Today is Text Request's first birthday! It's been a year since we formally launched, and we couldn't be more excited (or surprised at how fast the year's flown by). When you think of startups and startup life, your mind might wander towards the glowing halls of Uber HQ, or Snapchat waiving off billion dollar offers, or Zuckerberg putting on a gold hoodie every morning.
Let me stop you right there. Here’s what really happens.
You realize there’s a problem/pain in the world, probably something you directly experience. Then you set out to flip that pain into invention. In our case, this was realizing that you could text every single person you know, because it's the most popular form of communication in the world, but you couldn't text a business. If you're a business that needs to communicate with consumers (you are), why wouldn't you text?
Your head begins to expand as the potential market for your idea hits 10 figures. After mentally planning out how you’re going to configure your own personal island, you set out to change the world!
Then reality knocks you out of that dream, like your mom waking you up for school. Or when you're a kid that can't wait to be an adult, and then adulthood slaps you in the face.
One year ago today I stepped up to the mic, blinded by a spotlight, and welcomed distinguished members of the Chattanooga community to the launch of Text Request. I was ready for the press to swarm around me, Forbes to plead for an interview, every business in the world to share its credit card information, and Mark Zuckerberg to add ME on Facebook!
Foolish, right? In truth, you need that blind belief in your dream. You’re going to get hit, be disappointed, and completely mess up a couple (thousand) times. It’s in the job description.
The first year at a startup is like sailing a boat. You leave the Gulf of Florida, but you're not sure if you're supposed to be heading towards Hawaii or Puerto Rico. Oh, and you're sailing through a hurricane. Except, instead of a sailing, you're paddling. And instead of a boat, you're on an inflatable raft. And your compass works about as well as Jack Sparrow's.
Beginning a startup company is heading out on a giant excursion, where you're not really sure of your goal, and reality and other people are constantly tearing you down. But the most important thing is that you start.
The thought process was simple: where would this make MY life easier? Well, if I’m at a hotel, and I need something from the front desk, I would rather text them than pick up the phone. Let’s hit up hotels! Where else? Restaurants can be tough to reach, and text would be a great way to give owners feedback. Put ‘em on the list! Who texts the most? Teenagers. College admissions! We threw on dental offices, churches, salons, and we were cookin' (just with the wrong ingredients).
We needed help telling the world, so we made our first hires. One of the most surreal experiences was sitting in an interview, pitching our concept to 20-something wannabe entrepreneurs. Is this really happening? We set out to hire a team of rockstar sales(wo)men, and we failed miserably!
As fate would have it, we ended with a content/social/digital marketing prodigy, Kenneth. A customer service guy, Seth, so incredible that if physically replicated could raise Comcast’s CSAT score to 100 - or at least passing. (CSAT - one of those cool abrevs biz peeps use for "customer satisfaction.") And yes, we did get our sales guy! Sadly, he is no longer with us… He’s not dead, just doing other things now. Hi, Sam!
Full speed ahead, we cold-called college admissions departments, hotel chains, dental offices, salons, and the lot. (P.S. Don’t ever cold-call salons. Can you all caps a period? EVER:)
There’s a lot to be said about the knowledge gained through experience at a startup. Our mantra was "Fail fast, and learn quickly." (We did both. Mostly the former.) There was a vulnerability, a transparency, and an honesty that galvanized our team together. You didn’t come in everyday with the right answers, you came in with the determination to figure them out.
The environment built character, and it certainly showed your character as well. Our first big trade show is a great illustration. Thanks to Fleetwood Mac, the back entrance to the ATL Convention Center was a parking lot. What did we do? We marched through the front door with all our gear strapped to our backs (not the sexy displays you might be used to - we didn’t even have a solid rolling bag), through an auto show, and trekked over a MILE to our exhibit hall. FYI, trade shows are my jam.
We launched in November, made hires in December and January, now we're in April. We’ve got this great idea, we’ve clearly identified people that need our service, and we’ve got a great team. Sales just weren’t happening. At a startup you juggle many jobs, but sales is my primary focus, so I’m hurting at this point.
You hear the term “pivot” a lot in startup speech. What's a pivot? Well, for instance, Instagram started out with a focus on location check-ins like Foursquare. Obviously, they changed direction to find more success. This tool we built as consumers, for consumers, just wasn’t clicking with our target markets. So we pivoted.
College admissions sales cycles are too long, and hotels wanted to offer good customer service, but they didn’t want to pay extra for it. We were, however, seeing great success with places that used our customer service tool for acquiring new business or boosting revenue (go figure). Let that sink in for a moment.
Yeah, it took us a little while, too. The realization (that giant DUH moment) that customer service tools are NOT high on a business owner's priority list, but making money always is, was the catalyst of our pivot.
After 6 months of grinding, we ironed out a target market with the easiest penetration and fastest sales cycle. We presented our tool as a lead generation source. A sales tool. A game changer. It was time to redesign the website.
When we originally designed the site, we worked with a marketing firm, a branding professional, and one of the best copywriters alive (thanks again, Ludwick). But it didn’t deliver our new value proposition. We didn’t have the funds to hire help, so we took it square on the shoulders and knocked it out as a team. A nugget to be extrapolated here: just do it. Don’t wait for it to be pretty. Don’t compare yourself to everyone else. Give it your best and make it happen. You’re the crazy person chasing your dream. Trust your team, trust yourself, and make it happen.
It all worked! We started gaining momentum. Our MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue) was increasing by at least 15%/month. Our ship was starting to sail!
Too many times early on I'd lost opportunities because conversations were pigeonholed and our value proposition had been swept off the table with simple objections. I was learning how to build national sales relationships, and more importantly, I was learning how to really negotiate.
In August we were invited to be a vendor at Merry Maids' (a cleaning service franchise) national seminar. That week we increased our overall revenue by over 20%! (Shout out to Foster for that.) Merry Maids, we love you, and San Diego was debatably our best call yet.
Along with success at trade shows, we were accepted to be a part of Techweek NYC. Over 200 startups pitched to get in and they accepted the top 70. I showed up for the demo day to join a room full of passionate entrepreneurs sharing their ideas with the public.
Judges roamed incognito and picked the top 16 for the semi-finals. We made the cut. Honestly I can't say I was surprised, since I spent 5 hours the day before preemptively memorizing my semi-finals pitch. But it still felt amazing to hear them call out“Text Request.”
We didn’t win it all, but we went up to NYC and represented Chattanooga very well. It seemed as if this competition validated us. As soon we got back and news spread that we'd been there, everyone in town we talked to excitedly brought up the trip. It felt great!
The first year of a startup is not for the faint of heart. It is a stress induced roller coaster of emotional (and financial) instability and disappointment. Yet in the mess, in the crazy, you’re creating. Our dream of changing the world is still in tact. We’re still here, and we’re thriving. Our dream of changing the world is still in tact.
We still don’t have it all figured out (nobody does, don’t let them tell you different), but our sights are set on 10X growth this next year. We have some big things coming first quarter, and no plans on slowing down. Stay tuned, friends. We’re still here, and we’re thriving. Heck of a ride, gents, here’s to our next year!
----- James Dawson: Founding Member, Director of Sales & Communications