Author Archive


The 24-hour Fake Startup

A few weeks ago, Sophie (a fellow Project Getaway participant) and I both launched a business within just 24-hours (actually, we had both hit out goal after just 18-hours).

We both had come up with ideas for products that we thought could be interesting to sell online, but we didn’t want to stake a large investment in a complex website or sourcing inventory. So we formulated a plan to instead ‘fake it’. We created an online store, showcased some mock products, promoted the site through AdWords, and waited to see the results.

This concept takes ideas from Tim Ferris and the Lean Startup; namely the concept of minimum viable product (TechCrunch has a nice piece on how Dropbox used MVP to create demand without a working product), whereby you launch a business with the very bare bones of a product or service to test the waters before making a larger commitment.

My venture centered around fascinators; those fancy hair broche type of things that have seen a boom in the UK since the Royal Wedding. I figured that they could be sourced cheaply from China, shipped over to the UK in bulk and sold online at a price that reflected good value.

After a quick bit of brainstorming, Sophie & Fox was born. We used the superb Shopify platform to launch our webshop, taking advantage of Paypal for simple payment processing.

Here’s a screenshot of the Sophie & Fox homepage (the site has now been put offline). I made use of a standard template, with a bit of customisation and a custom-made logo. I’m pretty happy with the look; it feels very professional and slick.

I spent most of the day hacking the template to make it more bespoke, working with a graphic designer on some elements (which turned out to be quite painful) and adding some products to the store.

We whacked together a super quick AdWords campaign (featuring the most obvious broad keywords, coupled with a few ad texts and some negative keywords) and set it live immediately with a budget of $30/day. Traffic acquisition through Google might not be commercially viable in the long-term, but it served us perfectly for this experiment – if we can’t convert highly targeted visitors, then it’s unlikely that there’s demand for our product.

This Google results page shows the Sophie & Fox ad on top for the “fascinators” keyword.

After $101 and 262 clicks of ad spend, I had received just 1 order. (Of course, I refunded the payment immediately and apologised for not being able to supply the product at the time).

My experience suggests that fascinators aren’t a great product to sell online. Of course, perhaps a more conversion-optimised page could have performed better, and building the brand would help enormously, but I was hoping to see a much higher conversion rate which would show a much greater opportunity to work with.

But I wouldn’t consider the test a failure. I had only spent a hundred bucks and a day of my time to turn a seed of an idea into fully fledged proof of concept. I feel confident that I could now go on to test out other products in the same way and I’m sure after a while I’d find something that sticks.

Sophie worked on building Sticky Inspiration; cool little Post-it like notes with inspirational quotes that you can stick anywhere. Her test continues.

 Tags: Business   Published: 21st November '11

The Social Media Water Cooler

Understanding social media isn’t about understanding Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare (okay, I’m being a little bit of a devil’s advocate). It’s a realisation that the water cooler is now a digital and highly-networked meeting place. Previously you might discuss your weekend trip to a few colleagues over lunch, but now you’re sharing the details online with all your friends and the wider public through reviews and Tweets. The impact of word of mouth is huge in this new world.

A brand shouldn’t concern themselves with creating a flashy Page or amassing followers, they should first and foremost try to identify where their customers are talking and to join in those conversations. You don’t create social media, it’s already happening. Your task is to encourage, converse and ultimately engage with your customers, using these tools and platforms to make it possible.

 Tags: Random   Published: 5th November '11

Web Peeve #04: Form Reset Buttons

Reset buttons are almost always completely unnecessary. They certainly should never be places on the right hand side of the form footer or have the same visual focus.

 Tags: Web Peeve   Published: 25th October '11

My Bucket List

It’s quite in vogue over here at Project Getaway to compile a list of things you’d like to do before you kick the bucket and stick it somewhere public. So here’s Keith’s Bucket List.

It acts as a nice reminder for some of the quirky and fun things you wish to do with you life and the public sharing helps just a little to push you along. As a few people had commented, there isn’t a really good online tool for creating and sharing a bucket list 43things.com is about as good as it gets. Another day, another opportunity.

 Tags: Random   Published: 17th October '11

Hierarchy of Social Media

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about social media recently and examining how companies are using it in different ways and to different extents. I sketched down some notes as I went along and thought I’d share some of them here.

Much of this comes from my experiences at Facebook, an introspective on what people care about and what they’re impressed by, and much inspiration from Vaynerchuk’s book “The Thank You Economy (the de facto bible for social media).

I envisage a hierarchical ranking of how deep a company actively utilises social media; consider it a scorecard for measuring how a business (maybe yours) is currently tracking and where it might want to progress to.

Level 1:
A business has identified that they should do something. This might be a local business owner who is conscious of competitors starting to get social, or an executive type who continues to read journal articles about this thing called Facebook. As an alcoholic might say, half the battle is to identify you have a problem. The majority of businesses are not even at this stage.

