Monday, August 11, 2008

The "Coolness" of Beta Websites

Many people ask me why MSI is an invite based site and not open for registration. After all, being a startup, shouldn't increasing user base be one of the goals?

Even more people mistake it as planned marketing strategy, citing Gmail as an example. The concept being that an invite only registration adds to the "mystery", making people curious and wanting for more.

While this concept worked for Gmail, with people auctioning the invites on eBay, I doubt it was meant to be this way. As a marketing strategy, I guess it's quite a risky one - you are trying to increase your user base by limiting it! Moreover, this concept can work only for a few products, products that are extremely good that can create a hugely positive word of mouth publicity. In that case, I am not sure why would any company whose product is that good would resort to this strategy. If it's good, it would anyway become popular. Also, after a few companies this out, the whole concept itself loses the novelty - quite a number of things look good only the first few time.

People tend to forget that the concept of beta is older than Gmail, or Google itself. And so is the concept of invites. I remember Netscape and Windows inviting people to try out their products before the final release. While Google is the one who made betas "cool", they are also the one who most misused the concept with betas running for years (Gmail is still in beta, after more than 4 years!)

So why are products invite only (or in beta)? While I can talk only about my startup, I think these concepts apply to others as well.

The main concept behind a closed beta is that the product is still in early stages and not ready for a full release. There can be bugs. Maybe the feature list is not complete for a good user experience. Perhaps the UI is not as nice as for a production ready product.

But if it's not ready, why release it at all? Why not wait a little longer for product to finish? Because for any product to be successful, you need feedback, from actual users for whom it is meant for. However, not all users are forgiving. If your product is not ready, they may get turned off. Worse, write a bad blog turning off even more users. So you release it to a limited set of users. You can always find a few users who are more tolerable. They can ignore a few blips here and there if they like the idea and see the potential. They are ready to invest their precious time to try and help you in your initiative.

When should you open up? Well, short answer is when it's ready. And readiness varies from product to product.

In case of MSI, I define readiness as user getting excited enough to "use" our site. When a user joins our site, we have an expectation as to the level of activity. We certainly do not expect users to log in daily - we are a travel portal and people don't think about travel everyday. But we do expect users to add their past trips, upload photographs, maybe write a review or two, send out mails to a few friends. When our users do that regularly, I would call ourselves successful and would signify time to open up. Till that time, we'll prefer to stay as beta and keep improving.

Where are we on that goal now? Not quite there. One of the feedbacks we got while we sent out the last few invites was that entering old trips was long process. Clicking "Enter past trip" button for each trip was not the easiest thing to do. We resolved that by upgrading Travel Map so that you can just click on the destinations you've been to and a trip would automatically get created thereby significantly reducing the time to load your past trips. And new users would automatically be sent to this page as part of registration. We'll observe user's behavior on this feature and see how it's going. If you are one of the users of our site, do let me know if it helped.

One another important thing that we are set out to do as part of beta is to encourage people to write about their travel experiences. While there are ways to do it currently, I feel they are not appropriate for a number of travelers. Not everybody wants to maintain a blog for writing travel experiences. Maintaining a blog is very intimidating and many people give up after a post or two. Travel is supposed to be fun and writing about it should not come with burden of maintaining a blog. We want to provide a comfortable setup for people to share experiences. While this is a long-term goal, I am happy to say that we have been seeing some success with it. Two of our users (Anshul and Shobhit) not really known for their writing in past have written about their experiences, for the first time - here and here. If we can do that on regular basis, it would be a great success for our site.

These are some of the tweaking we are doing to achieve the goals we have set out for ourselves to open up.

These days beta is synonymous of "cool". But one should be wary of misusing it. It should not be used as an excuse for inferior product. It is easy to get complacent on the beta tag. The earlier you get out of it, the better. You should set goals for your product to come out of the beta tag. That is best not only for your product but for your users as well.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

How to Start-up

In India, very few people start a startup straight out of college. A few have been quite successful, but it has been almost a rarity. I don't know if it's the education system or the society, or both, but we have got to do better. Corporate experience is not really a must for a startup, and in reality, can prove to be a hindrance. However, we'll probably see more stories of college grads starting out in future. I see lot of enthusiastic youngsters in startup events and hoping that at least a few get inspired.

As of now, it is more common for people to think about startups while on their job. Though not always, but many a times, these are the people who have been successful at their jobs - getting fast promotions, having the highest paychecks among peers, collected a few awards. I guess that sort of gives the confidence you need to take on the world.

When you are thinking of starting something of your own, you get lots of ideas. There are a ton of things wrong in this world, and there's opportunity at every nook and corner. What you zero in on is upto you. Sometimes people choose the one where their interest lies. Sometimes it's where they see the biggest market opportunity. Other times it's the one that suits their skill-set. Many a times, it's a combination of all these.

No matter what idea you decide, you've got to be passionate about it. You are going to bet your life on it, so you better be as convinced about it as anyone can be. Bug bucks and fame will follow automatically, but these can't be the main drivers. These are extrinsic motivations. Intrinsic ones work much better, and last longer. And there's nothing that matches passion. You'll see lots of ups and downs in your startup life, and if it's not backed by strong conviction, chances are you'll give up too soon.

