Think pricing

Startups: It’s Time to Think Pricing. Here’s How.

Out of 7 startups that joined us just a few weeks ago for StartupYard Batch 7, only 2 are currently selling a product to real customers. Those 2 have just a handful of customers each. Most of our startups are very early stage; you have to have something to sell, before you can sell. But it surprises many of them how early it pays to think pricing. 

While we expend days and weeks and months of effort discussing features and USP, design and everything else, it’s surprising to me how difficult it really can be to talk to startups about pricing. Talking about pricing is kind of hard. People don’t want to think about it. They panic at the thought of raising prices, and they cower in fear of having prices too low. It can be a rollercoaster.

Of course, pricing is a sensitive subject. As Tom Whitwell writes in his insightful medium piece on pricing psychology, “Prices are a shortcut to our most sensitive emotional responses.” Pricing is a deeply primal part of consumer psychology, and as Whitwell shows, leaves consumers surprisingly, sometimes shockingly, susceptible to manipulation or suggestion.

I suggest you go and read that piece: The First Rule of Pricing,  to find out why. I’ll wait.

Hello! Now that you’re back, this piece is going to build on Whitwall’s, to talk about what all that means for early stage startups, and how they should actually approach pricing their products for the first time, or through the first few iterations.

Your Customers Don’t Know What They Want (Or How Much They Would Pay)

As Malcolm Gladwell explored in his best-seller Blink, and associated Ted Talk “On Spaghetti Sauce,” it has been known in retail since the early 1980s that optimum sales results could not be achieved by finding the ideal single product and price point. For decades, product companies had been simplifying their offerings in the hopes of reducing costs while optimizing their sales around best-selling lines of products.

 

The logic was simple. The attractiveness of products could be graded on a bell curve. An ideal point was where most customers would be willing to buy, whether or not any of them were completely satisfied. Simple product lines also made advertising easier, reducing the need to target advertising to specific audiences, because increasingly, products were targeted at the vast middle of the market.

As he explains, beginning in the early 80s, big food companies, and later other product companies, discovered that this tendency to optimize around single products was hurting their profitability. Instead of selling one popular product that was a mix of the qualities most customers wanted, producers began to develop products that catered to “clusters” of customers who had distinct preferences.

Importantly, research showed that customers were not well equipped to predict what they would enjoy or what they would buy. As Gladwell notes, “For years and years, the standard practice when you wanted to find out what customers would want to buy… was to ask them.”

But customers routinely used experience as a reference point for future behavior. People are bad at imagining a future that isn’t similar to the present. Likewise, they are not good at predicting their future behaviors, because they assume their behaviors will remain consistent.

Experimental field research discovered that “hidden preferences” in consumer behavior were powerful, and almost completely unknown. By testing products with “value added” features, researchers found that price tolerance was much more flexible than previously believed.

For example, about ⅓ of US consumers enjoyed “Extra Chunky” spaghetti sauce. And yet no major brand offered such a product. Customers failed to state, when asked, that they wanted “chunky spaghetti sauce,” but experiments showed that when given the choice, they readily bought it and paid more for it.

Think Pricing

The post 80s flourishing of product segmentation was slow to be adopted for the digital economy. Driven by the technical difficulty of offering and maintaining more diverse product offerings at different pricing points, and the difficulty of marketing each individually in the online space, software and online companies often adopted the old model.

But today, tiered pricing has seen a major comeback. Customers are again comfortable with the concept applied to digital products. Thus instead of we have “9.99 for Standard, 14.99 for HD,” or the “Good, Better, Best” pricing model, in which features and functionalities are limited or exclusive to different products.  

So what does this mean for your own pricing? First, there is no optimum pricing strategy- at least not in the sense that most startups tend to think. There is no perfect price, but rather a continuum of price and feature combinations, into which most customers fall somewhere. The work of a product company is to identify where pricing and feature expectations align for different categories of customers– what Gladwell calls “clustering.”

If you aren’t consistently testing the limits of your pricing and the feature expectations of your customers, then you will likely leave money on the table. Whitwell uses the example of The Times of London. Beginning in 2014, The Times began asking customers whether they would pay X amount for different combinations of features. They produced a range of prices and feature sets, to test different “flavors,” of plan to sell to their customers.

What they found shocked them. Although a minority of their customers would choose to pay more for certain features, the actual revenue to be gained from offering those features at a different price point far outweighed the lower number of paying users. They found that customers would gladly pay up to 3 times more than they currently did to retain only a portion of the same features they enjoyed at the old price. By throwing in features that customers had not needed at lower price points, The Times had co-opted its ability to upsell those features later.

The Freemium Trap

“Freemium” is generally taken to mean a product which can be used free of charge indefinitely, but which is limited in comparison with a premium version, either in offered features, or capacity (such as storage), or in other ways.

It’s not always a bad idea to have a Freemium model. Particularly, products that provide a long-tail value that is hard to see at the beginning may have to be freemium. Most casual games use freemium these days. Dropbox is also a freemium service, which makes sense, because customers typically don’t have a need to buy up to 1TB of storage in one go- instead, they collect data slowly. Slack is another example: a small team doesn’t always need unlimited message history, storage, and all the bells and whistles on day one.

It’s hard to get someone to pay for something of uncertain value. It’s even harder to get someone to pay for something for which a ready and free replacement already exists.

But on the other hand, many, many startups who use a freemium model shouldn’t. When you provide a product aimed at customers who easily understand the value, and who moreover really need what you offer, then offering them a Freemium experience may simply be giving them a handout. And addicting your customers to the free product can make it even harder to sell the Premium version.

One of our startups, 2016’s Satismeter, experienced exactly this problem. As Co-Founder and CEO Ondrej Sedlacek told me recently:

“Switching from a freemium model to free trial and ditching cheaper plans was a big improvement for us. The truth was that people who needed our product were ready to pay for it.

Freemium ended up being a barrier to selling to some customers, because they would get used to just making do with the free version. When we eliminated our free plan, we saw only a slight reduction in signups, and we increased sales overnight. Plus, free users were ironically the most demanding for support. Paying customers invest their time to understand the product and set up the whole process to get the most value out of it”

Customers who understand your product’s value are inherently better customers in the long run. Attracting people who don’t believe in your product might be necessary at the beginning, but it should be viewed as a means to an end.

Price is about Positioning

In his piece, Whitwell calls attention to this with reference to Apple (itself discussed in another piece: Why You Should Never Ask Customers about Price). When unveiling the iPad, for example, Steve Jobs had basically two options, assuming that he couldn’t actually change the price of the product significantly.

First, he could sell the iPad as an expensive version of the iPhone (something many internet trolls did anyway), or second, he could sell the iPad as a cheaper and better version of a netbook computer. He chose the latter- making a point to talk about the features of a netbook in comparison with those of an iPad, before revealing the iPad’s original price point- at $999.

Voila: the Ipad wasn’t a very expensive phone. It was instead a cheaper and better netbook- one with all the features of an Iphone, and the power of a real computer.

