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Start-up Advice

Getting to Product-Market Fit

Lean entrepreneurship in five easy steps.

Paul Smith

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1. Sketch out your business model

The first step to getting to product-market fit is to sketch out your business model. Blank’s students use a business model canvas taken from the book Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder. For each part of the canvas students need to answer a few fundamental questions.

  • Value proposition (or product offering).Every business has a value proposition or product offering to attract customers. Google’s value proposition is a fast and relevant free search, with targeted ads and monetising content; Skype’s is free Internet and video calling and cheap calls to phones (Skypeout). What value proposition or product offering are you going  to sell?
  • Customer Segment (or target market).Every business needs a customer or multiple customer segments to sell to. Skype is used by web users who want to call phones; Nintendo Wii is targeted at casual video game users. What customer segment do you plan to sell to?
  • Customer Relationships.A customer relationship refers to how your business will acquire and retain customers. This includes marketing and sales activities, as well as any activities that are used to retain customers, such as customer service. Coca-Cola uses traditional media advertising and excellent distribution to attract new customers and retains old customers by maintaining top of mind awareness. Facebook uses referral emails to attract new users and online advertising to attract new advertisers. How do you plan on attracting new customers? What will each new customer cost? How will your business retain new customers? How much will it cost?
  • Distribution Channels.A distribution channel refers to how you will get the product or service to the customer. This may be through a sales force, web sales, and retail stores or through distributors. Kalahari.net uses an online store and a courier company to get the product to the customer. Gillette uses retail stores to sell their razors and blades. How do you plan on distributing your product or service to the customer?
  • Revenue Stream.The revenue stream of a business model refers to how the business charges for its products and services and what price the business charges for its product or service. Common revenue streams include: sales of physical goods, rental, subscription fees, licensing agreements, and advertising and brokerage fees. For example, Pick n Pay or Spar make their money from sales of goods, while gyms and golf clubs charge a monthly or yearly fee. How do you plan on charging for your product or service? And how will you price your product or service?
  • Key Resources.Key resources are the employees, financial capital and physical resources that a business needs to function. There are four common types of key resources: human, financial, intellectual and physical resources. For example, Makro and Game require employees, all the equipment found in a retail store, as well as all the resources to manage the supply chain. Facebook requires programmers, servers and buildings to run the website. What key resources will your business need to get started?
  • Key Activities.Key activities are the essential activities a company needs to create and deliver the product or service to the customer. A newspaper’s key activities would include writing, producing and distributing the newspaper, while Skype’s key activity would be software development. What key activities must your business perform to create and deliver the product or service?
  • Key Partners. Key partners are the principal relationships with other organisations that make the business model work. These relationships may include joint venture partners, supplier relationships or strategic alliances. For example, Apple’s key partners for the iPhone include manufacturing companies and App developers. What key partners does your business need to create and deliver the product or service?
  • Cost Structure.The cost structure refers to all costs that are incurred when operating the business. When doing projects, costs are usually divided up into fixed and variable costs. What are your business’s fixed and variable costs?

2. Test your business model

Once you have laid out your business model you need to prove the idea will work in the real world. The idea is to have a plan that is based on facts and not guesswork, and to test the business model as quickly and with as little money as possible.

This is best done with the use of learning experiments. And the secret to running a great learning experiment is to ’think small’. Small experiments that are cheaper and quicker to run are generally better. There are four types of learning experiments that can be used to test if your business model will work:

  • Interviews: Talking to potential customers, industry experts, thought leaders, suppliers, adjacent competitors and potential partners. This will give you quick insight into the realities of your industry or market.
  • Personal selling: Pitching your product or service to potential customers using PowerPoint presentations or a prototype will give you a fair indication of how many potential customers will actually become real customers when the business launches. This process will also give you valuable feedback on how your product or service needs to change to meet customer needs.
  • Marketing campaigns: You can test whether the customer will buy your product by running Facebook Ads and Google Adword campaigns to see if people will click on the advert or not. If customers click on the advert in large enough numbers it means there may be a market for your product. If not, time to change your business model.
  • Minimum Viable Product: A minimum viable product is a small, cheap product that can be built quickly to find out if customers are interested in buying and using your product. In the case of web start-ups, this may be a page that gives some information about the product and asks customers to pre-register for service. In the case of physical products, this may be a building, a prototype or a small feature version of the product. Doing this will give instant insight into whether people want your product or not.

