I’m Scared of My Startup

Several years ago, I heard Ben Arment say something.

He may have been quoting Dhirubha Ambani. Or Tom Gaskins. Or an inspirational image from Pinterest.  But it stuck with me.

“If you don’t build your dream, someone will hire you to help build theirs.”

16612e999248981c0464cca135542512Over the last ten years, I’ve had the opportunity to start a non-profit, help grow a business substantially, and start something on my own.  But that quote is one of the reasons I’m excited about our new business.

Startup life is exciting, but truth be told, it’s scary.  I’ve written about how tough it is, but it’s more than tough.

When I look at the factors that led me into the start up life, the business landscape in my industry, and the road ahead, there’s a lot of concerns.  So in the spirit of confronting my fears, here’s some of them.

I’m scared it’s not different enough.  

Product differentiation is a business  term that describes the process of distinguishing a product or service from others in order to make it stand out in a particular market.

The answers to those questions are differentiation.

When I look around the church consulting world, there are a lot of players. You’d be hard pressed to find a better consultant than Tony Morgan. There are pastors like Bob Franquiz, Nelson Searcy and Rich Birch who offer digital resources. The Rocket Company helps churches with preaching and giving, and does a fantastic job.

So why are we needed?  How are we different?  What makes us stand out?  When I set out to answer those questions, I think of a few things

  • We serve senior pastors.  This is actually the first shift we made in our young company.
  • We focused on pastoral leadership and church growth.  Those are  the two key things we’re addressing.  And they are related in a big way.
  • We are insanely practical. Lots of people say this, but we’re fighting for it the best way we know how.
  • We put content before marketing.  We’re not a marketing company who has content.  We’re a content company who does marketing.
  • We work with churches one-on-one. We do coaching and personalized consulting because we want to stay grounded in the local church and we want to help a few people in a big way.

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I see differentiation in my mind, but I’m scared I won’t be able to communicate them well. I’m scared it’s not different enough and people will just think of us as another resource company.

I’m scared it won’t work.

I’ve invested about $40,000 of my own money and six months (and counting) of my time into this startup. In startup world, that pretty small. Peanuts, really.

But for me and my family, it’s a pretty big deal.  We’re betting on this company to work.

So naturally, I’m scared it won’t.

I know we’re going to encounter bumps and forks in the road. And I don’t have this rosy belief that it’s all going to work right out of the box.  Heck, we’ve already had a few failures.

We spent $4,000 on an email marketing campaign that didn’t work at all.  Even after factoring in the long tail, that particular ad campaign is running at a negative 95% return on investment.

Negative 95%!

When those kind of failures happen, I’ve started calling it tuition.  I can’t get fixated on wasting money, because it’s not really wasted if we learned something. Calling these marketing experiments tuition helps me think of it like education.  I’ve never expected that to pay off.

So I’m fine with losing money and taking risks, but I really want the entire business to work.  I am prepared for some things to not work, but I can’t string too many of them together.  Truth be told, I’m afraid of it failing.

I’m scared we won’t get traction.

Church Fuel could easily be a side project – a blog I write for pastors with some helpful stuff.  A hub for a few online courses I could create and produce all by myself.  There’s no doubt in my mind it will work at at that level.

But I don’t want this to be Michael’s side project. I don’t want it to be a blog or a podcast with a few resources.  I don’t want it to be a side business; I want it to be a full time business and the joint effort of a mid-sized team.  There are lots of pastors who have blogs and businesses on the side.  And that’s fine.  But that’s not what I want.

I’m scared Church Fuel will be mildly successful, big enough for me and maybe a few freelancers. Successful enough to be a thing, but not big enough to get traction.

I’ve got big plans for this company, and I’m scared it will get stuck on the ground floor.

I’m scared I won’t be able to support other employees. 

Church Fuel is a joint venture. There are three other partners involved in the business, and one who has made a significant sacrifice to get this thing off the ground.  Rob is our COO – the guy running all the details of the company.

