Debbie Goodman-Bhyat is an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Cape Town, South Africa, and founder and CEO of Jack Hammer, one of Africa's top executive search firms. Debbie found herself unexpectedly at the helm of a new tech company, Virtual Coaching Partners, an online business coach-matching platform that connects professionals who are in career transition with a top quality executive coach in an affordable, accessible and convenient way. She learned some hard lessons during startup, so we asked her about the process. Here's what she shared:
If you had told me at any point in my adult life that I would become a tech entrepreneur, I'd have quickly assured you that you were utterly nuts. I can't work my home theater system and still need help navigating iPhone software downloads: Technology and I are not soulmates.
And frankly, when I devised a new business concept early in 2017, the only tech component was a hyperlink from one website to another.
But something significant happened when I attended "Grow," EO's regional learning event in Cape Town last February.
The event focused on scaling a business by 10x. The problem: I didn't have a 10x-scalable business. I'm the CEO of an executive search firm, a professional service that is tough to scale, and relies primarily on increasing headcount for growth.
I spent Day One of the learning event wondering what and how I might "scale." At first, what came to mind was ... absolutely nothing.
Suddenly, a business opportunity that had been rolling around in my head for a couple of years popped back into my brain as often happens when our minds are stimulated at such events.
I jotted down some numbers. Then multiplied those numbers by 10. And then multiplied them again. The penny dropped: I'd identified a scalable business concept.
All in theory, of course. I would need help to transform my idea into reality and increase my odds for success. And this is where I got lucky―sort of.
I enlisted a web developer who had done great work on a WordPress website for me. He presented excellent ideas for an e-commerce platform―a sorting algorithm, online chat-boxes, abandoned cart giveaways, CRM platforms for digital marketing―I was super-impressed!
Sadly, in my state of unconscious incompetence, I didn't even know what questions to ask to determine whether he had the expertise to build a fully integrated e-commerce and CRM platform. It turns out, he did not.
My "sort of" luck sort of ran out. He missed deadline after deadline, and each phase of the process felt excruciatingly like going for a root canal. Progress stalled as we approached the last stages of development.
But fortunately, no lasting harm was done. We had a great-looking website, and sufficient functionality to go to market. In true lean startup style, my business partner and I started selling to corporate customers, who loved our offering.
Now that we've established proof of concept, we're ramping up. I used my network, did my due diligence, asked for references, and ensured that my second round of tech partners were the real deal. They've successfully developed and implemented the CRM tool, and I've gained sufficient knowledge to at least ask the right questions.
What I wish I'd asked my first web developer:
- Show me examples of similar sites you have built. Which of your clients can I speak with to give me insights into your experience, capability and customer service? (If I had just done this one thing, I could have saved myself so much pain!)
- What does your proposed budget include and exclude? What other costs could come up in order to get the project done properly?
- Explain to me in plain English―not tech jargon―how the workflow will function, and show me mock-up images of how it will work. How will that translate into the customer's user experience?
- What automated communication will be sent to customers? Send it to me for review to ensure copy and design are aligned with our brand.
What surprised me most about scaling a product was the groundwork required and how critical it is to set up a solid foundation based on business fundamentals. I had assumed that a virtual business would be so much easier to set up than a brick-and-mortar business. I was wrong. Whether you intend to sell one product or a million, the foundation and fundamentals must be solid. And it always takes more time to establish than one thinks!
Also, as a non-techie, I was surprised to find how exciting this new business model is. Although I got a little singed in the process, it has been fascinating to learn so many new things about the digital space.
I also discovered that almost anything is technologically possible: When developers tell me that they can't do something, I just ask again in a different way, and they somehow figure it out.
- Always attend learning events when the opportunity arises! Even if you're unsure why you're there, the answers will emerge.
- Almost all business concepts are scalable. Not all are worth scaling, but when the variables click and the numbers make sense, the growth opportunities can be incredible.
- Working with software developers of any sort can be tricky. Do your homework. At least know the right questions to ask.
- Don't let tech jargon overwhelm or over-impress. If the product, solution or concept can't be explained in plain language, it's a red flag.
- Get to market with a minimal viable product as soon as possible. Fine-tuning the bells and whistles can happen later, once you have proof of concept and some paying customers.
- Tap your network for supplier recommendations and insights into new products, markets or businesses. Then, do your due diligence. Don't rush to get suppliers and partners onboard.