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 summer, I read a book about entrepreneurship that described a business school class in which the professor asked, "Who here wants to be an entrepreneur?"
Nearly every hand in the room went up.
Then the professor followed with another question: "Who here sees a future for himself or herself in sales?"
Nearly every hand stayed down.
The professor had a hearty laugh, shook his head, and said, "You all have a lot to learn."
As an entrepreneur working in the Sandbox space, I now understand what the professor meant by that. I typically spend about half my day making sales calls, returning e-mails, or researching potential clients. If I let sales take up my whole day, I could easily fill the time that way.
What I don't do, though, is the "hard sell." My typical cold call lasts less than thirty seconds. I say who I am, I say what I do, and I ask if the other person "might be interested." 80 percent of the time, the answer I hear is, "Yes, this sounds like it might be good. Can you send me a link with more information?"
I agree to send the link, which includes all the details they would need, plus my contact info, and then we say goodbye.
The response rate on the link is quite good (I can't give an accurate percentage figure yet, because I'm still inside of the sales cycle length in most cases).
But in the 20 percent of cases where the call recipient isn't biting or even nibbling on the line, I simply move on. The 80% figure gives me confidence that many people want our service, so it would be a huge waste of time to focus on the other 20%. If someone tells me -- and yes, I've heard it -- that "our town isn't interested in online safety," then the BEST use of my time is to start talking to someone else.
If someone says, "We don't need this because the BBB already did a program on this," it's not worth my time to explain why I'm offering something very different from what they saw.
Our Sandbox goals do not involve "100%" of any market segment, and for good reason. That would be a terribly inefficient goal. Even in Albanian Presidential elections, there are always a few dissenters.
Besides, we feel that even some of the people who give us an initial cold shoulder may warm up if/when they hear about us from a colleague down the road.
It's a steady march for us as we move towards our MV Sandbox Accelerator goals. This summer, we plan to:
(2) Complete a manuscript of our book: Great Caesar's Ghost: Separating Fact from Fiction in a Virtual World
(3) Reach a 70 percent "warm touch" level with all the libraries, senior centers, and Catholic high schools/middle schools in a 7-county region in MA (Middlesex, Essex, Norfolk, Bristol, Plymouth, Worcester, Suffolk). A warm touch requires an actual phone or e-mail exchange with the organization's Programming Director. E-mails, voicemails, and direct mails do not count on their own.
We're realizing how powerful the goals are because they are forcing us to focus. As entrepreneurs, we are constantly receiving advice from anyone and everyone around us; it is all well-intentioned, and nearly all of it is good.
However, without some clear goals in mind, we could run the risk of meeting the fate of Buridan's donkey. This donkey was equally hungry and thirsty when it stood equidistant from a bale of hay and a stream. Unable to decide whether its hunger or its thirst was the more pressing concern, it stood motionless between the food and the water. As it deliberated and wavered between the two options for days, the donkey eventually died -- of both hunger AND thirst.
There are many, many ways our business might grow. We are open-minded to exploring all of them, and then some. As our world-class mentor team of Stephen Alepa and Kevin Oye has told us, we might not even know (at this stage) what our eventual cash cow will be. But by barnstorming across eastern Massachusetts, we are maximizing the chance of making a random encounter that will help us find that great opportunity.
By steadily moving towards our three goals -- while keeping our ears open to other possibilities -- we are avoiding the fate of Buridan's donkey. We may not know precisely where our business will be five years from now, but we know that TODAY we can move towards our short-term goal by making 10 more calls to Worcester County, and by revising the book chapter we're writing about Nigerian advance fee fraud.
Recently, we put one of the most old-fashioned trade mechanisms to good use: We bartered.
When we interviewed with David and Lianna for the Finalist round of the Sandbox Summer Accelerator, we stated flat-out that our single-biggest weakness was our minimal YouTube presence. As start-up entrepreneurs seeking to sell seminar bookings over the phone, we feel incomplete without a short video link that we can send to prosepective clients.
However, we faced two major challenges in this realm: (1) Our tight budget; and (2) Since one of us works full-time, we are often a One-Man Roadshow when we deliver our seminars.
A friend of ours is just starting out as a freelance videographer/photographer. She is amazingly talented in these areas, yet she knows very little about inbound marketing and web presence. She, too, is starting out with limited resources.
So we did what makes the most sense for all of us -- she agreed to film and edit our presentation at the high school, and we agreed to provide her with a detailed report about optimal keywords, search placement, and web presence. No money will change hands when the projects are complete, but we will have given each other a major boost in terms of establishing our businesses.
Today we crossed what some entrepreneurs call "The Penny Gap."
We reached an important early milestone for any entrepreneurs who believe they can monetize their idea -- we did. In fact, we not only earned a penny for our work but we earned 150,000 of them (though thankfully we aren't ACTUALLY being paid in pennies!)
This was the result of a consulting project we delivered and presented this morning in Lynn.
How did we get the job?
Our name spread from Chelmsford to Littleton to Danvers because of some initial "freebie" work that we're doing. The right person happened to see us in Danvers and was sufficiently impressed that he offered us this job on the spot, immediately following a presentation we delivered to a public audience.
On the train ride home, I was thinking about what Sidd Goyal, CTO of Tinyurl, told us this week about our customers and our offerings. He said that it's okay to promise something that's not ready YET...provided that it can be delivered by the time the customer needs it. During this project, we often felt like we were "building the airplane in mid-flight." No, we weren't ready at the time we were asked, but we will have a major head start if asked to do something similar again.
We were fairly worried last night because of a typo we caught in the hard-copy report deliverable (three copies had been professionally printed and bound, so there was no 'quick fix' option). We noticed it just after the Sandbox "Goals" session ended, and we were both frustrated because we wanted everything to be perfect. After an impromptu strategy session on Cabot St., we decided that we would pre-emptively announce it to our customer during the presentation.
We did exactly that, and we came out fine. Our customer was more interested in the soft copy report, which he would be able to disseminate across his entire staff. We were able to make that fix to the document before sending it to him this afternoon.
The presentation was a big hit with the staff, and they've already talked about clients near them to which they will refer Merrimack Analysis Group. We're thrilled (albeit exhausted), and now we just need to replicate this many, many more times!
Today is my first day working in the shared entrepreneur space in the Wannalancit Mills Building.
For some people, working from home gets the job done. I, however, am not one of those people. In the few hours that I've been in the Sandbox space today, I've managed to finally get some much-needed pictures up on our website, knocked out some text edits I've been meaning to get around to, made nearly a dozen cold calls, and updated the latest draft of a consulting project that we're delivering to a client on Friday.
Take this office out of that equation, and I honestly doubt that I would've been able to accomplish half of that.
One of the nice things about the space is the collaborative potential fostered by the open environment. I had a question about cold-calling and cold e-mailing earlier, and literally just yelled it out to no one in particular. I learned that Lester, a Sandbox staffer, has an extensive sales background. He gave me lots of excellent guidance and advice that I'm already applying in my outreach efforts. I've also had questions for Brad Durbin from Ubersimple, who sits just one desk away.
I have a strong feeling that I'll be making plenty of use of this space throughout the summer.