5 Ways to Test your Startup Idea – Lean

So, you have an idea?  An invention even?  How do you know for sure it is any good? Here is 5 ways you can test your idea without building it first.

1.) create a free website at http://wordpress.com and make 2 pages.  Page 1 describes your idea, and includes a link to Buy Now!  Page 2 says “sorry” out of stock and asks for an email.  Now send everyone you know to the page… And see how many you ‘sell’.
2.) Setup some interviews with people who should really want your product/service.  Ask them about the idea and ask how much they might pay for that…  judge the amount as validation!
3.) Go to a trade show and try to hand out a flier about your idea… Judge people’s reaction and ask them what they think.
4.) Search the web for similar products and especially for  targey customer types actually complaining about the problem your idea solves.  Hear nothing/find nothing…. Probably not good for your idea.
5.) Make a mockup of your idea and stand at a corner where target customers might walk by.  Ask people if they would like to learn and what they would pay for that. 
The key idea is: will your target customer pay for the idea?
Go out and see BEFORE you build it.
Thats lean startup.

Losing your temper in business. The take 5 rule.

I’ve done it.  We’ve all done it.  At some point in your life, you lose  your cool.  You get mad, and you show it ~ sometimes quite visibly.  But what happens when you lose your temper in business?  What can happen?  And what are the long lasting effects of losing your temper in the office?  Here’s my experience and what you can do to avoid or minimize problems when it inevitably does happen to you.

1. I’ve lost my cool numerous times in the office, usually I get red in the face, start to frown dangerously, and get real quiet…. I can tell you from experience, that look usually shuts people down and RARELY does it get beyond this point for me.  Yah, it’s clear I’m mad, but people that have worked for me know that I’ll cool down in a few minutes… especially if….

1.b. The best tactic not to go beyond this point (turning red/ frowning) is to say “let’s take 5” and walk outside or get some water… remember to breathe, and that life is bigger than whatever you are mad at.  After 5 min. you should be cool enough to talk rationally again.

2. Occasionally, even after 5 min., I’m still angry.  Heck, I can still be mad after 2-days, and sitting down with that person again just sparks back up the anger.  I can’t keep “taking 5” constantly.   What to do?

2.b. The best thing to do is to try to take an ‘active listening‘ approach.  This involves starting at the beginning (after a take-5 or when you’re cooled down), asking again about the problem, then most importantly repeating the problem back to the person from their point of view.  They will feel heard and then they will be ready to listen.  Explain your problem.  Ask them to say it back to you.  Then ask them to explain what they want.  Say it back to them.  Tell them what you want.  Ask them to say it back to you.  Now find a solution.. you’ll both be read to figure it out.

3. So… uhoh.  I yelled.  I screamed.  I lost it.   Have I done that?  sure.  Just never let it get physical… more on that later.   All you did was yell… maybe you cursed… What do you do now???

3.b. My best advice is to quickly acknowledge you lost your cool and you need to “take 5”.  The world is not over.  This happens. Has happened to me.  Nothing too terrible is going to happen.  Follow 2.b above, and all will be okay.  After your take 5, acknowledge that you were wrong to yell, but you are still angry, and then move to active listening.

4. So, you got physical?  This has not happened to me.  Hopefully you’ve taken 5, got away from the situation.  In my companies, there is a rule: no-one can refuse or get upset about someone’s need to take 5.  I HAVE seen someone get physical at work 1 time.  I was the manager.

4.b. So, what happens if you get physical at work?   I can tell you what I did. I fired the person, immediately.  On the spot.  No regrets, no 2nd chances.  You get physical at work, you should be fired.  Period.  Hopefully your workplace has a take 5 rule… if not take it yourself.  Getting docked 5 minutes of time is better than being fired.

I hope this blog has left you with some thoughts.. feel free to post them below.  I respond to all comments and questions.

Patent Thoughts for Startups

Patents are an odd thing… if you might have one, it’s valuable.  If you do have one, it’s of little more value than maybe having one.  Writing one is hard.  Getting one is hard.  Using one is nearly useless.  So what should a startup do?

In my 15 years and 21 patents worth of experience, this is what has worked for me.  As with all such thoughts, this is not legal advice, simply my experience; I am not a lawyer.

