Jason Baptiste


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The 11 Harsh Realities Of Being An Entrepreneur

By Jason Baptiste on November 1, 2010

There's always talk about the end game in the form of an acquisition, funding announcement, or eventual flame out. Hollywood has even made a movie about the founding of Facebook that glamorizes startup life instead of showing what it really is: a day in day out marathon of work with very little glamor. We rarely hear about the harsh realities that entrepreneurs face and the journey that this entails. This isn't meant to be a downbeat and negative article, but actually quite the opposite. By knowing the harsh realities that lie ahead, you can be prepared when they come about so you can solider on. Here are some of the harsh realities that come with the territory of being an entrepreneur. roughroad

Your First Iteration of an Idea Will Be Wrong

The first iteration or implementation of your idea will often be wrong. That's not because you're not smart, not doing the right things, or some other reason to come down hard on yourself. As it turns out, this is actually a good sign. No idea survives its first interactions with its customers and requires you to synthesize feedback to adapt to the customer. You could be prideful, not listen to what your customers are telling you, and keep things the way they were. In the end, that just leaves you with no customers and a product you may not even use yourself. It's okay if things change up a bit when it comes to your idea and its implementation.

Your Friends And Family Won't Understand What You Do

"You're an entrepreneur, so that means you're un-employed?" or "Oh that's nice." are some of the many reactions you will get from close friends, family members, and others over the course of starting your company. Even if you achieve milestones that are worthy of praise (customers, fundraising, new traffic levels, press,etc.) and denote success in the entrepreneurial world, people still won't understand what you do. Unless you build one of the few consumer success stories that come around every few years, things probably won't change here. The b2b space is even more difficult to explain as most people aren't your customer, especially if it's a niche workflow. This is okay and sometimes even a relief to know there is more outside in the world than just techies and entrepreneurs. Just because they don't understand it, doesn't mean you're doing something wrong or unacceptable. I doubt Larry Ellison can have most of his family understand Oracle (that database company that stores information), but things turned out pretty well for him at the end of the day.

You Will Make Less Than Normal Wages For A While

If you got into entrepreneurship first and foremost for the money, then you are in the wrong business. Sure you may one day sell your company, but that day is probably far far away. Even then, there are usually earn out clauses, vesting still in tact, and a whole lot more. Even if you raise a good chunk of cash, your money is better spent on hiring the best talent than paying yourself a higher wage. There's nothing wrong wanting to make money, but in the beginning it's going to be rough. You will make less than most of your friends, especially the ones doing the "normal" paths of things like finance. It's a litmus test in its finest form though. If you truly love what you're doing, the capacity to have a large bank account takes a back burner to completing your mission. Sure you need some basic creature comforts, but luxury items almost seem silly as you will not have the time to truly enjoy them.

Everything Takes Twice As Long...If It Even Happens

Multiply everything by two, including the things inside of your control. When things take longer, you sometimes think that you're doing it wrong or no one really cares. In reality, everyone else has multiple deals and responsibilities on the table. By factoring this into the expectations of your startup, it makes a lot easier to prepare for launching products, closing deals, and more. Also, be persistent and get the other party what they need as soon as possible. On the flipside, most deals just never work out. It may be an acquisition all the way down to a simple business development deal. There are always many moving parts and excitement that can just fade. That's okay though. If you're building your company upon one deal or a silver bullet (more on that below), then you need to re-evaluate things. Don't be depressed when a deal falls through as that is just the nature of the beast.

Titles Mean Nothing. You Will Be a Janitor

Hey there Mr. CEO, Chairman, and Co-Founder! As a co-founder of a < 10 person company with a product that doesn't have customers, titles really don't mean much. Everyone will be doing a little bit of everything, including cleaning the toilets. Don't try to mask the grind of being an entrepreneur with some superficial title. In reality, you should love and embrace the nitty gritty of those first days. Business cards are nice to hand out, but they really shouldn't say more than co-founder or something else. Maybe someone inside the company plays more of the CEO role (speaking and being the face of the company), but that doesn't really matter in the early days. You have to be humble and you have to be willing to do whatever it takes. You don't have a staff of 50 to throw the task on to either. If you don't do it, it won't get done. Sure you could also try to optimize for efficiency, but that's almost counter productive as the early days of a startup requiring doing so much, that it's hard to just cut something out.

