True Life: I'm A Startup Founder and This is My Story So Far
Around a year ago I started actively pursuing the idea of making a better analytics product to help publishers track actual engagement, make smart content strategy decisions, build advertiser confidence, and improve the onsite experience for their audience. Today, KYA (pronounced Ky-ah) exists but I can honestly say the road I took to get here is certainly not the one I planned to take. Let’s start from the beginning:
I started looking to raise some money for this new company — a brand new process to me, I never raised any outside money prior to KYA. Everything I have previously done had been self-funded, including building BestTechie. I began to ask around to my various contacts and as luck would have it, one of them was interested. It happened to be a right time, right place kind of thing. We both wanted to get the deal done by the end of December (again, keep in mind we started talking seriously about an investment around mid-December). Great I thought, I’ll be able to get started on building KYA in early January and be able to likely launch in March or April.
…Yeah, that didn’t happen.
When lawyers get involved, things get complicated. As a business person you just want to do a deal, but it really isn’t just that easy — far from it. What I learned from the whole experience is to let your lawyer explain his or her concerns about the term sheet and subsequently the shareholders agreement, etc. Take everything they say, weigh it, and decide what’s truly important to you to stand firm on. I can say with absolute certainty your lawyer will have several concerns and issues with any document you’re about to sign. That’s good though, they have your best interest in mind, but you do need to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.
Anyway, as you can imagine what was supposed to be a quick turnaround turned into a several month event, KYA didn’t officially “open its doors” until April.
Building the Product
While in my mind I knew what I wanted KYA to be like, look like, and function like, I now had to oversee the creation of the actual product. That is something up until this point, I had very little experience in. I thought it would be easy and boy was I wrong. You work tirelessly to make sure the development team and the design team are in sync, but when you’re working remotely (I’m in New York, dev and design team are in the UK) there will always be [slight] miscommunications that cause problems and/or delays. Chances are you will also find yourself in a position where you need to make little sacrifices to stay on budget.
I’m a perfectionist. You have no idea how much time I spent playing around with the product to make sure it did everything perfectly. I’m working with two amazing developers on KYA and this isn’t a knock on them, but I found so many small bugs during my testing. It’s just the nature of the beast, bugs happen. They fixed all the bugs I found by the way.
One thing I preach is to always make sure you have enough cash for unexpected expenses — I did that, or so I thought. My new advice? Whatever you think is enough, multiply that number by 2 or 3 and set aside that cash for the unexpected.
Another issue I ran into was that the core KYA product was completed, but the design and server infrastructure wasn’t. This led to delays in being able to show off the product because it a) didn’t look very spiffy and b) was really, really slow on the development server setup. I did understand why the design not 100% completed despite the fact the core product was, as the designer wanted to wait for the developers to stop making edits to the code, making it easier to implement the design. In terms of servers, I didn’t realize how involved of a server setup KYA would require, I definitely wish I had a better understanding of that beforehand. If I could do it over, I would recommend consulting a sysop prior to starting development. Live and learn.
As a founder, you have an entire product roadmap in your head (and hopefully also written down somewhere). This is great, but you do need to be able to figure out when it’s time to stop development and try to sell the product. I picked a point where we had the features I thought were good enough to get people signed up and wrapped up development on our initial version of KYA. All-in this probably happened sometime in mid-to-late October.
Selling is hard they say. I’m a pretty charming, charismatic guy (so I’ve been told) and I have a good product, I thought to myself, how hard could this be? As it turns out, very hard. They were right, it’s tough to even get someone to reply to your email let alone listen to you on a phone call. The only advice I can offer here is to be persistent. I did manage to speak with several publishers so far and have gotten a lot of feedback (that we’re now using to improve the product which will hopefully lead to more signups–more on that in a little).
So yes, be persistent. Use multiple touch points to try and connect with people, email is one, but Twitter and LinkedIn are also excellent methods. I have had a lot of success connecting with people via Twitter. I have a feeling that Twitter works well because of the 140-character limit.
When it comes to sending emails, less is more. We started out sending this big block of text to people and didn’t see many replies. It was likely overwhelming them to even read it, remember people have enough going on at their job — they don’t want to a giant email to add to the list even if what you’re saying is super cool and helpful. So we recently shortened our email and have been better success with getting replies and at least opening up a dialog.
Also, this goes without saying but don’t be discouraged by the word “No.” One thing that does need to be said though is sometimes the harshest feedback is the best, you just don’t realize it right away, but when you do it can really open your eyes. Remember you have been drowning in the minutia of your entire product for months (between the idea stage, development, testing, etc), when someone with an outside perspective comes in and rocks the boat it feels sucky, but it can be super helpful once you step back and look at what was said with a different mindset/clear head. It also doesn’t necessarily mean your product sucks, it does however mean it can probably be better.
Speaking of feedback, what good is it if you don’t use it? So like I said, use it. When I say use feedback I don’t mean blindly implement every feature suggestion, request, or idea into your product. I mean, take the feedback, think it through and see if it makes sense as something you should be exploring. Don’t just immediately disregard feedback because you think you know better than someone else.
Recently I decided it was in the best interest of the company to resume development and add new features to KYA based on the feedback I received from publishers. These features will likely be done in January 2015 and I truly believe they will make the product significantly more appealing to publishers. Up until this point, KYA relied on actual engagement (by using our Shout Button or leaving a comment) from a publisher’s audience to collect data, that will not be the case anymore. We will be collecting a whole lot more engagement data and using it to help publisher’s do various things like compare article and topic performance on their site. The data will also be used to make personalized content recommendations to readers.
The reason I decided to add this type of functionality isn’t because I’ve given up on the idea of the Shout Button, it’s because I realized that publishers need more immediate data and can’t hope that people click the Shout Button (a button which up until now they haven’t heard of) to get it. That being said, I’m still bullish on our button and we have some really neat ideas for it that will make it much more widely known and used.
Closing Thoughts & Looking Forward
We haven’t officially launched yet. I originally thought we would be launched by this point and have hundreds of customers and VC’s slipping term sheets under my door. But that isn’t the case, yet. We still have a lot of work to do, it’s a long and winding road.
As a founder, it is your responsibility to believe in your product, because if you don’t believe in it — no one will. Times will be tough, you will feel like you’re failing, but whenever you feel that way I want you to turn around and look back at that road and see how far you’ve come. You did that, that’s your journey and you learned more along the way than most people learn in a lifetime.
I’m not where I thought I’d be with KYA at this point, but I’m sure as hell not ready to give up. We have a great product and it’s about to get a whole lot better. Stay tuned.
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