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What is a Tech Startup's First Year in Business Really Like?

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Today is Text Request's first birthday! It's been a year since we launched, and we couldn't be more excited to share what a tech startup's first year in business really looks like (or surprised at how fast the year's flown by).

When you think of startup life, your mind probably wanders to the glowing halls of Uber HQ, or Snapchat waiving off billion-dollar offers, or a couple of 20-somethings getting millions in funding for an idea.

Let me stop you right there. Here’s what really happens.

How Startups Start

You realize there’s a problem, probably something you directly experience. Then you try to flip that pain into invention. For us, this was realizing you could text every person you know, but you couldn't text a business!

Everyone texts for 101 reasons every day, so if you're a business that needs to communicate with anyone, why wouldn't you text?

LIGHT BULB!

First year in business light bulb moment

Your head swells as the potential market for your idea hits 10 figures. After mentally planning the layout of your new 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.

The Launch

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, Inc. to plead for an interview, every business in the world to sign up, and for 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.

Text Request Launch Party

A startup's first year in business is like sailing a boat. You leave the Gulf of Florida, but you're not sure if you're supposed to head towards Hawaii or Puerto Rico.

Oh, and you're sailing through a hurricane.

But 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, except you don't actually know what you want most.

When you start a company, reality and other people are constantly tearing you down. You have a hard time telling where you're going, and the whole journey is rigorous. But... 

The most important part of this whole process is that you start.

The First Few Months

Our thought process was simple: where would Text Request make my life as a consumer easier?

Well, if I’m at a hotel, and I need something from the front desk, I'd rather text them than call. 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.

Related: Startup Journal: Why Is Tim Gunn Relevant to Your Business?

We needed help telling the world about us, 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 marketing prodigy, Kenneth. A customer service guy, Seth, so incredible that if cloned 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!

Die Hard Join a Startup Meme

Full speed ahead, we cold-called college admissions departments, hotel chains, dental offices, salons, and the lot.

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 a lot of both.)

Related: Startup Journal: Accepting Failure vs. Expecting Failure

There was a vulnerability, a transparency, and an honesty that galvanized our team. You didn’t come in every day with the right answers, you came in determined to figure them out.

The environment built character, and certainly showed your character, too. Our first big trade show is a great illustration.

Thanks to Fleetwood Mac, the back entrance to the Atlanta Convention Center was a parking lot. What did we do?

We marched through the front door with all our gear strapped to our backs, 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, and at this point it's April. We’ve got a great idea, we’ve 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.

Making Adjustments

You hear the term “pivot” a lot in startup speech. What's a pivot? Well, for instance, Instagram began as a location check-ins app like Foursquare. Obviously, they've changed direction to find more success. That's a pivot - re-focusing your brand on where the growth is already happening.

This tool we built as consumers, for consumers just wasn’t clicking with our targets. 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 Text Request for getting new business or boosting revenue (go figure). So we pivoted.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Related: The 2 Questions Everyone Asks Before Making a Purchase

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 for our pivot.

After 6 months of grinding, we ironed out a target market with an easy and fast sales cycle. We presented Text Request as a lead generation source. A sales tool. A game changer. It was time to redesign the website.

Gaining Traction

When we first designed the site, we worked with a marketing firm, a branding professional, and one of the best copywriters alive (thanks again, Ludwick). But the site 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 out the redesign as a team.

A nugget to be extrapolated here: just do it. Don’t wait for the perfect moment. Don’t compare yourself to everyone else. You’re the crazy person chasing your dream, so give it your best and make it happen.

It worked! We started gaining momentum. Our MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue) was increasing by at least 15%/month. Our ship was starting to sail!

Related: Startup Journal: Social Proof and Seeing What You Preach

Too many times early on I'd lost opportunities because our value proposition had been swept off the table with simple objections. By now, I was learning how to build national sales relationships, and more importantly, I was learning how to really negotiate.

James and Foster with Text Request at Merry Maids Annual Conference

In August, we were invited to exhibit at Merry Maids' (a cleaning service franchise) national seminar. That conference increased our overall revenue by over 20%! (Shout out to Foster for making it happen.)

Merry Maids, we love you, and San Diego was arguably our best call yet. Then we got accepted to be part of Techweek NYC

Over 200 startups pitched to get in, and they accepted the top 70. I showed up for Demo Day to 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!

Truthfully, I can't say I was surprised, since I already spent 5 hours the day before memorizing my semi-finals pitch. But it still felt amazing to hear them call out “Text Request.”

James with Text Request at Techweek NYC

We didn’t win it all, but we represented Chattanooga well. It seemed that this competition validated us. As soon we got back and news spread that we'd been at Techweek, everyone in town we talked to excitedly brought up the trip. It felt great!

So, what is a tech startup's first year in business really like?

A startup's first year in business is not for the faint of heart. It's a stress-induced roller coaster of emotional and financial instability. Yet in the mess, in the crazy, you’re creating and growing.

Our dream of changing the world is still in tact. We’re still here, and we’re thriving.

We don’t have it all figured out (nobody does, don’t let them fool you), 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.

Heck of a ride, gents, here’s to our next year!

-- James Dawson: Founding Member, Director of Sales & Communications

Related: Startup Journal: On Patience and Waiting