Thursday, April 24, 2008

innerTee postmortem | lessons learned

When I ran into Bijoy last month at SXSW we had a good chat about the past year and the ups and downs of innerTee, my bootstrap t-shirt mixing community. At SXSW Interactive last year innerTee was up for a web award and now just over a year later its up for sale. Obviously things didn't go as planned but I thought it might be helpful to share some of the lessons we learned and how my bootstrapping experience helped me as I moved onto the next venture.

For almost a full year innerTee had a steady stream of coverage from when we first announced the site in early 2006 up to our web awards experience last March. Our business model seemed solid and everyone we talked to raved about our shirts and the innovative process we were using to mix art & artists.

So enough of the ancient history, lets get to the good stuff. The big question here is how did we screw it all up if thing we're really that great. I've mapped out a few of the key things and hopefully this will be helpful for anyone looking to turn a great idea (which I still think innerTee is) into an even better business.

1. Don't start the party too early
We announced innerTee in March of 2006 but weren't able to launch the site until December of the same year. We had a lot of blog and print coverage early on but changed our plans more than once on when the real site would go live. We had over 3000 people sign-up to join the site but by the time we landed on the final version we'd lost a lot of steam and a number of similar concepts were introduced into the market.

2. Focus on who your customers actually are
Similar to Mark's post, we had a very strong vision of what we thought the site should be and who our buying customers should be. We focused our marketing efforts too heavily on the tech market we knew thinking designers and techies would jump on board and buy a bunch of shirts. However when we launched the site a much younger audience showed up and we were unable to acknowledge that and make the shift with them. We were selling a number of shirts through our Amazon store but sales from the site were just not there.

3. Be able to adapt quickly
As a bootstrapper one of the biggest advantages is the ability to quickly make changes to your business model or strategy and refocus. In our case that was around the creation and management of our online community. One of our biggest mistakes was not securing someone on our team with the technical knowledge to quickly update our site and be able to respond to the rapid changes needed to manage a project like innerTee. We had the sales & marketing as well as production teams needed but without the technical ability to adapt our community went stale.

Although we fell short of our goals for innerTee as a business we did build a successful art & t-shirt community (minus the sales we expected) and gained some valuable experience in regard to building and managing an online e-commerce application. Some of the mistakes we made can be chalked up to being rookie bootstrappers or the fact that both of us had full-time jobs as well as family obligations which are real things to take into consideration when trying to plan your business.

The great thing about bootstrapping is that we are able to take these lessons and quickly apply them to the next idea.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bootstrap Hero's Journey in Bumper Stickers

Bootstrapping a startup means to forgo having a boss, but it also often means doing without many of the regular comforts of office life: the water cooler, usually. The magic wardrobe of Post-Its and swank Rollerballs, almost certainly. And the paycheck -- well, it's usually there, but you're not always sure how big it'll be. Which is to say when you bootstrap, you live by your wits.

Which is another way of saying if you're gonna bootstrap, you better be ready to think: about yourself, your product, and about how to make the scarce resources you do have stretch farther than normal people call "possible."

As I reflect on my career as a bootstrapper -- my company is the make-your-own-bumper-sticker website Bumperactive -- that's the part I like best. I *know* what a bumper sticker is. I know the difference between a good one and a bad one, what a bumper sticker can do, can't do, and just might be able to do if you push the envelope of the medium.

Yes, but why would anybody want to do that? I admit it's a great question. I'm not entirely sure, really, except to say if you're aren't strangely bizarrely obsessed with every last intricacy of your line of work, you're going to have a rough time competing with the guys in the venture funded Maseratis. But that's a whole other post....

Point is, when Bijoy asked me to come up with some bumper stickers for the cause, I knew they had to be more than your run-of-the-mill sloganeering. He often talks about the parallels between the four key phases of bootstrapping -- Preideation, Ideation, Valley of Death, and Growth -- and the stations of the archetypal "Hero's Journey" of myth. I was struck by the notion: would it be possible to take people on an epic journey with four discrete bumper stickers? Totalling less than 30 words, for sure, and barely 120 square inches of printed material? To not just preach, proclaim or sermonize, but actually cause the people who see them to experience a philosophy?

