Everything Starts Small

It’s a situation founders know well: the agonizing wait to see if the product/service they’ve launched will take off. The reality is, it takes months and even years to find product-market-fit. And once that happens, the struggle doesn’t really end because there’s always another, more complex problem to solve. It can begin with product-market-fit then morph into customer/user acquisition and engagement and then shift to monetization. For entrepreneurs, building a business can feel like a never-ending cycle of wait-and-see. 

When we launched Wattpad 13 years ago, my co-founder Ivan and I immediately started monetizing with ads. And when I say we “immediately monetized” the site, I really mean we earned $2 in monthly ad revenue a full year later. A minuscule amount. 

When we first launched our Android app, we saw about 10 downloads in the first month. Even in 2011 when Android really started to take off our download numbers were still puny. 

Today, we see more than 60,000 Android users sign up every day and half of our daily usage comes from Android users. Our monthly advertising revenue is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. We’re no longer talking about trivial amounts. It’s been a long road that had to start somewhere. 

‘Everything starts small’ is a valuable mantra for any entrepreneur. Look at Spotify: When it first launched in the US in 2010 it had 100,000 paid subscribers. Today, Spotify’s number of paid subscribers is about to cross the 100 million mark.

Not too long ago, we launched Paid Stories and we also introduced a subscription model called Premium at Wattpad. The numbers are still small. But they won’t stay that way forever (especially since we’ve rolled out these programs globally). As long as we keep improving, keep optimizing and keep promoting — basically, if we continue to hustle and grind as all great entrepreneurs do — the numbers will go up.

But we can’t expect a silver bullet. No single feature or no single promo or no single country launch will 10x these numbers overnight. While it’s not impossible to find a 10x growth hack, the reality is that it’s probably better to find 100 little things to grow 10%.  

My fellow entrepreneurs, please remember: Tomorrow will be better than today. The day after tomorrow will be better than tomorrow. Everything starts small.

Strategic Partners Turn Your Vision Into Reality Faster Than You Can

A few months ago, Wattpad announced a partnership with Anvil Publishing in the Philippines. Together, we’re launching Bliss Books, a new Young Adult imprint that’ll bring some of the biggest Wattpad stories and authors to bookshelves across the country. 

The news means Wattpad can realize the vision I laid out in the Master Plan much, much faster. But really, speed is just one of the values a strategic partner brings to the table.

Anvil also has deeper insights into local purchasing habits and consumer behaviour than we do. The first part of the Master Plan is to “Discover more great stories,” and we do this by leveraging our Story DNA machine learning technology and a passionate community to find unique voices and amazing stories that are validated in Tagalog. With their local insights, Anvil can corroborate our insights using their local knowledge to guarantee a successful adaptation. 

The best strategic partners also have a reputation you can piggy-back off of. Another element of the Master Plan is ‘Turn these stories into great movies, TV shows, print books, etc.,” Anvil has a reputation for publishing high-quality books, and that’s exactly what we want to do. 

Anvil is the publishing arm of the National Book Store with hundreds of bookstores. It’s established presence means we – through NBS – have the ability to distribute Wattpad books to every practically every part of the country tying into another key part of the Master Plan to “Distribute and monetize content on and off Wattpad and earn money for storytellers.” 

The Philippines is one of Wattpad’s largest markets and a very important one since its home to some of our most passionate users. Plus, when you factor in the expertise and reach of Anvil, it was an easy decision to partner with this local company who can help us continue to celebrate and reward Filipino authors and their fans. 

Entrepreneurs: if you have the ability to form a partnership with another complementary company, seize it. The strategic upside is great and may help you realize your vision faster than you ever could alone.  

Don’t Be a Parasite If You Want To Be A Disruptor

I spoke with an entrepreneur whose company is building a new, disruptive product for the education sector. One of the challenges he’s facing is that none of the company’s co-founders have worked in the education sector before. He wondered if he should hire someone with some relevant experience.

Another entrepreneur friend of mine is building a tool that is catered to the public sector. The company is struggling to scale as a business. The sales process is too slow. The product is becoming too specific for one sector.

In both cases when these entrepreneurs asked for my advice, I told them: Don’t be a parasite if you want to be a disruptor.

