Business

The evolving startup

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I was listening to the excellent Startup Therapy podcast this morning on my walk. More specifically, I was listening to the episode with Steve Blank, where they were talking about a startup ‘shedding its skin’.

What does that mean, in a nutshell? Well, it is really about the natural evolution of a startup through the different stages of Search, Build & Grow - roughly translated to product market fit, traction, and growth.

The hosts talked about how the different roles of employees, and even founders, within the startup will change as it progresses through these stages, and that even the founders themselves may not be the best people to lead the business through certain stages.

It kind of reminds me of a book I read as a youngster, where a plane crashed into a mountain and the surviving passengers had to work out how to get back to civilisation. The person totally in charge of the aircraft while in the air (the pilot), was different from the person who took charge of the group’s survival in the wreck of the plane in the snowy mountain, who was different again from the person who led the small expedition to try and find civilisation and help. Each had their own unique skillsets which made them natural leaders in those different scenarios. Most importantly, each person knew when to defer their leadership as the missions of the group changed.

I’ve experienced something similar in my own startup, HR Partner. Over a year ago, my original co-founder of two years left the startup. It wasn’t my decision. She had self-identified that she wasn’t the best person to lead the business into the next stage of growth. I must admit that I couldn’t see it then, but over the past year, I have grown to appreciate that call, as the business has grown from strength to strength with different leadership, and indeed, I have now transitioned my startup again to bring on a new co-founder with different skill who is again raising the bar and taking us to new heights.

Kudos to my former founder to having the strength of character to realise that she had maxed out her skills and needed to step out. It has made me think about my long term role in my own company. Though I wrote 99% of the code and have spent a lot of time as a solo founder building this company, I think we will get to the stage in a year or two where I will have to relinquish my own control and ownership over the business for it to thrive.

I was never comfortable with the title of CEO, and I think that my future here lies in being more of a CTO or Product Manager with someone else (perhaps my new co-founder, or perhaps someone else altogether) at the helm, driving it forward.

Eventually, I see myself stepping out of the company entirely, as I am realistic enough to see that my personality type (and future life goals) are not compatible with growing and sustaining a large, enterprise software company, and I look forward to handing over the reins to someone much more qualified and able.

This is not to say I am losing interest in my startup - far from it. I have never been more passionate and excited to build something that is used and loved by more and more people each day. It is just that I need to be more realistic about what it is going to take for this company to be the success that it deserves to be. So in the meantime, I will enjoy my role in the journey, and I hope I am wise enough (like my old co-founder) to know when I need to take a side step.

SaaS Startup Founders: Are you talking to the right audience?

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I have a confession to make. I am a developer, not a marketer, and in the nearly 4 years that I have been running my startup HR Partner, I have made a ton of mistakes in my ‘go to market’ strategy, and I hope to share a couple of them here with you.

I always naively thought that the coding of my SaaS product would be the hard part, and that the selling part would happen naturally and effortlessly. How wrong I was. In today’s noisy world, with a ton of competitive offerings, getting heard is nearly impossible, and finding people who will like, and more importantly, pay for your offering is painfully difficult.

Probably the biggest mistake we’ve made with our marketing was simply talking and selling to the wrong people. We never really stopped to look at who would be using our product but instead went for the scattergun approach to throw everything at the wall and see what would stick. Let me give you a brief history of what we did.

When I first built HR Partner back around 2016, I decided to release our Beta version to the world via a fanfare splash on the very popular ProductHunt website. It seemed to work, and we actually got hundreds of sign ups out of this one source. “Great!”, I thought - success and endless bags of cash shall now rain down on me.

Wrong. Pretty much 0% of those early signups stuck around. You see, ProductHunt is comprised mainly of programmers, designers and other small startup founders. They are very interested in tech, but have little or no interest in setting up HR policies and procedures, or managing a large team. They signed up purely out of interest sake, but had no reason to actually implement our system at their workplace.