Level 2:
The business has figured out how to create and use a simple Twitter account or Facebook Page. They’ve populated it with some basic information such as a logo and a link back to their site. They might have made the odd post here and there.

Level 3:
They’ve optimised and fully populated their account with photos, information, a custom landing page and provided useful and somewhat compelling content. The business is using their new found social identity to push out messages, that are typically promotional in nature, or make claim to their own greatness. They’ve probably excluded the ability for users to interact, or at least leave comments on their wall; it’s deemed far too risky for their brand to communicate beyond the boiler plate marketing message and letting users write comments in front of a public audience is regarded as ludicrous.

Level 4:
So they’ve figured out that it’s good to talk. They respond proactively to  messages and interact with users. However, they have a heart attack when they see bad feedback and try to either remove it from the public eye or quash the complaint with pitiful excuses. I’d propose that most businesses who think they’re doing something social are really just at this stage.

Level 5:
An understanding that bad feedback isn’t so bad. Perversely, bad feedback can be really beneficial in the new world of social media; it provides great information on how the business can improve and getting their (public) response right can send out positive vibes to everyone else too (think about all major crisis and how disappointment usually responds to how they communicated and not just their actions).

Level 6:
They’ve become humanised. They’ll say sorry, confess that they’ve screwed up and make use of the occasional smiley. They stay true and make it always clear that there’s people behind the brand and that they give a damn. Unhappy customers make them unhappy, so they want to correct the problem and not fob them off. They invite a complaining customer to come back and try them again (with an incentive) or solicit them to talk more about their experience.

Level 7:
They actively solicit customers to be vocal. I was recently chatting with a friend about the TripAdvisor effect. We’ve spotted some restaurants actively encourage users to provide reviews on their website, menu and at the till. A high volume of feedback with a strong average is ridiculously powerful. It’s amazing how businesses with a huge volume of email addresses are never utilised (think of all those hotel registration cards you’ve filled in). Don’t spam people, but send a personal note and suggest that they should engage to help future customers. Those who really get this will make it clear that they welcome the customer to leave a good or bad review and that’ll respect them all the same.

Level 8:
Get entrenched in the industry. Watch your competitors and understand what customers like/need/want.

Level 9:
Look beyond their own industry. Marathon freebie. Cool to those even not involved. Proactive reward outbound.

Level 10:
Track impact. It’s notoriously difficult to measure the ROI of social media activities, but certainly not impossible. Look at your own retention/churn rates. Measure the reach of your messaging. Identify individual cases where a happy customer has influenced your business. I’d argue that this level isn’t even necessary as the ROI should be self-evident from the outset, which is why I place this at a higher level – it shouldn’t be fundamental.

Level 11:
Use CRM and get sophisticated. Tag disgruntled customers. Tag your best customers. Tag prospective customers. Get to know them, follow them on Twitter. Vaynerchuk talks about a company who rewarded a good customer not with a free product or discount, but tickets to a baseball game, because they know there were in town and loved baseball (thanks to Twitter);  sure, it was more expensive, but you bet it made a much larger impression.

Level 12:
It’s not just digital. No amount of nice words will get you out of a sinking ship if the service sucks. Sure, provide special care to high value customers, but don’t discredit the power of anyone. The culture of unparalleled customer service and carte needs to be spread throughout the entire organisation. The hotel maid who leaves a personal note in the room, the surprise amuse-bouche and a simple smile make the world of difference.

Level 13:
Ditch the self-interest identity. Not sure if this is the holy grail step, but I’m sure it’s hardest for a company to stomach. The notion is to care not just about your existing customers and trying to win over prospective customers, but to want just every consumers in your market to be satisfied. So if you’re a 5* hotel and in a position to respond to someone looking for a budget stay, then make a recommendation to a hotel other than your own. An easier example to grasp would be to give three options (including your own) to someone wanting a hotel recommendation near a specific location. You could suggest why you think you’re the best choice, but it’d be better to lead to customer to see it for themselves on social media and respect their intelligence to make the right choice. The hotel’s concierge could offer assistance to all passing tourists; you’d gain the reputation of being the friendly, helpful hotel and it’ll pay back handsomely in the long-run.

What do you think? Any glaring omissions?

 Tags: Social Media   Published: 20th June '11

Cheap Co-working at Regus

Regus is a huge player in office accommodation with over 1,000 offices globally. They’re notoriously quite an expensive option for a micro start-up, but do offer flexible terms and the ability to scale. Their business has been disrupted a bit by the meteoric rise in co-working spaces which have popped up in many cities. In response, Regus is aggressively pushing their BusinessWorld membership which provides access to their business lounges; large rooms with a bunch of hot-desk spaces.

Free printing and refreshments are nice, but the lounges appear to be purposefully designed not to encourage long-stays (raised breakfast tables, Sky News in the background). The lounges have a continual flow of transient executive-types coming in and out and the atmosphere lacks any of the co-operation or social interaction that true co-working tries to foster. It’s still a fairly smart move by Regus; it can be viewed as a marketing vehicle to capture young upstarts that might then grow into needing dedicated workspaces.