First, it is cheap and easy to file a provisional patent.  Just got to http://uspto.gov and file it.   Utility Provisional is what you want, and startups can usually pay even less by selecting small business option.  Less than $200 is all you should need.   Write it in plain English, what it is and does, and include at least 1 figure.  Easy-peasy.  Suddenly you get the MOST value out of a patent you can get, but it expires in 1-year so be careful!   During that year, you can say “patent pending” and that’s crucial for startups (sometimes).

Next, don’t bother filing the real (non-provisional) patent unless a.) you have the money [around $10K, because a patent attorney is a must].   AND  b.) either the product is somewhat successful or the patent seems really good to you.  Remember, you have 1 year to file it, and must reference the provisional… or you lose the date of the provisional filing.

Last, why bother?

Because, saying patent pending is good marketing (usually).  Also because investors like it.   After you are funded, they will like it if you keep building up your actual patent portfolio (of real patents, not provisional patents).

Now, get out there and LAUNCH a real product, stop worrying about patents, just write your own provisional and move on!  It won’t matter unless your product is a success anyway!

CES 2015 Marketing Fails (World’s Best!)

I greatly enjoyed CES 2015… Perhaps most of all, the startup corridore (some of which was sponsored by indiegogo.com ).  However startups, big and small, seemed to fail at several key marketing elements.  Here are some of my favorite marketing fails from CES 2015.

1.) Worlds First:   Several startups made this claim proudly on banners, some of which not more than 100 feet from a similar product, also the worlds first.
Why a marketing fail?  Not what you think… Its not the claim itself that fails (maybe its true, maybe not). The problem is WHO CARES!  Marketers must train themselves to think from the customer point of view….   And tell them the benefit of your product, from their perspective, not a useless claim!
2.). World’s “whatever” (smartest, best, smallest, whatever).
Why a marketing fail?   This one is the reason you think…  How can you verify this claim?  Unless it is self-evident, you cannot back it up.   And anyways, its not from the customers perspective… so again, who cares!
  Can you find the claim?
3.) No Idea What You Do…   Too much clutter!
Why a marketing fail?  This is the most common problem.   I just want to scan your booth and see what you do or make or your product… If I cant figure that out in 5 secs, i am gone.

   What is this selling exactly?

4.) No Goal! No point to even be there!
Why a marketing fail?   If you don’t have a “MEASURABLE GOAL” how can you know if you achieved it (or anything).  I’m not picking on my UT friends, but I’m not sure what it is they are trying to do… maybe looking for partners?  How will they know how many they met?  If I go to a show like this, I would have a specific goal and agenda, and a way to measure it.  Give-aways/raffles are a great way to do this.
What fails did you see at CES this year?

If you build it, they will come. Bad advice? Or maybe good!

The old adage that “if you build it, they will come” is usually considered very bad marketing advice.  In recent times, however, I actually think it has become Good advice, especially if reworded just slightly…

“If you build it, they MIGHT come” is probably some of the best marketing advice I can give.
In this world if lean startup, minimum viable product (MVP) and bootstrapping entrepreneurship, one of the most important things to do is to”ship it” and see if customers come and like it, and iterate quickly based on that feedback.
At Key Ingredient we recently formalized these concepts and declared ourselves an “Agile Company”.
What will you ship this year?
My thought?   See photo I took at CES 2015 below!

Startup Life: When to tell your team… we’re almost out of cash!

Is your startup nearing $0 cash? When do you tell the team?

You are not alone!

Doing a startup is hard.  Whether you are bootstrapping, VC funded, or even backed as an internal skunkworks, you may find that your bank account is getting awfully close to zero.  You are not alone.  Nearly ever startup I’ve ever been a part of has hit this point.  It is scary.  It is stressful.  And what do you do about the team?  Some of them, you know, depend on that regular startup paycheck!

Here’s what you need to know!

