How To Build a Web Startup – Lean LaunchPad Edition

If you’re an experienced coder and user interface designer you think nothing is easier than diving into Ruby on Rails, Node.js and Balsamiq and throwing together a web site. (Heck, in Silicon Valley even the waiters can do it.)

But for the rest of us mortals whose eyes glaze over at the buzzwords, the questions are, “How do I get my great idea on the web? What are the steps in building a web site?”  And the most important question is, “How do I use the business model canvas and Customer Development to test whether this is a real business?”

My first attempt at helping students answer these questions was by putting together the Startup Tools Page – a compilation of available web development tools. While it was a handy reference, it still didn’t help the novice.

So today, I offer my next attempt.

How To Build a Web Startup – The Lean LaunchPad Edition

Here’s the step-by-step process we suggest our students use in our Lean LaunchPad classes.

  1. Set up the logistics to manage your team
  2. Craft company hypotheses
  3. Write a value proposition statement that other people understand
  4. Set up the Website Logistics
  5. Build a “low-fidelity” web site
  6. Get customers to the site
  7. Add the backend code to make the site work
  8. Test the “problem” with customer data
  9. Test the “solution” by building the “high-fidelity” website
  10. Ask for money

(Use the Startup Tools Page as the resource for tool choices)

Step 1: Set Up Team Logistics

Step 2. Craft Your Company Hypotheses (use the Lean LaunchLab)

Step 3: Write a value proposition statement that other people understand

  • If you can’t easily explain why you exist, none of the subsequent steps matter.  A good format is “We help X do Y by doing Z”.
  • Once you have a statement in that format, find a few other people (doesn’t matter if they’re your target market) and ask them if it makes sense.
  • If not, give them a longer explanation and ask them to summarize that back to you.  Other people are often better than you at crafting an understandable value proposition.

Step 4: Website Logistics

  • Get a domain name for your company. To find an available domain quickly, try Domize or Domainr
  • Then use godaddy or namecheap to register the name. (RetailMeNot usually has ~ $8/year discount coupons for Godaddy You may want to register many different domains (different possible brand names, or different misspellings and variations of a brand name.)
  • Once you have a domain, set up Google Apps on that domain (for free!) to host your company name, email, calendar, etc
  • Read Learning how to code

 For coders: set up a web host

  • Use virtual private servers (VPS) like Slicehost or Linode (cheapest plans ~$20/month, and you can run multiple apps and websites)
  • You can install Apache or Nginx with virtual hosting, and run several sites plus other various tools of your choice (assuming you have the technical skills of course) like a MySQL database
  • If you are actually coding a real app, (rather than for class) use a “Platform As A Service” (PAAS) like Heroku, DotCloud or Amazon Web Services if your app development stack fits their offerings
  • BTW: You can see the hosting choices of YCombinator startups here

Customer Discovery for the Web

Step 5: Build a Low-Fidelity Web Site

  • Depending on your product, this may be as simple as a splash page with: your value proposition, benefits summary, and a call-to-action to learn more, answer a short survey, or pre-order.)
  • For surveys and pre-order forms, Wufoo and Google Forms can easily be embedded within your site with minimal coding.

 For non-coders:

For coders: build the User Interface

Step 6: Customer Engagement (drive traffic to your preliminary website)

  • Start showing the site to potential customers, testing customer segment and value proposition
  • Use Ads, textlinks or Google AdWords, Facebook ads and natural search to drive people to your Minimally Viable web site
  • Use your network to find target customers – ask your contacts, “Do you know someone with problem X? If so, can you forward this message on to them?” and provide a 2-3 sentence description
  • For B2B products, Twitter, Quora, and industry mailing lists are a good place to find target customers. Don’t spam these areas, but if you’re already an active participant you can sprinkle in some references to your site or you can ask a contact who is already an active participant to do outreach for you.
  • Use MailchimpPostmark or Google Groups to send out emails and create groups
  • Create online surveys with Wufoo or Zoomerang
  • Get feedback on your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) features and User Interface

Step 7: Build a more complete solution (Connect the User Interface to code)

Step 8: Test the “Customer Problem” by collecting Customer Data

  • Use Web Analytics to track hits, time on site, source.  For your initial site, Google Analytics provides adequate information with the fastest setup.  Once you’ve moved beyond your initial MVP, you’ll want to consider a more advanced analytic platform (Kissmetrics, Mixpanel, Kontagent, etc)
  • Create an account to measure user satisfaction (GetSatisfaction, UserVoice, etc.) from your product and get feedback and suggestions on new features
  • Specific questions, such as “Is there anything preventing you from signing up?” or “What else would you need to know to consider this solution?” tend to yield richer customer feedback than generic feedback requests.
  • If possible, collect email addresses so that you have a way to contact individuals for more in-depth conversations.

