Business Development for Consumer Web Startups: Growth Strategies from About.me

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As part of a series on business development for startups, I sat down last Wednesday with Ryan Fujiu, who leads business development and marketing for About.me. About.me allows users to create a simple splash page that links together their profiles across all the major social networks. The service was launched in 2010, and acquired by AOL shortly thereafter.

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A Story About Learning

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Last fall General Assembly was little more than an idea and a concrete floor. We held tours of the nascent construction site on a nearly hourly basis for designers, entrepreneurs, and technologists, dodging aluminum beams and stray wires. The tours weren’t about showing off—they were about learning. Specifically, they were about learning how to build the best possible experience for the community of entrepreneurs we were going to serve by gathering feedback and iterating on our plans.

Today, that construction site is a classroom, a lounge, a library, seminar rooms, and work areas. General Assembly is home not only to that initial community of entrepreneurs who toured the space many months ago, but to classes, hackathons, workshops, and the occasional serendipitous encounter.

That fall I was one of four entrepreneurs who signed a lease for approximately 20,000 square feet at 20th and Broadway. With partners Adam Pritzker, Jake Schwartz, and Matthew Brimer, we strived to meet the needs of a booming New York technology and design community with a new kind of collaborative environment. Over the past year, General Assembly has become a campus for technology, design, and entrepreneurship and a social education experience for developers, designers, entrepreneurs, dreamers, and those simply wanting to learn.

We’ve grown tremendously since our launch last January, responding to community feedback and launching new classes and workshops in topics ranging from user experience design to social marketing to network security. We’ve been learning what works and what doesn’t, how to build a vibrant community, and how we can best support the technology ecosystem in New York. And we’ve been learning how to offer awesome classes that not only provide our students with new skills, but open opportunities for them to build their startup’s alpha product, level up at work, or land a better job. As we’ve grown, General Assembly has developed classes that are at once social, application-focused, outcome-oriented, and taught by top practitioners. Developing this framework is key to delivering the outcomes our students want: meaningful education in core skills and best practices in technology, design, and entrepreneurship.

At the same time, the community has continued to grow and is asking for more classes, workshops, and even longer and more rigorous programs. When we launched our first certification program—Front-end Web Development—a few weeks ago, we received over 100 applications for only fifteen available spots. Demand for this kind of education has clearly outstripped supply. And we want to answer the call.

To that end, we have raised $4.25 million from a group of investors led by Maveron and including Jeff Bezos, Yuri Milner, Tom Vander Ark, Alexis Ohanian, Hosain Rahman, and Alex Asseily. Maveron is a best-in-class education investor. Our new board member Amy Errett has deep experience in both education and consumer retail businesses. Amy sits on the board of three other education companies we admire, including Livemocha, Lattimer Education, and Altius Education. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, has unparalleled experience building massive and successful online businesses. Yuri Milner of Digital Sky Technologies brings an international perspective, one wrought from a diverse portfolio of technology investments spanning the globe. Tom Vander Ark is the Managing Partner at Learn Capital, was the President of the X-Prize Foundation, and served as Executive Director for Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for nearly a decade. Alexis Ohanian embodies the spirit of community at the core of our experience, and has scaled passionate communities including Reddit, Breadpig, and Hipmunk. And Hosain Rahman and Alex Asseily, who have worked alongside Yves Behar to build Jawbone, bring a unique perspective on product design to the group. Each partner brings something special to the table that will help as we grow our community and educational offering.

So will we open a bunch more campuses? Put all our classes online? Start training executives? We don’t know. Right now we’re singularly focused on continuing to create a great, meaningful experience at our New York campus. That said, we see the bigger picture: there is immense demand for social, application-driven education in technology, design, and entrepreneurship, and we’re committed to addressing this real need.

The past year has been an amazing climb, and we’re thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to take it to the next level.

A Founder’s Guide to Starting in 6 Weeks

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I met another young man today who is en route to a world class MBA program to fill in the gaps in his knowledge prior to starting his life in a startup. I gave him the same metaphor I have given droves of others. If you wanted to be a world-class cyclist and told me you were going to spend the next 2 years rock climbing in Nepal, I would advise that, sure, you would probably return in shape and with stronger lungs, but you would probably be a better cyclist if you spent the next 2 years cycling.

