Entrepreneurship Journal, 11/13/2015

Since I read The Positioning Manual I’ve been branstorming and researching various markets/niches.

My aim has been to find a market that’s conducive to both consulting engagements and a product. For example, hair salons wouldn’t fit both because almost no hair salon is going to hire a developer for a one-off consulting engagement. Most of them don’t have that kind of money.

On the other hand, I could imagine, say, manufacturing companies being a better fit. I could very easily imagine a manufacturing company that would see an ROI in hiring a developer for a one-off engagement, and have the money to pay for it.

Unfortunately I’ve found it hard to arbitrarily pick a market. I tried thinking of all the kinds of businesses I’ve already worked for. I got a couple ideas out of that but they were still a little too vague. For example, I worked for a trucking logistics startup. I researched that industry a little bit and couldn’t figure out a way to try to come at it.

I went relatively deep into a couple industries by subscribing to podcasts, trade magazines, email lists, etc. I hoped that by educating myself in these ways I’d be able to figure out a way to try to make some inroads into that industry. I haven’t been able to figure anything out.

Funnily enough, I actually had tried to position my consulting business before, I just don’t know if I called it positioning. At one point I called it my Unique Selling Proposition (USP). My first attempt at positioning was real estate. Just like the markets I’ve researched recently, I researched real estate and even talked to a few people in that industry, but couldn’t figure out how to get in. I went without any positioning for some time after that. Late I came up with a positioning statement that actually seemed to work.

Somehow I came up with the idea of selling my services not as software development but as “business process automation”. I think I got this idea from Dan Kennedy’s advice to put yourself into a “category of one”. Another thing that helped push me in this direction was that I would go to Chamber of Commerce meetings and tell people I was a software engineer, and they would either not understand or not care or both. So I knew I needed to come up with something that non-technical people could understand.

What I used to say at the Chamber meetings was, “I do business process automation. I take things that are tedious, time consuming and expensive and make them cheap, easy and enjoyable. I do this by writing custom software. A good referral for me is a business that uses Microsoft Excel. If you’re using Excel, there’s a good chance that means you’re either wasting a bunch of your own time or using up a bunch of payroll expense.”

I was using this same pitch in a BNI meeting and the guy sitting next to me actually tapped me on the shoulder and basically said, “Hey, that’s me. Maybe we should talk.” He ended up being a client. One of my favorite clients ever, in fact.

I don’t believe I ever got any work out of the Chamber that way. Eventually I got busy with client work and stopped going. But this morning I got an email from someone I had talked to several months ago about a certain Excel project and she was interested in reopening her conversation. The funny thing is that a couple days ago, I was actually wondering, “You know, maybe instead of trying to arbitrarily come up with a vertical niche, I should just keep going with my horizontal niche that has already worked a little bit.” This email from my old Chamber contact has given me a little bit more encouragement in that direction.

I might chance my mind again soon but I think right now I’ll try going a little further down the Excel path. But instead of telling people I do “business process automation”, I think I’ll just come right out and say “I turn Excel into software.” I should probably say something more like, “I save businesses money by turning Excel systems into custom software.” I’ll probably test a number of pitches and see how they’re received. I can definitely thank Philip Morgan for the idea to make my narrow focus (business process automation) even narrower (Excel). I can see people grasping the Excel thing a lot more readily than business process automation.

I’m not sure what exactly I want to prioritize next. I think I want to rewrite my website copy, get new business cards, and start going to business networking groups again. The business networking groups can really put a squeeze on the ol’ schedule.

I’m actually trying to pick up a little side work over the next couple months, so if I’m successful in doing that like I hope I’ll be, I probably won’t actually be doing much to work “on” my business during that time just because I’ll be so busy.

Why I Want To Work With Toptal

The name of my consulting business is Ben Franklin Labs. The thing I like about Ben Franklin is that although his genius extended all the way from hard science to diplomacy. It’s my aim to emulate Ben Franklin in the sense of having a well-rounded education and skillset. I don’t want to serve clients as just a programmer but as an equal partner helping them achieve their larger business goals.

