9 Lessons from Speek
Prior to starting Speek we had all spent way too many hours on conference calls. We have the stories to back it up - Prior to starting Speek we had all spent way too many hours on conference calls. We have the stories to back it up -
Virginia, our Product Manager, was once on a conference call while driving. She thought the phone was on mute. It was not on mute. Another driver cut her off and she went on a 3 minute tirade that would have made a sailor cringe. She's not a very good driver.
John, our CEO, is a loud chewer. In his AOL days the other conference call attendees say they could call out the type of potato chips he was eating - Lays or Frito Lay. Now we can see when he's on a call and mute him before his chewing does any real damage.
Danny, our CTO, spent 3 years as an executive at a 100 year old, beauracratic, education non-profit. They used to invite 30 people at a time to have conference calls about conference calls. As annoying as this was what really ticked him off was never knowing who was talking (well, that and the TPS reports). He has tattoos though so no one makes fun of him for working there.
Needless to say, we've seen things. Lots of things. We finally decided that it was time to put a stop to one of life's most prevalent evils - the conference bridge.
We decided to create a better way to do conference calls. With Speek you use a simple link (like speek.com/danny) rather than a phone number and PIN to do conference calls. Not only is it easier to get on a conference call but once you're on you can do lots of cool things like see who's talking, see people's LinkedIn and social networks, add/drop/mute callers and much more.
Here are some lessons we've learned thus far:
Focus on one thing at a time
It's very easy to try and do too much. Get press, go viral, acquire users, add new features, do some split tests, and so on - it can cause Entrepreneur A.D.D. We've learned to focus. Every week we focus on achieving the most important that moves the ball forward for Speek. For example, this week we are focused on coming up with an analysis of our current active users so that we can start finding more people that fit that mold (i.e. product / market fit). Next week it is "all hands on deck" scouring our app for bugs and usability issues since we're starting to gain significant traction and want to maintain a great experience for our users.
Launch softly but get out there early
It seems like we are starting to regress in how products launch. I remember in the 90's when everyone wanted to do these big bang launches with PR (ugggh) and parties. Then, in the 2000's, people started getting smarter and companies like 37 Signals made it a common practice to roll your product out slowly and to iterate. I sense that we are starting to devolve and we are starting to see companies with a minimum viable product out there holding celebrity launch events and getting TechCrunch coverage. Different strokes for different folks I suppose. However this doesn't seem like a healthy trend to me. We did a very brief (under 30 days) closed beta just to work out some of the major kinks and then we opened things up. That seems to be working well for us so far.
Don't compete with features - Get great at that one thing you do better than anyone else
We have a list of 100's of really cool whiz-bang features that Speek could have that would sound really great in marketing material. I don't let these things go near our product backlog. Speek is a new way of doing conference calling. We do one thing and one thing well - provide a great conference calling experience to our users. When we think we come across a new feature, through customer interviews or user testing, we really think long and hard about it. If it's still alive after that then we do really fast and cheap experiments to make darn sure we should build it. Adding new features to your product should not be taken lightly. Each new feature should solve a big, hairy problem and should be validated in the fastest / cheapest way possible.
Play poor not rich (it filters out the riff raff)
The top performers on our team joined Speek before we had a dime in the bank. They took equity in lieu of a paycheck for months until we raised our seed round. John and I were very up-front with everyone we talked to in those early days about the fact that it may be months before they could be paid. We lost some talented people. We gained some even better people. The core of our team would take a bullet for Speek AND they are super talented. That's how you build a great team. If they are in it for a market-level paycheck at this early stage then the person is wrong for you. I don't care how great the resume is.
Your actual technology platform is less important than your access to talent on a given platform - unless you use .NET then I can't help you (I kid)
I see a lot of debate these days about Ruby versus Node or LAMP versus Java. Unless you are doing something so complex and technical (in which case I would question you on validating your assumptions) it probably doesn't matter. The technology stack matters a lot less than your access to talented people on a given platform. Plus, you'll likely swap out portions or entire applications when you start to scale anyway. I would have loved to built Speek's MVP on Ruby on Rails. The problem is that I don't know a single Ruby developer that could/would defer their cushy hourly rate right now. I do know some really good, entrepreneurial, PHP developers though. I also know some really good Node.js developers. We are now starting to scale and those 1 or 2 features that make it past our validation have moved to a Node-centric architecture.
The first year is often an exercise in holding your breath
Many startups fail in the first year simply due to lack of funding. You could have a great product, a great team, and traction and still die. Running super lean and getting a bunch of passionate people who are willing to work for sweat equity is key to stretching a dollar. Raising your seed round will likely take at least twice as long as you expect so be prepared to learn how to hold your breath.
Talk to every single one of your first 1,000 users
Very early on, we had a team member dedicated full-time to reaching out to every user. Her methods weren't always traditional (albeit they were completely legal, we think). As users registered and used Speek, she would experiment with the best way to elicit feedback. For example, she found out one user and her had a close friend in common on Facebook. Using that connection, she reached out to the user and had a great conversation about his Speek experience via Facebook. She once called a user in California, not noticing the time difference. The user groggily gave some useful feedback at what must have been 6AM California time. He either respected her enthusiasm for our product, or to this day may still think he dreamt the entire conversation. Early adopters are generally open to giving their two cents. Reaching out personally to each user is easier than you think.
Do user testing early and often no matter how much it hurts
It's tough to hear how much your product sucks or how hard is it to use when you first start user testing it. We put blood, sweat, and tears into our company and our product and it can sting to hear what's wrong with it. Get over it and start user testing. We use UserTesting.com and do about 2 tests per week. This helps prioritize our product backlog as well as to identify that one big problem to focus on each week.
Never be the smartest girl or guy in the room
As technology entrepreneurs we're all probably vocal, have big ego's, and are used to being the smartest person in the room. It's time to check your ego at the door. You're a fish swimming upstream now. The odds are against you. There's a better chance that your startup will fail than succeed. There are a lot of very smart people who are more than willing to generously give you their valuable time and advise or mentor you. Our seed round of funding was led by 500 Startups. With their monetary investment came access to a community of really smart founders and a team of fantastic mentors. I have had some of the best and brightest minds spend hours going screen by screen through my product and ripping it apart. I personally loved every second of it and our product gets better each time I do it.
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