Nee.

‘Nee.’
Geen boze ogen of gespannen mond, geen streepjes tussen haar wenkbrauwen die een frons verraden, geen diepe dreigende stem.
‘Nee.’
Geen witte knokkels en geen gebalde vuisten. Geen gekrulde tenen. Geen borst vooruit pas op want ik meen het. Geen gerechte rug. Geen spanning in dat lijf. Niets, niets, niets. Gewoon.
‘Nee.’
Ze straalt.
Verdomme ze straalt.

Rinkelde mijn telefoon maar nu. Een belangrijk gesprek. Niet mijn moeder. Of wel. Mijn moeder en iets met de gezondheid. Iets dringend. Zorgzaam neem ik op. Bezorgd maar niet angstig. Vastberaden. Ik moet echt gaan, dit kan niet wachten. Geen paniek mama – ja ik zeg mama geen moeder of ma of moe of een andere variant die kwetsbaarheid moet verbergen – geen paniek, ik kom er nu aan. Ze kijkt me na en heeft spijt dat dit het laatste woord is dat ze tegen me zegde. Ligt er vannacht wakker van. Ik laat niets weten, te druk als ik ben met het redden van mijn moeder, en zij zit met me in. Zijn zieke moeder en dat laatste woord van mij. Dit is niet wat ik wilde. En ze belt me op, midden in de nacht. Verlossend. Verlost. Ja, zegt ze. Het was ja. En ik gooi de telefoon dicht, spring in mijn auto en rijd naar haar toe, 170 op de autosnelweg, doodstil, de sluipweg achter het tankstation en nauwelijks vertragend haar schattige woonwijk binnen. Flauw licht achter haar slaapkamerraam. Ik bel niet ik klop niet, laat de schildpad voor wat ze is. Een handvol kiezeltjes graai ik van haar oprit. Ik wist het, roep ik wanneer ze betraand van achter het gordijn verschijnt. Ik wist het!
En ze rent naar beneden. Ik til haar op, draag haar mijn auto in. De muziek luid nu. We beginnen te rijden. Haar ja het startschot om eindeloos te blijven rijden. Bestemming: mijn goesting. Eindelijk mijn goesting.

‘Nee.’

Zou het beter zijn? Als die frons er wel was? De kwaadheid? De teleurstelling? Ja, ik verdien het wel. Zoiets doe je niet, dat zei m’n vader zelfs. Hoor wie er spreekt, wierp ik hem puberaal terug, jij in jouw jonge jaren dat was ook niet enzoverder enzovoort. Boze tranen. Een uitroepteken na die nee. Vuisten tegen mijn borst slaand. Dat allemaal, dik verdiend, zeker. Schuldig ben ik. Maar dat ene kuiltje in haar wang, dat wapperende haar in de lentezon en dan die opgewekte nee. Nee, zo schuldig kan ik niet zijn.
Rinkelde mijn telefoon maar.

‘Nee.’

Je moet zo’n dingen eerst vragen. Dat zijn dan de wijze woorden van de gescheiden vriend. Sinds wanneer is dat de positie van waaruit advies gegeven mag worden? Ik dacht dat het grappig kon zijn. Wist ik veel.

‘Nee.’

Ze had me toch niet zomaar verteld dat ik de sleutel kon vinden onder de schildpad – schulpad zei ze wanneer we 25 jaar geleden een specimen uit de vijver viste en ik zei dat het schildpad was en ze keek me aan met dat ene kuiltje en diezelfde ogen en herhaalde rustig maar vastberaden schulpad en ik begon te lopen van schier plezier begon ik te lopen – maar dat zegt ze toch niet zomaar?

‘Nee.’

Dat ik dan tijdens haar vakantie naar Tenerife uit puur gemis dat huis binnendring gewoon om haar te kunnen ruiken. Mijn schoenen uittrek en dan pas op haar bed ga liggen en mijn neus tussen de lakens duw. Daar niet haar ruik maar enkel het huis. Dat een week te lang is zeker naar Tenerife en het huis dan ook maar uit protest al haar sporen begint te wissen. Hoe ze ruikt, als eerste, hoe stofloos haar boeken er altijd bij liggen, als tweede, hoe het raam in haar badkamer altijd openstaat maar er nooit een binnengewaaid blad te bespeuren is, als derde. En ik kuis, ja. Trek de handschoenen van de poetsvrouw aan en een schort ook. Waren mijn haren wat langer ik bond ze achterin in een dot vast. Chet Baker in de oren en poetsen. De methodiek van de grote kuis die ik bij mijn moeder zag. Alle meubels verhuizen van ruimte 1 naar ruimte 2, dan ruimte 1 poetsen, meubels terugzetten van ruimte 2 naar ruimte 1, en dan verder. Het hele huis door. Het ontspoort. Haar terug van onder het stof vissen.

