Erin Burchfield is the Co-Founder and CEO of Seattle-based Loop, a social polling app that shows results through interactive infographics.
The rapper Pitbull has a line (in his song Feel This Moment) that says “Ask for money and get advice, ask for advice, get money twice.” I chuckle every time I hear that lyric, as it reinforces one of the keys to success for entrepreneurs: keep learning. You should be on this path because you love to learn, you love a challenge, and you have an insatiable curiosity. Good advice is far more valuable than money will ever be, as success depends on a series of decisions, not an infusion of capital. Cash will never make critical decisions for you, only you can decide what to do next. Learning from your mistakes, learning from others, and taking on new challenges is the only way you’ll ever move the ball forward.
We’ve realized that we’re most successful when we experiment with many (many) different approaches, and see what ends up working out for us. One of the best things that Jamie Birdnow (co-founder and “sales guy”) has done is approach some of the larger marketing/PR/social media firms with a “prove to us you’re worth our limited resources” ask. In other words, they’ve let us “sample” their services through a trial run, and if we see that we’re getting a lot more visibility, more hits to our site, more posts on our social networks, then we’ll be willing to negotiate a more formal project.
I worked for almost 7 years at Microsoft in Product Planning, which was really a cross-disciplinary role spanning marketing, customer research, and core product development. Basically, my job was to help define product strategy and inform development decisions based on customer research, business objectives and technical requirements. It provided me with a broad perspective on how to conceive, define, refine, develop and ultimately launch and market a new product, which is exactly what you’re doing as an entrepreneur in the tech space. In all honesty, I loved my job and it was a tough decision to leave, but working on something with my two cofounders that we directly own – and can ultimately do with it whatever we please – is too fun (most of the time!).
When we first developed our working prototype, we hadn’t formally incorporated as a company. We had two interested Angels ready to invest from the get-go, and we wanted to bring in the capital as soon as possible (“strike while the iron is hot”). We incorporated as an LLC in order to expedite the legal process (as it is far simpler than a C-Corp structure), but now we’re having to transition and roll that over to a C-Corp to bring on the next round, which is time consuming and expensive. The advice is to think ahead to what your investors – both short and long term – will expect in terms of structure, and invest in that structure from the get-go.
We decided to release a Beta under a different brand (Loopinion) in order to validate the concept and ensure that we had something customers liked and would use. During the Beta we conducted weekly surveys and collected feedback from our users, which we then used to re-prioritize our investments and focus on things that customers liked and used the most. During that second wave of development, we then set a workback schedule for launch, and were very deliberate about all the different marketing, awareness generation, and publicity levers that we wanted to use in order to make a big splash right off the bat. Giving yourself enough time to have a thoughtful, deliberate, and well executed launch is worth a bit of wait, and certainly worth a lot of forethought and planning.
Generating awareness for the product/offering is key. There are SO many new apps out there, getting eyeballs and having people pay attention to you makes all the difference. Our strategy was to work the PR angle, befriend as many tech bloggers, influencers and writers as possible, and then work with those folks to generate good press. An article in TechCrunch the day we launched was huge in helping create awareness for our app.
We’ve got a unique challenge as we’re spread across the country, with two Co-Founders in Seattle, one in North Carolina, and our project manager/intern in Kansas City. That said, constant (and I mean constant) communication is key. We’ve also adopted a rhythm of monthly retreats somewhere in the middle of our respective locations (one of our investors has offered up his vacation house for us to work/stay in Colorado), which not only gives us valuable “focus time” to concentrate and work uninterrupted for several days, it’s also a fun time for us to get together and relax, and we always emerge re-energized and inspired to keep going.
My daily work involves pretty much everything under the sun. Email communication with everyone is where I spend the most time (again, our team’s different locations mean a lot of time on mail). Each day is something new, but there are a few big things that are fairly consistent, whether that be project management and working with our dev team, coordinating marketing with a PR firm, writing blog posts, or pulling data and reports on our progress. Some simple advice: Invest in a standing desk, and you’ll save yourself from “hunchback” syndrome bending over your laptop!
Seattle startup community is our primary network. Both myself and my Co-Founder Teagen Densmore have a lot of business school connections (both of us are U.W. Foster School of Business grads), as well as industry/work connections (myself from Microsoft, and Teagen from over 10 years working in casual game design / production at several Seattle-based firms). The thing to remember is that ultimately, business is personal. Developing relationships and fostering those — whether that means making a point of going out to drinks with old business school friends or colleagues, or attending local networking events on a weekly basis — is key to success.
We have an attorney who is in a band, and also happens to be a foodie. On more than one occasion we’ve had him over and cooked an impressive dinner, or brought a “groupie” cohort of friends to his shows to bolster the crowd, as a means of repaying a lot of the pro-bono work he’s been willing to do for a cash-strapped startup. The lesson? Make friends with as many professional services providers as you can (attorneys, accountants, etc) and see what kind of barter you can offer!