  1. Fiduciary Duty: First, you have a duty to your shareholders which is actually very simple: if you are nearing “insufficient cash” to pay your debts (defined as non-investment capital), then you must inform your shareholders (and/or board of directors) very soon.  They may be able to help.  My advice: have a plan in place that shows how much you need, or how you will come through anyways.  Even better: don’t get here… raise more funds before this point.
  2. Duty to Employees:  If there is ANY doubt that you might miss a paycheck… you need to tell people as soon as you have that doubt.  Personally, I like the 1-month left rule… if you will be able to make 1 more months of paychecks, and then no more… it’s time to share the news… REMEMBER TO ALSO share your plan.  Employees will want to know how they can help!  Let them.  Let them help with the fundraising… make slides… etc.  Let them help with sales (the whole company can do sales!).
  3. If it get’s dire… like down to 2 weeks… one thing you might do is ask if any employees can take partial deferred salary.  This is salary, you are asking them to risk, on the hope that you’ll make it through.  100% is not a great idea (unless you are the founder), but I’ve gotten nearly 100% participation in a 50% program in the past… and we made it through!
I hope this helps you know what to do (this time or next time).  Remember, it’s normal, it’s stressful, but you DO need to tell your people.  The best employees will only respect you more for your transparency.  The worst, who quit on you, you don’t need anyways.
Good luck!

Business Use of Patents and Provisional Patents

The raging debate about Patent Trolls and what can and should be patented might lead one to consider, what is the business purpose of a patent?  Particularly if you are a startup (very early stage, perhaps pre-funded) with little cash, little time, and a need for focus, the question of patents, to patent or not, seems to be somewhat common.  This post is a summary of my advice and knowledge on the topic, as I recently provided to a new company called Basedrive who are working on their business plan as part of The University of Texas Longhorn Startup class and program.

Here is my advice…

1. First, don’t be a Patent Troll:

A Patent Troll is someone who patents something with no real intention of building it, so that later they can ‘claim royalties’ or sue big companies for ‘stealing their idea’.  This approach is not something upon which to build a true entrepreneurial business; and such loopholes should be looked on with great skepticism.

2. Don’t do patent searches…

If you are thinking of writing a patent, and are worried if your patent is truly novel or not, you may be tempted to ‘search prior patents’.  DO NOT DO THIS!   You will be required to list all the patents you looked at, and this could taint you or your ideas… further, you WILL likely find something similar.. but it’s not your job to know this, or if yours is “different enough”.

IF YOU THINK IT MIGHT BE UNIQUE, do not search… just move to step 3, below.

3. Decide if $130 (or so) is worth spending or not…
For $130, all in total amount, you can file a provisional patent.  (See Patent Fee Schedule)

So, what would a $130 Provisional Patent buy you for your business?
a.) You can put the words “Patent Pending” on your product.
b.) Investors will see you as ‘better’ than companies without a patent pending.
c.) It can lead to a real patent in the future, with a priority date equal to the date you submitted the patent (or earlier).

The downside?  None.  In order to claim the priority date by means of your provisional patent, you need to file the final patent within 12-months of submitting the provisional; but this is not a bad thing… even if you don’t write the final patent in the 12-months, you can still write the final patent later with no penalty. (just no claim on the provisional).

If you need to buy food, don’t spend the $130… but otherwise, I say do it.. at least for 1 thing!

4. What is Patent-able/What to write?
So, what do you patent?  My best advice is to focus on some implementation detail that you do that helps your product/service be unique.  Got no technology?  Don’t bother writing a Patent (IMHO).

What kind of technology?  Hardware?  Yes.   Software?  Yes.  Both?  Ideal!

Even if your use of the technology is in software, I suggest writing the patent as though the software could be implemented “into a device”… (thus covering both hardware and software).  This might require creative thinking, but it might also get you the patent later!

What do you write for a provisional?  SIMPLE:  Just write in plain English how your technology works, and how it might work in software or hardware.  Simple, plain, English.

You will also need 1 drawing.  1.  not 2.  1.  Simple block diagram is ideal, showing the system.

Now, go to uspto.gov and SUBMIT IT YOURSELF!   No need to pay a lawyer to submit or review a provisional patent.  JUST DO IT!

5. Should you file a final, full patent?

Maybe.  But not yet.  Not until either: a.) you can easily afford the $8,000-10,000 for a lawyer to do it right… or  b.) your business really needs it for some reason [e.g. to increase your stock’s value even more by having full issued patents ].

When you do a final patent… simply get a lawyer to do it.  Simple.   A real patent lawyer.  You don’t want to do a final by yourself.  Just give the lawyer your provisional as a starting place, and off you go!

