Start-up is a tough undertaking as it is. You may have a great business idea, but you lack money. Unless you are planning to rob a bank or inherit a fortune from a remote kinsman at some point you will face this problem. You may gather a great team of talented people, but the prospect of working 24/7 for an unsettled time period without a considerable income is not a good motivation (unless they all suffer from acute workaholism).
You may make huge plans, and daydream of enormous revenues, but the idea that the whole thing might just not work out is still rooted somewhere deep inside your mind, bugging you every once in a while making you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and question your venture’s right to exist. To add fuel to the fire, let’s say that you are a vendor from a country hardly represented in the market. The purpose of this article is to reveal what problems start-ups are facing and what measures can be taken to tackle them. Our role model for today is a Latvian start-up named TeamLab. To make things clear I work for TeamLab and I’m hoping that my experience would assist a start-up community. Let’s cut to the chase.
Challenge #1 – We’ve got a trust issue
“A Latvian software vendor? Isn’t it one of those scam countries?” We’ve heard it a million times and I’m absolutely positive, that the credibility of many other start-ups was also questioned by their potential users. People tend to approach anything new with suspicion and sometimes even fear. So get ready to be misjudged and in case you are from a small country, attacked by sweeping generalizations and stereotypes.
Absence of publications, famous business-partners and clients, short-term history – these are the things that make a certain degree of distrust natural. However, there are ways to improve the situation. Laying down your cards on the table is one of them. What we decided to do is to publish our source code. A start-up that has nothing to hide and is willing to appear absolutely “bare” before its potential users has more chances to gain trust than a mysterious rookie. So be prepared to show at least some skin to confirm your credibility.
Challenge #2 – Can’t lack a thing
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Launching a start-up is great, but clearly you are not likely to be the only service provider in the market. You product is going to be compared with others over and over again and you will not be a happy camper, if you are missing something that others have at their disposal. TeamLab started off as a collaboration platform only. Later on it became clear that modern market demands a lot more features. That’s when the project management and documents modules were introduced. The same pattern is applicable for any business. “Why should I choose your software if it lacks functionality?” No matter how good/innovative/user-friendly you are the last thing you want to do is fall behind your rivals. The market is all about survival of the fittest, so prepare to work, analyze the progress of others and yet again – work.
Challenge #3 – What makes you special
Now that you’ve caught up with your competitors it is high time you started pondering over the concept of exceptionalism. Even though the previous challenge is of vital importance, it is not enough to conquer the market. Being as good as (or not worse than) others is alright, but that’s not motivating enough to attract a flow of users to your product. Don’t forget that you are still an underrated start-up struggling for survival. So if you are looking for more than seeing only your close relatives and friends on the list of potential clients, you’ve got to come up with something fresh and unique to receive global customer approval. In the sphere of project management it seemed like an impossible task at first glance.
However, we managed to find a niche which desperately needed improvement. The document management feature has become an essential part for many entrepreneurs these days, but most business services lack a high-quality collaborative online document editing tool. Therefore we decided to introduce the first full-fledged HTML5-based document editor that allows users to process their files directly on the portal without having to resort to third-party services. That is something we might call our special appeal. To put it in a nutshell we are absolutely positive that investment in something that would make your service special will definitely provide a benefit in the near future.
Challenge #4 – I don’t understand what you are saying
The process of globalization has undoubtedly blurred the language barriers between our countries. This phenomenon is applicable for IT-industry too. Software vendors all over the world have accepted English as the language of international business. And as you may have noticed, we don’t mind using English either. However the availability of your service in several languages (the more the better) is an indicator of a strong customer orientation. One of the most vital tips here is to let the native speakers do the translation.
No matter how good your interpreters are you don’t want to risk making a laughingstock of your product due to a slight misinterpretation of a Chinese character. With TeamLab we’ve granted access to our online translation system for contributors who are willing to make our product understandable for everyone. Moreover, multilingual availability will dramatically decrease the amount of requests to your support system. We have noticed that a great deal of those has something to do with language problems, so get ready to become polyglots in the blink of an eye.
Challenge #5 – What are your pricing plans
Charging money for a halfway project that hasn’t reached its full potential yet is no easy matter. That’s exactly why we decided to advertise TeamLab as freeware at first. Little did we know that we would end up answering dozens of questions like – “where do you get your money from?” or “are you going to get me hooked on your initially free product and then rip me off?” The issue of mistrust popped up again and again. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of your pricing policy. Especially when it comes to start-ups.
Young and promising projects are usually frowned upon in case they are obtrusively showing that they are ABSOLUTELY FREE. People have seen a million annoying ads of this kind and tend to avoid these offers. The fact is – there’s no such thing as a free lunch. A good service is the one worth paying for. If your service is more than just satisfying, financial encouragement of your business seems to be the best stimulus for you to keep on developing your project – that’s the way most customers think. So trying to come up with a monetization plan as fast as possible is strongly recommended.
Challenge #6 – Let me talk to someone
You may design a website rich in content including all the information about your product in a neat and practical manner. You may create an all-embracing FAQ with detailed answers to any possible question. But bear in mind that basically there is no way for you to avoid those who would still rather contact a real person to get proper explanation than look it up somewhere else. So yes – you’ve got to create an efficient customer support system. No need to panic though. Start-ups are precisely the ones that have an excellent opportunity to take advantage of the situation.
Considering the fact that the audience of a start-up is generally small – taking proper care of every client becomes a much easier task for young companies. Outstanding customer service will always be appreciated by the audience and bring you extra-points in the “market play-offs”. Help in real-time mode is one of the recent trends. Obviously, users don’t like wasting their time waiting for a response, consequently TeamLab developers had to implement an online support system in order to provide swift answers. The service sector prevails in post-industrial society so it is absolutely vital to keep abreast of the times when it comes to user/service provider dialog.
Challenge #7 – I need a smooth transition
You have worked your tail off day and night. You have created a wonderful product that has every right to be called one of the best out there. You have convinced your target audience that they deserve your service due to its evident advantages. You are anxious to close the first deal, but that is exactly when the most unpleasant problem is very likely to pop up. Let’s face it – changing a service provider is a little bit different than changing a baseball cap. With project management industry for instance you have to consider that your potential customers might have tons of documents: emails, spreadsheets, customer bases and God knows what else.
One thing they most definitely don’t want to happen is to lose all the information while switching their service provider. So it’s up to you to figure out a convenient way for them to start using your product without any significant loss. With TeamLab we enabled users to import their documents from popular services like Box.net, Zoho, or GoogleDocs; list of contacts from Yahoo, Google or Windows Live and existing projects (in case they were using Basecamp previously).
The point is to make the transition process the least painstaking and time-consuming possible. Together with an outstanding quality of your service, its availability in multiple languages, reasonable pricing plans and agile customer support you will acquire good reputation in no time and undoubtedly conquer the market.
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