The ups and downs of starting up

17 03 2008

As I reflect on my journey toward product launch it seems to be (among other things) one big emotional roller coaster. I came to this realization a few months ago when I was in a pit of despair with regards to the probability of successfully launching ClimbPoint. Despite the bleak outlook I knew that things would soon enough be on the up and up, so I pressed on.

The diagram below is my take on what I’ve experienced to this point (I’m at the end of the Demonstrating phase now) and what I expect will follow in the months ahead. I think I’ve already begun to accept the emotional ups and downs that go with starting a new venture, but we’ll see what happens. As a side note, this experience has been not unlike the ups and downs of grad school 🙂

 
Entrepreneur emotion curve

 

The five phases at the top of the diagram correlate to the main phases of Vijay Jolly’s nine phase commercialization process, which I’ve mentioned before. I’m curious as to whether other entrepreneurs have experienced similar highs and lows when starting a new venture. Anyone relate?

Regardless of my current feelings on the potential for success, the stance I’ve taken to this point has been one of perseverance with the intention of taking this project as far as it goes. As I’ve mentioned before, I think getting there is half the fun.





Growing organically: who needs startup capital?

25 01 2008

Joel Spolsky authored a great article in this month’s issue of Inc. entitled The Four Pillars of Organic Growth, which describes the benefits of (you guessed it) growing organically, and the perils of mis-using outside investments to grow too quickly. The timing of the article was great considering my recent option of entering a business plan competition. As a side note, I’ve decided to defer on that option for the time being and focus on getting the next release of ClimbPoint out. But back to the article…Here’s the summary quote:

“A company that lands a big investment too early is often worse off, not better. It often finds itself in a situation where it is much harder to make that investment pay off.”

Spolsky goes on to recount how many companies today (and I would say that VCs and the startup culture perpetuate this) rely on large outside investments to fuel fast growth. Now, I don’t believe that all outside investment is detrimental to budding startups, but I do agree with the primary point of the article, which is that startups should regulate growth so that revenue, head count, PR, and quality grow at approximately the same rate.

To this point I think I have experienced organic growth with ClimbPoint. I’ve only contacted about a handful of people about demoing the software, and already a few more have come on board via word of mouth or the Googlebot. One of the other marks of an organically growing company, according to Spolsky, is that “the degree to which customers are aware of your business never outstrips the quality of the goods or services you are able to provide to them.”

I think that accurately describes where I’m at now, and for the time being I’m fine with word of mouth publicity. In fact, I don’t expect to begin marketing my climbing wall management software for another few months — and even then, I’ll be targeting specific groups so that I can be sure to maintain quality and ensure that it serves the needs of the climbing community.

While it would be nice to have some extra startup capital, I am content to grow slowly and organically. After all, getting there is half the fun right?





Are all beta testers early adopters?

1 12 2007

Last month when I settled on five beta testers I was unsure of what to expect in terms of participation. After all, four of the first five sites that I contacted were interested in trying out ClimbPoint. Were they just being nice, or were they genuinely interested in trying out the software? I figured out of five testing sites I might get two that would provide helpful, consistent feedback. Truth be told, I was a little uneasy that if all of them were totally on board I might be in over my head.

Well, so far it’s turned out that my intuition was right…mostly. Two sites have installed ClimbPoint and are using it for day-to-day operations. A third is planning on switching over after the Fall semester is over, and the other two…well who knows. I’m optimistic that all of the sites will eventually begin using the software consistently, but the relative success of the beta program so far (especially given the number of sites I initially contacted) has me thinking about the broader market.

Will everyone be this receptive?

I’ve gone back and forth on this question many times, and could argue either way. There are reasons that those who participate in beta tests wouldn’t actually purchase the software — namely because beta testing is free, low-risk, and low-commitment, but also because some people just like to wait to adopt new technology. The technology adoption lifecycle provides a good illustration of this point: there are early adopters, the early and late majority, and laggards in adopting any idea. Some people just need to be convinced, and some just need to see others using a product before they try it out.

Technology adoption curve

Beta tester != Early adopter

I’ll pause here to mention that I consider beta testers and early adopters as separate groups, because early adopters actually pay money for a product while beta testers get the product for free…hence my question in the title. I do think, though that only the first three adoption groups are likely to become beta testers — agreeing to beta test does indicate that there is more than a slight chance that a purchase will be made.

