An Alternative to the TechCrunch 50 Model

Update: Watching TechCrunch 50 live here. A great show!

Update: Eric Ries does a much better job of explaining the concept than I do. Here is a highly recommended video: Minimum Viable Product.

Jason Calacanis + TechCrunch just announced TechCrunch50, 2009 edition.  The concept is that, if you agree to keep your product secret and have a good enough idea to get selected in the top 50, then you receive in exchange the opportunity to present to a great set of VCs and press people. I think that overall the intention is good: put together a great show, make some money and provide some exposure to some hard working/passionate entrepreneurs. But I think that some of the secrecy constraints that TechCrunch is putting on start-ups are very old fashion and stupid and would like to suggest an alternative model to entrepreneurs who are working on launching a new product in the next four months.

Step 1 (April 21st, May 1st): the TC50 assumes that you have a demo/alpha you can submit as part of the application. If that is the case, then my first suggestion is to create a short list of 10 smart blogers in your domain and reach out to them. Do what ever it takes to meet with them virtually or in person for an hour and present them your prototype, collect their feedback. This will force you to create a simple message and understand from the perspective of people reviewing products in your space how they position you, how they think you are different, how you can be more different and where you are weak. Listen carefully. In the software/social media/technology space, the key people I would contact would be: Louis Gray, Marshall Kirkpatrick, Frederic Lardinois, Adam Ostrow, Phil Glockner, Sarah Perez, Robert Scoble, Leo Laporte, Rafe Needleman, etc… There are also smart Angel Investors and early stage VCs that you could reach out to. The more feedback the better. Be ready to hear a lot of NOs and negative feedback. That is the sign that you are innovating.

Step 2 (May 1st – June 1st): Put all the feedback you collected in a Google spreadsheet or a private Frienfeed Room. Select 8 things that based on your vision and the feedback you collected would help simplify the message/product, would help make it more different and you think are needed to get an alpha out.

Step 3a (June 1st – June 15th): Create a private alpha, reach out to all the people who provided you early feedback. Reach out to 100 additional people who are in the demographics you are targeting. Create a private friendfeed room and collect as much feedback as possible. One day a week, trying to connect with 10 strangers and look at how they use your service and the type of questions they ask. If you are not too shy, go to a mall, stop people and given them a 5-minute demo of your product and listen to their reactions.

Step 3b (June 1st – June 15th): Review in detail all the feedback you collected regarding the product. Do people get your value proposition? Is the product different enough? Is the product good enough? At the same time, define the heartbeat of your service: how many people visit the website -> how many create an account -> how many return -> how many people return every week -> how many people are using it after a month -> how many people like it enough to spread the good word on twitter? Use google analytics to create a dashboard for each of those metrics. A lot of people will be nice and not tell you to your face that your service sucks. By looking anonymously at those metrics you can get a lot more feedback.

Step 3d (June 1st – June 30th): Iterate on the product based on the feedback you are collecting on the alpha. Try to improve the experience and validate that the changes you are making are improving the metrics you are tracking.

Step 4 (July 1st – July 15th): Work with a few of the bloggers you have been in contact with to prepare a beta announcement. Usually, one or two reviews from the right influential blogger is enough to detonate a launch. At the same time, get your beta website ready (simple registration, intro video, etc…)

Step 5 (July 15th): Announce a public beta. The review will start to drive users to your website. If the product is different+good, more bloggers and users will want to talk about it on their blogs and twitter. User twitter and friendfeed search to monitor actively what people are saying. Be ready to patch significant issues in real-time. Listen to how people describe your product. Listen to what part of the product people like/tweet about. Listen to the weaknesses/bugs people report. Create a get satisfaction account and do your best to improve the overall user experience by being as pro-active and customer focused as possible.

Step 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 (July 15th – Sept 15th): For eight weeks, every week push out a new iteration of our product based on specific feedback you are collecting and in concert with the metrics you are tracking. You do not need to make everyone happy. I think that you want instead to try to polarize and make sure that people who are happy get happier and start talking more and more about your product. Focus on details. Do less but better. Remove the part of the product that you thought would be a good idea but people are not using. Focus on the metrics (they never lie).