In pricing psychology, this is called “anchoring,” and it’s hard not to notice once you know what it is. Retailers will routinely display their best selling items next to items which are significantly more expensive, and items that are significantly cheaper, in order to give the customer the feeling that she is getting the best deal.

Often products are offered that are far more expensive than is actually justified by features. The logic is plain enough: a few customers might buy the Deluxe Collector Edition, but it’s really just there to make the more popular product look cheap in comparison. That’s how you get a $10,000 Apple Watch, or a fully loaded Mustang Cobra. Buying the next best thing is almost aspirational- the customer is invested in a product category where prices run very high, giving them a sense that they are in the “big game.”

By the same token, restaurants may list the most profitable wine on the menu in second place, just above the cheapest wine, and just below a significant jump in prices. This plays off of a human tendency to “reality check” prices based on other available evidence. $25 for a bottle of wine seems like a lot if the options are $5, $15 and $25, but it seems reasonable if the prices start at $15, and reach over $100.

In sum, pricing can function as a way of positioning a product in the market. Too cheap, and the product may not be taken seriously enough. Too expensive, and it may flash a warning to a potential customer that the product is simply not for them.

Think About Pricing: Cost and Value

There is no formula for pricing. One of the hardest lessons that many startups learn is that the value of a product as they understand it, can be very different from its value to a paying customer.

Thus, cost and value are only loosely correlated. This is why it costs $10 to use the Wifi in an airport. The cost is negligible, but the value to a traveler is worth the price. Most commonly, startups should learn much more about their own customers, in order to understand the value of their products to those customers.

That doesn’t necessarily mean doing what your customers want. But it does mean understanding what your customer’s needs and priorities really are. Anyone who has angrily paid an obscene price for a bottle of water on a train, or for a dongle they simply must have for their Mac, knows that pricing is correlated with need.

Most importantly: think about your pricing more. It rarely fails that, when asked about their pricing, startups lack key insights that would potentially allow them to make the difference between a profit and a loss. Absent a clear picture of the value of their products to customers, startups simply guess at what people will be willing to pay- and more often than not, they guess wrong.

What’s a Pain Point? A Guide for Startups

What’s the pain point? That’s a question we end up asking all the time during the first month of mentoring at StartupYard. And this round is no exception.

Every year, we begin the first month of the StartupYard program working on Product Positioning and buy personas. An essential element of this is “the problem” that the startup is solving. That problem can be surprisingly tricky to identify.

Here, I’ll talk about identifying problems, or “pain points,” and how to think more deeply about them.

What is a Pain Point?

At the root, a pain point is something that a customer is aware of (if you’re lucky), and which bothers them. It’s a problem waiting for a solution. “I can’t do X,” or “X is stopping me from doing Y.” Pain is something you react to- it’s something you try to stop happening.

Pain points can be big or small. If the customer base is big enough, and the technology simple enough to use, the pain point can be very simple. If the customer base is smaller, and the pain point much bigger, the technology to solve it can be more complex.

Anything from: “It takes too long to order a pizza,” to “I can’t accurately predict machinery failures in airplane engines.” StartupYard has accelerated startups working on both those pain points. One is a simple problem everyone has, and one is a complex problem only a few people have.

Addressing the Real Pain

One of the most common issues with startups’ early attempts at positioning, is making the “problem” too self-serving. For example, if you’re making compression software, then the problem would be: “people don’t have good compression software.”

But that ignores the fact that people already use other solutions, and getting them to switch would involve solving a still deeper problem. What about their current solution is bothersome enough to change? The first round of positioning often breaks down to: “this product is for people who don’t have this product.” True, no doubt, but also not very compelling.

Pain points can be tricky to identify, because they don’t always reflect exactly what the startup thinks of itself as doing. The above example is useful: a company that is working on compression may see themselves as “providing compression software.” But the customer may not be looking for compression software. The problem isn’t “I need compression software,” but rather, “I need to send files faster,” or “I need a better storage system.”

pain point, startups

One of the exercises I do with startups is to ask them to imagine positioning for basic tools everyone is familiar with. What is the positioning for a drill? It becomes obvious that “this drill is for people who need drills,” is not complete enough. In fact it misses the point entirely. “This drill is for people who need to make holes,” is better. Better still might be: “this is for people who can’t make many holes quickly and easily.”

This process forces the startup to stop thinking in their terms, and start thinking in end-user terms. Founders think about market opportunity, about technology, and about finding efficiencies– as well they should. Still, the question of what pain point they address must be raised. “I can’t technology,” is not a pain point. Nobody sits down and googles: “how to find efficiencies.”

Ok, maybe they do, but it probably doesn’t lead to a lot of sales. A startup can do a lot of cool and far out things with technology, but if it doesn’t solve a clear pain point -the instantly identifiable reason why the customer needs the product- then it won’t get very far.

Cost is Not Everything

A favorite mentor at StartupYard, Ondrej Krajicek, says that he wants to hear one of two things from every startup he meets: “can you save me time?” or “Can you save me money?” In a word, this is “cost.” Every second of every day costs you something, either in time, or in money.

Initially, it’s typical for a startup to begin with the assumption that the pain point is cost of some kind. Every company, and every consumer, wants to save cost. But there’s something incomplete about this as a starting point.

There are many, many ways to save time and money. The very specific reasons why a company or a person would want to save time on one particular activity, or save money on one particular cost are very important. Nobody sets out at the beginning of the day to “save time and money,” even though that imperative may drive many of their individual decisions.

The customer always has other goals in mind. And higher costs can be justified if they help meet some of those goals. If there’s a thing most customers, consumer or corporate, hate just as much as high costs, it’s missed opportunities. A tech startup can focus on either cost or opportunity, or both.

Cost is always material to new technologies. Either the pain they solve is great enough to justify spending more, or the customer is willing to endure a particular pain, because the solution is not yet worth the cost. But here lies an important point: costs do not always have to go down. Particularly with new technologies that create new value and opportunities, the attraction may be great enough to justify higher costs, either in time or money.

Everybody Hurts

pain point, startups, StartupYard

Identifying pain points is not just about semantics- it’s not just rephrasing the problem to make it sound like something a customer cares about. The customer has to actually care, and you have to show them empathy. And pain points are unique to each customer- you have to find ways of helping customers to see how a product solves their own pain points, and not just the broad ones you claim to fix.

And there’s only really one way of doing that- it’s shutting up and listening to the customer. As the folks over at Gong have shown with real data, more sales happen when the prospect, and not the salesperson, does the majority of the talking.

This is because a salesperson is limited in that they don’t know what’s most important to a particular customer until the customer identifies that problem themselves. This can only be encouraged by asking questions that reveal sources of pain for the customer.

Think back on that example about pizza delivery. You could explain to an office manager about how DameJidlo (our alum), or FoodPanda, or Deliveroo works, along with all the many benefits. But that office manager might never have a need for food delivery in the first place. Or they might feel perfectly happy with their go-to delivery options.

