Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Why this is my last blog post (sort of...)

When I created the "Running a Startup" blog, the point was to share my first-hand experiences of being an internet entrepreneur in my efforts co-founding eFuneral.com.  Other than that, there wasn't very much purpose -- it was simply to share the journey.

Here's the problem though:

I've come to realize that as eFuneral is growing, I'm building an audience.  But it's not an audience of people who care about my "journey" as an entrepreneur.  It's an audience of families that are coping with the loss of a loved one.  It's an audience of caregivers that are trying to figure out what to do in terms of the end-of-life choices they'll inevitably need to make for the person they're caring for.  It's an audience of funeral directors...and hospice professionals.  There's a real need from these groups to hear what I have to say -- and the reality is, I'm very grateful and appreciative that this group even wants to hear from me.

So fellow startupers, I'm afraid that you won't be hearing much from me in terms of my tales of entrepreneurial whoa (and hopefully someday, glory).  Not to worry, though.  There are already great resources for this.

But this doesn't mean I've given up on creating great content.

Families and hospice professionals alike may be interested in the resources I contribute and help curate for eFuneral, which can be found at eFuneral.com/resources

Funeral professionals also may be interested in following our Funeral Director Blog or my contributions on Connecting Directors (a resource that I like to call the TechCrunch of the Funeral Profession).

For those of you that listened as I spoke -- thank you.  I'm hopeful that the content I create through some of the above channels can be helpful to you in some way.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why I'm launching a "death care" internet startup

Whenever I tell people what it is that I do, I'm usually met with a smirk and a bit of disbelief.

"Wait, you're serious?  You run a company that deals with death and funerals?"

It's true.  We're soon launching eFuneral (into our first Beta markets) as an online portal that helps Funeral Directors connect with undecided families -- while providing those families with actionable information to make more informed funeral planning decisions.

Soon after I explain that, the natural next question is..."Why??"

Most times, I tell people about the story of my cousin, who unexpectedly passed away about a year ago:

My family didn't really know where to start in terms of planning his funeral service.  It's not that we didn't know where there were funeral homes.  There were about 10-12 within 2 miles of where he lived -- and we were familiar with several of them.  We were more interested in understanding why we were to choose one over the other.  Our budget was a big concern -- but just as important was our desire to have a respectful service for someone who we cared about.

Being the digital native in the family, I was asked if the internet might be able to help us make a decision.  I assumed that there had to be good info online that would be helpful to us in making an informed decision.  I quickly learned that it just wasn't the case.  Sure, there were online directories -- and Google -- which was good at giving me a list of funeral homes.  But opening up a phone book (remember those things?) could have given me the same information.  We weren't interested in finding a simple list of funeral homes.  We were interested in understanding which would work best with our budget, and which would offer the best service quality.


So for us, we just sort of picked one.   The Funeral Home we selected was one that we were familiar with, but we really had no idea if the costs we were incurring was actually resulting in a better service than any others we picked.  And in the end, the service they performed was an admirable one.

But afterwards, it really bothered me.  It bothered me that for as important as a life decision as planning a funeral is -- and for the money we spent (likely around $10K) -- we just sort of picked one.

I started talking about this experience with my (now) partner, Bryan -- and we both agreed that this was a huge problem that people currently have to deal with.  We weren't sure what the solution was quite yet -- but knew that we had to do everything we could to solve this problem.

This passion only grew after we started to have conversations with Funeral Directors and learned that for as much money that was spent on marketing and advertising (close to a billion dollars a year), there really weren't any great ways for them to track whether their spend was actually bringing new families in their doors.  Generally, these Funeral Directors were very proud of the relationships they held with families (and rightfully so) -- but when it came to attracting new families, most Funeral Directors we spoke with were uncertain whether their efforts were resulting in new business.

This is when it clicked.  If we could provide a service that actually helps families by providing actionable information that they can use to not only find funeral homes, but make an informed decision -- and if we can actually help Funeral Directors market their Funeral Homes more effectively -- we could be onto something.

And that is why we decided to quit our full-time jobs last June, pour (very) long nights, weekends, sweat, tears, and everything else we could find into building eFuneral.

Here's to hoping it does what we intended, and can actually soon help people...

Monday, October 31, 2011

Making the Ask

If you're in sales or fundraising, you already know how important it is to ultimately "make the ask."  But what I'm about to suggest has little to do with closing a sales call or raising money for that new school building your university is breaking ground for.

Every day, entrepreneurs (and people, in general) find themselves in need of something.  Maybe it's office space...or perhaps it's a place to crash while you're in town at a conference.  It sounds so simple, but if you don't ask somebody for that thing...whatever it may be...you're only doing yourself a disservice.  Instead, you end up taking the easy way out -- which, depending on the situation, could lead to less productivity and more cash coming out of your wallet.