Nevertheless, despite its flaws, they do offer great value. Membership runs at around £17-42 per month (inclusive of VAT), depending on whether you opt for a local, national, or worldwide access. This compares favourably against other co-working options (which are usually >£150/month in the UK).

Better still, there’s something of a loophole that can be taken advantage of to give even cheaper membership. Business Traveller is a pretty dry magazine for execs on the move. An annual subscription costs £38.65 and comes with a free global BusinessWorld membership. Toss the magazine in the bin each month if you wish and you’re effectively getting the work space for a little over £3/month.

 Tags: Random   Published: 7th June '11

Companies House Should be Free

Maybe it’s just one of my oddities, but I quite enjoy stumbling across a business and wondering about its financial health.

Companies House can answer such questions; providing access to annual returns for any incorporated business in the UK, at around ~£1 a shot. As well as satisfying curiosities, it can importantly help inspring entrepreneurs understand the viability of incumbent players in a market. Existing businesses can also analyse their competitors and analyse the financial success of their execution.

The charge isn’t much, but it’s enough to put you off from downloading a report on a casual whim. New business generation and increased competition resulting from free downloads would surely offset the meager revenue that the £1 transactions must generate?

 Tags: Business   Published: 20th May '11

User Generated Tour Guide Platform

I’ve had an idea recently and a few friends have suggested that it wasn’t half bad.

The ever popular weekend/short city break can be tough to plan. Time is short and you want to experience as much as possible. There’s so much information on the web that curation has become a necessary lifeline. Facebook is busy with people sharing recommendations. Quora can help you with personal suggestions from other humans. TripAdvisor gives you the aggregated opinion of thousands, and WikiTravel gives a condensed list edited by a select few.

Not bad. But whilst you may appreciate the recommendations of your friends or the collective wisdom of many, these opinions still represent the suggestions people not entirely like you. On the other end of the spectrum, Lonely Planet or an editorial provides the opinion of just one person. That’s perfect if your needs resonate with those of the author. Such guides also lack social validation and are quickly outdated.

I envisage that there’s still a need for a middle ground; a platform that provides access to a mass number of searchable, social validated, and highly-curated city guides.

Paint the picture. You arrive on the site and see a world map with markings for all the cities offering guides. Select your city, and you’ll see a list of guides created for that city. Some are for those on a 48-hour weekend stint, some are child friendly, others for foodies, revellers, and so on.

Delving into a guide, you’ll be presented with a detailed map, annotated with the recommended attractions, restaurants and so on. Maybe it even marks out the suggested route and provides supplementary information on the cost and time you can anticipate the trip to consume. Read reviews, closing times other pertinent information for each location. Hit print and get a handy document to accompany your trip.

Not wholly satisfied with the guide? Tag it, leave a review, merge it with another guide, remove some attractions, swap a restaurant and there you go. You could then share your newly created iteration with others on the site. All this feedback can be used to help users find the guide suitable for them; imagine going to Paris listing, selecting the ‘foodie’ filter and seeing the top 5 rated guides come up.

The online travel industry is a tough nut to crack, but there’s plenty of money flowing, making advertising and affiliate commissions the obvious monetisation route. Another option is to charge for the guides or solicit gratuities (taking a cut before it’s passed onto the original author) -but they’re always tricky options to pull off.

Some sites like the beautifully presented and curated unlike.net allow you to build and share a tour, but it’s not a core feature of the site and lacks depth.

I’m surprised this doesn’t exist, unless I’m mistaken?

Update: TripWorlf allows you to build a multi-location trip and then compile it as a PDF with map, location addresses and descriptions. Stay.com pretty much does everything I had in mind and has been going since 2009.

 Tags: Business, Ideas   Published: 12th May '11

Web Peeve #03: UK Nationality

It’s notoriously difficult to understand what is and isn’t the UK , but it’s usually a given that when we’re asked to select our nationality online, we’d scroll down the list looking for the United Kindgom. Frustratingly, some sites insist that we should be selecting England, Britain, or Great Britain. Neglecting which is more correct, the web would be more pleasant if sites were just more consistent.

Today’s guilty site was my University’s accommodation booking form. Even more shameful given that it’s British, or is that English? Confusing!

 Tags: Web Peeve   Published: 9th May '11

Web Peeve #02: Deactivated Accoutns

As a former employee, I’m somewhat partial of Commission Junction. But I get annoyed when companies decide to clean up their database by pruning inactive accounts.

Let’s be real; there’s no real cost of dormant accounts (data storage, administrative overhead, or otherwise) but it does cause a real pain for users. The risk is that I’ve lost all my historic data and can no longer use my main email address.

 Tags: Web Peeve   Published: 3rd May '11