For some reason, many business guys have a Mr. Miyagi-style notion of doing something else full time for the sake of building skills prior to engaging in what you want to do directly. It worked in the Karate Kid, but it’s poor advice for entrepreneurs.

Today’s subject, who seemed quite smart, was at least interested in working at Profitably in an intern capacity for 6 weeks prior to school matriculation, but since he doesn’t write code and doesn’t sell, there wasn’t a lot we could put him on over given our stage in development (and so I told him, and I will be forwarding this post his way, so I am not trying to be rude).

Rather, I recommended he start his own company in 6 weeks instead. We talked through a concept he was batting around, which was actually quite sound, and I recommended setting specific milestones for no/no-go gate at the end of the 6 weeks. In that period of time, without writing a single line of code, he could:

  1. Launch a splash site
  2. Test out pen-and-paper mockups with real users from his target market
  3. Confirm if they would use or pay for what he was considering launching
  4. Get out in front of the other revenue streams and get letters of intent from key stakeholders in his ecosystem (his idea allowed for that, fortunately)
  5. Use a modest test budget to see if people would click on ads around his key messages

I thought I saw the spark in his eye, so I hope he follows through on this, but I realized that I have emailed a set of resources to a couple dozen bright-eyed folks just like him, so I figured I would consolidate that list once and for all so that I can just send people here.

And here it is, including the resources you need to validate a business concept with ridiculously little time and money. Please note: there are 3 steps, and they need to be followed IN PARALLEL, not in series. Start all 3 steps this afternoon:

The Ultimate 6 Week Startup Crash Course

Step 1: Get educated

Everyone’s got their favorite must-read list, but here’s mine:

  • Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany (never leaves my bedside)
  • David Cohen’s and Brad Feld’s Do More Faster
  • Dave McClure’s Startup Metrics for Pirates
  • The Powerset Talent Essays
  • Dave Cancel’s Data Driven Startups
  • The Hubspot crew’s Inbound Marketing
  • The 37Signals crew’s Getting Real & Rework
  • David Skok’s SaaS Metrics
  • Tony’s Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness
  • Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work

Just as importantly, you need to go read the key articles within and subscribe to the following blogs:

  • ANYTHING that’s big in your specific space (most importantly)
  • Fred Wilson of USV: avc.com
  • Chris Dixon: cdixon.org
  • Mark Suster: Both sides of the table
  • Eric Ries: Startup lessons learned
  • Paul Graham’s essays: paulgraham.com
  • Nivi and Naval at venturehacks
  • Jason Purtorti (designer from mint)
  • TechCrunch and VentureBeat (just to keep track of deals and launches)

Don’t just subscribe. Read through the “best of” lists and peruse archives as appropriate. You’ve got a lot to catch up on, so while we’re at it, follow these folks on twitter (and find out who they are talking to), get an iPad, and load up all this content onto the iPad. The collective knowledge all these folks are sharing is crazy. Follow their links serendipitously and soak it all up like a sponge. Build your list to share with others (and let me know what I missed!).

Step 2: Learn to write code

I have anecdotally heard business people objecting to the idea of learning to write code, as it’s supposedly a waste of their talent. Cute. If you’re going to start a software company, learn to write code. You’ll have a CTO who will write all the real code, but you need to know what models, views, and controllers are in the first place. You need to know the difference between a relational database, an OLAP cube, a document-oriented database, and a key-value store.

More awesome than all that, you definitely need to know how open source software works and how source control works, technically, culturally, and from an etiquette standpoint. The good news is that engineers are better than bankers, consultants, scientists, or any other adults when it comes to sharing and structuring knowledge in a distributed environment, all for free.

Try Dash, our free program that teaches you to make awesome websites by doing quick, fun projects in your browser.

Step 3: Validate your idea

We all agree that an idea and $3 buys you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. You don’t want to be ridiculed as a Winklevoss, so make peace straight away that your idea means nothing, but execution means everything. You don’t need startup capital, and you don’t need a coder. You need to find out if anyone cares about what you’re thinking about offering the world.