Nevertheless, we doubled down on our failure to learn, and I embarked on a campaign of listing my HR system on various Beta announcement sites such as BetaList. Same results. A flurry of sign ups by curious people, but very little stickiness.

Of course, this spike in signups both times was great for my ego, but I couldn’t see that this was just a vanity metric that did nothing to help us get any real traction.

Next, we went completely broad based, by spending a ton of money on Google Ads. We even worked with a Google consultant to get our keywords and campaign ‘just so’. But while we saw a massive increase in traffic to our website, it didn’t result in many trial signups, and in fact, we got a TON of calls and emails from various employees asking us HR policy and payroll legislation questions! We quickly pulled the plug on this avenue.

At this point, and for the first time in over 6 months of trying, I actually sat down to think about where I was going wrong. It was pretty obvious actually. ProductHunt and BetaList are great sites, but really, they are ideally suited if you have early stage products that are geared to the programmers or designers of this world. Business owners are not renown for adopting concept stage or beta stage software - they want something proven and reliable. Coders and creative people however, are different and can’t wait to try the next shiny thing! We were talking to totally the wrong people.

So I began to think. Who would need HR systems? Well, the obvious answer is “HR Managers”, duh!

Thus began our next marketing push - cold outreach to anyone with the title “HR Manager” on LinkedIn. Initial observations were a mixed bag. We were having some great conversations with a lot of HR Managers on that platform, but very few would actually take the next step and sign up for a trial of HR Partner. It turns out that while these were the right people to talk to, they already had established systems they were happy with, and were not looking to buy.

We were getting closer - the right people, just in the wrong place & time. So how do we get them at the right time? Well, we’ve recently put some marketing effort on business software directories, such as Capterra or G2 Crowd. These are vast directories of SaaS offering that people can go to when, you guessed it, they are evaluating business software that they are thinking of buying.

Now we were getting somewhere. By promoting our offering on these platforms, we started to see a steady uptick of trial sign ups, and more importantly, paying customers.

This is all good news, but there is still so much more learning to be done here. For instance, we are finding that while it is the HR or Operations Managers we are mainly talking to, the actual buying decision is usually made by a different person in the chain.

HR Managers are coming to us with a specific set of problems - for example they may be drowning in paperwork or having trouble keeping employee qualifications and training up to date. Whereas the business owner may have a different set of issues they want solved, such as high turnover, or the high cost of recruiting new employees.

This means that we needed to address both areas. When talking to the HR Manager, we would focus on the problems they were experiencing, but when the decision went back up the line to the person who would sign off on the new software, we had to start from scratch and provide solutions for a whole different set of problems. We essentially had to sell our system twice, to practically two different audiences.

Did I say two? We actually discovered that we had a third audience that we had to sell to. These were the actual employees themselves within the organisations who bought HR Partner. Any great HR software is just going to languish if the employees don’t feel comfortable using it. All that the employees wanted to know was - how do I find out how many days leave I have available? How can I request some time off expediently? How can I find the contact email of another employee in a remote office? etc. A totally different set of problems and expectations than the other two audiences we had been dealing with!

Thus we refined our sales and marketing processes to deal with these three distinct audiences that our product had. Sure it is a lot harder to do, and is time consuming, but it has resulted in a far more effective and predictable process now - just by understanding who our audience was, and in our case, who our multiple audiences were that we had to talk to, understand, and solve problems for.

We are still learning and improving, and I am interested in hearing more from other startup founders and business owners out there. How did you find your real audience?

This article was originally written for the Catalysr Blog. I was a member of the Catalysr C18 cohort for migrapreneurs, an experience which was awesome and extremely beneficial to me and my startup. Find out more about them at catalysr.com.au.

Learning the Shakuhachi

Many years ago, I had read the graphic novel "Usagi Yojimbo" by Stan Sakai.  It is a story about an anthropomorphic rabbit called Miyamoto Usagi and his travels and adventures around ancient Japan.

