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You will learn that the problem your startup is solving needs to be not only important, but also, a priority of your users.
My first entrepreneurship endeavors started when I was 8, when I decided to begin selling my old toys in school and on the Central Square street market. I remember setting up my “booth” I made from a couple of cardboard boxes and standing next to a few dozens of elders who were selling handmade socks, old electronics, and some other scrap. Business was going well, but because it was still USSR with communism values, when somebody told my class teacher about my enterprise, I was publicly shamed in front of the whole class and forced to shut it down. I still remember that day as if it was yesterday, and I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. Thankfully, my parents supported me. Since then I’ve had many attempts to earn money myself.
On the professional side, I learned computer science and business management in university, web-design started as a hobby and turned into a side hustle, when I was designing and hand-coding websites for friends of the friends and small businesses. For the last 8 years, I’ve been learning more about UX design and product development, understanding the needs of the customers and coming up with solutions to help them achieve what they need.
Even though I’ve launched a few unsuccessful startup initiatives before, Team Voice was my first official one, with a 50/50 co-founder, incorporating, legal, accounting fees, etc. Why did I decide to invest so much time and some money into solving this particular problem? I strongly believe that people spend a huge chunk of their lives at work, and I noticed that lots of people I talked to were unhappy at work. It doesn’t make sense to waste so much time doing something that makes you unhappy. Everybody deserves to live a happier life. Coming from my own experience and noticing the same patterns when talking to my friends and colleagues, I concluded that there is a gap in safe and secure communication between employer and employees. The standard tools (e.g. annual engagement survey) with a bunch of their flaws didn’t work, and there was a need for a tool that opens up this communication channel uncovering what’s broken in the company, so they can act on it before their employees leave.
In brief, lots of iterations and lots of testing with my target audience. I started with showing a few paper sketches and “pitching” the idea to the HR manager of the company I was employed at that time. Then, I also reached out to all my LinkedIn connections and asked for introductions to people they knew from HR industry. As a result, I’ve got a list of a bit more than 10 great people that were super helpful and were willing to be a part of my pilot group. Lots of user research, lots of thinking, lots of doing, lots of testing and iterating. Rinse and repeat.
As for the marketing strategies, we were still working with the pilot group of people when we decided to shut it down. I tried some Google Adwords and word of mouth options, but no large marketing effort.
The problem we were trying to solve turned out to be a human problem, not a technology one. And, as one of the well-known venture capitalists said, human problems should be solved by therapists =)
At the end, I realized that even though our target audience – HR professionals – understood the importance of employee engagement, they were too overloaded with daily routine tasks (e.g. interviewing, screening, writing job descriptions, etc.). They didn’t have time to sit down and think about the strategic stuff that we were trying to solve - engagement and retention. Even though all of them said it was one of the things that kept them up at night, they just had too much tactical stuff on their plate to carve out some time to do something about engagement. What this meant is that there is lack of understanding of how important employee engagement is by the people who allocate budgets for different departments. So, in order for us to sell our product it would require a much larger effort to educate and convince CEOs, or CFOs, or other execs who manage company finances. Considering our daytime availability this would be a very challenging task. And I decided that I didn’t have enough time and resources to tackle this challenge.
Finding time to meet with my pilot group and test product iterations. I was a full-time employee with a strict work schedule, and it was very hard to get out of the office during the work hours. And in B2B business your customers are rarely available after hours. I didn’t feel good asking for their time after work, when they were going to their families after another stressful day at work. If I had more flexibility with the work schedule, we’d had better progress. And sadly, I couldn’t afford quitting my job as I had to pay bills and support my family.
Hard to say, considering my situation I think I did what I could. Maybe, ask for money before building anything, but not sure if that’d help if the main challenge was with educating of the execs in each client company separately.
Start validating the problem you are trying to solve as early as possible. Use prototyping and testing constantly. Don’t be afraid to ask for money.
There are a lot of amazing books. One of the last ones that struck me most was “The Hard Thing about Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz.
I wrote a case study going through my design process and research on my personal website. Also, with my new project I want to help entrepreneurs learn and start using rapid prototyping in their product development process.
We have learned one thing from the failure of Team Voice. The problem your startup is solving needs to be, not only important for your users but also their priority. HR professionals understood the importance of employee engagement, but they didn't consider it their priority.
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