Merrimack Analysis Group
Class: 2013 Summer Accelerator
Online identity and security. Seminars for student groups, parent groups, job seekers, and senior citizens that help explain the ins and outs of digital footprint. Proprietary analytic software to review social media profiles. Consulting engagements by request.
Last night, we delivered our final pitch.
Afterwards, at the Beer Works, as we reflected on it, we said that it went as well as we could have hoped it would. The end product hit all the major discussion points that we thought we needed to emphasize, it conveyed the gravity/scope of the problem we're seeking to solve, it tied our personal stories in with our business, and it showed how *real* we are with a map depicting all of the locations in Massachusetts we've lined up so far for work.
But as smooth as things may have appeared on the surface last night, the road to that pitch was a bit rocky.
First, the "dry run" in front of the other entrepreneur teams last week was a C+/B- effort. It didn't help that I was running a 100+ fever that day, but the bigger issue was the content. The thoughtful, heartfelt feedback we got from other teams was that we didn't convey a real sense of what we actually did during that initial run-through. We spent way too much time pre-emptively addressing concerns (i.e. SWOT analysis, statement about 'known unknowns' at the end) and not enough time explaning how our seminars help people, or about how many people in Massachusetts are aware of what we're doing.
One particular bit of feedback really resonated with me: "I came in to this expecting you to win, and you basically just talked me out of it."
That comment impacted me significantly because it came from someone with whom I haven't had much personal interaction during the accelerator, but who revealed her positive overall feelings towards MAG with her words.
Todd and I took the feedback we got from other teams that day, the bullet points we got from David in an e-mail, and our own thoughts about what needed to change...and we set out to make it happen. Even though we were still tweaking slides late Monday night, we knew there would be time for dry-runs during the day, which were a great help.
Just as we did prior to the mid-pitch, we went out to the Notini lot and did a pre-game dry-run out in the open air.
And although we knew that the somewhat unscripted way we were going into the mid-pitch presented a potential liability (clock management), we were saved by the gigantic timer that a fellow accelerator CEO set up in the back of the room.
When I saw the "9:00" marker flash with three full slides left in the deck, I "floored it," so to speak. I kept my pace somewhat measured, but I moved through everything left at a rapid clip so that I could be sure to articulate each element of the ask. As it happened, I completed my very last bullet point on the ask with exactly one second to spare.
The best metaphor I can think of to describe the way all of that came together is a duck -- on the surface, things looked smooth, and we may have appeared to be gliding along, somewhat effortlessly. Out of immediate sight, however, there was some intense paddling going on to make all of that happen, however.
As a result, Todd and I feel as if we ended the formal part of our Accelerator experience on a high note.
I saw a quote the other day that resonated with me quite a bit. Here it is: "The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize." -- Robert Hughes
I've spent a good chunk of the last several months surrounded by students preparing for the GMAT (tutoring is one of my side incomes while I build my business), as well as entrepreneurs, both in b-school and in the Sandbox Accelerator.
I think this quote is pure genius.
No matter how many times you hear self-help gurus and motivational speakers say, "It's all about confidence" I beg to differ -- strongly. Confidence -- along with three quarters, two dimes, and a nickel -- will get anyone a ride on the LRTA from downtown to the train station.
What moves people along is hustle. To borrow from the phraseology of one of today's panelists, someone who sees the end destination -- and can navigate the obstacles in between -- is going to succeed. That's all about the day-to-day grind that brings someone towards their big-picture goal.
Everyone should have an overall sense of confidence (Yes, this is possible...Yes, I can do this) but that's about as much as they need. From there, I'd be more inclined to place my chips on the table closer to the person who's a bit terrified (but instead of being overcome by fear, is moving through a series of tactical steps each day). Someone who is so confident in their product, service, or idea that he/she thinks the world will beat down his/her door is NOT the horse I'd choose.
As a tutor, I see students who get a problem wrong, and then become introspective. Why was it wrong? How can I do it better next time? How can I be sure to get something like this right in the future? They are the ones who tend to do well, at least based on my tiny (but growing) sample size so far.
As hard as this may be to believe, there are other students who get a question wrong but rely on cognitive dissonance to dissuade themselves from ever believing it was wrong in the first place ("Oh yeah, but I meant to choose 'B' for that one"). Those are the ones I worry about.
I had lunch today at Viet Thai with a friend who was an amateur boxer. In his entire career, he told me, he only lost three bouts.
Guess what all those bouts had in common?
Those were the ones in which he didn't come into the ring feeling at least a little bit scared.
During our session today, the subject of video testimonials came up.
I quietly kicked myself a little, because this is something we have talked about, but have not executed on. It provides a tremendous amount of social proof, and also gives us an opportunity to take advantage of the "post-seminar buzz" effect. Typically, immediately following one of our engagements, a certain percentage of attendees stick around afterwards to chat.
They excitedly offer up ideas about places we could go next, introductions they could make, testimonials they could write, etc. And then they leave.
At some point on the way home, they realize they forgot to buy Tide, they need to pay the National Grid bill, and their Aunt Sally's birthday is next week.
And whatever they said just after the seminar stopped being so important.
I've already learned that giving someone my business card is nowhere near as good as getting theirs, in terms of the likelihood of sustained follow-up. Still, even after incorporating that Lesson Learned, I haven't found a way to *capture* that immediate buzz before it dissipates.
