Kickstarter success – what I learned!

Kickstarter

What I learned from my Kickstarter compaign

I recently completed a successful kickstarter campaign for a consumer electronics product called WineMinder (www.wineminder.com.au) and I think I’d have to say that I learnt a few things along the way!

Firstly, it’s incredibly rewarding to have your idea validated, and not just by people who know you and the project intimately.  That’s probably a given, but worth saying none the less!

More interestingly, there were a couple of unexpected outcomes from the campaign, which didn’t get much coverage in the Kickstarter guides and commentary that I looked at before launch. These were;

  • A massive increase in brand awareness.  Just going on website traffic alone, we had as much traffic to our site in the first day of the campaign as we had for the entire 3 months prior, and increased total new visitors to our site by a factor of 6!
  • We had two approaches for investment in the business and one from someone offering to be our agent in northern Europe.
  • Our top pledge was the biggest mover, even when it ran out and I created another, similar pledge for the same reward at a higher price level!

Many would argue that we could have found out this last point if we were following a lean startup process, but it hadn’t come up in any previous discussion – maybe because we hadn’t been forced to develop varying offers before the campaign.  So a lesson there is to get really creative with offerings, even if you are following a lean startup methodology.

Of course, many of the other things I learnt were much more commonly discussed, like;

  • The euphoria of the first day or two, where early pledges really get things going – followed by the nail chewing when this drops off temporarily!
  • The need to prepare early and well to make sure you hit your targets, because very few people are likely to stumble upon the project via the Kickstarter site itself.
  • The fact that you’ll spend the last week of the campaign mailing, texting and ringing people and just generally making a pain of yourself until all those people that said they’d pitch, get off their backsides and actually pledge!

I’d definitely do it again.  The funding we raised will be extremely useful, the brand awareness we’ve developed we simply couldn’t buy at this point and the validation of the product and insights into pricing structures was unbelievably valuable!

And, of course, it was just straight out fun!

Encounters with the Mythical Man Month

Train wreck “Question: How does a large software project get to be one year late? Answer: One day at a time!”  Frederick Brooks, 1975 (The Mythical Man Month).

I’ve been run-over by the mythical man month recently.  It’s been slowing down my startup, and it’s driving me crazy.  None of the start-up books or blog posts talk about it, but its as effective at slowing down my attempts to get to market as anything else I can think of.  Not familiar with the ‘mythical man month’?  I bet you are, you just don’t know it by that name.

As an example, some time ago, when I was working in well funded tech start-up, a consultant said to me that getting a successful product into the market would take twice as long and cost twice as much as the company thought.  It certainly seemed to be taking longer than management said and that would also certainly lead to more costs.  But twice as much?  No way!  The company had lots of great people, working really hard to get the product out the door.  It had well credentialed management (although in retrospect, perhaps less well credentialed at running that particular type of business) and was very well funded – to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in the bank.

As it tuns out, it took much longer than twice as long to get the idea to market – in fact, six years after I left the company, they the technology has yet to be fully commercialised.  So maybe that consultant was right…

Fast forward to the present day, and I’m facing the same problem again, only this time on a much smaller scale.  I have gathered a small group together to bring my idea to market, and the clock is ticking.  Why is the clock ticking?  Well, my idea is a consumer product, so Christmas sales loom large in the calendar.  I start every email to my business partners with “X weeks to Christmas!!” just to make sure my sense of urgency isn’t lost in translation.  But despite my best efforts to push things along, the mythical man month keeps biting me on the you-know-what.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of the mythical man month, it’s an idea coined by Frederick Brooks in his 1975 book, the Mythical Man Month (go figure..).  Brooks was a software developer and after some analysis he observed that  “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. What resonates with me more than that is the quote at the top of this post which points to the fact that it’s often not the major disaster that makes a project late, but the accumulated effect of lots of small delays.  Fred was sick on Monday, the photocopier was broken Tuesday. Wednesday the courier company was on strike and Thursday the computer network was down… Again. You get the idea.

In my case, the issues are things like aligning calendars, days of delay responding to email, family issues and many more.  Individually they don’t really matter, but I can feel time running through my fingers every time one of these little events occurs.

Is there a solution for this?  Well, good planning and agreed ways of working never go astray. Having everyone signed up to the project and business timelines also helps (going back to the start-up I mentioned above, the challenge of getting everyone to sign up to goals was so problematic, that the company’s internal slogan one year was ‘delivering on our commitments’…). But much like the problem is no single event, the solution isn’t one either.  And that’s where good management and leadership come in.  It takes a consistent and persistent effort to make sure everyone responds to emails (or use the phone!), to organise meetings well ahead of time, and putting some slack in the schedule so that time risks can be effectively managed.

This sort of discipline often gets missed in discussions of innovation, pivots, minimum viable products and the customer discovery process.  But it’s an important discipline to have or to develop when you’re in start-up mode.  Because as sure as VCs will want more than you want to give (!) there will be a range of things that you can’t control that will slow you down.  So when there are things that you can, you’d better make sure you’re on top of them, or you’ll end up being a lot more familiar with the mythical man month then you are at the moment!

My Startup Journey, Episode I

I have a start-up.

Well, it’s sort of a start-up.  More of a pre-start-up start-up really, but a start-up none the less.  It’s a very part time gig, but I have a novel (i.e. innovative!) product idea that I’m developing with a co-founder and we intend to bring it to market some time in the next 12 months or so.  The vehicle for that effort is “Smart Sensor Technologies” and the reason for that name will become clear in future posts.