‘Nee.’

Het grint op de oprit knarst. Ik veer recht uit haar zetel, in slaap gevallen boven onder en tussen haar overdaad aan dekentjes. Geruit en zonder patronen. Linnen en katoen. Afgeboord met en zonder franjes. Ik heb je terug gepoetst, roep ik enthousiast, en het heeft gewerkt. Dat doe je niet, zegt ze en ik denk ja dat is nu net zoiets dat mijn vader ook zou zeggen, alhoewel hij zelf in zijn jonge jaren enzoverder enzovoort. Je kan dat toch eerst vragen, en ik kan me nu al voorstellen hoe goed zij het met mijn gescheiden vriend zou kunnen vinden. Maar ik leg het uit. Mijn haar nog samengebonden in een dot. Van het stof en de bladeren en de geur die verdwenen was. En ze verroert zich niet. Of wel. Een kuiltje. Ja, de hint van het kuiltje. Van schulpad – ik zeg schulpad – en dat die sleutel daar toch niet zomaar lag. Geen streepjes tussen haar wenkbrauwen die een frons verraden. Geen witte knokkels. Ze straalt. Verdomme ze straalt.
De wind waait haar haren in beweging.
Zon doet haar ogen zachtjes samenknijpen.
Ik ruik geen huis meer, enkel haar.
Chet Baker uit mijn oortjes.
Zeg het, fluistert hij.
Zeg het.
‘Gaan we samen toiletpapier kopen?’
Ik heb haar nooit iets anders willen vragen.

On ambition

I’m drinking a beer with a well-known author in a small Antwerp pub. We’re talking about the promotion tour surrounding his book launch. The endless queue of ill-prepared interviewers he has to work through.

Then he starts talking about a 20-something woman who works for a small magazine aimed towards the Christian community in our half-a-country Flanders.

She’s not ambitious, she proclaims. She knows real journalists look down on the medium she works for. Somewhere along the way she decided to stop caring. She likes the pace and the stability.

In front of her is a little notebook. In it, she has three pages with dutifully prepared questions. Above it, underlined with a ruler it reads “Questions for the author”.

It must be the most beautiful definition of ambition I have ever heard.

Go rogue

I had the honour of speaking at an event about constructive journalism organised by the Brussels Center for Journalism Studies. The other speakers – both professors – brought some awesome research about what constructive journalism is and how it may benefit public debate in our society.

But I learned even more from the conversations with students afterwards.

The ones I talked to were on the lookout for internships and confronted with the disconnect between journalistic principles thought at school and the everyday practice of being a journalist at most media outlets.

It’s hard to follow the rules of constructive journalism when your quota is 5 pieces a day.

I see three ways of dealing with this issue: (1) suck it up and enjoy the pay check, (2) try to change those practices from the inside – trojan horse style or (3) go rogue.

There’s nothing wrong with (1) or (2), but I’d recommend to go rogue. Just because there hasn’t been a better time to actually make it work. Plus it’s fun.

To be your own media company, you need a platform, content and distribution. Technology has made it possible to have your own platform – including payment & membership tools – up and running in a day. Hell, your platform will probably be more advanced than most legacy media companies.

Distribution on the internet is essentially free, so the only thing that’s left is damn good content. And that’s all on you. There’s no shortcut or hack in creating damn good content. It’s hard work. The more hours you put in, the better the result. And that’s your edge.

You’ll probably fail. But instead of sending in a resume to apply for a job, you’ll be able to send in a link to your own ‘media company’. Don’t let anyone else decide if you’re a journalist or not. Do the work. Be a journalist.

Tough love

Whenever I’m working on a new plan, I try to make a list of people who are more knowledgeable than I am on the subject at hand and ask for their advice. The earlier I am in the process, the more it resembles “thinking out loud”. Instead I’m not under the shower and alone but I’m joined by super smart people. And usually not showering.