He stepped out of a successful commercial real estate business in order to run this company.  He and his wife have three kids.  And they are living the startup life.

It’s one thing to worry about providing for your family.  But it’s another thing entirely to bear the weight of providing for other people’s families.

When I look at the next 12 months, I worry that we’ll be successful enough to provide for our small team.

I’m scared people will think I’m a failure.

I know I’m supposed to punch fear in the face, create a culture where risks are rewarded, and be a brave leader. And sometimes, leaders have to put on the brave faces.

I shouldn’t do it, but I worry too much about what people think about me.  I take things personally, when I should just focus on doing meaningful work.

When it comes down to it, I don’t want people to think of me as a failure.

Put Fear in it’s Place

Leading a startup requires calculated risk, big bets, and a lot of courage.  Most of the things I wrote about in this article are out of my control.  I could focus on them and worry about them, but it will change little.

Instead, I’m going to go to work today.  I’m going to work on our next course.  I’m going to keep pushing for clarity, accountability and focus.  And I’m going to keep focusing on our mission and vision.

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The 12 Week Year by Brian P. Moran

Here are my notes from The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks Than Others Do in 12 Months by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington.

Annual goals and plans are often a barrier to high performance. They come with an unspoken belief there is plenty of time in the eyar to make things happen.  In January, December looks a long way off.

Why do people behave differently in November and December than they do in July and August?

Long term results are created by the actions you take every day.  Plan for the future, but act in the day.  In the end, you have greater control over your actions than you do your results.

The only way to know if you are achieving is through measurement – that is, keeping score. More than 60% of the time the breakdown occurs in the execution process, but usually people assume the plan is at fault and change it.  You don’t know if the plan doesn’t work if you’re not working the plan.  Too often, people want to change the plan before they have really executed it.

If you are not purposeful about how you spend your time, then you leave your results to chance.

Four Keys to Successful Commitments

  1. Strong desire.
  2. Keystone actions.  Identify the core actions that will produce the result you’re after.
  3. Count the costs.
  4. Act on commitments, not feelings

Results are not the attainment of greatness, but simply confirmation of it.  The difference between greatness and mediocrity on a daily and weekly basis is slim, yet the difference in results down the road is tremendous.

One of the biggest pitfalls of leadership is failure to connect your vision to your daily actions.

Planning enables you to allocate your time and resources to your highest-value opportunities, it increases your odds of successful hitting your goals, it helps you to coordinate your team, and it creates a competitive advantage.  If you take time to plan before engaging with a complex task, you reduce the overall time required to complete the task by as much as 20%.

In 12 weeks, focus on the minimum number of actions that are most important to hit your goal. “Every day is a week.”

Implementing more tactics than necessary is a hinderance. You’ve got to leave good footage on the cutting room floor. Brainstorm all tactics; implement the best ones.  If you feel like it’s getting too complicated, it probably is.  The benefits of planning diminish rapidly, if not altogether, if you pursue and plan with more than one goal.

Execute your 12 week plan with a weekly routine.  Score you week. Plan your week. Participate in a weekly accountability meeting.

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Top Quotes from Leadercast Live 2015

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I had the opportunity to attend Leadercast in Atlanta on May 8, 2015.  I served as an official note-taker for the first time, capturing notes during each session and pushing summaries to the Leadercast app.

Here are my favorite quotes from each of the speakers.

  • It’s not that brave leaders never fail; it’s that they never quit. – Mayor Aja Brown, the youngest elected mayor of Compton
  • Bold leadership is clarity around an unreasonable commitment to what should be.  It’s a middle school girl in pursuit of an iPhone.
  • Do the thing your competition can’t or won’t do. – Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP
  • Failure is a necessary consequence of trying something new. Make it safe for people to operate in the messy middle.  – Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios
  • Always believe in the happy ending. – Malala Yousafzai, youngest winner of the Zobel Prize
  • I want a coach to treat me like I’m a rookie in college.  – Peyton Manning.  Bonus: Due to some recent law changes in Colorado, the pizza business is doing pretty good.
  • Limit your field of view and you’ll see more. – Rorke Denver, author of Damn Few: The Making of a Modern Seal Warrior
  • Nobody want to follow an pessimist.  Great leaders have to be optimists. – Judy Giuliani
  • Most of us carry around a bowl of front and we spend all our time trying to get them to stay in the bowl. Growth happens when he frogs jump out of the bowl – Seth Godin
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Behind the Startup: Building and Selling Products Online

