I was invited to give a keynote address at the NYC BigApps ‘Appy Hour on June 16, 2014. My friend, Evan Cohen at IndieGogo, was kind enough to record a video that you can watch below.
In any case, I wanted to transcribe (and clean) the audio so you could skim the concepts quickly.
The aim of the keynote was to encourage NYC BigApps participants to pursue their apps even after the competition, with the goal of empowering more entrepreneurs in the NYC ecosystem. That said, many of the comments below are highly applicable to folks coming out of accelerators, like YC, 500 Startups, DreamIt, and Boost.VC.
Today I want to talk to you about taking your app beyond the accelerator, and I want to do that from the perspective of having gone through two different accelerator programs in the last two years. I’ll share some of the experiences that I’ve learned that will be beneficial to you as you develop your application for the NYC BigApps Competition.
Just to give you a perspective of where I’m coming from: I co-founded ListenLoop, a customer engagement platform that triggers feedback questions like these, inside of an internet connected product, a website, your mobile app, and it’s all about identifying whether customer satisfied, are they happy with your their application. If not, why not? Then it allows you to engage that customer to save them before they stop using your application. It’s been a long journey getting to where we are today.
We are about a year in, we closed a round of financing, and we set up our headquarters in Jackson Heights, Queens. We are really happy to build our company, team, and product in Queens.
We recently came out of an accelerator program from California called Boost.VC. Before that, I participated in accelerator program called DreamIt Ventures in New York City in 2012. It’s from these experiences that I want to share with you some thoughts. First, I’ll start off by addressing, “what the heck is an accelerator program?” I assume many of you already know, but I just want to be on the same page.
An accelerator program is typically a 12-week program that provides a small seed investment, co-working space, mentorship, and often times many other perks in exchange for 6% to 9% in a company that you are building. That’s the clinical, academic explanation. In reality, for many people, it’s a pressure cooker. It’s 12 weeks’ time to focus intensely on whatever it is you are doing and make something special.
I want you to imagine my co-founder and I moving to the Bay Area, leaving our wives and kids in New York. Boost.VC had housing for us, where my CTO and I bunked together for 5 months. Although we had worked together for a few years, this was the first time we would live together. Then imagine, across the street, a co-working space where we worked 100+ hour weeks to make something of what we are doing. And it’s that pressure cooker that helps you do something really special.
In this light, an accelerator is really helping you achieve escape velocity. You see, the status quo – doing nothing – is a strong force. It’s much like Earth’s gravitational pull as you try to launch a rocket out to space. Building an app, starting a company, forming a non-profit organization, it’s challenged by the status quo, and you have to find your own escape velocity to make something amazing of your organization, of your product, and so on.
What that means is that the accelerator is a means to an end. The demo day, the end of the 12-week program, is not the finish line. That much is extremely clear having gone through this two times. What really do we need to do after the accelerator program? The number one thing you have to do is survive. Every day is a challenge to continue fighting on with the same energy and conviction that you had at the beginning. That’s the real challenge.
You have to do survive, but to what end? Well, it’s for the purpose of achieving self-sustaining revenues or usage metrics that attract investment. How do we do that? What do we have to do to earn that? It’s users and their usage.
That is the most important thing that you need to think about as you are developing your app for the NYC BigApps competition. Because without users, you are not getting feedback about what is working, what is not working, and whether you’re actually addressing a pain point. This is critically important as you develop your app.
You’re probably thinking “Well, my app is not done yet. It’s not fully functional. It has not realized all the functions and features that I want it to accomplish.” That doesn’t matter. ListenLoop did not have anything before we started testing it in the market. Before writing a single line of code, I went out to every product MeetUp you could think of, Startup weekends, Lean Startup Machine conferences, events like this, and I took an iPad with me with a few screenshots that I put together in Photoshop. I would show the screenshots to people and I would say “Do you need this? Why? What problem does it solve for you?”
Some people would say “Yes I need it.” And I’d say “Great! I’m glad you think that way.” Then I’d plug in my Square and request their credit card. Of course, the real objections come out real quick at that point. “Wow, you want to charge me? No I don’t think I want this right now…” That’s when you really learn. Fortunately, at least with respect to ListenLoop, I also had many people tell me to go ahead and charge them!
So go ahead, swipe the credit card, get their contact information and when you build the product, you deliver on your promises. And if you don’t build the product, you simply refund them the money. It’s that simple.
I encourage you to make this process an integral part of your execution. It’s not just some crazy guy (me) telling you to do this. In fact, Wiley Cerilli, the CEO of SinglePlatform (a company from New York City that was recently sold to Constant Contact for $100M dollars) emphasizes this approach, too.
This is incredibly important and proof positive that you need to get out to the market before writing a single line of code to ensure that what you are doing is beneficial to your target customer. Whatever you do, don’t lock yourself in a room with your team and start fantasizing about the product you want to build and start building it. That is dangerous territory.
Instead, you should be like the hustlers in Times Square – selling CDs, getting in people’s faces, and talking product. “Sir, can I just follow you down the street for 5 minutes and ask you a couple of questions about what I’m doing?” And you know what, a lot of times, they are going to tell you “F*#K OFF!” Undoubtedly, you’ll get some yesses, too. After they hear your pitch, they’ll tell you “no, thanks.” But that’s exactly what you need: customer feedback explaining why your product doesn’t solve a problem for the target user.
If you are truly building a civic app that is supposed to help the people of New York City, what better place to do that and to validate that concept than Times Square. It has a density of foot traffic beyond your wildest dreams. The great thing about this approach is that you are not going to be weird… Not as weird as a naked cowboy anyway, right?
You are going to get a ton of customer feedback, and you are going to get told no hundreds of times. And that’s a good thing. If you haven’t been told no a hundred times, you are not doing it right. If everyone is telling you yes, you are missing something. Not all ideas are that great out of the gate.
I challenge you to try a strategy like this. Go out to a densely populated area and start pitching your application and getting immediate market feedback about the problem that you are solving for New York City.
We applied these lessons at ListenLoop, and we’ve been able to achieve our escape velocity. For us, it’s the number of questions triggered inside of websites. We just crossed one million triggers in May and we acquired some great customers, like Ustream, Work Market, Bloomfire, and others that enabled us to secure investment from angels like Tim Draper. As a result, we set up a little hacker house for 6 employees in Jackson Heights, Queens – complete with a foosball table. (You’re welcome to come and challenge us.) Now we’re at that point where we can grow and build our team and product.
I want to leave you with this concept: the New York BigApps competition is your accelerator. It’s your forcing function, a pressure cooker, to really put yourself under the gun and say, “this is what we are going to accomplish by a certain date and time.” Achieve greatness through that process. Thank you for your time!
Want to learn more about ListenLoop? Join us for a webinar on Friday, August 29th, where we will discuss questions for user feedback.