These conversations generate a lot of conflicting advice, leaving me the task of triangulating until I believe the decision I’m about to take is the right one.

I consider such a conversation successful whenever it taught me something new or made me change my mind. It’s kind of counter-intuitive: I’m psyched about a plan yet I have to seek out the people who are best at proving me wrong.

Over the years I’ve found that some people are just better than others in counter-arguing and helping me change my mind. That insight turned into a list of trusted advisors, my lovely wife Lisa topping of the list.

Just a few days ago I had a conversation with someone I used to work with, discussing the ZIGO plans for the future. He was short on time, yet took 2 hours out of his day to lovingly burn our plans to the ground with some very good arguments.

It’s a special feeling. Somewhere in between walking barefoot over a pile of glass and receiving the perfect gift for Christmas: something you didn’t know you wanted, but actually really need. Tough love.

Impact

For a long time I didn’t really understand what the value of our work at ZIGO was. The personal value was clear: I just love asking honest questions to people I look up to. But why were people watching and sharing? Why did people offer to pay for something we gave away for free?

The overwhelmingly kind responses to our work have long felt undeserved. Even after months of conversations with smart people about the value of our work, I didn’t get it. It seemed like people saw something in ZIGO that I didn’t understand.

Looking back, I identified too strongly with what we do. For me, ZIGO meant Tom + me. So every opinion about ZIGO came through as an opinion about us. And I struggled to identify myself with the kind things people said about ZIGO.

But then Marjan Gryson from Touché shared how an ex-convict found the way to her organisation because of our video. And how this was happening all the time. I went back to our mailbox full of feedback and suddenly found a mailbox full of proof:

ZIGO is not about us. It’s not even about our videos. It’s about the effect of those videos. And we’re only partly responsible for that.

The effect of our videos is the result of our content + our viewers. When viewers are speaking kindly of ZIGO, they’re speaking kindly about the effect ZIGO has so in fact, they’re speaking kindly about themselves. Now that’s something I can work with.

We’re now making a conscious effort to maximise and document the effect of every video we launch. While it’s too early to brag about the results, I already feel this is opening up the door to an amount of ambition I have long shied away from.

Turns out other people better understand what we are doing than we understand ourselves. I should write that down.

For profit

I find myself annoyed by the artificial divide between non-profit organisations doing good for the world and for-profit companies only caring about profit.

Of course, their respective company structures create different incentives and incentives shape behaviour. But on a global scale I see too many examples of beneficial impact by for-profit companies to agree with this divide. But that’s only a superficial reason to be annoyed.

The main reason for my discomfort has more to do with the underlying message this divide communicates: “When you’re doing good for the world, you can’t make a profit. And if you’re profitable, we don’t expect you to neither do we believe you to be making a positive impact on our world.”  If that train of thought surprises you, the fact that this is a fairly popular opinion in Belgium, probably surprises you even more.

Not to sound too heavy handed but honestly: I don’t want to live in a world where one cannot make a profit while doing good. Neither do I want to live in a world where making a profit denies you the right to try and have a positive impact on the world.

From 4 believers to $10k MRR

I previously wrote how we got our first 4 customers without having a product. And I can’t stress enough how important these first customers are. How small a milestone it may seem in your incredible dream of start-up success, these 4 customers are the difference between certain death and the small chance of making your dream come true.

However, after the first 4 customers, it’s time for the next hurdle. I spend a lot of time reading and talking to smart people to find out what these hurdles will be. $10k in MRR? 10 unaffiliated customers? International expansion? … It seems like I plan my hurdles further ahead the further I get.

For us, that next hurdle was $10k in monthly recurring revenue. The $10k is not a goal on itself. It’s just money: a means to an end. The real challenge was to prove our first believers we are worthy of their belief. And to expand our customer base thanks to confirming that belief.

In this post I’ll share the 6-month journey that took us from 4 believers to $10k in monthly recurring revenue. Again: this is not a checklist for success. Just as any of us, I’m vulnerable to the narrative fallacy, and above anything you should build your own checklist to success.

Prequel: Method in the madness

Us start-up people are no corporate bozo’s, and our biggest strength is ‘agility’, no doubt. But don’t be too eager in drinking the start-up kool-aid. You’ll need some kind of process if your aim is to build a high-growth but sustainable business.

