Getting Into a New Startup Scene: ColoradoDecember 15, 2014
In the last half of 2014, I decided I’d go to the US to finish a few university classes during the fall semester. Colorado was high (no pun intended) on the list of places I was interested in: breathtaking landscapes, epic mountains, quality skiing and, of course, a vibrant startup scene. We talked about it, and the team and I decided it would be a good experiment to try and make some noise for Snipcart over there for a few months. I left on August 16th. Thirty-one hours of driving a crumbling Grand Caravan around later, I got to my new apartment in Colorado Springs, CO.
Unfortunately, an early trampoline incident led to a serious lumbar vertebrae injury that forced me into a back brace for three months. I had to kiss sports and skiing goodbye real quick. Sad, but it still gave me a lot more time to focus on inserting Snipcart and myself into this new startup scene. In this post, I’ll try to summarize my experience and highlight the lessons I’ve learned along the way. Hopefully, this can be both entertaining and valuable for startups or entrepreneurs considering developing new markets.
Back home, I could leverage my personal network of connections to get in touch with a person or business relatively easily. I already knew a lot of different professionals, so I didn’t need to dig deep to uncover the leads. But when I got to Colorado, I knew a grand total of zero local people in the industry. This had to change, quickly. I opened Meetup and got busy RSVPing to relevant events happening near me (which meant Colorado Springs, Denver and Boulder). This event-planning tool was of great help to find starting places. Once I got to my first meetups, all I had to do was put a smile on my face, shake some hands and introduce myself and our startup (the back brace was a good ice-breaker). After that, honest, two-way conversations and clear questions rapidly led to a list of people, businesses and events I had to check out.
Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up
People in the tech industry are busy. Real busy. Whether they’re event organizers, startup founders or web agencies managers, they’ve all got loaded plates. I knew that, so I made sure not to get discouraged by unanswered first emails. I followed-up rigorously, with a few emails and phone calls if necessary. I only stopped when I had a clear “no” or a meeting. Never took it personal if it didn’t work out; just moved on to the next one. There’s a cool Buffer blog post that shows how success is a matter of ratio. I kept that in mind all the way.
Don’t seek sales only; seek feedback
A startup (especially a young one) is, by definition, flexible. Small and big changes are supposed to be easily achievable thanks to the famous build-measure-learn feedback loop. With Snipcart, for instance, we aren’t selling a finite, fixed in stone product: we keep releasing new useful features on a regular basis, and we always have the liberty to test and change the things that aren’t truly solving our customers’ problems. Most people in the tech industry know this. In my meetings and conversations, I found that being humble and honest about our status as a young startup led to really interesting and valuable exchanges (as opposed to the “here’s our perfect product and why you should buy it right now” approach). Plus, I was sort of starting with a strike: I was representing yet another solution allowing people to sell and ship products online. So I tried using the following attitude in order to establish trust and stimulate valuable feedback:
“Here’s how we think we can solve your problems with our product. But I’d like you to be honest and tell me if you think of any ways we could solve them even better.”
Sometimes, Snipcart was indeed a good solution for their current problems. Other times, though, something minor or major was lacking, and they would point it out clearly. This gave us food for thought and potential directions to explore as we keep growing. Our pricing model, for instance, has been a recurring subject in my numerous presentations and discussions. These valuable exchanges led us to the decision of trying a new experimental pricing quite soon (you can contact us directly for more details).
Staying opened and growing some balls
One thing I’ve learned by attending startup meetups, pitch nights and tech events is that business can be everywhere. There’s no place for preconceived judgments or disregarding talking to some people based on gut feelings. Since I had already done the effort to show up to an event, I tried to make the most out of it: I talked to everyone I got the chance to, putting away the “God, I don’t know anyone in here” feeling. With time and repeated social exercises, I got better at finding if we (Snipcart) could have any kind of value for someone, or if they could help us in any way. For instance, this is how we ended up getting a quality guest post from an excellent WordPress developer on our blog. And this post brought in hundreds of pageviews and a few direct sign-ups by itself.
I’ve also tried to step our pitch game up, participating in various pitch nights and startup events. Presenting our startup in front of a qualified and interested audience was quite an experience, and I’ll dive into it more specifically in another post.
Staying close to the action
School wise, I was part of an exchange program called NSE (National Student Exchange). The only university that was available in Colorado for this semester was UCCS (University of Colorado Colorado Springs). In a way, my hands were tied when it came to choosing where I’d set up shop. While Colorado Springs is a beautiful place with an emerging startup scene, it’s not where most of the action’s at (dev shops, events and opportunities). Generally, I had to drive to Denver or Boulder for work-related activities. This meant spending hours on the road every week, hours that I could’ve put into crafting content for Snipcart or meeting potential customers. If I were to do it again, I’d definitely settle for Denver or Boulder, for simple, practical reasons.
Sum-up: lessons learned
Diving in as early as possible in the new community is paramount. Without that first step, you won’t get any results.
Steady follow-ups are key. People are all busy, and it’s up to you to hustle until you get the chance to prove how awesome your product is.
Be opened to anything and anyone. You never know a person’s position and connections, and you never know where a seemingly trivial conversational may lead you and your business.
Don’t be afraid to make some noise. If you don’t speak up and ask for what you want loud and clear, you’ll never get anywhere.
Seek feedback actively. People and potential customers will greatly appreciate you taking the time to hear what they have to say. All relationships work best with two-ways communication.
Be where it’s at. You should put yourself as close as possible to the center of action and attention; it’ll be way easier to make things happen.
Oh, and I almost forgot: don’t try double back flips on trampolines.