Learning experiments have the advantage of being low cost, and low risk, allowing you to get a good idea of the potential demand for your product before investing large amounts of money and time. Learning experiments also unearth unforeseen obstacles and challenges that can never be planned for.

3. Improve your business model using real world feedback

Every business model has a number of assumptions or best guesses: unforeseen obstacles, non-compliant customers, hidden costs. As new knowledge comes in from your tests, you need to change and adapt your business model to find what works in the real world.

A number of studies by leading researchers have shown that successful entrepreneurs seldom succeed with their first idea. In one study, Harvard Professor Amar Bhide looked at 100 of the most successful start-ups in the USA and found that 67% of them had radically changed their original business idea before succeeding. It is, however, not easy to fundamentally alter the strategy of your company.

It is often painful and no one likes to be wrong. But the research shows that the ability to change your business model when real world feedback says you are wrong is the mark of a great entrepreneur.

A famous example is Evan Williams, the founder of Twitter and blogger. Both companies were ideas that changed radically. When Williams started Pyralabs, a project management software company, he found that customers were particularly attracted to the note-taking feature.

Using real world feedback, Williams abandoned the project management software idea and launched blogger, which was later sold to Google. Similarly, Twitter was founded as a spinoff of Odeo, a failing podcasting software business.

When developing your business idea it’s important to take note of the real world feedback, and use the feedback to adapt your business model to what the marketplace wants. Adapt and change price points, product features, delivery channels, and marketing propositions until your business idea evolves into something that can become the next big thing.

4. Only start building your business once you have reached product-market fit

Traditional theories of entrepreneurship go as follows. Entrepreneur finds an opportunity, writes a business plan, raises funds, gathers a team and then gets on with the task of building the business, using the plan as a guideline.

This model is fine in the predictable world of known business models, known markets and known products, but in the uncertain world of new ideas, new businesses models, new products and new markets this method usually spells disaster.

Researchers call this type of disaster ‘premature scaling’. A business is considered to be scaling prematurely when it starts spending money on growing the business (ie. advertising, hiring employees, expansion infrastructure) before it has proved all of the assumptions of the business plan.

For example, WebVan, one of the famous dot.com era’s most spectacular flameouts started to expand its operations even though a number of the assumptions in its business plan were wrong. Customers cost more to acquire than originally planned, the customer retention rate was lower than planned and delivery costs were higher.

Even so, the company signed a R7 billion deal to expand by adding 24 distribution centres.

The result: bankruptcy in two years and R5,6 billion wasted. The reason: WebVan started to expand before testing all of the assumptions in its business plan. They scaled prematurely. When you are setting out on your start-up journey, ensure that you don’t start spending money on marketing, hiring and growth until you are sure that all of the assumptions in your business model have been tested and proved, and you have reached product-market fit.

5. Company building

With a proven business model, it is now time for the business to scale. On a graph, this usually appears in the form of a 45 degree growth line. It is time to let the world know about your product. This means launching a PR blitz, ramping up your marketing and sales activities and ensuring that you increase your business capacity to meet the flood of new customers.

By this stage, your business should have found a consistent and predictable way to acquire and retain new customers, while making a profit. However, many businesses fail in the growth stage by not managing the growth process properly.

Three areas must be managed in conjunction with each other: the rate at which new customers are acquired, the capacity to deliver the service and product to the customer and the business’s finances.

Too much investment in capacity and no customers leads to cash flow issues as seen in the WebVan case; too many customers and no capacity leads to angry customers. This is part of the reason Friendster (one of the first movers in the social networking space) didn’t become Facebook.

It acquired too many new customers, more than the site’s infrastructure could handle. The site crashed a number of times, and customers became irritated. The key to successful growth is balancing the rate of customer acquisition with building the business capacity to deliver the company’s products and services.

Paul Smith is a writer and startup scientist. He currently manages an accelerator, Ignitor, which helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Ignitor has developed a new model that significantly improves early stage start-ups odds of success. His primary research interests include understanding the behaviours of expert entrepreneurs, as well as, how to most effectively support high potential start-ups. Follow him on Twitter and visit his website.

Company Posts

3 Companies With Memorable Slogans, And How To Create Your Own

Three companies that have enjoyed these benefits as a result of creating memorable business slogans are Nike, Carlsberg, and Apple. Let’s look at each one now.