This is the fifth article in a series called “Behind the Startup.”  First, we talked about choosing a name.  Then, I shared the struggle of building a brand. Third, I wrote about building a team. We talked the difference between mission and vision and what we hope to accomplish.

In this article, I want to talk about building products and selling them online.

Our Family of Products

The mission of Church Fuel is to create insanely practical resources that move the church forward.  Our vision is to serve 5,000 pastors in the next three years.  And in order to do that, we’re going to build products in three categories.

First, we are going to develop a membership program.  It will be the entire point of our website, the starting point for doing business with us and becoming a part of our family, and a no-brainer for every senior pastor who wants to lead a growing church.  We don’t currently offer this product, but it’s in development.  We will launch it with excellence by 2016.  Think of the membership program as the one dollar sign product.

Secondly, we will create courses that solve specific problems. These courses will last anywhere from five weeks to seven months.  We’ll cover topics like outreach, leadership, assimilation, content marketing, social media, small groups, and more.  We are partnering with experts in their fields to provide the content and resources that make up these courses. Think of courses as the two dollar sign products.

Finally, we will offer consulting and coaching. This will not generate the most revenue for our company, but it’s a service we want to deliver for two reasons.  First, it’s very helpful for a church.  Secondly, it will keep us grounded to the needs of real churches. Think of consulting and coaching as the three dollars sign products.

Getting Ready to Sell Online

Before we could sell anything, we had to get ready to do business online.  Here are some of the tools and systems we use to do business online.

  • We use InfusionSoft to handle all of our orders.  This all-in-one sales and marketing software is the digital hub of our business and we couldn’t function without it.
  • We make sales pages with LeadPages.  The “Buy Now” buttons take people to an InfusionSoft order form.  I absolutely love LeadPages because it’s so simple to make opt-in pages, sales pages, thank you pages, webinar pages and so much more. Here’s one of our sales pages.
  • We set up credit card processing. We actually have two merchant accounts just in case something happens with one of them.  In a previous business, I had a merchant processor freeze our account, decline transactions and hold our money, so I didn’t want that happening here. One tip I would give small business owners is to accept multiple forms of payment, including American Express, Discover Card and PayPal.
  • We use a combination of automated email and a membership plugin called Wish List Member to deliver our digital products.  When people buy something, they get an automatic email giving them the download link or access code to get what they purchased.  At first, we just emailed links to people, but now we’re using this software to deliver everything.

Building Our First Product

CF_HealthySystems_ProductThe first product we built was a 12-month course called The Year of Healthy Systems. The content is delivered via live training sessions which are then archived on a private, members only page.  In addition to training, we give other resources each month on the same topic.

I knew this was a need because I’ve been listening to pastors for the last five years.  Over and over again, pastors told us they needed help creating systems to scale.  This systems product would help pastors follow up with guests, lead their staff, recruit and train volunteers, manage their schedule and more.  But the focus is on systematizing everything – figuring it out once and letting the system run itself.

After we launched this course, we realized three things.  First, 12 months was too long.  While the content in this course is practical and necessary, 12 months is a long time for a pastor to focus on one thing.  Even if month 11 is great, I think they will just want to change the subject.  Promoting a course that was going to require a year’s worth of focus was a tough sell.  For our next course, we would shorten the time-frame to just six weeks.

Secondly, the course wasn’t named correctly.  Few people want to sign up for something with the words “year of” in the title.  And there wasn’t a good subtitle that described the benefits of the course. Honestly, I’m not great at naming things and I need to get help with this.

