Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lean Canvas and Customer Interviews

This past week I have been working laying out a lean canvas and starting to apply some of the customer development lessons I have learned so far.  I almost feel like I am back in sixth grade science again making a hypothesis and setting up experiments to help prove that hypothesis.  My goal was to lay out my problem, solution, customer segments, unique value proposition, and revenue streams on paper.  There is a great free tool for this at  http://leancanvas.com.  I then created some initial experiments to test if the assumptions I have made are really true or not.  Getting all of this info down in written form has helped free up my mind, and easily visualize my idea.  It is similar to a business plan, but takes less time and provides a lot of the same thought pattern.  It is also a lot easier to modify than a formal business plan.

My initial hypothesis experiments are being done through customer interviews.  Last week I reached out to several friends for referrals of people who meet may target demographic for a customer (parents of children grades k-3).  I also posted a request in some of my LinkedIn groups, Twitter, and Facebook.  I was surprised to get a few emails within 24 hours from interested participants.  Some were not local, and so those interviews had to be done by phone.  Others were in the Chicagoland area, and I was able to meet up for a cup of coffee and get some great insight to what parent's are currently using for reading practice, what problems they face, what solutions they envision, and the price point of which they would be willing to pay for a solution that meets their needs.

The whole customer interview process has been exciting so far.  I have to admit I was a little scared to find out that my idea was not really something people would want.  The results seen so far are very positive, but I have been surprised by a few responses I have received.  Those responses are helping me refine the real problem parents find in practicing reading with their children.  I was also presented with a few features that I had not thought of, but parents seem to think were important.  Overall the process has been refreshing.  It is helping me narrow down a MVP solution that my customers will want to use and spend money for.

My goal is to get about 10 more interviews completed before I take further steps forward in building an actual product to test.  If you are a parent of a child in grades k-3 that would be interested in participating in some of our early development activities, then I ask that you email me at james@readingglue.com.  We can do it over a cup of tea / coffee if you are local to the Chicagoland area.  I am also open to talking to you over the phone if you are distant or feel more comfortable having a discussion this way.  Anyone that helps out in the early customer development period will have first access to the software when it is ready to test.  I am proud of the great customer advisers we have started building relationships with so far, and look forward to working with all of these people as we continue down the road to a full product launch.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Seeking Customer Interviews For Reading Glue

I am looking to conduct some customer interviews with parents of students grades k-4. The interview will consist of discussions around how you currently practice reading with your child at home. The interview will be brief, and will provide some valuable insight on how I can design Reading Glue to most benefit our customers. If you are interested in grabbing a cup of coffee or a quick phone call, then please email james@readingglue.com for more info. I am very appreciative of any help you might be able to provide.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Slow Week

Last week was pretty much a wash for being productive and meeting goals for my startup.  I kind of knew that would be the case ahead of time when I found out that I would be spending the week at CES for my day job.  The days were filled with browsing new technologies and scouting the latest trends.  Nights were filled with email, conference calls, and more email.  My plan was to spend the evenings putting together some of the details for my business plan, but that never seemed to happen.  Each night I would finish catching up on the work that had piled up through the day, and then was too exhausted to be productive at what I really needed to get done.

The week wasn't a total wash though.  On my flights to/from Las Vegas, I was able to catch up on some reading.  In particular, one of the books I read on my flight to Vegas was "The Entrepreneur's Guide to Customer Development" by Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits. The book summarizes some key points from "The Four Steps to the Epiphany" by Steven Blank, and it reminded me that I really need to take some time up front to work with actual customers.  I realized that I have been building a solution based on the feedback I have received from teachers and those affiliated to the fields of education and literacy.  All of these people have given positive feedback, but ultimately most of these people I have discussed details with are not going to be my customer.  Before I get too far in determining my business plan, I need to establish a formal hypothesis and start working with actual customers to make sure my assumptions of problem, solution, and willingness to spend money on my solution are correct.