The purpose of this particular post is to flag an intention to blog about my own, personal start-up journey with Smart Sensor Technologies.  The reason for this is that although I know a lot about a very small slice of innovation (I did a doctorate in the area, after all…) there’s a lot to know outside that small slice of innovation.  In an effort to improve the chances of my start-up succeeding, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about what goes on outside my slice, while also placing that learning within the context of what I already know.  I thought that others might be interested in that journey, as what happens to my initiative might be instructive to others.  Hopefully it’s not the learnings you get from the train-wreck kind of experience, but that would be useful too!

So I’ll interweave my start-up experiences with my other blogging to show what I’m learning and the lessons I’m drawing from the journey.  I’ll put that logo at the top of the page at the start of each start-up blog entry, and tag the posts with ‘start-up’ as well, so you can see the whole, unfolding journey in all its magnificent glory.

In discussing that journey, I’ll be a little evasive on exactly what the product actually is, at least until it’s advanced enough that we’ve got a firm launch date in mind.  Hopefully readers will understand the reluctance to not completely open the kimono at this stage of the game!

Given the nature of these posts, I would also invite comments from readers, as many of you will have experiences that are vastly different to mine, including many in the start-up space.  In that way, I can learn from you too.

So here we go.  An experiment in starting-up, as well as blogging about it.  Can’t wait to see where it goes!!!

The Sailing ship Effect – a counter to Disruptive Innovation?

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Disruptive technologies displace incumbent technologies over time – that’s the basis of the theory of disruptive innovation.  But incumbent technologies don’t just sit idly by while they are replaced by the new.  Instead, bright minds continue to innovate old technologies, improving them in the face of increasing competition.  This idea is captured in the concept of the sailing ship effect, and it offers an insight into how established technologies can respond to the challenges of disruptive innovation.

The sailing ship effect is a concept that describes how the introduction of a new technology to a market accelerates the innovation of an incumbent technology. The idea was coined in the 1960s to describe how the introduction of steamships in the 1840s triggered an acceleration in sailing ship innovation.  The incorporation of steel into sailing ship manufacturing (hulls, masts) and auxiliary engines for example, extended the life of sailing ships well past the period when steam ships were expected to consign them to the technological scrap heap of history.

While the basis of the original idea has been contested (and what idea isn’t?) more recent research has confirmed the phenomena.  For example, studies of electric cars suggests that innovations in that space has forced accelerated innovation in internal combustion engine (ICE) technology.  In addition to driving the development and adoption of diesel engines, innovations in the electric car space have also spilled over into traditional vehicle design.  A prime example of this is the development of hybrid cars over pure electric ones by incumbent motor firms.  This type of innovation can be described as a ‘hybridisation’ rather than direct competition, with the disruptive technology living side by side with the incumbent one. 

My own research into the spread of disruptive technologies within technological systems confirms this idea as well.  In many cases, well established technological systems constrain the diffusion of a potentially disruptive technology.  This is particularly the case where network effects are in play and the new innovation has to rely on parts of the system which are strongly adapted to incumbent technologies.  The result is the dynamic development of both technologies, without a clear-cut displacement of the old technology by the new.

There are several take outs from this.

Firstly, disruptive technologies are seldom so compelling that they can quickly or easily sweep the competition from the field.  Incumbent technologies are often owned by well-funded organisations who will use their not inconsiderable resources to innovate and defend their market position.  This is easily observed in the car and energy industries, where the established players are large investors in potentially disruptive technologies (for example, Toyota in electric vehicles or Siemens in renewables).  This can create problems for the disruptive innovator as it can extend the time it takes to obtain a commercial return, exacerbating the ‘funding valley of death’ problem that can beset new technologies.

Secondly, continued innovation can be a defence against disruptive innovations.  This underlines the ongoing importance of sustaining innovation as well as disruptive innovation, topics covered recently in several good articles (in particular, see here).  It may be that the disruptive innovation will win out in the end, and this is often the case.  However, continued innovation allows companies to extract maximum value from their stock of IP and product know-how while preparing for a transition to the next wave of technology.

So while sailing ships might seem a quaint example of the contest between disruptive innovation and old technologies, the idea is a useful one for firms facing the increasingly rapid evolution of technologies in the marketplace.  Of course, this requires deliberate planning and execution, but then again, this is one of the skills that makes an incumbent firm incumbent.

The diffusion of disruptive technologies

The term disruption is used pretty liberally these days.  I can understand why – what’s not to like about the idea that anyone can come up with an idea and with minimal resources, knock the ‘big boys’ off, remake industries or create new ones all together!  It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of an idea like that!

However, the term disruption as coined by Clayton Christensen means something quite different to the way it is mostly used in the media, and as a way to promote the potential of new ideas.  My interest in disruptive innovation originates in work I have done with two companies working in the cleantech space, as well as doctoral level research I have done on the topic.  The idea – as well as the application of the idea – interest me intensely, and this site has been set up to explore some ideas on the topic.  I have a particular interest in the social changes that accompany the diffusion of technological innovation, and that will be a focus of this site.  However, in exploring the issue, I also intend to discuss innovation more generally – what it is, how it happens and its symbiotic relationship with the social fabric that simultaneously sustains it and pushes it forward while altering and redirecting it at the same time.

In addition to posting thoughts, I’ll be publishing white papers on a range of issues relating to the topic – with the first being a (relatively dry…) summation of my doctoral research findings.  From there things will get more interesting.  I hope interesting enough to prompt your own thoughts, and to keep you coming back for more…!  I look forward to your contributions and to connecting with you to discuss your own insights into innovation.