ZAK!

@zakkinion

Lean Startup: Go Big or Go Home (I got robbed to test my product)

Photo Credit: Miramax (Pulp Fiction)

So I got robbed at gun point

It wasn’t the first time that it’s happened but thats a story for another medium post. The gun looked the same as in the picture above but the robber wasn’t Tim Roth and I certainly wasn’t Samuel L Jackson. I was a taxi driver, out of my car and the camera view, and they were two meth heads, one with a gun. I emptied my pockets which just had a wad of about 130$, a wallet, and keys. My phone was still in the car and they didn’t seem interested in that, and just took off after taking another 40$ out of my wallet. They were semi nice robbers and dropped my wallet and keys. I didn’t file a police report; there was no point. They weren’t on the camera, and I was stupid to get out of the car in the first place. I was both scared and ashamed.

Being a taxi driver sucked, but I wasn’t there to make money, I had a different agenda.

Over the course of three months, I was robbed, attacked by drunks several times, spat on, threatened, had beer bottles thrown at me, cleaned up vomit, and even got borderline molested. I endured all this, working 12 hours a day, making less than minimum wage, to test out a Minimum Viable Product, which is basically a way to test the waters of a business to see if it will work. My product is to generate phone calls and leads to local businesses across the US, NOT just for Taxi.
And Yes, it was all worth it!

Prelude

I had a friend from grade school who was a locksmith. He was having trouble getting calls to his business after he lost his AAA contract. He tried out Adwords Express and when you dig into the whole funnel between impressions to clicks to calls, it was around 40–80$ per call. Some of them were hangups, people outside a reasonable distance away, and a decent amount were telemarketer robo calls too.

It’s pretty terrible out there for small to midsize businesses. I knew there had to be something better. I wanted to make advertising risk free. If a real customer called, filled out a lead form, or talked to a chat bot, then the business would pay just for that real customer. Telemarketers would not be a worry as they’d be blocked and if they do get by, the calls are recorded (with informing the caller beforehand of course).

There’s companies like Yext which will put up businesses on sites like Google My Business and many others, but most of those can be done by hand by a thirteen year old kid with no allowance. They also hold you hostage for 500$ a year and if you don’t pay, the listings go. There’s also YP and Elocal to buy calls from, but its certainly not cheap and there’s still the telemarketer problem. They also cater to a very small number of niches. You can also search out Google Partners, for Adwords spending, but the majority of them have prohibitively high minimum spends or charge large fees.

Sure, I could get a whole system built out and toss it out to the public, only to find out after all that work its something nobody wants. So an MVP is the way to go. I made a minimal version of the call forwarding complete with some cheap, mobile friendly, easy converting landing pages. Unfortunately, the locksmith friend wanted to grow weed a lot more than he wanted to be a locksmith so I had to find another avenue to test this.

So what to do now?

I wanted to talk to actual users, the customers of small and medium size businesses to figure out where they were coming from and how to get more of them, cheaper. I can only make basic chat bots, and tracking web form leads can be difficult, so using Twilio I decided on tracking by phone calls. Anything needing special skills or a license for like Towing or Autobody/Autorepair to Contractor and Plumbing was out. Lawyers is highly competitive and I didn’t want to deliver Pizza. So Taxi it was…

Photo Credit: Andrew Ruiz

I made a deal with the owner of a local cab company and he said I could use their CPCN number on my websites, but I’d have to drive myself. There was no Uber in town yet, and they don’t let you bring in traffic from outside their ecosystem anyways.

At first it was nasty, I’d lose money very quickly like playing craps in the casinos, but eventually started trying new things and new methods. I could have done it faster than three months but you can only take so many calls a day and I wanted to actually talk to the users.

The MVP was eventually a success. I wasn’t so methodical in my data collecting (taking my Macbook into the cab would have gotten it stolen within a week), but I found that a good share of the calls that came in actually cost me nothing at all besides a few cents of Twilio money, using some secret sauce methods. Even on Adwords/Bing Ads alone, after optimizing and iterating a campaign, it was profitable for Taxi, Towing, and Locksmith. (Check out PPCMastery to get good at Adwords).

Epilogue

Driving a taxi late at night to talk to users probably wasn’t the greatest idea.
I could have died. Half a year earlier a taxi driver was murdered in the same city. Still, I think it was worth it. Lots of nights were actually fun. Not all the drunks would attack me or throw up. Some would buy me Del Taco or Chinese take out. If they were cool, I’d give them their ride for free. My main income source was still my Outsourcing Product Management.

One special night, there was a husband with a cuckold fantasy who paid me to have sex with his wife. I only got 45$ but I would have done it for free as she was very attractive. How many entrepreneurs can say that they’ve prostituted themselves for the sake of their start up? This one can!

Just tossing up a landing page and sending Adwords or a Product Hunt at something isn’t enough to really put an MVP through the grinder. Nor is talking to a few friends and family and maybe the occasional random stranger in a coffee shop. You need to go big and talk to users and find out what’s working and what isn’t and iterate the living hell out of that!

The most important thing I found is your life is on the line just as much sitting behind a computer screen as it is driving through bad neighborhoods picking up meth heads and dope fiends. Time is passing by, and time spent on half measures and false starts is time lost forever.
Life is short. And life is long. But not in that order.

What’s Next?

In Lean Startup, the experiments and validated learning never stop. Right now me and some other developers are building out a basic registration, new business, and admin functionality. If you own a small business, particularly a local one, I’d love to help you out! Convos! (https://getconvos.com) is the name of the company I’m creating, because that’s what I want businesses to have with their customers and what I wanted to have when testing with user traffic. Sign up on the simple web form or email me at zak@getconvos.com. Within a few more weeks registration will be public.

Speaking of iterating, I’ve been on a machine learning binge this past year. During my experiments, I’ve found the Adwords and Bing Ads optimization process to be extremely tedious, expensive, negative ROI at first, and very granular. I think some machine learning can speed this up and improve upon the process. Also, my goal for May 2017, besides a basic launch, is to build a decent chat bot using a Sequence 2 Sequence model in TensorFlow. If you’re into ML and want to chat, hit me up.

Best,
-Zak!

P.S. Out of all the traffic sources I tested, which one did the robbers find me on? It turned out to be Adwords. I had to pay 48 cents for those bastards to call me. The least they could have done was leave me a good review on the Google My Business page… Oh wells, back to the hustle and grind. Learn to love the process.

Topics of interest

More Related Stories