A start-up plan for librarians (and others)

I spent the weekend at StartNorfolk 3, a three-day business plan competition where a panel of judges award seed money to the most viable start-up. It began Friday night, when we saw about 45 people make one-minute pitches, describing their idea, explaining the problem it would solve and whom they will solve the problem for. 

From those pitches, the judges (along with audience votes)  whittled the group down to 12 teams making the final round. Those dozen groups could then use the rest of the participants to build their team -- developers, marketers, business folks, brand people -- to hone and fine-tune their idea throughout the weekend. On Sunday evening, the groups reconvened and presented five-minute spiels outlining their business plan with PowerPoint (or whatever other props) in front of the judges, who were then allowed three minutes of Q&A. 

Not your father's business class
The whole weekend was described to me as a hackathon built around business ideas. The work that took place between the beery Friday night and the bleary-eyed Sunday evening was immense.  A Start competition is a great place to meet other people and test-out ideas -- all within an artificial deadline that attempts to force creative thinking and out-of-the-box solutions. (Or for the cynical: off-the-cuff thinking and throw-it-against-the-wall solutions.) 

While the end process was a five-minute pitch, this is not a place where you wave around business plans and white papers. The ethos was placed far more on doing something, anything to get a business ready to sell products. (One group was making international sales calls on Sunday morning.) 

Even the one Venture Capitalist in the room scoffed at the term "marketing strategy." 

His name is Paul Singh, a partner at 500 Start Ups, and in his keynote address, explained what he was looking for in a good new business:  

  • Does it tackle a problem for a specific customer?
  • Is it primarily an internet-based distribution model?
  • Does it have simple revenue models? Either transactions, subscriptions or a hybrid.
  • Does it have a functional prototype? (Meaning: Is it already built?)

The most important any start up should be doing is acquiring customers, Singh said. And if there's any takeaway from the Librarians and media people in the room, that should be it. 

Find customers and move product
Thus, the basic premise of StartNorfolk was very simple: Get a product out the door, try to attract customers, and learn from your mistakes so you can move on. Librarians have been talking about the Start Up model in one form or another for some time now, and it's easy to see why. 

Here's what else was pertinent to information professionals. 

Don't worry about money -- or imperfect designs or the color of the buttons or whatever. Most people are good enough at building unscalable walls to prevent them from getting projects off the ground. Blaming the lack of money or time (or buttons) doesn't cut it. Just get a  product out the door. (And, if you don't have an idea, said Kristin Fitch, President/CEO of ZiggityZoom, a local education publisher, you're simply not being creative enough. ) 

Because you can always: Iterate. Iterate. Iterate. You'll never get everything perfect. Release the simple product and start finding customers. If you can't find customers, there's something wrong with the product or your model. The good thing is you have time to fix it. Failing early insures you have time and money to make adjustments, says Fitch of ZiggityZoom. Waiting to get the perfect product out the door could take precious time and money. And then what happens if that product fails? 

Make your product simple for your customers and cut down on the number of features and functions, said Byron Morgan, founder of Vinylmint, a cloud-based collaboration space for musicians. That will allow you to move quickly and develop faster, get the new product out and get ready to change again. A six-month (say) development cycle is going to put you too far behind when you get finished. 

This is tied to the big question that media people must face: What is coming next? The weekend was full of ideas for mobile apps -- perhaps it was the young demographic in the crowd -- but we have to think of new ways to reach people. There's too many apps, and people can't find the good ones, anyway, Fitch said.  So it's a good time to worry about how you're going to get your service or content to people differently. Start thinking about new distribution methods

Morgan of Vinylmint said while you strive to get product out the door, you still have to have (at the very least) a plan. Cash and time are finite, he says, and they'll disappear without a plan. That plan can be changed -- in fact, it should be changed if something's not working. But you have to remain focused and go with what works. When you have to pivot -- Morgan's term -- it's probably best to keep the customers involved. Let them know you've failed, and let them help you get back on track, he said. 

 In fact, Singh of 500 Start Ups said one method he goes about finding businesses to invest in is to look at the process. Sometimes the results aren't quite there yet, but if the process is good, the results will generally come. Good results without a process? The luck tends to run out.