Please note: I wrote the following blog post before crystalizing the actual business model for the StartupU. This blog post is an example of how I began to flesh out an idea by writing all the thoughts in my mind until I reached a new, deeper understanding of the problem I was trying to solve. In fact, I was not even aware of the problem I was trying to solve until I unpacked my thoughts, researched, and wrote over 100,000 words in my word processor.
Use this post as an example that shows how necessary it is to write until you can’t write anymore before starting a business. The place I started with this project was so convoluted. I was trying to be someone who built something that was not me. Writing helped me get back to myself, and realize that it is OK if I want to build a startup that solves a social problem. That is who I am. It is who I have been training to become my entire life. As you read this post you may notice hints of a different person. A person who was still blinded by the glamour.
The Startup University (alpha version 0.1)
On Sunday, August 23rd I came across one of Richard Branson’s websites. It’s a curated news source he built using paper.li – I had never heard of paper.li prior to finding Richard’s site. I thought to myself, “If Richard Branson is using paper.li it must be worth taking a look at. What can I use paper.li for?” The internet is saturated with information about startups. There isn’t a coherent blueprint that curates and outlines all of this information. The people who know how to navigate the startup process are often protected behind pay-walls or act as gatekeepers to mentors and funding. That’s a problem for me. It might not be a problem to the 500 startups being mentored in an accelerator such as 500 Startups, but what about the 501 to 5001 people who don’t get picked as one of the 500?
My broad definition for The Startup University: the active and continuous pursuit of the most cutting edge education on building scalable and sustainable startups. One platform where you can learn from all the pioneers as they blaze a trail in their niche of the startup blueprint. Rather than build something nobody wants, I’m going to use paper.li to curate a newspaper for startups. I can test whether there is interest first. I own the domain name: thestartup.university so I created a subdomain to use as the main domain of my paper.li site: news.thestartup.university It only took about 20 minutes to use paper.li to build the newspaper for startups. Yes, I have read the Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Yes, I watch the videos on the Google for Entrepreneurs website. Yes, I follow websites like GrowthHackers. Yes, I read the daily email discussions in the LeanStartup Google Group. Yes, I’m aware of startups like Clarity who provide paid access to the top entrepreneurs in the world. Mark Suster recently wrote a post about how to use frameworks to make decisions for startups. In fact, Andrew Chen is giving an 8-week lecture series focused on growth, metrics, and marketing. These are all great resources, but I still have questions.
How do I focus on the most important ideas of my startup? What are the most important ideas? Where do I start? How do I become ready to be one of the 500 startups that get accepted to an accelerator such as the 500 Startups? Do I even want to be in an accelerator? Am I leaving out any important pieces from my process? What is the exact order I should be working through each step? What is each step? How do I find a mentor? Do I even want a startup mentor? Do I look for funding or will funding find me when my idea has developed enough? I plan to read Mark Peter Davis’ book, The Fundraising Rules to learn how to get my startup funded.
Newspaper for startups curated on paper.li
I tweeted a link to my new paper.li project last Sunday. I’ve had more activity on my Twitter account in five days than I have had since I created my account in 2009.
1) it’s been favorited 5 times 2) my follower count increased by 39 (111 followers to 150 followers) 3) Sarah Kay Hoffman tweeted a link to my blog post about growth hacking I contribute the website traffic increase to Sarah. By the way, thanks Sarah!
4) website traffic increased two days after my tweet – this was mostly from SKH as I state above 5) On August 26th I was followed by the venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur, @MPD 6) On August 30th I received a notification that Matteo Duo tweeted a link to my growth hacking blog post
The moment someone I didn’t know tweeted a link to one of my blog posts is when I started to take myself more seriously. After dealing with the defeating interaction at TigerLabs I needed something like this to happen to get myself up and running again. Thanks, Matteo! By the way, if you don’t know Matteo you should check out the awesome work he does to help you empower your Gmail http://www.matteoduo.com/landing/empower-your-gmail/ Some of my new followers are people I have looked up to for years. Some are venture capitalists, startup advisors, and many are founders of their own startups. Not too long ago, I didn’t even know what VC meant.