6. So business value?
Yep.  Provisional = Obvious.  It’ll help you stand out and raise money and look good. (that’s it really).
Final full patents… = Less Obvious.  It MIGHT help you raise more money at a better price, it MIGHT protect you from getting sued [because you could counter-sue], it MIGHT help you go after someone who is infringing on your patent (doubtful)…

So, Provisional = Yes.  Final = Doubtful (IMHO).

So, get to it!

SPIN Selling for Engineers: How to teach Engineers to Sell!

“Wow, that was so cool, it really works!” – University of Texas Engineering Undergraduate

This was the general sentiment this week when I demonstrated the SPIN Selling technique to a group of undergraduates (mostly engineering-types) who are studying entrepreneurship at The University of Texas in the 1 Semester Startup Class (now called Longhorn Startup).  I volunteered to demonstrate the approach on their very first sales call (yes they are really that far along, and I’m so proud of them!  They have overcome the first and second hurdle of entrepreneurship: 1. Selecting a Target Market.  2. Getting over their Fear.).

So what is SPIN Selling?  And why is it a great technique for Engineers?  Read on My Friends!

First, SPIN Selling is a technique originally developed by Neil Rackham.. in his book SPIN Selling.

If you don’t like reading, this site has a nice summary of the book on 1 page: http://wolfram.org/writing/howto/sell/spin_selling.html
However, I’ll also summarize SPIN Selling in my own words below with one major tweak: from the perspective of an Engineer trying to make his/her first sale…
  1. SPIN Selling is great for engineers because it is an easy to understand acronym: S=Situation Questions, P=Problem Questions, I=Implication Questions, N=Need-Payoff Questions
  2. One of the best approaches to sales naturally emerges by “following the process” which, following processes is easy for engineers to do.
    1. This process is one of ‘connecting to the client’, ‘understanding their needs’, and ‘fitting or not fitting your product to satisfy their true needs’….   if you can connect the dots for the prospect: the sale is just a natural thing!
      1. And they’ll want to buy from YOU specifically, not necessarily because your product is superior (a concept Engineers need to not focus on), but because you understand them best, and have built a rapport with them through “the process”.
  3. The Process:
    1. Ask a few “Situation Questions” to get them thinking about their business, not yours: Initially on the call or in the meeting, simply ask how his/her business or life is going and uncover the specifics of their business as it might relate to your product. 
      1. Examples:  How is your business going?  How do you measure success?  What kinds of files do you use?  Who are your clients?  etc.
    2. Ask a few “Problem Questions” until you uncover a problem you might be able to solve: Basically try to uncover what problems they have (not if, we all have problems)..  Focusing on Throughput or Cost (throughput questions are ones of ability to deliver product/service, or inability to get new clients/customers)… cost is cost and headache (mental cost).  Obviously, focus on those areas which your product/service might solve…
      1. Examples: Do you feel you have plenty of clients?  Do you have any major cost problems?  Are you able to fulfill all your orders on time?  What is preventing you from being more successful today?  What gives you the biggest headaches today?
    3. Ask enough “Implication Questions” such that they agree that the problem is serious: Try to get them to see the light that the problem has real consequences.  To understand, for example, that those extra costs are cutting in to margins, which slows growth.  Or that the lack of enough customers means you are wasting resources from under-utilization.
      1. Examples: Do you agree that the lack of customers means you are under-utilizing your fixed resources?  Do you agree that the extra costs you are incurring is hitting your bottom line, and that extra cash you could have had would be useful to help you grow?  Do you agree that your headaches might be making you distracted on other issues?
    4. Ask enough “Need-Payoff Questions” such that they agree a solution has real value.  Need-Payoff sort-of restates the Implication question in such a way that a solution has real value.  Once they agree to real value… then, and ONLY THEN, can you pitch your product/service…. and it will be in their terms…  
      1. Examples: Do you agree that getting rid of that headache would let you be more productive at other more important things?   Do you agree that your increased productivity is worth real value?  In hours per day?  In Dollars per day?  Do you agree that being able to get more customers has real value?  In Dollars per Customer?  Do you agree that reducing costs impacts the bottom line directly?  In real profit dollars?
    5. Now, and only now that they agree there is real value in a potenial solution, are you permitted to pitch your idea… AND ONLY PITCH IT IF YOU CAN GIVE THE PAYOFF (or a part of it) THEY AGREED TO IN STEP 4.  If not, continue with Steps 2-4, until you can or until they hang up!
      1. The pitch should be short, just 3 slides (more on this next time): Benefits, Tech, Price.
      2. Don’t talk to the slides, talk to how YOUR PRODUCT might help solve THEIR PROBLEM… And point back to those NEED-PAYOFF questions you asked.
    6. Finally, Ask a few “Qualifying Questions”, and then “ASK FOR THE SALE”: You need to “flip the conversation” to be more about potentially fitting them to your business….   Now, they need to SELL YOU!
      1. You truly want it to seem like buying your product/service means belonging to an exclusive club.. and only some people are PERMITTED TO BUY!
      2. You questions now are “Qualifying Questions”… here is some good ones:
        1. We want to work with ‘thought leaders’ and ‘early adopters’, how forward-thinking about new stuff is your company?
        2. It is important that we work with companies of just the right size, how big is your business?
        3. We want partners who will become our reference customers, if things we work together to solve your problems, would you be willing to be a reference customer?
        4. Alright… it seems like we might be a good fit… it also seems that OUR PRODUCT/SERVICE will really help SOLVE YOUR PROBLEM and has a REAL DOLLAR IMPACT TO YOUR BUSINESS… 
          1. ASK FOR THE ORDER!!!!
            1. How many units can we sell you today to see how well this works?  or  
            2. What size initial order can you place today to test our ability to deliver?  or
            3. Who in your organization needs to sign off on this deal?
    7. Level Up!
      1. Regardless of the answers to step 6… be sure you try to “level up”.
      2. Often-times in a big sale, it takes many approvals and other folks to help decide.
      3. Leave EACH MEETING with a date/time for the next meeting and try to “level-up” the meeting….  TRY TO ATTEND ANY APPROVAL MEETINGS IN PERSON.
      4. Bring up all you have learned about their problem and the NEED-PAYOFF in REAL DOLLARS! (I hope you took notes).
And that’s it my friends!
Go out and sell!  But remember, only sell IF you can make a real dollar impact… if not, trust me, you don’t want them as a customer…. they won’t be happy, and neither will you.

