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8 Ways To Grow Your Startup Much Faster Than Your Competitors

8 Ways To Grow Your Startup Much Faster Than Your Competitors
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Mike Tyson was once challenged by a competitor who boasted he had a plan to take the pro boxer down. When asked what he thinks of this plan, Tyson replied: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Getting punched in the mouth is basically the story of every startup owner. Obstacles cause delays, but here are some things to let you roll faster than your opponents — fresh from the school of hard knocks.

1. First, try selling something

The #1 mistake that all founders make is that they think, “If I build it, they will come.” Generally speaking, this is false. The best sites on the web are probably undiscovered. But, we have a bias — we only hear about the successful websites.

From what I see at incubators, getting initial users or sales is by far the hardest part of a startup. So, I would recommend getting experience selling something before you jump in. To give credit where it’s due, similar methods are discussed in the book Four Hour Work Week, and the Sumo Business BluePrint:

The Sales Test

  1. Get a graphic designer to make a few “concept” screenshots (or product photos) and having a “preorder” or “sign up for the beta” form.
  2. Don’t get a custom website yet. To save time, use LeadPages, Weebly, Wishpond, or SquareSpace to build out a sleek web presence without coding. I personally like Weebly for the main pages and its really great blog support. I’d then recommend LeadPages or Wishpond as your landing page. (Search Google for landing page services.)
  3. Do whatever the heck you can think of to sell it: Kijiji ads, Google adwords, or Facebook ads, and send over some traffic. Be creative!

If you can’t get a few people to sign up or preorder, odds are your idea isn’t worth building out. But congratulate yourself! Unlike other failed entrepreneurs who try to sell a bad idea out of blind ego, you will keep trying other ideas until you find one that sells naturally, without 1000 pounds of stress.

KickStarter, IndiGoGo, or Experiment.com are great ways to sell after making your first prototype. However, here are some things worth mentioning:

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  1. Even building the prototype and sleek video is a lot of work. So, first follow the sales test I recommend.
  2. KickStarter is ideal. They don’t accept many types of online businesses; check their terms before applying. IndiGoGo is a much less effective platform, but will accept almost anyone. With KickStarter, they promote you. With IndiGoGo, I’ve found it’s completely BYOT (Bring Your Own Traffic).
  3. Spend time and money marketing your crowdfunding campaign. Search online for tips to promote it. Often, they recommend building up your social network 3 months in advance.

2. Use a platform

You want focus only on the innovation. So, even though it may seem more expensive, use cloud platforms. I’d recommend looking into Heroku, BlueMix, Parse, Google Cloud, or Azure. If your chosen platform doesn’t support cloud storage, look into Amazon S3. Each has it’s advantages and disadvantages. For more on learning programming, you can see my last Lifehack post: How to Choose Your First Programming Language.

It’s tempting to think you can reduce costs by using your own server or Amazon AWS (which is lower-level nuts and bolts IaaS, not PaaS), but there are so many little things that a platform does for you:

  • Setting up servers.
  • Dealing with scaling.
  • IT administration.
  • Often managing and scaling a database.
  • Managing your environment.
  • Easy plug-ins to 3rd party services.
  • Basic backend analytics.

It’s tempting to think you can do all this yourself and save a few pennies. But your labour cost is the most valuable asset by far. You should also invest in using an MVC (model-view-controller) architecture.

Use a Cloud Database

Often you have other data or analytics you need to keep in a central database. Sometimes, the best solution is your web host’s MySQL. But that can become a silo, since it’s often hard to get it access to any cloud services. Consider using a cloud database. Google offers a MySQL solution with a 60-day trial. IBM’s DashDB is a cloud database with 1 GB of free storage. DashDB is based on DB2. It’s extremely similar to MySQL, has some extra bells and whistles (like JSON and dashboards), and lots of docs (Full disclosure: I work for IBM). Amazon RDS has a free tier as well.

3. Use a landing page service

Landing pages require tons of work, bells and whistles to get perfected. So, use a landing page service like LeadPages.net or WishPond. Do not pay a web designer to make your landing page or attempt to code it manually. Landing page services might not look as perfect as you imagined, but there are important reasons to use them. It’s partially the powerful features that they provide out-of-the-box, but there’s more benefit than just that.

When it comes to landing pages, you constantly need to experiment. Plus, you then need to do A-B testing. It’s not realistic to move rapidly if you need your team (or yourself) to code this manually. Remember, it must look proper for all OSes, all browsers, mobile and tablet. That’s just not realistic if you want to move quickly.