I started programming professionally at the age of 16 in the year 2000. Since that time I’ve worked for a lot of different employers and clients, and I’ve also hired a number of people to work for me. I’ve also started a number of my own (failed) product businesses. These experiences have taught me what tends to work and not work in software projects and in business in general. Most importantly, these experiences have taught me how to view the world through the same lens my clients do, so I can anticipate and empathize with their needs.

Among the most important lessons I’ve learned are that clients value clear and frequent communication, proactive behavior, and dependability. I’ve heard clients say that they’d rather hire a dependable person who’s just a mediocre person rather than a “rockstar ninja” programmer who’s a flake. I like to think I’m a strong programmer at the technical level but I also go out of my way to be a super clear communicator.

I feel like I have too much to offer the world to spend my career working for just a few employers for years at a time each. I would rather help a relatively large number of clients. Plus, by working with a variety of clients, I can gain that much more perspective, meaning that as I go, I can help each client that much more.

Right now I’m working as a Senior Software Engineer (that’s my title) for a local software agency. I committed to a year with them. I’m done with that in August 2016, after which point I plan to go freelance again like I was before I started. Before August I’d like to spin up some side work to get some momentum going before I go out on my own again.

My hope is that the feeling is mutual and that Toptal would like to work with me as well so I can help Toptal’s clients benefit from my experience and skills just like the clients I’ve served in the past have. In addition to doing programming work, I’m also interested in potentially writing for the Web Programmers Community.

Entrepreneurship Journal, 10/31/2015

I won’t be doing Snip updates anymore since I killed Snip, although I do still want to keep people updated on the progress of my entrepreneurial journey. I’ll call my new updates my “Entrepreneurship Journal”. I’ll shoot for making them weekly but it’ll probably end up being more random than that.

This time around I want to optimize for least frustration. What I’d like to do is find a certain niche where I can start off doing consulting, then over time shift over to selling a product in that area. For example, right now I’m doing a consulting engagement for a magazine where I’m replacing their Excel-based system with a web application. After this I could conceivably do the same thing for another magazine, then another. Over time I could collect the common parts of what I’ve done for each client, and instead of selling just a consulting engagement, I could sell a consulting engagement that’s built on top of a product. Then eventually I’d just sell the product.

So right now I’m researching niches. I want to avoid what happened with Snip where I spent almost 18 months between the time I started working on the business and the time I made my first dollar. I figure if I start off with consulting engagements in my niche, then the worst case is I will have done some consulting and made some money.

What I’m researching right now is solar. If anyone knows anyone in the solar industry, and intro would be greatly appreciated.

By the way, a lot of this niche thinking is thanks to a really good book I read recently called The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms by Philip Morgan. If you’re a freelancer I’d consider it a must-read.

I’m shutting down Snip. Here’s why.

About a week ago I made the decision to put a bullet in Snip after almost five years of effort. There wasn’t one big event that caused me to make the decision. It was a number of realizations that built up over time, and then one day a certain customer cancelled and that was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I had had a level of success with a PPC campaign I had started in late spring, but eventually the PPC campaign inexplicably fizzled and most of the customers I “won” via the PPC campaign didn’t actually end up completing their trial periods. The success was mostly an illusion. It was the day that one of these customers cancelled that I started seriously pondering the idea of shutting down the business.

Here are some of the challenges the salon market presents:

  • Unlike developers, designers and other office workers, stylists and salon owners aren’t on the computer all day. They do use smartphones, but not nearly in the same way we use computers. This makes it hard to reach them.
  • Salon owners have a competitive scarcity mindset. They guard their “secrets”. There aren’t local salon owner meetups. Therefore, there’s little opportunity for referrals.
  • Salon owners usually don’t view themselves as business owners. They’re technicians who happen to be in possession of a business. Most of them also seem to have an expense mindset as opposed to an investment mindset, which is of course an obstacle to selling.
  • Stylists and salon owners are very averse to talking with salespeople on the phone. Most of them don’t really seem to use email in my experience, and in fact many of them don’t even HAVE email. Again, hard to reach.
  • I’m not a domain expert in the beauty industry. I don’t want to be, and I’m never going to be. I can’t build an audience of fans.
  • What I already do for money (programming) has nothing to do with the beauty industry. My product doesn’t feed my service business and my service doesn’t feed my product business.
  • Salons open and close like crazy. I lost a customer recently because they just opened their salon and they failed to get it off the ground. High turnover means high churn.

