It's all very well thinking about where you want your startup to go but you've also got to take the time to look back and reflect on what you've achieved so far. Here one co-founder shares the lessons she's learned 12 months into her venture. By Alison Johnston (CEO & Co-founder, InstaEDU)
At the end of May 2012, InstaEDU, the company I co-founded, introduced our beta product publicly and announced that we’d raised $1.1 million in seed funding. Twelve months later, it’s helpful for me to to look back and consider where we’ve come from and the lessons we’ve learned along the way. Some of the lessons are specific to InstaEDU, but much of what I’ve learned is applicable to anyone launching a new company in today’s crowded market.
When you release a product that you’re excited about, it’s easy to think that your customers will hear about it and then flock to your site in droves. Everyone is looking for that immediate “hockey stick” growth. While that happens occasionally, it’s the exception, not the rule. If you release a product early, and especially if you’re charging money for it, it takes time to build up the quality and trust that leads to mass adoption.
We launched InstaEDU at the end of May. That first summer, we had great users, but not nearly as many as we’d hoped for. At the time, it was stressful, but in retrospect, it was perfect. It gave us an excellent opportunity to learn from our users, improve the product and experiment with marketing techniques. We were able to limit the number of users who experienced bugs and missing features, and when the product was really ready, growth took off.
Focus on the Small Numbers
When you read tech blogs, you’re constantly inundated with big numbers. “Company X has 10 million users; Company Y is doing a $100 million annual run rate.” While these are great goals long-term, they’re going to feel distant and inactionable for quite some time. With InstaEDU, we’ve charged students using our service since Day 1, so the likelihood of us seeing growth numbers like Snapchat are pretty slim.
Instead, I’ve learned to obsess on the small numbers that ultimately drive the big numbers. What percent of visitors sign up? What percent pay you? How much do they spend? How often do they come back? How much are you spending to acquire a user? At InstaEDU, we closely track numbers like time spent in lessons and average lesson time/user. Using these key metrics, we’re able to set actionable goals for each month and know if we’re succeeding. If you have a viable market opportunity and reasonable customer acquisition channels, these numbers will be what really drives the success of your business.
Admit When You’re Wrong
On a small team, engineering resources are incredibly valuable. When you dedicate time to a project and then it isn’t used in the same way — or as much — as you hoped, the temptation is to leave it and assume that you can fix the problem with marketing or additional features.
In reality, it’s hard to know how users will interact with a feature (or your product as a whole) until you put it in front of them. Sometimes you’ll make the wrong bets, but that’s okay as long as you learn and adapt accordingly. At InstaEDU, this meant building two separate product experiences for users who wanted on-demand vs. scheduled lessons — only to redesign everything and merge them together two months later when we realized that users were confused because they saw both in the same light.
In short: If something isn’t working, recognize it quickly and assess where the issues may be. It’s okay to admit when you’re wrong, as long as you can figure out why and build a better product as a result.
At the end of the day, all three of these lessons really come down to one key point: things are going to be shaky in the early stages of any product, but if you keep working, pay attention to what matters and learn from your mistakes, you can set yourself up for a great path to success.
Women 2.0 readers: Which lessons have you learned since launching your business? Are they similar to these?
About the guest blogger: Alison Johnston is Co-Founder and CEO of InstaEDU, an online marketplace where students can connect with great tutors on-demand. Prior to InstaEDU, she was an early team member at Aardvark, Box and Nextdoor and on the Google+ marketing team. Alison currently lives in San Francisco, where she enjoys playing kickball, trying new restaurants and heading to Tahoe to snowboard. Follow her on Twitter at @ajalison. Photo credit: Ron Wiecki via Flickr.