Finally, stretching out the content creation to a year wasn’t the best decision. Instead of delivering it live, I wish we had created it all at one time and compacted it into a shorter delivery window.

Still, we launched the course in January and right away had 100 people enroll. We’re delivering the content now and the feedback is great. But it felt good to have a product in the store.  It felt good to have something out there.

Four Things We’ve Learned Building our First Four Products

Right now, we have several free resources and four paid products available online.  We have four more products and courses in development.  Here are some things we’ve learned about building and selling products online.

#1 – Build an audience before you build products.

As a content guy, this is tough for me.

You can have a brilliant product, but if you don’t have an audience for it, it’s not going to sell or help anyone.  Distribution is just as important as creation.

You can write an amazing book, but if you think people will buy it because it’s awesome, you’re nuts.  That’s why most of the best selling authors spend more time growing their network, building their platform and straight up hustling than they often do writing.

People can’t use your amazing software if they don’t know you or trust you. That’s why the people who have legitimate businesses rather than side projects are masters of more than just code.

People wont sign up for your coaching group because the content is helpful.  It doesn’t matter that it’s been developed from years in the trenches or contains original work if people don’t know about it.

So before you spend weeks, months or years creating something, you need to build an audience of potential customers.

Offering value and giving stuff away is the way to do it.  Sure, you can borrow someone else’s platform, but it won’t work as well as one you build.  The people at Copyblogger talk about building a minimum viable audience before you create a minimum viable product.  I love this idea.

Before we launched any paid products, we spent months building a mailing list through offering free content.  We spent money on paid ads to buy traffic and relied on giveaways to gather people’s attention.  Now or mailing list is relatively small by industry standards (10,500 people right now), but that is our minimum viable audience.

Before you start creating stuff to sell, offer value for free and see if you can get people to take notice.  After all, if they won’t download your free stuff, they won’t pay you for more.

#2 – Build your first product faster than you think you can do it.

I echo the advice I’ve heard Seth Godin share so many times:  just ship it.  You can’t improve something that doesn’t exist.  It’s hard to sell a good idea.  So get to work and get version 1.0 in the can.

A minimum viable product only has core features that help the product have the highest return on investment with minimal risk. It’s not a crappy product, it’s a viable product. It may not have all the bells and whistles, but it works.

The Systems Course was our minimal viable product.  The content was in our wheelhouse and it gave us something we could sell and improve. It gave us our first customers, who have become a valuable source of knowledge.

#3 – Validate your product idea before you invest time and money building it.

From time to time, people will email or text me ideas for products or businesses.  “Do you think this is a good idea?” they ask.  Most of the time, it is a good idea.

But the success isn’t in the ideas; those are a dime a dozen.  Success comes from implementing, building, selling, improving and repeating it again and again.  Ideas alone produce little.

The best way to determine if something is a good idea or not isn’t to ask someone, it’s to sell something.  If you can’t sell one before it’s built, you’ll struggle to sell 100 after it’s built.  It’s too easy for someone to say “good idea” or act interested when there’s no money on the line.  It’s another thing entirely for someone to validate the idea by buying it.

So how do you sell something before you build it?  It’s easy.  People do it all the time on Kickstarter.

You can pre-sell your book before you write it.  You can presell your course before you create it.  You can pre-sell the product before you build it.

Ask friends and family to buy. Ask your minimum viable audience to pre-order.  Build a simple sales page for your idea and see if people are truly interested in what you’re offering.

Sales are the best validator of an idea.

#4 – Work as hard on your launch plan as you do on your product.

By the time our second course rolled around – a course to help churches use content marketing to reach out online, we decided to get more intentional. First, we made the course shorter (just six weeks).  Secondly, we finished 100% of the content before launching the product.  Third, we decided to do a limited launch then shut it down.

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The Systems Course attracted low hanging fruit, but with this new course, we knew we would have to build a sub-list of people who were interested and work much more intentionally to get attention.  We worked hard on our launch plan.

