Friday, July 26, 2013

So, You Want to Be an Entrepreneur?

Since moving to India, I have been (somewhat) active on the startup/entrepreneur circuit, engaging with people who want to become entrepreneurs. The reason I say "somewhat" is because it seriously pisses me off that people think it's a big cake walk. That someone gives you money, you start a company, and then magically, you're a rich man. That couldn't be farther from the truth. I've worked with entrepreneurs in both countries. I love risk takers. I love risk takers that bootstrap their companies, because the gamble is far more personal. The new business I'm launching is one of these high-risk ventures.

For the past seven months, I have been working deep in the trenches getting a new e-commerce business going. For those of you who want to be an entrepreneur, here's my take on what is involved.

As a new initiative for the company, it is essentially a startup within an established firm. We had a very small development budget and an even more limited marketing budget.

What started as a nice idea for serving US small business owners who need help recruiting candidates, morphed into something unique in the industry. Many staffing firms use RPOs (Recruiting Process Outsourcing) firms to provide cheap candidate sourcing and screening and we work with many of the best of them. These staffing firms are too expensive for US small businesses, so we decided that we could offer a similar service at a price point that was affordable. To make this successful, we were intent on providing a simple and easy user experience, and the site had to be intuitive - make is clear where to submit an order, feature an easy payment process and a dead simple and fast delivery process.

We started with a different name. When we went to research our service mark and domain name, many of the options we were looking for we already taken, but our favorite was still available. Within the next 30 days, we tried to register it, only to find out some company in Arizona registered it a few days after Christmas. Blurg.

LESSON #1: If you have a great domain name, register it right then. Before anyone else gets the same idea. This is good for SEO. The longer you've owned the URL, the higher its rankings.

We decided to hire a local development firm who insisted that they managed their development iteratively, but that did not happen. The project cost us twice as much and took twice as long as expected, even though the bulk of the interface had been designed. They did not develop use cases, document their work, nor provide any ability to do design reviews because everything was programmed by them before the process flow had been agreed upon. A number of times. But at least we're launched. And the site is pretty decently bug-free for a BETA site. Seriously. I've dealt with plenty of Indian developers who do ABSOLUTELY NO testing before launching. They've done a decent job.

LESSON #2: Sit on the developers. Meet with them regularly. If they're not meeting milestones, meet them more often, even if that means daily. I didn't do this faithfully due to other pending projects.

We did not have staff in place to market effectively. We needed people who could manage social media, connecting with Americans and speaking authentically. It took a lot of training and exposure, but our staff are now working at similar delivery levels to Americans doing the same work. I am very proud of that.

LESSON #3: Train, train and train again. Monitor and provide feedback regularly. Ask them to evaluate each other's work, mentor each other and share information. Make them feel safe in testing new ideas, even if they fail. Learning it does NOT work is just as important as learning what DOES.

Forecasting staffing levels is always a challenge when launching a site. Some sites take forever to gain traction, others never do. We have tough targets to reach. Our pricing structure depends on volume. Our staff have been exposed to "P&L Lite", also known as "justifying our salaries", which has given them insight into how startups work and what you need to be mindful of when making business decisions. We've demonstrated how much traffic is required in order to convert a small percentage of visitors into sales.

LESSON #4: Be as transparent as possible with your staff. If they know what metrics you are following as a business owner, this will be translated into their priorities (hopefully). Explain why each metric is important and what is required to meet your business goals.

Right now, staffing is all over the place. We have a set of dedicated staff, plus additional employees on the bench waiting for job orders. While in BETA, this is okay, but we still need to start generating revenue. The way to get revenue is to drive qualified traffic to our site.

LESSON #5: If you have staff on the bench, train them to do marketing and sales activities. Everyone should be able to express who you are as a company. If they can't, you have failed them if you lead marketing in your firm. Many mindless tasks can be assigned to people, like directory submissions, article submissions, link building, etc. Other disciplines, like social media, take more training. Expect it to take six months to see any success. Provide them with tools, training, and templates and set them off into the "interwebs" to drive traffic back to your site. We have found shortened Google URLs or bit.ly's to be great at tracking each individual's contribution and sharing this insights with the staff to increase their own effectiveness. (Google's URLs, however are automatically tracked in Google Analytics, so we prefer them at the moment.)

Life is challenging when launching a startup. My life has been all about the business for the past six months, from the moment I wake up and check my emails, to the moment just before I go to sleep after checking my emails and traffic reports. I wake up in the middle of the night to send emails to myself about ideas on tweaking the web site, blog post ideas, etc. I skip meals to accommodate yet another training meeting, or to visit my developers. I could not find a decent illustrator, so I created the images on the site myself. The entire user interface was designed by me, because I simply could not identify anyone, nor could our developer, nor anyone in our online networks, that was good enough to do the work. I wrote the bulk of the content myself, with feedback from the CEO. I checked the quality of the backend code along with my fearless Ritu, who is currently leading the operations for this initiative. Ritu spent weeks testing countless job orders, and broke the system many times, identifying lots of work for our developers. Allen and the Social Media team have been working night and day, establishing the right connections on social media. Every single person involved with this project has dedicated themselves more than full time employees. I feel confident in saying that they are partnering with me to build this business. I am not merely trading a paycheck for their completion of certain tasks. They are with me. They now understand the excitement of launching a business and I am sharing with them how I go about doing this. It isn't the first time I've launched businesses, here or in the U.S., so I hope my background can help them learn the best practices I've learned, lo, these many years.

post job online, pay $59, get 12 resumes next business day

So here, I introduce you to iPlace Connect. Please feel free to visit and let me know what you think. In the coming weeks, I will be updating you on how my Indian staff are handling this initiative and how we fare.

One of the things I discuss a LOT (and people are sick of me doing so), is the fact that international development is not a zero sum game. A job in India is not the same job in America. I hear all the time that what I do is taking jobs from Americans and that simply is not the case. What I do is bring the best of America and using that foundation, train Indian staff to work in that environment. What I have seen is that my Indian workforce, when given clear expectations, support and empowerment, can rise to International standards quickly and efficiently. I get the best of both worlds. Because salary levels are significantly lower than Americans, I can provide an affordable service to Americans that, frankly, could not be offered by an American staffing firm. The business model does not make sense and would not be successful. This unique service can significantly change the way U.S. small business recruits qualified candidates, and I am very proud of my staff in helping me get this project launched, marketed, and delivering the quality service I envisioned.

Please visit the site and let me know what you think. :-)

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