Step 9: Test the “Customer Solution” by building a full featured High Fidelity version of your website

  • Update the Website with information learned in Step 5-8
  • Remember that “High Fidelity” still does not mean “complete product”. You need to look professional and credible, while building the smallest possible product in order to continue to validate.
  • Keep collecting customer analytics
  • Hearing “This is great, but when are you going to add X?” is your goal!

Step 10: Ask for money

  • Put a “pre-order” form in place (collecting billing information) even before you’re ready to collect money or have a full product.
  • When you’re ready to start charging – which is probably earlier than you think – find a billing provider such as Recurly, Chargify, or PayPal to collect fees and subscriptions.

For all Steps: Monitor and record changes week by week using the Lean LaunchLab

For Class: Use the Lean LaunchLab to produce a 7-minute weekly progress presentation

  • Start by putting up your business model canvas
  • Changes from the prior week should be highlighted in red
  • Lessons Learned.  This informs the group of what you learned and changed week by week – Slides should describe:
  1. Here’s what we thought (going into the week)
  2. Here’s what we found (Customer Discovery during the week)
  3. Here’s what we’re going to do (for next week)
  4. Emphasis should be on the discovery done for that weeks assigned canvas component (channel, customer, revenue model) but include other things you learned about the business model.

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If you’re Building a Company Rather Than a Class Project

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Thanks for the comments, suggestions, corrections, and additions. Updates added.
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The Pay-It-Forward Culture

Foreign visitors to Silicon Valley continually mention how willing we are to help, network and connect strangers.  We take it so for granted we never even to bother to talk about it.  It’s the “Pay-It-Forward” culture.

——-

We’re all in this together – The Chips are Down
in 1962 Walker’s Wagon Wheel Bar/Restaurant in Mountain View became the lunch hangout for employees at Fairchild Semiconductor.

When the first spinouts began to leave Fairchild, they discovered that fabricating semiconductors reliably was a black art. At times you’d have the recipe and turn out chips, and the next week something would go wrong, and your fab couldn’t make anything that would work. Engineers in the very small world of silicon and semiconductors would meet at the Wagon Wheel and swap technical problems and solutions with co-workers and competitors.

We’re all in this together – A Computer in every Home
In 1975 a local set of hobbyists with the then crazy idea of a computer in every home formed the Homebrew Computer Club and met in Menlo Park at the Peninsula School then later at the Stanford AI Lab. The goal of the club was: “Give to help others.” Each meeting would begin with people sharing information, getting advice and discussing the latest innovation (one of which was the first computer from Apple.) The club became the center of the emerging personal computer industry.

We’re all in this together – Helping Our Own
Until the 1980’s Chinese and Indian engineers ran into a glass ceiling in large technology companies held back by the belief that “they make great engineers but can’t be the CEO.”  Looking for a chance to run their own show, many of them left and founded startups. They also set up ethnic-centric networks like TIE (The Indus Entrepreneur) and the Chinese Software Professionals Association where they shared information about how the valley worked as well as job and investment opportunities. Over the next two decades, other groups — Russian, Israeli, etc. — followed with their own networks. (Anna Lee Saxenian has written extensively about this.)

We’re all in this together – Mentoring The Next Generation
While the idea of groups (chips, computers, ethnics) helping each other grew, something else happened. The first generation of executives who grew up getting help from others began to offer their advice to younger entrepreneurs. These experienced valley CEOs would take time out of their hectic schedule to have coffee or dinner with young entrepreneurs and asking for nothing in return.

They were the beginning of the Pay-It-Forward culture, the unspoken Valley culture that believes “I was helped when I started out and now it’s my turn to help others.”

By the early 1970’s, even the CEOs of the largest valley companies would take phone calls and meetings with interesting and passionate entrepreneurs. In 1967, when he was 12 years old Steve Jobs called up Bill Hewlett the co-founder of HP.