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Let’s talk more about the launch plan.  Here is the launch calendar s in an .ics file if you want to download, but here’s the big picture.

  • We started by releasing a free eBook.  We emailed it to our existing list and put ads on Facebook and Twitter.
  • We created a series of free videos to teach people and educate them on the topic.  The first two videos in the series add a lot of value and don’t ask for anything in return.  The third video offers the course to people who want help implementing.  We learned this approach from Jeff Walker.
  • THIS IS KEY:  Any time someone downloaded an ebook or signed up for one of the free videos, we tagged them with an interest tag.  As the launch cycle went on, we ramped up communication to the people with the interest tag and dialed back communication to everyone else.  We didn’t want to waste email capital talking to people about a course they didn’t care about.
  • We provided free stuff for about 7 days and then opened registration for the course.
  • Registration to the course was open for 10 days and then it closes.  This creates a very real incentive for people who are interested to jump in now.  But it also gives us a built in time when we can change the subject with our list and go back to providing free value.
  • Midway through the launch calendar, we did a free webinar on a related topic.  It was a fresh way to talk about related content.  It was another hook in the water.  This multi-content approach really felt good.
  • Once registration closes and the course started, we truly shut down registration. All of the links were redirected to a waiting list.  When it’s time to launch again, we’ll apply all we’ve learned the first time around.

Take Your Time but Build it Fast

When it comes to creating courses and building products, here are a few things I’ve learned.

#1 – Take a long time to create the product. 

There are way too many people who learned a skill six months ago and try to turn that into a course, product or coaching group.  There’s no depth or nuance because it hasn’t been lived. I prefer to learn from people who have wrestled and struggled, not just learned something a few months ago.

It’s not unusual for me to sit on semi-developed content outlines for more than a year and then take six months or more to actually write content.  When I create slowly, I find ideas over time and bring in research. I can live in the topic and make it better and more useful. It’s why books with footnotes and a legitimate bibliography tend to be better. The author did the work and took their time.

# 2 – But rapidly produce the product and deliverables.

Even tough you’re taking your time to write and create the content, when it comes time to produce, format or literally create the thing, I love a short time table.

For example, I spent nearly 18 months writing the content for the online outreach course.  But the entire course – from video filming to graphic design to eBook layout was done in just three weeks.

  • We asked our graphic designer to produce everything we needed in just 3 days.
  • We filmed everything in a day and all the videos were edited within the next 10 days.
  • We built all the checklists, PDFs and other course content as the videos were being edited.

We actually prefer a short creation cycle because this stuff can drag on for months and months.  These aren’t airplanes – they are information products.

  1.  Stay scrappy.

Through it all, stay scrappy.  When you encounter road blocks (and you will hit lots of them), power through and don’t give up.

We use 99 Designs Tasks to get simple graphics done in under an hour. We use Fiverr for voiceover work. I have several people on eLance who help lay out eBooks. There are so many ways to get things done fast.

If I let it, product creation and launching products online will last forever. It’s important to put it on a schedule and a timeline and just get it done.

What’s Next?

After we launch two more courses, we’re going to turn our attention to building our flagship product…a membership site for senior pastors. This has been the plan for a while and we’ve been creating behind the scenes, but we wanted some of the first courses to be completed first.

We needed early sales to fund what we really want to build. And I can’t wait to start building what’s next.

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Do Not Despise these Small Beginnings

There’s a little verse in the Bible that I love and hate.  It’s from the prophet Zechariah and it says this…

“Do not despise these small beginnings.” – Zechariah 4:10

Right now, what we’re building is small. There are just a few of us. We’re a small company with a big mission. Lord willing, one day we will be big.  But instead of bemoaning where we are, I’m trying to rest in it.

Because I got it wrong the first time.

When I look back on my days helping start a church that grew to 1,000 people pretty fast, the days I miss the most were the early days.  When the whole church fit in my living room.  When staff meetings happened at 9pm because that was the only time we could all get tighter.  When a small group of amazing people set out to help change the city.  It was a small beginning but it was an awesome beginning.