There Is No Silver Bullet

There shouldn't be and usually never is a single deal that can make your company. Certain deals or customers can take you to another rung on the ladder, but there are still many more rungs to climb along the way. You shouldn't look at a deal as the end game to the startup, but a means to a specific milestone that is in the near future. A deal can be taken away far faster than it can be given to you. By training yourself to diversify your risk and the milestones that advance your company, you control the destiny of your company, NOT one single partner. The success of a startup is the compilation of luck infused with many little wins along the way.

Customers Will Frustrate You

Having customers is a great thing, but dealing with support is a whole other ball game. If you're in the consumer world, expect to deal with customers that don't notice the obvious even with your fancy pants UI/UX in place. You will also get an influx of feedback that is often contradictory. One customer wants it in red, another wants it in blue, and a third wants it combined to become purple. The key to dealing with customers is to respond to everyone, but have a strong rule of authority. If you succumb to customers frustrating you and do everything you say, you quickly end up in a far worse position.

You Can't Do It All Yourself

Some entrepreneurs have a superhero complex that they feel they can do everything themselves or with just one co-founder. They think that it's possible to scale the company with just two to three people. This just results in being overworked and unfocused. Know when to let go of your pride and bring in people that are often smarter than you are. By bringing in others to work with you, there's also an ability for each team member to be laser focused on what they're best at.

There Is No Such Thing As An Overnight Success

In some cases you may be able to find out that your idea just won't work or that you are one of the lucky few that get acquired early on. Other than that, be prepared to work on your startup for many many years. The press often makes it seem as if success happened overnight, but the entrepreneurs themselves spent a lot of time with the company over the course of many years. Startups aren't a 5k, but an all out iron man competition.

Building A Team Is Hard

Finding co-founders by themselves is very hard just by itself. Finding a group of individuals smarter than yourself across a broad range of skill takes up way more time than you would ever think. In the early days, you may be super excited about your company, but it's often hard to get a large group of others equally excited. They may have their own ideas they want to work on, be comfortable with a cushy salary, or generally just not interested in what you're doing. Just because you're excited does not mean others will be excited. If you're lucky enough, you will hit a certain period of growth explosion that requires you to hire rapidly and be a great judge of character on the fly. This is a dangerous period for a startup as the company is still small enough that the wrong DNA can make things take a turn for the worse, but you cannot be as granular with hiring these employees as your first 10.

There Are Forces Outside Your Control

Last, but not least, you have to understand that you cannot control everything in the universe. Markets collapse, the government intervenes, tragedy strikes, and other unforseen circumstances. You don't let this make you quit. It's like a roadblock on the way to a concert, sports game, or party you want to get to. You may have to sit in traffic or take an alternate route, but as long as you are determined to get there, you will end up at the event. In the words of the late Randy Pausch "Brick walls are there to show you how bad you want something." Once again, this isn't a deterrent to becoming an entrepreneur, but just a reality check to make sure you're prepared. Many companies die because people just give up . Hopefully this article does some small bit in helping preventing this. Life as an entrepreneur is hard, but if you really love what you're doing and have the determination, you WILL do it.

What are some of the harsh realities you have faced as an entrepreneur and what have you done to overcome them? Leave your responses in the comments.

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11 Ways Your Startup Can Deliver Support That Will Increase Sales

By Jason Baptiste on October 29, 2010

support for startupsSupport is often an after thought for many startups in terms of the impact it has on your time, sanity, and development resources. It's usually a tedious chore that is a second class citizen. Or...Maybe it's not. Maybe your startup worships at the altar of Zappos. If you do, odds are the influx of support hits you from out of nowhere like a sucker punch. Here's what I've learned about preparing for support, how it decreases churn, and increases sales.