Video testimonials, however, might be the answer. I might have to feel out the best way to approach people about this, but at the very least I can give it a shot. I'll start with tomorrow afternoon in Swampscott.
The testimonial(s) do not need to be long. Nor do they need to be technically-sound (my iPhone should do the trick).
Yesterday's class focused on the single-most difficult area for me right now: pricing.
Now that we've demonstrated that we can deliver a product that people demand, we've cleared an important hurdle. However, the next hurdle is an order of magnitude higher -- can we get 'the pricing thing' right?
Our initial sales channels won't allow me to leave any of my current part-time positions, let alone allow my co-founder to leave his full-time position. Many of our initial clients have indicated that they would like to have us return for a fee, but we haven't gotten down to the brass tacks about what, exactly, that fee would be. If we charge too little, we're under-selling ourselves...and making our lives harder down the road, should we need to adjust our pricing upwards. But if we charge too much, we risk losing clients, which no early-stage venture wants to do.
One of the best things I heard in the class yesterday was this: the forces of the market will set your price. That thought puts me at ease -- not just because I'm an Adam Smith devotee, but also because it helps me chart the course ahead for MAG in terms of pricing.
Right now, most of our sales contacts are outbound. In other words, we're the ones making the call or initiating the e-mail. In those situations, the person being sold TO has more leverage.
Over time, the balance of our sales contacts should shift. As more inquiries come inbound to us, we can play around with pricing a bit more. When people are reaching out to request our service, we will have more leverage. As our calendar begins to fill up, we can be choosier about what sorts of venues we go to, and what we'll accept in terms of fees.
We're not there yet.
Eventually, that will change. The way there isn't exactly clear. Some of our initial gigs have led us to bigger and better things, while others have taken us down some detours and dead-ends. For right now, my answer to that is just to keep driving forward, working through the channels we've got while adding new ones whenever appropriate.
As the old marketing adage goes, "I get all my sales from 50% of my advertising. The only problem is, I don't know which half."
Or, as AC/DC says, "It's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll."
Every new entrepreneur or would-be entrepreneur needs to know this: Be ready for the Advice Tsunami.
When you mention your start-up to relatives, friends, colleagues, and possible advisors/mentors, you've just set in motion an 8.8 earthquake somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Like clockwork, you can expect an 80-foot wave to hit the coast within the hour. You can:
a) find high ground;
b) move inland;
c) stand there on the beach and embrace the deluge; or
d) Start a furious freestyle crawl against the current
The worst of these options is try to swim against the current. Nearly everyone who offers you advice is coming from a good place, so at the very least, you should thank them for whatever they say ("Yes, you're right, the air conditioner market in the Yukon Territory is totally underserved...yes, yes, thanks")
Embracing the deluge isn't much better. If you really tried to follow every single direction that someone suggested for you, you'd lose all your focus. You'd stand for everything; therefore, you'd stand for nothing. If you just ran with the last thing that someone told you, all the pivots and iterations would leave you with little time to create your product, let alone sell it.
Moving inland is okay, but only once the wheels have really started to turn, and you truly understand your business and sales cycle (and here's where I'll confess that I'm FAR from reaching this point). This option basically means avoiding situations where you're even *pitching* your business to anyone other than potential clients or investors.
To me, finding high ground means improving your vantage point in order to make better decisions. It means you have stepped back from your own daily routine, your sales cycle, etc. far enough to see your own strengths and weaknesses. It means you're open-minded to new ideas, even if it would take some effort to pivot towards them. It means you can see the craggy parts of the cliffs and the rough surf areas that you certainly want to avoid.
After the Sandbox mid-pitch, we received several doses of feedback from other teams' mentors. Some of this advice was new, and some we had heard many times before. Nearly all of it is helpful, because it forces us to question our own assumptions, and it prepares us for the types of questions me might someday expect to hear from investors.
To turn the tables for a second, the advice I would give to mentors is to ask questions before offering up your assumptions. For instance, if someone asks, "What do you think about Brand.com and Reputation.com?" that gives me a chance to a) explain what I know about their services, and b) explain where I think MAG can be a better fit for certain types of clients. It's a fair and honest question which begets a fair and honest response. Likewise for virtually any other open-ended question, i.e. "What is your forecast for revenue for next year?" or "Where do you think your challenges lie?" Based on the way an entrepreneur answers those questions, the mentor should form a baseline from which to offer follow-on questions, suggestions, advice, etc.
What mentors should avoid, though, are statements that suggest the entrepreneur hasn't yet taken some action. Someone who says, "There are other people in that space. You need to look them up and find out what they do," is assuming that the recipient of that advice has not yet done either of those things. Ditto for any similar declarative statement, i.e. "You need to do some revenue modeling," "You need to see if customers will actually pay for your product," etc.
By all means, if it has already emerged through conversation that some such action has not yet taken place, then those sorts of statements would in fact be great advice.
But off-the-bat assumptions otherwise can come across as very patronizing, particularly when attempts at clarification don't seem to register.
Thankfully, Todd and I have been extremely lucky w/respect to mentorship. Our two mentors, plus the Sandbox staff, have prodded us to reach beyond our initial goals and to go after bigger clients. One new sales channel that we recently opened -- in large part due to that very advice -- literally has the potential to add a comma and three zeros to our 2015 revenue forecast.
The entire process has made us better at finding the right high ground from which to pick and choose where we should -- and shouldn't -- jump in near the deep end.