Startup Death March… Fu*k Me!

It’s the dream of every internet startup founder to sell their company for millions of dollars.

But not everyone can make a quick buck like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg or the investors of Instagram who recouped enormous amounts of money on their original investments.

As startup Founders, we are constantly focused on making sure our fledgling companies have enough runway to grow. We believe that if the company’s bank account runs out, the company goes bankrupt and it’s game over.

But that’s not always true. It’s often not until your personal bank account runs to zero that your startup is truly done for.

The fact is that startups don’t truly go bankrupt until their Founders go bankrupt. The problem is that Founders are often so focused on the startup’s finances that they overlook their own ability to stay afloat in the process. I call this the “death march,” or the amount of time that you can stay alive and fed, regardless of the health of your business.

I learned about the death march when I started my first company, which went from a humble launch out of my apartment, to fancy new offices, to a very humble return back to my apartment.
I realized, by moving the operation back to my apartment and drastically cutting costs, I could keep myself going indefinitely– from that position, I could take time to rebuild the company. It wasn’t fun, but it taught me that if I could keep the death march extended, I could still move my business forward.
The death march is critical to the success of your business. It may be noble to forgo all personal income in order to help your business, but it will crush you in the end. Your business can go a month without any activity; you can’t go a month without eating.

As long as you’re still eating, you have the ability to operate the business. You can still talk to customers, investors, and the press. You can still get up every day and keep the spirit of the business alive, albeit in a reduced form.

That matters in a startup, because there are often times when the business is a fraction of what it should be, but it’s at least around long enough to blossom again. Your understanding that there could be a day when your business may walk the death march is often the core of your business’s health.  I write this because a realistic understanding that it can all go away makes you think strategically day in day out.

There’s nothing that says that the income you rely on has to come from your actual startup. Founders use all kinds of methods to keep themselves fed while keeping their businesses alive.
One of my favorite recollections comes from venture capitalist Fred Wilson, who tells the story of the Founders of Airbnb getting really creative to maintain their personal runway.

During the 2008 presidential elections, the Founders of Airbnb went to the Democratic National Convention in Denver to raise money by selling boxes of “Obama O’s” and “Cap’n McCains” for $40 apiece. They raised $25,000 in short order. The boxes that they didn’t sell, they ate in order to save money on food.

That anecdote comes from a company that has since raised over $1Billion (ha I really don’t know but it helps my point) in funding. They got creative. They sensed the death march and realized they needed to do something to keep the company alive– doing whatever you need to do to keep the lights on personally – including eating your own product – so that your business can live to see another day. Nice!

Avoiding the death march may mean consulting on the side, working a part time job, or reducing your expenses drastically.

The longer you can keep yourself fed, the longer you have to figure out how to solve those problems. It’s OK that you are the only employee during this time. It’s not always ideal, but it means someone is still at the wheel long enough to figure out the next step. 

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 App Business

What makes a successful mobile app? What factors increase conversion on mobile?

There are a lot of little factors that build up to a really successful mobile app, but the most important aspect to focus on is the user. The app stores have done a great job of creating transparency between the users and the brands, communicating the customer’s wants and needs to app developers. At SurveyStud, Inc, we may represent the brands when we are creating their app, but it’s ultimately the brand’s responsibility to understand their customer and determine how they can provide value to that customer. More than any other platform, mobile is a highly consumable channel, so brands are missing out if they are not giving their user the best mobile experience.

Creating a native experience that is separate from the mobile site is one of the best ways to ensure conversion. Among the brands that embrace native mobile, we consistently see their apps having 2-5x the per-user conversion rate compared to the accompanying mobile sites. However, this is not to say that apps are superior in importance. They don’t work against each other, but rather serve a different audience. Mobile sites are for the casual or unfamiliar customer, while apps are for the most loyal customers and those looking for a more convenient or personal way to interact with a brand. Brands that mimic or frame the mobile site and call it an app are not satisfying the desire of those key users.

