Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I want to mentor you in the Shopify Build-A-Business Contest 2012

I recently teamed up with Tim Ferriss, Daymond John, and Tina Roth Eisenberg to help you launch a business from scratch. It's called the Shopify 2012 Build-A-Business Competition and it launches today. Now is the time to take that idea you've been mulling over and put it in motion. All you have to do is come up with a product to sell, open your online store on Shopify, pick one of the awesome mentors, then get to work. We'll be there to help you every step of the way.

If you are one of the top sellers at the end of the competition, you'll get:
  • $50,000 investment from your mentor
  • VIP trip to NYC
  • Meetings with all four mentors
  • Fast Company Website Feature
  • $20,000 Google AdWords Credit
Plus, just just for entering the Build-A-Business competition, you'll receive a free .CO domain for 12 months, $100 in Google AdWords Credits and $100 in MailChimp Credits.

Remember, DOING > TALKING. So if you've been thinking about taking the plunge into entrepreneurship, but are stuck on the fence, let this be an excuse to get started. Tim, take it away:

This is the third year of the contest, and so I wanted to get some perspective from past winners. Here is some insight and advice from the two previous winners to help get you started, in their own words.

2011 Winners: Coffee Joulies

1. How to keep the first product minimal:
I think Coffee Joulies actually exists because we decided to keep the first product as minimal as we could. Dave and I had both tried to start other companies in the past that had a thesis, but did not provide concrete assumptions and lacked the discipline to identify and test them effectively. I was working in manufacturing studying lean principals on the factory floor when I came up with the idea for Coffee Joulies and asked Dave if he would help me. There were two things that made this idea different. The first is that it was 'the simplest idea I had ever had,' a Joulie has only two parts and no moving parts, and the science behind it was so simple I knew it would work. The second is that we strictly enforced a framework that we called 'Original Vision' early on. Basically it said that we had this idea that we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we could achieve (make some coffee joulies) and that even though we might come up with some additional good ideas along the way while trying to make them a reality, we were going to focus all of our efforts just to get some Coffee Joulies made and into the hands of customers as fast as possible. It's only the customers opinion that matters, not the opinions of all of your friends who you talk to about your idea. Not even your own additional ideas you come up with along the way are necessarily better. It took months before we could test our original assumption; that people would like a little metal coffee bean filled with phase change material. The reason we were able to make some Joulies on such a small budget and relatively quickly is because we had this framework that allowed us to focus and spend our time only doing things that moved us towards testing that idea. Looking back none of the effort we put into Joulies early on turned out to be wasted.

I compared it to taking a long hike. We knew just where we were going, and that we could easily get there. There were a lot of steps we needed to take along the way. Each step is easy and must take them one at a time, adjusting your balance and foot placement each second. You can't skip ahead and you cant plan more than a few steps in advance, but you still know that by the end of the day, you will reach the summit. Hiking is a piece of cake and its always fun. Very similar analogy to Eric's 'driving the car' from his book.

2. Things that wasted time that seemed necessary at the time:
After we had successfully funded our business on Kickstarter, we had proof that people liked the idea of Coffee Joulies. It was also no longer a hobby, it was all of a sudden much more serious and important, and became both of our full time jobs. The opportunity to waste time and money was way bigger than it was before. We were still very careful to take small incremental steps in order to fulfill our Kickstarter orders. It was obvious that we had to test and iterate on our manufacturing process in the absolute smallest batches, as fast as possible. This helped us get a great and robust manufacturing method figured out relatively quickly, without spending large sums to learn the same lessons using large batches. One thing that we did waste some time on was all of these little details that exist when starting your own business that have these old and ridiculously wasteful methods built up around them. Now we just know how to avoid these. In retrospect it obvious that we can simply look at something and think 'is this a batch for no reason?' and 'is this the fastest, closed feedback loop to test this assumption' but early on it was not so clear.

