This year marks the tenth anniversary of Wattpad. It’s amazing to think that a decade has passed since I frenetically hashed out the details for the business with my co-founder Ivan Yuen in the Vancouver International Airport.
We founded Wattpad because we wanted people to discover, share and connect through stories. We wanted to remove the traditional barriers between readers and writers, and build social communities around stories worldwide.
If 10 years in business has taught me anything, it’s that you really don’t know where a venture will take you. As our community has evolved, so has our business. Wattpad has transformed into a global entertainment company for original stories. It is striking deals with global entertainment players and working with some of the biggest brands to pair them with the best creative storytellers in the world. We’ve come a long way from providing a couple lines of text on a mobile screen – but growth hasn’t always been linear, and we had our fair share of setbacks along the way.
So for all the startup founders who are just embarking on their first venture (or facing year two or three in the trenches), here are some of the lessons I learned – and some of the things you can expect – in your first 10 years in business.
1You won’t find customers overnight
When we first launched our storytelling platform, we didn’t have any writers. Without writers, we didn’t have content, and without content, we couldn’t attract readers. It was your classic chicken and egg conundrum. So we spent our first year in business importing novels that were already in the public domain – Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield – whatever was available that could help us attract book lovers.
It wasn’t until year two that we saw the first piece of original content land on Wattpad. It attracted 50 to 100 people to the platform, and soon, one piece of content became two, then three, then four. Like any business, it takes time to build up your customer base.
People won’t flock to you just because you’re there. You’ll likely have to find ways to fan the flame until you reach critical mass.
2Your timing might be off
Establishing a solid customer base is additionally complicated by the fact that your timing might be off. How many startups exist today with ideas that are just too advanced to be successful? For many entrepreneurs, it’s a matter of waiting for the industry to catch up with you. At least, that was the case for me.
Related: 21 Steps To Start-Up
Ten years ago, mobile reading was a very different space. There were no iPhones or Kindles – just feature phones that could display a couple lines of text at a time. Sharing content on the internet was also a bit unusual, and there was a smaller percentage of people actively doing it. But today, 90 percent of all Wattpad activity is on mobile, and sharing content online is common – you don’t even need to think about it.
Bottom line: Don’t lose hope if the industry’s not there yet, and continue to preserve. Eventually, technology will catch up with what you’re trying to do and pave a way for your success.
3There will be “lows”
When you first launch your business, there’s a natural sense of exuberance and expectation. But, let’s be real, that feeling won’t last.
I remember sitting in a coffee shop with my cofounder, sharing a coffee I had bought using the total revenue we had earned from the past month. That was a low point for us and a time when we seriously questioned whether we had the emotional strength to keep going, but we did.
You will also face these “lows.” You’ll have to re-examine what you’re doing and decide what is the best path forward. These are the moments that force founders to grow and businesses to either shutter or flourish. In this moment, you’ll ask yourself whether your idea is worth the struggle.
Just remember: A great vision won’t fade with a setback. If you give up when you reach the first, second or third low, your mission may not be energised enough to endure. The personal weight of your vision is what will get you through these low points.
4You’ll need to switch gears
We made it out of our dark pit by taking on consulting jobs and using those funds to support our business. For many founders, such a move can feel like failure, but for us it was literally the only path forward.
When you find yourself challenged, don’t be afraid to switch gears, and don’t be so wed to a plan that you make impractical decisions. It’s ok to deviate a little from the grand scheme of things. Or to put things on hold until you figure it out.
5You’ll get your big break
Eventually – if you’re creating something truly different – you will make it through the hard times and catch your big break. For us, it was getting our initial round of funding.
We received our Series A in 2011 from Union Square Ventures, the same company that invested in Twitter, Etsy, foursquare, Kickstarter and others.
Having such a huge industry player pay attention to us and see our worth validated the work we were doing. It gave us the jolt we needed to keep going and stay committed to building something great.
Related: Stop Whining And Start Hustling
6Working on yourself is as important as working on the product
I’ve yet to meet a single entrepreneur that, when he or she started their company, could do everything all by themselves. You can’t write all the code, design the product, balance the budget, find funding and market the product on your own.