Conversion factors for customers

 Additionally, it’s important to use what the device and software gives you. A common misconception in the mobile world is that you have to create these crazy features and do something that’s never been done before, but the success truly comes from the actual products. If you understand that your products are your bread and butter, this platform will offer the best and fastest way for your customer to consume your products. In the end, don’t dilute the content in any way, stick to the basics, give the customers what they need and create a beautiful native experience.

In order for a mobile app to truly succeed, you must have a customer engagement strategy in place. Be sure that every new user fully understand the value of your app with a comprehensive onboarding strategy. Focus on keeping your users engaged with your app with personalized push notifications. When users truly enjoy engaging with your app, it will be successful.

 At SurveyStud, we are always trying to gather user feedback and improve the app experience, but at the same time, we want to be exploring new variations and better ways of doing things. This is where our growth team comes in. The team will gather feedback from user interviews, the app store, and feedback forms on the app, as well as track press reports and compile analytics on what people tend to use the most. Every week, they take all of that information and turn it into real features and functionalities that users are demanding. The road to validation is much faster this way because we are following a user need, and the risk of failure is much lower. Additionally, by following the guidelines that Apple and Android provide to us, we can give the users something they understand and are familiar with, rather than trying to be too unique and creating an experience they won’t like.

 Push notifications are one great way to personally communicate with customers in a manner that can’t be duplicated on a desktop. Push is therefore one of the best ways to retain customers and increase loyalty, and brands who aren’t using push will notice their app usage declining over time. With m-commerce, we always have to continue to personalize and communicate with the user. 

What advice do you have for companies thinking about creating a mobile app?

My advice for companies is to give their app the time it really deserves and to never treat it as something that can be launched and then forgotten. This is a tool that is going to build relationships and engagement with customers in a deeper way than ever before, and it’s the most important tool you have to show how much you care about your customers. A mobile or desktop site can pass as being a generic, identical experience for every user, but when the app is not personalized to them, they take notice and stop coming back. Take your app seriously and be ready to learn how to improve every day.

It’s an extremely exciting time to be a part of the mobile space. The app market is growing rapidly, new tools and innovations are being created every day, and more and more users are discovering the brilliance of today’s smartphones. If your company has ever considered developing a mobile app in order to grow your brand and engage with your loyal customers, now is certainly the time to start. You won’t regret it.

Eye of an Investor: Know This!

The question reminds me that most of the web buzz around investment is about what happens with high-tech and high-growth angel and venture capital investment. That, however, is a very small subset at the very top of the investment pyramid. There’s not enough information floating around about what investment looks like for the rest of the world.

So here’s a simple primer on the basics of business investment for startups:

1. Everything in startups is on a case-by-case basis. The things I discuss in this post are generally true, but there are always exceptions.

2. Investment normally implies ownership. The hypothetical $50K investment would buy a percentage of ownership in your company.

3. How much ownership the investment is worth is determined by dividing the amount of the investment by the value of the company. A $50K investment buys 50 percent ownership of a company worth $100K, 20 percent ownership of a company worth $250K, and 5 percent ownership of a company worth $1 million.

4. There are laws governing who can invest and how you can seek investment in your company. Make sure you check with an attorney on this. The terms “friends and family” and “angel investment” are legally significant.

5. Standard startup investment gets a return only when the startup company generates actual liquid money for its owners by selling its shares. Since it’s all case-by-case, you could offer investors dividends or some other drip compensation, but that’s not the standard. The standard is that the investors make their money when they can sell their ownership shares for a whole lot more than the $50K that they originally invested. Angel investors want to believe that their investment can grow 10x or even 100x in 3-5 years, because investing in startups is very risky and therefore angel investors must get a very high rate of return on a successful investment to make up for the losses they incur with startup failures.

6. Return relates to risk. If you have a low-tech, low-growth business, maybe you can attract friend and family investors who will be satisfied with an annual dividend or something similar (and small). That’s unusual.