I had to give it a shot: Bootstrapping's taught me everything I know about bumper stickers. Maybe these ones'll teach the world something back.

The Bootstrap Hero's Journey in Bumper Stickers.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Business Owners can Avoid Much Online Pain

Last month's Bootstrap Web presentation entitled "Conversion: The Most Important Word for Online Businesses" is available (with slides) on the Boot Rap Podcast. You can find it at the newly redesigned

I prepared this presentation so that business owners will look differently at their Web site. There are a few unfortunate thoughts lurk in the depths of our minds when we imagine a Web site to support our business. Here are some of them:

"Building a Web site is more like printing a brochure than developing a software application."

"My Web site is independent of the advertising I'm doing."

"Web developers know how to build Web sites that will help me land more business."

"The look and feel is the most important aspect of my Web site."

"People want to know about my company."

"People want to drill down until they find the information they are looking for."

"Everyone who comes to my site is relaxed and has lots of time to spend."

My presentation offers six ways of looking at your Web site that will make you better at commissioning your Web site's construction.

I hope it will save you the months of lost sales and thousands of mis-spent dollars.

Best regards,

Brian Massey

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Mikons and the Hijacking Maven

I have made all the classic mistakes that one can make on the Bootstrap journey through the Valley of Death and lived to tell about it.

Sitting on my couch watching the 2004 Tour De France was the seminal moment that changed my life and moved into Ideation. Indeed on that hot summer Texas night my mind was awhirl with ideas, fantasies, and dreams. I am a Maven and I like that place. But I moved quickly from the idea stage into what I loathe to call the Valley of Death. And I have been there for two full years ignorantly and painfully playing the Frank Sinatra refrain, "I did it my way."

Now I realize that I had never really moved out of Ideation. I was just incognito in Ideation walking through the VoD. You see, I loved my ideas for using symbols to connect people. But I wanted the Universe to conform to my notion of how to role it out.

My confusion was due to my narrow-minded attachment to a quote by George Bernard Shaw: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. I still believe that to be true, but the insight that I have now is that there is a profound difference between "the world" and "the Universe."

This is my story of my journey through the VOD.

It was July and Lance Armstrong's last year of the Tour De France. Nike commissioned a graffiti artist named Futura to design forty-some icons that commemorated and symbolize Lance's heroic life. I saw Lance use these icons as a medium to communicate his life with others.

By October a team was assembled. By January we were programming Mikons - a social website that connects people through their own personally designed icons. We made cool app that was an on-line vector graphic drawing tool where people could draw their own symbols. We were really proud of it. By June we launched.

I was convinced that people would come to the site in hoardes to make their Mikons and put them on t-shirts and stickers sold through the site. So I bought a $14,000 printer-cutter to make shirts and stickers and bought server space from a high-priced scalable server farm. All this under the idea of "build it and they will come." Well they didn't. We burned through $80,000 the first year and another $80,000 the second year.

My answer was to keep coming up with ideas to improve the website and applications for mikons. I was stuck in the Ideation and DEMO cycle and couldn't move to the true Valley of Death: the SELL process. The cowardly Maven inside of me didn't want to face the prospect of selling. So I distracted myself by feeding my Ideation junkie with more useless and costly mikon applications.

In the Spring of 2007 we wanted to leverage SXSWi by introducing mikons there. But how? Lorin Rivers, a fellow bootstrapper was consulting with us and had a stroke of insight: let's make a set of mikon badge stickers as iconic identifiers that attendees can wear and use to express themselves and network with others. We made 5000 sticker set and put them in the schwag bag. They were a big hit.

Soon after, I forgot about the success of those stickers and how people heralded application of them to connecting with other in such a setting. The Universe began to do its work and in September other conferences began asking for them. But I wanted to sell t-shirts, and make cooler applications for mikons. Certain friends and fellow bootstrappers kept telling me to follow the money. I chose to follow my own ideas. Thus I chose to continue to suffer.

Someone at the initial team meeting of mikons noted that uses for mikons would arise that we never considered. That is what happened with what Bijoy coined as the MikonMixer Stickers.

Finally, I surrendered and began to only focus on selling MixerStickers. So far in March we have orders three deep and bookings of almost $2000. It was our highest revenue month ever.