It’s only by talking through the customer’s routines, and their current outcomes, that you might reveal pains they aren’t considering. Maybe people complain that the delivery isn’t fast enough. Maybe it’s too expensive. Maybe the variety is lacking, and there have been complaints. Your product, in this case a food ordering and delivery platform, solves many pain points aside from the ones you assume are most important.

We actually practice this kind of selling on a regular basis, even if we don’t realize it. Have you ever explained to a friend or family member about how awesome a new technology really is, only to hear the response: “yeah, well I just prefer what I have right now.” Frustrating! But that’s not because they’re stupid or because they don’t listen. It’s because they haven’t heard anything that speaks to a real, urgent need from their side.

You can practice this kind of thinking by asking the person how they use the current solution they have. You’ll find, as they talk more, that there are indeed things that bother them, and things that could use improvement. Put enough of those together, and the new solution starts to look more attractive.

Shut up and Listen

Everybody Hurts, as the song goes. The question is how, and why. You have to talk to your customers to find out. There is no shortcut.

Try some of these open questions, starting with “how” or “what”:

what are you trying to accomplish?

What’s the core issue here?

How does that affect things?

What’s the biggest challenge you face?

How does this fit into what the objective is?

How does this affect the rest of the team?

What do your colleagues see as their main challenges in this area?

What happens if you do nothing?

What does doing nothing cost you?

You’ll find, most likely, that the customer knows very well what his or her problems and pain points are- although they may not think of them as problems. A problem that doesn’t seem to have a solution isn’t a problem at all- it’s just an aggravation. So showing a customer that a problem exists means getting them to acknowledge pain, and then to understand the solution.

Listen, and most of the time, the customer will tell you.

The Startup Myth of “I Don’t Have Enough Time”

In advance of StartupYard Batch 7, we invited finalist 13 startups to join us for a full day of mentoring in Prague at our Startup Day. We do this every year, not only to evaluate and help decide which of the startups we will invite to the accelerator, but also to provide some value to startups that have taken the time and energy to apply, and to engage in the process with us.

What’s notable is that without exception, whether they are accepted to the program or not, when asked whether the day was valuable to them, startups tell us that it was of great value. Founders often go out of their way to let us know they’re grateful for the opportunity, no matter the outcome.

The Startup Myth: Not Having Enough Time

But every year, we invite one or two startups to the accelerator that don’t end up joining us. The number one reason? “We don’t have time for it.”

This reasoning is sometimes a little baffling. Yes, an accelerator takes time, but on the other hand, as we take care to stress, it is an accelerator. The program is about moving faster than a company would normally move on its own. This doesn’t just mean doing more work in a shorter amount of time. It also means doing more important work, and doing it at the right time.

gandalf

 

When founders consider StartupYard, they sometimes start to see it as a kind of zero-sum proposition. If you spend 6 hours a day talking to mentors for a month, that’s 6 hours a day you can’t spend coding or selling. But let’s be real here- you aren’t going to code for those full six hours. You’re going to have your daily routine- the one you follow because nobody is telling you to do it differently. The one nobody challenges.

Being challenged on your everyday decisions by people who don’t know your company the way you do is sometimes frustrating, but it is also highly motivating. The time spent meeting with mentors is not wasted time. Just today, one of our founders told Cedric Maloux, StartupYard’s CEO, that every mentoring session so far had led to an actionable item for the team.

We have never had a startup come to us after the program, and say that the mentorship period was a waste. Even when they become frustrated at the constraints it puts on their schedule, in the end, they always see the value that it brings as being far beyond the time invested.

What happens instead, most commonly, is that startups simply work harder and better, accomplishing more meaningful progress in the limited time they have to actually build stuff, because they are responding to a constant flow of feedback and advice from people who bring them new ideas and new perspectives on what they’re doing, and what they aren’t doing.

Creative Destruction

nature_clock

The fact is that startups waste a ton of time on things they don’t need to be doing. It’s a fact of life, and it’s not a failing. Every engineer and creative knows that a huge amount of their work never sees the light of day. It’s not a mistake to waste time, because you need to make mistakes and do things that eventually won’t work out. Risks are necessary.

And yet, there are things that founders just never need to do, and never would do, if they had access to the right mentor at the right moment. We’ve seen countless examples. Startups operating without complete information just do things they don’t need to do, or that are doomed not to work at all. Mentors often know this, and know how to avoid these time wasters.

Is it a waste to talk to someone for an hour if he saves you 50 man hours of wasted effort? How many such meetings would justify one month of mentorship? Not that many, really.

A mentor driven accelerator is set up to save startups from wasting time in ways that truly don’t help them. The hours spent mentoring are usually spent stripping out many of the things that founders are wasting their time on, and prompting them to move faster in areas they are less comfortable with.

If you imagine your daily tasks piling up while you attend mentoring sessions, then consider also that the mentoring sessions are meant to savage those plans, and eliminate most of them anyway. Mentorship is not just about kicking around ideas- it’s about creative destruction.

Time Compression

Startup Myth, StartupYard

The other aspect of acceleration that is frequently overlooked is that of time compression. Acceleration puts startups in a position of having access to processes that usually take weeks or months, and having them happen in days or hours.

A startup on their own may wait a month to get a single meeting with one of our busy mentors. A follow up may be weeks more. But while they’re with us, these meetings happen as soon as they can be practically arranged. Our mentors place our startups higher on their list of priorities, and when they connect startups with other advisors and contacts, that urgency shifts to those contacts as well.

We ensure this happens by only retaining mentors who consistently engage with startups, and keep our startups high on their own priority lists. Try and get a C level executive at a Telco, a Bank, or a major software company to not only respond to a request, but to do you a personal favor. We’ll wait.

The biggest time waster for early stage startups isn’t having meetings. It’s waiting for meetings. And with an accelerator, the waiting is not a major factor. Startups frequently tell us that they accomplish more in 3 months, as a business, than they expected to accomplish in 2 years on their own. That’s the power of acceleration- we save time, we don’t waste it.

Get the most out of your mentors

5 Tips to Get the Most out of Your Mentors

As we welcome our Batch 7 startups for their month of intensive mentoring with StartupYard’s community of over 100 mentors, we start as always with a focus on two things: product positioning, and mentor relationships.

Product positioning, as you can see from our piece on that above, is essential to building the communication tools a team needs to communicate what they’re doing, and get the right advice at the right time. But being able to get the most out of your mentors is equally as important. Here are a few tips for that:

Get the Most out of Your Mentors:

Focus on Clarity, not Accuracy

One of the hardest things for founders to do early on, is to start speaking in the language of an evangelist for their ideas and work. It pays to keep in mind the difference between “clarity” and “accuracy.” A mentoring session can go fantastically wrong if the team starts leading the mentor down the garden path of fine-grained technicalities that distract, rather than enhance, the big picture.

get the most out of your mentors

Founders are likely, for example, to describe their competitive advantages in technical terms, rather than strategic ones. They are more likely to provide more detailed descriptions of their technology and its features, rather than talking about what bigger problems they solve, and what customer outcomes will look like.