Notable new Twitter followers
Hugh Mcleod from Gaping Void Art Mark Peter Davis the Venture Capitalist John Boitnott Peter Caputa the Vice President of Sales at HubSpot Igor Jed Record Boomtown Accelerator from Boulder, Colorado Ali Mese Stefan Persson Innovative Tech Summit Jennifer Acuri from Innovative Tech Summit Matthew Tukaki Mike D. Martin Ed Perez Startup Dynasty Carl Niedbala Rossa Shanks Appsurdity Appsurdity’s Creative Director, Jake Counsell This is the first time I have ever gone through a growth spurt like this. Actually, I hated Twitter until now.
Growth hack my startup Twitter List
Next, I built a Twitter list called “Growth Hack My Startup”. Why? I want to maintain a list of all the relevant people who followed me after I tweeted the link to the curated news for startups. Why? So I can start speaking with each of them individually. Why? To utilize the list as part of my growth engine. Why do I need a growth engine? I want to have an audience when it comes time to push my next product out.
Building a profitable audience
This time last year I made the mistake of not building an audience before marketing my digital product, The Skilz Book. I knew how important it was to have a prelaunch strategy, but the moment I started blogging regularly I had the marketing for my product baked into all my content. My immediate community (friends and family) enjoyed it and were engaging with each new blog post I shared. But, all of my friends and family weren’t the people I was trying to sell my product to. Once I realized this, I started shifting the focus of my product and who I was targeting. I tried to have it match the audience I had. Six weeks later, I released my digital product for sale. If I didn’t make enough sales on the release day I would have to find other work. One week later I was freelancing again. There were many problems with my approach. An important one was the reason behind why I was writing the stories on my blog. The first and foremost reason was not to help people. It was to get people ready for my new product. This would have been OK if I already spent six months to many, many years trying to help people and connect with people. I would have known exactly what you needed. However, from the first post I wrote it was “all about the Benjamins”. Moving forward, as with this post and my previous post about growth hacking, my priority is to help YOU. Inspire YOU. Then, only after I have served you well and we are the best of friends, will I have the insight to know what I can build that will fit your needs. Nathan Barry does a great job breaking down how to build a profitable audience.
At first, my ego was excited when my Twitter followers increased by nearly 50 from one tweet. Then I thought. “Why would all these people follow me?” They must see some type of value being involved in what I’m doing: 1. To promote their own startup. 2. Take advantage of an investment opportunity. 3. Learn from the content I’m curating and publishing. If just one of those reasons are true, I’m in a good place to continue growing. I spent a good amount of time researching each new follower I received. Rather than just follow everyone that took notice of me in the last few days, I’m going to start conversations with each of you. I’m going to find out what I can do to help you. Then, I’m going to do it.
The Startup Engine
I have two other ideas I’m developing outside The Startup University. They are actual product ideas. Not just a curation of content. I hope to use The Startup University as fuel for my growth engine. I’d like to keep it free so everyone has access to the opportunity for greatness. Regardless of who you know or where you come from.
The Startup University Curriculum
Here’s the first lesson I want to contribute to the curriculum: Ambiguity is your new best friend. I started writing this post about a week ago. I didn’t have a concrete vision for The Startup University at that time. I wrote over 3,000 words in the last few days. I cut this post down to about 2,000 words. I was able to flesh out the idea by writing all my thoughts down. I’m going to draft a phase one outline for The Startup University. I’m going to follow up with a lean canvas of where I’m at right now. I’m also keeping a list of curriculum subject matter with potential mentors and professors. Or… Should I focus on continuing doing what I’m doing? Focus on providing helpful information to my community. I need to build my growth engine, right? What should I be doing?