It was about a year ago that Elliot and I started 2Shoes. We met at Startup Weekend 2012 and kept in touch over the next year. One day, we decided to grab coffee and catch up. Both of us being the type of people to learn news things, we thought it might be fun to work on some ideas. Elliot was currently working at Canyon Ranch, though soon to be the marketing director of United Way Tucson, and had time to spare. I was just finishing a year of startup failures (or lessons) and was looking for the next project. Over the next two weeks, we brainstormed a few concepts, one of them being a way to increase engagement in the ever-growing college lecture hall. 2Shoes was born. We spent about 3 minutes on choosing a name-- we went with 2Shoes as a play on a goody two shoes in a classroom-- and started working on exactly what our fancy new idea actually was. We decided that a web-based app might be the most viable solution, but we had one problem. Neither of us were technical co-founders and had zero experience creating an app. What could go wrong, right?
As I mentioned before, we were eager to learn new things so we decided to proceed. First, we got a few quotes from developers in town. Once we learned we didn’t have enough money to even start, we got a recommendation from the great guys at Yazamo for a developer in Pakistan; Rizwan Jamvi. We got a quote from Rizwan, orders of magnitude lower than those in the states, and decided to build out our MVP (minimal viable product). Elliot was big into the lean startup method (as we all are now) so we started talking to our possible users and feeling out their pain points, looking for a solution we could build. By the first week of July we had our MVP built and were slowly testing it and gathering feedback from interested users.
A few months later we met a contact who knew the professor of the largest class at the University of Arizona. We met with him and he began helping us test the app in his smaller classes, allowing us to gather user feedback, and pivot our functionality a bit. At the same time, we were slowly being used at several large conferences. It was an extremely exciting time because our hunch was right - there was a need for this type of tool in large presentations.
We took the winter break to edit parts of the app and clean up our simple website. The UofA professor that helped us test the app had decided to use it in his largest course during spring semester, and we wanted to make sure it was ready to rock. At the same time, we got a few interns and our small team began to shamelessly blast out emails to prospective users.
There is something to be said for the humble feeling you get, going out cold, and contacting potential users 1-by-1. In this technological era, it seems to be easily forgotten but we have capitalized on that fact with some good, ol’ fashioned, cold-calling.
After only 6 months from the idea being conceived, we were being used in several huge conferences and several classrooms across the US. The funny part was, there was technically no ‘we’ as we had stayed lean and hadn’t yet formed the legal entity. It was time to ‘batten down the hatches’, as they say. Besides our team of UofA interns, we brought on board two of my close friends, Slaton Whatley and Michael Oppel, as co-founders and incorporated our company. Mike is a loan underwriter from Georgia with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Even though he lives in GA still, away from our core team, collaboration with him is a breeze and a pleasure. Slaton was raised in GA and got his masters in Tucson where he currently works for a guiding company. With a strong team, and a handful of family investors, we set-out on the task of selling our product, getting more feedback and building our next version. All-in-all, in less than a year, we have gone from an idea and zero users to a licensing agreement with a R1 institution and a growing customer base.
I’m excited, to put it mildly, about how far we have come in a short time. It is great that we live in an era where two individuals, with no technical skills, can dream up a piece of software and, within a year, be paid for it. That is exceedingly cool! That’s not to say we haven’t made mistakes - we’ve made plenty of them. But we have stayed eager to learn and ask for help, which has allowed us to weather the tides. As far as lessons learned from year 1, here are a few:
Spoil your early adopters. These are the people that are going to save you from a lot of pain and anguish. Considering that this group gives you immediate feedback and can save you from later pain by telling you what not to do, you should hold this group above all. Listen to them, take their feedback seriously and be generous with them. They are, after all, taking a huge risk, even with their time, by trying your product or service when there are plenty of alternatives on the market that are tried and true.
Opportunities are everywhere- be ready! You never know where your next big idea will come from or who your first paying customer will be. Treat everyone you meet well and ask their opinion on your idea. We have had great ideas come up over a few beers and our biggest break yet came when one of our professors came running after us in the hall when she remembered that she ‘may have an interested user’. Be ready for these instances and send follow-up emails first thing when you get home - this seems to impress people.
Stay lean. Before we had enough traction to secure our small group of investors, we used the great plastic card investor to pay for the minimal development of our MVP- just enough to test, gather feedback and make the next decision. Staying lean is great in the way that it forces you to act as efficiently as possible and make (hopefully) good decisions. There is no bank account filled with cash that you can get comfortable pulling from. Even when we did get our group of investors, since we had a little bit of sales, we decided to stop soliciting investment (even though we didn’t have enough money to pay me to work full-time) in order to incentivise me to sell, sell, sell. Let me tell you, it absolutely works. Check out this article. Apparently there is a link between higher paid CEOs and worse performance. This is likely correlated to the fact that the less cash you are paid and more skin you have in the game, the more incentive you have for your company (and you!) to succeed.
Quality with speed. Everyone knows that quality is important. You should be focused on delivering a high quality product and/or service. Having said that, during the early stage of a startup, speed should be of the utmost importance. Reid Hoffman has been quoted as saying “If you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” When we first sent our app to our initial users, calling our app 2-dimensional would have been generous. It wasn’t even hosted on a domain called 2Shoes and the designer of our new site described our old site as giving off the feeling that “you may get a computer virus if you click on anything.” Shoot, the version that we are currently being paid for still has no way to retrieve lost passwords! But we were able to follow the demand and move quickly, which brings me to my next point.
Pick talented teammates that can execute tasks quickly and autonomously. For all of these actions that need to be acted on quickly, make sure you have a team where all individuals collaborate quickly and communicate often. I would say that is what our team is best at and it’s a pleasure working with all of them. Even if we find out a decision is wrong, it is great how fast we made it and can gather feedback and make the next one. Trust should be high between teammates and the ability to act alone is crucial to moving quickly. Knowing that teammate X will get Y done with just one sentence of direction is necessary for success.
Understand the regression towards the mean. Stay humble. Everything has a way of evening out and with the highs come the lows. During our most awesome moments of the past year, I’m always reminded that we will get back to normal and to stay humble during the entire process. There is a great deal of humor in the universe so learn to appreciate every bit! One of our great mentors, Bob Davis, always says “keep grinding’. It’s a great statement that I’m always happy to hear. He knows that even if you are doing well, the battle is still not over and you need to stay focused on the goal.
Be accepting of your decisions. As far as I know, we only get one chance at this beautiful blip of a dream we call life so make sure you are ok will the decisions you make. The feeling of regret is a fate worse than death and one that you have to live with. Live life by your set of ethics and treat others the way you wish to be treated.
It’s been an amazing first year and we’d like to thank all the people that have supported us along the way. The good fight has only just begun and we are excited for everything that this next year has in store for us!