Not only does this leave less for mentors to weigh-in on, but it also puts much of the conversation on the founder’s side of the table, keeping it on subjects where they are experts. It’s important to be clear about what you do, but to moderate the information you share to only that which is relevant to the mentor. Don’t defeat the mentor in detail; instead focus on helping them to understand what you do in their own terms.

Every Meeting is a Sales Opportunity

In a sense, mentors are a kind of customer. Either they’re going to buy into your idea and want to help you in whatever way they can, or they aren’t. Your job is to sell them on your potential, and to keep them on your side, helping you accomplish your goals.

Startups sometimes treat mentorship as some sort of an audition: “tell me what you can do for me”. Mentors sometimes do this too, and it’s generally not very useful. The more constructive angle is to spend the first few minutes of a meeting working to get the mentor into your thinking, and help them see the logic and opportunity in what you’re doing. A mentor that feels comfortable with your ideas and believes in them will be much more ready to help.

Mentors do become customers, but more often they become references for potential customers. We see this time and again. A mentor isn’t a customer, but knows the perfect customer, and a friendly recommendation from a trusted colleague is worth many times more than the best marketing in the world.

Do You Know Someone Who…

Mentors need help finding out what you need. Mentoring is partly about gathering advice, and partly about gathering contacts. This is a consistent point of failure for startups at StartupYard, and at every other accelerator where I’ve mentored personally.

Startups usually love the productive work of getting actionable advice, but they shy away from asking to tap into a mentor’s network. And yet this is a huge part of a mentor’s value. The advice you can get from anyone with enough experience, but each person’s network of connections is unique, and has its own strengths to consider. Don’t waste that opportunity to find out how a mentor can connect you with people you need to meet.

For the love of God, Follow Up

It never fails that when I run into our mentors or see them at our events, they will ask me about startups that they wish had stayed in contact with them. It’s usually something like: “Hey, how is [Startup] doing? I haven’t heard from them. I offered to get them in touch with [Important Person], and they didn’t follow up.”

This is prototypical, particularly among newer entrepreneurs. Failing to leverage offers from mentors is understandable, but it needs to be a strong point of focus. A mentor who promises something, and then doesn’t reach out, is not a flake. Usually, the mentor doesn’t really know how important the contact is to you, and doesn’t want to force you to waste time talking to people you don’t need to talk to.

And once a mentor makes an offer that is not followed up on, he or she is much less likely to ever offer such help again. Making mentors feel valued by following up on their offers, even if it just to be polite, leaves the door open to more constructive future offers.

Of any type of mistake startups make in mentoring at StartupYard, failing to follow up with mentors is the least forgivable. At best, it’s a symptom of shyness, and at worst it’s lazy and disrespectful to mentors you may well need in the future.

Smile

Simple, but disproportionately important. You need mentors to like you. You need mentors to want to introduce you to their colleagues, or to think of you when an idea or an opportunity strikes. You want them to feel like they can give you a call; that they aren’t bothering you, and that you like them.

It’s simple, but still, it’s hard to do consistently. Projecting your enthusiasm is a skill that entrepreneurs have to learn, and for that, I recommend one of my favorite books, the legendary How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie.

Spoilers: it’s not really that hard. But it takes more than superficial manners. It takes focusing on how you view others, so that you treat them better and consistently focus on their needs and their interests. If you can do that, with a smile, you can build a productive relationship with almost anyone.

StartupYard, Central Europe Accelerator

Workshop and Pitching with StartupYard in Ljubljana, Mon. Sep 12th!

Stop 6 on our FastLane RoadShow will see StartupYard in Ljubljana, at ABC Accelerator, Ljubljana, on Monday, September 12th. 

We will host open hours, a workshop for startups, and then listen to pitches from some of the most interesting startups in Ljubljana, and hopefully select a few to be “Fastlaned,” through the selection process for StartupYard.

About The Workshop

Elements of a Killer Landing Page was hailed as Prague Startup Day’s most popular workshop in 2016. StartupYard community manager Lloyd Waldo will take a deep dive into the structures and processes that help startups build successful landing pages, as well as other types of written communication, in this funny and inspiring presentation, aimed especially at startups.

Want to know the science and the art behind a killer landing page? This workshop is for you.

Meet and Pitch to the StartupYard Team at ABC Accelerator, Ljubljana

ABC Accelerator, StartupYard in Ljubjana

WHERE: ABC Accelerator, Ljubljana

 Looking forward to meeting @Startupyard Accelerator team @abc_accelerator on September 12th! #startups #pitching Click To Tweet

How to Pitch StartupYard in Ljubjana

StartupYard FastLane is your chance to pitch directly to one of Central Europe’s leading seed accelerators for technology startups, and move straight to the final selection rounds for StartupYard 2016/2, kicking off in November 2016. StartupYard will visit 9 cities in September 2016, providing workshops, office hours, and answering questions from tech communities around Central Europe.

On September 12th, StartupYard will join ABC Accelerator, to listen to pitches from interested startups, the best of which will be offered interviews with StartupYard’s Selection Committee.

Startups who are interested in Pitching at the event should sign up to pitch, and then come to the venue during our office hours, get a chance to meet us, and tell us about their idea first.

Event Details for StartupYard, FastLane: Ljubljana

Event Agenda:

15h: Elements of a Killer Landing Page with Lloyd Waldo

16: Open Hours and Q/A with StartupYard MD Cedric Maloux

17:00: Event starts Info about StartupYard Accelerator

17:30 – 18:30: Pitching with Startups

18:30 – 19:30: Networking + refreshments

About Us

Two members of the StartupYard team will represent the accelerator at FastLane Ljubljana. Our Managing Director Cedric Maloux, and our Community Manager, Lloyd Waldo. 

What We’re Looking For

StartupYard accepts startups in the Idea Stage, all the way through to companies with their first clients, users, and revenues.

Are you a Data Focused Startup, working in Security & Trust, Iot & Big Data, or Machine Learning & Prediction? Then StartupYard is your chance to get funded, launch fast, and attack the global market with the backing of some of Central Europe’s leading venture investors, including Credo Ventures, and Rockaway Capital.

Applications for StartupYard close on September 30th, 2016 . Startups can apply directly for the program by clicking here.

Read More about the Open Call, and Find Out More About Our 3 Month Program Here.

Yes, We Still Need Accelerators

a few weeks ago, I was in attendance at Pioneers, in Vienna. It’s a great conference, and there were quite a few really interesting startups on display, including several of our own, like Claimair, TeskaLabs, and Satismeter.  What’s more, it’s the right kind of conference for startups. Why is that? Well, as we’ve talked about in the past, there are a multiplying array of “startup industry” events out there, many of which deliver little benefit to actual startups.

