Build A Moat Around Your Business

A question you hear a lot on the entrepreneurial TV show Shark Tank¬†is “how are you protecting your company?” What the investors mean is do you have intellectual property (a copyright, patent or trademark) or a special sauce that deters copycats from mimicking your business idea and stealing your customers?

If you feel that you have unique intellectual property, the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) and US Copyright Office have some useful information. However, I would always recommend backing this up by consulting your attorney who specializes in the area you are looking to protect. The analogy frequently used is that of the castle that is protected by building a moat and filling it with water. It is harder for the enemy to attack you.

Here are the 3 types of intellectual property:
1). Trademarks – typically your brand name or logo. You can start with a trademark in the country your business was incorporated in and as you grow into other countries, look at expanding this trademark coverage. Make sure when you have your trademark, you use the “TM” on your logo which adds credibility and deters copycats from stealing your brand. Trademarks can be registered without excessive legal fees and should cost around $300.

2). Patents Рbe careful here. It is very easy to be poorly advised and spend a lot of time and money applying for a Provisional Patent. The law used to side with the inventor/entrepreneur who filed first. Following a change in the law, it is now the first to invent so make sure you keep detailed documentation of this process. Once approved, you can apply for a Utility Patent but costs including legal fees can exceed $10,000 very quickly.

3). Copyright – typically used when you have created something (music, art, photography). Proof of copyright can be as simple as post stamping the intellectual property to yourself in the mail and then not opening it. Alternatively, for as little as $35, you can file a copyright.

With the rise of technology companies, intellectual property has extended into computer programming code and algorithms. Whatever you can do to protect your business can only help it as you become more successful and visible to your competitors.

 

sniper gun barrel camouflage combat

Think Like A Sniper

If you are a solo entrepreneur and particularly if you are launching your first business, you are nothing. You have no track record, no credibility and no followers. This is the time to think like a sniper. Most first time entrepreneurs make the mistake of trying to please everyone, everywhere and give them as many things as possible to play with. They spread themselves too thin. They are like someone with an Uzi spraying bullets in every direction hoping to hit their target. If you have the mindset of a sniper, you have to make every shot count. You have to be patient and make sure that your bullet hits its target after every shot. Here are the rules of engagement when you’re starting out:

1). Hone in on your target.
Get to know them inside out. Know where they live, what they buy, who their friends are and what networks they are part of. Research and analyze until you have your model customer.

2). Give them something that will stop them in their tracks
Develop a product that solves their problem or makes the world a better place for them. 

3). Take a shot and don’t miss.
Reach out to them in the most direct way possible. Email, tweet or LinkedIn message are far more personal and cost effective than a Facebook ad.
sniper gun barrel camouflage combat

Uberpong Kickstarter funded campaign success

How To Run A Successful Kickstarter Campaign

I had my lightbulb moment while I was working in a startup in London. Uberpong was going to combine ping pong with great graphic design. The aim was to make table tennis more fun and make it the most played sport in the US. I moved to Austin, TX from London, England at the end of February 2012 and promptly launched my first Kickstarter project in July. 30 days later, we had reached our goal and ended up on $10,390.

Here are a few things that worked for me:

1. Have a truly remarkable idea
There is so much noise on the web and a lot of excellent projects on Kickstarter. You will hear a lot of people telling you it is not the idea but rather the execution that will make you successful. This is true in some cases but I really believe on Kickstarter it is all about the idea. Go beyond your friends or family for opinions of your product or service. Ask complete strangers in your industry for their critical feedback. On Kickstarter, you can tell pretty quickly if your idea is a remarkable one or not.

2). Make a great video
As the bar rises on Kickstarter and more people add projects on the site, you have to stand out. A shaky iPhone video is not going to cut it. Viewers need to trust you and your message in less than 30 seconds. If the video is well made, edited with good music and has a clear message, it will be easier for people to decide whether they should back you. We used Moth to Flame and they did a great job.

3). Collaboration means more exposure
Kickstarter and Amazon payments don’t offer this service for nothing. They want to get paid. Between them, they take nearly 10% of the overall amount you raise. So if you can encourage collaboration in your project, this means more people will be talking about it, pledging and therefore your chance of being successfully funded goes up. We built a small design community for the Uberpong project and incentivized the designers by offering them 20% of the sales of their designs. It meant that most of them promoted this within their networks to ensure we hit our target and in doing so, they made revenue.

