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Boston #StartupXYZ Activities

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After an epic day of Ramencamp, a few folks unwinded with beers, poker, pizza and more beers. At the end of it, Jason Evanish, Captain America of the young Boston resurgence, and I, were convincing a Providence visitor that he should consider relocating to Boston. He said he had been considering a few locations, but if it was as good as the day he had just had, he definitely would. On considering location, I still think Boston has lost the sex battle, but the small clusters happening around the non-startup events scene is pretty awesome. No networking, just have a great time. This is just a short round-up:

#StartupDrinks

This is probably the most concrete event in the calendar where local startupers catch up for drinks on Friday evenings at 6pm. Follow @JonPierce or @KabirH for the latest.

#StartupPoker

This happens every other Thursday, usually in a Cambridge Innovation Center conference room. It’s hardly high stakes, but we split a few six packs, talk about each other’s businesses and generally have a great laugh. Ping me if you’re in.

#StartupDinner

Slightly sporadic but always a great time. We find somewhere cheap, around $15 a head (T&T incl); it’s a great way to meet new people in a tight-knit environment. @Evanish and I generally tweet about it.

#StartupBasketball

Now that the weather’s nice, we’ve been playing basketball on Flagg and Memorial right by Harvard every Saturday at 2pm. We usually get enough startupers to have full-court 5 on 5, otherwise there’s always pickup. It’s not very competitive, the talent ranges completely, and of course we have girls and guys. We usually grab a bite to eat and some Berryline afterwards. @Tuan617 usually sends out the reminders/ confirmations.

#StartupPingPong

So we’ve discovered there are many wannabe ping-pong champions in the community and several quality ping-pong arenas. Most of these are casual games where Wistia or Viximo will invite people over late on a work day for beers or games. Rumor has it there’s going to be an epic tournament. Follow @Graysky for deets.

The best part is, I actually learn more new things with small intimiate groups like these than large events; you share more vivid details, ask more pointed questions, and have harder reality checks. What will you be joining in?

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Written by Fan Bi

May 22, 2011 at 3:38 pm

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6 Action Items for Non Techies with an “Idea”

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This was originally posted at OnStartups

No programmer wants to be the technical co-founder of your IDEA, no angel will fund your IDEA, no customer wants to buy your IDEA. Do you see the pattern? If you’re at ground zero with an idea, the best thing to do is to make your idea into something real.

1. Pitch everyone your idea

The Winklevoss twins are still going to end up with eight figures to their names. You should be so lucky to have someone take your idea. The most useful thing you can do when you’re at the embryonic idea stage is talk to everyone humanly possible about it. A lot of people won’t get it, a lot of people will tell you it’s dumb. That’s okay, just treat them as data points. After all, startups are an experiment and you’re at step one of testing your hypothesis. Make sure you take down the contact info of the people you meet as you’ll want to follow-up with them as you progress down these steps. Once you have a one sentence pitch and a 60 second pitch down-pat, you’re ready to move on.

2. Mockup wireframes

You’ve got a much better sense of the idea, you’re received feedback from other entrepreneurs, and hopefully some customers. Now put your idea on a whiteboard. Draw out what your homepage looks like, no color needed; just think about language and layout, study other sites that have good design, look at the existing players in the space, and understand what works well and what doesn’t. The goal of this homepage is to test whether people are going to apply an action (like give you their email address) in exchange for promising to solve their problem at some later date. This is a good example of something that’s super simple, here’s a better example. Once you’ve drawn up your homepage in a wireframing tool like Balsamiq, you’re ready to move on.

3. Hire a designer

Go to 99designs, an oursourcing site like oDesk, or even Craigslist to find someone to design a homepage. This should cost you anywhere from $150-500. Again, show them sites that have design that works for you, send them your wireframe, and make sure you ask for at least three revisions in your fee. The three revisions should be used in three series of feedback, with the people who’ve given you feedback along the way. If you’re not familiar with Photoshop, make sure you ask for individual JPGs of the different images, as well as the JPGs of all three versions of the homepage (this will matter for the next step). Once you’ve got something that you think looks good, and other entrepreneurs and potential customers are on board with, you’re ready to move to the next step.