Part of growing as a start-up founder is realising that you need other people to help you and, more importantly, that you have to motivate this team as a leader. At the end of the day, the best product you build isn’t necessarily the product – but yourself.
7Culture is critical to growth
As you grow your business, you’ll realise that it is only as strong as the people in it. Your employees need to share your vision and values if you want to take your business to the next level.
When we look at hiring, we put a lot of focus not just on technical skill but also a cultural fit. Does this employee care about creating a lasting entertainment experience through stories? Is he or she motivated by our users’ success?
Our employees aren’t culturally identical either. We want to hire people with different perspectives and ideas, but who ultimately will work with their team to reach a common goal. This also allows us to create a more global community utilising the perspectives of a diverse team.
8You’ll learn from your users
When I first met Ben Ling of Khosla Ventures I asked him how YouTube had expanded into so many different categories. His answer? “We didn’t start these new categories. These categories emerged organically and we spotted them early. Then we poured fuel on the fire.” In other words, YouTube didn’t create how-to videos; its users did. Then YouTube oriented their product to support it.
Likewise, your users or customers will influence the direction of your product or business, but only if you learn to listen. For Wattpad, user feedback has contributed to developments such as in-line commenting and multimedia. We’ve taken the time to assess what is happening naturally on the platform and have made changes to our product so that it’s easier for them to do what they’re already doing.
Related: How To Know What Passions To Pursue
9Your business will evolve
As I mentioned before, you won’t stick to the grand plan you had when you first started your business. Wattpad started as a storytelling app – and it still is – but we realised that storytelling is the foundation for entertainment content. Stories themselves can not only entertain, but they can also inspire people. So as our community has grown, we have been able to grow with them, leveraging our strong community of readers and writers to shape their content into TV shows, web series, movies and books.
This is not a deviation from our original mission, but it is a change. Change is perfectly fine (and necessary) in order to help you survive from year to year.
10You’ll change people’s lives
When we first started Wattpad, I was solely focused on solving a problem that I faced myself. Over time, I realised the true impact that my company had on other people’s lives.
There are people in Africa thanking me for helping spread the written word in their country. We have parents telling us that their children are improving their writing. Not to mention writers who have thanked us for helping them find an audience.
It’s hard to see it now, but your company will also impact lives beyond what you can imagine. Whether it’s your employees, your customers, or your partners – knowing you have made a change in someone else’s life is the sweetest thing you’ll experience in your first decade of business. This feeling will not only fulfill, but it will propel you further yourself as an entrepreneur and motivate you for decades to come.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
Why Failing Is A Necessity Proven To Guarantee Success
We should always have this at the back of our minds whenever we have that nudge to give up on our dreams.
There comes a time, especially after a terrible defeat, when we feel like giving up or even quitting. The defeat clouds our minds and make us forget completely what victory feels like. We forget the successes and judge ourselves solely on the defeats. This feeling isn’t unique to a single individual as even the most successful businessmen, inventors, politicians, world leaders have experienced failures at different points in their lives.
We all love success stories. It’s a matter of fact that behind every success story is a large amount of failed attempts. The notion of overnight success is a myth. It took the Wright brothers between four and seven years of scientific experimentation and several failed attempts before their maiden flight covering a distance of 852 feet which lasted a mere 59 seconds was achieved.
History is replete with instances of individuals who were written off after a terrible fall from grace. These individuals, against all odds, didn’t give up.
Tiger Woods, for example, has for the most part of his adult life being in the public eyes. That’s why when he went to his very public divorce, tales of womanising, dabbling with prescription drugs. Also plagued by injuries, his golf was seriously failing and in danger of being a “has been,” analysts advised he should just retire. It was obvious Tiger had a different plan up his claws by winning his first PGA tournament in five years.
His recent resurgence in form is testament to the fact that no one has the stop button to our life or life’s dreams and ambition. No one but you. It’s only when we stop innovating and trying that we’ve failed. Having lost a business deal that had the chance to change our lives positively forever isn’t the end of the world. Hence we need to reinvent and innovate.
If achieving success was easy, the vast majority of people would be successful. We have to put in the work and our skill to be able to achieve success because the most worthwhile things don’t come easy.