Here's a great example:

Very recently, my partner and I were in Chicago for a conference.  As we usually do, we flew in early on the day we were to arrive...and set our return flight to be late in the evening on the day we were finished.  We do this to stay open in case an important meeting pops up.  In this case, we were set to fly back at 8pm on Wednesday...but our slate of meetings was completed by 8am that morning.

Ugh.  Where are we going to work for the next eight hours?

We could do the Starbucks-to-Panera marathon.  But seriously, how many nonfat chai tea lattes and frozen caramels am I supposed to drink?

Instead, early that AM, I emailed two people who I knew would be very well connected to the Chicago entrepreneurial community:  the head of an entrepreneurship program at a local university -- and the CEO of a very well known startup in Chicago.  15 minutes later, I had already received an email back from the professor connecting me to TechNexus, the largest incubator downtown.  After another 15 minutes, the head of that incubator responded, inviting us to come in and work from their space for the day.  We were welcomed and treated with desks, electricity, wifi, and all-you-can-drink coffee.

Now, some people may tell us "we got lucky."  But, what's my point?  We would have had a much less productive day hopping from cafe to cafe if I didn't simply "make the ask."

By the way, by noon I had received an email reply from the CEO of that well-known startup suggesting DeskTime App, which is a tool that helps find co-working space in Chicago.  It looks pretty useful, and I'll be sure to check it out next time we're in town.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Generate Your Own Luck

Well, I hadn't expected the lag from my past post to this one to be 30+ days.  I guess I've been pretty busy...you know...starting up my business.  Nevertheless, I'm back...

Often times, the startups that "make it" usually can point to a few major events in the course of their startup life that others would call the product of good luck. Whether it's the random VC that took a liking to their business -- or a customer relationship that just fell into place -- people from the outside looking in are all too quick to chalk success up to luck.  When the entrepreneur hears that, I'm sure that they usually smile or laugh it off -- but believe me when I tell you that on the inside, they're screaming in your face.

Here's why:

There's a saying that goes, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."  

I love that saying, because it rightfully suggests that completely random luck is more rare than generated luck. Entrepreneurs need to do everything that they can to generate their own luck rather than count on completely random luck (i.e. find a winning lottery ticket on the ground).

The biggest way to generate your own luck is keep building your personal and professional networks.  Mark Suster has a great blog post on one way to do this:  Take 50 coffee meetings.  You're busy?  I know, I know.  But guess what:  If you're not out there making connections, your (future) competitors probably are.  Believe me when I say that these connections will come in handy when you're hiring, looking for consultants, securing funding...and on and on.

The next way you can generate your own luck is by doing people favors.  I'm not talking about taking your Aunt to the airport when she's on her way to her next vacation (although that would be a nice thing to do).  I'm talking about taking meetings when other people are trying to grab a coffee with you.  I'm talking about helping a peer or former colleague solve a business challenge pro-bono.  And then...once you do these things...expect nothing in return from them.  When your reputation paints you as being helpful, people will only want to help you when you're the one asking the favor.

You might think this sounds overly simple.  You might think this might be too time-consuming.  But know this:  If you make an active effort to generate your own luck -- success will find it's way to you. It just will.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Don't Quit Your Day Job

Usually, the term "Don't Quit Your Day Job" is used to let somebody know that they're not particularly talented at something.  Since you'll never make money doing X, you should keep doing Y.  While it might be true that some people should just stick to their day jobs "just because" -- I'd argue that it is especially true that those with true talents and great ideas for the next great product/service/app should really keep their day jobs.

Before you get all bent out of shape, let me be clear:  I'm not suggesting that these people discontinue their pursuits for startup glory.  Just the opposite.  In fact, keeping your day job for as long as you can will ultimately put you in the best position to succeed.  Here's why:

1.  It buys you time.

Idea validation is probably the most overlooked aspect of starting a business.  If you think you have a great idea and you're ready to jump right in full-time, consider these questions:  Do you know the market inside and out?  Do you know your potential competitors inside and out?  Have you spoken to potential customers?  The time you have while working a "day job" should be used to find these answers.

I know, I know.  You're busy.  And I don't care.  If you normally begin work at 8am -- start at 6am.  If you normally work until 6pm -- work until 10pm.  Or midnight.  Find the time...and use it to validate your idea.

2.  It buys you food and shelter.

You gotta pay the bills -- and a day job lets you do that.  Don't underestimate this fact.  Without taking care of your basic needs/responsibilities, you won't have the sanity to even try to think about your idea for the next greatest thing.  Even when you take this leap, you have to make sure these needs are covered somehow.  Hopefully, it will be through the revenue you're generating from customers.