Our process came to life because of a few excellent books. The most notably were The Start-up Owner’s Manual by Steve Blank and Getting Real by 37 signals.

The funny thing about process is: it won’t work for your company unless everyone believes it will. That’s why I won’t bore you with the details of our process, you’ll have to come up with those yourself. Just be aware that you’ll need structure to facilitate creativity.

Step 1: Team balance

The configuration of your team is of massive importance. In this early stage, you don’t have a financial buffer to recover from mistakes in this area. We definitely dodged a bullet when we lost our first and only developer a few months in.

Apart from that, when you’re looking for the right profiles to join your company, I believe marketing, sales and development deserve an equal amount of attention. We reflected this principle in our team:

Objectives

  • Every company is a funnel: we should balance our efforts to Get, Keep and Grow customers all at the same time.

Tools

  • People: there were three people working on Darwin Analytics full-time: one designer, one developer and one CEO/sales.

Schermafbeelding 2013-10-08 om 19.03.18Yes, we are wearing Darwin merchandising.

Invalid excuses

  • “I can’t possibly pay three people.” – Neither could I, I fixed this by getting customers before I had a product.
  • “I am the founder/CEO, but I can’t do sales.” – Either find a co-founder who can, or learn to do so yourself. To me, having a communicative (co-)founder is even more important than having a technical (co-)founder.
  • “I can’t find people who want to work for me” – as a start-up, you don’t have much to offer other than a vision and the promise of adventure. Learn to articulate that vision and share your enthusiasm to attract the right people.

The results
Having this balanced team made sure we made progress on all fronts at the same time.

Image

  • Design: get & keep customers
    There was enough design power to test possible new features on customers and build quality sales material to acquire new customers.
  • Development: keep & grow customers
    There was enough development power to put validated new features into production so existing customers saw progress on our platform, and new features unlocked new pricing models.
  • Marketing & sales: manage the funnel
    And there was someone in charge of marketing & sales. Which meant there was a constant buzz about Darwin Analytics, frequent communication with clients and a constantly managed sales pipeline.

My mistakes

  • It’s really hard to be the only developer on the team, definitely when you’re building a product from scratch without knowing what kind of product you’ll end up with. After a few months, we lost our first developer, and I think me underestimating this issue was one of the reasons why. As a non-technical founder, I would now probably hire an external CTO to watch over our development progress.

Step 2: Customer Advisory Boards

Monthly meetings with customers to keep them up-to-date about our progress and ask for feedback.

Objectives

  • Make sure customers know what we’re doing and why.
  • Involve customers in the decision making process.
  • Try to understand why certain features work and others don’t.
  • Make sure your team understands why certain features have a higher priority than others.

Tools

Every month or so, we would have a meeting with existing customers to share our progress and ask for their feedback. A typical Customer Advisory Board meeting would look like this:

  • Talk about current usage of the app, which we measured with Mixpanel.
    The conversation was mainly to find out why someone was using Darwin Analytics the way they did. We learned a lot from these conversations, and it actually produced some of our most successful features.
  • Share mock-ups of new features, tape the responses with Silverback.
    Every new featured started with our designer building wireframes and mock-ups. We used these mock-ups to get feedback from our customers. This has two great advantages: (1) you get really specific feedback from your userbase without the need to write a single line of code, (2) you can use these mock-ups in sales meetings to test which features work in sales and why.
  • Share findings with the team
    In an ideal world, every member on the team is present at every Customer Advisory Board meeting. But when you have multiple Customer Advisory Boards planned in one week, no-one gets any work done. So we taped the conversations, and shared the details on Basecamp to get everyone on the same page. If everyone knows why you’re building something, it gets built a hell of a lot faster.
  • Follow-up!
    Definitely the most important one. We share all the details of our sprints with our customers, so they know when we are acting on their feedback. We also give explicit credit whenever we release something because of user feedback. Sometimes we even dish out gifts.

Invalid excuses

  • “My users won’t talk to me” – Sometimes, users will slip away because they don’t like the direction you’re going. That’s okay. When you’re bringing a vision into reality, you’re making choices. Choices are good. Just make sure you’re losing these customers for the right reasons, eg: for a feature they want, that doesn’t match other users’ needs.
  • “I don’t have the time to arrange all these meetings and follow-up on them” – Seriously?
  • “If Ford asked what people wanted he would’ve built a faster horse.” – Yeah. That one. First of all: stop reading the Steve Jobs book. Secondly: user feedback is only interesting when interpreted by a human with brains. Think about why users are giving you certain feedback. If users ask for a faster horse, you should be smart enough to know it is speed they’re looking for.