Hopefully all the reading I recommended above will give you a much more informed idea about how to do that, but since you’re starting each step at the same time (right?) you haven’t read all those books yet. So here’s a first week worth of to-dos: – Buy a domain and launch a splash site using WordPress You can find cheap hosting with 1-click non-technical install. Follow the instructions, and then search for a sexy theme that you dig out of the box (e.g. http://www.press75.com). Write some copy.

  • Don’t know where to start? That feeling isn’t going away—it gets profoundly worse.
  • Begin collecting email addresses on a landing page from people who want to use your service
  • Go to Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and create test budgets for ads that point to your landing page. See if people click on the ads and if they give you their email addresses. This is your first “conversion” data—enjoy the sweet delicious nectar of feedback!

Draw out full paper mockups of everything you have in your head, and put those drawings in front of people who will use your product. Ask if they would pay for the product. How often could they see themselves using it? Why WOULDN’T they use it? What would it have to do to get their attention? Don’t ask your friends. Ask your enemies. Presume they are being nice to you because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. They want what you’re offering, but they don’t want to sign up for your mailing list or alpha?! Bullshit. They hate your idea.

Go to a meetup related to your space and practice trying to convince a stranger to sign up for your email list with a couple mockups and a smile. Note: If you feel like getting cute, use Balsamiq. Or don’t. – If someone ELSE is going to pay you other than your users—and this is key—go talk to them. If you can’t get meetings with them in the next 6 weeks, what does that say? If you can, show them the mockups. Best case scenario, get letters of intent around pricing for whatever you’re planning to do. There’s nothing better when you need to explain to your mom and your girlfriend and your priest and your butcher that you’re not going to business school.

Once you know (on a preliminary basis) what people will pay, do some honest market sizing. If you’ve got something people will pay for, how many of them are there? If you multiply those two numbers and you’re north of $1B, you’ve got a fundable startup. Find other ways to qualify that number and calibrate it. Use Census Bureau data. Find other MBAs who have access to Hoovers, Capital IQ, Forrester, and Gartner, etc. You might even find a future intern. 😉

Two weeks in, sign up for 4-week trials to a dozen some-odd tools that help you kick ass all over the place. Steve Blank has a pretty good list, but definitely include KissMetrics and KissInsights, Google Analytics (free) and Apps (not as free), Tout and/or Mailchimp, SurveyMonkey, Dropbox, and whatever else applies to your space. (But don’t waste time on project management, planning, budgeting software or anything related to “scale.” You’re validating your idea, not building a business yet.)

Please refer to “I’m Going to Scale My Foot Up Your Ass” for more details.Learn by doing. I’m serious. Learn by doing. Then repeat.

Bottom line

At the end of the 6 weeks, if you have read until your eyes crossed, learned to write code, and validated that there is in fact a business there…and you still want to go to business school, you’re not an entrepreneur. At least you found out quickly and can spend your two years gearing up for a role at Amex, Bain, or JP Morgan rather than tilting at windmills.

And this is ok, by the way. My wife is a Harvard MBA and a successful consultant, and she’s amazing. The guy who introduced us is a Harvard MBA and a banker, and he’s ok anyway (wink). Amex, Bain, and JP Morgan are awesome. They just aren’t for entrepreneurs. It’s possible, though, at the end of the 6 weeks you’re going to feel the way most entrepreneurs feel, that there isn’t anywhere near enough time in the week to get done everything you need to get done, and you can’t imagine wasting another minute screwing around.

You’ve got 25 meetings already set up for next week, 10 meetups to check out, a dozen revisions to mockups you need to test out, Google Reader with a 1000+ article backlog, and an enormous market full of customers who are dying for what you’re going to bring them, god damn it.

Once you’re hooked, it’s over. And once you’re there, let’s meet for coffee again, and we can talk about who I can introduce you to so that you’re spending the following six weeks even better.

Get started learning more about business fundamentals with us:

Learn About Our Business Fundamentals & Tactics Course

Adam Neary founded Profitably after nearly a decade helping large organizations grow and improve profitability. As he says, “The patterns are so very similar across industries–we can automate this whole process and help so many small businesses do this.” Adam is a “data guy” at heart, at home with quantitative modeling and data management. He has cut his teeth with data optimization, normalization, and categorization algorithms and has written predictive algorithms for a variety of applications.