Defeats, if seen from a positive perspective, bring out the best in us. Victories don’t. Victories swell our egos, fill us with the air of invisibility, and this is dangerous. Hence we need a large dose of failures and defeats to bring us down to earth, to make us learn and better appreciate success the moment we’re able to achieve it.
What then do we do when we experience a poor run of defeats that make us doubt our abilities. Being fixated on the defeats for one, isn’t the solution. It has the tendency of making us forget what it felt like to win and totally derail us from our set goals. This, in itself, is a problem as it may lead to a state of unhappiness.
The bad results we might have experienced isn’t an indication of our inabilities, it’s an opportunity for us to look at the venture from a different perspective and take necessary action to improve or try a different approach towards achieving our aim.
Defeats can be depressing when we have dependents who rely on us for guidance and in some cases sustenance. Dependents could be in the form of a spouse, children, wards, parents, even staff. The pressure can be enough reason for some to give up and settle for the safer option.
With the decision to settle comes the likelihood of regret which may be more depressing than the expectations of dependents. Fortune they say favours the brave and nothing worthwhile was ever achieved without the possibility of failure.
Why You Need Smart Legal Foundations For Your Start-up
The legal background to a start-up might not be the most exciting area for an entrepreneur, but it’s your foundation for growth. Are you aware of everything you need to have in place?
One of the best parts of what we do is helping start-ups — the right legal foundations can mean the difference between a start-up that’s geared for scale, and one that needs to retroactively put agreements, checks and balances in place. If you’re aiming for growth, you want to get these foundations right from the get-go.
When Benji Coetzee launched EmptyTrips, a hot up-and-coming start-up 16 months ago, Legal Legends was on the ground floor with her. Although your start-up trajectory may not be identical to that of EmptyTrips, many of the foundational principles canvassed in this article will apply at some point in the lifecycle of your business. They highlight what you should be thinking of from the word go.
Laying the right legal foundation
By the time we were introduced to EmptyTrips, they had already registered their entity as a company and had started to prepare for their first beta public launch in April 2017. When our dealings with the start-up began, the business had already enjoyed a quick and accelerated cycle.
As with all start-ups, the founders had a clear vision and objectives. Unlike too many start-ups however, Benji understood how important the right legal foundations would be, particularly as the business matured and required different support structures.
The following three actions are a good example of the legal foundations all businesses should consider, particularly if growth is a part of the founder’s vision:
1. Why you need trademark protection
Given that EmptyTrips is a digital solution, with limited physical assets, protecting intellectual property as ‘soft’ assets was critical to its differentiation and valuation given the recognition of brand value over time.
At first, we set out to ensure that EmptyTrips’ marketing materials and properties, such as company name, slogan, and product names were protected sufficiently from use by others. This was done by filing for various trademark registrations.
A trademark is a sign or symbol that is unique to your business, and which distinguishes it from other businesses. The most common forms of trademarks are business names, product names, logos and slogans.
By registering a trademark you are granted exclusivity over the use of the name, slogan or logo, and may prevent others from using similar names, slogans or logos in their business in the future.
When it came to EmptyTrips, they had already filed a trademark for their business name, so we focused on protecting the names of the different service offerings on the business’s platform as the solution evolved and pivoted. These included Trip Exchange; Freight Open Exchange; SureFox and RailFox. As the business grows and product lines are added, we will continue to update this list.
2. The importance of website legal documents
EmptyTrips is predominately an online marketplace solution to enterprises. It is a digital transport brokering agency that has been developed to source, match and market available transport capacity (empty space on trucks, trains, vessels and so on) to commercial freight with on-demand supporting financial products (insurance etc).
Each company’s Terms of Service will be unique to that business, market and customers, but privacy policies are universally required by law.
3. The legal frame work around outside investment
Like many high-growth starts-ups, Benji and her team reached a point where outside investment was needed. This is an area where your legal partner is key. Apart from attending to various due diligence meetings and ensuring proper governance controls, we were tasked with ensuring that the contracts for external investment were prepared in a manner that sufficiently protected the interests of EmptyTrips and its founding members.
It’s common during a seed or series A round of funding for an investor to present the start-up with a term sheet detailing the nature or basis of the intention and extent of their investment, as well as all the terms relating to the governance of the company that they would like to put in place.