4. Do customer development

Now the fun stuff begins. Host the three versions of your homepage on Unbounce. You now have a website, congratulations. Next you’ll want to sign-up for Snapengage so you can talk to customers when they get to your site. Then you’ll want to sign up for Optimizely so you can create even more versions of the homepage, to test button placement, wording and images. And you’ll want to sign up for Google Analytics to get even more data about how people are using your homepage. Finally you’ll want to sign up for Mailchimp, so you can properly collect emails. All of these services have free accounts for beginners, and they all work with each other seamlessly. With around $200 on Adwords, you’ll want to start talking to potential customers. Starting Adwords does have quite a steep learning curve, way outside the scope of this post, but for a non-programmer, it’s a very important skill to learn. With all the tools you’ve placed on the homepage, you can test what language and layout works best based on given metrics, e.g. how long they spend on it, how many people take an action, and you can have real-time conversations with them to learn why they visited, what about the site makes them uncomfortable, etc. Keep going until you have 200 unique visitors to your page.

5. Make good connections with investors and advisors

Even if you’re not looking for financing, it’s always good to have a perspective of how investors view your business, especially your business area. Every now and again, they’ll also provide some useful feedback. In addition, you should start to more aggressively form relationships with informal advisors, people that have some domain expertise who you can go back to every month or so with simple questions and meet every quarter or two. You’ll also have a much better time recruiting a team if you have investor relationships and advisors to point to.

6. Develop relationships with press

Research journalists that write about your area. That should mean topically, and geographically. As an example, at Blank Label, as a web business we talk to tech journalists, as an apparel company we talk to fashion bloggers, as a custom brand we have lifestyle articles written about us, because we’re Boston based we get local press, because I’m from Australia we’ve been written about there too, and of course there are a ton of journalists writing about stories like yours everyday from Entrepreneur Magazine to small business section of New York Times. The important thing is to refrain from pitching them; just drop them emails about their articles, providing insightful feedback. You should comment on all their posts. They will inevitably ask you what you’re up to.

You should be able to move swiftly from steps 1-6 within 2 months. After those 9 aggressive weeks, you should go back to the programmers, angels and potential customers, and see if their decision to work with you has changed.

What do you think?  Any tips for folks that are not technical, but looking to start an Internet company?

Written by Fan Bi

May 13, 2011 at 12:30 pm

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Re-applying Lean Lessons Learned

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We‘ve been working on a new product line, Thread Tradition, for the last several weeks. It’s still in private beta, although if you ask President, Jack Reyer (jack@threadtradition.com) nicely, I’m sure he’ll pass along an early invite. Attending an Eric Ries Lean Startup talk during the week, it reminded me of some lean tactics we’d applied in the early months at Blank Label (and still are!).

Test as Many Forms of Traffic as Possible

Something I touched on in my last post, one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made is not testing different forms of traffic early enough, especially paid search. If you can’t be profitable on a channel where people are actively looking for you, e.g. for us “custom dress shirts” you have a problem. If they’re looking for you, and you can’t convince them to convert, what chance do you have on converting a browser or passer-by?

Three Yes’s to Product Development

We take three things into consideration when building and iterating product. i) Analytics. Why is there a high bounce rate on this page? Why is everyone buying the gingham shirt? ii) Customers. “Hey guys this page sucks, I have no idea what’s going on here.” ” You guys need to get more gingham, didn’t you know everyone’s buying gingham now”. iii) Product vision. What message are we trying to convey on this page. Are we selling to hipsters or business executives.

Talking to Customers Is  The Best form of Learning

TALK to CUSTOMERS! Talking I define here as a back and forth conversation. The best vehicles of talking are on the phone and on instant messenger. Don’t think you’re doing enough by throwing up a feedback tab on the right and answering a handful of people who bother to drop an email. We use Snap Engage for IM, just an awesome product. I’ve personally called hundreds of customers who’ve ordered to ask them about their experience. Some get annoyed because they want to keep the relationship online but the overall net is undoubtedly positive.

Start Thinking about CAC and LTV from Day One

Because our main sources of traffic for Blank Label for year one were press and word-of-mouth, we didn’t really think too much about CAC, we said PR is free so our CAC is zero! Awesome! Not awesome, because PR is hard to scale. And we definitely didn’t think about LTV. It wasn’t until only several weeks ago we started to seriously look at customers’ behavior over time rather than just at the single transaction level. Through talking to customers we get a better sense of how many dress shirts they purchase a year, and from that we can make better judgements of LTV and from that CAC. Wow we can actually spend $X to acquire a customer! That makes a lot more channels look profitable.

What lean lessons are you applying to your startup everyday?

