The raw truth about startups

A-rollercoaster-ride-001Last week I was privileged to speak to a group of aspiring entrepreneurs at Sydney University.  The Uni’s startup up program, Incubate, brings together students with bright ideas who are looking to start their own businesses, particularly in the technology space.

A panel of four women-led tech startup founders spoke to a room full of bright eyed and bushy tailed women who were all, I’m sure, looking to hear about our stellar successes and our blueprints for growth – but what they heard was something completely different.

Overwhelmingly, each one of us spoke about how hard it was to have your own business, how much tenacity was required and how much we’d each put on the line for our businesses.  They also heard how passionate we each were about riding the rollercoaster – in fact, more than one of us referred to the “addiction” we had for our own businesses.

I found the stories fascinating – from one Founder who had no intention of starting her own business only to be found smack-bang in the middle of it, to another who had one that had been overtaken by a major US business with exactly the same model but tens of millions more in funding.  She had pivoted now into a business that supports women in startups who lack the technical background they need.  The third was a non-tech Founder who now baffled us all with tech-speak, the result of being immersed in her business and a couple of years of “in the deep end” learning.  Now she’s up with the best of them and partnering with some major tech companies in the US who need her back-end storage solution.

And then there was me – a Co-Founder who, with my trusty business partner-in-crime launched a recruitment tech business with no idea about recruitment or tech – but with a problem that no one else was solving.

We spoke about ideas, passion, attitude, determination, challenges and fears with what I thought was raw honesty.  No sugar-coating here.  But we weren’t complaining.  Rather we wanted to encourage these ladies into thinking that anything is possible – but it doesn’t come without pain and suffering.

We obviously said something right because none of them seemed deterred.  Over drinks afterward one woman asked me what I idea I thought she should pursue.  My answer – something you’re passionate about it.

For me, it’s not that I’m necessarily passionate about recruitment, but I am passionate about helping people get work – because without it, none of us can survive (unless you were born with the proverbial silver spoon).  I’m especially passionate about getting kids into work, possibly because I’m a mum but more probably because I think we owe it to them to give them opportunities to excel.  (There’ll be a whole other blog post coming on that topic!)

There was also discussion about whether or not the women in the group would have gotten the same raw stories from men in startups and the only man in our group thought not.  Why is that?  Is it because men have more fear about admitting failure?  Is it pride or ego that stops them from being honest enough to tell the warts-and-all stories?

As a startup you look to others who have been there, done that for guidance as to the way forward.  You read books, you watch videos, you listen to podcasts about the road to success, yet there are very few stories about the real journeys.

Ariana Huffington wrote about her story of collapsing from exhaustion in her quest for success in her recent book, Thrive.  It was a raw and honest story.  Would something like get written by a man?

Similarly I once heard the Founder of Healthy Habits – a sandwich fast-food franchise that sold to a major franchise group – tell her story of success, and how it broke her in many ways and how she was still recovering.  Again, it’s not a story you’d typically hear from a man.

In the very early days of Workible, we were told by someone that successful businesses had a way of reinventing their path to success – and they seemed to carefully omit the trials, tribulations and failures along the way.

I love our business, I love what we’ve achieved and continue to – but it hasn’t come without a stack of personal cost to both Alli and I.  When we’ve “made it” (and we will) into the league of major Australian success stories, I’m sure we will be mindful that would-be entrepreneurs need to hear the whole story – not just the good parts.  Yes, it’s a roller coaster – but then I’ve always loved them.

Where do you draw the line?

do not crossYesterday we had an interesting conversation at Workible about where you draw the line in marketing – and what’s fair game.

As a growing business, we’re always looking at unique ways to get to the market and a recently published tech success story was at the centre of our “how did they do it” discussion.

Some googling soon uncovered some interesting forum and blog posts about some tactics startups had been using (but not admitting to) and that instigated a discussion about where a company draws the line.

Let me be frank, the tactics used by some of this companies were certainly not straight up – but nor were they illegal or fraudulent.  They were, however, very clever and resulted in a huge traffic windfalls to their site (and possibly away from a competitor’s) and, ultimately, was a major part of the huge success they are now enjoying.

Others we came across were arguably even more dodgy, giving the company a windfall in users but giving the users a terrible user experience – and therefore possibly not active users – and making us wonder whether they had really thought it all through or whether or not it was simply a “grab for analytics” to make the company look better to a financier or acquirer.

So where’s the line in business?  What is healthy competition and what is just not right?

The more time we spend in the start up world, the more we realize that all is not what it seems.   What appears to be random luck is seldom that.  It’s much more often smoke and mirrors  or edgy marketing than it is “right place, right time” and it’s all covered up by the term “growth hacking”.  And then there are outright lies about traffic, users and growth – something that puzzles us because, let’s be frank, it’s not too hard to check.

Talk to real growth hackers and they’ll tell you that growth hacking is really about looking at metrics then working out ways to do small incremental improvements everywhere that, put together, give you increased growth in users and/or traffic and not that one big idea that changes everything.