Pre Sales Support Will Bring Up Patterns Of Lost Sales

Everyone seems to think that their funnel and their website copy is absolutely awesome. In reality, it comes down to not knowing what you don't know. There are usage patterns that will cause confusion amongst potential purchasers of your product, that you could have never imagined. By implementing a strong pre-sales support system, you will start to gain pattern recognition into what is causing you to lose sales. The best way to catch these issues is to implement live chat systems like Olark, a phone system like Grasshopper, or a simple pre-sales FAQ.

Example: With PadPressed, many potential customers wanted to see a working demo on their iPad. We thought we had this clearly stated on the Demo page. As it turns out, we didn't. After five requests in a day, we realized that we needed to heavily emphasize the working demo portion in the copy. We modified buttons on the homepage and we highlighted the links to the live demos on the Demo page. It worked. There have been more clicks and more requests about this.

Build As If You Have To Support It

I'm stealing this quote from Kevin Hale of Wufoo, but it's truly one of the most important product focused quotes I've heard over the past year. Whenever you want to add a feature, especially the nifty ones that may be confusing or buggy, think about the impact that will have on support. Also think about a feature's implementation and how it plays into cross platform compatibility. For every feature you plan on adding, expect more of the following:
  • Extra support ticket requests ie- Each feature will bring about way more support tickets that require more time, which is something you're already strapped on.
  • More pre-launch documentation ie- You will have to spend more time on Q&A, writing documentation, doing tutorial videos, etc.
  • More complexity in your sales and/or fundraising pitch ie- Your cool new features have nothing to do with your simple problem/solution statement.

Triage Critical Requests Post Launch and Freeze New Dev

After every launch of PadPressed, there are usually one to two specific problems that are major issues. For our most recent launch, the timthumb library was being wonky with Wordpress MU + external images. Instead of adding some of the new things we had planned, we had to focus solely on releasing a major update for this issue. The adrenaline from a successful launch will lure you into wanting to do more "cool stuff" for customers. In reality, if you don't double down on getting past the critical bugs, they won't be customers for long.

The Knowledge Of The Customer Community Will Save You

If there's a way to create a customer support forum, I strongly suggest it. It could be something like GetSatisfaction or it could be a private forum. Most problems that customers would normally open up a ticket with you for, will have been solved in the past and publicly available in the forums. I suggest that all tickets are made public and viewable by users. Another benefit of having a great community is the fact, that other customers will help out new customers and give suggestions. The math adds up over time. Here's some math:
  1. Assume each support request takes an average of 15 minutes to deal with.
  2. You have a total of 400 support requests per month.
  3. 50% of those support requests could be solved by having past knowledge public. (200 total)
  4. That's a total of 50 hours a month, which adds up to a lot of saved time, energy, and frustration.

Support Is A Reason To Charge

Support is a reason to charge, especially when dealing with a freemium model. As geeks, we may be able to do everything ourselves, but in the real world, most normals love to have their hand held or have someone on call to help them. You could charge for premium support or you can even bake it into your price. Apple's genius bar and training programs seem free to customers, but they're actually a good reason why Apple products command such a premium. Look at Zappos as well. They spend good money on providing a first class support experience and it's why they're able to do so well. Once again, THEY SELL SHOES. The support experience has allowed them to command a dominate spot in the market and differentiate themselves by selling shoes. Apple and Zappos' models are indirect ways to charge for support. Many open source and freemium companies charge directly for support and make big bucks doing it. Some may say that this model doesn't scale, but I say baloney. We're a connected and distributed world where there is an infinite amount of labor on demand to help with support.