In one of those adventures, Usagi comes across a Komuso monk ("monk of emptiness") who played the Shakuhachi flute.  From that moment on, I was fascinated with this instrument.  In the story, the monk explains to Usagi that the flute was a way of meditating, and trying to copy the music of nature.

I had been thinking of getting one of these, but when I researched online, I noticed that the best flutemakers around charged approximately $2000 up to $5000 for a hand made flute.  But a couple of weeks ago, I was doing another search and I came across Perry Yung's website, where he explains more about the flutes, and also where he sells a range of flutes from beginner 'Earth' models for around $150 right up to the high end ones, that take a year to make and are worth $2000+.

I decided to order an Earth model from Perry, and he was great during the initial contact and enquiry.  He even made a short demo video for me of the Earth model flute that he had.  I decided to go ahead, and Perry finished binding the flute for me, as well as applying a coat of traditional lacquer to protect it.

It arrived earlier this week, and I was as excited as a kid at Christmas.

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This is a 1.8 flute, and tuned to 'C'.  The flute plays the pentatonic scale, and by breath control, you can achieve two octaves.

One thing I've discovered, is that it is not easy to play the Shakuhachi.  There is a lot of work to do with positioning the flute, as well as my breathing, in order to get the proper sound.  After about 10 minutes of playing, I am quite light headed and giddy from the breathing, which I think is a GOOD thing, because I've noticed recently that my sedentary work style has lead to very shallow breathing and a general level of unfitness.

Perry included a great CD and booklet with the flute, which will hopefully help me along my journey.  This is an instrument best taught by a teacher, but alas there are none in Darwin, so I will have to soldier through with Youtube videos and the book/CD set.

 

Modifying My Strat

Now for something a little different - a photo essay about a recent electronics upgrade I did to my Fender USA Stratocaster this week,

Basically, I think someone slammed another guitar into my volume knob at a gig or something, and the knob got jammed tight.  I actually stripped the knurls on the inside of the volume knob trying to turn it, and the knob just fell off.

While looking for replacement pots online, I came across the Emerson 'drop in' kit for quickly converting your Strat to have a Blender pot instead of a second tone pot.  I thought "Why Not?" and spent the AUD$90 odd dollars to grab one off eBay.

My Strat is just a USA Standard one, with Lollar "Dirty Blonde" pickups that I installed a couple of years ago.  It is also wired in the "Eric Johnson" style, with no tone control on the middle pickup.

For those who don't know - the Blender pot essentially allows you to gradually 'blend' in either the neck or the bridge pickup in with the other pickups.  So, YES, you CAN have all three pickups at once if you like, or just the bridge AND neck if you wanted to.

Basically, the second tone pot is the 'blend' pot.  When you have the bridge or bridge+middle pickup selected, it controls how much of the neck pickup is added to the selection.  Conversely, when you have the neck or neck+middle pickup selected, it controls how much bridge pickup is added in.

Seeing as I am a software guy, not hardware, I thought I would get some hired help to install this kit.

Now it was time to look at the plans, and to think about how we would go about the whole installation process...

Once the pickguard was off, it was time to dismantle the components, such as the pots, input jack, and to desolder some of the old pickup wires before re-soldering the new ones on...


This kit lives up to it's namesake.  It is quite literally a 'drop in' replacement for the original pots.  We only needed to desolder the 3 pickup leads, the input jack leads, and the two ground wires attached to the pickup cavity and trem claw.

Once the new kit was in, it was a simple task to resolder those on again.  At times it was a bit stressful handling hot soldering irons around the guitar finish, but we managed to do it.

I DID manage to forget soldering on the ground lead to the trem claw, but that was easily resolved.

Then it was time to put everything back together again.  Remember the stripped Volume knob issue?  I got Spidey to wrap some plumbers tape around the Volume knob shaft so that the stripped knob could grab on tightly.

Job Is DONE !!!

Job Is DONE !!!

While the strings were off, I decided to give the frets a bit of a dressing and polishing...

I wrote a full review of the kit over at ToneCrowd.com.