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To be or not to be a TECH STARTUP- that is not the question

Angela Winkler as Hamlet from The Wilma Theatre

How my customers cause me existential angst, and help me improve my marketing

I wrote this story pondering the question of how much tech makes a startup a tech startup after I was challenged on the “triviality” of the engine that drives my company’s service. It wasn’t a nasty challenge. It was a helpful thought-provoker about the niche in which my business fits, and how I market it and prioritise various elements of its development. I came up with this list of criteria for thinking about what startup genus Textocracy fits into:

  1. Does the company rely on a bit of IP as part of its solution to a well-defined problem?
  2. Has something unique (apart from a website) had to be, or does it need to be, built (coded) in order to provide the solution on offer?
  3. Could you provide essentially the same solution to your customer in some old-school fashion if you took the tech away?

I concluded that indeed yes, my business is centred around a piece of tech, and was therefore a tech startup. This is no small thing, as there are very few businesses these days that don’t rely on some type of tech to keep it running. But this does not mean that those businesses are necessarily selling access to that kit for profit. They may be using it to sell something else entirely.

But what does it matter? What’s in a name?

In the past month or so and in the true spirit of the startup pivot, I am now questioning my conclusion. Or rather, whether I was addressing the right challenge and asking the right questions at all. I began to realise an uncomfortable truth:

I keep getting caught up in the tech startup hype. I love being a part of it. What really matters, though, is that I have a good problem/solution/market fit. After all, what’s in a name?

I had forgotten the lessons I learned early on in my entrepreneurial journey, ironically, by the industry that was perpetuating my existential startup angst. I had read The Lean Startup, The Mom Test, the Strategyzer series. I knew that all that mattered was that I was solving someone’s problem, and that they were willing to pay me for doing so.

Why was I getting caught up (again) in the hype, and why the existential crisis?

One big, very good reason: The Customer

Everything is in the name- it helps me target my marketing messages and find new customers.

My customers are telling me something different. They are saying that it is my knowledge and experience that they are willing to buy, and if I bring along my nifty little techie service then all the better.

This is a tough message for me to hear. I have enjoyed breaking into the tech ecosystem and all the new learning that entailed. I like surprising people when I say that I am the middle-aged solo female non-techie founder of a tech startup. I did conceive, design, and lead the development of the tech. BUT- it is “trivial” in its concept even if it is big in its potential impact. Or, as I like to hear it called, “simply elegant”!

But the bottom line is people want to pay for my time and input- as a human, not as a piece of software. They also happen to be more likely to want my time and input and pay me more for it if I come along with my tech-based tool. This is a very different business model to the current one of software as a service. It has a huge impact on scalability and how I think about growth.

What this has taught me is that trying to fit my company into a culture based on an existential desire to stay in the “in crowd” is bad for business. Getting caught up in my own hype means I am not listening to my customers and therefore could be missing the boat on my potential market.

I have read a few people saying that in the old days a new business was just called a new business, and that all the industry behind the “startup” brand is nothing more than a gimmick. Perhaps, but it is one that has served me well and that I have gotten a lot out of.

However, I need to be reminded to not get caught up in the startup whirlwind at the expense of focusing on ensuring a sustainable, profitable business model, based on market fit with a marketing message that follows.

The most valuable lesson I continue to re-learn when I get caught up in the hype is that I must remain confident in and focused on the problem I am solving and my problem/solution/market fit.

This includes keeping my ears open to what my customers are telling me.

None of the labels matter; none of the praise or criticism of my tech matters. Whether any one person thinks it’s “enough” tech to be startup worthy is irrelevant.

Convincing the people with the pain point that it will solve their problems and is value for money is all that matters. Otherwise I have no business.

Now I’m embarking on a new leg of my journey. I am taking the data and information I have gathered from my customers (and perhaps more importantly those who have chosen not be become customers) and using it to change the way I think about what my business “is” and therefore how to market it to gain new customers. I will amend my marketing and messages and create a new business model that is more appropriate to what my customers are telling me they want.

At least, until new data tell me otherwise.

I write about how I became the founder of a tech(?) startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here: https://medium.com/@eshassere If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share by clicking the heart.

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