The benefit of this approach is that you put the customer and your metrics at the center of your development process: as a result you get constant feedback and can use that feedback to both improve the idea/positioning and the product. It will also help you iterate and add a lot more polish to the product. Finally, it will help you have a core user community and measurable understanding of their behavior – something which is really important if you are interested in raising VC money.

Listen, iterate, measure, launch every week, until the products gets to the point where it starts spreading through word of mouth.

Note: in a lot of ways, the incubator models are formalizing this model and it would be great to see TechCrunch50 evolve towards something that balances what is good for the Show and what it good for startups.

Author: @feedly

Read more. Know more.

9 thoughts on “An Alternative to the TechCrunch 50 Model”

  1. I think your model is fine and, frankly, many of the TechCrunch50 companies follow it. There is nothing new to listen and iterate–I’m mean that’s “Good To Great” 101 right?

    For background, the reason we don’t let the word out is not because we’re “stupid” as you say above, but rather because we like to create a sense of excitement for those folks attending the event.

    Because no one–including the press–knows what’s coming next people are GLUED to their seats for 2-3 straight days. In fact, the room was as packed at the end at 4pm as it was at the start and in the middle. There were 1,000 folks sitting in the room for all the presentations… what other conference do you know where there are 1,000 folks watching a new company present? Exactly.

    Now you know why we “force” folks to not disclose their product until launching on stage: it creates massive energy and excitement at the event. This isn’t really our idea… we stole it from Steve Jobs. :-)

    Have you been to the event? If not you should attend to get a feel for it.

  2. Hi Jason, Thank you very much for stopping by.

    For the record, I did not say that you are stupid: I think that you are putting together a great show and are getting rewarded for it.

    My point is that listening and iterating to find your market fit and getting to point where people start talking about your service is a more effective mindset for building a start-up than keeping everything under cover and hoping that the first iteration will be a home run. And I believe that this is going to be more and more true as the world gets more connected using twitter and blogging.

    Thanks again for stopping by.

  3. I can’t imagine having a product demo ready without having discussed early versions, vision and even wireframes with my friends & mentors – many of whom are bloggers.

    But, I can see TC50 as the right vehicle for people that don’t have the access (or know how to obtain access) to the bloggers. In a sense, TC50 lets you get to a point where you can follow Edwin’s advice if you can’t get their on your own which may be the case for many entrepreneurs that lack VC funding, right angels, or networking skills. In that case, they should be looking for a co-founder, VC, angel with those skills.

  4. Hi AShar. Thanks for the comment.

    I think that your point about finding the right balance skillset-wise in the founding team/advisory board is important.

    I do not agree with your point about not being able to access bloggers. Bloggers are usually open and interested people. Identify the top 10 influential bloggers in your space, follow their blogs so that you are aware of their thinking, post comments, follow them on twitter and friendfeed. Try to add value and build karma points when ever you can. Be authentic. Blogs and twitter have lowered the barrier. All this will increase the probability that you will get a response the day when you reach out to them to pick their brain. I think that this is part of the more social/iterative mindset developers should try to adopt.

  5. As usual, Edwin, very insightful!

    the “once a year” big bang format is counter productive to listen & iterate. what if your product won’t be ready till october? or what if it was ready in march? do you rush it out the door? or sit on it until some semi-annual or annual event?

  6. Hi Edwin:

    Great read and an insightful article. But it presents a dilemma of its own. How do you involve more and more people at the concept level and still hope that your idea doesn’t spill out to someone else? I know it is silly to be overprotective, but then you gotta be a bit careful too.

    I am working on something new and I am a bit skeptical about discussing it with a larger and unknown audience right now, but on the other hand I’ll miss out on valuable feedback. What to do?

    1. Hi NK. Different people have different opinion about this. Personally, I think that the value of an idea is in how quickly you can evolve it into something that will get customer traction (very very rarely the initial idea is the one that ends up flourishing). Like a painter, you will need to work and rework you sketch many many times before the result clicks. The key during that phase is receiving feedback and not being afraid to try and fail. Your competitive advantage is having tried many things and knowing what works and what does not work. People who will try to replicate your idea will have to go through the same learning process. This is why imitations are never as good as the original, specially for something as dynamic as software.

Comments are closed.