I Launched My First Startup During the Dot-Com Boom. Boy, Have Things Changed.
A seasoned entrepreneur shares what's different about starting a business today.
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In 2015, I decided to start a new entrepreneurial venture. The last time I had started a business was in 2000 when I co-founded Nobscot Corporation, a company that develops enterprise software for human resources. Nobscot continues today, with our team servicing medium and large companies globally. With that feather in our cap, my co-founder and I were ready to try again, this time on the consumer side. We created the idea for JamBios, an online platform to help people remember and write stories of their lives, together with friends and family. Except it was no longer 2000 and the startup world had changed significantly. We had to be ready to adapt as well.
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Budgets are bigger.
The late 1990s were exciting times for technology startups. Everyone had ideas for "dot-coms" and wanted to become the next internet millionaire. (People thought in terms of millions, not billions, back then.) But, most people also wanted the stability of a traditional corporate job. Quitting a position to start an internet company was not something that most were willing to do. College grads had many opportunities from which to choose. Few people lived in their parents' basements.
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We started Nobscot on a shoestring, putting $10,000 in the bank. The startup tech community was at the very early stages in our area. Resources were minimal. There were no coding boot camps, no technology accelerators and very little venture capital investing. Women CEOs were rare. Access to capital was limited. On the plus side, it was 2000 and you didn't need much money to get started. These were the days of working out of your garage.
We converted a large room (not the garage) into a workable office space. We lived in a beach community and had what would now be called "scrum meetings" during morning walks on the beach. Conference Room A was a shade tree and the sand was our whiteboard. My co-founder and I did almost everything ourselves. You could build a tech business like that back then. It's not quite the same anymore.
For our new business, we have fancy "creativity inspiring" digs in the heart of downtown. The conference room has a table and chairs. It is a nice place for investors to visit.
Products are sleeker.
Back in the early days of online startups, product was all about function over form. Our technology had to be intuitive, easy-to-use and powerful. It didn't have to be pretty. Design thinking was not yet a part of the equation. I drew on a piece of paper what I wanted our flagship exit interview technology to do and my co-founder and software engineer built it to spec. We didn't have any outside or internal designers. It was ugly. But, it worked really well.
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Today, great function with lousy form is not good enough. Entrepreneur evangelist Guy Kawasaki suggests that getting to market fast enough means that your early product is going to have elements that are cringeworthy. That is becoming less and less true. Your starting Minimal Viable Product (MVP) needs to look visually very, very good. Access to design talent either in-house or external is critical. In our new venture, we started working with a wonderful design firm in the U.K. called Big Fan Agency. Once we began putting together our team, we hired a very talented in-house creative director as employee number six. It was not something we expected to do, but was probably one of the wisest staffing decisions we have made so far.
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Marketing is more complex.
Another drastic change between then and now has taken place in marketing. A decade and a half ago, Google was the only king in town. Marketing involved making sure your site would be easily found in the organic search engine listings. That meant creating useful content on the public website and strong PR outreach to trade publications. Cold calling was also a required sales tactic. I bought "yellow pages" directories for our initial target industries and made phones calls to HR executives. (Yes, it worked well. Our first mainland clients came from cold calls, including a large bank in the South and Campbell Soup Company.) Social media at the time consisted of online forums. I spent a lot of time on the Society for Human Resource Management bulletin board.
Today, getting to market requires a much stronger and more comprehensive plan. It requires going beyond the organic search engine placement and becoming an expert in paid search advertising. I was resistant to that for a long time. In addition to becoming an expert in all things Google, marketing efforts need to include social media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat are where users are likely to spend a lot of time. Podcasts and videos are becoming important media to master. Influencers and influential publications need to be identified.
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There's a lot more competition.
When starting Nobscot, competition was limited. It wasn't that hard to be seen. In 2015, 100 million business were launched globally, according to the GEM Global Report. We recognized that to be successful today we had to find creative ways to stand out from the crowd. That motivated us to invite Henry Ian Cusick, formerly a regular on ABC's Lost and currently on The 100, to join us as celebrity spokesperson when we serendipitously had an opportunity to meet him. His very creative wife, Annie Cusick Wood, a theater director and playwright, joined in as well.
While times have certainly changed from the late 1990s to today, amidst all these differences, there are some things that remain constant. Being an entrepreneur takes guts, fortitude and a whole lot of hard work. The top priority of building a business must always be on developing a topnotch team of people who care about the company and are passionate about the product or service. Creating a corporate culture of which you are proud, one that goes the extra mile for employees, customers and users, will always be the key to success whether in the past, the present or future.