Escalate With Discretion

As a startup with strapped development resources, escalating issues to the development team requires a certain graceful balance. Certain critical issues and larger customers require you to bring issues to the attention of the core dev team. The problem is, attending to these issues can slow down new development and an already large onslaught of bug fixes. This is also another area where you can charge for a more advanced level of support.

They Will Calm Down

Odds are you will get the fanatical pissed off customer that thinks they are entitled to everything to going perfect or ELSE. Chill out and breathe. They've been burned by the pain that is poor service in the past and they want to make sure your little unknown company pays attention. Respond fast, help them out, and just hold their hand. They will likely calm down and become your best friend at the end of the day.

Be Directly Wired Into Support As A Co-Founder

Even if you're lucky enough to have the funding/profits that you don't run support yourself, you should be directly piped into what is happening with pre and post sales support. I have every customer inquiry for pre-sales sent to my phone instantly and all support threads pushed via email automatically. Some I don't respond to as the rest of the team takes care of that, but I know every issue that is going on.  A culture where support is important needs to come from the top down.  If the co-founder of a company doesn't care, then why should anyone else?  Set an example.

Email is a Sandtrap

Users and customers will undoubtedly email you asking for support. It's not that you should avoid helping the customers or that supporting them through email is beneath you. It's actually the worst way possible to deliver support. Conversations get lost in the shuffle and require cc'ing and sending emails to other team members. Keep email for pre-sales support only as that is a much easier way to deal with customers. Here's the trick to deal with email support requests:

  1. Take the issue they stated.
  2. Create a forum thread with that issue and copy/paste their email exactly 
  3. Respond to their email with a nice note, thank them for being a customer, and give them a link to the issue you opened. Make sure you let them know the following: a) We opened a support thread so we can serve you more rapidly and b) You get the benefit of having an entire community that may be able to help you.

Bad Support Won't Sink You, But Great Support Will Make You Rise

Listen we all complain until the cows come home about Comcast and AT&T, but at the end of the day, we still have our iPhones and Cable. I don't advocate bad support, but somehow companies get away with it. Maybe in a world of transparency due to social media that won't be the case in 20 years, but it sadly is right now. That's not the way to think about it. Look at it the opposite way: Having great support WILL make you rise above the pack. People will remember it and people will talk about it to others. That great experience will let you rise above the rest.

Don't Skimp On Awesome Tools

As a startup and/or developer you don't skimp on your equipment and you shouldn't skimp on the software you use either.  $50 a month might seem a lot for a piece of software, when you're running on ramen. Guess what?  It's a long term investment that pays off in the end.  If the lifetime value of your customer is close to $100 and you lose 2 customers a month because your support is a mess due to stringing together email, you actually lost a net of $150 per month.  Don't be pennywise and pound foolish.  Here are some of the good tools I've come across.

  • SupportBreeze- SupportBreeze is by my good friend Mark Bao. It's a great, simple, and elegant support ticketing system. It's simplicity and workflows make it a fan favorite
  • Wufoo- Wufoo is great for simple contact forms that can then be integrated into other systems such as MailChimp, SalesForce, and more. They can also be sent directly to your cell phone.
  • SnapEngage- SnapEngage is a module that allows customers to ask for help and get live support.
  • Olark- Olark is similar to snapengage as it also allows you to receive pre-sales support requests from customer currently browsing your site.
  • Vanilla Forums- Vanilla forums is an open source piece of software that also has a hosted counterpart.
  •  ZenDesk- ZenDesk is a support desk and support ticket item
  • TenderApp is a knowledgebase and customer support application. 
  • GetSatisfaction- GetSatisfaction provides user powered support forums with employee interaction. 
  • UserVoice- UserVoice allows users to leave feedback on a site with bugs and new ideas. 
  • Assistly- Assistly is customer support made easier and more affordable. I love this product and would invest myself. The workflow and social media integration is very smart. What are other ways startups can use support to increase sales and decrease churn?  Leave your victories, horror stories, tips, hints, and tricks in the comments.

 

You should follow me on Twitter @jasonlbaptiste.

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