-up Syndrome

While managing DSX Labs for the past year, I have come across a variety tech start-ups in South Florida, mainly because we were running tech start-up pitch events in Boca Raton at The Greenhouse.

They range from 1 guy with just an idea to 3 people with a full blown app or website. They can have 100 years of combined experience or none at all.  We had a few 15 to 17 year olds interested in starting their own tech company.  There have been 1 or 2 where the entrepreneurs were in their 70s

Out of the 100 start-ups we met with, there were common patterns you could immediately identify.  These patterns can be success related or potential failure related. I call them patterns because they appear over and over again.  This is a generalization. I am being specific about a start-up.  And you know that generalizations could be wrong.  So this is just opinion.

Here are my list of start-up syndromes you need to look out for.  It’s like looking at your body in the mirror.  Some symptoms are obvious, some are not.

No Strategic Advantage
I have run into this myself.  You get going in some specific tech start-up direction.  You have a product.  You have built out some serious code!  Yet, you or you and your partners can not come up with a strategic advantage vs. a competitor.  Face it, you are building a commodity product at this point!

How To Fix: If it is early on, you can pivot or change something slightly that makes you competitive.  But pivoting will take some serious pain and some capital.  It may not be possible. You have to have a compelling reason or value proposition for customers.  Find it immediately.  Sometimes it is right in front of you and you are ignoring it.

Tech Svengali Has Taken Over The Show
This I have seen many times.  The actual business owners have been mesmerized and persuaded by some tech guy to let him make all the decisions. Yet, either he or she is not really all that he says he is or really has no clue what the market wants.  The tech Svengali may actually have their best interest at heart for you. But they are not you!

How To Fix: Sadly enough, if this has gone on too far it could be the death of the start-up.  Start-up owners need to be in charge of their ventures and give it direction.  The solution is often to let him go and if it is too late, it could be time to shut down the operation.

Money Looking For A Place To Spend It!
Sometimes in some rare cases, there is a partner or a person with a boatload of personal wealth looking to hit the next one out of the park.  They are looking at Facebook and saying “hey I can do that!”  But they are forgetting one thing; they don’t know anything about tech, or their knowledge is cloudy because they themselves are not the demographic they are serving.  So they spend like crazy, hire tons of people and find themselves in a pickle.

How To Fix: My recommendation to these want to be billionaires is stop being the owner and start being the investor when you have the capital. There are a good 20 ventures in south Florida right now that could use $50k and have a great start-up that needs capital.  Instead of spending $300k on your “idea” (which is just an idea) become the investor and invest in 6 start-up ventures. At least then you will have 6 lottery tickets and not 1.

One Feature Does Not Make A Solution
I have had a bunch of start-ups come to me with a concept that is simply a smaller piece of a larger puzzle.  For instance, I have heard of a few improvements to dating businesses.  So the start-up concept is a small piece of what dating sites do, and can’t really be a product unto itself.  Or another good example is a site that just does nice 3D products for sale.

How To Fix: Typically I would recommend that the start-up goes back and rethinks the whole idea.  Just a small part of something bigger is not enough.  One way to fix this is to pivot into being a B2B software provider. So instead of selling 3D products yourself, your start-up provides the technology for other e-commerce companies. Different market, but then you can focus on a narrow feature you offer!

Nobody Is In Charge
A single person building a start-up without a partner or team is an issue. What is a bigger issue is a group of founders with nobody actually in charge.  When they ask you, the consultant, to be in charge and be the decision-maker, you know they have bigger issues than you can really deal with in one session.

How To Fix: One of the partners has to be the CEO.  There has to be an ultimate decision-maker.  If you can’t make that decision, then maybe the start-up should end now.

Can’t Describe What You Do
I have had this problem myself several times.  It is a common problem. Why does this happen?  My answer to why it happens to me is if you spend a year or longer on a start-up you start to lose you way (and you mind) and you end up changing the business around,  You get lost as to what you ultimate do. This is especially true if you are pivoting or evolving to something else. And we are always evolving. What is your service and can you describe it?  If not, you have to recognize the problem and fix it.

How To Fix: Best to meet to mentors and advisers and figure this out.  I had a great question asked of me recently about my start-up. That question was “What Was The Aha Moment?”  At that moment I went back in time and thought carefully about that moment. This is the moment when you first had the idea.  Sometimes that moment describes the problem you are solving and ultimately putting together a solution statement solves that problem.

