Commentary: 5 startup lessons I learned in 5 months

After months of research, a lean development cycle, and a beta program, TINYpulse launched publicly last November. In April, I was recapping for my advisors what I learned in the first five months since launch, and thought I’d create a condensed version to share publicly with fellow entrepreneurs.

tinypulse111. Simple first. When we were developing TINYpulse, of course, I wanted everything to be perfect when we launched. One issue we struggled with was how to easily graph the results of employee feedback on computers, tablets, and mobile. We evaluated many fancy charting software packages like High Charts and Chart.js. But at the end of the day, we used Google’s free chart tools because frankly we were running out of time to hit our November 1st launch date.

Yet something that I thought was too basic and lowbrow was never even mentioned by clients. In fact, I had one client remark, “I love the charts and seeing how they animate when displaying the data.” This experience taught me to focus on simplicity and to realize that not all clients need nor want the most fancy, slickest solutions.

2. Live cultural values. Baked into TINYpulse is an easy way to facilitate employee recognition called “Cheers for Peers.” Cheers can be given and received by anyone in an organization. When a colleague gives someone a Cheers, the recipient immediately receives an email with a link to the Cheers.

tinypulse3However, the Cheers recipient may or may not be signed up for TINYpulse. We proceeded to have a healthy debate on the workflow for these non-signed up recipients. Basically, did we want to force them to sign up prior to seeing the Cheers or not? In the past, I probably would have argued that we should require the recipient to sign up before they can see the Cheers that a colleague gave them.

This time around, I’ve been very intentional around building a culture and living out our values on a daily basis. We decided that if someone received recognition, they should be able to access it right away. Then, if so inclined, they can easily click through to sign up. Now, we routinely ask, “What delights the customer more?” when we are trying to make a product or workflow decision.

3. NPS before investing or pivoting. NPS, or Net Promoter Score, has emerged as a popular approach to measure how well a solution resonates in the marketplace. Below is a list of the top 10 NPS companies from Satmetrix, many of which, we probably love and patronize ourselves.

Top 10 NPS Screenshot

The NPS and survey is directly related to a major challenge for almost all entrepreneurs, especially me. As an entrepreneur, I think we are both blessed and cursed at the same time. Since we are small, we can change directions when something isn’t working and pivot easily. At the same time, too many pivots compromises focus and spreads resources too thin.

So at the end of Q1, we decided that we needed to know how well TINYpulse was being received by customers and conducted a survey. In our survey, we asked our customers four questions:

(1) On a scale of zero to 10, how likely are you to refer us to a friend or colleague?

(2) If you were talking to someone who is considering using TINYpulse, what would you tell them?

(3) Can I use your comments to share with others?

(4) Anything else you would like to add?

To be transparent, our results were:

*NPS of 82

*100% of respondents said we could use their comments

*47% responded to “Anything else you would like to add?”

*Received great testimonials that is going to refresh our website.

For me, our NPS score and customer feedback signaled to me that we could invest more into the offering versus thinking of pivoting. This is now an approach I espouse to companies I invest in and advise. Before deciding whether to pivot or double down, get that customer feedback!

4. Video > Picture. I was attending a conference and one of my advisors just happened to be there too. Clients were approaching me and sharing their TINYpulse experience with me. My advisor overheard what these clients were sharing. He pulled me aside and said that if these customers felt that strongly, then bottle up that lightning by getting them on video because if a picture is a thousand words, then a video must be worth at least ten thousand. That’s exactly what I did on my phone. It wasn’t fancy, but it was authentic. Now I use his video testimonial all the time.

money-hascat5. Focus and leave money on table. A few months ago, I was introduced to an insurance company through one of their franchisees. We had a great conversation, and they wanted to move forward. But there was one small catch. We had to customize and reword our TINYpulse questions to fit into a franchisor to franchisee model.

We ended up passing. Any new feature we build or customize incurs “technical debt” and will have to be supported, maintained, and updated. Trust me. It was excruciating to let them know that we couldn’t help them and to pass on the immediate revenue plus long-term opportunities with the franchisees. But we left the conversation on a good note and hope to be able to help down the road. I think this is one of the hardest decisions as an entrepreneur to make when a prospect is willing to pay for a customized product. But focus got us to where we are today, plus our NPS gave us confidence to continue down our path.

Conclusion. I wish I had known some of these lessons six months ago, but it’s all part of the fun, manic, harrowing adventures of being an entrepreneur.

As Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

David Niu is an angel investor and serial entrepreneur. He dropped out of business school to start his first company and is now working on TINYpulse. You can follow him on Twitter @davidniu. Editor’s note: Niu is a GeekWire member.

Previously from David Niu on GeekWirePrepare to dance alone, and 5 other entrepreneurial tips from my ‘careercation’