There are so many verticals out there that still have not been fully transformed by the Internet — education, public sector, book publishing, the list goes one. But it’s extremely hard to transform any industry if you have a lot of dependencies with the old systems. You can’t think out of the box. Your sales cycle is too long. And often you end up with a product or a service that is incremental at best rather than revolutionary.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, a lot of people have built great businesses by providing incremental solutions like consulting services to the government. But, if you want to build something truly transformative and net-native, then you have to stay as far away from the traditional systems as possible and draw closer to your end users or customers.

If you want to create something truly game-changing and be a disruptor, you can’t begin the journey as a parasite.

Embrace tension to move even faster

As a startup scales, it’s natural for tension to creep up among different teams who are working on disparate objectives. Either of these conversations sound familiar?

Showing users more ads can help generate more revenue, but it could also hurt engagement. Do we optimize for revenue or engagement?

We have a limited budget. If we spend it on A, B, and C we won’t be able to pay for X, Y, Z. What should we choose?

The best way entrepreneurs can embrace and then ease tension among their teams is to establish a set of principles. Principles can help teams avoid indecision and move fast.

In the example above about serving ads at the expense of user engagement for instance, if the team has previously established that ad experiments can’t impact engagement by more than X%, it becomes easier for them to test different combinations of ads to drive the most revenue without negatively impacting engagement.

Establishing principles streamlines decision making, eliminates unnecessary meetings and propels the company forward. Everyone knows what to do and understands how much (or how little) leeway the team has.

Of course, there will be times when you may not have a principle to fall back on. That’s when the teams representing the conflicting priorities need to escalate the matter further and involve an arbitrator. Most times decisions are reversible and having an arbitrator can resolve issues quickly. In the world of startups, a quick decision always trumps a slow decision (or worse, no decision at all).  

Tension is natural and a sign your company is growing. But as your business grows and becomes more complex, decisions aren’t as straightforward as they used to. Creating a set of ground rules that inform your team’s priorities and outcomes can help avoid unnecessary confusion and conflict.

This simple hack makes email introductions more effective

At some point in your career, someone you know will a) ask for an introduction to someone else in your network, or b) offer to make an introduction to someone they feel you should know.

Email introductions can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, they can be incredibly useful in connecting directly with an elusive executive. On the other hand, they can suck up a lot of time (and lead to bruised egos) if not done with tact.

The very worst email introductions automatically assume that the connection being made is appropriate and beneficial for involved parties. But the truth is unless you’ve explicitly asked in advance, this is just an assumption.

Here’s an example of an email I recently received:

Hey Allen,

I would like to introduce you to Cindy Lou (cc’ed). Cindy Lou is an expert in X, which you will find useful. I’m sure you would enjoy the meeting. I’ll let you two find the best time to meet next week!

Cheers,
Horton

The problem is, while Cindy Lou might be an expert in X, I don’t really care about X, it’s just not my thing. Naturally, I don’t want to spend even more time feigning interest in X. And I definitely don’t want to waste Cindy Lou’s time either. The other problem: Despite what Horton thinks, I’m mostly out of the office next month so can’t find a time to meet without a lot of calendar shuffling.

I used to accept blind introductions (and subsequent meetings) like these in the past out of politeness. It was an ineffective use of my time – and theirs. Even when I dared to say no, I had to spend time crafting a firm, yet polite email to decline the opportunity. Drafting the email didn’t take up nearly as much time as a meeting would, but it still took time out of my day that could be better spent on strategy or operational challenges. Eventually, it became too much.

Nowadays, when it comes to email introductions, I try to model the behavior I want to see. When people ask me to connect them with someone in my network, I make sure I have a double opt-in. This means I’ve asked for (and received) the permission of both parties before I send a note. Here’s what it looks like:

Pavel would like me to connect him with Uhura.

I’ll ask Pavel to send me a new, well-written email with the request (Pavel should NOT include our previous conversation i.e. the original request). It could look something like this.

Hey Allen,

As discussed, it will be great if you can introduce me to Uhura. Here is a summary of my ask: <insert awesome summary here>

Thanks in advance for your help.