Pioneers though, is pitched at investors for its exclusivity. Startups not only have to be selected for the Pioneers top 70, but they also attend for free. Investors, rightly, pay for the event, and for the opportunity to talk with so many promising founders.

There are a lot of VCs at Pioneers, and that’s a good thing. But there were few accelerators, and I think that’s a shame. Here, I’m going to talk about why I think so, and why we still need accelerators.

VCs and Backwards Goals

Part of going to Pioneers, for startups, is identifying fundraising goals. These are included in the company descriptions, and used to match startups with investors at the event. Fine so far.

Most startups, knowing that the event is aimed at tech VCs, say they’re looking for anything from 1 to 5 Million Euros. The average seemed to be about 1.5 Million. While it’s generally true that VCs want to invest in specific ranges, at specific stages, the truth is that most of the startups who are asking for those amounts don’t actually need the money right now. But in order to appeal to as many as they can, startups try to optimize their “ask,” before talking with the investors.

Instead of assessing their near-term business goals and funding needs, and narrowing their focus on a specific type of investor, they’ll craft a pitch for investors that portrays them as emerging companies that are “months away,” from a breakthrough advance that will turn the industry on its head.

The customers are just waiting to buy. The specific market need is a foregone conclusion. So really, in their imagining, it’s just a matter of the VC believing in the long-term prospects of the company and its industry, and assuming that the money is going to help them ride out their short-term challenges.

It’s a case of “get the money now, and figure out how to grow after that.”

It Doesn’t Work That Way

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In order to paint rosy pictures about the future, founders tend to make startlingly bold predictions about their ability to do things that literally no one else has ever done in business.  A new technology is new; and proving the market need for it is really at the heart of what an early stage startup should focus on. When I hear from a startup that their new technology is going to “change the way that X does Y” (eg: doctors diagnose cancer, or manufacturers bill distributors, or parents teach children), the first question I ask is “does X really want to change the way they do Y?”

Maybe they do. But then again, maybe they don’t. Maybe they do, but they want to do it in a completely different way. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Startups assume that investment is going to paper over those questions.

Ironically, VCs seem to operate according to the exact opposite assumption: a company that needs their money is not a company they want to invest in. Ideally, they would only invest in companies that have already proven they can make partnerships and sell, and the capital they receive will go mainly to doing more of what they already do well.

In effect, venture capital is an accelerant, not a fuel source. Startups treat it as a first step, when really it’s somewhere near the end of the process.

Why It Happens

Why then the disconnect? I think there are two problems:

1- Founders have been convinced that the “funding gap,” between early stage investors, -like business angels- and VCs is an artifact of the business; a bug rather than a feature. They become persuaded that they need to conform to what VCs expect, because VCs are too rigid, and need to have items checked off their list in order to invest. If they just tick the boxes, they’ll get the investment.

It doesn’t help that in some overheated markets, that’s really true. Some startups do seem to raise investment by ticking the appropriate boxes at just the right time.

But in reality, the funding gap is there mostly because it’s a bad idea for most investors to get involved with a company that doesn’t have product market fit, but wants to commit  significant time and resources to developing new technology.

Simply, too much money at the wrong stage can be a bad thing. It can encourage a startup to build up technical debt without solving key issues of market fit. The funding gap can keep that from happening, by making it harder for startups to raise money at the wrong time, or for unsound reasons.

2- VCs are not always motivated to tell founders about these concerns. They stay positive and encouraging, in case the startup suddenly proves it can really grow.


I can’t say how many times I’ve talked to a really impressive startup team, with really impressive technology, who are having problems raising money, and don’t know why they can’t. Investors seem impressed with them and their tech, and yet they don’t pull the trigger on investment.

“Everybody really likes it, and we’ve had really positive feedback. Some VCs are very interested in what we’re doing.” Of course they are, because why wouldn’t they be? But eyeing someone in a bar, and marrying them are two different things: startups can easily fall into the belief that “interest” equals “appetite.”

The Rule Book is No Good

Knowledge about the “startup industry,” and about investors has grown among startup founders. They’re now able to suss out and learn about the way VCs work, and the way they make decisions.

I was recently handed, at another conference I will not name directly, a literal book called the Startup Playbook. This kind of thinking predominates among people who neither invest in startups, nor run their own. 

My belief is that this leads some founders to the mistaken conclusion that because they understand how VCs work, they can therefore get investment from VCs.  However, the fact that a startup understands a cap table and has a clear idea of the kinds of things a VC invests in does not mean that they can get that VC to invest in them.

And this is where accelerators still play a vital role. There are plenty of stars in the tech industry who are simply unaware that they are stars. Because they play by the “rule book,” that everyone is increasingly aware of, they may forget that the rules don’t have to apply to them. And accelerators are, at the core, about breaking the rules.

We Still Need Accelerators

If you compare accelerators with other investors, we should look like odd ducks. We shouldn’t behave according to typical patterns. Because our appetite for risk should be unusually high, our tolerance for uncertainty should also be commensurately wide. Open questions, to us, should be good things, and sure things, less interesting.

That approach can really help startups to focus on doing what they do best, which is solving problems no one else knows how to solve. Where a lack of certainty may be a negative to a VC, it is ideal for us as a starting point. Uncertainty is something you can work with, and something you need in order to be truly unique. You have to question everything, and be questioned on everything.

Founders usually seem to expect an accelerator to behave the way a VC would: to be encouraging but vague. But more often than not, startups in the situation I’ve described end up expressing a sense of relief after a meeting: “I’m so glad we talked about this. I never get feedback that’s so direct.”

This is part of why VCs look more and more to accelerators to be the first movers in new market categories, new technologies, and new business concepts. More and more, our own contacts in the VC world turn to us not only for opportunities to invest in startups, but also to steer startups in our direction, hoping that the accelerator will be a proving ground for the team, the business, and the technology itself.

Attending an accelerator is not for every startup, but it is increasingly becoming a badge of confidence that VCs are looking for. And every year, we see VCs paying closer attention to our program, and others like it, to gain insights and opportunities they can’t get anywhere else. 

 

exponential innovation

What Exponential Innovation Really Means

Last week, we announced a new series on the topic of Exponential Innovation. The piece began with a clear premise, which we restate here:

The central premise of our series on Exponential Innovation will be this: exponential growth in the complexity of technology, reflected in increasing computing power and capacity, the explosion of data and increasingly complex and powerful material sciences, is a reality in our society, and will have an ever increasing influence over society and the world economy for the foreseeable future.”

Exponential and Linear Innovation

An important part of talking about technological trends is addressing how and why exponential trends differ from linear trends. Why is technological progress exponential, and why does that make such a big difference in how we talk about the future?

 

innovation

 

It’s common in ordinary speech and thinking to envision most trends as being linear- in part because most of the “trends” we encounter on a daily basis appear to be linear in nature. Linear trends are easy to recognize: the population grows at a more or less steady rate, the price of a liter of milk increases fairly regularly over the years, and one’s age steadily increases.

