On July 16, 2014, I was the invited speaker for the BET 300 course (Foundations of Venture Creation) at the University of Waterloo. The instructor, Wayne Chang wanted me to share my experiences as an entrepreneur and to be completely open to the students about what it was like to have a startup.
When I began to prepare for my lecture, I didn’t think I had a lot of interesting things to say to a group of aspiring entrepreneurs. When Tony Jedlovsky, Steve Brenneman and I started Jedor over 16 years ago, the world was a lot different. Google didn’t exist, Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy, and “social media” meant newspaper and magazine execs going out for drinks! No Facebook. No Twitter. No Pinterest. Though I did get my first mobile phone in 1998, a Clearnet handset! But I still didn’t own a digital camera until 2003.
So…1998 seemed like a long time ago – ancient really, in the technological world. What could I possibly reflect on that this class of potential entrepreneurs could use in their journey?
Well, I thought about it deeply and discussed with the class a few points that I believe are still important today. Things we did right, and things we did wrong.
1) The Internet won’t sell your product
We figured that if we made a product that was superior, people would flock to buy it. We now had “The Internet”, and didn’t this mean the saying “Build a better mouse trap, and the world will beat a path to your door” is true again?
No, it wasn’t true, and it’s definitely not true today.
We had a great product, but the sales didn’t roll in as expected. Looking back, our marketing plan was pretty lousy – we didn’t have a big budget, so we concentrated on a grassroots approach (online reviews, posts to forums, press releases, and word of mouth).
Today, with all the places to sell things online (App Stores for software, stock music/photo/graphic sites, artisan sites like Esty, and even Kickstarter), you’d think it’d be even easier to find customers. But there’s also a lot more competition, and chances of someone “just finding you” is low. True, some folks have gotten lucky in the past, but people also get lucky winning lotteries.
You still need to market your product.
2) We had our priorities wrong
We spent 16 months coding a product, and 4 months selling and marketing it. Shouldn’t this have been the other way around? We should have spent 4-6 months creating the product, and worked very hard to try to get the software in the hands of users. Make a minimum viable product (or a minimum lovable product, which is way better), get it out there, and gather feedback. Then start adding features based on what users asked for.
Keeping our heads down for 16 months was also a poor decision for other reasons. We missed big industry changes that happened in the year. We were aware of them, but it didn’t really click until we had our heads out of the code and starting to think about marketing. In 1997 when we conceived of Viscosity, animated GIFs were becoming the rage on the Internet and Viscosity would be amazing at creating them. When we shipped in 1999, it was apparent that Flash would eventually dominate for web animations. Animated GIFs were a dying fad. (…Until in 2013 when they came back into fashion again. Where’s my copy of Viscosity anyway?)
3) But, we worked hard…and shipped.
Sonic Foundry bought Jedor in 2000 not because we had millions of users or a product that they could make a lot of money on. They bought us for the team. We demonstrated that we could take a product from ideation to completion. There’s a lot of value in shipping a product, and more than ever, companies today value individuals or teams that can ship. I think a lot of tech buyouts are still based on acquiring talent. Shipping is king. (Read 99u for inspiration.)
4) Starting a business is easy, but being an entrepreneur is hard.
The three of us start a business. Easy. The three of us crank on a product for over a year – a lot of work, but for all intensive purposes, “easy”.
But all the rest of what it takes to have a successful business – this is where it gets hard, at least for 3 coders. We really had to stretch out of our comfort zones and do everything a software business needs to do to function. Beyond code, this involved administration, IT, operations, hiring, networking, graphic design, QA, customer support, marketing and sales.
I like to create things – software products, websites, UI designs, and music. Although I ended up stretching out and even enjoying some of those roles, oftentimes it was just a distraction from my end goal: making and shipping products.
It’s so easy to think you’ll release an app on the App Store, and maybe put up a website to showcase it. That’s a side project, and one to be proud of. But running your own business requires you to wear a whole lot more hats. If you are product focused like I am, this may not be your idea of fun. For others, let’s say “true” entrepreneurs, creating a business is their passion, and enjoy having their hands in a bit of everything.
The take home: reflect on what you want to do with your life. If it’s creating products, create products. If it’s creating a business, become an entrepreneur.
The experience of having a startup was one that truly shaped me. It was fun, rewarding, and educational. It was a lot of work, I was broke, and it was scary too. But the lessons I learned have certainly impacted the way I think about and develop products, even today. And expanding into uncharted territory – like writing marketing copy, learning graphics design, working with customers, and managing employees prepared me for activities that are now a regular part of my job as a UX manager at Sony.
I’d like to thank my co-founders Tony Jedlovsky and Steve Brenneman for their incredible work at Jedor from 1998-2000 (and onwards!), and also highlight two of my UW colleagues that are still running their own small businesses today in amazing ways – Gene Goykhman (of TimeTiger) and Mike Blackburn (of Camplete and Miltera)