Very few growth hackers will admit to sneaky tactics that mine other sites to get users, or re-direct traffic or piggy back – these seem to be more the domain of the early startup teams – who use “desperate measures in desperate times” – the early days that can make or break a startup.

I’m not sure that we came to an actual conclusion about what was fair game and what wasn’t but our discussion did lead to marketing in general. In the offline world, if salespeople go out every day to try to poach business from their competitors, doesn’t that make these online tactics also fair game?

As an entrepreneur, the whatever it takes attitude is what you need to succeed.  Start ups are hard so you sometimes need to step off the moral high ground and just do what it takes to survive.  It all depends on where you, as an individual, draw the line on what is simply smart marketing versus what is down and dirty behavior.  At the end of the day, that’s up to the individual.

At Workible, we prefer to err on the side of caution.  We don’t lie about our users or our traction.  We don’t need to.  Our technology speaks for itself.  We not trying to be the biggest kid in the playground – we don’t need hundreds of thousands of users because we are a Saas platform.  We’ve specifically chosen not to play where everyone else does, there’s no point.  The biggest players have the general market sewn up, so why go head to head with them.

We’ve taken the disruptive path – picking a niche market and solving their problem with innovative technology and a new way of doing things.  Have a look at the big disruptors in the market – they’re not taking on the big guys, they’re doing things very differently and reinventing the way things are being done.  For us, we’re reinventing recruitment in our niche.

Does that mean we don’t take clients from others?  Absolutely not.  That’s just healthy competition.  Do we use growth hacking to grow?  Totally.  But that’s just smart marketing.

As for where you draw the line, well, that’s up to the Founders.

What’s the most important skill I’ve learnt from our startup?

skillsThat was a question I was asked last night.  I was fortunate to be invited to be one of the mentors at a startup mentoring session held last night in the city.

Now that we’re out of nappies and are starting to wear big kids pants, being asked to mentors others who have big, bright ideas is not only an honour but a way that I feel like I can give back for those who took the time to mentor us on our startup journey.

When I was asked the question, I’ve got to admit that I found it hard to come up with a quick answer.  Having been in business for most of my adult life, I feel like I’ve amassed a number of skills along the way, so coming up with one that’s particular to this startup journey is not easy.

I really had to dig deep to come up with a particular skill.  I’d definitely learned how tenacious I can be (but that’s not a skill), I’ve learnt just how much pain I can bear (!), (also not a skill).  I’ve dug deep to use every bit of marketing and business knowledge I’ve amassed over 30 ears in business (not new) and, while we have a tech business, I haven’t learnt to code (we’ve employed that skill) so that doesn’t count either.  I’ve continued to learn about business, am an avid reader of all things around growth hacking, but again, that’s not a skill as much as it’s thinking a little differently about what I kind-of already knew.  I’ve managed staff before, and I’m an Accountant by training, so have got the financial thing mastered too.

So what new skill have I learnt?

After standing for what seemed like an eternity mumbling phrases like, “hmmmm, good question” and “let me think…”, I finally came up with one – consultative selling.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not a sales person – not by a long shot.  Cold calling scares me silly and selling has never been something I’ve considered myself good at – or even capable of.

But over the last few years, I’ve realized that it’s not that hard – in fact, at times, I really like it.

I give credit for that skill to a client – one in particular.  She was the HR manager at a franchise group of well-known fast food brands.  It was one of my very early sales calls, my first big potential one – and I was all by myself.  There I was, sitting in their boardroom, armed with my nifty powerpoint presentation and a list of bullet points to go through to tell her how great our product was.  And in she walked – or rather strode.

The first thing she did was pull every blind open, each one made a bang, then strode to me and shook my hand.  She sat (or rather plopped) down and, before I could say a word, said “So, tell me why I should buy anything from you?”

Talk about taken aback.

And then she smiled, very warmly.

I immediately let go of my breath, realizing that she was actually not at all terrifying but she was actually messing around with me and, without thinking any further, my competitive nature go the better of me so I smiled and said back “Well, why don’t you tell me what I’d need to do to be able to do that?”

And that’s where the magic happened.

She immediately gave me a list of all of the problems she had and all of the solutions she was looking for.  And I had the perfect client brief.

That one conversation taught me what consultative selling really is – finding out exactly what a potential client is looking for – and we use it every time now because it works.  It’s taken me from something i thought I hated – selling – to something I really enjoy for a number of reasons.  The first is that it gives me a way to know exactly how to position Workible to clients, it gives me true insight into what our clients want, it gives us ideas for further Workible features that our clients want (and will pay for)  and, just as importantly, it actually allows us to built relationships with our clients by talking about them.

And all of that gives us a huge competitive advantage in our market.

It’s an interesting question to pose to yourself – and I’ve just asked Alli (my partner in Workible crime) the same question.  Her answer?  “Hmmm…… I’ll have to think about that.”  Funny, huh?

See her answer in the next blog.  In the meantime, what’s yours?