Jeff Broth

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A good slogan serves many valuable roles in business. First, it reinforces recognition of your brand. After hearing it a few times, your consumer instantly thinks of you when hearing it again. If it’s catchy enough, they may even find themselves saying or singing it in their head, reinforcing your brand even more.

Slogans also share a little bit about your company. For instance, if your slogan is funny, it says you have a sense of humor. If it contains your goal or mission, it tells the consumer what is important to you. Some slogans share the problems the company is trying to solve or the consumer its trying to help, making it easier to identify the target market.

Finally, a slogan sets you apart from your competitors. It differentiates you from all of the other companies who offer similar services to you. And if it’s memorable enough, it puts you ahead of them in your consumer’s minds.

Three companies that have enjoyed these benefits as a result of creating memorable business slogans are Nike, Carlsberg, and Apple. Let’s look at each one now.

Company #1: Nike – Just Do It

nike

Though many people use Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan as a reminder that they can do amazing things if they just put their mind to it, its author, Dan Wieden, reports that this line actually has a grim beginning.

In fact, it was an idea he derived from a statement made by Gary Gilmore, a double murderer who, before being executed by a firing squad exclaimed, “Let’s do it!” Still, it has stuck in consumer’s minds and is undoubtedly one of the most memorable slogans of all time.

Related: Registering a Trademark

Company #2: Carlsberg – That Calls for a Carlsberg

Carlsberg

Initially, Carlsberg’s slogan was ‘probably the best beer in the world.’ Many consumers came to know and love this slogan; however, in 2011, the company rebranded and created a new slogan: ‘That Calls for a Carlsberg.” The goal of this new slogan, according to CEO Jorgen Buhl Rasmussen, was to encourage the consumer to do good things and then enjoy a Carlsberg after as a reward for a job well done. Both have stuck in the minds of consumers, albeit with some discrepancy as to which one is most preferred.

Company #3: Apple – Think Different

apple

Apple is a company known for thinking (and creating) outside the lines, so its ‘Think Different’ slogan fits it perfectly. According to Rob Siltanen, creative director and managing partner at the company that helped design this Apple pitch, though there are many accounts of how this slogan was created, its true inventor is Craig Tanimoto. Siltanen says that Tanimoto came up with the idea to use black and white photos of some of the most revolutionary people and events of all time and, atop each one, simply display the words ‘Think Different.’ Catchy, right?

Related: Smart Marketing Ideas For Small Businesses

How to Create Your Own Memorable Slogan

These are just three examples of how creating a memorable slogan can help your company get — and stay — in the minds of your consumer. So, how do you come up with this type of campaign?

One option is to get some of your company’s best talent together and see what slogans you can come up with. Have everyone submit one or two ideas and talk them out. See if any jump out at you and, if not, use them to inspire you to come up with even more possible ideas.

Another alternative is using a slogan generator. This enables you to come up with a simple, memorable slogan using keywords related to your brand. Just go through the list and of results and see which ones stand out. You could even pick your top two or three and let your social media followers vote as to which one you should select.

If you find yourself at a dead end and unable to come up with a memorable slogan, or if you lack the creativity or the time, you can also hire a marketing firm to help. Give them a little insight about your company and see what slogans they create. It may cost you some money to take this route but, as companies like Nike, Carlsberg, and Apple have taught us, a good slogan can really propel your brand.

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Start-up Advice

Dear Family And Friends Of Entrepreneurs…

Young entrepreneurs often struggle to establish their businesses as they are not getting the support they need. Sometimes it is not only the obvious support of financiers and supply change developers which is lacking –but also not having that critical “home-ground support” can negatively affect the success of your venture. How can family and friends support entrepreneurs?

Lusanele Mahlutshana

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Entering the market as a newbie entrepreneur is a brave step, and having your family and friends share in your vision for success is critical.  Once you have convinced them that being an entrepreneur is in fact “a real job” – one that requires a lot more sacrifices and hard work than a salaried worker – you can continue to encourage them to support your journey, to ultimately share in your success.

Get a job

In some communities, being an entrepreneur is not recognised as a profession. Therefore, those who pursue enterprise development are seen as irresponsible or lazy as it is not regarded as ‘real’ employment. Societal pressure to attain certain material possessions thus prevents them from pursuing their true passion.

This kind of resistance discourages a lot of entrepreneurs, making their pursuit for success even more difficult.

