Lessons from my first year as an internet entrepreneur

A year ago today I launched my first internet venture. It’s been quite a year, with much learning. I have tried to bring together my key learnings here for posterity.

As a bit of background, I had been coaching business school students for many years and in Dec 2010 had just finished a thesis on “Creating Effective Space for Learning”. I was inspired to work with a colleague to develop a ‘space’ online for a very specific kind of learning: elevator pitches. We launched GetPitch.com to help people improve their pitch by practising it on video and getting feedback from experts or the social network. Once we launched the beta site, we were approached by a professor to create a customised solution for student multimedia submissions and review. We began talking to different people in our network about how our technology could be used more broadly for education, candidate selection and community sharing. Within six months we re-branded as Amphi Media and since then created several bespoke platforms serving customers in these different ways with implementations in Singapore, India, Sweden and France.

Looking back, here is what I have learned from the year:

On defining the business:

  • Start with what you know. Address a need you experience firsthand. When we came up with the idea of GetPitch.com, I had seen it as addressing my clients’ need to practice their pitch. What I later realised was that the technology was also solving my need as a coach/trainer to have an online tool to work with my clients to help with their professional development. The market of coaches and trainers was something I understood better than managing an online site for end users. To manage a “B2C” product was a daunting task of mass-marketing and mass cost, whereas I knew lots of potential “B2B” customers like me, for whom we could bring the technological solution without having to worry about generating the audience to use it. Starting with clients with whom we can relate has allowed us to build a solid foundation from which to expand to other customer segments.
  • Adapt to your market while staying true to your goal. Yes we need focus when creating a new venture but I’ve seen many entrepreneurs fail by focusing on a misguided original vision of their product or service, rather than being open to see how the market uses it. Our original idea had been to have the pitch practice site, but my underlying goal was to help people learn through the use of video, self-reflection and feedback. By working with clients in the context of our goal, we could test and learn what features they needed and build for purpose. After trying out different solutions for different customers we are now in a good position to invest in a new version of the product with the features and user interface that better address customer needs while still serving the goal of enabling multimedia submissions and review.
  • Don’t wait to feel ‘ready’. Just put yourself out there. Six months after our launch, we were still trying to figure out our business direction but nonetheless participated in an international entrepreneurship competition (Biz Barcelona). At the time our strategy was oscillating between developing the market for our B2C pitch practice site or creating bespoke platforms for managing video submissions in a variety of ways. So what was our business? Who were we becoming? Did we need to change the name from GetPitch? We had to decide quickly because we had put a stake in the ground to attend the competition and pitch to investors. That event helped us focus and deliver on our message. Pitching together with my business partner also helped us ensure we were on the same page about what our business was and what it was becoming. We participated in more events throughout the year including the i7 Summit, LeWeb and various events at INSEAD business school. By attending these events, we met great people who helped us develop. Every encounter gave us new learning – not just about what was out there but also about what we wanted to be.

On conditions for success:

  • Be in a nurturing environment. I rent an office beside several other entrepreneurs at a corporate university called CEDEP, situated on the corner of the campus of INSEAD business school where I have been providing coaching and training for some time. Having informal contact on a daily basis with the other entrepreneurs allowed the idea for our venture to spark and flourish. Also being in regular close proximity to institutions where we had lots of contacts and lots of potential projects allowed for the repeated and diverse conversations that helped us define and test our products. To start our venture, the location played an instrumentally positive role. Moving forward, I can also see the limitations that this location may bring as we try to grow – making it a hurdle to branch out beyond the immediate circle of contact. That will be the key challenge in the second year.
  • Have a partner with a shared vision and a different perspective. As we began this venture, my vision for a learning platform fit my co-founder’s vision for the development of technology. We were very much in sync on our direction, and remained flexible on how to work toward it. With our different experiences and different perspectives we could balance each other out on product decisions and matters of execution. As the business has gathered momentum in the development of customised education products, however, it has become less and less in line with my partner’s vision for the technology delivery. As we head into year 2, we need to make decisions on how to bring together a team that shares the motivation for the market space we are managing to develop.
  • Have a good lead client. The first professor for whom we developed a platform had a specific and complex need that set a high bar for our development and delivery. It allowed us to test our product under demanding conditions, forcing us to learn quickly, while benefiting from the support our client provided as a partner in the development. From that experience, we could be more confident about the robustness of our product and had a strong testimonial for building future business.

On execution:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. With the number of products and services available on the internet, it doesn’t seem to me that the first movers have the advantage. The transparency of internet businesses allows us to see how other people are marketing, pricing and delivering their businesses. It is a treasure trove of ideas to help inspire choices for our own business, saving us time and money.
  • Have technology skills in-house but build redundancy. My business partner was capable of doing all of the coding this past year, so we did all of the development in-house. Looking back, it was incredibly helpful to have that flexibility and expertise because we weren’t clear enough on our initial product to define specs for an outside supplier with service level agreements, etc. We would have likely over-engineered with a lot of mis-directed effort and cost. As the business began to take form however, being dependent on only one person to deliver added stress and risk when there were tight deadlines or unexpected problems. To create a sustainable business, we need more people involved in development and customer support, bringing in a more diverse expertise and finding an effective way to coordinate the activities.
  • It’s never perfect. Enjoy the journey. Launch day for an internet business can be deflating. On this day last year, we had worked and worked to get the product functional but launch day of a B2C site was not like opening a store and inviting all of your friends to buy. It was the beginning of a period of marketing promotion while questioning, fixing and adjusting. (The great thing about a web business though is when we find problems, we can make the fixes immediately available to our customers.) Happily I enjoy the tinkering of the site, but putting a product out there before it feels ‘perfect’ is still hard for me. I can imagine so many possibilities for our product but have had to learn to go step-by-step, accepting the limitations of each version and building for the next one.

Closing thoughts:

Don’t stop believing. What I love about internet entrepreneurship is that there are no ‘gatekeepers’. If one customer isn’t interested, move on to the next one. There are an unlimited number of doors to knock on when you can deliver anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world.

It has been very useful for me to take this time to make sense of what I have learned from this past year. Please add your comments with any stories or insights you may have. Looking forward to seeing what we make possible in 2012.

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