The results

  • Clear choices:
    We lost a few customers, but we knew why: they looked for something we weren’t going to build. On the other hand these clear choices choices made our sales process a lot easier. Instead of answering ‘maybe’ to every feature request, we now had a clear answer. Prospects felt more comfortable because of this, and were more likely to sign on.
  • A close relationship with our customers based on trust.
    We screw up some times, it happens in a start-up. But when we lost our first developer and missed deadlines because of this, our clients understood.
  • Growing early customers
    One of the greatest moments in Darwin history was the first client upgrading to a bigger license. From now on, they were measuring the marketing results of not one, but five countries with Darwin Analytics. I believe the trust we created in our customer advisory boards played a huge role in this.

My mistakes

  • I sometimes gave up on customers too early because I believed they were looking for something we weren’t going to build. In fact, it was my poor explanation about our direction which produced confusion. We managed to fix this later on, when bigger parts of our product got built, but we wasted some precious time and feedback because of this.
  • Because of the huge workload, we didn’t always take the time to share findings of every advisory board in a structured way. I would just come back from an advisory board all pumped up, share some ideas during coffee, and run off to another advisory board. You can see how that may confuse people building the product. 🙂 We now have a more structured process, where we document and process user feedback every few weeks in an all-hands meeting.
  • Because every advisory board meeting could potentially add or change a new feature, there was a lot of movement on our roadmap. Especially in the beginning, when we hadn’t made any clear choices yet. Ironically, this got some customers confused about what our plans were and when we were planning on executing them. This problem fixed itself. We now know where we are going, and our roadmap is a lot less volatile because of this.

Step 3: $10k in MRR & our first client event

We got increasingly enthusiastic reactions on the new features we were building. Early customers even started recommending us to others. We also saw our usage numbers going up, with more people using the application more frequently, and getting insights from our application that we didn’t even come up with.

We felt the time was right for our first client event.

Objectives

  • Thank our growing base of early customers for their feedback and their enthusiasm (about 12 companies attended our event)
  • State clearly what Darwin Analytics is, so they know when it’s appropriate to recommend us to others.
  • Share our plans for the future.

Tools

  • Awesome customers
  • A team with decent social skills
  • Pizza
  • A beautiful presentation about past present and future
  • A custom hand-picked book for every customer
  • T-shirts for everyone
  • A guestbook where users could share how the felt about Darwin as a product and as a company

What a great night this was. We shared the full details on the Darwin Analytics blog. In short: we gave a presentation about the past, present and future of Darwin Analytics, with highlights on how our customers had such a big impact on that journey.

Every member of our Customer Advisory Board received a unique certificate for being a member, and a book that we hand-picked for every member to help them reach their professional goals.

Image

Image

Invalid excuses

  • “I don’t like pizza”
  • “We need more money to do something fancy!” – Don’t pretend to be bigger than you are. Our customers know about our runway, they appreciate our honesty and our common sense in managing our financials.
  • “Our customers don’t want to attend” – Something’s clearly broken. Fix it.
  • “There won’t be enough people” – Doesn’t matter. Get 3 people who love your product together in one room, and it’ll be awesome.

The result

Customers left awesome testimonials in our guestbook, confirming that the relationship between our customers & Darwin Analytics is not just a vendor-client relationship.

Image

We also got some other great testimonials to use on our website, and customers are upgrading and recommending us more frequently than ever.

This solid base of customers is a crucial asset in extending our aggressive growth rate, which is one of our main focus points at this moment.

My mistakes

  • I had little to do with the event itself, I just had the idea to organize it. So little room for mistakes on my part. When it comes to those who made the event into such a success – our team and our customers – there is nothing I can think of that could’ve made this more of a success. Lesson for me: others do things better. 🙂

What’s up next?

Looking back, our $200k angel funding really brought us to a point where we have a minimum sellable product, and an enthusiastic userbase buying, using & recommending the product.