So we are good at understanding linear trends, but not good at dealing with exponential ones. That’s because evolution has optimized the human brain for dealing with linear functions. These are far more important to our immediate survival than exponential functions are. Worse still, because our brains have been adapted to viewing trends in a linear way, we can very easily make the mistake of assuming that any trend we observe is a linear one.

As Ray Kurzweil put it in his book The Singularity is Near: “the subjective experience is the opposite of the objective reality:” what we experience in a linear fashion subjectively is different from what the data actually says. Because we think in terms of only one or two “steps” on a trend line, trends always appear to us to be more stable than they are.

Thus we predict the future based on an incomplete view of the data- assuming that the current rate of change is going to be continued, without noting that the previous rate of change has been accelerating.

singularity, innovation

Tim Urban also highlighted this predictive problem in his recent piece on the subject, and produced a helpful graph:

Kurzweil used a concrete example: In 1985, what then comprised the internet had about 2,000 “nodes,” or servers in its network. That was more than double what the number had been only a few years before.  If you asked computer specialists in 1985, how fast the internet was likely to grow over the next ten years, you would likely get some function of the past rate of change, projected into the future. If in 1985 there were 2,000 nodes, then we could expect that there would be up to 10,000 nodes by 1985, and perhaps 20,000 by 1995.

In the event, there were millions of nodes by 1995. How could the predictions be so wrong? Well, engineers in 1985 were dealing with the complexity of growing the internet using 1985 technology. But by 1990, new technology had effectively octupled the effectiveness of computers on a cost basis, and the internet had grown exponentially, doubling its own size every few years- rather than growing by 2000 nodes a year, it grew by 4,000, then 8,000, then by 16,000, and so on.

The engineers can be forgiven for seeing that as it concerned them and their work, they did not have the capacity to double the size of the internet in only two years. But because the growing size of the internet also allowed more people and more computer power to be applied to growing it even further, their predictions were based on incomplete assumptions. It would have been very hard indeed to octuple the size of the internet with 1985 technology. But every day that passed, the very same technology was also making that work easier to do.

Imagining An Exponential Future

So we understand that exponential trends make our normal predictive powers pretty weak. So what does your gut tell you about technology in the near future? How do you imagine the world of 2060?

Let’s try a thought experiment: suppose there are 3 Billion smartphones in the world today. Now suppose that all those smartphones have an average computing power of about 2 Gigaflops. An exponential progress curve suggests that within about 45 years from today, a device of the same cost of a modern smartphone should surpass the computing power of all smartphones in the world today. This means that by 2060, every human being should have access to the computing equivalent of the entire world’s personal computers from 2016 combined.

And that level of advancement will actually arrive much sooner than 2060: that year is only the time at which such computing power will be generally available at low cost.

Now, how do you imagine that people will be using that technology in 2060? Will it actually be that we will have smartphones capable of all the computational power of the entire world’s computers, in our pockets? What would we do with all that computational power?

You already can’t keep track of what your own personal computer is doing most of the time- it already does many things of which you are not actively aware. So in a world where all of those processes that are happening today, outside of human observation or awareness, all over the planet, could be happening in a device as small as a smartphone, what would a smartphone actually be used for? In a world of pervasive human-level or superhuman level AI, would it even be necessary to own such a device?

The answer for Kurzweil, and many other futurists, is no. A person would certainly not interact with future technologies in any of the same ways that we currently do. In the same way that we do not operate computers today using punchcards and levers, so too will we stop interacting with computers using keyboards, screens, mouses, or even our voices. At some point in the not too distant future, computers will cease to be treated as mere tools, and will instead become an extension of everything we do and interact with- they will be just another part of us.

The Exponential Is All Around Us

Exponential change is hard to see, because it also takes place over incredibly long time scales. While we can observe exponential trends that are on a human time scale, like the size of the internet, we can’t very well appreciate exponential trends that we are a smaller part of.

Kurzweil makes a compelling argument that the current exponential growth in technology and computing capacity is part of a trend that dates back to almost the beginning of the universe, but has concrete origins in the development of human civilization. The only difference is that we just happening to be living in a time when that trend has started to become a part of our perceptible reality.

Tim Urban, in that same piece on WaitButWhy, asks us to consider the life of a farmer from 1750. If you brought such a person to the world of 2016, what would his reaction to the modern world be? The modern world would be a fantastical, baffling, and overwhelming nightmare. Bright colored capsules that roar down the streets and overhead. Glowing boxes that speak and display images and make sounds, windows of light into other parts of the world, where you can talk to distant people instantaneously. Weapons that can bring the power of the sun to the surface of the world and open gateways to hell.

Would the shock of all that overwhelm him? Would he die from fright?

Next, he asks us to consider the following: if that farmer were to bring someone of a similar remove in history to his own time, taking a peasant from 1500 to the world of 1750, what would that farmer’s reaction be? Surely he would be mightily impressed, but nothing the farmer of 1750 could show that peasant would cause him to die of shock. There would be no apparent magic in anything he saw. Just impressive and exciting new technologies.

The fact is that if exponential innovations in technology continue, then the periods in which such technological changes occur will continue to grow shorter. The world of 2060 may be as shocking to a normal person of 2016, as the world of 2016 would be to a farmer from 1750. And Kurzweil’s contention is that superintelligent AI is the inevitable result of that progress.

Exponential Innovation: Then and Now 

In our next post, we’ll discuss the evolution of technology from the distant past to the present, and talk about what technology is capable of doing today. If we’re going to be discussing what technology’s effects will be on society in the near future, it will be important to touch on what we are already capable of doing.

If you’ve got an opinion, please share with us on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. We will include your reactions in future posts.

6 things

6 Things Our Startups Learned in 2016

As our 9 startups leave us, and begin the real journey of growing into their own companies with their own bright futures, we thought it would be valuable to look back on some of the things that many of them learned in the past 3 months. I asked our teams: “In what way has your thinking changed in the last 3 months, and why? What lesson did you learn that you couldn’t have learned any other way? Some of the answers are collected below. Here are 6 things our startups learned in 2016: 

The Customer is Not Always Right, and a Customer is not a Client

Many of our startup teams have experience in business, but many have also spent the earlier part of their careers working on technology projects as consultants, engineers, or project managers. That’s vital experience for any startup founder, but experience is a double edged sword. We as often as not encounter situations where our founders’ experience in business works against their judgement as startup founders.

As a consultant, or a project manager, one works at the behest of a client who understands what they are paying for, and why. Their needs have already been laid out in clear terms, and the solution, including the work needed to solve it, has in a sense been sold even before the work begins. Because projects have clearly established parameters for success, a project manager or consultant has something to work towards, and clear feedback on the work already done.

But it’s just different with startups. Startups typically have customers, not clients. They produce something new, and find people (customers) who understand and want the value that product provides. A client asks for something, and it is delivered. A customer doesn’t know what he or she wants yet, but can be convinced that they need what the startup provides.