4). Solve a problem or change the world
When selling anything, you have to make the product exciting and satisfy a need or solve a problem. Alternatively, do something that changes the world. With Uberpong, we wanted to show people that what they had now was boring and colorless. The game of table tennis lacked aesthetics and we wanted to change this. We got a lot of support from the ping pong community and bloggers who identified with this.

5). Go for an achievable target
I have seen many campaigns fail on Kickstarter because the company asked for too much money. If you only need $5k, then ask for $5k. Remember, if you don’t hit the target, you get nothing so it is better to go slightly lower and exceed your target rather than the other way round.

6). Offer enticing rewards
Nobody wants a reward description to read: ‚ÄúOne ping pong paddle‚ÄĚ. They know that Kickstarter is the birthplace of many cool ideas so make it sound exclusive. ‚ÄúA first edition Uberpong ping pong paddle with the design of your choice (from 20 different designs from international artists)‚ÄĚ sounds a little more intriguing.

7). Have an existing community
As Seth Godin proved when he launched a book on Kickstarter, if you have an existing community when you launch your Kickstarter, you can immediately turn to them as early adopters of your product. This community alone can help you hit your target and any other pledges you get from the Kickstarter community is a bonus.

8). Use Kickstarter’s Analytics
Within a few days of launching Uberpong, I could see that Facebook was giving us the most pledges. After 30 days, the same was true. This is priceless information to have at your fingertips because you can identify which channels are working on focus on these. As a result of this approach, we got 51 pledges and a total of $2045 pledged.

9). Get into the local media
When you pitch to your local press, make it clear you are also local. They will typically get behind local businesses and help get your story out. We got into CultureMap and got four pledges in a day after the article went live.

10). Have good photos of your product
I was lucky enough to have a friend who was a photographer (Ryan Pollack) who took some great photos. We sent these out with press releases and these images were published in Australia, The Netherlands, Spain, England and Japan.

If you have any more questions about my experiences with Kickstarter, catch me at a EuroCircle Austin event or connect with me on twitter @davidjlowe.
Uberpong Kickstarter funded campaign success

leather boots dirty bootsrapping laces

WTF Is Bootstrapping?

There are two paths entrepreneurs typically take when starting a business:

1). The X-Factor path.
With no proof that your business can actually make a dime, you pitch your heart out X-Factor style to get VC (venture capital) funding, almost lose control of the company, and have your balls in a vice until the VC firm gets its 10x return. Your napkin business plan and straight-As co-founding team is what gets you the funding but if you don’t give an ROI (return on investment), good luck retrieving¬†your soul and getting funding¬†for any future¬†projects. Play with dragons and be prepared to play with fire.

2). The FFFs (Friends, Family and Fools) Path. 
This direction is reserved for people who have a belief that their idea can become a self-sustainable venture by growing it in an organic way. This process is called “Bootstrapping”.¬†Cash flow is the focus and actually generating revenue from day one.¬†This is more of a mindset and requires a disciplined approach to all facets of the business. You¬†spend money, like it is your own, negotiate everything hard and take pride in keeping the overheads as low as possible.¬†Once you have done this, you know you have a solid foundation to build a business on top of.¬†The¬†Bootstrap Austin¬†movement is run by a friend of mine Bijoy Goswami¬†and in a city that is trying too hard to be the next Silicon Valley¬†(people call it “Silicon Hills”), it is refreshing to see the bootstrapping movement alive and well.

I would love to hear how you have bootstrapped your business to success. Leave comments below and tweet me @davidjlowe
leather boots dirty bootsrapping laces

blank canvas billboard white businessman

The Art Of The Start

When people talk about startups, they often pigeon hole them in the broad category of business. I categorize them as art. Sure, “creating multiple revenue streams”, “watching the bottom line” and “maximizing the ROI” are important, but it really it starts with a blank canvas. As the artist, you want to paint beautiful things onto this canvas and then sell it to the world. The capital generated is a bi-product of the art you and your team created. There is no coincidence that the word “art” is in stARTup.

Ai Weiwei is a great example of a entrepreneur who just happens to be an actual artist. He uses his work as a channel to make a statement on the state of society. Most people thought Steve Jobs was in the technology industry. But he wasn’t. He was in design and with Apple, wanted people to “think different”. That was the way he changed the world.