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Once you’re 100% positive about the landing page that works the best, you can then invest in coding it perfectly if needed. Although I’d argue that with less work, you can use the landing page service permanently.

4. Get a cofounder

If you want to move fast, you need help. It’s really tempting to try to do everything yourself, but even if you work 24 hours per day, it’s not realistic. I’d say, try to find someone who you’ve known for a long time.

It’s well known that single founders rarely make it. In fact, most incubators will not even allow single-founder startups. If you look at Microsoft, Google, Facebook, or Instagram, you’ll see they all had multiple founders. Even if one person took the lead, they still relied heavily on their cofounders.

Don’t expect a perfectly even division of labour. But, ensure there’s honesty about how hard you each want to work. Remember, always go to a hackathon or two with your cofounder before you commit, to see how he or she works in a team — even if one of you doesn’t code. Do hackathons to learn about each other and the latest coding trends quickly. But, don’t commit longterm to random hackathon projects.

5. Focus on only one thing

Do not get sidetracked. Have no side projects — ignore this advice at your own peril. If you have any other projects aside from your startup, it should be work-for-pay and be only for the sake of paying bills.

I know it seems like side projects might pay off, but the human brain just doesn’t work that way. If you look at big cofounders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, you’ll notice that none of them work on 2 businesses in parallel. There are many serial entrepreneurs, but almost no parallel entrepreneurs. I have confirmed this with almost every entrepreneur I know: Dividing focus is deadly.

You may be thinking of people like Richard Branson, but so far as I know, he launched Virgin Airlines 12 years after he created Virgin Records. In other words, he had the cash and name to hire many full-timers by that point.

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6. Go to an incubator

An incubator is critical. It’s not just what the incubator organization gives you. That’s often less than you expect. It’s about absorbing the experience of the other 20 cofounders.

To show the power of an incubator, here’s a story:

I was running my business in isolation before I went for a visit to Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre. In just 1 day, here’s what I learned:

  • I met 3 cofounders, all of whom shared sensitive financial details about valuations, the current investment climate, and details about specific investors I was thinking of contacting.
  • I discovered a government grant program for a limited time that would let me hire a web designer for free for 3 months. And, I knew it was worth the paperwork because other startups went through it.
  • They tipped me off about a “founders and funders” event I could attend, where investors casually meet founders (10x easier than fighting tooth and nail for each investor meeting).
  • Marketing techniques that practically worked for the founders.

And much more. Here’s a dangerous line of thinking I’ve heard many times: “I don’t need an incubator. I’ve read books and attended events. I was told I don’t need an incubator. I have mentors. I don’t want to lose equity or pay rent, etc.”

None of these are valid excuses. You don’t need to be in an incubator for a long time, but you must go for at least a basic program. Check out a few of them in person. But I would say, even a mediocre incubator is better than no incubator. There are incubators that don’t take equity as well. You can find a list at Angel.co.

7. Get it designed professionally, faster

Right now, everything is about design. Get a professional designer with a portfolio you love. Even if you’re a great front-end developer, a pro designer will take that design to the next level.

I’d look around at individual designers on 99designs or Dribbble (more expensive) and choose someone who you like to make your design. Also, I’d recommend choosing an existing design and modifying it, rather than letting the designer make something from scratch. Every time I ask a designer to do something from scratch, I’m unhappy. It’s just never going to be what you have in mind. If you have all the time in the world, by all means, let them come up with some concept work. But, if you want to move fast on a budget, start with a piece of work they already have and ask to use that as a base and change specific things (including colours).

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Ensure they pay attention to colour. Ask for the colour scheme. I know that sounds picky, but the biggest difference I’ve found between a good and bad designer is that the best designers pay special attention to colour: Every colour should be in your colour scheme.

8. Assume things will take much longer to complete

There is really very little risk to creating a startup, as long as you follow 2 rules: Budget for 1.5 years of having no personal cashflow, and go to an incubator. You may close a seed round in under 6 months. But, things often take longer. You want a really, really long runway.

The hard truth: Sometimes, that requires asking your parents or a relative to move back in, or asking your partner to cover your living expenses. Don’t try to start a business without relying on a loved one. It’s tempting to try going it completely alone, but it’s not realistic if you want to be successful.

There’s a reason why so few people start successful businesses. It’s not because people have bad ideas. It’s not because they don’t work hard. It’s because it just takes a really, really long time.