Written by Fan Bi

January 29, 2011 at 11:02 pm

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Our Journey in Building a Customer Acquisition Model

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This is mostly an anecdotal account of how Blank Label got to 60k in monthly uniques and what I hope can learn from it. When I talk to most non-technical founders, we share the pains of not being a builder. It’s painful because no investors will take us seriously without a prototype, most engineers won’t talk to us because they know we initially bring very little to the table, and we just feel stuck and helpless. We think, once we can get the site we want built, we’re golden. It’s time for my idea to shine, then everyone will see how right I was from the start. Not exactly.

1. Before Marketing Comes Economics

You first need to understand the fundamental unit economics of your business. If you’re running any kind of commerce site (travel, jewelry, custom dress shirts), what’s the average order value, how much are people spending per visit. And how much of that do you actually keep as profit.

Then you make up a number (because it’s very hard to actually get the number right without the actual data) which is how many times you think that customer will shop with you again. Is it 3 times, 5 times, 10 times? All depends on your business. Good advisors can help here. This will help you ultimately determine 1 of the 2 most important numbers in your business. Most people call it the Life-time Value (LTV), essentially it’s how much a customer is worth to you.

The other-side of the equation is the Customer-Acquisition Cost (CAC), how much you want to pay for a customer. The CAC number is the marketing spend divided by the number of customers; e.g. if you spent $5,000 this month and had 100 customers on your site, the CAC is $50. If you’re a logically minded person, you’ve already figured out  that everything funnels back to

LTV > CAC

If you’re paying more to get the customer to buy something than the customer is going to give back to you in profit, you don’t a business.

2. How To Get Free Traffic

For us the first year of Blank Label, traffic was mainly driven by PR and word-of-mouth. Our Lead Evangelist Danny Wong was very determined in using PR as a pillar of traffic. We were featured in New York Times, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, Inc, Forbes, just to name a few. When starting out, PR is a great place to get traffic, mainly because its free and can often surprise you at how big it can be.

Invest time into it and you’ll see it as a funnel just like site usage. You’ll start tracking how many pitches you send out, how many replies you get, what pitches get more replies, whether in-person meetings with journalists are worth your time, that closing stories actually is very rare but if you pump that funnel with good leads, you will get write-ups.

3. Paid Traffic is Better than Free Traffic

We always thought as we grow our PR relationships, we’d get more PR traffic, times that by some viral word-of-mouth co-efficient and we’d be golden. Not quite the case. Here’s the best PR tip that no one has ever told us. Everyone wants to write about you when you’re starting out, when you’re “launching” but then you become old news. You’re most interesting when you’re the shinny new thing.

One of our advisors, David Hauser, told me pretty early that we should really be thinking about how to spend some of the money we were making from the free traffic on the paid traffic. Admittedly I wish I took this advice when he told me rather than four months later. The earlier you can budget paid traffic, the better. Ultimately if you can acquire customers for less than you’ll make back off them (LTV > CAC), that’s fairly scalable – you just poor more money on. Google, Microsoft and other ad exchange networks really don’t care whether you’re the shinny new thing.

If you’re in Boston and are looking to share notes on customer acquisition modelling (not social media marketing!) there’s a pretty cool group of people forming, drop your name in the comments and I’ll be in touch.

Written by Fan Bi

January 21, 2011 at 3:56 pm

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3 Lessons in 12 Months as a Non-Technical Founder

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It is honestly a little scary to think that 12 months ago, someone came across a tweet, that linked to this very blog, that led to an email exchange, that six weeks later launched www.blank-label.com. Zee and I had our first conversation in September last year, and with Alec (who designed the site) and Danny (our marketer) built and launched the site on October 31, 2009. I was still in my Babson dorm room at the time.

I like the familiarity of talking to young, first-time non-technical founders of tech start-ups. I’m often reminded of three characteristics we all share, that we often all fail at.

1. We know nothing about technology yet we think we can control programmers

Reading TechCrunch or HackerNews doesn’t mean you understand technology (referencing here specifically to consumer web tech). I wish I had read Don Rainey‘s 8 Lies Developers Tell You before I started any of this. That’s in no means a dis to the programmers I’ve worked with on Blank Label, but more a reflection of things you should generally be aware of going in.

