I had an interesting pivoting experience. To me, it was a painful, but worthwhile experience.
I had an idea to create a simple way for people to buy and sell their expertise in small units of time online via multimedia communication (video, audio, text chat). That was the beginning of my start-up project, MinuteBox.
Initially, I thought that if we could stimulate strong motivation in people to buy and sell their time online, this business concept would be much more appealing to the users. Hence, we integrated a bidding mechanism into MinuteBox to differentiate ourselves from the competition. Through bidding, we believed that experts could earn the most money for their time, and clients could get the most competitive offers to receive advisory sessions.
It was not easy to create a slick user interface for our marketplace that supported this complex 2-way bidding concept. It took us about 9 months to build an Alpha site that we were happy with; a timeline we thought sensible for building our minimal viable product.
Just before our Beta launch, we were selected as a finalist at Seedcamp London 2011.
Our excitement was beyond description. We thought that we should postpone the beta launch for Seedcamp, and leverage the opportunity to create buzz for MinuteBox.
The Seedcamp day finally came. Every team needed to give a five minute presentation, with no Q&A. I remembered clearly that the first pitch was to be given by AdAvengers. My friend and also the founder, Farhan Lalji, delivered a great pitch. It was analytical and convincing. At that time, I was thinking perhaps it was an exceptionally good one. But, I was wrong. After listening to two or three pitches, it was very clear that all the finalists were outstanding start-ups, and my confidence began to go downhill.
Finally, it was my turn to pitch.
I took a deep breath, and pitched. Surprisingly, all the words came out of my mouth as planned. It certainly wasn’t an amazing presentation, but it went pretty well. I felt relaxed and told myself that the most challenging part was over. I was very wrong, AGAIN!
The most challenging part turned out to be the mentoring sessions.
Mentors at Seedcamp are experienced entrepreneurs, VCs, and industry experts. Their questions were sharp, to the point, and pushed us think hard about our business and our proposition. Many mentors were concerned about our go-to-market strategy.
We had decided that the start-up and social media communities were our target users in the initial stage. They were not convinced. They said that we needed to find a very small niche to start with, nail it, and then move to another niche. Knowing the downside of defining a niche that was too small, I was not convinced.
After hearing similar comments in different mentoring sessions, my co-founder and I felt quite frustrated and depressed. We thought we would get positive feedback as before, and the reality was opposite.
Going back to the office, we went through all the comments we got from Seedcamp. The issues brought to our attention were all rooted from our vertical and go-to-market strategy.
After hours of painful mental gymnastics, we had our A-HA moment.
We realized that it is silly to build a destination site as a starting point. People are interacting with each other on other social platforms already. We should offer our services to them at the places they are already interacting.
It would make much more sense for us to offer the MinuteBox service for people to buy and sell their expertise directly within social networking websites, blogs, forums and so on. By doing that, we could be much more social, and leverage the network effect of those communities.
A “micro-payment for time” service!
But, what about the pretty website we had spent more than a year building? My co-founder and I had a very tough discussion. I said that I would rather to just launch old website, and test the market. But, my co-founder said that would be a distraction. We needed time to maintain it, and fix bugs. With limited resources, it would slow down the building of our new site.
I was in a dilemma. It was difficult for me to ditch the site; we had spent significant money, as well as time to build it. But, my instincts told me that new pivot would be the way to go in the long term and I wanted us to launch based on that as soon as possible. I was very lucky to have a chat with Sherry Coutu, a highly respected entrepreneur and investor in the UK. She told me that if the team did not believe in the old website, we needed to move on and focus on the new strategy. It was not a waste of time or money, but a learning process.
After days of struggling, I decided to ditch the old website. We spent the next three and a half months to build our new website. It was a very tough decision, but I am so glad that we made it. A VC I met with, told me that the business is much more interesting and scalable because of our pivot. I was smiling when I heard that, and knew it was a good move.
I have learned some valuable lessons from our pivot
1. There is no such thing as a fully polished MVP:
Like many people, I don’t want to show other people my website until it looks very professional. It is much easier to sell your idea when your product is beautiful. However, that is not the MVP you are looking for. Your MVP needs to be as minimal as possible. I kept postponing our launch, telling myself that I needed a complex MVP to demonstrate the business idea. I paid the price for that mistake. There is always a way to make your MVP simpler.
I think the best rule of thumb is in Eric Ries’ original definition of MVP. “The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”
Your MVP should enable you to learn the most from your customers with the least possible investment of money and time, and to minimize the risk. It is likely that what you think is the perfect business model, might be far from viable.
Although it only took us 3 months to rebuild the website, we probably could have created a simpler MVP and tested the market earlier. I am still learning.
2.Follow your heart when you’re making a difficult decision:
Many entrepreneurs like to take an analytical approach business decisions. That is the route I prefer as well. We collect data, and then we make decisions based on it. In The Entrepreur’s Guide to Customer Development, it suggested that you should test at the most three hypotheses at a time. It forces you to focus, and it is easier for you to analyse the variables. However, in the start-up world, we are often called upon to make quick decisions. In many cases, we probably wouldn’t have enough time or information to make a proper logical decision. It was a difficult decision for me to ditch the previous version of our website. There were many logical reasons not to, but my heart told me otherwise. I am glad that I followed my heart. In many cases, there is no obvious right or wrong decision. Honestly, you just need to make one, and stick to it. If it is proved wrong, move on fast.
3. Apply for accelerator programmes: Without Seedcamp, we would never have had our all-important pivot. I could not appreciate more what that great opportunity to consult with the top minds in the industry has done for MinuteBox. The feedback you get by participated in Seedcamp for a day, would probably take you a year to get for yourself. The mentors ask you difficult questions and force you to think. They are brutally honest, but they are encouraging. They challenge you for your own good because they desperately want to see you succeed. Seedcamp New York is coming up. If you are running a start-up, I could not recommend it more. It will be an experience you will never regret, no matter if you win or not. There are other great start-up accelerator programmes out there, such as YCombinator and TechStars in the US and SpringBoard in the UK . If you can, apply to as many accelerator programmes or start-up competitions as possible. It is the best way for you to get feedback, and also get exposure for your company.
I am very positive and excited about our new direction. I know that no one can guarantee me this pivot is going to be a success for sure. But, I am hoping for the best. I know that we need to pivot, and keep pivoting along the way to make sure that our service is always relevant and useful to our users. I am determined to listen to our users and deliver the service they desire.
To me, building a start-up is a marathon. You might say there are a lot of over-night success stories in the start-up world. But, when you really look deep into it, you will realize that the success is always built upon continuous hard work.
Finally, I would really appreciate it if you could try out MinuteBox and give us your feedback.