Related: How To Deal With Unsupportive Friends And Family

Finding out who your real friends are

Financial support is the most obvious support needed by entrepreneurs due to a lack of capital and start-up funding, as well as irregular payments and long periods of being cashless due to procurement holdups and fluctuation in the market for your product or service. Not everyone will stick with you in these times – and that’s OK. You may end up finding out who your real friends are, and these are the people who will give you emotional and social support to keep you focused and motivated.

“I know a guy….”

Another issue is friends and family looking for discounted prices as they know the owner. This means that they don’t see the value of the product or service, nor do they respect the owner. By asking for products and services for free, or at a reduced price, they end up taking advantage of their relationship with the entrepreneur and do not financially support his/her the business.

Related: How To Immigrate With Your Family By Starting A Business In The UK

So, if you have friends or family who are business owners, set an example by supporting them in the following ways:

  • Be willing to pay the full price of the product or service offered.
  • Be kind when giving negative feedback – make sure it is constructive.
  • Compliment them on good products or service. Share positive reviews on your social media pages.
  • Share and promote their business among other people.
  • Be patient and willing to help them establish their businesses.

Be prepared to listen to their dreams, hopes and frustrations. Sometimes, they just need an ear to vent about a bad day. Support them with a word of encouragement to keep going.

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Start-up Advice

Why Embrace The Struggle?

Entrepreneurial success hinges on your ability to approach challenges with the right mindset.

Gil Sperling

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Self-help and business coaching advice is littered with platitudes, which makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to know what they should take to heart. However, one universal truism that most successful entrepreneurs attribute to their success is their willingness and ability to endure the struggle.

It’s a lesson I learnt first-hand when building our ad-tech and Facebook Marketing Partner business, Popimedia. One of our sternest tests came when we moved into new premises and took on more staff to accommodate our exponential growth. Then, amid new and significant financial commitments, some of our pipeline never materialised.

It was at this time that my son was born, and our family had just moved into a new house. To preserve the business, we were forced into retrenchments and directors didn’t take a salary for a while. And, with a lower head count it became difficult to deliver on client deadlines. Needless to say, my personal and professional level of discomfort was at an all-time high.

We reviewed our operations and streamlined where we could. More importantly, though, the experience taught us a number of invaluable lessons.

Lesson #1: Reframe your context

Our leadership approach, our business mindset and our attitude needed to be drastically reframed.

There is a quote that has always stuck with me, which is: “The antithesis of comfort is struggle.”

Related: 6 Of The Most Profitable Small Businesses In South Africa

I believe a person is moulded by the way they deal with struggle. That’s why I’ve always been inclined to welcome a proverbial punch to the face, and use as a mantra the phrase, “comfortable being uncomfortable”.

Being “uncomfortable” forced Popimedia into rapid innovation – and it was this innovation that led to a sea-change in the business. We learned how to scale, how to improve service levels, how to do what we do better, faster, more efficiently.

As a result, and without increasing our staff complement, our year-on-year growth has topped 100%. What was, at the time, the business’s greatest challenge became its greatest ally, and our biggest lesson.

Lesson #2: Fail fast, and learn from it

Obviously, this approach is not about making life difficult for the sake of personal and professional growth. It’s about understanding what is: expecting it to be difficult and taking a constructive approach towards failure and struggle.

There is one guarantee in business: you will experience failures, and you will struggle.

Central to this is your ability to recognise your failures for what they are, and quickly. This allows for a rejigging of processes, attitudes, operations, and sometimes even objectives.

My personal attitude to failure was reframed by simple sales stats. I came to understand that rejection was inevitable – but when it does happen, it brings with it opportunities. I always ask: “Why don’t you want my product? How is it not meeting your needs?” This way, “failure” is transformed into an opportunity to better understand the market and my clients.

This feedback loop has proved crucial, and allowed us to become what we are.

As an entrepreneur, the pressure never ends and you’ll never ‘arrive’. At Popimedia, we’ve come to embrace every opportunity that takes us out of our comfort zone. Working through failure is the foundation on which the entrepreneurial spirit is forged. It is the willingness to try again following a rejection, or to keep grafting knowing that there’s no guarantee of a pay cheque at the end of the month.

And doing so with the ‘chutzpah’ – the sheer audacity – to endure the hardship through mental toughness and a passion for what you do, becomes your greatest asset, because when you get comfortable, you become complacent… and complacency will work you into irrelevance.

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