3.  It sharpens your focus.

The busier you are, the more productive you are.  It's just true.  Getting used to a schedule that forces you to wake up at 5am, please your boss from 9-5, and then go back to the grind will mentally prepare you for what life will be like as a true entrepreneur.  Believe me when I say, things don't get any less busy when you do ultimately quit your day job.

Now, all of that said -- there are definitely a couple of "Don'ts" to keep in mind:

  • Don't work on your idea while at work.  You want to ultimately leave on your own terms.  Getting canned for not doing what you're being paid to do will hurt you in the short and long term.
  • Don't use company equipment.  You don't want to give your company any reason to claim that awesome IP that's floating around in that brain of yours.  Using your company laptop could give them legal grounds to do just that.
  • Don't overlook those pesky legal documents you signed.  If you have a non-compete with your company and your potential startup is in the same field, it could get dicey.  You probably want to consult with your attorney to make sure you're in the clear.
  • Don't stay too long.  That steady paycheck is nice -- I get it.  But ultimately, the goal is to get to a point where you're ready to take that leap.

But let's not go there just yet.  Because the reality is -- you're probably STILL not ready.  You need to do your homework, first.  We'll be talking about what that means in my next post.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Taking the Leap

In the midst of sleepless nights before investor-filled presentations, meeting after meeting with potential customers, and working on building a sustainable company, I was offered an opportunity to be the "opening act" at the inaugural 6ixth City Tech Fest.  It wasn't easy to be the first speaker of the day, preceding successful entrepreneurs like Kendall Wouters and Doug Hardman-- but I tried.

My speech was on "Taking the Leap" -- i.e., what it means to quit your day job and become a full-time entrepreneur.  If this sounds like it's a sexy proposition and images from The Social Network are popping into your mind, please get that smug mug of Jesse Eisenberg-as-Mark Zuckerberg out of your head.

Believe me when I say that taking that leap is anything but sexy:

It's stressful.  It causes you to question your talents and abilities.  It keeps you up at night.  It causes strain on personal relationships.

On the other hand, it takes you on emotional highs (and lows).  It's exciting.  It can be rewarding...maybe even (someday) lucrative...if you're lucky.

Being in the process of taking that very leap, though, let me caution you up front and let you know that it's not for everybody.  The speech I gave at 6ixth City outlined important topics that everybody should keep in mind when they are considering taking that leap.  In my next post, I'll cover the first of those topics.  You might want to wait on taking that leap until you hear what I have to say...

Next Post:  "Don't Quit Your Day Job."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Is your business idea ready to be launched?

This post was originally published in the Lakewood Observer.

Often times, it is easy to come up with a great business idea. The hard part is actually coming up with a plan to turn the idea into a viable business and executing the plan strategically.
But how do you know when it is the right time to take your idea to the next level? After all, creating a viable business is no quick and easy task. It makes sense to ensure that your idea is indeed viable before making the leap to starting a business.
Validating a business idea is an essential, and yet overlooked, component to the entrepreneurial process. While many established companies spend millions of dollars and countless months validating concepts, the following suggestions are simple and inexpensive, yet effective, ways that you can validate your business idea:
Talk to your future customers: Understanding the real pain point of the customers you wish to serve is critical. Even more importantly, find out how real this pain is and how badly your future customers wish to solve this pain. Ask yourself if you can develop a solution that is better than how they currently solve this problem.
Get Data: Become an expert in as many facets as you can in the subject matter your potential business relates to. Read trade journals. Find research reports. If this sounds expensive, remember that many of these materials can be found online or through your local public library for free.
Use Tools: There are a myriad of cheap, and even free, tools available to help entrepreneurs validate business ideas:
  • SurveyMonkey.com allows you to quickly create professional online surveys.
  • AYTM.com allows you to specify demographics and survey questions and will quickly find respondents.
  • Unbounce.com allows you create a custom-branded splash page so you can collect data on whether consumers are interested in your idea.
  • ReferenceUSA allows you to learn more about the industry you are targeting. You can access certain data sets for free by using your library card at most public libraries.

Learn more about validating your business at the next Startup U event, presented by Startup Lakewood. Joe Haddad and Nick Dadas, Co-Founders of University Tee’s, will be on hand to discuss other strategies that entrepreneurs can use to validate business ideas. This event will take place on Tuesday, July 26 at 6:30 pm at the Lakewood Public Library Main Auditorium and is free and open to the public.
More information on this event and Startup Lakewood can be found at www.startuplakewood.com.