We’re growing pretty fast at the moment, and we like it. So it’s time for us to take this first validation to the next level. Right now, 4 people are working on Darwin full-time, and we have a clear view on the people we need to scale our growth.

The most important things I learned traveling from 4 believers to $10k in MRR are these:

  • Hire a designer on day one: great design maximizes the impact of technical innovation. I’m convinced that users enjoy our features ten times more because they are greatly designed.
  • Search for your non-technical co-founder: What appeared to be one of my biggest weaknesses has turned out to be a big strength. At least for now. Because I’m not technical, we have a huge focus on sales & customer success.
  • Customers are awesome: Good days or bad, if you have customers involved in your business, everything gets better.
  • Take a step back: at the beginning of Darwin, it was all about execution. The more we grow, the more I need to take the time to reflect about where we go, and plan accordingly.
  • Facilitate conversations: Honestly, I am the dumbest person working at Darwin. But when I get smart people to talk to each other, magic happens.
  • Your company is a funnel: every part of your business should be about ‘Get, Keep and Grow’ customers. From sales to development, from customer support to marketing, we plot the activities along these three goals.

I never got a degree, but I have many teachers. They just aren’t working at schools. Learn about these great people at the Darwin Analytics karma page.

If you have any feedback or questions: find me on Twitter, or reply in the comments. Looking forward!

The pitch vs reality gap

Like everyone, I’ve been following ‘My start-up has 30 days to live‘. It’s an honest and emotional story about ‘a start-up going south’. One interesting quote was this one:

Of course, it’s only lying if you don’t believe it’s true right? We set the stage for greatness and then scurry away to make it happen so that the moment someone looks under the hood, they see the gears of technology spinning away and not the emptiness of yet another slide deck. (Source.)

My first company: about Paul & Frank

The quote got me thinking about the first company I founded. I was 18, took all my savings, and started a ‘webmanaging’ consultancy firm. The firm was one person, me, analyzing web metrics and writing copy for clients.

When I had a sales meeting, I rode my bike to the meeting because I didn’t know how to drive a car. I didn’t park my bike in front of the company building. I rode a few meters further, so people wouldn’t know I had arrived on a bike. (Imagine what they would think!)

Once inside, I had a sales pitch where I constantly referred to my company in plural. When people asked, I told them I had 3 people working inside my company.

One time someone made the bold move to ask me who those 2 other people were. I turned all red and made up two fake names (Paul & Frank) with two fake careers. Obviously, the man who asked knew I was lying.

The problem with faking it: you’re alone with reality

I started to realize that this huge gap between the way I presented my company and how it really was, was growing into a problem. Not only because of the practical issues – I once had to ask two friends to come work at my office, because a journalist was coming over for a picture – but also because it made me unhappy.

Image

Every milestone I would reach was insignificant for the outside world. When I hired my first temporary employee, I couldn’t communicate about it. People thought there were already 3 people working here full-time, so why the big fuzz about a temp?

I couldn’t share any of the problems I was facing inside my company, because everyone thought I conquered those issues a long time ago. After five years of ‘faking it until you make it’, I decided to close down my one-man shop and go work as an employee.

Paul & Frank in the start-up world

After 21 months as an employee, I’m now running a start-up. I see a lot of pitches, and I hear a lot of stories about a lot of start-ups. They all remind me of my Paul & Frank days: Pitching a dream, and hoping by the time the deal has closed, the dream has come to reality.

At these companies, there is a huge gap between the pitch and reality, which is going to turn out as a huge disappointment for most of the people involved.

My start-up has 30 days to live‘ is a great example of this pitch vs reality gap. I believe a lot of the authors’ problems would be easier to bear if that gap would have been smaller.

Why I turned to radical transparency

At Darwin, I tried to learn from my previous mistakes, and took a different approach: Radical transparency. We communicate about our hopes & dreams, but we’re also brutally honest about where we are *right now*. Even before deals are closed, we share what is planned and what is really there.

When we sold our first licenses without having a product, those customers *knew* there was no working product. The *knew* there were only wireframes, or just a manual version of the product.

This approach helped me an awful lot in building our company. I can have honest, open conversations with anyone in the start-up world. I have no problem sharing our real revenue with interested VC’s. All employees and clients know how much runway we have left. There even is a live counter to see how the runway is evolving.