7. Always compare the investment in your company to what the investor would get with much less risky investments like certificates of deposit or mutual funds. All startups are risky. Investors should expect a higher payoff.

8. Sometimes people invest in a startup for non-monetary reasons, like family support.

So what is the answer to that specific question about the $50K investment? I can’t answer without knowing what the company is, to evaluate its growth prospects, chance of eventual exit, and so forth. But it starts with the assumption that the investment will mean selling a share of your company.

Bootstrapping a Tech Company

Here’s why I think bootstrapping is the best thing a young startup can do.

You see, bootstrapping your early stage startup doesn’t preclude the possibility of you raising funding in the future. For example after having validated a market and grown to your first 1000 customers, perhaps you’ll want to accelerate growth and raise funding to grow to 100,000 customers. That’s a path many bootstrapped companies have taken. Your conversations and resultant deal terms are going to be significantly better having bootstrapped to 1000 customers, than running round town having investor meetings with 0 customers to your name.

So below are a few things I’ve learned, and some I simply copied or plagiarized (sorry guys) from others.

So my thoughts (again some plagiarized) on why bootstrapping is a smart move:

1. You are forced to focus on revenue

You don’t have a fat chunk of funding in the company bank account providing a year or more of runway. You only have a meager personal cash injection from your own savings.

2. You don’t waste time raising funding

Every minute you spend talking to investors is a minute that you could be improving your product. Realistically you’ll need 50 meetings to get interest from 5 investors which potentially could result in a single term sheet or a gain of 20% or  loss of 80% productivity.

3. You don’t answer to anyone

Giving up equity to an investor in exchange for cash is not a one-time transaction. A relationship is formed that will last as long as your company lasts. In other words it can be a lot like having a boss again. If you became an entrepreneur to be your own boss, raising large amounts of funding effectively puts an end to that.

4.You learn the value of money faster

When you don’t have a chunk of funding sitting in the bank account, you spend money more frugally. In general I think this is a positive trait to cultivate as an entrepreneur. The opposite is extremely detrimental; frivolous spending on fancy office space / furniture / toys etc. Not all funded startups are guilty of this of course, but funding does enable this behavior.

5. Early stage investing is rife with dubious characters

Be wary of any accelerator whose only real business creds are that they have built an accelerator. Although some good accelerators exist, my opinion of many is that they are a meta-startup whose customer is you, the startup entrepreneur. 

6. You are free to grow organically

If you’re doing what you love, your company is paying all the bills, growing nicely and has lots of fanatical customers you’re doing pretty well right? Wrong. If you’ve taken funding your investors will want to see exponential growth. Your company growing “nicely” will not deliver them the return that their limited partners expect. A good example of is Twitter.  It’s reported they have 350 million users, yet their investors are pushing for them to figure out how to grow the company.  Trust me you don’t want this type of pressure.

7. You learn what really matters

I’m a developer. But I hate conversations about what “stack” I’m using. I love programming because it is a means to an end – creating a product that customers love. I’m not the kind of tech guy who experiments with new stuff for the sake of it. I view tech through the lens of customer benefits – can a piece of technology improve customer experience somehow (e.g. make the app run faster etc)? If so, great – I’ll check it out. If no, but it’s whizzy and new – I’ll pass thanks.
In my mind bootstrapping forces you to take this view. There’s simply no time to experiment with things that don’t immediately deliver increases in customer value.

8. You’re in good company

Bootstrappers tend to gravitate towards other bootstrappers. This will reveal a previously invisible subculture of folks running successful businesses, killing it, and just enjoying life. No media circus, no questionable value propositions, no mysteries as to how they make money (they have customers who pay them) – just a group of people who found a market niche and are delivering value in that niche.

9. You work on something that truly interests you

With funded startups often founders get into business purely because there’s a big opportunity. Some growing market in need of a solution. Or perhaps a model is copied from a successful startup in a foreign market, and executed in a home market. Personally I can’t imagine working on a problem that I am less than fanatical about solving. I can’t imagine coming into work every day trying to solve a problem that is alien to me just because of a potential pot of gold waiting somewhere. That’s not why I’m running a business.