The Greatest Start-up Book Ever?

I’ve read dozens, maybe almost a hundred books on start-ups.  I’ve loved many of them, but none of them really seemed like ‘science’ to me, more like opinion.  After reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, I now understand what I’ve been missing!  I really do feel like The Lean Startup is the greatest start-up book ever.. and here is why you MUST READ THIS BOOK NOW!

  1. It teaches entrepreneurs the “Scientific Method” for building a startup.
  2. It teaches entrepreneurs the proper ORDER of building a startup.
  3. It teaches INVESTORS the propper criteria to evaluate a startup.
  4. It explains in detail the right time to ‘get funding’ and more importantly ‘spend funding’.
  5. It explains very clearly why so many startups fail.
  6. It has dozens of examples of the process being used successfully.
  7. It truly teaches you about scale-able business models.
  8. It builds a great foundation for managing people and teams in a startup.
  9. It even applies to big organizations that want to be more startup-y.

DO NOT WAIT, get this book now.

The “Tree of Business”

To so many people, business is confusing.  It’s hard to understand, and we fear the unknown.  To the most “daring” among us, we embark on starting and running our own companies (I’m on Startup #2).  When people begin to think about starting this insane ride that is “self-employed”… it may be helpful to think of business as a tree.

First, the most important question:
What kind of business do you want to build?
1. A Tree that grows large and bears regular fruit.  (a for-profit business, but limited in size)
2. A Tree that stays small, and has just enough fruit to feed yourself & family.  (a for-profit business, often called a lifestyle business).
3. A Tree that sprouts many other trees and grows into an orchard or a forest (a huge corporation that someday may IPO – Initial Public Offering).
4. A Tree that gives any excess fruit away to charity (a non-profit)
5. A Tree that you plan to grow quickly, by feeding the tree its own fruit, and then someday sell the tree to someone that is building and orchard or wants to keep the fruit for themself.  (a for-profit business, designed for acquisition).

Knowing what you want out of your business can be extremely helpful in deciding A.) What to do.  and B.) When to feel successful. and C.) How to get your starting soil (investment).

Enjoy your fruit!