Everyone Tells Me My Product Is Awesome, So Why Don’t They Buy It?

Polite people don’t want to tell you, “your baby is ugly.”

Many early stage entrepreneurs are truly baffled by the fact they get wonderful feedback from prospective clients, and may even have some unpaid pilots, but when asked to buy, customer silence is soul-crushing. Said one founder, “literally, everyone I show this to tells me what I’m building is awesome and they love it, but then I ask them to buy it and they go dark.”

If this is you, I’m about to reveal a shocking truth: they’re lying to you.

Polite people don’t want to tell you, “your baby is ugly.” So, humans tell white lies and say, “that is amazing.” Amazing, awesome, great, and beautiful are perfect words. They, and their many friends, convey a sense of wonder and accomplishment that doesn’t convey the fact that the person has zero need for what you’ve built.

If you want to get past platitudes, stop showing people your product and start asking them smart questions:

  1. How do you currently solve this problem?
  2. Why do you do it this way?
  3. Would you change anything about this?
  4. How would changing that help you?
  5. Will you walk me through how that happened last time?
  6. Who pays for this and why?
  7. Is there anything else I should be asking to understand this better?
  8. May I observe how you work to understand what you do better?
  9. Who else should I be talking to to learn about this?

If you have a cunning grasp for the obvious, you’ll notice that none of these questions are about your product/service or introducing it in any way. That is precisely the point. If you want to sell something, stop selling and start listening.

Studies show that if you allow your customer to talk around 60% of the time on a call, you have the highest probability of success. I generally recommend an 80-20 ratio, since I find most people don’t realize how much they are talking (myself included), and by targeting 20%, they end up closer to 40%.

When you ask questions about how a customer solves a problem and why they do it, you’ll gain insight on their interest and develop a better solution. Don’t worry, they’ll get to your solution soon enough. Focus on them first, and the sales will follow.

Diversity Wins

Every VC fund needs a token, white, male, general partner.

Sputnik ATX does mark-to-market portfolio updates quarterly and the results thus far have been fantastic (89%IRR, not that I’m bragging). Our goal is to help people reach their full potential, and we believe that IRR is a key outcome to measure if we’re doing our jobs well. Diversity is another measure of that success. How are we doing?

Two metrics we’re just as proud to cite: over 40% of our portfolio companies have a female founder, and over 20% have a black founder. How do we do it? We joke among our team that our secret to success is maintaining a token, white, male, general partner.

Yes, I’m the only white dude.

The fact that we have only one white male on our team gives us an unfair advantage. I highly suggest more VCs try this approach. If you’re a general partner (GP) reading this article, please consider ways to get your own token, white, male GP and do so NOW.

What we’ve learned at Sputnik ATX is that when diverse people (education, culture, work experience, ethnicity, gender, etc) all have a say in decisions, we make FAR better decisions. There is copious research to support me on this (check out this HBR article.).

We’re well past the time to continue to allocate capital to homogeneous white dudes and yet, the flow of capital to these funds is shockingly disproportionate and persists. It’s time for lip service to end, and action to begin.

At the risk of alienating allocators looking at our next raise, I just have to say to every fund of fund manager and pension fund manager, please stop giving money to funds where the GPs all look like me. It’s hurting your returns, its skewing investment away from quality founders, its exacerbating US economic apartheid, and preventing everyone from reaching their full potential.

Note: I highly suggest reading the links in this article, and the book on US economic apartheid is especially interesting. Also, after writing this article, Sputnik ATX shockingly found another white guy who joined our team as a temp this summer. Congrats Matt, you beat the odds at our fund. Let’s not get too comfortable. Our investor returns depend on it.

De-Risk Your Startup

Let’s take a side eye to the five general categories of risk that can doom your start-up and how you can best avoid them…

There are literally a million things that can kill your startup. Worrying about all of them will likely drive you nuts, and distract you from the “holes” right in front of you. So with an eye on the hole right in front of you, let’s take a side eye to the five general categories of risk that can doom your start-up and how you can best avoid them: product risk, market risk, financial risk, team risk, and execution risk.