Of course no market is going to be without challenges, but this one seems particularly challenge-laden. I don’t seem to have above-average entrepreneurial aptitude (as I’ve painfully come to realize over the last seven years of failure). I probably shouldn’t be taking a shot at business success with one arm tied behind my back.

I’m going to take another stab at building a successful product business. This next one will be the seventh attempt. Here’s what I’ll do differently:

  • Pick a product that synergizes with what I already do for money, programming
  • Pick a market that spends a lot of time online, searching for solutions to problems
  • Pick a market in which I can build an audience that cares about things I have to say
  • Pick a market that has money and can pay $X00/mo, not $X0/mo
  • Pick a market that has a problem that can be solved with a relatively simple product that won’t take forever to build
  • Detect the demand first, then build the list, then sell the product, then build the product (or something roughly like that)

Or at least I’ll pick an idea that meets most of those criteria.

I’ve already started researching and brainstorming for my next idea. I’m open to any ideas anyone might have. Wish me luck.

Goals and plans and some rambling

Some time ago I changed my lead form from asking for just name and email to asking for name, email and phone number. Conversions fell off a cliff. After about a week and a half of getting almost no leads, I changed it back to just asking for name and email. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my ad budget often runs out near the end of the month and I stop getting leads no matter what.

For most of September I’ve been getting a reasonably steady stream of email addresses coming in, but almost no phone calls or chats for some reason. I’m actually kind of glad that this lull has happened because it made me realize that the email-only leads aren’t very valuable. I had been automatically emailing each lead, but almost no one would respond. (I realize should be sending more than just one email to each person.) But it’s just so much easier to follow up via phone, at least for me.

So about a week ago I changed my lead form back to requiring phone number. Actually, I require a lot more stuff now. The form is now a questionnaire designed to filter out bad leads.

So far I’ve gotten 5 leads over the course of 10 days. I get about 222 visits a month or 222/30 = 7.4 a day, so 10 days is 74 visits. That makes my conversion rate 5/74 ~= 6.8%. That’s a small sample size, of course, but it gives me a rough idea.

I had been thinking earlier that it feels lame to only get one lead every 2 or 3 days, but when I put it in terms of conversion rate it doesn’t sound so bad.

I had also had some ideas around target conversion rates before I even did any number crunching. Here’s what I was thinking.

Step Target conversion Rate Predicted volume/month
PPC Click N/A 222 ($500/$2.25 bid)
Fill out lead form 5% 11
Do a screenshare demo 50% 5
Start 30-day trial 50% 2
Become a paying customer 50% 1

I’d be pretty happy with these percentages, and I don’t know that I can hope for much better. I’m not terribly thrilled with the idea of paying $500 for just one customer each month. In the first two or three months of my PPC campaign (I forget), I got 7 free trials going at once. That means 7/3 = 2.3 trials per month, which is actually pretty close to my prediction here, especially because the real un-rounded percentage would be 2.5. And out of my complete months of PPC so far (June, July, August), 3 of those 7 trials converted to paid. So funnily enough, I’m realizing that the numbers I’ve already seen pretty closely match my targets above. The earliest input ($500/mo for 222 clicks) and latest output (3 paying customers) are easy to measure. I haven’t kept very good track so far of number of demos that I’ve done, although I guess I’ve kept good enough track of how many trials I had started, since I know the exact number (7).

Even though $500/mo for 1 customer isn’t the most desirable ROI in the world, it’s not so out of whack that I wouldn’t be willing to pay it. If somebody asked me if I’d pay $5000 to instantly have 10 more customers right now, I’d probably say okay. At this stage I think I just need better revenue, even if it takes an unscalable initial cash outlay.

Let’s see, if I do spend $5K for an additional 10 customers (over time), that would be roughly $300/mo more in revenue, bringing me to about $720/mo. If I spent $10K that would get me to just over $1000/mo, which is a milestone I’ve been shooting for for a long time.