In this case, the institutional investor presented EmptyTrips with a term sheet that detailed the monetary investment that the investor would provide over a number of years, the monthly draw-downs of the investment that EmptyTrips would be entitled to, the number of shares that the investor would be issued for their investment, as well as the manner in which the governance of the company would be changed in order to protect their investment.
Often, and this applied to EmptyTrips, the terms contained in the term sheet require a new shareholders’ agreement and/or memorandum of incorporation in order to protect the interests of the minority shareholder (the investor).
A shareholders’ agreement governs the relationship between the shareholders of the company and their ability to administer the company.
A memorandum of incorporation governs the relationship between directors, shareholders, prescribed officers and the company. A standard memorandum of incorporation is issued when a company is registered, but it will often need to be amended at a later stage if, for example, measures to protect the minority shareholders are introduced.
A memorandum of incorporation can regulate the same aspects as a shareholders’ agreement, however, the main difference is that it is a public document available for inspection by anyone, whilst a shareholders’ agreement is a private document.
In addition, if there is any conflict between a shareholders’ agreement and a memorandum of incorporation, the shareholders’ agreement will not apply and will be voided to the extent of its inconsistency. This often means, as was the case with EmptyTrips, that certain aspects of the shareholders’ agreement that provided for protection of the investor required a redraft of the memorandum of incorporation so that the two documents were aligned.
A shareholders’ agreement might not be enforceable until a memorandum of incorporation has been aligned with it.
Read next: 5 Lessons From The Legal Legends On Pivoting
7 Factors That Influence Start-up Valuations
Figuring the valuation on a company that isn’t making money is subjective but not arbitrary.
Every startup founder dreams of launching the next Airbnb, SpaceX or Uber. The glamour of these $1 billion+ valued start-ups motivates countless founders to chase after that coveted “unicorn” status with their own valuations. However, the obvious question few can answer is, “How exactly is a start-up valued?”
Valuing a publicly traded company is very straightforward. Its market capitalisation (or market cap) is simply the number of shares outstanding multiplied by current share price. The share price itself depends on known strengths of the company and market forces, and is therefore, seldom way off the mark.
However, the value of a (rarely profit-making) start-up is not at all easy to calculate. In fact, it is at best, an estimate. In layperson language, you could take it to be the sum total of all the resources, intellectual capital, technology, brand value and financial assets that the start-up brings to the table.
Very often, start-ups’ valuations far exceed the sum of their parts, and there’s no universally accepted formula that you can use. VCs, for example, start with the amount they want to exit with and go on to factor in the expected ROI, the amount they invest, the stockholding percentages they can negotiate with the founders to arrive at what’s called the “pre-money valuation.”
That’s just one method, though. There are a ton of widely used methods to arrive at a start-up’s pre-money valuation.
That brings us to the next logical question for founders – “What’s pre-money valuation and why should I care?”
Pre-money valuation is essentially how you value your business. It is the value you’ll quote to a potential venture capitalist or other funding source to get funding for your business. The higher (and more accurate) your valuation, the better is your capacity to attract funding.
Unfortunately, research from CB Insights shows that the chances of the average start-up hitting a billion dollars in valuation is less than one percent. So what, you ask? Even if your start-up doesn’t become the next unicorn in the Start-ups Hall of Fame, there’s no stopping you from getting a strong valuation from your investors.
All you need to do is mind these seven things before your next pitch to a potential investor.
1. Paying customers who actually use the product
Be it a search engine, a social network or even a dating app, every user loves a free-to-use service. However, most investors aren’t so thrilled about freebies. Not a single one of the top five US startups is a free-to-use service. Each one has paying customers.
Pinterest, which is a free-to-use social media network, comes in at number seven, but that too has its own clear revenue model. Even though the platform is free for members to use, it has customers who pay good money to advertise their products to Pinterest’s members, thus ensuring a steady revenue model.
No matter how potentially world-changing your idea might be, you need customers who pick up the tab for the work that you do. That’s the first thing that draws in discerning investors.