Because of this radical transparency, I can share every milestone and every problem. I can blog openly about what is going on, and the feedback I get motivates me to push through when times are though.

And the best thing for someone as lazy as me: it makes  life a hell of lot easier. It frees up mental bandwidth not having to juggle with different stories.

A healthier start-up ecosystem starts with your pitch

As Ellie Cachette wrote: I believe radical transparency can have a very positive impact on the start-up ecosystem as a whole, and on the people working inside start-ups.

It all starts with your pitch. Add a chunk of truth to that dream of yours, and you’ll have a bigger chance on making it come true.

If you want to talk about start-up life, or anything related: find me on twitter.

Hoe we bij Darwin de loonkost optimaliseren

Om het voor iedereen makkelijk te maken, wil ik gesprekken over loon binnen Darwin zo transparant mogelijk houden. Als werknemer en werkgever heb je immers hetzelfde doel: ervoor zorgen dat de loonkost die de werkgever betaalt maximale impact heeft op het leven van de werknemer.

Om dat proces makkelijker te maken, hebben we bij Darwin de ‘Filantropie score‘ uitgevonden. Het is een eenvoudige berekening, die de verhouding berekent tussen loonkost en loon. Hoe hoger het percentage, hoe meer loon rechtstreeks bij de werknemer terecht komt. Hoe lager het percentage, hoe meer loon naar de staat gaat.

Met de hulp van Ilse Jansoone heb ik daar een makkelijke spreadsheet voor gebouwd. Die spreadsheet gebruiken we bij Darwin om samen (werkgever en werknemer) een loon te optimaliseren.

Bovendien berekenen wij er ook de Filantropie score over het bedrijf heen, zodat we weten hoe efficiënt onze totale loonkost in elkaar zit.

Sharing is caring, en voor wie er zelf mee aan de slag wil gaan heb ik de spreadsheet gedeeld in een Google Doc. Vanzelfsprekend met fictieve bedragen. 🙂

Deel gerust jouw filantropie score in de comments!

How I got my first customers without having a product

People often ask me what they need to do to get funding. I always give the same answer: sell your product, without having the product. It’s the only way to really prove your idea is worth an investment, and it’s a great way for yourself to find out *if* your idea is worth your investment.

I realize it’s not easy. I’ve done it, and at times it was a frustrating experience. On the other hand, it taught me a lot about my target audience, pricing model and product. For free. That’s why I would like to share how I’ve done it. Not as a “six-step-program-to-get-a-customer”. But to inspire*, and to have you hack your own way towards that first magical customer.

Storefront_results

My first step, week one: the storefront

A simple landing page, stating our value proposition and a form to subscribe to our mailingslist.

Objectives:

  • Test my value proposition (Am I solving a problem people care about?)
  • Get e-mail addresses (Who cares about the problem I’m solving?)

Tools:

  • Launchrock.com
  • Mailchimp.com
  • My Twitter account

landingpage2

Invalid excuses:

  • “I first need a logo to launch that page.”
  • “Maybe I should start a blog, get a corporate twitter account, gain more followers and then launch my launchrock page.”
  • “I first need a domain to launch this page.”
  • “I need a copywriter/designer/developer/online marketeer to launch this page the way it should be launched.”

The results:

  • 1700 pageviews
  • 335 subscribers (17,5%)

I was hoping for a 15% conversion ratio to validate the problem I was solving, so the 17,5% was a modest confirmation of my value proposition. 60% of the subscribers were from advertising agencies, 30% were clients and 10% were students or press.

What I did wrong:

  • If you look closely at my storefront page, you can see I actually had 3 value propositions: “more insights, less KPI’s”, “Social media ROI, finally” and “Darwin will show you the impact of social media on your sales funnel”. It cost me a lot of effort later on to find out which proposition triggered the subscriptions.

My second step, weeks 2 to 6: the meetings

The hardest part. I e-mailed the 330 people on the list asking for a meeting to discuss the problem and pitch my idea. After a lot of reminders and follow-up calls, I was able to score 25 meetings.

Objectives:

  • Find out why people responded to the storefront.
  • Get feedback on the solution we wanted to build.
  • Get a € 4.800 commitment to try the product for  a year and be a part of the advisory board.