In 1975, when Jobs was a young unknown, wannabe entrepreneur called the Founder/CEO of Intel, Bob Noyce and asked for advice. Noyce liked the kid, and for the next few years, Noyce met with him and coached him as he founded his first company and went through the highs and lows of a startup that caught fire.

Steve Jobs and Robert Noyce

Bob Noyce took me under his wing, I was young, in my twenties. He was in his early fifties. He tried to give me the lay of the land, give me a perspective that I could only partially understand,” Jobs said, “You can’t really understand what is going on now unless you understand what came before.”

What Are You Waiting For?
Last week in Helsinki Finland at a dinner with a roomful of large company CEO’s, one of them asked, ”What can we do to help build an ecosystem that will foster entrepreneurship?” My guess is they were expecting me talk about investing in startups or corporate partnerships. Instead, I told the Noyce/Jobs story and noted that, as a group, they had a body of knowledge that entrepreneurs and business angels would pay anything to learn. The best investment they could make to help a startup culture in Finland would be to share what they know with the next generation. Even more, this culture could be created by a handful of CEO’s and board members who led by example. I suggested they ought to be the ones to do it.

We’ll see if they do.

——

Over the last half a century in Silicon Valley, the short life cycle of startups reinforced the idea that – the long term relationships that lasted was with a network of people – much larger than those in your current company. Today, in spite of the fact that the valley is crawling with IP lawyers, the tradition of helping and sharing continues. The restaurants and locations may have changed, moving from Rickey’s Garden Cafe, Chez Yvonne, Lion and Compass and Hsi-Nan to Bucks, Coupa Café and Café Borrone, but the notion of competitors getting together and helping each other and experienced business execs offering contacts and advice has continued for the last 50 years.

It’s the “Pay-It-Forward” culture.

Lessons Learned

  • Entrepreneurs in successful clusters build support networks outside of existing companies
  • These networks can be around any area of interest (technology, ethnic groups, etc.)
  • These were mutually beneficial –  you learned and contributed to help others
  • Over time experienced executives “pay-back” the help they got by mentoring others
  • The Pay-It-Forward culture makes the ecosystem smarter

Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

Why Governments Don’t Get Startups

Not understanding and agreeing what “Entrepreneur” and “Startup” mean can sink an entire country’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

———

I’m getting ready to go overseas to teach, and I’ve spent the last week reviewing several countries’ ambitious attempts to kick-start entrepreneurship.  After poring through stacks of reports, white papers and position papers, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.

1) They sure killed a ton of trees

2) With one noticeable exception, governmental entrepreneurship policies and initiatives appear to be less than optimal, with capital deployed inefficiently (read “They would have done better throwing the money in the street.”) Why? Because they haven’t defined the basics:

What’s a startup?  Who’s an entrepreneur? How do the ecosystems differ for each one? What’s the role of public versus private funding?

Six Types of Startups – Pick One
There are six distinct organizational paths for entrepreneurs: lifestyle business, small business, scalable startup, buyable startup, large company, and social entrepreneur. All of the individuals who start these organizations are “entrepreneurs” yet not understanding their differences screws up public policy because the ecosystem in supporting each type is radically different.

For policy makers, the first order of business is to methodically think through which of these entrepreneurial paths they want to help and grow.

Lifestyle Startups: Work to Live their Passion
On the California coast where I live, we see lifestyle entrepreneurs like surfers and divers who own small surf or dive shop or teach surfing and diving lessons to pay the bills so they can surf and dive some more.  A lifestyle entrepreneur is living the life they love, works for no one but themselves, while pursuing their personal passion. In Silicon Valley the equivalent is the journeyman coder or web designer who loves the technology, and takes coding and U/I jobs because it’s a passion.

Small Business Startups: Work to Feed the Family
Today, the overwhelming number of entrepreneurs and startups in the United States are still small businesses. There are 5.7 million small businesses in the U.S. They make up 99.7% of all companies and employ 50% of all non-governmental workers.

Small businesses are grocery stores, hairdressers, consultants, travel agents, Internet commerce storefronts, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc. They are anyone who runs his/her own business.

They work as hard as any Silicon Valley entrepreneur. They hire local employees or family. Most are barely profitable. Small business entrepreneurship is not designed for scale, the owners want to own their own business and “feed the family.” The only capital available to them is their own savings, bank and small business loans and what they can borrow from relatives. Small business entrepreneurs don’t become billionaires and (not coincidentally) don’t make many appearances on magazine covers. But in sheer numbers, they are infinitely more representative of “entrepreneurship” than entrepreneurs in other categories—and their enterprises create local jobs.

