3 lessons we learned from TNW Boost

Rik Visser FastPortal, In the Press, Uncategorized

First of all: thank you everyone who voted. You rock! Today we received word FastPortal made it to 10th place in the Boost competition, meaning we get to pitch on stage! WE WON! (at least we like to think so…) 

For those of you who don’t know: FastPortal is a SAAS application that makes it easy and affordable for business services providers to set up an online customer self-service portal in just a few hours.

Considering we aren’t a video/music/graphics/journalism app, tenth place in the public vote feels like victory. In fact, to put this in perspective: this year The Next Web introduced a jury in order to give ‘boring’* B2B apps a chance to get on stage.

That said, it wasn’t an easy victory. We made a few mistakes in the lead-up and during the three day voting period that I want to discuss. “Why share mistakes?” you ask. Well, two reasons:

  1. We’ll be bragging about our accomplishments, so it only seems fair to also admit when things haven’t gone so well.
  2. FastPortal wouldn’t be anywhere if other founders hadn’t written posts discussing strategy, mistakes & such. We don’t want to be a leech

Enough preamble, let’s dive into some lessons we learned.

1. Strangers are your friend

Or better put: strangers will be more honest and more easily offended than your friends. Also they might not understand you style of communicating: people’s sense of humor depends on age, nationality, gender, upbringing, etc. Of this we became painfully aware.

What happened?

We had a line of text on our website to highlight the fact that FastPortal is an Amsterdam-based European company. Being European gives us some insight into fellow European companies that American start-ups often lack**.

We concluded this piece of copy with (what we thought of as) a joke: “We know your business needs better than Yanks.” Big mistake #1: offending potential customers. We had checked our site with a bunch of friends (including Americans) and no one had pointed out that this might be seen as offensive.***

But, like I said, strangers can have a very different perspective. As soon as we started getting higher visitor numbers on FastPortal.com, we also got the first e-mail about the use of the word Yank. This person took it as a joke, but still felt a little uneasy about it. We decided to let it be and see if other people wrote in.

A few hours later a second person wrote us an email titled “Why do you insult Americans?” with a fair question “What’s the point in insulting potential customers?” In a few hours, this line went from what we thought was an innocent little joke, to something that was slightly annoying to some people and finally, to a word that someone considered offensive.

What did we learn? Checking with friends does not give you a full view and when someone indicates they are a little annoyed, fix it.

2. Deadlines kick ass

Big mistake 2: we definitely weren’t ready for a public competition. The Next Web will be the first public platform for FastPortal after a year of relative anonymity. We haven’t quite been stealth (we don’t believe in stealth), but it took a while to develop the application and properly test it with a few hundred clients.

All our conversations about FastPortal have been one-on-one with potential customers and other stakeholders, not through mass-media like a website or social media. As a result our marketing & communications were sloppy at best and sucky at worst.

This was a problem, because we had set a target to get on stage through the popular vote. We didn’t want to be a boring B2B app that required a jury to get on stage. This meant that, suddenly, we had about two weeks to find a tone-of-voice, design a proper brand, produce an explainer video and motivate complete strangers to vote for us.

We had to go from a technical/features-driven communications style to becoming a brand that people can fall in love with.

That was the best thing that could have happened to us. Instead of improvising a brand & style, we hired (the tremendous) Defigners to design the beautiful new corporate style. My co-founders Wim Dijksterhuis & Dylan Davies turned that into an amazing explainer video.

 Our amazing new explainer video:

What did we learn? The only reason we got all this done in about two weeks was the crazy deadline that forced us to work productively, prioritise and seek (paid) outside help when needed.

3. Competitions make everything cool

We were able to get a lot of votes, but I’m pretty sure most of the people who voted for us aren’t quite our target audience. That doesn’t matter! 

Through our investors, customers, friends & family we launched a fairly big online blitz to get the word out. I believe that worked, because people love rooting for a team, even if they don’t really care all that much about the sport. Strangers wanted us to succeed, because their friends wanted us to succeed. All of sudden we had our Facebook posts retweeted by people none of us had ever met. Not bad for a product aimed at accountants, lawyers, consultants, family offices, notaries, and other business services providers!

It works: these retweets and Facebook shares have already lead to new potential customers!

“What’s the big mistake?” you ask. Big mistake 3: we should have done this much sooner! 

We come from the Eric Ries school of entrepreneurship and the Zuckerberg way of honestly believing you aren’t moving fast enough if you aren’t breaking stuff.

We believe in sharing, pitching, communicating. And even so, we waited way too long to enroll in one of these things. Perhaps we could’ve done this four months sooner. That would have meant four months of extra experience in marketing, communications. It would have meant months of press attention. Likely, we would have pushed the public beta forward… so many things could have been different.

My advice to any found who thinks she needs to wait to enroll in a startup competition like Boost: just do it already!


* My words, not theirs.
Think of: creditcards aren’t as ubiquitous here, it cannot be assumed your customers speak English, the $ isn’t the only currency, date formats differ per country, etc
*** Heck, I love the States, went to High School there and still never thought it might be a problem.