10. You increase your leverage for future fundraising

They say the best conditions to raise funding are when you don’t need it. If investors want to invest in your company when you’re bootstrapped, profitable and growing – you have all the leverage. You can name your terms and walk away from the deal if you aren’t happy. There will be other interested investors.

Overall hopefully this information has helped in some form or another.  Again these are not 100% my thoughts.

George T. Reynolds
Founder/Senior Partner
SurveyStud, Inc

p.s…. To all the people I gathered info from to write this thanks

Black Tech, Inc: SurveyStud, Inc

I read a stat that reads, 1 in 18 or .06% of executives of tech firms are African-American or Latino. After reading the stat I was completely floored thus I set out to speak with a minority owned tech startup.
Meet George T. Reynolds, Founder/Senior Partner, SurveyStud, Inc. a cloud-based software company located in Houston, Texas.

George what’s the significance of the name “SurveyStud”?

When I decided to open a survey company, I knew it had to stand out, not only in productivity but in name. So the first name I thought of was SurveyStud. Checked online and it was available.

How does the software work?

The software is available in the App store with four primary componets: 1) Its strictly designed for mobile phones, 2) user registeration is not required to use the service [somewhat like using Youtube], 3) analytics are captured and synthesized, and 4) the ability to send the data as its happening via text.

Its no secret that women, and minorities are badly underrepresented in the tech world. What are your thoughts on the subject?

There is absolutly an under-representation, and we are trying to do our part within the walls of SurveyStud to correct this misfortune. I feel the system is out of balance.

Exactly how are you trying to correct this?

It’s an issue that people within SurveyStud, Inc. are trying to figure out right now. There’s been a lot of conversation around contributing factors that suggest we as an industry do not have an open door policy to talent. The industry tends to look for people from specific schools, with a speicifc gpa, when intruth thats not what I want. I need a person that can code their but off, and think outside the box–not a potentially snobby MBA. Note there is nothing wrong with education because I have it. But what I’m saying talent-is-talent, and whatever package it presents itself in, if I can use it, I want it. I want/need to invest in people that can get on first base–a strong gpa does not scream auto-success to me. HOWEVER, a successful product, and or history screams you know what you’re doing. SurveyStud, Inc needs sharp and successful people, and I want to invest in them in every sense of the word.

What inspired SurveyStud, Inc.?

I worked at NASAs, Johnson Space Center for a couple of years, and during this time, I saw a lot of very creative interns or co-ops. Well there was this one co-op that asked me why am I not the CEO of my own company. That question haunted me for 3yrs, until I took a leap of faith.

What about the question haunted you?

In my heart, I knew that person’s observation of me had some merit. I have all the tools, experience, and the drive yet, I was working for a company that could replace me in a heart beat. I was conditioned to work for someone else (go to school, get married, and get a good job), so the thought of working for myself was out of the question!

You obviously put a lot of time and effort into SurveyStud, Inc. What is the most important thing you have learned to date?

At SurveyStud, Inc. I don’t strive to be a leader, I strive to make an impact via my leadership. The emphasis on self-knowledge, accountability and trust, and the message that those things should not be optional or afterthoughts, are core parts of success for this company.

Your final thoughts: Women are poorly represented in tech, yet SurveyStud, Inc for whatever reason seems to understand this, and is trying to make a difference. Why?

I have daughters, and I understand how unforgiving the world can be. So I figure if change is to come… why not start with me, and my company. As the lifecycle of SurveyStud happens, meaning people will come and go, hopefully they will take our commitment to diversity with them.

Hot Startups: SurveyStud, Inc

It takes a passionate and driven individual to be an entrepreneur, but what happens after the company is launched? How does an entrepreneur go from an idea to building a long-term successful company? In this series we will dive into the mechanics of growth, strategies, and successes from a rising star: George T. Reynolds, Founder/Senior Partner of SurveyStud, Inc. a Houston, Texas based software company.


