Startups, chickens, and eggs

Nick Brewer wrote in last week asking for suggestions dealing with a very common challenge he’s having with his startup: Tradeomics:

How do we encourage users to add items even though they may not find what they want right now?

Our biggest challenge is the chicken before the egg problem. We have been trying to get coverage on various blogs, to little luck. We’ve gained almost 400 members and only about 200 items (60% of our items are from friends or ourselves).

Though everyone tells us it’s such an awesome idea and service. Our biggest feedback on the item issue is that they are not seeing what they want so are apathetic about adding their own.

Nick, I think there’s (at least) three ways to beat this problem:

Get stuff out where people will see it. Right now you’re like a small store where people walk by, glance through your window and keep going. You need to get the stuff your selling out and visible. I’d replace the content below the very first graphics of how Tradeomics works on the home page with your Items page, and move the social badges into the footer. Let people shop without a cover fee of figuring out where on your site they need to go to see the goods. No one in their right mind keeps a mental list of everything they might want to buy (or in your site’s case, trade) – seeing is triggering.

Focus down. What are you trading? Creating several landing pages with just one kind of item (video games would be a good start) and then promoting each landing page to the people who care about that item is a proven strategy – just visit any mall.

Reach out to people who will care. You mentioned you’re trying to get various blogs to cover you, with little luck. Are you answering the question, “Your readers will get…” for them? Forget about the tech blogs for the moment – you want customers, not adoration. For example, I’ve got a nephew who’s very much into ATVs, and there’s stuff he’d like to trade off and stuff he’d like to get for less than retail. Find out what blogs he reads. Talk to those bloggers, give them credits to give away, give them a dedicated landing page for just the ATV market. Rinse, lather, repeat.

One other point – I read through your pricing – don’t understand it. It needs to be simplified – maybe a credit to post an item, one to buy an item. Three subpoints. Usually in a market one kind of participant pays – not both. If you’re going to make value for both buyers and sellers, add more punch to the buyer side with easy to customize alerts. And third, think about where in the shopping hierarchy your site fits (somewhere above Craigslist and below Amazon) and whose already at that level and how you can offer something people want that existing solutions don’t.

Thanks for the question Nick – readers, any suggestions for Nick?


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Bob WalshStartups, chickens, and eggs

AskBob: How do we grow our user base and following?

(Got a startup question? Ask it at AskBob and I’ll take a stab at it. And if it’s a question that other startup founders are asking, look for it as a post here.)

Andrew of CliqFlip asks:

We’re about to release and we are starting to build ‘hype’ around our product. We are using all the social media sites: , etc. How do we grow our user base and our following ? How do we make people intrigued?

Hey Andrew,

Looking over your pre-launch page, your YouTube video, your Twitter feed and Facebook page, in a some of ways you’re doing the right thing to gain attention and ultimately users for CliqFlip, but there’s a key, critical element missing.

Show me the Value: Go Fast and Go Long

It used to be that just by creating an app or service, you were breaking new ground and would at least get a quick look-see by people. That was so last decade. This decade, everyone’s attention funnels are overflowing with teasers and offers each and every day. The bar has been raised. Your “15 minutes of fame” is now about 15 seconds. That means you’ve got to go fast and go long when it comes to getting people’s attention.

Go Fast – Tell – or better show – people exactly what makes your app different, exciting, useful in the first few seconds they hear about it. That’s something that’s missing right now from all of your Internet surfaces. That value is “buried” a whole 32 seconds into your video: “Improve your network by building deeper, better connections.” Now that is something that got my attention! Is it “fair” that few people – especially in your target market – will give you 32 seconds to get to the point? Nope. But it is what it is. That statement needs to be headlined on your landing page, be your Twitter and Facebook profiles. Up front and center.

Go Long – You need to start building a relationship with me your future customer by creating content of value to me long before you can make a sale. That’s how mainstream commercials work – they hammer on you for years, decades, before you are actually ready to buy. But you don’t need to interrupt customers 10,000 times. In our Internet-centric world (and I say our because it’s clear that whatever CliqFlip is, it’s for people who live on the Net), Content Marketing (creating relationships with future customers by blogging and curating great information) is the way to go.