As I was reading on the plane, I slapped myself on the forehead and had one of those "duh" moments.  How could I have overlooked this essential part of the lean startup methodology?  It is kind of embarrassing that I did not sit down and start customer interviews two months ago when I first started to refine the Reading Glue idea.  I guess it is better to figure this out now instead of later when I can't develop or maintain customers.

The next couple weeks should be interesting as I basically "cold call" customers and get critical feedback of my product.  This will help provide some initial validation that I am headed down the correct path or where I need to make adjustments to insure I am providing a solution people are willing to spend money on.  My assignment for the next couple days is to figure out the right questions to ask that will truly give me the critical feedback I am seeking.  I am open ears if anyone has any suggestions or feedback on the initial customer interview process.  I will be sure to post a follow up blog in the coming weeks with some of the results and lessons learned from this exercise.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Finding a Mentor

When I first decided to take the Reading Glue idea seriously, I knew that it would be beneficial to have a mentor.  I had read everywhere that having a great mentor was key.  I faced the question that I am sure many people do, and that was "how and where the hell to I find a mentor?"  I know people that have started businesses, but none of these people have experience in the tech or education sectors.  I know people who are very successful executives, but most are connections through my day job.  I do not want to mix my day job and startup activities.  So how in the world was I going to find a mentor?  To be honest, I just ignored this question and and told myself it will happen when it happens.  I even tried to convince myself that it might not even be all that important for now.

About three weeks ago I was reading my RSS feeds and a IM came through.  A friend of mine was sending over a link to a story that I had actually seen earlier in the morning.  It was from the local newspaper and talking about how some local small businesses were utilizing the Fox Valley division of SCORE.  I had breezed past the article earlier without really reading it.  I thought to myself "I know everything about the available local resources for small businesses."  After getting the IM, I decided to go back and read the article.  The article discussed how SCORE offered local businesses and entrepreneurs mentoring services for free.  After going to the SCORE website, I found out that they offered meetings in DeKalb as well as Elgin and other places.  I decided to set up an appointment.  If it did not work out, then nothing was lost except maybe an hour of my time.

This past week it was finally time for my meeting.  I met with two gentlemen who were excited to hear about what brought me in, what I was trying to build, and what help I was seeking.  It turns out that each of them came from backgrounds similar to what I am dealing with in education and software startups.  As I was 30 minutes into what was supposed to be a 5 minute explanation, it quickly dawned on me what these guys would be able to help me out the best with.  I needed someone to help settle down the 100+ directions my brain was going everyday, and give direction activities I am working on right now are most important to focus on.  The past few weeks I have been trying to develop prototype wire frames.  I have been trying to establish the legal sides of the business.  I have also been thinking about marketing, launch, scaling, etc (yeah I don't know why I am thinking ahead so much, but for some reason I was).  My mind has been running all over the place and getting way ahead of me.  For the most part it has been a distraction.  These guys reminded me that right now the most important thing is to get my thoughts down on paper into a business plan.  Get it written down so it can be visualized by myself and others.  It doesn't have to start off being a very detailed business plan, but I needed to get a start somewhere.  My new mentors gave me a worksheet to fill out and it lays the foundation for the info that will go into the business plan.  I started working on that this weekend.  I will be working on it as I head to Vegas to attend CES for the day job.  My goal is to sit down next week and start writing the formal plan.  I will then review it with my new mentors and see where we might need to adjust or rethink.

I understood the concept of a mentor, but never really understood how beneficial one could be until sitting down this past week with the team from SCORE.  It only took 1 hour and 45 minutes, and I realized that one of the most genius decisions I had made so far was to set up this meeting.  I not only was able to find mentors, but I also feel a lot more grounded.  I look forward to developing a relationship with these two gentlemen further.  Best of all, this came at a price that would make any entrepreneur happy... FREE.  If you have not checked our SCORE before, then I suggest you do.  They have a ton of volunteers that come from a wide range of backgrounds.  I only wished I had found this resource about 4 weeks earlier.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Little History

Let me start things off by giving you a little history about myself and my situation.  I am the father of 2 beautiful children, and am lucky enough to have the help of my wife Julie to help raise these bundles of joy.  I am currently employed full time as a sales and business development manager for an electronics component manufacturer that is located in Asia.  Although I joined the team as an engineer, I have moved into a strategic new project development and management position for the past few years.  Being that my customers are located in the US and co-workers in Asia, my work hours are usually all over the place.  The job can have long hours, and little down time if any.

