If I could distill my main learnings over the past nine months down to three things, it would be:
- Ask for a lot of advice, but understand that someone’s opinion is just one data point. I’ve spent a lot of time setting up coffees and calls with fellow entrepreneurs and investors over the last year, seeking their advice and perspective. (Incidentally, I’ve also received a healthy amount of unsolicited advice from folks that run the gamut from well-intentioned to self-aggrandizing.) I’ve learned a lot through these interactions, and I think I’ve dodged a number of bullets and/or been able to get ahead of some of the questions and challenges that are coming down the pike. And one enormous ancillary benefit has been gaining confidence in pitching my business and presenting myself as an entrepreneur. Having the opportunity to talk about Fizz in a low-stakes environment has strengthened my skill at pitching Fizz in higher-intensity moments–it’s helped me smooth out the narrative and even the jargon I used to frame my undertaking. And observing how other entrepreneurs talk about their work has also refined my approach–whether it’s seeing how I don’t want to be perceived or how I do. But what’s struck me most about this concerted effort to learn as much as I can from folks further along than I? It’s that there are literally no right answers in entrepreneurship. I’ve even had entrepreneurs tell me completely opposed viewpoints–entrepreneur A says that SEO/SEM doesn’t matter in the short term and to put all our energy into direct sales; entrepreneur B says you’ve got to put in the time early on to get your content marketing strategy in place or you’re cooked down the road when you’re running out of money and still scrambling for inbounds. Entrepreneur A says that there’s no way we’ll raise a seed round with our business model and our traction and Entrepreneur B says he raised his while pre-revenue and without any connections to the Chicago community. It can be really, really hard not to get whiplash or to feel disheartened in this environment. But what we’ve come to say, internally, is: “well, that’s one data point.” And maybe it should be a consolation that there’s such a wide constellation of responses–if the answers were obvious and consistent, we’d feel a little stupid.
- Customer servitude, customer servitude, customer servitude. They purchase, therefore we are. I was sort of gobsmacked earlier this year when a couple of entrepreneurs were sitting around venting about how “stupid” their customers were. They were swapping stories along the lines of: “You won’t believe the DUMB ticket I got from customer service” and “These idiots keep trying to use the system in this weird way…” I was so frustrated–those instances are GIFTS. You are getting real, live customers who care about your tool to tell you when something isn’t quite right. Releasing a product is a series of unpleasant encounters with reality–yes, unpleasant because you realize where your hypotheses were wrong and where your estimates fell short and it can be a lot of work to address those gaps. But at the end of the day we have to understand that we exist to serve a customer and if the customer isn’t clear on how to use your product, that’s your fault. That’s your job. I’ve also noticed that our customers will often talk about us, as in my co-founder and I, when they’re talking about why they like Fizz. They’ll say: “I really like working with you guys.” I don’t mean to be self-promoting, but I sincerely believe that genuine care and attention to the customer will get you ahead, build loyalty, and drive sales.
- Customer acquisition is king. I think we had a leg up on this learning early on because my co-founder has a background in sales operations and really brought a lot of insight into B2B sales right out the gate. We knew we needed to get Fizz feedback ASAP and that we had to operationalize a sales process that would enable us to validate our market hypotheses STAT. But, like every entrepreneur, I underestimated the complexity of customer acquisition, and the tremendous amount of time and energy and emotional turmoil it would consume. An investor recently told us that he thinks a lot of startups fail because they don’t think enough about customer acquisition, and that he looks for an “unfair advantage in customer acquisition” when he’s making an investment. That’s what we’re after now. We’ve cultivated an interesting set of insights about which companies to target and why, and we’ve also developed some unique lead sources that I think are putting us on the right path. Something is working, because we’re seeing big conversions from cold outbound emails to appointments set. But this piece is so freaking complex. I sometimes get lost in it myself: which of the market subsugments should we try and for how long? What marketing message should we send their way? What pricepoint is right for that individual? Is the product yet developed enough to meet that stakeholder’s needs? Etc. It feels like there can be so many levers to pull, and everyone will give you different advice on which to pull first and why.