Tools:

  • Keynote
  • Survey questions to ask during the meeting
  • Wireframe to illustrate what solution we wanted to build
  • Highrise CRM to facilitate the follow-up

Invalid excuses:

  • “I can’t draw a wireframe”
  • “No one wants a meeting with me”
  • “I’m not that good in making up survey questions”
  • “My slidedeck won’t be pretty enough”
  • “I haven’t really settled on pricing”

These are the survey questions I came up with:

These are the slides I used to demonstrate our solution:

The results:

  • 25 meetings & responses to my survey
  • Survey quotes I could use on our website to build trust with prospects
  • 4 paying customers

The 25 respondents were kind enough to give me honest and sometimes harsh feedback. It turned out I was wrong about many assumptions I made concerning the product. (I was convinced it had to look like a funnel. Everyone disagreed.) I also noticed people didn’t lack data. They just didn’t know what to do with it, or how to get the insights they were looking for from that data. This was an insight we could build on.

The people who signed up as customers were a direct or indirect part of my network. People who had no connection with me whatsoever lacked the trust to sign on in this early stage. I added a task in our CRM to follow-up with them in a few months. Some of them signed on when we had something more than a few wireframes.

What I did wrong:

  • I was talking/selling way too much in the first meetings. It took me some time to switch into ‘listening’ mode. The survey questions were a way to force myself to shut up.
  • My survey questions were very biased. It was almost impossible for someone to give a wrong answer.
  • I tried to get quantitative results from these surveys, but this was impossible given the limited amount. The fact that I was talking to my target audience proved to be more important than the tools I used to talk to them.

My third step, week seven: having a product without having a product

Objectives:

  • Gather product feedback from our first four customers
  • Refine our sales process: use the logo of our first customers and a first case study to build more trust

The tools:

  • Two freelance developers for one week
  • Myself, the copy-paste monkey

I hustled my way to four sales. Only one problem: there was no product for the customers to use. Two freelancers were going to build the first version of the product, which would automatically collect data from API’s (Facebook, Google Analytics, Twitter, Adwords, …), process that data, and visualize it on a dashboard. The problem was it would take them 12 weeks to build, and I only had one week.

In what I remember as a creative but sweaty meeting, we decided to scrap everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. The end-result was pretty down-to earth: the front-end worked like it had to, but the entire back-end was replaced by me, the copy paste monkey. I would wake up every morning, log in to every analytics account of our customers, and copy paste their data manually into Darwin Analytics. By the time our customers woke up, they could log into Darwin Analytics, and have all the data they needed.

copypaste

It’s safe to say this way of working was not scalable. But it’s not like people were banging on our doors screaming for Darwin Analytics.

Invalid excuses:

  • “I can’t even pay those two freelance developers for one week!”
  • “The first version of my product can’t be build in one week. Im-possible.”

The results:

  • Four customers who signed up before the product existed, and gave very helpful feedback on the first version of our product in a customer advisory board.
  • Logo’s we could use in our revamped sales presentation, to build trust with prospects.
  • Time to prepare a seed-investment

What I did wrong:

  • I wasn’t measuring how clients were using the product, this could’ve taught me a lot
  • The people on my advisory board were busy, which made it harder to get them in a meeting. If I were a better scheduler, I could have gotten more feedback meetings.

And now…

After the first four customers we got a seed investment (200k) and some government funding (50k) for the research we are doing. 3 people are working for Darwin Analytics full-time, and we are looking for two more to join us. At the time of writing, we have 11 clients using the product. Some of them have become true Darwin Analytics fans, which makes working on the product even more fulfilling.

Our test-driven approach remains one of the things that defines us most. Right now we’re testing our marketing with paid advertising and different landing pages, and we’re using usage data from clients to change our product. I’ll write more about this later.

If there are some general rules I would share with you after these first few months, these would be it:

  • Eliminate dependencies. “I have to do x before I can do Y” is just an excuse not to get started.
  • Don’t be scalable. Surely mailbox had a lot of traction before they got started. You’re not mailbox.
  • “Sales cure all.” & “Always be selling” – I didn’t invent these, doesn’t make them any less true.
  • Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint. A quick silicon valley exit probably won’t be for you. Build a business that can outlast you.
  • Know your runway. You can experiment all you want, but make sure that you know how much cash & runway you have left.

*A lot of people  deserve credit for being an inspiration. Check them out at the Darwin Analytics karma page.

I love feedback and fresh ideas. Go nuts in the comments: