Answering The Anvil – startup questions from Purdue entrepreneurs

I went to Purdue and studied mechanical engineering.  It was an amazing education and prepared me in many ways for the work I do now as a software entrepreneur. (technology, software development, critical thinking, data>>opinion, math…).

Recently, I was contacted by a student looking for an internship.  A few emails and an “audition” later, we hired Spencer Brown for the summer.  I applaud his networking (reached out to me directly on LinkedIn), willingness to work at a startup who might/might not be able to hire him back (risky internship) and openness to work through our process or lack of one.  We were specifically impressed with his hacking/building things and proven entrepreneurial interest vs. just school work. We @rivaliq are looking forward to seeing him this summer and building cool stuff for our customers!

Then I was contacted by Grant Gumina, the managing director of, a co-working space at Purdue. He asked me to help out some of the teams who were going through (accelerator) and I happily agreed.  Prior to the talk, I asked him for some frequently asked questions, and while I answered them during a recent Skype call, I wanted to share for the benefit of others.  Here goes;

What’s a recurring mistake have you made that took you a while to figure out?

Doing customer development AFTER I made a product vs. before.  Now, I spend lots of time, focused talking to potential customers using only a hypothesis on what solution I might build to frame the conversation. It’s about asking questions vs. telling them what I made (marketing) and why they need it (sales).  I want to understand as much as I can (problems, existing solutions, buying behavior, influencers, pricing options, keywords…) about a customer segment, as early as I can, and this informs many downstream decisions.

Not understanding the funding sources early in the process.  Talking to investors early, is a useful part of understanding a market as well as when/if I can raise money for a specific idea and the metrics/progress I might need to achieve to get the best investors.  Here is how I think about it now;

Not understanding similar or competitive solutions, again, early in the formation of the idea.  It’s hard to change user behavior so understanding the best solutions in the market today and how ours could be 10X better (enough to dramatically change behavior) is important.  I now do this as soon as I start working on a new idea, often using tools like Rival IQ to understand the existing companies, then triangulating with discussions with customers and investors to get a full picture of the landscape.

What would you do if you were in college again?

I was at Purdue for 5 years, 4 of which I was swimming full-time (on scholarship) as well as being a mechanical engineering student, so I was pretty busy. For my 5th year, I won a scholarship (Red Mackey Award) and was able to spend more time really digging-in and learning vs. just getting by.  For engineers and other technical majors, I’m sure you are equally busy so there is not much time to do “more”.  But, I wish I had spent more time with people who were out in the world doing what I thought I wanted to do.  This could have taken the form of projects or internships but more importantly, trying to understand what people DO on a day to day basis via coffee/short conversations.  In retrospect and looking at my career path, this would have been much more time pure entrepreneurs vs. more corporate roles.

Secondly, I was a proficient programmer, but I would have have spent more actually get “good” in a way that I could have landed a job in that area as well as mechanical engineering.

Finally, more time with designers.  This could have been in graphic design, product design… with a focus on understanding how they think, their processes, how they make decisions….

If your question was about my major, I think ME was a really good foundation.

How do you start to charge users if you’re already giving them the product for free?

This is always a tricky thing, but I would think about it in a few ways.

One, just start charging and let the chips fall where they may.  End users should understand that you need to make money too and that they’ve received your “value” for free.  Be honest with your users and just communicate openly.  The best ones will want to pay you so you keep bringing them value vs. quitting to go work on something else.

Another idea is to pick a set of features which are highly requested, from your best targets (not all users are created equal) and then only charge for these new features leaving the base product alone and remaining free (lead gen).

Another angle is volume based, which means you get to X of something for free and if you want more of X, you need to pay.  See Full Contact Card Reader as an example.

What’s the best way to engage beta testers/early adopters throughout the development process?

I have a longer blog post about this here, but the simple answer is;

  • know who you want and overly focus on a smaller set of highly engaged users.  These will be people who “really, really” want their problem solved and ones who are “experi-mental” meaning they are used to using products early in their lifespan and when they usually suck.
  • blend online means of interacting (email, chat, twitter…) with physical interactions (have real people come to your space and use your product)
  • Build in customer development and feedback into your sprint/development process so you are always meeting new potential users (at least 2-3/week)
  • Give public credit to people who give you ideas, e.g.  “thanks to GrantG for the idea for X” – Put this in release notes, blog posts, tweets…
  • As you get a basis working product, consider some “community” support solutions like or or even a hacky google doc where users can report bugs, suggest features…
  • Focus on “customer success” vs. sales – this means knowing about lots of other solutions in a space, that solve problems for your users in your narrow domain (e.g. Syncing your contacts ( or understanding your competitors ( as well as the broader domain (business productivity) or (digital marketing).  Share suggestions, posts, ideas, solutions widely.  Be a useful resource, even when your product is not the right fit.
  • Suggest content and connections – “you should really read X, follow Y or try Z and if the user is valuable or influential, make connections.

What things have you really wasted time on early in the company’s life?

Focusing too much time trying to convince users that they had the problem I was trying to solve vs. focusing my effort on solving for the people who self- identified and were really wanting a solution.

What strategies or tools do you use to stay productive?

At work, I am a major user of software tools and utilities.  Much more detail and specific tools are here –

I am also still very active and try to exercise for at least 60 minutes/day, usually longer.  I also make sure to get at least 8 hours of sleep on one or more nights each weekend.  Usually only sleep 6-7 during the week. I also eat largely vegetarian (sometimes fish, but no meat) and have done for over 25 years.  Spend at least a few hours each week helping other people, giving advice, sharing what you know…mentor others even when you think you might not have that much to offer.  Just “help-share”.

If anyone else wants to support the cool work they are doing at Purdue, connect and share;

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