There are no silver bullets for success.
Sometimes it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time, or creating a product or service that is so unique, it captivates consumers. Or it can boil down to patience and perseverance while you wait for the marketplace to discover what you're doing.
A great example of a company that has become successful only after diligently hammering away for months is Wave Accounting Inc., which offers a free online service for small businesses.
I worked with Wave for a few months last year to help the Toronto-based company develop its core messaging, to create a corporate demo video, and to craft pitches for bloggers and reporters. Despite having a useful and feature-rich service and a compelling story, Wave received little attention from bloggers and reporters, and it did not get a wave (pun intended) of people signing up.
A couple of weeks ago, I ran into Wave's chief technology officer, James Lochrie, at the meshwest conference in Calgary. When I casually asked how Wave was doing, I was surprised and delighted to hear it is attracting thousands of new users a week, and that it received a $1.5-million seed round from OMERS and INKEF Capital.
To get a better idea of what happened, I reached out to Kirk Simpson, Wave's president and CEO.
Q: Wave is now seeing a lot of new users, what turned the tide? Was there anything in particular that jump-started things? Did Wave do anything different?
A: It's the cumulative effect of a bunch of things: solid organic growth and word of mouth. With each day that passes, our organic search traffic gets better thanks to some smart SEO tactics and growing content on our blog. The (Google) Chrome Web Apps store has been very useful, and our timing was great. We got in just as it experienced a traffic spike thanks to Angry Birds. In some ways I think we made our own good luck here by being prepared.
Q: What are your views about marketing and customer acquisition now compared with when Wave launched?
A: We hadn't had our eye on things like the Chrome store originally. Next time, we'd prioritize that kind of integration higher. We still haven't nailed the technique of harnessing our customers' positive opinions. We're getting there, but next time we'll have it ready to go at launch. Easy sharing links upon sign up and so on.
I'm torn on what to define as a minimum viable product. In an accounting space, "close" isn't good enough, so we held off on launching until we had things working at a high level. Could we have gotten away with an earlier launch? Maybe. But we didn't like the risk of bad word-of-mouth straight out of the gate. For any other app, we would have launched long before with a big "beta" slapped on the site.
The same goes for secrecy: this is a competitive space so we didn't want to share our cards with the competition too soon - especially the free price point with unlimited bank data importing. But I'd definitely want to do a closed beta next time to build buzz and get a nice user base under our belts pre-launch.
It's also tricky being free: we can't offer any discounts or special offers to early adopters so it's slightly harder to get people excited about being the first ones in the door.
We'd work harder at having a great media angle next time, but sometimes the story just isn't immediately sexy. "Mid-30s guy launches accounting app" just doesn't cut it. So maybe we'd build some optional, flashy extras that don't necessarily change things in practical terms but add some superficial pizzazz. That's not generally our way, but I think it might work.
Q: Many start-ups believe they'll get a lot of attention when they launch. Is that realistic?
A: Nope, unless you have the great media angle. And unless you're in uncharted territory, your angle has nothing to do with your core product. In other words, if I create something brand new, never seen before, I might get buzz. But if there are any other products that consumers can look at and say, "You're kinda like them, right?" then your angle has to be something peripheral, or a personal story.
Q: You recently raised seed capital from a group of investors led by OMERS. What is the financing landscape like these days?
A: The landscape is still challenging when you are just starting out but the entry of a fund like OMERS through INKEF capital is a welcome addition. Peter Carrescia and John Ruffolo at OMERS get it, and they have a lifecycle mentality that is hard to find from Canadian VC firms.
In terms of advice, I would suggest practicing your pitch even sooner than you were planning. Run it by anyone who will listen and go online to look at similar start-ups that have put their old decks on SlideShare. Your delivery will change over time, and you'll discover that your message refines, too. Once you start presenting to angels or VCs, be bold and ask for specific feedback on your presentation so you can make it better for the next one.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Mark Evans is a principal with ME Consulting , a content and social media strategic and tactical consultancy that creates and delivers 'stories' for companies looking to capture the attention of customers, bloggers, the media, business partners, employees and investors. Mark has worked with three start-ups - Blanketware, b5Media and PlanetEye - so he understands how they operate and what they need to do to be successful. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshUniversity and meshmarketing conferences.
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