Product risk is what most early stage founders and investors most commonly fail to measure. It is best framed in the economic measure of consumer surplus (the gospel of which I am an avid disciple). Are you producing something people want because the cost of acquiring it is far less than the value it provides to the user? To answer this question, you’ll need to listen (yes, stop talking) to a LOT of customers. Ask them how they do things, observe how they solve their needs. Question the root cause of those needs. Seek first to understand them before you begin showing off your so-called solution. When you can make something they actually want really badly for a cost far below what they are willing to pay, you have product fit.

Market risks that can doom your startup are most often found in distribution problems, market size, and competition/substitutes. Even if you have a product with massive consumer surplus for a party of one, you’ll never have a massive business if the total size of the market is minuscule, you can’t find a channel to get it to market, or if there is a competing solution that is half your cost. Most companies die because they fail to solve market risk by building effective sales channels. Too often VCs cite a company with a lack of product-market fit when in reality, the company has a great product and zero marketing. To solve this, focus on how you can make purchase decisions easy: convenient location of sale, ease of technology, elegant UI, one-click buy, marketing channel exploration, CAC/LTV ratios, etc. This is why we advocate for maker-founders to seek out help from proven marketing and sales guru investors who put in money and time into your company rather than advisors who both those things out of your startup.

Financial risk becomes a problem when the fundamental costs of doing business generate insufficient returns to sustain your business. Some are short term, like making payroll next week if your runway is going away. Some are longer term, like high upfront capital costs from inventory or equipment required to make or distribute your product/service. The key here is to keep a tight lid on costs and try to get profitable as fast as you can. Avoid splurging on that fancy office when a shabby one will do just fine (and use the savings to add the additional sales person who will help resolve this problem). If your company has significant upfront costs, you’ll need to carefully manage inventory levels and development expenses so that you don’t run out of runway before you’re ready to take off. Too often I hear founders complain that their company failed because they couldn’t get funding, when really, they couldn’t find a way to develop the product and market fit with the resources they had, when it was entirely possible to do so. They just failed to have a financial plan to match their access to resources. Yes, it does take longer to build a company without funding from VCs, and yes, we often don’t understand what we’re doing. So if you’re the smart founder who does “get it”, live within your means to do so.

Team risk is why most seed stage companies with $50k-$100k MRR fail to raise their series A. No one is going to drop $3-5mm on a company that, if the founder is hit by a bus tomorrow, blows into dust with them. Nor will a VC put real money into a team that has only product skills. If you want money to scale, you need to show that you can build a team that is better than the founder and has complete skills (product, marketing, sales, customer support, and finance). This means you not only need a team, but a team that says, “we’ve got this”. Hire folks who’ve done it before or have such impeccable academic qualifications that their abilities are not in doubt. Hire away a key person from a HOT growth company who has experience with the growth challenges you face right in front of you (note: Google is not a hot growth company, it is a stale corporate machine).

Execution risk will be the subject of a post later this month, but to summarize it best, it is when you get to $3mm in annual revenue and think you’ve “made it” when really, you haven’t even started the real race yet. The ability of a company to grow quickly under pressure, hire the right people, put in place proper culture, incentives, and relationships so that the company can prosper and run full speed is far, far harder than anyone thinks. Execution risk is the killer of would-be unicorns and turns them into someone’e distressed asset purchase or family business. Your ability to create a culture of performance aligned with your customers needs and economic value model will be the key to getting things done as you scale. If this is your start-up, DM me, and we’ll talk further. A paragraph here just doesn’t do that sentence justice.

So, overall, start thinking about how you can de-risk your startup by looking at these risks and how your daily activities, weekly and monthly goals help eliminate them as best possible. You’ll never get rid of them, but you can sure sleep better at night if you do.

Getting Back to Work In the Post-COVID Era

It is humbling to see how a tiny virus can reveal the best and worst of humans.

I hope that when you’re reading this, you and your kick-butt start-up team are fully vaccinated, as we are, and heading back to take over the world. We love ya!

With all the progress we’ve made, we’re announcing that we will return to in-person meetings when our next cohort begins. This assumes that between now and then, our steady COVID case decline continues, fingers crossed.

Science has made it possible for us to safely meet in-person for our next cohort that begins in late July. I can not express the depth of gratitude I feel, and absolute thanks for all the health care workers, vaccine developers and researchers who saved our collective bacon.

We are requiring all funded cohort members to be fully vaccinated and attend in person, unless they have a medical exception. We love science. We expect you to love your neighbor and do the right thing with the vaccine.

