5 things I learned when Google let me work at a startup for 2 weeks…
Earlier this month, I spent a fortnight working at Campus London, a space for startups, run by Google, as an advisor for Campus Experts Summit. This program brings Google employees to Campuses across the world (Madrid, Seoul, Warsaw, Sao Paulo) for 2 weeks to provide hands-on mentoring for startups.
For me it was a fantastic way to get back into startup life and get out of the corporate “comfort zone”. I also wanted to see how applicable the skills & knowledge I had garnered at Google (company size of close to 100,000 employees) were to startups (company size of 4 employees).
I spent two weeks hands-on with Spill, who’s app brings the benefits of talking therapy to everyone everyday. They’re a smart team looking at a big problem in a very important space.
Here’s some of the things I learned from them and other startups along the way:
1. Know your first user really well
Your product or solution is very unlikely to be for everyone. Even if you think more than a billion people might need it in the future, they’re unlikely to be looking for it right now. Before you jump into the mainstream, focus on getting your power users. Think through who your early adopters might be.
Who’s most likely to take a risk on trying your product? Who’s up for a change and trying something new?
When you’re launching a new product to market, before you jump into the mainstream, focus on these specific early adopters. This is applicable for any product — from consumer products that scale to billions of users to enterprise products for C-level execs, finding your core power-users is key to a product’s success.
With Spill, we identified 3 audience segments as potential power-users:
- “mental-health curious”
- “mindful self developers”
We’ve dug into even deeper customer segments (e.g. post-natal parents, career changers, yogis, bereaved families) and tried to understand where to best find them like facebook groups or in-person at university campuses. Then we started testing out which of these audiences would be best suited based on adoption rates.
2. Always try to measure your ROI
The Spill team had experimented with several creative ways to get people to try Spill: from sending chewed pencils to journalists to flash counseling around London landmarks to posing as undercover counsellors on dating apps.
They were fantastic at generating interesting and unique ways to market their product but failed to measure how successful each idea was since they hadn’t set up the appropriate tracking. After sharing various tracking techniques with the team, they are now razor-focussed on tracking the ROI of each initiative. During my two weeks, they were able to compare sign up conversion rates & cost per sign up for each of their marketing channels.
3. Focus is a virtue
One of the things I was really impressed about by the Spill team was their undying focus. They were fantastic at focussing on one thing at a time. A startup is extremely resource constrained so the last thing it needs is its team to spread too thin. They stayed focussed on one task at a time and quickly moved onto the next, saying no to things that didn’t relate to those tasks.
The virtue of focus goes well beyond startups. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter & Square, famously has “theme days” where he devotes 100% of his energy to specific themes on each day e.g. management, product, marketing & comms, developers and partnerships etc. This establishes a rhythm of focus and creates efficiencies to group similar projects together.
4. Document and test: Docs & Sheets > Decks
A learning from my first week was that experimentation is often prioritized over documentation in startups. This is often because documentation is seen as a waste of time given that so much is in flux. During my second week, I noticed that the lack of documentation causes a lot of frustration and miscommunication. The primary purpose of documentation is to standardize things that work well and share that with others. Documentation is fantastic for communicating and formulating ideas — it ultimately can turn personal knowledge or gut feeling into a group asset. The Spill team built their first definitive product roadmap while I was there.
That being said, documentation shouldn’t take >50% of your time and you should focus on doing rather than making beautiful decks. The nuance I like is Docs & Sheets > Decks.
5. Do things that don’t scale
Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, famously wrote an essay titled Do things that don’t scale, which is very much the premise of my final learning. It’s ultimately very rare that an app becomes virally popular organically without any push. Startups often have to recruit users manually (Airbnb recruited new users door to door) before they hit traction. This may seem counterintuitive to reaching “scalable growth” but if you look at it through the lens of compound growth, take weekly growth rate say of 20% week over week, 50 users on week 0 to 60 users on week 1, within a year you hit 655k users!
The Spill team came up with the idea of “Pay with a problem” where Spill would give free coffee to members of the public if they told us a personal problem. I advised the CMO to use this as more of an aggressive user acquisition channel and always ask users for their email to sign them up straight away rather than handing out a flyer. Changing this from a feel good brand awareness initiative to a user acquisition channel showed real dividends. We calculated that this channel cost £2.30 per sign up (an 1/8th of FB ad cost), making it one of the most efficient acquisition channels.
I also took the chance to meet with friends who happen to be the founders of some of London’s hottest startups including Eamonn from Onfido (identity verification engine), Ali from Cytera (accelerating lab’s research with automated cell culture) and Dhruv from Factmata (aiming to reduce online misinformation through AI).
As you can see I learnt a ton from my time working at a startup and cannot thank the Google for Startups & Spill team enough!