Similarly, when you decide to do something for the business, like improve the website or add a feature, keep in mind that it will take longer than you think. So be selective — focus on work that will have the greatest impact.

If you like this article or have further questions, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or Twitter!

Featured photo credit: Mark Zuckerberg @ Cannes Lions 2010/Marco Derksen via flickr.com

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Published on July 27, 2021

15 Smart Video Conferencing Etiquette Tips to Follow

15 Smart Video Conferencing Etiquette Tips to Follow
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During the pandemic, video conferencing replaced in-person meetings and has now become the standard option for business meetings. Over the past 17 months, most workers have gotten past the video conferencing learning curve with Zoom or Microsoft Teams (or their platform of choice).

But just as with in-person meetings, attention can wax and wane. Some say we’re just not used to staring at ourselves so much on the screen. Instead of fixating on that, try employing smart video conferencing etiquette, or you may risk indiscretions that will flag you as a slacker.

Put the Pro in Professional

After more than a year of fine-tuning, here are the new rules of video conferencing etiquette.

1. Mute Your Mobile and Other Devices

The first video conference etiquette you need to know is muting your other devices. Just as in the pre-COVID days, someone’s obnoxious ring tone blaring Taylor Swift’s newest single in the middle of a meeting is also an annoyance if it happens during a Zoom meeting and so is the inevitable fumbling to turn off the sound. Even the apologies to the group get tiresome.

Also, when notifications are activated on the computer that you’re using for the meeting, the incoming message takes over the audio and you’ll miss out on snippets of the conversation. Be sure to eliminate this possible faux pas.

2. Dress the Part

While working from home, you may have fallen into the habit of slipping on your comfiest T-shirt each day. Hey, no judgments! But before you log on to your video conference, try to make an effort with your appearance.

Depending on your company culture and the importance of your meeting, consider dressing the part of the professional whom you wish to project. It will help you feel more self-assured, and others will likely take you more seriously.

For women, wear light make-up, put on earrings, and make sure your blouse is crisply pressed. For men, show up freshly shaved. Wearing a crisp collared shirt in a solid color will usually suffice.

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Pro Tip: Stay away from wearing white or black, unless those colors look great on you. Consider wearing light blue or brown instead.

3. Stage Your Workspace

Have you noticed the backdrops of experts interviewed on news shows? Bookshelves and photographs are carefully curated, and no busy-patterned furniture or artwork is in sight.

Take note of what appears behind you when you choose the location of your video conferences. Piles of junk mail on the table or stacks of folded laundry on the couch will convey more about your personal life than you care to share. Make sure you remove clutter from the camera’s eye, and present a tidy, orderly workspace to your colleagues, coworkers, and bosses.

4. Put Some Thought Into Lighting and Perspective

Be aware that in a video conference, your computer camera can actually make you look up to ten pounds heavier depending on where you sit. But you can easily drop those added pounds by moving back from the screen to diminish the wide-angle distortion.

Frame your head on the screen by tilting the screen up or down. Also, it’s best to not place yourself in front of a window or bright light, which makes you appear in shadow. Instead, face the light source, moving it (or yourself) until you have a flattering amount of illumination. You can also purchase some small spotlights that allow you to add light as needed.

Pro Tip: If your lights add too much redness to your skin, consider counter-balancing with a green filter.

Remember That Half of Life Is Showing Up

5. Arrive on Time

In the old days of in-person meetings, it was nearly impossible to slip in late into a meeting unnoticed. In today’s video conferences, logging in late still shows poor form. Instead, strive to arrive five minutes early and get yourself settled.

Once the meeting is underway, the host may be less attentive about late arrivals waiting to be let in. Diverting the host’s attention away from the meeting with a tardy entry request is the ultimate giveaway that you didn’t honor the schedule. If you don’t want a black mark against you, log in on time.

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6. Turn on Your Video

Few people like to see their face on the screen, but buck up and turn on your camera in video conferences. In most cases, it’s better to be a face on a screen than a name in a blank square. Your statements will be more memorable when other meeting attendees can see you.

If you need to turn off the video, either because of a poor connection, some commotion in the room, or a need for a quick break, give a short explanation via the chat feature. Then, go back on video as soon as you’re able.

Pro Tip: Keep your explanation for your departure pithy. “Sorry! Doorbell rang. Back in five” says it all. Be sure to honor what you say in chat and really do return in five minutes.