That may seem harsh to some people; however, we learned a lot during the pandemic about ourselves, our portfolio, and the importance of communities working together. Over the long-term, success comes when we collectively make selfless choices to help one another and show love for neighbors over ourselves.

It is not about your rights. It is not about gas lighting me with some twisted “freedom” excuse. It is about making a scientific choice to protect the people we love, and the communities we live in.

There are legitimately people who can not get vaccinated because it would cause grave harm to their bodies. Please love these people enough to get vaccinated. It is how we keep them safe from COVID.

Patriots give their lives to defend those who can not defend themselves. Let’s be patriotic for humanity, and get immunized.

It is humbling to see how a tiny virus can reveal the best and worst of humans. We want to keep working with the best, for the best.

We’re back from Zoom Austin. See you this summer.

Six Software Services Every Start Up Needs Now

Let the robots optimize it for you at internet scale…

There are generally two things that start up companies need to get right: formation and sales. We’ve seen companies’ fundraising screech to a halt when formation is botched, and nothing kills a start up faster than making something no one wants. So, here are six software tools/services that you really need to know about so you can get these things right.

  1. Clerky – If there is any remote possibility that you will seek venture capital to fund your company, then you must be a Delaware C corporation. Your headquarters can be anywhere you want, just incorporate in Delaware. This is common. This is easy. Clerky does it for you, for a subscription fee, and takes care of annual filings, etc., . More so, it will correctly draft your founding documents, and help you avoid tens of thousands in legal fees. Clerky has legal tutorials and help so that you understand what all this stuff is. Heck, it evens fills out your 83(b) paperwork for you. If you don’t know 83(b), well, get over to Clerky right now. Your pre-IPO attorney’s will thank you.
    https://www.clerky.com/
  2. Wave – Accounting sucks for most founders. Quicken is no longer easy to use, and makes people cry. Wave is free, automatically does double-entry accounting in the background so you don’t even have to know what this is, and will do your payroll for you also (for a nominal fee). It integrates with your bank so you don’t have to do a whole lot other than smile and click send when VCs ask for your accounting. Proper accounting can not be easier than using Wave, period. And yeah, it’s really free, the company has been around ten years, yada, yada, yada…
    https://www.waveapps.com/
  3. Sofos– After you’ve built your MVP and figured out your marketing/product development process, finding investors and customers is pretty much the crappiest part of getting off the ground. First time founders focus on product, second time around you realize that sales matter more. Sofos.ai is like hiring a sales monster to test out every possible permutation of customer and investor opportunity. Starting at $300 a month (the max primo service is around $1,000 a month) it will connect to your LinkedIn network and, like 1980’s Mike Tyson on Leon Spinks, will work over your extended network to set up sales/investors. They even include copy writing help to craft campaign message flows for maximum impact. If you opt for the primo package it includes a BDR who will schedule all sales and investor calls for you so you’ll just spend your days selling and talking to investors back to back.
    https://sofos.ai/
  4. Growth Channel – Marketing agencies are expensive, and mortals have a limited ability to test out every permutation of digital marketing to optimize your company. Growth Channel uses AI to test millions of permutations of digital marketing channels to optimize the best chance for your success. Let’s hear it for the robot marketing apocalypse! Basic help starts at $20 a month (AI doesn’t need much food or shelter) but for the full $250, you get so much additional marketing insight power, it is a no-brainer. With everything from psychographic profiles of your customers to optimization strategies for the big five socials, you get a full service digital agency on a shoestring budget. So, you can spend the next 40 hours trying to figure out where to best place that new campaign and who to target, or just sign up for their service and let the robots optimize it for you at internet scale. Yep, easy choice.
    https://growthchannel.io/
  5. Foundersuite – While Sofos (above) will animalize your LinkedIn network to find and qualify investors, Foundersuite will help you to expand beyond that network and, most importantly, help you structure your IR function early with monthly investor letter update templates and tracking processes that make you look like a Sand Hill Road rock star even if you’re just working from Smallville. More so, they have a whole suite of discount services, templates for documents you’ll need (HR, finance, etc.), as well as a massive database of angels, accelerators and funds that want to be contacted by you now. Their dashboards are clean, easy to use, and informative when tracking large numbers of contacts and new introductions.
    https://foundersuite.com/
  6. Hubspot – If you’ve been reading this list closely and already had a startup, then you’re thinking, “hey, where’s Hubspot?” Yes, closing out our list is the titan of CRMs that does it all. Need a landing page fully integrated into everything else in your company? Yep, got that. Need to track all correspondence across your team with customers, investors and advisors? Yep, got that. Email campaign support? Yes, yes, yes! This is the Swiss army knife of CRMs and will help you to not only maintain good communications, but includes powerful tools to grow your sales dramatically, testing and tracking your efforts with excellent data capture and visualization that is simple, powerful and actionable. Pricing varies (they may even give you 3 months free if you’re a start up in a partner program) but starts at $40 a month for most companies.
    https://www.hubspot.com/