There are some strange dynamics: you have to trust your developer(s) but can’t trust them completely, your designer and developer may only sometimes get along, you have to be patient with the development but also enforce frequent time pressures. Something I’d highly recommend reading is 37 Signal‘s Getting Real. My favorite quote; “Fix time, flex scope” in reference to launching a web app.

The best lesson I’ll give is be extremely empathetic: things always take longer, there is no quick fix, and there will always be bugs. There’s nothing that ticks of a programmer more than a ‘business guy’ who doesn’t get it.

2. We know nothing about tactics or strategy yet we want to call ourselves the ‘business guy’

So at the very least if we’re the ‘business guy’ then we should know how to set the short-term tactics to set the path to the milestones of the broader strategy right?

Granted I’m an undergraduate dropout, but unless the two dozen Harvard MBA students I’ve met are the ones in the bottom quartile, you don’t know tactics or strategy until you actually have real experience in acquiring customers and building product, whilst simultaneously managing money and building your own team. You know much less than you need, and worse, much less than you think.

This is an area where you can really use the help of experience. It is with regular conversations with advisors analyzing business metrics and customer development that you can really gain some insight as to what the next steps of your company should be. And remember, you’re decisions will almost certainly be wrong, and that’s okay. Just make sure they don’t kill you.

3. We know nothing about being a CEO yet we love to think of ourselves as the CEO

There’s been a bit of buzz around the blogosphere around what a CEO’s role should be. Fred Wilson kicked it off with What a CEO Does and Mark Suster followed up My Life as a CEO (and VC) with a really quality piece.

So as a titan of industry, I thought I’d chime in. When I’ve had moments to myself in the past 12 months, when I haven’t been working on day-to-day operations or spending time communicating with my remote team, I’ve asked myself, am I really being a CEO? If I know less about technology than our programmer, and less about customer acquisition than our marketer should I just be the operations guy rather than the CEO.

Something surprising that I’ve learnt is when you build a team, you get instant kudos from the team, even though you’re not sure why. A few things you can rely on are your charisma and leveraging the CEO title to speak with business development partners or potential investors, i.e. bring the big bacon home once a month. But you get even more respect when on daily basis you do a ton of homework and connect the dots between what your selling, how you’re selling it and how people are responding to it, i.e. bring bread to the table everyday.

Written by Fan Bi

September 10, 2010 at 1:37 pm

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3 Reasons Why Northeastern Will Win in Start-up Education

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This post has been brewing with me for sometime, probably as long as 12 months, so bear with me as I try to pack a lot in. It’ll include a few different elements, my experience at Babson and what that taught me about entrepreneurship education, the on-going Silicon Valley vs Boston debate, and why students interested in entrepreneurship should take time off school. My point is to tie it together and conclude Northeastern University has got it right, and why it will be the winner out of this much-claimed Boston innovation renaissance.

1. What Babson taught me about entrepreneurship education.

I’ve dissed Babson a lot. Probably extremely unfairly. My history with Babson is I studied abroad for Spring and Fall semester 2009, I was offered a lot of opportunities there, and I took them. I know I’m not being grateful enough, but here’s what disappointed me. There is this claimed number 1 in the U.S. in entrepreneurship stuff. And to me, it just didn’t live up to the hype. Less than 10% of undergrad students were really passionate about start-ups. Of that, most of them identified entrepreneurship very closely with scalable start-up which they identified very closely to consumer internet start-up. Yet this was so far from the education on small business marketing or  Fortune 500 strategy cases. Dharmesh Shah once told me that you need two types of people in a start-up, someone who can build it and someone who can sell it. So for consumer internet that’s someone who can build web apps and someone who understands online marketing. This was not what I learnt at Babson. Maybe I’m wrong and it wasn’t their responsibility.

2. Silicon Valley vs Boston

For the three people who read this blog you’ll know that I’m deciding where to relocate myself and the company in the upcoming few months. So naturally I’ve been paying quite a bit of attention to this Silicon Valley vs Boston debate, on the merits of each entrepreneurial ecosystem. Silicon Valley is clearly king for consumer web, Boston is trying  a lot of things and has a ton of smart students. With all this stuff that Boston is doing, I’m sure you’ll see a lot of younger people starting companies, because it’ll be a part of the culture (I’ll do a later post on my theories on why young people found companies, and how to get more of them doing it). And hopefully many of them will stay in Boston rather than just going to Silicon Valley and New York. Boston is a good place to be if you’re young, especially if you’re still in school as there are probably more opportunities for you than ever before.