Take a good, hard look at one of the best Content Marketing practitioners out there: KISSMetrics. Again and again and again and even again they come up with content that is useful, interesting, remarkable, shareable and tweetable as far as their customers-to-be are concerned. They’ve pre-made the sale as far as I’m – and a lot of other potential customers – are concerned.

Your challenge, even while you are building CliqFlip, is to start getting great content out there that helps your customers before they become your customers. If you are building an app, start showing people your expertise, understanding, insights into the problem domain that the people you want as customers are concerned with.

It’s easier today to get the attention of literally millions of people all over the world. But keeping that attention for longer than a second means you’ve got to start delivering specific relevant value to them that second – and follow it up by giving them value before, during and after your actual product launches.

Hope this helps,

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Bob WalshAskBob: How do we grow our user base and following?

AskBob: I feel like the tech world has moved on without me. What do I do?

(Got a startup question? Ask it at AskBob and I’ll take a stab at it. And if it’s a question that other startup founders are asking, look for it as a post here.)

Stuart in Australia asks:

I’m a developer who’s been working as an independent consultant for approx 10years now, but the last 6yrs have been with one main company. I’m the only developer they have (baring a few other contractors that we get when there is just too much work for me to do alone).

My problem is, that I’ve been working with a lot of different technologies – c#, some flash, web services, writing nullsoft installers, VistaDB, SQL Server, command line tools, NANT, SVN, admin line of business websites and the like – but I feel like the tech world has moved on without me.

I’ve loved this job and it pays well so it’s been very “comfortable” to stay put, but now I’m at a crossroads where I’m not sure if I should stay where I am and keep going or scale back my hours and start workinging on some startup ideas I have.

I guess I’m wondering what are your thoughts? Sorry for such a long questions. ps. love the startup podcast and your books! )


Hey Stuart,

I know how you feel! About 6 years ago I was a .NET developer – (more a VB6/VBA developer truth to tell) and I saw the tech world moving from Desktop to the Web. What to do? Stick with what I knew, or embrace Web development?

What I decided to do is “go Web” by building my first commercial web app. It took a huge amount of time to develop skills in all the technologies that make up the Open Source stack, including:

  • Linux (both as user and admin)
  • HTTP and various other Internet protocols – the actual tech behind the page you see in a browser.
  • MySql
  • Bash (command shell)
  • Ruby on Rails
  • Gems and [depreciated] plugins
  • TDD (now rSpec, and various web test frameworks)
  • Javascript
  • prototype and then jQuery
  • Switching from Windows to Mac.

If I were in your shoes, I’d suggest the following based on what I’ve learned, and the changes in the world, IT and work.

First, my assumptions.

  1. The technical/economic momentum today is web/mobile. In the last few months we’ve hit a crossover point: there are now more mobile devices than desktop computers.
  2. Having demonstrable technical skills in demand is always a good career move – and web/mobile developers are highly in demand worldwide, with the forecast more of the same.
  3. Leveraging what you do to advance several goals, not just one goal, is a huge power multiplier.

So given the above, here’s what I suggest:

1. JavaScript is the #1 technology you need to focus on, specifically for right now. jQuery/jQuery Mobile on the client side, Node.js or another framework on the server side.

2. Treat this as a project that you are going to put X hours into a week (much more effective if you do 1/5 of that time each workday, rather that spend say 4 hours in one day) Plan/research/Outline how you’re going to do to acquire this knowhow. I’d recommend as a starting place 1 book (jQuery Novice to Ninja, 2nd Ed.) and 1 video series ( – videos are excellent dev learning tools because you get a lot of context/perspective/best practices/everybody knows you do it this way instead of that information)

3. Once you start feeling comfortable with jQuery, start looking for opportunities to use in your .NET day job. That’s a win for you and for your employer.

4. Define and create a small, useful app – mobile if possible – where js is the primary technology. This is not a “startup” – don’t expect to make money with it. But do expect that by creating something of value to other people/developers you will be “rehabilitated” in the eyes of Open Source developers from your “evil empire” status.