I’ll be really curious to see how October goes. I’ve gotten roughly jack shit in September so far. I think I’ve done one demo. For this I blame the fact that I haven’t been collecting phone number in my lead form (even though I hadn’t been before), plus the apparent fact that September is a slow salon month. And maybe just a little plain old bad luck. If October goes well then by that time I’ll have a sufficiently large sample size that I think I’ll be comfortable in November spending a little more than the previous $500/mo.

“Weekly” Snip Report, Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Wow! I’ve missed over a month’s worth of posts. Sorry about that.

Kind of a lot has happened in my life since last time I posted, although not a ton with Snip.

I had a situation with a client where they wanted to hire me full-time and I didn’t want to, so I gave them two conditions that I expected them not to go for: 1) I could only commit to a year at most, and 2) I wanted a certain crazily high salary. For better or worse, they called my bluff and met those two conditions. So for the next year, I’m a full-time employee as opposed to purely a freelancer. It’s not a substantially different arrangement from most of the contracting gigs I’ve had over the last couple years, a number of which have been 40 hours a week, some off-site work and some off-site work. It’s a good gig with good people, so I’m not complaining. I just really didn’t expect them to say yes to my two conditions which for most prospective employers would probably be deal-breakers.

For some reason September has been a quiet month as far as sales activity goes. For the first couple weeks I got almost no opt-ins to view my demo video. I suspect Labor Day weekend as a possible culprit. I normally have gotten kind of a lot of phone calls, too, but lately I haven’t. I’ve only gotten a couple, and so far I’ve only done one screenshare demo, although the demo video opt-ins have certainly picked back up to normal levels.

Previously my view-demo-video opt-in asked for name and email, and then I would send an automatic email to the prospect asking what features they were looking for. Almost no one would respond, and those who would respond would usually go dark immediately. (I know, I should be sending each person a million emails to follow up. But I FUCKING SUCK at that and it’s probably never going to happen while I’m the person actually doing it.) So I changed my form to a long dis-qualification form asking for their phone number, what features they’re looking for, and a few other things. I expect this form to have a lower conversion rate, but since every conversion will include a phone number, it may well be better than getting about one email address every day that I can’t effectively do anything with.

I decided I’ll leave this form this way for a solid month to see how it performs. I had tried asking for phone number before, but I got scared after just a week or so and switch back to no-phone. I don’t think I tried it for long enough. Happily, someone actually filled out my form within the first couple hours of its existence, so that’s good encouragement to keep it up.

I went to Double Your Freelancing Conference last week, which was totally fucking awesome. I met a lot of really cool people. One of the people I met was Brian Casel, who mentioned that when he had his longer lead form for Restaurant Engine, it was helpful if he could catch the submissions right away and call them back within a few minutes. When he said it, I was like, “Oh, DUH!” because my form doesn’t notify me when I get a new submission. (Something in my server’s email configuration is fucked up or something.) So I should fix that, ASAP. I also talked to Allan Branch who suggested that I could maybe do “fake” online booking where clients fill out a form, then an actual person handles booking the appointment for them. That would be (as far as I can think) so simple and easy to implement, and I could conceivably double my whole revenue based on that. Those two things alone basically made the whole cost of attending DYFC worth it.

So I guess I’ll have some interesting news to report after a month or so after I let my lead form go for a while. Or sooner, I guess. I just asked my support person to call all my customers and ask them if they would use online booking if we offered it, and if so, how much they would pay for it.

Weekly Snip Report, Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

Things keep getting better.

In a previous post I described a conception of a sales process which I’ll abbreviate here:

  1. Initial phone call with prospect
  2. Screenshare demo with prospect
  3. Collect prospect’s credit card info and begin 30-day trial
  4. Follow up with prospect via phone throughout trial

At the time I wrote about this process it was pretty much untested. Since that time I’ve had the chance to try it out on live subjects and, perhaps somewhat shockingly, it has worked quite well exactly the way I first conceived it. In fact, I used steps 2 and 3 with a prospect today and collected a new credit card number.

Right now I have 7 prospects in a free trial, 5 of whom have CC info on file with me. These are definitely unprecedented numbers. Six of those trials end in the next 30 days.

