« Pivot from a product company to a sales company » stories.
When having opted for this bumpy startup « career » road 15 years ago, I absolutely wanted to create a new concept, something disruptive, completely ahead of my time, in a very idealistic sharing economy way. Don’t we say that Innovation is an essential ingredient to success, that you need to think out of the box ? Full speed on that direction, even if I learned the hard way you should not divert from business development « golden rules » – business sustainability wise.
2005, It was the recovery time after the first internet bubble burst, where still nobody grasped on why it exploded at the first place, but believed on this multi-billion USD long tail/ niche not yet decribed as « unicorns ». Amazon was losing money at that time, and nevertheless keeping investor’s trust (wallet, I mean). Internet anonymity was still a fact, and you could keep making a decent living while « clicking yourself » on Google ads on your various blogs… the Iphone was not launched yet though.
My first startup was about disrupting language learning. I love languages, I learn them just by passion, as an intellectual pastime. From a business point of view, this is a huge market, even if still difficult to automate (human factor is huge). I found a model to drastically lower the content creation cost.
Despite all the academical business background, I made it all wrong until the end. Localingo was an exchange language learning platform dedicated to « fake beginners » (people having already covered the basics, but not yet up to the intermediate level) or language autodidacts. Learning a language could be such a hassle ; you easily get bored and disconnected. The Internet was a great solution to allow you learning at your own pace on a different way. I just wanted to re-create education from scratch (I was quite ambitious :-)) … At the end, it became a quite costly journey I unfortunately had not deep enough pockets for, but thankfully learned a lot from. This failure gave me adequate experience to build up & test faster other business. Personal Intuition got richer for the next times and I don’t regret this. I have been through this & can share « don’ts ».
So, I started with the most successful languages and created some content around. English – The blockbuster – came of course first, but this area was already very crowded (CD softwares being advertised everywhere on the web at that time). Since I was bootstrapping/ on a low budget, I needed to find a way to differentiate myself, before even trying to copycat at a lowcost way. I therefore went for other types of markets (fake beginners needing more practice to grow their skills) before even testing them. The rationale being « if I am the first in this market, I will not need to spend money in order to compete with giants ». I wanted as well to add a personal touch on it, something that would make my offer « unique », and why not combine it with the content I was personally curious about.
The ones I was interested in (and felt that naturally (wrongly) everyone should be too) : « dialects » ! I wanted to know/learn & teach the « pub language », Ali G’s cockney,… the language people really speak, the one that no foreigners (including me) understand.
Furthermore, I wanted to teach them in a non structured manner, spousing the way a kid would learn a language, as these dialects live (out of a schoolbook). Indeed, the academical way to learn a language to me was as exciting as learning by heart a telephone directory – boring, unless linguistics is of any interst to you. It was 15 years ago, the only difference being that now machines are capable of learning & « understanding » it (but that’s another story) & full automation is not a chimera anymore (do we still need to learn a new language ? Try deepl.com).
I was so passionate about this topic that I missed all the basics (the market, the customer), blindfolded by the subject itself. Yes, this is a business, not the personnalization of yourself. Changing the world is good, but managing to make money out of it, is better. There should be a balance you should always keep in mind. You do not create a product for your own needs, but you create added-value for your customers. Customers should use or buy it, otherwise what you are working on is a hobby, or a piece of art (and even in that latter case, you need to be professional and keep your customer in mind).
I did not care at all about the « money » thing, being way too much in love with the product, the concept… Google, Amazon, all these big boys were not making money, so that should be ok – right ? Why bothering, especially in Belgium (hum) ? Business Development ? Pfff what a nasty word, when my product will be live, everyone will recognize the quality of it and automatically purchase it… So naive, …
I spent days, weeks creating content, tests, exercices, writing blog posts (more than 200) on cross-cultural topics nobody was really interested about (and poorly linked to the offer I was putting forward) … monetization & education were concepts that should never be put together to me. It had to be free, especially to passionate people, and everything should be kept afloat through generous advertising revenues (ouch!).
Testing the market for a short period of time & iterated if needed, would have been a great move. Without any emotions, coldly. This was the transition I had to make – I had to be ready to totally twist this ideal & take out myself each drop of it in order to create a valid sustainable business. A cold one, with a market segmentation, quantified personas to target and so on.
This move became impossible, as this journey became very personnal and emotional, despite the business plan I was working on for months. I knew what to do, but found so many excuses to not enter there. I considered studies as double-edge swords, and people anyway do not know what they really want – anyway. So why bother ? Follow your guts, and enjoy ! That’s what startups are for, right ? FREEDOM !
Structure is key, especially when you start and do all activities/ operations in the same time. You got to get the knowledge on how to deliver (what and when) and advance step by step. As a CEO, this is valuable, Powerpoints never sufficing, unless your company is listed.
A startup is not a leisure, it is a business. If you want to build a startup to be free and wake up whenever you want, sip your coffee for 3 hours.. either you are a « heir » and need to find an occupation or you just got trapped by this romantic vision of a startup (enjoy reality afterwards :-)). Going for a startup life is going for hope, for that potential success you would never meet in that corporate ratrace (even if odds are higher), because you can organize an « ideal » structure, better than the ones you used to work for. If there is no cash coming in, this is not sustainable and you stay as a dreamer. And structure, discipline keep your feet on the ground.
At Ubiz startup acceleration program, we support you going through this pivot, with mentors who are not professional coaches, but who have been through this, usually the hard way and sometimes reached very successfull exits. You need at least showing some traction (so you need to have proven your concept), but enough to show you are « unconcerned »… Apply on Ubiz.io