5. Depending on what you build, you may find yourself getting sucked into Ruby on Rails/PHP/etc – beware of this! Learning multiple technologies is massively harder than learning one language/framework. You’re better off doing an all jQuery or jQuery/Node app than mixing in something that’s now the size of C++.

The above is doable, part-time, in say 6 months without too much stress, if you plan the learning, work the plan and keep a tight focus. Here’s what you get for that effort:

  • You’ve jumped the chasm from .NET to Open Source – multiplying your dev value to your current employer, future employers, the number of other devs you know and your problem-solving toolbox and perspective.
  • You can go for a raise, making the excellent case you’ve increased your value on your own time.
  • You can start moving up the “developer food chain” from newbie to coder to commiter.

Hope this helps!


P.S. And thanks for listening to the the Startup Success Podcast!



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Bob WalshAskBob: I feel like the tech world has moved on without me. What do I do?

AskBob: Where do I find developer cofounder?

(Got a startup question? Ask it at AskBob and I’ll take a stab at it. And if it’s a question that other startup founders are asking, look for it as a post here.)

Gary Ferguson is building a Ruby on Rails xRM solution ( for organizations who need to track deals but don’t have a funnel/pipeline mentality, like nonprofits.

His top startup problem? Finding development resources, and whether he should go public with the details of his idea or hold them close until at least the beta is done and out?

Ideas, Cofounders and Belief


I’m assuming bottom line you’re looking for a developer cofounder, and that’s a very different situation than just finding a good developer you can hire. Being cofounders is a major, serious relationship: with the right person, it can lead to great things. But if you get into bed with the wrong person, you are going to regret it – big time.

Let me assume that you’ve been working all the non-technical aspects of creating a successful startup, like market discovery, researching and defining a business model, thinking through what differentiates your app from all the other xRM apps out there, etc.

What you need to do now is find another person with the complementary skills you need, who will believe in your vision. And that means you need to communicate that vision, share that idea, as widely as possible. Put another way, your first sale needs to be to a cofounder, and they are not going to just jump because it’s a nice idea. You have to make them a believer.

You need to inspire belief, passion and ambition. Belief – that you bring as much value to the relationship as will your developer cofounder. Passion – because both of you are are going be hammering away for weeks, months, maybe years and you’re both going to have to deeply care about your startup to make it. Ambition – because a good developer wants to work on projects that matter, and that advance their career, and that open new doors of opportunity and makes lots of money!

Something Dave Feinleib mentioned when Pat and I interviewed him would be a great first step for you to finding that technical cofounder: Make a 30 second video explaining what will be different and valuable in the app you want to build, put it up on YouTube and start evangelizing it everywhere you can.

Yes, that means sharing at least the broad outlines of the app you want to build. Ideas for apps is the smallest part of the puzzle. It’s the implementation and execution on that idea that is all-important.

Dave calls making that marketing video a forcing function, and it is. If you’re not willing to do what it takes to make that pitch, how can potential cofounders/mentors/investors take you seriously? They can’t. So make the video! Also, if you haven’t done your research on how to create a partnership agreement that works, definitely get that done too.

With the above said, I’d start by reading this great post from Alain Raynaud, 5 Strategies for Finding the Co-Founder of Your Dreams. Besides being a really nice guy, Alain has been deeply involved in the startup community in the Valley for years, and has built several valuable efforts focusing on connecting founders. He knows whereof he speaks.

Next, you need to get out there and let devs who dream of creating their own startups know what you’re building. Over at Find the Tech Guy, there’s a post with 16 ways to tackle this problem, plus Find the Tech Guy’s own take on the problem. Also check out TechCoFounder, where you can filter developers by skills, then make your pitch.

There are a lot of sites, venues, conferences, events, meetups worldwide where you can go cofounder hunting nowadays – it’s a huge unmet need after all! But the ammo you need to make that first sale to a cofounder is a combination of earnestness of intent and near-messianic zeal that your idea can change the world combined with doing the hard uncomfortable for most of us of putting yourself out there. Do that, and you will succeed.


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Bob WalshAskBob: Where do I find developer cofounder?