“Ideas are bullshit”: Lean startup guide StartItUp.co
If you’re lost in your car, you switch on the GPS. If you are lost in your startup, you can try switching on StartitUp.co. Our contributor Chris Hague met Edward Liu, co-founder of the currently Prague-based startup to find out more about the startup’s background and its step to monetisation.
I meet Edward Liu (30) outside of Novy Smichov a few tram stops from TechSquare, the current base for StartitUp.co, on a sunny Prague day. Founded in February this year, StartitUp.Co is a step by step schematic that guides other startupsas they navigate their way through the processes needed to create a successful business. As CEO of the company, Liu seems so relaxed and comfortable in this local inner city enclave that it is hard to believe he has only been here a few short months.
After applying for several accelerators across the globe, the Taiwanese American and his co-founder, CTO Yitao Sun, declined offers in Singapore and Hawaii and accepted an invitation with StartupYard to come to Prague (though Sun stayed in Taiwan). “I decided that being in Europe would be a much more memorable experience than the other two places.” Liu’s plan of attack when applying forprograms was simple – know your target, “accelerators are run by people, so act like one, and understand that each of them has different likes and dislikes.” In scoring a place with StartpYard, StartitUp.co received a small pre-seed investment along with an intensive program designed to fast forward the startup to a viable business that generates an income.
Thanks to the strength of StartupYard, the project has received good PR in the region. Their experience differs from other startups hitting the local scene because, “smaller countries like the Czech Republic have less developed internet infrastructure such that there are very few “free” channels for startups or new businesses to get the word out.” Liu cites US based sites like StumbleUpon, CrunchBase and AngelList as ideal for startups to get known and get noticed, suggesting that the CEE region needs its own dedicated versions here. “I feel that for a country’s internet industry to thrive, there needs to be effective social media/free marketing platforms that allow startups to easily reach their target audience for free.”
The Prague startup community seems to be happy to have Liu and StartitUp.co and he appears to have settled into the local scene well. Recently, he presented at the Pioneers Unplugged event and the StartupYard Demo Day on the 4th of June. Demo Day was essentially the culmination of Liu’s time in Prague – the intensive mentoring program ends and the business begins. Now, Liu will leave Prague behind and go hard to woo subscribers and investors.
Before StartitUp, Liu built a dating website, which went well until it was overrun by ‘horny guys’ and spammers. Photo: Chris HagueIn 2009 Liu’s first foray in to the startup world was in the US with an almost brilliant idea called Swagly, almost brilliant because he almost got funded by Paul Graham of Y Combinator fame. Basically, Swagly allowed users to tag products in their pics online and then share the advertising revenue generated from associated ads when people viewed the image. A combination of factors led to the demise of Swagly – a rejection of early investment, time wasted on a demo that wasn’t scalable, and a development team too busy with other projects to respond to potential customer requests for changes. The sting in the tail was that Paul Graham wanted to fund a modified form of Swagly, he suggested that Liu change tack and work on a project that let people post pics on a personal catalogue of sorts – if Liu had have listened he would have been the inventor of Pinterest.
Next Liu worked for a server company, taught himself to code and even mentored a few startups, including Pinkoi (Taiwan’s Etsy). His next high profile gig was as the CEO of the National Division of Groupon Taiwan. A colleague at Groupon introduced Liu to his now partner Sun Yitao, and the two built a dating website together; it went well until it was overrun by ‘horny guys’ and spammers, so they pivoted and built Hellol.com. Hellol is a singles pinboard whereby users with three degrees of separation can introduce single friends to each other.
“One day I was just kind of thinking about what else we need to do for Hellol in able to validate, grow, and just do all the right things. I had all my bookmarks open, and Evernote open. I was looking through all the notes and realised that it’d be really nice if we had this kind of guide where it ordered everything chronologically in a way where you’d can follow the guide and get the most solid advice and tricks to build and grow your startup.” Hello StartitUp.co!
The lean philosophy
According to Liu, “ideas are bullshit. It’s really the details and executions that the team brings that really contribute to the success.” StartitUp.co helps to execute an idea utilising the lean startup methodology, getting startups to a minimum viable product (MVP) as quickly as possible. Through this, Liu wants to erase the “build first” mentality amongst startups and replace it with a “service first” mentality. “Do as much as you can without having a product, and use existing online infrastructure,” he says using Groupon as an example of a company that started as a WordPress blog. A lean startup obviously saves money, but just as importantly, it saves time through inherent product validation along the way.
It is this validation that StartitUp.co seems to be doing well, constantly challenging the founder to ask the hard questions about their idea. The program is broken up into about 200 different tasks, with the first task asking: “Why are you doing this?” StartitUp.co is a neat idea, with a slick design and a lot of thought behind the steps startups need to take to launch their (hopefully) successful startup. The process of refining the steps and keeping them logical has kept the development team busy with constant rewrites and updates. Ensuring the user is challenged to think, and rethink, about all the relevant angles associated with their idea has been Liu’s challenge. Liu and his team recognised early on that online learning can be hard to get hooked into, so they included small gamification elements in order to reward users along the way.
Nice idea, but does it work?
Seriously though, does StartitUp.co actually work? Or is it just a gimmick that taps into the burgeoning market of wannabe entrepreneurs eager for shortcuts to super stardom? Only one way to find out.
I signed up for Edward Liu’s modern day Choose Your Own Adventure and I have taken some small steps towards my own startup. I had only completed the first few steps but it already triggered the excitement and eagerness of taking the next step. This seems to be the crux of what Liu has managed to do, this is his secret.
Deciding what to do next in any project is often the biggest time consumer and can be a de-motivator, StartitUp.co tells you the next step. The system makes you want to keep moving forward with your idea by keeping the goal orientated process simple and the steps small so you are constantly making progress and moving forward. I suggest that Liu is essentially ‘holding the hand’ of his users on their startup journey, but he quickly denies this, “Often people don’t know the questions to ask … I am just getting them to answer the next question they need to ask”.
One of the key selling pointsfor StartitUp.co is the mentoring support network that it seeks to establish. Mentoring is a key element in any startup and Liu believes that people will pay to access a network of contributing professionals and readily available peers focussed on their own StartitUp.co program. I tried accessing the network when I hit a snag creating my lean canvas, Ed himself and another user replied, both offering good advice to keep me moving forward. This is one of the most important features of the program in that it helps remove the speed bumps along the way using a collective experience. A mini-accelerator if you will.
Liu himself is passionate about learning, not so much what people learn, but how they learn. He believes that education needs to encompass the way people think. The founder’s personal education was heavily influenced by his Taiwanese parents, and he believes that it is essential for parents to provide as many options as possible for their children. “Not everyone learns the same way so parents need to be there to fully support their child’s potential”. Now, Liu’s startup makes perfect sense. StartitUp.co strives to create momentum for startups, hopefully investors and subscribers will create momentum for Edward Liu.
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