So, get out there and start leveraging tools to incorporate correctly, grow insanely fast, and track metrics that matter. Software can be a powerful force multiplier when overcoming inertia and help spin the flywheel of success faster.

Donald Trump is Neville Chamberlain in the War Against COVID-19

It’s time America unites to fight our common enemy instead of one another.

At the dawn of World War II as Hitler rose to power and started militarizing Nazi Germany, UK Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, cut defense spending and engaged in a strategy of placating evil. Sure, historians debate the full extent of Chamberlain’s lack of vision, but his all but flat-out ignoring the threat of Hitler didn’t make the war go away. Today, Chamberlain is regarded as one of the worst PMs in UK history, and one of the leading factors no one checked Hitler’s rise to power earlier.

Enter COVID-19, and US President Donald Trump. We have a new invasion, and in the first year, it will likely kill over 200,000 Americans. World War II took the lives of just over 400,000 Americans, over a period of four years. In short, the war against COVID-19 is deadlier than World War II in its ability to kill Americans faster. And yet, here is the President of the United States, at first denying the risk, then when obvious wearing no mask, ordering testing to slow down, holding massive rallys-cum-super-spreader events, and asking people to ignore the obvious: we are at war. Neville Chamberlain couldn’t have done it better, I think Trump is using his playbook.

When Imperial Japan attacked the United States, a draft card was a sign of patriotism. Many courageous youth even lied about their age and health conditions to get into the fight. Healthy and able Americas were united in their desire to sacrifice whatever was required to protect those who couldn’t fight: E pluribus unum. Presidents and Prime Ministers of Allied forces asked for sacrifice, and a willing country united against a common enemy with patriotic ferver.

Back to COVID-19. Wearing a face mask is the draft card of this war. True patriots wear a face mask to protect Americans who can not protect themselves. Strong leaders care for those who are at risk, and many patriotic Americans wear masks in the great American tradition of doing whatever is required to protect those we love.

Sadly, despots and tyrants use propoganda at times of national crisis in an attempt to aggregate their power. The love of power, and the selfish exercise of power to harm the public good, is why our founding fathers created our democratic system. So that once every four years, we vote and make sure that our country is led by someone who puts others above themselves, in the best traditions of America.

Bring on America’s Winston Churchill. It’s time America unites to fight our common enemy instead of one another.

Fundraising: Don’t Waste Time Convincing Skeptics

Find investors who share your “gospel” and understand what you’re doing.

Ok, full disclosure, the headline is a smart quote from my fund partner, Oksana Malysheva, and, yeah, it is freakin’ brilliant.

Far too often, founders spend inordinate time talking to angels and VCs trying to convince them of their vision, commitment and results. The reality is, a good company, getting good traction, MUST find investors who share their “gospel” and understand what they’re doing. The phrase, “missionaries, not mercenaries,” applies just as equally to early-stage investors as employees.

I just spoke with one of our companies. They have a $600k sales backlog that they’ll complete this month, and about 50% or more of that will be recurring revenue. The product is a complex AI service in an industry vertical that is large and growing fast.

They had a call with an investor who basically questioned their revenue numbers because it seemed to him that they were just too high. How could a company only six months old have $600k in revenue this month? Didn’t make sense to him that the industry vertical had revenue anywhere near their forecast. In short, he didn’t know their industry economics, and instead of jumping at the opportunity to get in early with a VC backed company showing strong sales growth (epic growth, quite frankly), he sits like a stick in the mud.