That’s it for now.  I could add a hundred of these items to this blog, but I am publishing anyway.  Maybe there will be a part II.

Have a great day!

5 Critical Must Answer Questions For Start-ups

After interacting with 5 different start-ups in the past month or so at all different levels, from an idea and no pitch to well funded and right at the MPV stage (not most valuable player, but Minimum Viable Product), I have honed it down to 5 critical questions for start-ups that they MUST get right or at least have an answer that makes sense.  And, let me say that I have often been a passive person when it comes to pushing start-ups this way or that or anybody for any reason because I am also under the belief that I don’t know most things (like the mind of a 12 year old person’s market).  I would say, admitting you don’t really know the answer is the first step towards finding an answer to these questions.  My proclivity for passivity is starting to wane, because quite frankly if you can’t answer these 5 questions correctly, then either you need to go back and start all over again (even if you are in year 2).  So I am no know-it-all, I am just going to question your status quo on what you think will be a successful service, app or product implementation but asking directly the most important questions. You decide if you’re answer is acceptable.  I also, speaking with an old friend who is involved with a ton of start-ups as well said to him, “Remember to be tougher on the next start-up guy/gal, because we often let clients fail because we don’t have the inner strength to say, NO YOU ARE WRONG”, at the right time and place (which is usually right at the beginning).  Now we all want to get paid as consultants, developers, lawyers, doctors, etc, but come on just to get the business keeping our mouths shut helps nobody in the end.  In fact the start-up will just fail badly, and quite often we knew why in the back of our heads, we just kept our mouth shut and got the pay check.

So here are the questions to ask the next start-up you come across, as well as the retorts you need to have in certain cases, so they don’t end up on a highway with no exits where the highway just ends:

1.  What is your business model or how do you make money?

2.  Describe your customer (personally who they are, what they are like, where they hang out and something tangible about them)?

3.  How are you planning on getting to market or getting critical mass?

4.  Who are you competing with?

5.  Who is in charge, is there already a problem personality on the management team and who is going to run it and who is standing behind the desk answering the phone all day.

Notice I left out one really important question, what is your product or service?  Believe or not, I am now putting that below these 5 questions.  It is important, but not as important as these questions.   I am starting to think a product can evolve, pivot, and become something else if it has to.  And a great team with the right resources in place can probably overcome any product/service question.  A dumb product obviously is a problem, but once again I am not going to be able to tell you what is dumb, successful or not.  I was out pitched a few months ago for our start-up social app by a group of kids with a game which blows the head off characters (huh!).  They got funded and we didn’t.  So maybe blowing heads off your mobile app characters is a great product.  It sounds stupid, but I don’t know.  I am not 12.

I am going to follow this blog article up with my thoughts on each of these questions, and how/why I think you could answer them right or wrong.  There are definitely wrong answers, like Facebook and we are better and bigger (get the picture). My answer to that was Wrong, we need to collaborate not compete (especially with ginormace, my son’s new word he invented, entities), that you can not imaginably compete with directly.  Collaborate not compete that is a mantra I picked up from CEO Space, and it rings true, especially with Facebook, since you can build an app within Facebook to get started and they are happy about it…




Startup Business Models (for thought)

In really thinking through a start-up, and I have had this conversation about a dozen times in the past year, you have to make a specific choice as to what your business model will be.

Sounds simple… Well, if you have read through some of my other blog posts about start-ups, there is a bit of a gotcha that a lot of entrepreneurs run into. That gotcha, that wall, is common knowledge. Sometimes common knowledge is not that common. Because Zuckerberg did it with Facebook or Gates did it with Microsoft or your buddy down the street did it, doesn’t mean you can do it, at least the same way. What worked for one person, may not work for another. Get this in your head before making a business model decision!

Just when it seems like you know something, because you read something, does not mean you really understand the economics of why something is working or not working.

Ok, so you are thinking of starting a website… Actually almost 1 in 10 people (especially young people) have the ultimate or their idea of a website that they would create and a start-up business. I was walking through the mall the other day, stopped and chatted with a guy selling phones in one of those kiosks and he and I got to the point where he was telling he, his buddies are going to be creating a website startup. Ah-ha.

Let’s start by looking at these models based on risk vs. reward. Well, let’s start by identifying the business models (The ones I know of):

1. Advertising – You make money by visitors clicking on links.
No explanation needed. Google, Yahoo, lots out there, few successful.