Scalable Startups: Born to Be Big
Scalable startups are what Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and their venture investors aspire to build. Google, Skype, Facebook, Twitter are just the latest examples. From day one, the founders believe that their vision can change the world. Unlike small business entrepreneurs, their interest is not in earning a living but rather in creating equity in a company that eventually will become publicly traded or acquired, generating a multi-million-dollar payoff.

Scalable startups require risk capital to fund their search for a business model, and they attract investment from equally crazy financial investors – venture capitalists. They hire the best and the brightest. Their job is to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.  When they find it, their focus on scale requires even more venture capital to fuel rapid expansion.

Scalable startups tend to group together in innovation clusters (Silicon Valley, Shanghai, New York, Boston, Israel, etc.) They make up a small percentage of the six types of startups, but because of the outsize returns, attract all the risk capital (and press.)

Just in the last few years we’ve come to see that we had been building scalable startups inefficiently. Investors (and educators) treated startups as smaller versions of large companies. We now understand that’s just not true.  While large companies execute known business models, startups are temporary organizations designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model.

This insight has begun to change how we teach entrepreneurship, incubate startups and fund them.

Buyable Startups: Born to Flip
In the last five years, web and mobile app startups that are founded to be sold to larger companies have become popular. The plummeting cost required to build a product, the radically reduced time to bring a product to market and the availability of angel capital willing to invest less than a traditional VCs– $100K – $1M versus $4M on up – has allowed these companies to proliferate – and their investors to make money. Their goal is not to build a billion dollar business, but to be sold to a larger company for $5-$50M.

Large Company Startups: Innovate or Evaporate
Large companies have finite life cycles. And over the last decade those cycles have grown shorter. Most grow through sustaining innovation, offering new products that are variants around their core products. Changes in customer tastes, new technologies, legislation, new competitors, etc. can create pressure for more disruptive innovation – requiring large companies to create entirely new products sold to new customers in new markets. (i.e. Google and Android.) Existing companies do this by either acquiring innovative companies (see Buyable Startups above) or attempting to build a disruptive product internally. Ironically, large company size and culture make disruptive innovation extremely difficult to execute.

Social Startups: Driven to Make a Difference
Social entrepreneurs are no less ambitious, passionate, or driven to make an impact than any other type of founder. But unlike scalable startups, their goal is to make the world a better place, not to take market share or to create to wealth for the founders. They may be organized as a nonprofit, a for-profit, or hybrid.

So What?
When I read policy papers by government organizations trying to replicate the lessons from the valley, I’m struck how they seem to miss some basic lessons.

  • Each of these six very different startups requires very different ecosystems, unique educational tools, economic incentives (tax breaks, paperwork/regulation reduction, incentives), incubators and risk capital.
  • Regions building a cluster around scalable startups fail to understand that a government agency simply giving money to entrepreneurs who want it is an exercise in failure. It is not a “jobs program” for the local populace. Any attempt to make it so dooms it to failure.
  • A scalable startup ecosystems is the ultimate capitalist exercise. It is not an exercise in “fairness” or patronage. While it’s a meritocracy, it takes equal parts of risk, greed, vision and obscene financial returns. And those can only thrive in a regional or national culture that supports an equal mix of all those.
  • Building an scalable startup innovation cluster requires an ecosystem of private not government-run incubators and venture capital firms, outward-facing universities, and a rigorous startup selection process.
  • Any government that starts public financing entrepreneurship better have a plan to get out of it by building a private VC industry. If they’re still publically funding startups after five to ten years they’ve failed.

To date, Israel is only country that has engineered a successful entrepreneurship cluster from the ground up. It’s Yozma program kick-started a private venture capital industry with government funds, (emulating the U.S. lesson of using SBIC funds.), but then the government got out of the way.

In addition, the Israeli government originally funded 23 early stage incubators but turned them over to the VC’s to own and manage. They’re run by business professionals (not real-estate managers looking to rent out excess office space) and entry is not for life-style entrepreneurs, but is a bootcamp for VC funding.

Unless the people who actually make policy understand the difference between the types of startups and the ecosystem necessary to support their growth, the chance that any government policies will have a substantive effect on innovation, jobs or the gross domestic product is low.
Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

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