In the moment, I hated it. My eyes were on launching, growing, and expanded.  I was on the lookout for what was next and I was ready to smash the next growth barrier.  Always somewhere else but rarely present. I was on a quest for more and a quest like that rarely satisfies.

I despised that small beginning when I was living it but I love that small beginning now that I miss it. I’m determined not to do that this time.

Maybe you’re in a time of humble beginnings.  Your idea is still young, your business is still small, or your organization is still finding it’s way.  Not only is this okay, it’s desirable.  You shouldn’t just NOT DESPISE these times. You should lean into them.

There’s a good chance you’re underestimating what you can do over time. 

When I helped start a church, I wanted it to grow now and grow fast.  Over five years, some would say that happened.  But I didn’t have a 20 or 30 year outlook.  I didn’t have a 50 year outlook.

starbucks-logoI love the story of Starbucks.  Did you know it took Starbucks 20 years to get the business model right and open 100 stores.  Today, they have 18,000 stores, but there was a time not too long ago when they had just a handful.  They weren’t a national brand. They weren’t an industry icon.  It was just a humble beginning.

And it took them the better part of two decades to figure it all out.  I get frustrated if I don’t hit the business equivalent of a home run after a few weeks of focus, yet most companies work, reinvent, work, reinvent, work and reinvent for years before settling into something that’s mildly successful.

Brad Bridges says if you can see all the results of your work, you aren’t thinking far enough into the future.  What a powerful statement!  Parenting is like this (I have a 13 year old right now…pray for me!).  The decisions we’ve made over the last few years with our kids often don’t have immediate results.  We’re not parenting for NOW, we’re parenting for LATER.

When you look at what you’re trying to do, maybe you need to take a much longer view.  Maybe what you’re going through now is for later.

Likewise, you’re probably overestimating what you can do this year.

Just like we underestimate what we can do in 12 years we overestimate what we can do in 12 months.

Because I’m so guilty of short term thinking and tend to despise the small beginnings, I am also tempted to do too much too soon.  If left unchecked, I’ll have my hands in too many things and attach false expectations to them all.  I’ll come up with too many priorities, and you know that means making real progress on none of them.

Remember all those annual goals you set back in January? You have a higher possibility of success of you just focus on one of them.  You’ll actually accomplish more when you try to accomplish less.

Making the Most of Humble Beginnings

Do Not Despise These Small Beginnings

If you’re in a time of small beginnings, I offer these suggestions to help you make the most of these early days.

  1.  Document everything.

The other day, we had a board meeting in Atlanta with all four of the Church Fuel partners.  We didn’t have any fancy presentations in a fancy meeting room. It was just four guys sitting in a hotel lobby talking about what we’ve learned so far and where we want to go.  Jeremie stepped back and snapped a picture from his phone so we would have it for the archives.  He reminded us all of the verse in Zechariah about small beginnings.

Keep trinkets and mementos from the early days.  Take pictures. Hang a dollar on the wall.  These things will have a lot of meaning for you and others in the years to come.

  1.  Enjoy the simplicity and flexibility.

One day, things will be more complicated and more stressful. You might think growth will bring more people to take the pressure off, but the reality is growth brings pressure and responsibility.  While you’re small, enjoy the simplicity and flexibility that comes with it.

Don’t let the vision consume you to the point where you cannot appreciate the fun of where you are now.

  • Your kids are only this age once.
  • Your business is only this nimble now.
  • Your small apartment is easy to clean.  And there’s no mortgage.
  1.  Practice contentment.

Contentment is not a gift, it’s a skill.  You’ve got to practice it.  I know it’s hard because you’re comparing your startup, your organization or your family to someone else.  It’s so easy to look at other things and think you need to work harder to get there faster.

But the dirty secret of success is that if you ask people who look successful, they will tell you they traded away too much to get it.

Don’t look at what you don’t have or wha you can’t do yet…rest in what you do have.  Rest in what you can do.

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