What was Oksana’s response? “Don’t waste time convincing skeptics.” Truth.

Many angels and VCs will not share your vision. You will not convince them otherwise. There are literally thousands of people who fund companies. If you’re raising money, shift your efforts from convincing those who don’t get it, to those who do. You’re time is as valuable as the VC’s time, even if it doesn’t seem that way from how they treat you.

In fact, it could be argued that time is more valuable than money, especially at an early stage. Don’t waste that precious asset on a road to nowhere. If a prospective investor doesn’t get it, cut bait and move on fast. Politely let them know that it doesn’t look like a good fit, and move on.

Blitzfailing – How to NOT Grow a Company

If your marginal profit per unit sold is negative, no amount of volume will help you be profitable.

Some time around 2016, a company that was raising at a lofty valuation pitched to me requesting capital from one of Sputnik ATX’s antecedent funds. The company pitching was WeWork.

The heart of their presentation was a claim that WeWork represented a new model for coworking space that was going to revolutionize coworking from stodgy folks like Regus, a profitable competitor. At the time, WeWork charged less than Regus to use office space and WeWork had significantly higher unit operating costs, customer acquisition costs, higher churn, and a significantly riskier customer base.

I pointed out to their pitchman that they had lower unit revenue and far higher unit cost than their competitors. How could they make money?

They responded with more of the same balderdash. WeWork’s plan to overcome negative unit economics was to make it up on volume, as they grew faster and faster with additional investment.

Poppycock.

This reminds me of Paul McElroy in the old SNL skit, First Citywide Bank, who claims the bank makes it up on volume. Thus the old joke, “I lose money on every one I sell, but I make it up on volume.”

If your marginal profit per unit sold is negative, no amount of volume will help you be profitable. Taking investment to accelerate losses makes the situation worse.

Blitzscaling is taking in large amounts of venture capital for massive customer acquisition growth in a short period of time. Growing so fast, you can’t be ignored, and then basking in the glow of a sustainable, massively profitable business.

A Blitzscalable business must have positive unit economics so that scaling increases profits, over and above overhead expenses and marketing costs. In short, the net profit selling each unit accrues faster than your expenses. When this happens, your company becomes profitable and sustainable.

Over the past few years large amounts of venture capital have poured into negative unit economic businesses that tout “volume” as the solution to their woes. Unless those businesses have some monopolistic plan to dominate the industry and then jack up prices to alter the unit economics, they will fail.

Of course, they could be hiding a novel new technology that will disrupt industry cost structure to make the unit economics positive, but if they did, why aren’t they using that technology now?

For example, Uber analysts tout that the company may be profitable when driverless technology becomes broadly available. This begs the question why they’re just figuring that out now, after massive investment on a different thesis, but I digress.

Bottom line: when your unit economics are negative, the business is unsustainable and you are blitzfailing if you raise capital to dig your grave at an accelerated pace.

Instead, resourceful entrepreneurs should create disruptive innovation that dramatically lowers the cost to solve a customer’s problem or provide a new, novel service that generates massive consumer surplus that cannot be ignored.

If you choose the path of the resourceful entrepreneur, unit economics and the market will reward you handsomely.

Author’s Note: yes, I love old words like poppycock. So precise!

Sputnik ATX in the COVID-19 Age

Oksana and I had more than just a few meetings in the past few months to discuss how the current pandemic will change investing in early stage companies, and how we can adapt to help companies be safe, and grow through hard times.

So, we’re announcing today that we’re open for our next cohort applications, and have a couple of things you should know:

  1. It is very likely that our next cohort will meet virtually, at least to get started, and we’ll see how it goes. Most of our work can be done remotely, and we don’t want to risk it if things are still dodgy.
  2. Interviews will still be in person, but at a distance, and likely outdoors. This will mean modifying how we interview. You’ll definitely be 20 feet away from us (so get good at projecting your voice), and we will all have masks. With sun shining and a breeze flowing, no need for anyone to take risks on this, but we still want to see who we’re investing in, at a significant distance. And please, don’t come close to us, not because you stink or anything like that, safety first.
  3. Our new SAFE note has two key changes. First, we’ve increased our option to invest up to $500k in your company from $350k where it was today. This reflects the need to pump additional capital into our most promising alumni who need growth capital due to epic demand, and the expectation that many angel investors are limiting new investment. Second, the option period is now 18 months, to ensure that if you hit your growth period after graduation, we’ve still got your back. We’ve already seen graduates from even a year ago coming back when they hit their stride, and we’d like to make that refunding easy.
  4. More than anything, we strongly believe that this shall pass. It is hard but we know the dawn is coming, and we firmly believe that there is a bright future for humanity and the Texas start-up community.