It helps a lot, actually highly recommended, to discuss your idea with others before taking the plunge. And discuss a lot. You'll get to hear different opinions. A few will be encouraging, but majority will likely be on the negative side. Partly because majority of the people are risk averse, and their opinion on something as risky as starting a startup is not going to be as per your liking. After all, if they think good about starting a startup, there are chances quite a few of them would have started on their own. And partly, you'll get the impression of negativeness because you might not crystal clear about your idea and may tend to take any questioning of your idea in a negative way. That happened with me a lot. It happens with everybody.

What kind of people should you talk to? I would say of as many type as you can. Talk to your family and friends first. They are likely to be the most negative, because they care about you the most and will do everything to prevent you from doing anything risky. If you survive, talk to a few people who have already started. They'll give out some good practical advice on how to proceed further, what all to consider, how to plan. And they are likely to be more encouraging. One of the advice they are going to give is to talk to your customers. They are your next destination. They'll give you the finer points on the product you are going to build and will help you understand your to-be-product better.

When you talk to people, be as specific as you can. It's fine if you are not super clear about your idea. That is one of your motives talking to people - get more clarity and feedback on your idea. People can give you better advice if you ask on specifics rather than a general notion.

One of the worries of would-be entrepreneurs at this stage is stealing of ideas. Many people don't talk in detail for the fear of somebody else starting out on a similar idea. This is one of the biggest fallacies. So far, you'd have realized that starting a startup is tough. To think that just by hearing your idea somebody else would get inspired to quit his/her job is ludicrous. It's tough to be passionate about an idea, it is almost impossible to be passionate about somebody else's idea. And say, for pure theoretical analysis, if somebody did do that, do you really think they'll be successful executing *your* idea? At best, they can pick on your idea and start on some version of it.

For a startup, somebody else executing similar idea should be least of their worries. Why? Because no matter what idea you think of, there'll always be somebody who would have thought of similar idea, and probably executing it right now. And even if you don't know who they are, you better believe there are smart people out these doing exactly the same thing as you and plan accordingly. You've got to think of it in terms of how you are going to execute yours rather than what others might be doing. You have got to learn to co-exist with your competitors. If you do not have any competitors, you are probably in the wrong field.

It's not a bad idea to do this thinking while on your job. Shaping an idea is not really a full time work. You can manage it with your current job. And it is probably advisable to do it with your current job so that you give yourself enough time for thinking. Quiting your job and then thinking about an idea will panic you and probably you'll start something out of desperation rather than conviction. And that is just not good. So, do justice to yourself and your idea by giving yourself sufficient time.

However, when you have locked down on a particular idea, do it full time. It is important for you to understand that it is almost impossible to develop something useful part time. There's a whole philosophy behind part time vs full time, but the gist is don't do it part time, it's not going to work.

Switching from part-time (shaping the idea) to full-time (developing the idea) is a tricky business. There are no fixed set of rules when to do it. What suits you is dependent totally onto you. It's an art so to say. Switch too soon without proper planning and you may be headed for a failure. Switch too late and market opportunity might be gone.

However, these are extreme cases. Don't get bogged down with timing it perfectly. Even if you did it on perfect time, you can't tell it until many years later. I can't tell whether mine was a perfect decision even after 9 months. What is important is that you do what you are comfortable with. Something that you don't have to regret. Planning helps in this. Have a plan for the best case, and a worst case, no matter how sure you are of its success. Have some criteria to measure your success. Have a cut-off time and a goal beyond which you'll just say it doesn't work and move onto better things in life. At MSI, we gave ourselves 1.5 years. We are into 9th month and are doing excellent!

Financial planning is one of the most important things you need to consider when jumping to full time. Make sure you have enough funds to sustain you through the period, at least till cut-off time. Look at your savings. Ask friends and family for support. If needed, look out for some Angel funding.

These are all good ways of acquiring funds. There are bad ways too. One of the most common is to do some part time consultation on the way to earn the extra buck. One of the stakeholders decide to get some external projects and work part time. This is even more dangerous than being on a day job and working part time on idea. In a day job, you have at least some stability and predictability in terms of effort gone outside startup. Any kind of consultation or part time work outside job would be going backwards. And one should avoid that for the sole reason - focus. You are better off focusing on your core idea. If you need finances, go for other routes. Don't do it at the cost of your startup. Anything that will cause you to devote less time and energy on your startup is a bad idea and will seriously jeopardize it.

Starting a startup is difficult enough. Wrong notions surrounding it make it even more tough. Make sure you get the right advice. Even if you disagree with the above concepts, make sure you consult people you trust. Don't go by the buzz-in-the-town kind of information, they are wrong more often than not. Startup ecosystem in India is a new one, and it is bound to take sometime before it matures into something which breeds success on regular basis. Till then, you have more responsibility to filter the noise and consume right things.

Happy starting-up!