2. Product/Service Sales – You sell products and deliver physically or virtually.
No explanation needed. Amazon, Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart, abc distributing.

2. Membership – You make money (every month) by people joining your site.
You know, pay for monthly services to use,view your site.

3. Commission Exchange – You make money whenever a person trades, sells, works, with another person. Ebay, LogoTournament, lots of others.

4. Sponsorship – Basically a twist on advertising, but more than advertising, you get paid no matter what the traffic, so non-click based advertising.

5. Virtual Business To Business Services – You sell backend services to other business. Good examples are Constant Contact, iContact, hosting, chat, etc…

6. Lead Generation
You collect the leads and sell them to a third party. In fact, you control the information flow somehow and set the information price… Good examples are World Avenue, Autobytel, etc.

Risk vs. Reward

I am sure there are about 10 other business models out there (that are real clever), but this list is pretty much the ones that make sense on the web. And when it comes to risk and reward you have to weigh the chances of your success versus the reward. Remember, not everybody is going to make a billion dollars on their first venture. I say be happy with a million. In fact be happy with quarter of a million… I say just be happy with success, meaning staying in business.

So, as you set out to create your new web business, even a new business model, you have to weigh your chances of survival. How to you weigh your chances of survival:

1. Your Track Record
If this is your first time, then reduce the risk by succeeding in ways others are not…

2. Your Capitalization
Often website developing is not about revenue, but about staying in business. Having the resources to do it, is critical. By resources this is man-power really in the end. Everything else, including hosting is dirt cheap now.

3. Your Talents
If you are not a programming, your chances of making a successful run at a web business model that is not retail are remote…unless you are fully capitalized. Being a programmer you have an advantage, saving thousands on programming.

4. Your Ability To Schmooz
Getting others to work for nothing is a talent. Getting partnerships in place to make it happen is a talent. Having an ability to convince others to give you money is a raw talent. A god given sales talent, but quite dangerous as well… I will give some reasons why this is a negative as well in another post.

5. Your Tenaciousness
This may be a moot point if you don’t have any of the other things above. Since if you are broke, not a programmer, not a great networker/presenter and haven’t done this before, your tenaciousness may seem more like agressiveness. So back-off and make a small success first before lighting the world on fire.

The Personal Analysis

So, you need to look in the mirror and take your idea and go through an analysis. Typically new, unique ideas start with the entrepreneur saying I am going to create this really cool site, like for instance a good example would be a local news blog site… And I am going to make money by advertising sales… Well, good luck. In fact I tell entrepreneurs, the quickest way to fail is relying solely on advertising sales. I believe that you will have to generate a million visitors a month to make something like $50,000 a year on the click through dollars… Remember most click-throughs are paying GOOGLE the money, not you. You get a percentage of clicks, and you are not in control of the ad networks, Commision Junction, Google, Yahoo, AOL and others have a heavy hand in control already. So get it out of your head that the ad model is your model! Ad models on the other hand like Facebook and others are high reward if you make it big. Chances of that happening are like 10 million to 1…

So, then you say, well my local blog can be a membership… Sounds good, and in fact if you can find a way to get people to pay, you are going to be in the money. Not a lot of members per month paying to make a million dollar a year site in revenue. I think if you had 10,000 members paying $9 a month you are a million revenue site. So this is more of what you need to be thinking about. I give you a 1 in a 1000 chance of surviving with a membership model… If you do, you will profit nicely.

There there is the back-end model. If you get it rolling, you will get hopefully month or period payments, so it is a very similar model to membership. I will give you a 1 in 25 chance of survival in this model, because it is business to business and businesses need help online!

The exchange commission model is really dependent on your technical know-how and luck. Choose the right model and you could hit it big like eBay. My odds of success are 1 in 100,000. So not so good, but who knows, it is a big payoff model like advertising, so you are either out of business or a billionaire.

Finally retail online model is a medium reward and lower risk. You can make it well enough if you have the talent. If you don’t and are new you still have a chance, but it is risky as well. Knowing your product is everything and if you do know a product well, you may be in luck. I think the prospects of becoming a billionaire are low, but my odds are about 1 in 10 will make some money.

Lead Generation if you pursue this money is about a 1 in 30 chance in my mind of making it. It is possibly a good pay off as well. Every store, sales rep in the world needs leads, so this is a great place to start as well.

Hopefully you get my point in this blog post about web business models and risk and reward.