Anyway, given the adoption curve I can see why I might have some trouble selling this product to everyone right away. It takes time to convince the early majority to bite, and the late majority won’t buy until they know quite a few other people who are already using the product.

The bottom line

I keep coming back to the fact that four of five sites were interested, and that half of those have jumped in and given really positive reviews so far. Could it be that the type of people who manage climbing walls are also the type of people who tend to be early adopters? For now I’m trying to temper my optimism, if only for a month or two. In a couple months I hope to have version 1.0 finished, and then we’ll see how many sites put their money where their mouth is ;).

I’ll be interested to find out if the adoption curve really holds up and I get about a 10% response rate. I sort of have a feeling it will…





The commercialization process

14 11 2007

Astute readers may have noticed some weird categories that I have for some of my posts (who tags stuff as ‘Mobilizing Interest & Endorsement’ anyway?).

Really, there’s a method to my madness, at least in this case. Starting today, all of the posts with tags like “Phase x” relate to one of nine phases for technology commercialization. Theoretically this means that one day when my software is in every climbing gym in the world, you’ll be able to go back to this dinky wordpress blog and see the road that I’ve traveled to get here, and the lessons learned in each phase along the way.

It also means (hopefully) that the information here will be useful to others who are starting a new venture. I’m making no promises, but in addition to providing a few examples from my own experience I’ll try to provide a few guidelines for following the process. Some of what I write here will likely be included in my directed project final report. More on that here.

With that out of the way, let’s get started. Over the next nine weeks I plan to write about the nine phases of Vijay Jolly’s commercialization process. Jolly writes about this process in his book Commercializing New Technologies, and while he claims that his process applies more to new technologies than new products, I think they can be applied to both.

The difference between a new technology and a new product is that oftentimes a new product will use existing technologies arranged in an innovative way. A new technology enables the creation of many different products, and is marketed toward a much wider audience. ClimbPoint is definitely a product that makes use of existing technologies, and it’s geared toward a specific market…but again, I feel that the overall commercialization process still applies.

The idea behind the process is that there are five key phases that all new ideas must pass through if they are eventually going to be adopted by a large number of consitituents. These phases are connected by “mobilization” bridges that help the entrepreneur move from one phase to the next. However, this doesn’t mean that bringing a new product or technology to market is a linear process — the entrepreneur can go back to any phase at any time.

In my mind, the value in defining such a process is that it can be used to help determine where an entrepreneur’s energy should be focused. It can also provide the inventor with a more consistent and continual “reality check” as to whether the idea could really take off and be adopted; it provides a framework for analysis of an idea’s current state and can assist in defining potential next steps.

Hopefully that conveys the spirit of the framework. Here are the nine phases:

  1. Imagining
  2. Mobilizing Interest & Endorsement
  3. Incubating
  4. Mobilizing Resources for Demonstration
  5. Demonstrating
  6. Mobilizing Market Constituents
  7. Promoting
  8. Mobilizing Assets for Delivery
  9. Sustaining




The Plan

24 10 2007

In developing and commercializing software to manage climbing walls, I’ve read and skimmed a number of books about technology commercialization and software startups. While I’ll probably use insights from each of these resources along the way, I plan to structure most of my activities around a set of processes formalized by Vijay Jolly in the book Commercializing New Technologies.

In the book, Jolly lays out nine phases that any technology commercialization venture needs to pass through in order to be successful. I plan to do a series on each phase over the next month or so, but in the meantime I’d like to focus on the work I’ll be completing during each of three phases:

    Incubating

  • Create a survey to determine potential features of software
  • Review CWA Guidelines to determine essential features of software
  • Perform market research so I can create a business plan

    Mobilizing Resources for Demonstration

  • Contact other sites and participants about surveys
  • Administer surveys
  • Recruit others to focus groups and beta testing (I am here!)

    Demonstrating

  • Create software requirements and development plan
  • Iterate and release a build of the software
  • Conduct beta testing, incorporate feedback into another iteration

Of course, the tasks above are just an overview of what I’ll be doing during each phase (incidentally, the three phases above represent phases four through six of the overall process) — and they’ll probably make more sense after I explain the entire commercialization process.