George if you could describe SurveyStud,Inc in one sentence?

GT: Data and Analytics driven.

What inspired you to start SurveyStud, Inc.?

GT: I think it was through a series of misfortune events which made me self reflect. I have 3 college degrees, 2 college certs, and 3 professional certs, so I asked myself why are you working for someone else. A vision was born–not sure what it was going to be, but I knew I had to make a move. So short of the long, I had a project, and I used the leading survey software in the industry, and it was to complicated for me, so I created SurveyStud,Inc.  

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned through the process of starting a company?

GT: Always think bigger. Take SurveyStud for example, when we started we were thinking about helping mom and pop stores–not companies, but stores.  In the process we failed often. Looking back success only comes after failing. So if I could leave you with anything…. get out there and fail fast. The more you fail the more you learn and grow from the failure if you’re paying attention.

More so I think you have to challenge yourself to always think bigger than your initial expectations – it will impact decisions you make regarding positioning, operations, product architecture, etc. My recommendation is always say to yourself, if this does not work then what? If it does work then what?

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs looking to start a company?

GT: Ask yourself why you want to start a company in the first place. I actually try to deter people from starting a company if they can’t truly answer that question. A lot of folks come out of business school and can be intrigued by the “glitz, glamour, and money.”  This mentality often causes first-time entrepreneurs to fail. Successful entrepreneurs are driven by a burning desire, obsession even, to solve a problem. If you don’t have that, don’t start a company. Building a company can be rewarding if you have that drive and obsession, but it isn’t glamorous and it is anything but easy.

SurveyStud, Inc has experienced a tremendous amount of growth? What’s your secret?

GT: Overall, it comes down to a lot of hard work, passion and focus, but three things do stand out. First, we have been diligent on hiring exceptional people and never compromising on talent. Second, we are very metrics driven. Whether it’s sales, operations or marketing, we make our decisions based on metrics. It forces us to be really ruthless with our priorities and keeps us on path to drive aggressively towards our goals, continuously monitoring as we go. Last, it has been the restraint to not chase every opportunity. We determine what we want to pursue and hunt it down.

Who inspires you?

GT: First and foremost my passion and belief in Jesus Christ. I admire the stories built around him; I feel they are open, fair and fosters innovation. For me Christ is a good example of a true creative entrepreneur who has built an innovative, market dominating belief while promoting a positive culture and a way to live–I call it harmony. I aspire to that with SurveyStud.

What was the best/most useful business book?

GT: I think it’s called “Nuts” by Herb Keller founder of Southwest Airlines. I wrote a paper on the company while in grad school, and it’s a great book about understanding what motivates people.

What do you do for fun?

GT: There is so much.  Lets pass on this question please. Wait, wait, I play video games–war, and or combat video games.

Has that impacted how you run your company?

GT: Yes, I think the basic principles impact my approach to running a business. Gaming is an unprecedented test in patience, determination and focus. But more importantly, it gives me time to reflect. As I mentioned earlier, a committed entrepreneur is often obsessed with their company or project (and I am guilty) but it is just as important to step back once and awhile. I make critical business decisions every day and if I’m in the weeds all of the time–it’s hard to have the clarity and perspective to make the right decisions.

I have found it invaluable to have activities outside of work, i.e…. Family, friends, traveling (non-business), and time to reflect activities where I don’t think about work, hence that separation gives me perspective.

Nerd Tech: SurveyStud, Inc

George T. Reynolds is the Founder / Senior Partner of SurveyStud,Inc. In his role he focuses on technology leadership, product strategy, business development and company culture.  



Nerd Tech (NT): Your prior experience runs the gauntlet, therefore I could argue your experiences are pivotal elements of SurveyStud’s success. As an “all-in-one CRM platform… fundamentally measuring how direct to consumer sales works,” SurveyStud, Inc seems to target a niche audience. What was your inspiration? 