I'll give two examples. First: product packaging. Packaging salesman would come into our office and take up tons of our time. We would go through weeks of 'iteration' on samples so that we could get a quote at the end of it all that was too expensive and had huge minimum order quantities (batches) and long lead times. Working with a great and creative packaging salesman is fun, and can feel great. At the end of the day you're making a cardboard box. Now we get all of our packaging from ULINE which ships next day, has tiny minimums and we print stickers that we design ourselves and can change in one day. The idea of working with someone else to do a simple task like make a box that literally takes weeks to do, and at the end gives you the privilege of ordering in huge batches with long lead times is just crazy. We are still coming up with ways to improve our packaging that can keep the process lean but make an even better finished product. Meanwhile we've already shipped 20,000 little MVP ULINE boxes to our customers. 

Second: Web design. Dave and I are both mechanical engineers. We're not web designers and we don't know much about hosting a robust website. Since we had all the kickstarter cash in the bank we hired a designer and a developer to make us a good looking Shopify template. Same kind of thing happened with the packaging, a couple weeks turned into a couple months of development. When we finished with Kickstarter orders and decided that the Shopify store HAD to be opened and taking orders for the holidays, the designs were still not done and the store was inoperable. We launched with a bone stock template that Shopify provided instead. Real MVP. The next week we had done tens of thousands of dollars in sales through that template, and not a peep from our customers that it 'looked bad.' We ended up going right through the holiday season and then some, over $300k on that bone stock template. Now if there is ever a choice between a minimal SaaS product and a more custom and powerful solution that requires working with designers or salesman to use, we always pick the off the shelf option to try first. It can feel counter-intuitive but I think people have a tendency to undervalue their own time and the cycle times of installing new parts into their start up.

3. How did things change along the way?
We actually lucked out. The general concept of Coffee Joulies is written down in a gchat in June 2010, almost exactly as it exists today. When we were able to test the assumption, 'do people want/like using this?' We heard a resounding 'yes.' There were a couple of instances along the way where we had to alter the idea in the absolute minimum way possible because our original idea was putting up unnecessary road blocks. For instance, the original idea was for the material to be copper, and be gold plated. We switched to stainless steel because a factory, and a manufacturing method fell into our lap to make stainless steel parts. The impact it had on the product was immediately measurable and good: it looked better and it was way less expensive.

2010 Winners: DODOcase

1. How to keep the first product minimal:
Focus, focus, focus! One of the best pieces of advice we received during our first months in business was to make a list of the 10 most important things we wanted to achieve in the first year, then tear off 70% of the list and focus doing the remaining 3 things exceptionally well. We applied this philosophy DODOcase and for the first 5 months of business we focused on product simplicity by offering only one color (black/red http://www.dodocase.com/products/dodo-classic), as well as focusing local scalable manufacturing and building the story and the brand. This allowed us to simplify our production efforts and focus on telling the story that makes our product so special. This 'less is more' approach allowed our eventual introduction of individual specialty cases followed by full collections to be all the more powerful.

2. Things that wasted time that seemed necessary at the time:
At DODOcase we made the unique decision to manufacture locally in San Francisco and originally thought we’d handle everything pertaining to the business in-house.  We quickly realized we had our hands full just managing production of the physical product, so we immediately identified and outsourced 'non- essential' components of our business to local partners. We found accounting and fulfillment resources that could integrate closely into our business while operating outside our day-to-day infrastructure. We stayed laser focused on building our product offerings and overall brand while leaving the less critical functions to trusted partners. This proved to be the smarter approach overall and to this day we operate in this model. 

3. How did things change along the way?
We have not pivoted from our original vision of protecting bookbinding from extinction.  Our product and manufacturing techniques have evolved over the last two years to include an in-house bookbindery and wood shop operation, but the basic premise of the product and promise of the brand remains the same.    

And, last, here are a few thoughts from me about the contest:

blog comments powered by Disqus