In addition to being a tech columnist, I'm also a parent of four young children. Which, as I'm sure you can imagine, means I'm acutely interested in what happens this fall with regard to school. One of the side projects I'm working on is a software platform for online learning to help teachers and students continue to learn, even if they can't be in class together.
Except, developing a software platform isn't easy. I mean, the idea was pretty simple and it came together pretty quickly. It's the actual writing code for the software that gets complicated (and expensive) even faster. Early on, I recognized that I could probably use some help.
So, I did what you do--I cold emailed Mark Cuban and pitched my idea. I thought to myself that you hear all the time about people taking bold moves to get their idea in front of the right people, so I figured I'd just go ahead and try it. What you don't hear about so often is that just having a great idea, and sending it off to "the right people," rarely ends up with an investment or product. It was a long shot for sure, but Mark Cuban, being the gracious guy he is, responded to my email.
I didn't end up getting an investment from him, but, through a series of emails, I did learn a few very important lessons, that in some regard might be more important than if he had simply responded asking where to send a check.
1. Know your value.
The first thing Mark Cuban asked me when I emailed him was, "There are several free platforms ... Why not just use them?" That's a perfectly reasonable question, and it made me think about the value this particular product would provide. Said differently, you should ask yourself whether the thing you're building adds enough value that your customers can't get it anywhere else.
I believe wholeheartedly that the product has enormous value, but if I can't articulate why it's better than something already available for free, it'll be difficult (if not impossible) to persuade anyone to become a customer. It's hard to compete with free, but in reality, it forced me to ask a far bigger question.
2. Ask the most important question.
Part of knowing your competition is knowing why the thing you are building is worth doing in the first place. That means asking yourself the question: Is this really necessary? Or, as Mark Cuban put it: "There is no reason to re-create the wheel, Jason."
If you're launching something as a business, it's worth examining whether you're solving a real problem that real people have in a way that makes their life better. If you believe it does, the next thing you have to figure out is whether there's actually room for the thing you're building. Good ideas don't become successful products just because you believe in them.
3. Know your weak spots.
Probably the most valuable lesson I learned from my brief email exchange with Mark Cuban is that if you're going to talk about your idea with people who might be interested, you had better come prepared. Despite the fact that he wasn't interested in investing in the product, I came away with the realization that I had some work to do.
The questions and pushback I received helped me to see where my weak spots were in terms of the product, the market, and the pitch. In the end, my interaction with Mark Cuban may not have resulted in an investment in a product I believe in, but it will make the product better. And that's more valuable than just about anything else.