George: Interestingly, the target audience is actually the majority of in-airport sales. The most exciting ventures are those that demonstrably improve the way value is measured (or delivered) at scale in a market. At SurveyStud, Inc, we found that while there were lots of tools available in the market, the notion of an integrated platform remains a novel value proposition in sales, and therefore worthy of pursuit. Again, our inspiration came from having experienced the pain of using tools, as well as being a client in the industry, and we were able to create a clear vision of what life could be like on both sides of the table. Sometimes, grand ideas emerge, and it’s not clear how to be impactful. Inspiration doesn’t follow in those situations.

NT: In addition to business development and product strategy, you also spearhead company culture in your current role. For you, what makes for a positive company culture? 

George: How do you actively foster it within your organization? Company culture has lots of attributes, chief among them are the values that are shared by all employees. Two key values that go far in creating a team atmosphere are embracing challenges together, and being transparent about our efforts (and their successes or failures) as a group. In short, I find that positivity comes from bringing folks together and making sure that they are unified around a common goal.

NT: What has been the most challenging obstacle you’ve faced as a company, and how did you overcome it? Did you take away any insights that are applicable to a universal audience? 

George: The most significant challenges that leaders often face are typically turnarounds or pivots — situations where the company was originally marching north and needs to march west or even south. This presents a challenge either because of the time constraints on executing the change, or because of the changes in resources required to achieve the new business goals. 

In terms of insights, I’ve found that pivots and the change management that go along with them require a culture that habitually shares objectives and key results, recognizes and celebrates healthy behaviors, and practices making business cases for initiatives. I’ve frequently found that contributors need guidance on how to work backwards from business objectives and goals, and the training that goes along with that is what empowers contributors with healthy autonomy and self-organization skills.

NT: In what ways do you feel that your prior experiences in digital strategy and UX prepared you for this venture? Were any experiences particularly formative? 

George: I think the time spent funding my own businesses in years past was of the greatest help. In particular, helping other scaling businesses with marketing, product strategy and engineering were of the most utility. 

NT: In addition to business development and product strategy, you also spearhead company culture in your current role. For you, what makes for a positive company culture? How do you actively foster it within SurveyStud? 

George: Company culture has lots of attributes, chief among them are the values that are shared by all employees. Two key values that go far in creating a team atmosphere are embracing challenges together, and being transparent about our efforts (and their successes or failures) as a group. In short, I find that positivity comes from bringing folks together and making sure that they are unified around a common goal.

George T. Reynolds, Founder / Senior Partner, SurveyStud, Inc

As the Founder / Senior Partner of SurveyStud, Inc., I’m always searching for ways to improve the company, and make people aware of the value-add SurveyStud, Inc brings to the table BUT… I often fail to share who I am, and what drives me.  So below are a few fun facts about me:

I met a crew member of the Enola Gay, which dropped the Atomic Bomb on the city of Hiroshima during World War II; met an actual Nazi from Adolf Hitler’s regime; seen the lost cities of Ancient Rome; stood inside of Neuschwanstein Castle–inspiration for the Disney Castle; toured the smallest country in the world (Liechtensteiner) population 35k;) hiked a portion of the Alps; two of my friends fathers received the Congressional Medal of Honor Posthumously; an additional friend’s dad flew Marine Corp 1 for the President of The United States; graduated top 1% in graduate school.  I’m a decorated military veteran; raised my children as a single parent, and I’m also the founder of the mini-gumball (An annual 6-day / 3000 mile automobile race across America.)
This is a small snap shot into my reality.

George

SurveyStud, Inc

SurveyStud, Inc, a cloud-based survey company founded in 2015. SurveyStud, Inc provides smart phone based surveys, as well as a suite of back-end programs that include data analysis, sample selection, and data representation tools. 

In addition to providing free and paid plans for individual users, SurveyStud, Inc offers large-scale enterprise options for companies interested in data analysis.
Since releasing its business-focused enterprise in 2015, SurveyStud, Inc has grown dramatically, thus in 2016 the company positioned it’s headquarters in Houston, Texas