How are you bringing the art into your startup? Comments welcome below and tweets to @davidjlowe
Jackson Pollock convergence art canvas

mr happy smile mr men beach

How To Keep Your Customers Satisfied

When I used to live in England, Americans were hailed as the ambassadors of customer service. “The customer is always right.” Well, that is what I remembered.
I visited the US for the first time when I was 13 years old and I can remember feeling like royalty. Well, I don’t know what changed but having noticed a trend online and having lived in Austin for 3 years, I can say that the standard seems to be slipping. So what is customer service? Well, I define it as any interaction with your customers. If like me, you are selling a product to your user base, there will be a moment when a connection is made between you as the seller and the customer as the buyer. These are the most common ways I have seen:

1). They contact you through your email form on your website or over the phone. This is usually a quick question regarding your product or the typical turnaround time. This is the pre-purchase stage and even though you know that they are showing buying signals, your positive response can secure a sale.

2). They contact you asking for an update. The order has been shipped out but they don’t know where the email is that you sent them with the tracking number. This is the hand-holding stage where you want to reassure your customers that everything is under control and the product will be with them shortly.

3). They reach out with a complaint about the product. It was either broken in transit or wasn’t what they were expecting. This is the post-purchase stage and you have to make the call whether to offer a full refund, replace the product or hold your ground. It is crucial that you have terms and conditions in place on your site before you begin selling any products so your customers know exactly what your policy is.

Here are couple of examples of bad customer service I have experienced recently (the names have been removed to protect the innocent and I will add a suggested improved approach):

1). Problem company: one of the world’s biggest coffee brands – the location I was in was freezing and I asked one of the baristas if he could turn the heat up. His response:¬†“We don’t control the temperature. It is controlled by management.” Incidentally, the same company makes you go back and wait in line if you forget to order a cup of water because “they have their system”.
Solution: He could have empathized and said “I know how you feel” and then told me he was going to try to turn it up. If he had then told me he couldn’t I would have appreciated his efforts. The coffee chain should definitely allow the interior temperature to be adjustable especially with the revenue they are generating from a single cup of coffee. If you are a global brand with massive profits, people expect more from you. That’s just how it is. Deal with it.

2). Problem company: A new Indian restaurant that had opened in Austin – I waited with my wife and two friends for over 2 hours for a table. At first they told me about an hour and then it just kept going. We never got a table and walked.
Solution: They should have offered us a round of drinks when we went of the hour mark. I had to use my best British accent and push hard to get them to see sense. They should have told me early on that they were short of wait staff and the weather had meant more people were eating inside rather than out. I found this out after the 2nd hour had passed. Not cool amigos.

I think the moral of this post is that in today’s America and indeed the world, to stand out from your competitors, you’ve got to go the extra mile. Take a leaf out of Zappos book and offer a full refund on products any time within a¬†year.
I’d love to hear about your customer service experiences from the business side and see what measures¬†you are taking¬†to improve it.¬†Also, if you are a¬†customer and were either shocked or amazed by a company, I would love to hear about that as well. Tweet me @davidjlowe and use #dloweplaybook or leave comments after this blog post.

Like the Simon & Garfunkel song goes, “Just trying to keep my customers satisfied…satisfied.”

[Image: Happyologist]

start investing in people gary vaynerchuk

Start Investing In People

I saw an illustration from Gary Vaynerchuk the other day that really made me think. It is so easy to think of external factors that can benefit your business. Examples include advertising, social media and international markets. But the thing that very few companies look at is internal factors like their own team. Invest in your own team members, give them the tools to succeed and empower them and suddenly the sky is literally the limit.

There is an initiative in England called “Investors In People“. I only worked for two companies who were embraced this scheme (they had certificates hung up on the wall in the lobby)¬†but I can safely say that they used this as a marketing tool to attract new recruits. It was a fa√ßade that masked¬†the fact they only cared about the bottom line and you were effectively a cog in the machine. I don’t want to generalize as there a probably a lot of companies who are investors in people and get it right. Just be aware of any companies that sell this hard when you are interviewing.

It is very easy to focus solely on your customers and clients, shareholders or investors. But take your eye off your own people and your Empire will fall. Start investing in people today.

Listen to the podcast here.

start investing in people gary vaynerchuk