Most of the time, startups are working on concepts and products that customers not only didn’t ask for, but may not even understand. Much of the early work of a startup is to figure out what a product actually is, and how that can be communicated to a potential customer. Instead of working toward a common goal, a startup has to do the work, and then convince a customer that what they’ve made is worth buying or investing in further.

Because so many founders are used to tailoring their work to the needs of a client, they can start to adopt the objections of the potential customer as their own objections. Every week, we hear some variation of the result

SY Team: “What about x feature you were working on?”

Founders: “we talked to a potential customer, and they said they didn’t want that.”

SY Team: “How did you try to convince them that it would be valuable for them?”

Founders: “We were really just listening.”

Just listening is what a consultant does in the first meeting. But a startup is pitching something new; something probably unexpected, and something that customer doesn’t yet know that they want. First meetings with customers have to sound out the idea, in order to see if it is being communicated properly. If the customer doesn’t like the idea, then it may be time to talk to others, before changing the product.

We also hear a variation of that story, where the startup adopts the ideas of its first potential clients, instead of selling its own vision:

Sy Team: “Why are you doing x feature now? Why focus on that now?”

Founders: “Because a potential customer said they wanted that.”

Sy Team: “Did they agree to buy from you if you had it?”

Founders: “Well… not yet. But we think they will.”

This is of course an ideal circumstance of a customer,  They now have an expert team developing a dream product for them, and best of all, they’re doing it for free. If the customer doesn’t like the result, they lose nothing in the exchange; while the startup has invested time and resources into something it may not be able to sell at all.

A Pilot is Not Just a Pilot

We happened to have quite a few companies in this cohort that struck deals for piloting their products with prospect customers.

That’s great progress, and it opens the door to future business. But it’s not the customer’s job to push the sale, or to evaluate the pilot by themselves. A startup that runs a pilot without specific goals and success metrics is like a car dealership that finishes test drives by dropping the customer off at home.

Maybe the customer will come back after the pilot, maybe not. But you’ve failed to do your part in the transaction if the pilot you run doesn’t have a clearly defined goal.

If possible, a startup should run a pilot that can easily become a long term business relationship. There should be a conversation before the pilot begins, that covers these questions: “What will define a successful pilot?” “Who will determining that a pilot is a success?” “What will be the next step after a successful pilot?”

Ideally, a pilot doesn’t end, it just becomes a business relationship. If a customer wants to “evaluate” a pilot after it concludes, then very convincing evidence needs to be prepared that the pilot actually worked. It should not be a question of expense for the customer, but of opportunity: the pilot should prove that an opportunity exists, and that the customer can’t afford to skip it.

Customers can readily agree to a pilot, if it costs them very little of their time or focus. They can agree to a pilot just to get out of a meeting with a startup- and we’ve seen that happen plenty of times. The startup comes back with the good news that they’ve agreed to a pilot, but when it comes to taking the steps to make that pilot customer a paying customer, no progress has really been made.

Partnerships Should Cost Something

Like the aforementioned pilot, a partnership can be an easy thing to agree to. We’ll put your logo on our website, and you put your logo on ours. That is the extent of a great number of tech company partnerships, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It is good to give customers a sense of who you are connected with in your industry.

However, a partnership in name-only is not as good as a partnership that costs both you, and the partner, something real and tangible. I’ve touched on this in the blog before, but it bears repeating here: you should partner with companies that need something real from you, and which you need something real from in return. Without a mutual interest on the table, a partnership is at best an unnecessary distraction

Play to Your Strengths as a Founder

One of the hardest things about being in an accelerator, from what I’ve observed, is that every mentor has a different view of the kind of company you should be. Often though, a mentor’s ideas about your company are as much a mirror of their own desires, as of what kind of company you should really be building.

That kind of feedback is very valuable- it gives you insight into what makes others passionate, but it can’t replace your own passion.

Founders sometimes run into what I have started to call a “passion gap,” between the passions of their advisors, and their own desires. They try to be like the mentors they admire, instead of trying to do what they really love doing. This can lead a founder to feeling frustrated and worthless, when he or she isn’t as good at what they’re trying to do, as at what they really love doing.

What we’ve learned over the last few years, is that you need to play to your strengths. You just have to do what you love- and you can’t make yourself love whatever you are doing. It can be a magical thing to see a founder find the sweet spot between what they love to do, and what makes sense from a business perspective. That balance can be very hard to find, and it may only come up after many brainstorming sessions, and a great deal of work that doesn’t go anywhere.

In one case in recent memory, a team in our program went from a pervasive sense of failure and disappointment, to make increasingly positive steps- and it all started when they took themselves off the hook for what they thought others expected of them. Once they started doing what they were actually good at, things turned around in a hurry.

How to Ask For Help

The startup life attracts a certain type of personality. You have to be a little crazy to want to start a company, with no guarantees that there is a real market for your product, or investors actually interested in funding it. We look for the type of person who is comfortable dealing with uncertainty, rejection, and oftentimes, failure.

 

Petr Vankat

We stepped down from being managers lecturing and teaching rookies in our business workshops to becoming students and listening what others had to say. Others that we by all means respected. So the chance to realize and re-discover humility or meekness was not only useful in the process of mentoring but also further down the road as this attitude helped us see things we might have not seen in our previous business, or wouldn’t have seen without Startupyard.

Petr VankatCo-Founder, Salutara

What that means, is that we attract founders who don’t take “no” for an answer. That’s a good thing generally, but it also presents problems. Knowing when one should listen to negative feedback makes the difference between a naive founder, and one who is able to adapt and thrive despite problems. Drive and independence of thought can as well lead a founder to ignore important feedback, as it can cause him or her to persevere when others would quit.

Listening well and actually getting the help you need often comes down to what questions you’re asking. To me, there are essentially 3 types of questions that founders ask most: “open” questions, “closed” questions, and “save me” questions.

An open question can be: “what type of email marketing service should we use?” That’s fairly straightforward- the founder is just asking for input and options. Nothing amiss here.

Closed questions are productive as well: “do you think this landing page is good?” While it’s a yes or no question, it starts a useful conversation.

Finally, “save me” questions are where some founders run into real problems. “How do you reach out to the press to get good PR?” Or, “what should we do to improve our sales funnel?” Worse still, would be a startup founder asking an investor: “is there any appetite for this kind of investment?”

These are “save me” questions because they aren’t really questions, they are cries for help. The founder is really asking: “what should I be working on?” “What should I do right now?” These questions first fail to instill any confidence, and second, don’t elicit very useful responses. The response will depend almost entirely on the mood of the mentor, and put all the work on their side of the table.

A far better question is an open or closed one, which essentially asks: “Am I doing the right thing?” “Am I missing something?” A mentor or advisor is far better equipped to react rather than to dictate. And when a founder puts the work in ahead of time, shows their thinking, and asks questions that shed light on that thinking, they are much more likely to get substantive and useful feedback.