7. Plan Ahead Before Sharing Your Screen

Don’t be one of those people who makes everyone else wait as you click through folders in search of a document. That’s just poor video conferencing etiquette. If you know you’ll need to share a document or video on your screen, prepare by pulling it out of its folder and onto your desktop. Also, clean up the files and folders on your desktop to reduce clutter and facilitate easy access. Close other programs like chat, calendar notifications, and email. Disable pop-up notifications to ensure there’ll be no unforeseen distractions.

Be sure to remind the host before the meeting that you’ll need them to activate the screen-sharing function. Show courtesy once you’re finished by hitting “stop share” to return to the screen with participants.

Attend to the Pesky Details

8. Make Sure That Meetings Remain Right-Sized

With the easy accessibility of video conferencing, it can be tempting to extend the meeting invitation beyond the core group and include everyone peripherally involved in a project. But just as with in-person meetings, the more people involved, the more unwieldy the meeting becomes.

Use good judgment when asking others to sit through a video conference so that you don’t needlessly take up others’ time and so that participants can be fully engaged.

9. Remember to “Unmute” Before You Speak

Most of us are likely able to count on one hand the number of video conferences when someone didn’t have to be reminded, “You’re on mute!” Forgetting to unmute before speaking has become one of the most common missteps in video conferencing.[1]

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Show everyone your impeccable video-conferencing poise by managing your mute feature with flawless control.

10. Stay on Point to Keep the Meeting Length in Check

As with in-person meetings, an agenda with assigned time limits for discussions remains necessary to keep a meeting focused. Data shows, however, that video conferencing can actually reduce meeting time.[2] Reasons include the elimination of commuting time and the ability to screen share and annotate to keep everyone on task.

Additionally, side conversations are virtually impossible with video conferencing now that you can no longer have back-and-forth exchanges with the person beside you.

Pro Tip: If you’re running the meeting, let attendees know in advance the protocol for the chat feature. Is it okay for them to “chat among themselves” or not? (See point 11, as well.)

Talking Has a Time and a Place

11. Chat Appropriately

Just like side conversations or texting in an in-person meeting, the use of the chat feature during a video conference can be disrespectful unless it’s directed to all participants. Hence, it’s good video conferencing etiquette to mind your use of the chat.

At the start of the meeting, you may want to ask the host if it’s alright for participants to use the chat feature. This allows them to disable it if they choose. Used appropriately, it can be a helpful tool to clarify or amplify an earlier point once the conversation has moved on or to let the group know that you need to sign off early (and why).

12. Use the “Raise Hand” Feature to Avoid Interruptions

The slight lag in many video conferences can result in speaking over another person if you attempt to jump into a conversation. To avoid this awkward interruption, indicate when you have something to add to the discussion with the raise-your-hand feature that signals the host you would like to speak. This effective meeting management device makes video conferencing run more smoothly, especially with a large group, but it must be activated and monitored by the host.

Pro Tip: For meetings of six to ten people, sometimes the old-fashioned raising of your physical hand may be the best option. But it’s up to the meeting host. Ask them what they would prefer, and follow that.

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13. Don’t Record the Session or Take Photos Without Prior Permission

In this case, not sharing is caring. The “sharing culture” made popular through social media has little place in video conferencing. Before recording a meeting or capturing a screenshot of the participants, always ask for consent in advance from the full roster of attendees. Knowing that a video conference will be photographed or recorded could have a bearing on what others are willing to discuss.

Manage Yourself

14. Minimize Distractions

While de-activating audio and video features can keep distractions from affecting the other participants, you will need to manage noise and disruptions on your end to give your full attention to the meeting.

Move out of high-traffic zones in your home, keep your door closed, and ask family members to be considerate.

15. Save Snacking for Later

Save snacking for later—or earlier. Eating while on video conference is a no-no. Munching in front of the group while close to the camera—as you are when video conferencing—subjects the participants to an up-close and (too) personal view of your food consumption process.

However, it’s perfectly fine to sip quietly from a glass of water or cup of coffee or tea. If the meeting threatens to last for more than two hours, you may want to ask the host in advance to schedule a five-minute break at the halfway point.

Final Thoughts

Even though bosses are now beginning to ask workers to spend some of their workdays on-site, up to 80 percent will permit employees to work remotely at least part of the time, which means more video conferencing in your future.[3] Mastering these video conferencing etiquette tips will help you dial in—as well as dial back—your participation and demonstrate your unwavering level of engagement to the team.

Featured photo credit: Chris Montgomery via unsplash.com

Reference

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