As a brand new startup, we spend a lot of time talking about ourselves to two main groups: 1) People we want to be customers, and 2) People we want money from. But there’s another side to this venture – the one in which we try to figure out how to run a business. And while we love talking about how Qwill is reimagining estate planning (shameless plug), we’re also learning a ton of valuable lessons about how to begin, and hopefully thrive, in the startup world. So get cozy – here’s the tale of how we
crushed survived our first TechCrunch Disrupt conference.
When I told my friends I was flying out to San Francisco to go to TechCrunch, the first response I got was, “TechCrunch… is that a gym for nerds?” After a proper LOL, I realized that yeah – I guess TechCrunch is sort of a gym for nerds… investor nerds, techy nerds, and entrepreneurial nerds alike. A new wave of eager beavers roll into the Bay Area once a year to exercise their nerdiness at Disrupt SF, an annual conference that gives startups the chance to pitch their ideas to venture capitalists, media, potential consumers, and their techy peers.
Maybe you’ve never heard of TC Disrupt… or perhaps your only exposure has been via HBO’s Silicon Valley, a satire that aims to expose what it’s really like to start your own business in today’s tech industry. (Spoiler alert: it’s a hot mess.) The characters have actually attended the conference, and this behind-the-scenes look demonstrates how the show’s creators kept their scenes true to life:
Silicon Valley’s portrayal of Startup Alley set high expectations, and I’m glad to say that the real thing did not disappoint. Forgetting for a moment that we were five people huddled around a cocktail table luring passersby in with cute stickers and the promise of a planned future… it was amazing to stand by my team as we promoted (in public!) this thing that we’ve been slaving over for the past several months.
For those that like lists, here are the five major takeaways from our time at Disrupt last week.
1) Deadlines schmeadlines
When we first started discussing whether we should attend Disrupt or not this year, the major question was if we’d be ready to start promoting the app by September. The challenge would be prioritizing and building the must-have product features prior to the conference – though we were never considering this our full product launch, we wanted to lead with something that users would find immediately valuable. Being the democracy that we are, we made our list of product demands and saved our vote until our engineer, Josh, was on vacation :).
So, were we ready? Definitely not. But we were close! Ultimately we decided that our goals for the conference were less about fundraising and acquiring users (though who would say no to those?), and more about giving our team some aggressive deadlines for our product and marketing projects. While we didn’t check off every box, we no doubt achieved much more than we would have without the external motivation of the conference.
2) Murphy’s Law is legit
“Anything that can go wrong, will — and at the worst possible moment.” – Murphy
In the weeks leading up to the conference, we had two major projects approaching completion: 1) A new version of our app giving users the ability to subscribe for premium features; and 2) A shiny new website. My pride requires that I disclose that we planned ahead – like way ahead – for both of these projects to be completed well before the conference. But thanks to Murph, who cares about having a plan?
The TL;DR version of this story is that both our app and our website were ready… just one day too late :). Keep reading if you like gory details.
The new version of our app landed in the store at 9pm on the night before our Startup Alley debut. Yay 🙌🎉🎈!!! But what we didn’t know about Apple app store subscriptions is that it can take anywhere between a few hours and a few days for the actual product (in our case, “Qwill Premium”) to populate in the Apple catalog. If users try to subscribe within your app before the product is available, sorry, no dice, looks like you’ve got a bug. This resulted in our encouraging booth visitors to download the app, with the nonchalant suggestion of maybe waiting a day or two…
If having a buggy app on TechCrunch day wasn’t stressful enough, try promoting it without a shiny new website. Due to incompatible time zones between us and our web vendor, our new website launch was a slight miss, as well. Now feels like a good time to mention that Greg’s business cards were also a day late, which led to Alicia hiding behind our banner to write his email address on dozens of our product flyers.
All that said, it truly was a great day. And, we like to think that we weren’t a day late, but TechCrunch was just a day early.
3) Practice makes pitch perfect
So who knew that when setting out to build a business, it wouldn’t be the product woes or lack of marketing budget that would keep us awake at night… but trying to perfect the pitch? Just kidding – the other things keep us up at night, too. But the pitch matters, especially at a conference like TechCrunch where you’ve only got a few seconds to pull prospective investors and users into your vision.
We were stoked to be among a few companies selected for a 60-second flash pitch on the Showcase Stage in Startup Alley. Commence nerves! Fortunately, there’s a CEO for that, and he totally crushed it. As Greg will attest, 60 seconds is super short when you’re trying to explain the whole of your existence. Everyone takes a slightly different approach, some trying to engage the audience with existential questions, others barely mentioning more than the name of their business and their website URL. Sadly, since the pitches were given alphabetically by company name, the crowd had considerably thinned by the time Greg was up. All that practice paid off, though, when media companies started popping over to our booth for impromptu interviews.
4) Branding matters
By now you’ve heard that our product release was shaky, our website launch was a no-go, and our pitching practice gave us a serious case of the butterflies. But you know what absolutely ruled? Our branding. And we have our amazing designer, Paul, to thank for that. There’s something about QR codes, a vinyl banner, and mascot stickers that make you feel like a real company, you know?
Repeatedly we were complimented on our cute tees, banner design, and overall aesthetic. And it’s no mistake – if anything, this feedback is the best validation we could hope for. There’s always going to be product and feature overlap with competitors in the space, but we’ve worked hard to make sure that our brand is truly differentiated. Estate planning, after all, is not something people usually want to think about… at least until they meet Q .
5) Our team is special
The headline sort of speaks for itself, here. By calling my team special, maybe I’ll be seen by some as the delusional soccer mom whose kids can do no wrong. But hear me out: our team is special.
I walked the entire expo floor of Startup Alley and engaged with dozens of other companies. Sure, there were extra large booths for established companies that brought along their dedicated events teams, but I didn’t see a single other cocktail table surrounded by five people in matching t-shirts. We may not have known exactly what to do with ourselves, but you couldn’t have kept any of us away from what felt like our first real milestone as a company. If Woody Allen was right when he said that “80% of success is just showing up,” then, done. We got this.
Lauren is Qwill’s marketing team (#startuplife). She’s lived in the digital marketing world for the past 8 years, with specialties in marketing automation and making super colorful content maps. In past lives, she’s been a neuroscience researcher, 6th grade teacher, and candy store clerk, all carefully chosen occupations to test varying personality theories. When she’s not blogging for Qwill, she prefers a good lakeside or beach read, and will never say no to a road trip. Check out her instagram for a peek inside the life of a work-from-home cat mom.