It’s Not About Dreams, It’s About Vision

Pavel Konecny

“It is not about dreams. It is all about a vision. And StartupYard helped us to find a path, how we can make our vision a reality. So we just need to roll up our sleeves and get busy. There’s a lot of work to do. “

Pavel KonecnyCo-Founder of Neuron Soundware

One of our founders told me this week that for them, the realization that the work of a startup is about vision, instead of dreams, was a core part of their experience at StartupYard.

I had never thought about it that way, but I think he was on to something. A lot of founders have dreams, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But dreams don’t necessarily come with a coherent plan for dealing with the reality of any given situation. You may dream of big valuations and great achievements, but without a clear vision for how you will achieve them, they’re just dreams.

Vision, on the other hand, is about having a concrete, realistic set of objectives, and a way of achieving them that makes sense, is aggressive, and can be clearly communicated to investors, advisors, and partners. While we look for startups that have big dreams, we end up pushing them to pursue a clear vision.

user persona

User Persona: Getting Started

A user persona can be a powerful analytical tool, if it’s done thoughtfully. But it’s something we regularly struggle to persuade startup founders to do with any enthusiasm.

That’s not surprising, really. Building a user persona can seem like voodoo, if you don’t appreciate the point of doing them. Or, it can feel like a kind of homework- something you have check off the list in order to get on with the really good stuff, which is building your product into something you can be proud of. But fear not- it’s neither voodoo nor homework. It can be fun, and more importantly, it’s extremely helpful in making you a better team, and a smarter company.

What is a User Persona?

Barra05_163.jpg IMGP0360.JPG Vatersay, Barra, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, UK

Definitions vary, but here’s the one that I think is most useful for early-stage startups: a persona is essentially a description of your ideal customer. It includes general and detailed information about that user’s motivations, their goals, their situation in life, and the type of person they are.

Some user personas are written as a kind of narrative, including fanciful details to make the person feel more real. Others are utilitarian, like a government file or a social media profile.

While many templates and types of personas exist, the most important point is that they provide your team a target for their sales, marketing, UX, and design goals. Your user personas, particularly for startups, serve as a kind of ur-user; a face, name, and personality you keep in mind when you are working towards releasing a product.

Whatever format makes that most accessible and useful is ok to use, but we will also talk more about format later on.

What a User Persona is Based On

In a startup without any customers, or even without a finished product, it’s not always clear how to get started with a user persona. Who are your ideal customers? Since you don’t have any yet, it’s hard to say.

Should your personas be based on real people? Yes, and no. For a lot of startups, a “best guess” is necessary to get you started. This is often called a “proto-persona,” and it deals more with the basic needs and goals of a user, than with the specific ux expectations that user might have.

If you’re very familiar with the market segment you’re targeting, you can use that experience to construct a composite of the type of user who will buy or use your product. This is usually easier if the product is for professionals or a specific user-segment, because it will likely be based on some existing industry experience.

Say, for example, you’re building a Saas product for professional translators. You probably know a bit about that industry, and the types of people who need your solution. A composite of people you already know can serve as a jumping off point for your user-persona.

Again, the idea is to composite an “ideal” candidate user. This is the person who will be your best customer, and will gladly buy from you. They are the perfect fit for your product. Though most customers won’t fit that mold exactly, a persona should help you steer your efforts towards the people who will want to use (and pay to use) your product most.

You can also find relatively cheap ways of doing market research, such as conducting broad social media campaigns, or a survey, and analyzing the users who fill out the survey, or convert on your landing pages, or who like the posts on your Facebook page.

You are Not your User

These educated guesses can give you an overall view of who is responding most to your product, but keep in mind, the composition of that group will be dependent on the communication of the campaign as well.

Many startups start out thinking that their typical users are basically analogues of themselves. This is most common in startups where the founders might actually be very similar to their eventual customers, because the startup is based on a specific hobby, or interest. It can lead you to many false conclusions about who your ideal customer really is. Many male startup founders, for example, undervalue the appeal of their products to women, and so ignore evidence that women are interested in their products.

Jakob Nielsen, the influential usability expert, puts it this way in Growing A Business Website:

“One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that ‘you are not the user.’ If you work on a development project, you’re atypical by definition. Design to optimize the user experience for outsiders, not insiders.”

The lesson extends beyond usability, to marketing, feature design, and many other areas. A very compelling reason for building a user persona is to challenge your assumptions against future evidence, including user testing and user feedback.

If you find, after some period of time, that your user persona isn’t lining up very well with the reality of your sales results, then it might be time to adjust the persona. You may find that the early adopters from that unexpected segment reveal an untapped demand among users like them, who are not early adopters.

If you don’t have a user persona to work with, then you don’t have anything to challenge your assumptions with. New user behavior is just noise without clear context. Why are certain types of users attracted to your product? How can you get more of those types of users? It will be difficult to figure out where to start.

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What a User Persona Looks Like

You’ll find many examples of user personas online, and many twists on the basic pattern. You don’t have to stick with any one of those. There are no rules. But your format should compliment your goals in creating a persona. What will this persona help you to do? Will it be used to shape your marketing message? Will it dictate what features you plan? Will it influence the design?

Hopefully, you have a range of goals you need to accomplish, and the user persona is a kind of benchmark. You can refer back to him or her (they can have a name and everything), and ask yourself and your team: “Is John really interested in this feature?” or “will Jackie really respond to that kind of email?” In time, you can add real observations of your users to flesh out this fictional person. Your team can become familiar with them and their issues and goals.

A format I really like, for its clarity and ease of use, is this one, from fakecrow.com (a service for creating user personas):

 

user persona

You can find more examples at FakeCrow

The persona is laid out less like a story than a file on an existing person. The kind of thing you might see in a spy movie. It also allows you and your team to see a big picture representation of a person from many angles: what they do for work, what their personal life is like, what kind of technology they use, and what kind of personality they have. Each data point can be a discussion topic, and a test of your own thinking about the product.

Most startups should challenge them to create at least 3 different personas, and test them in the real world, either through marketing, or in person testing of people who match the profile as closely as possible.

Keep in mind, your goal at the beginning is not to find out what is most typical or most common, but which type of user is ideal for you. Usually, that’s the person most ready and able to buy your product. This early testing of your user persona can reveal whether or not the persona you are targeting is in fact ideal.

Don’t Chase the Rabbit

As in all things, moderation is important here too. Your user persona is never perfect, and never complete. The goal of this process is not to nail down the perfect user, and then lock that into your team’s mindset for all time. Circumstances, economics, and technology change at a rapid pace. What was important to a lot of people 10 years ago, is now much less important. You have to keep your user persona updated and in line with reality, so don’t get too deep into this analytical process before getting into real-life contact with real users.

That said, devote some time as early as you can to creating multiple personas, and let that process influence how you approach the market from the beginning. It’s ok to be wrong- in fact, it’s necessary to be wrong at least some of the time. If you don’t make any mistakes, it’s probably because you aren’t taking any risks, and in startups, a certain amount of risk is advisable on the path to a truly disruptive and effective new product.