He's known as the former chief evangelist for Apple Inc. and the managing director of leading VC fund Garage Technology Ventures. Guy Kawasaki, who's devoted much of his career to empowering entrepreneurs, has become one himself with the launch of social media site Truemors earlier this year. Truemors, short for "true rumors," works this way: Users post short rumors and news bits by calling a special phone number, sending a text message, e-mailing or posting directly online. Users then rate the rumors according to whether they think they're true or not.
Truemors is a functioning illustration of what it takes to launch a web startup these days. It didn't involve gobs of VC funding or years of development and testing. It may or may not turn into a big moneymaking enterprise, but entrepreneurs can learn a lot from Kawasaki's experience with getting Truemors off the ground and onto the internet. The startup guru took a few moments away from his new venture to answer our questions.
Kooser:Where did the idea for Truemors come from?
Kawasaki: There are several levels to this answer. First, I learned about companies like HotorNot and PlentyofFish, which are one or a few guys in garages who sell millions of dollars of advertising. Second, I saw Twitter take off, and I couldn't figure out why. Third, I learned from SpinVox that people can leave a voice mail, and it's posted automatically to a blog. Fourth, I'm into democratization--of information, in this case. Information was [once] owned by royalty and the religious elite--they had scribes. Then Gutenberg made it possible to print Bibles. Then Apple/Adobe/Aldus created desktop publishing. Then people could create websites, then blogs. It's getting easier, cheaper and more democratized to publish information, but even at the website/blog stage, you still need to own/operate a website or blog. I wanted to go even further: to enable anyone to "tell the world." [With Truemors,] they can publish information. They don't have to wait for editorial approval, the next print run, whatever.
What was your motivation for founding this company? Do you expect to grow the business or is it more of a proof-of-concept?
If I fail, I'll say it was a proof-of-concept, experiment and hobby. If I succeed, I'll say I knew this was a viable way to make a boatload of money. Check back with me in a year.
Who is the audience for Truemors?
There are two. First, the citizen journalist who wants to express her- or himself, to tell the world something without having to run a website or blog. Second, a person who wants to be more interesting because they are in the know. I guarantee that if you read Truemors, you will have more to talk about in a wide array of topics. You will have more to talk about at corporate events, staff meetings, cocktail parties, with your spouse, and if you're not married, on dates.
How did you meet your co-founder, Will Mayall, and what made you decide to start a business together?
I've worked with my co-founder for over 20 years. I came up with the idea for Truemors, and to my amazement, he didn't think it was stupid, so he started helping me. Basically, I sucked him into it . . .
How did you fund Truemors?
So far, it's only cost about $12,000, so it was personally [funded]. Whenever I need more capital, I make another speech--a fraction of a speech, actually. This beats sucking up to VCs, and I'm a VC.
You registered 55 domain names around the name Truemors. Why so many, and would you recommend that other entrepreneurs do the same thing?
We picked a name with a lot of permutations: truemours, trumours and then [those domains] for the most popular countries. Each cost $50 or so. Still, the cost of getting a squatter off a name far exceeds $50.
Lots of people said they could do Truemors for less money by shaving off
domain registration costs here, legal costs there, etc. Yes, people could do almost everything that I did for less, saving a few thousand dollars. But the point wasn't to go from $12,000 [in startup costs] to $7,000. It was going from $1 million to $12,000.
What was your biggest challenge during startup?
Getting the site built was pretty easy because I found a great co-founder and development shop. The initial marketing was also easy because I had an established marketing presence. Ironically, the blogosphere trashed the idea: "Stupid idea implemented poorly" would sum it up.
How did you find your software development team, and what tips do you have for finding good software developers to work on a web startup?
Electric Pulp folks read my blog. They offered to make an online version of a quiz for me. That worked. Then they did another, and then one for my friend. When I came up with Truemors, I asked them if they did that kind of site, too. They said that's their main business. And off we went . . . I never even checked a reference.
I found the vendor who made the Facebook version of Truemors in a very different way. PDG Creative had created the Facebook app for TechCrunch, so I sent them an e-mail asking how long it took for them to do. When they answered, we got into a conversation, and I liked them, so I hired them. I got a reference from Michael Arrington of TechCrunch after I made the decision.
There are four tips here: 1) Make friends [with] vendors before you need them, 2) engage a firm that made a similar product, 3) check references after it's too late, and 4) work with people from the Midwest [Electric Pulp is in South Dakota; PDG is in Oklahoma]. Within this semi-facetious context, you have to remember two things: 1) There was "only" a few thousand dollars at risk for each project, and 2) I am somewhat well-known, so these guys had incentives to do the work good, fast and cheap. My references can open a flood of new business prospects.
You spent no money on marketing. Is this approach something the average internet startup entrepreneur could get away with?
No, but it's certainly not the case that you have to have millions of dollars to market something on the internet. You'd get that impression from most pitches to VCs. I was fortunate and did it for close to nothing, so anyone should be able to do it for $50,000 to $100,000.
Since Truemors relies mostly on user-generated content, how do you keep tabs on and control inappropriate content?
The simple answer is, a lot of hard work and some spam filtering. Still, it's cheaper than hiring a roomful of reporters and photographers. My goal is to beat the print version of newspapers by 12 to 24 hours.
It's a paid passion for me: I sit at my MacBook and comb the internet for stuff that will enlighten and entertain people. Maybe I'm deceiving myself, but I like to think I'm making the world a better place. I often sit for three hours and find stuff for Truemors without even getting up.
Truemors was dubbed the "worst website ever" by a popular tech news site. How did you handle that sort of publicity?
That diatribe generated our biggest day of traffic. I hope that it happens again. Great products piss people off--although everything that pisses people off isn't necessarily great.
What is your revenue model for Truemors?
Advertising and sponsorship, if we get enough eyeballs. [We're breaking even now.] By contrast, most VC-funded startups burn $250,000 to 400,000 a month, and they have as much to figure out.
What do you see happening in Truemors' future?
I don't know. We will do our best to make it an interesting site where we help democratize information. My goal is humble--I do not expect to win a Pulitzer Prize. I'm happy if people check out our site and learn one or two things.
What lessons did you learn from the launch?
The blogosphere is full of angry nay-sayers who are good at tearing things down but not at innovating. They should move out of their mothers' houses and start dating.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I might have started with Truemors for Facebook before Truemors on the web generally. Facebook is a very interesting platform that I think will change how millions of people use the internet.
What advice would you share with other entrepreneurs about this startup experience?
The most important lessons are: Do things quick, dirty and fast; don't wait for the perfect time/market/product; ignore the naysayers--odds are they are right, but you'll never know unless you try; and keep things cheap so you can make a lot of mistakes.
What does the fact that you were able to create a web startup so quickly and inexpensively tell us about the state of web entrepreneurship in general?
Now more than ever, people should give it a shot to create the next Google, You-Tube, Facebook, eBay, whatever. You can get things done so much cheaper, faster and better because of tools like MySQL and WordPress as well as the willingness of the crowds. There are many tech businesses that take millions to start, but there are many that can be done on credit cards. I hope I've proven that.