What We Learned Building a Company Out in the Open

Originally published on Hacker Noon by Andrew Chapin.

When I’m waiting for my order at a coffee shop, I sit and try to totally deconstruct the business.

I’ll figure out how many people are in the room, how much they’re spending per order, and how much time they spend in the shop. I’ll consider the day of the week, the time of day, and the real estate in the area.

The end result: a quick and dirty profit and loss statement for the business.

It’s not just coffee shops — I’ll do this when you go to the bathroom at a diner during our breakfast meeting, if I’m bored in a store at the mall, or if I’m left alone at a baseball game.

I’m constantly trying to understand the businesses around me. I’m a huge business nerd. It’s what I do.

That’s why I’m always surprised when I hear (often would-be first-time) entrepreneurs ask potential investors or early employees to sign a non-disclosure agreement before they share their idea.

Your business is going to be out there in the world, and the odds are that people like me are going to deconstruct it. What are you protecting?

Earlier this year, my business partner and friend Tommy ran a business idea by me:

He knew what he was doing. He engaged the part of my brain that I love to live in, and now we’re here, a few months later, with a business that is fully operational: TinyCables.com.

Our high-quality, $8, 8" charging cables with free shipping and a lifetime guarantee are not the point of this post. Unless you’d like a cable like that. In that case, head on over to TinyCables.com, place your order, and come back.

I’ll wait.

The point of this post is that we started this business and shared every step of the process — totally out in the open — and it was a great decision.

There was no thought of a non-disclosure agreement, nothing to guard, and no interest in holding anything back. The logic was straight-forward:

  • There are plenty of charging cable companies and, until all-wireless-everything becomes ubiquitous, there will be even more in the future. Our offering, a cable to charge and sync your devices, isn’t any different than what you can already buy at Staples, CVS, or gas station in any town in America. What is there to protect?
  • We believe in entrepreneurship. Our story might help future entrepreneurs or makers who are trying to solve similar problems. This is especially true because we, as software entrepreneurs, entered this with no idea how to launch a physical product. We’ve been truly learning as we put this together. We want our Medium publication to serve as a resource.
  • Since we’re launching a product in such a crowded space, we need to stand out as much as we possibly can. If people enjoy reading about our entrepreneurial journey, they might buy our cables. Maybe.

The learnings were many and fast: fulfillment is hard, sourcing is hard, value propositions are hard, packaging and UPC codes are hard, quality assurance is hard, sending money overseas can be hard, building the software stack is hard, product photography is hard, and building a launch strategy is, oh what’s that word, hard.

Entrepreneurship is hard, but we knew that. There were three surprises that we didn’t see coming, though:

You think you’ll have your primary customer figured out. You don’t.

We thought that Tiny Cables would appeal to people like us: technology workers who always have their phones plugged into laptops on their desks. We thought that this group would care about quality above all else, and find a lifetime guarantee appealing.

Not so fast.

When we shared Tiny Cables in various tech and entrepreneurship Facebook groups, the number one comment (by far) was something along the lines of “But I can get a short cable for $1 at (x)!”

Even after I pointed out that our cables arrive within 3 days (vs. the multi-week shipping time on eBay listings from Hong Kong), that we stand by the durability of our cables with a lifetime guarantee, and that we’ve done quality testing to make sure that our cables won’t fry your devices (like the Amazon-listed cables that fried one of Google engineer Benson Leung’s devices), they didn’t budge.

Turns out there is more than one type of nerd.

E-mail is (still) king.

E-mail first entered use in the 1960s. Despite all of the subsequent innovation in personal communication — text messaging, video, social media, instant messaging, and all the rest — there is nothing that dominates the digital communication landscape like e-mail.

Think about it: what has better penetration than e-mail? You would be hard-pressed to find an internet user without an e-mail address, something you can’t say for any of those other channels.

And it’s not just market adoption —despite all of the personalization technology that we’re sitting on in 2017, it’s still e-mail that is most likely to result in an end-user action.

Those news feed algorithms simply don’t share your message, even to people who are eager recipients. There’s a level of interference. I scoured the web for organic read rates for the major social networks — no luck. It’s hard to imagine they top this, though:

We knew that launching our product by sharing the story would cultivate an audience and help gain exposure, but we had no idea that we would have such engagement. We don’t see this from our Twitter following (800+) or Facebook fans.

There’s always something.

We did a soft launch for a week and a half, sharing the news that we were now accepting new orders with a new channel or two each day. That’s how we learned that, despite crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s, there were all sorts of strange little kinks to work out, including:

  • We accidentally sent (internal-use-only/fake) tracking numbers to our first 15–20 customers.
  • We accidentally sent multiple “your order is on its way” e-mails if you purchased more than one unit.
  • We thought we had done everything we needed to do around international shipping. We hadn’t.

Nothing catastrophic, but certainly things we didn’t want to happen during our wide release. Whoops.

I’m glad we soft launched. If we went wide and tried to sell a million cables on day one, we would have stumbled hard.

Launching Tiny Cables out in the open has been a tremendous experiment. By engaging with our audience, we’ve learned a lot, our business has grown quicker than expected, and we’ve made a bunch of new friends.

That’s a pretty good day at the office.