So, let’s get started partnering with you, the dauntless entrepreneur during COVID, and press forward. This will end, and when it does, the future will be amazing.

Five Things to Make Your Business #Coronable

After talking to entrepreneurs over the past two weeks, it seems most businesses are imploding or exploding, depending on how well their business model can adapt to a post-corona virus world. There are five general things you can do now to make your business coronable: survive and thrive in a viral world.

  1. If you have a physical good, start selling online, leveraging Amazon, Shopify, etc. to make it easier for people to buy what you have. Elite Sweets (https://elitedonut.com/) makes a gluten free, keto-friendly donut that is delicious and good for you. The perfect donut to survive the apocalypse, and available directly online. The small coffee shops that usually stock their product are closed, but no fear, you can still enjoy a guiltless pleasure, delivered to your doorstep. Heck, you can even get a free website from downloading the Leia app (https://heyleia.com/) and their powerful AI will build an ecommerce business for you! Consumers are shifting their buying online, move with them now.
  2. If you are a service, start figuring out how to position your product for social distancing using online tools. ZenYala (http://zenyala.com/) is a software suite to manage meetings and make them more productive. When Corona hit, the founder, Jacob Bernstein, quickly realized that his software made virtual meetings even more productive, and because it is designed for results and accountability, was a better way to organize workflow for virtual teams than other products like Slack and Microsoft Teams. He quickly pivoted and created a new brand, ExecuMeetings (preview at http://execumeetings.tilda.ws/) and is aggressively selling to companies desperate to keep productivity high in a corona world. Kanthaka (https://mykanthaka.com/ and in your app store as Kanthaka) is a marketplace where individuals can find highly vetted and certified personal trainers and book them to come to their home. When corona hit, they had a surge in bookings as gyms closed; however, as the need to isolate became more obvious, Sylvia Kampshoff, founder and CEO, quickly added an option for trainers to do virtual sessions, and providing free group sessions called “Mommy and Me” for kids and parents to enjoy from home for free, further raising awareness of her brand.
  3. If you are a local business owner, begin no-contact delivery (drop and go). If you’re blessed to live in the State of Texas, companies like Favor (https://favordelivery.com/), will find and deliver anything to your home. Local businesses can partner with Favor to deliver office supplies, hand sanitizer, and pretty much anything. Consumers can go to favor and ask for anything too, including toilet paper! For those of you who have to suffer living outside of Texas, you will need to hire and locate your own delivery people, or do it yourself. There are some new startups like GoShare (https://www.goshare.co/) that are last-mile delivery on demand and will do no contact delivery. Check who does delivery in your area, and bridge that last mile to the customer!
  4. Learn to nano-target your customers with mobile ads. People will be spending a lot more time on their phones, so learn how to target your ad spend to effectively reach them. Companies like Datum (https://datumxy.com/) can specifically target individuals who are your customers or fit a very specific customer profile and make sure your ads only appear on their phones. For example, if you were a coffee shop owner, you could have Datum only target persons who visit coffee shops daily and live within a two mile radius of your shop. That highly targeted group would make a great audience to launch your new coffee by bike service, eh? The best part of nano-targeting is it’s FAR less expensive than buying bulk ads on Facebook, etc. The good news is that companies like Datum market across all app platforms, so they save you money and keep you in relevant digital locations for your customer base.
  5. Get cash. We don’t know how long this will last, so make sure that you tap all your lines of credit, raise new equity, sell assets you don’t need, etc. and please do so now. Get your security deposit back from your landlord with Otso (https://otso.io/otso-for-tenants/). Companies that weather storms are those that have adequate reserves to keep employees and suppliers paid so that your business can keep selling through the worst of times.
    So, take a deep breath, you’ve got this. Remember, the best businesses in history were started in recessions/depressions. This is the time that heroes are made.

Good luck out there, and please post any suggestions you have on becoming coranable in our comment section.