Live long and prosper,
Pavel

Then, I would add a sentence or two before forwarding the note to Uhura (without including Pavel). My addition would provide further context and could be something along the lines of: “I don’t know Uhura well and I haven’t tried her products, but the elevator pitch sounds relevant to you” or “Uhura is brilliant and working on a super interesting project you might be interested in.” This context setting is important, but should only take 30 seconds of your time.

If Uhura agrees to the introduction, then I add Pavel to the thread. If she says no, I’ll let Pavel know that as well.

Double opt-in email introductions work well for a number of reasons.

  1. The onus is on the person requesting the introduction to write an awesome email detailing why the connection is valuable. It’s not the facilitator’s responsibility to make the case
  2. It avoids putting people in an awkward position of accepting a connection or meeting when there is zero interest in the product/service/pitch
  3. It encourages frank dialogue. If a person wants to decline an introduction, chances are he/she is more likely to provide a candid reason in a private one-on-one email with a trusted connection. It allows the facilitator to filter the information appropriately while still providing a truthful explanation to the requester
  4. It allows for brevity, without sounding cold. Since the facilitator has established relationships with both parties, a to-the-point email doesn’t come off as arrogant or rude

I make lots of introductions, and I am more than happy to do so. It’s great for community building. I hope the double opt-in method helps make introductions faster and a better experience for everyone!

The End of 8-Hour Days

Both my parents used to work for a bank. For them, the work day started at nine in the morning and ended at 5:00 pm sharp. Day in and day out, this was their routine. They never understood the concept of flexible hours. They questioned why I would bring “work” home. On the other hand, they were always amused that I never needed to take time off work to see the doctor or get the car fixed during office hours.

“Am I expected to work an 8-hour day?” I get this question from employees from time to time, but I believe this is the wrong question to ask. Employees are expected to get their work done, deliver on OKRs and contribute to a positive workplace culture. For the most part, I don’t (and neither should their direct manager) care where or how the work gets done. Of course, it goes without saying (but I’ll still say it), flexible work hours should never impact collaboration or attendance at critical meetings.

Startups are fast-paced, ever-changing environments filled with bright employees. They’re solving complex and fascinating problems and it’s all very exciting. Being a disruptor and part of a paradigm shift is thrilling and the work itself should compel employees to give 100%. Offering flexible hours instills trust in your team and gives employees a sense of ownership to execute on projects in the way that works for them.

That’s not to say there will be no instances when burning the midnight oil for a specific project or tight deadline is required. Make no mistake, there will be times when a critical security issue needs to be addressed after-hours or a client has an urgent need on the weekend. But there should also be opportunities to take it easy and spend a few weeks out of the country or deal with a family or health issue. It’s about flexibility.

Most startups offer flexible hours, and it makes sense. After all, tech is a creative industry unlike working at a bank or factory. As people head back to work after their relaxing summer vacations, my advice to founders and startup execs? Measure productivity by outcomes and results, not timecards.

Your Next Summer Challenge: A Digital Detox

I love gadgets. They surround me everywhere – in the office, in the car, at home. I’m always connected … except when I go completely off the grid.

Twice a year I unplug for 2-3 weeks. I turn off my data. I don’t reply to email. I stay off social media. I take a break from being an entrepreneur and focus on being a husband and a dad.

It’s during these weeks when I’m unplugged that I have an opportunity to reflect on the past challenges and think about future opportunities. Going off the grid gives me a sense of clarity and enables a freedom of thinking I can’t achieve when I’m constantly pulled in multiple digital directions.

Case in point: I recently spent three weeks in Asia with my family. While I’ve traveled throughout the region extensively for work, this was the first time I could experience cities like Taipei and Shanghai as a tourist. I got to enjoy a ride on the fastest train in the world, eat the most delicious food, and shop like the locals do. I observed, indulged and enjoyed without the need to constantly check my devices. And while I was technically off-the-grid and not working, my offline experiences provided me with inspirations I will take back to the office.   

Building a business is hard. Entrepreneurs have infinite to-do lists. They are constantly pushing ahead through one challenge to seize the next opportunity. While the line between work and personal life is becoming more blurry (especially when you’re scaling a startup), it’s critical that entrepreneurs carve time out of their hectic schedules and go offline. A digital detox – even for a short period of time – yields tremendous business and personal benefits.  

If you still have a summer vacation planned,  I challenge you to use your time to explore, discover and connect IRL.