3. Why students interested in entrepreneurship need to take time off school

What I also discovered whilst I was at Babson was because I was on study-abroad, I was on something called pass-fail, i.e. it was a binary result, i.e. getting 51/100 was as good as 100/100. What this essentially meant was I had time to pursue a start-up idea which would eventually lead to Blank Label. My friends at Babson were jealous. Hey, how come you never turn up to class and work on your start-up all the time? Teachers got annoyed, how come you never turn up to class and work on your start-up all the time? The answer, I didn’t pay $50,000 for those classes and I just needed to pass (which I didn’t really have to do since I dropped out anyway). I’m not as extreme as Caterina Fake’s I’ll fund you if you’re dropping out of school argument, but I do believe that time away from the class is just as important, if not more so, than time in the class.

Why Northeastern will win

1. They are an actual university with multiple schools of training and if they can get the cross-polliation right, they’ll develop people who can make it and sell it hanging out in the one place.  And from my few friends at NEU, I agree with David Cancel in that NEU students are far from entitled (can’t be said for many of their Bostonian counterparts) and they have something to prove. Start-up founders always have something to prove.

2. A lot of the work is already being done for them. Boston is reinvigorated, and pissed off that Y-Combinator then Facebook and more recently WePay are heading over there. There is something brewing and it’s a good time to be a student in Boston. I’m thinking Dart Boston, Stay in MA, Innovation Open House.

3. They force students outside the classroom. It’s institutionalized in their co-op program, and now they’re letting students work on their own start-ups for a semester (plus potentially a summer) at a time. That’s huge.

And what’s more, they have the leader of the youth movement, Jason Evanish, as a recent alumni. I rest my case.

Written by Fan Bi

August 2, 2010 at 7:02 pm

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Now LeBron’s Made His Decision …

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Location, Location, Location, one of the most-used cliches in the English language. I assume it’s probably somewhat important. Now that LeBron has made his choice, the nation (i.e. my girlfriend and my mother) awaits the next big decision, where will Blank Label relocate for 2011. The contenders:

Stay in Shanghai

For relatively cheap the bulk of the team currently resides in Shanghai. Just like it was cool to spend summers in Silicon Valley in the late 2000s, we thought it’d be cool to move the team to Shanghai for the summer of 2010. And for the most part it worked. Fewer distractions, besides Alec our Lead Artist discovering that he has yellow fever, has helped. We can live off less so the company can pay smaller stipends. And with those stipends, we can afford a decently nice apartment, a driver, a clearner and a good time at clubs once a week.

We’re pretty removed from any kind of start-up community, the pollution makes you feel like you’re smoking a pack a day, and there is a language barrier. It’s still pretty easy to access to our advisors with weekly video calls and we still get investment interest because we’re domiciled in the U.S. All in all, it’s a pretty good life but we’re probably not getting pushed by being in the right ecosystem.

Return to Boston

Boston is where Blank Label went from idea to launch, and then a little bit more. It’s where most of the core team originates, it’s where our first customers came from, it’s where we have a feel integrated and a part of the start-up community. There are inevitably personal ties, close relationships with other start-upers, and where we have our best base of investor interest. We think we have good access to young talent and are excited about what locals are calling an innovation renaissance. It’s probably where we feel most connected and most comfortable.

It lacks the sex appeal of Silicon Valley or New York and there still seems to be very few young founders getting backed by institutions. Nightlife ends at 2pm and the public transport is just horrendous if you don’t live in and immediately around the city. There is a lot of activity happening, especially for a sub-30 crew, but don’t know how much of it is converting to rockstar young entrepreneurs, i.e. an ecosystem that is motivating and contagious.

Move to the Valley

Everyone who we know in the Valley says this is a done deal. There is no decision. We’re young, we’re consumer internet, it’s the Valley all the way. And nevermind we’ve not connected, people are throwing out some big name introductions if we do a trip out there. And even though we know more VCs in Boston, we have more proactive interest in the Valley without having ever visited.

But the place is expensive, there are never guarantees of raising money, and competition for talent, or at least retention, is a pretty big issue. And no one in the team has actually been to the valley. I’m probably going to spend two weeks out there later this year to get a feel of the place.

To entrepreneurs who have relocated or have thoughts about this, please feel free to make my decision for me in the comments =)

LeBron has made his decision, maybe we just follow him to Miami.

Written by Fan Bi

July 10, 2010 at 1:12 pm

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