While working my day job, I became interested in finding a way I could help build something that would make a positive impact on the world around me.  My wife, Julie, is a first grade teacher.  She had expressed to me several times that parents need a better way to help teach their children how to read using the same strategies that teachers use in the classroom.  This past summer Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced a new idea competition called the Global Education Challenge.  I took the base of Julie's idea and built a vision for a product around it.  The submission was originally called eGuided Reading.  Being from the electronics industry, I have always been required to keep details of new products secretive and cover my ass when it came to legal aspects of sharing secretive info.  Releasing my idea for the world to see, critique, and possibly steal was all new to me.  Opening up my idea for everyone to discuss was the best decision I could have ever done.  I learned a lot of what my product could be, and how to make the idea better.  People were not interested in running off and stealing my billion dollar idea.  They were too busy consuming how brilliant their own billion dollar idea was.  I was able to find out that the problem I was looking to solve was really there, and people were eager to learn more about a solution.

A few months after the voting ended, I received a phone call that would change my life as I know it.  A representative from  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt told me that eGuided Reading was selected as third prize in the competition.  My heart was racing, and my body was overcome with joy and fear.  I was happy to have won, but I was so fearful of what to do next.  I have never been part of a startup team.  Hell, I had never even taken business classes in college.  I was an engineer who happened to fall into the business development side of things in my career.  Prior to going to Washington DC for a press conference to announce the winners, I quickly branded and put together a simplified Reading Glue site.  At the press conference I was completely full of nerves.  Major players within education, ed-tech, and seed / VC investors were present.  Everything I had told myself (listen more than you talk, ask questions, etc) went right out the window. As I walked back to my hotel, I realized I had a lot to learn when it came to building a startup.  The next 3 months would be critical if I wanted to turn this idea into a successful product.

I have quickly tried to immerse myself into the startup culture around the Chicagoland area.  I attend as many Lean Startup Meetup's as possible, and have been trying to network with other local entrepreneurs.  One of the most difficult aspects of my situation is that I have to try and build a startup while looking after my "day job."  At the same time I decided to run with this idea, I was awarded a new project at the "day job"  that happens to be the most challenging I have worked on in my career.  This project has consumed almost all of my time.  So much that it has created a lot of stress in my family life.  It is frustrating that I am putting in so many hours on such a challenging project for someone else while trying to take advantage of the opportunity I have with building Reading Glue.  I feel the past 3 months have been wasted time.  I now completely understand where people are coming from when they say you either go in 100% on a new startup or not at all.  With a family to care for (and low pay scale teachers work for) I am not in a financial situation that will allow me to quit the "day job" and jump into this idea full time.  Maybe something will change in this upcoming year.  Until then, I will have to find ways to increase productivity and carve out time to dedicate to making Reading Glue a success.  It is not ideal, but it is unfortunately the situation I am in right now.

I am going to try and post at least once a week to share with everyone my experiences and lessons learned. I am excited to share this experience with everyone.  I invite you to comment and add any advice or questions as well.

Blog Revamp

I am revamping this blog.  I really had not kept up with the old blog for the past couple years.  With all the other social media outlets I use, it really just did not make sense to post family or life updates on a blog anymore.  As I kick off 2012, I decided to utilize this blog differently.  I wanted to find a way that might help motivate me to stay on track with my goals of getting Reading Glue launched this year.  I also thought that by sharing my experiences publicly, maybe it will end up helping another young entrepreneur that is in a similar situation as myself.  I hope you enjoy the blog.  Feel free to follow me on Twitter or add me on Google+.  I look forward to sharing my experiences and thoughts with everyone, and maybe we can have some healthy discussion related around it as well.