Startup Strategy Roundtable: Beyond Validating Your Ideas

At this morning’s roundtable I worked with five new entrepreneurs who came to the roundtable very well-prepared. They had already done a good deal of validation of their businesses and this led to a richer discussion about each business. An unusual piece of trivia: four were women and two were named Joanne. It is clear from the amount of work they have all already done so far that each has the essential work ethic needed to be a successful entrepreneur.

Sramana Mitra is a technology entrepreneur and strategy consultant in Silicon Valley. She started holding free Online Strategy Roundtables for entrepreneurs in the fall of 2008. She has founded three companies and writes a business blog, Sramana Mitra on Strategy. She has a masters degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her three books, Entrepreneur Journeys, Bootstrapping, Weapon Of Mass Reconstruction, and Positioning: How To Test, Validate, and Bring Your Idea To Market are all available from Amazon. Her new book Vision India 2020 was recently released. Mitra is also a columnist for Forbes and runs the 1M/1M initiative.

First, Mithun Ekbote introduced his company, PalmShell. He has the exclusive license for five years to sell a low-cost and more-efficient building material in India. While we discussed connecting with his potential buyers – the builders of low cost housing – he explained that he has learned that these builders in India often make more money if jobs go on longer than expected, as the property values continue to grow over time and they are able to raise their prices. They are not always interested in the more efficient option.

In this case, I think Mithune may need to do some more validation to better identify his customer segment. Meanwhile, this is a good time for Mithun to explore partnering with an NGO that is aligned with his goal of building better low cost housing in India. The Ramakrishna Mission is such an organization and I will introduce him to the appropriate people there and see if we can move this effort forward. RKM is the largest NGO in India and I have good contacts there.

Joanne Lang presented AboutOne, an online service that organizes your personal and household information. As a working mother of four boys, Joanne personally felt the pain of keeping everything organized. She initially targeted her service towards working moms, but through her validation process found that the target segments include military wives who move a lot, expats, and anyone caring for someone with a special need.

After discussing her potential revenue streams, she said she feels she needs to raise funds in order to hire more employees to help develop the product. Not at all true! In fact, she can hire very good developers from India and Eastern Europe as contractors to help her continue to build at a sixth of the rates she is currently paying. I pointed her to Elance, Guru.com and odesk and we discussed the importance of checking the references of potential contract workers. This will save her money, help her finish building her product and build up her revenue stream. For all bootstrappers, using freelance developers is a key cost-saving mechanism.

Joanne Griffith pitched Jane Hannah Media, a multimedia production company specializing in social media management and online profile building strategies for businesses and creative individuals. She would like to grow her business and has been successful working with small businesses, but their budgets are usually limited. As someone who has a variety of experiences working for companies like the BBC and NPR, she really needs to differentiate herself from the many competitors offering similar services.

We discussed how she has started copyediting blogs, but I pointed out that this is a service that can been done very cheaply by people overseas and is a complete commodity. This will not help her differentiate her business. I also pointed her to Elance, Guru.com and odesk as sites to join and help her explore who her competitors are and where the opportunities lie. These sites, in her case, would be good channels for customer acquisition. And perhaps focusing on podcast or video is her way to move forward with something differentiated. Again, for all services companies, these channels are excellent means of accessing customers, building reputation and references.

JT O’Donnell pitched her business, Careerealism as being like a career HMO. She has brought together a site that offers expert career coaching at a reasonable price. I like this project – JT has thought everything through quite well. Her question was should she focus on one vertical, and I think, considering the current job situation, that focusing on college students and recent graduates will work quite well. I suggested that she recruits unpaid interns from campuses to help spread the word about her service, and she loved this idea. She has been successful using interns in the past and repaying them with free coaching. This business is imminently bootstrappable – don’t waste your time looking to get financed JT.

Up last was Anita Lamb of Altitude Fasique, a clothing line offering trendy attire for tall working women. Anita has found what seems to be a great opportunity and has done her research. The TAM is quite large. But I believe that the designs as she describes them, fitted and tailored, do not lend themselves well to being sold online. My recommendation is that she changes her designs to focus more on the basics for this segment. I think she should set up a private label store online. My Web 3.0 framework offers a good formula for building your own brand online and layering in all the components. This business could fill a very nice niche and has the potential to grow into a very large business.

These roundtables are the cornerstone programming of a global initiative that I have started called One Million by One Million (1M/1M). Its mission is to help a million entrepreneurs globally to reach $1 million in revenue and beyond, build $1 trillion in sustainable global GDP, and create 10 million jobs.

In 1M/1M, I teach the EJ Methodology which is based on my Entrepreneur Journeys research, and emphasize bootstrapping, idea validation, and crisp positioning as some of the core principles of building strong fundamentals in early stage ventures.

You can find the recording of this roundtable session here. Recordings of previous roundtables are all available here. You can register for the next roundtable here.

Photo by Justyna Furmanczyk.

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