So I’ll continue to let the machine run, and keep up with sales work, support work, and some product development. I had consciously decided to pause active product development some months (maybe years!) ago, but new sales activity has required me to pick back up.

I’ve changed my pricing structure and reduced some existing customers’ prices as a result. Revenue in July was about $250, lower than the best-ever month of $430. If all 7 of these trials convert (which I’m not holding my breath for), it will be at least an additional $210/month, putting me at $460/mo. I think I can reasonably expect $500/mo to be just around the corner, which would be a new high. The next milestone in my sights after that is $1000/mo, which will be cause for celebration. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

I also reached another milestone: my server could no longer handle the growing load and I had to up my Heroku dynos from 2 workers to 3. Like a number of other things I’m dealing with, good problem to have.

Weekly Snip Report, Thursday, August 13th, 2014

I had another good prospect get onboarded late last week, I believe it was. The leads continue to come in at a pretty steady rate.

Consulting is very busy. I work all day almost every day. That part sucks.

I have no mental energy left to write this.

Weekly Snip Report, Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Things are still going well with the PPC campaign. I don’t really have a whole lot to say besides that. Just gotta let the system do its thing for a couple months to make sure it’s actually working the way I believe it’s working, then crank it up from $500/mo to $1000/mo and see if the results get doubled.

I decided that if things look good for June, July, August and September, I’ll set it to $1000/mo in November. There’s a 30-day delay between the end of a month and when I know how that month really did, so that’s why I say November as opposed to October.

Weekly Snip Report, Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

The last seven days have been pretty good, I guess. I got some new leads. Two of them seem good, and one of them seems so good that I’m about 95% sure they’ll become a customer.

I’ve come up with a potential solution to a major problem in my sales funnel.

The problem I have, which I’ve had forever, is that people will sign up for a free trial but then never use it. There seems to be a mismatch between the kind of effort that’s required to get the trial going and the effort the prospect is willing to put in at that point.

Here’s the idea I came up with:

  1. The first step has to be a phone conversation. Sometimes prospects call me via the 800 number. For people who view the demo, I get their email address. I think either way the first real interaction has to be a phone call. During this phone call I can try to uncover any reason they would NOT make a good prospect. (For example, if they need online booking, that’s just not something I offer, and there’s no point in us talking.) When I say the first step has to be a phone call, I’m saying this in contrast to starting a trial. During this first phone call, I’ll invite the prospect to the next step.
  2. The next step has to be a live demo. It could either be a GoToMeeting type thing or a phone call where we just both look at the product. The point is that it has to be synchronous, real-time. This is where I’d want to get ALL the objections out of the way. The outcome here should be either that we determine Snip is clearly not a good fit, or we move to the next step.
  3. The next step is the 30-day trial with credit card required up front. I’ve had enough people sign up for free trials by now without ever doing anything that I don’t care if requiring a credit card hurts the conversion rate of the trial step. It would probably actually boost the overall conversion rate.
  4. Once the prospect has started the trial, I need to take much more advantage of the phone than I have so far. I should be calling the prospect the next day, a few days later, and then once a week or so after that. I need to not let them go cold.

So what work does that translate into for me?

  1. The only thing necessary here is for me to say different stuff in the call. “Do you think there’s any chance Snip might be a good fit for you? Yes? Okay, the next step is to do a 15-minute demo together on the computer so you can actually see how it works. Can we schedule that now?”
  2. I don’t know if this will require any extra work. So far what I’ve done for the demo step is to start a free trial for the prospect and then walk them through that. But I don’t want to do that anymore. From now on I just want to do a GoToMeeting for some fake account. It might be a good idea for me to populate that account with realistic-looking appointments, but that would definitely not be necessary, just potentially helpful.
  3. It would be a good idea, although again not necessary, for me to build a really nice-looking (trust-inspiring) trial sign-up page that includes credit card information. But I can also just take the info over the phone.
  4. For this step I just need to make more calls. No building of anything necessary.

So next time somebody calls the Snip 800 number (which I hope is really soon!), I won’t offer them a free trial. The goal of the call will be to get them to agree to a screenshare demo.