2. Traction: Where are you going and how fast are you getting there?
How long has it been since you founded your start-up? How fast have you been growing relative to your competition? Where does the company seem to be headed in the next 12 to 24 months?
These are all valid questions investors expect answers for when they evaluate a start-up. Am ideal candidate for investment is a fast-growing start-up in the initial stages of its lifecycle with a growth curve waiting to happen.
Some start-ups to hit a billion-dollar valuation remarkably fast. Scooter start-up Bird hit the $1 billion mark 1.25 years after being founded; its valuation grew by mind boggling numbers in a matter of months. Valued at $400 million in March 2018, it nearly tripled in valuation in under three months!
3. Profitability: Show me the money
Anyone can show a lot of revenue by burning through a ton of funding. Discounts, sales and freebies are easy ways to reel in the buyers and grow your revenues.
However, simply focusing on revenues with nary a thought about margins, profitability or cash flows is a shortcut to start-up disaster, as many failed ecommerce businesses have repeatedly demonstrated.
Africa’s first unicorn startup Jumia showed us that it’s possible to focus on ROI and profitability even in an intensely revenue-oriented industry like ecommerce.
Instead of focusing on just conversion optimisation, Jumia targeted revenue optimisation through a strategy of aggressive retargeting ads. The results were stupendous. From a 57 percent ROAS (Return On Ad Spend) in Egypt to 120 percent in Nigeria, Jumia’s is the largest ecommerce player in all of Africa.
4. Brand value
As a new entity, consumers first need to be aware of a start-up to use its products or services. Brand awareness and recall are critical to the success of any start-up. However, not all brand value comes from spending big marketing dollars. A lot of it can come from word of mouth, PR and other sources.
SpaceX, currently valued between $20 and $25 billion, has outpaced revenue growth year on year.
It’s true that SpaceX has pushed new boundaries in terms of low cost satellite launches, giving established players a run for their money. But the outsized valuation the company enjoys is in no small part to the halo effect the SpaceX brand enjoys from its founder Elon Musk’s personality cult.
5. Frequency of capital infusion
Consumers are not the only people with a fear of missing out (FOMO). When investors see a startup that’s received funding multiple times in the past, their interest is sparked.
Clearly the start-up’s earlier investors had faith that it would do well; letting a chance to invest in it go by might be a missed opportunity. And that’s how money follows money in the startup world.
While the amount of funds raised by a startup can be a factor of its founders’ ability to pitch and close a deal, a start-up’s past funding is often the prime motivator for new funding to come in.
Ask any founder – it’s toughest to get early investors to believe in your vision and offer seed capital. Once the company has started off and proved itself, subsequent rounds come in on the basis of previous funding rounds and buzz about the company in the investor community.
6. Competition and maturity of market
First mover advantage may sound fabulous to a copycat business but it can be terrifying to the start-up taking those first steps. When companies enter a new market or develop a market through a novel business concept, founders have two tasks ahead of them. First convince investors and then convince the consumer that their business idea is fabulous.
On the flipside, entering a mature market that’s crowded with established players means a start-up is another me-too and its potential for growth will be limited. Funding will reflect this harsh reality.
However, if you’re a disruptor like Warby Parker, you have nothing to worry about.
Warby Parker pulled off three compelling feats with consummate ease. Not only did it create the very first ecommerce business with a vertically integrated supply chain, it also dared to carve a niche for itself in the eyewear market that was monopolised by Italian giant Luxottica.
Better still, Warby Parker even managed to raise $215 million at a valuation of $1.2 billion in just five years.
7. Understanding of business model
Finally, the amount of funds you raise and the strength of your valuation, boils down to the business you are in and how strong a grip you have on making it work. Hindsight is always 20/20, it’s taking a sound decision in the moment that makes all the difference.
Take Facebook for example. In its original avatar, Mark Zuckerberg and his co-founders spent considerable amounts of time and effort on getting advertisers for their site.
Thankfully, Facebook did not become yet another publisher site for one-size-fits-all advertising. Instead, Facebook eventually realised that the company’s real value lay in their rich user data and gigantic user base that they monetised later to spectacular results.
No matter how big or small your business. As long as you know the mantra that makes your project sing, you can count on investors jumping in and joining the chorus.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
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