Buying something online can be a frustrating process. The shear numbers of websites offering the same product can lead to endless hours of surfing to try to find the right deal. Consumers often become overwhelmed and end up not buying anything at all. Prashant Nedungadi has been one of those people and decided to use that frustration to launch IMshopping.com <www.imshopping.com>, a website that utilizes a combination of software and sales experts to direct buyers to the precise product they're looking for. The following is a personal five-day journal written by Prashant Nedungadi exclusively for Reuters.com on his work and life:
Day 1: Monday July 5, 2009
After a long weekend and an exciting quarterly offsite, most of my time today was spent in reviewing the offsite discussions and putting together the roadmaps, deliverables and specific goals for Q3. I plan to have a company meeting this week to share this with the group. Kevin, my VP of Marketing and Business Development also closed three sales deals today.... you're the man!
Speaking of offsites, I typically have an offsite once a quarter where the executive team, customer facing teams and marketing teams get together, review our strategy and make plans and commitments for the coming quarter. When we first started, these offsites were a lot more chaotic and focused a lot more on business strategy. This is typically a sign that the business model is not yet there... and that is OK. Our January offsite focused the business on Human Assisted Shopping service. Our March offsite expanded this concept to allow businesses to offer human assistance on their website. Our June offsite was all about execution and revenue goals for Q3.
Before I jump into the July offsite, I want to talk about my philosophy about startups, offsites and strategies. It is important for a CEO to be the biggest salesman of his company, but at the same time, be honest to himself/herself if something is not working. The worst situation is when your employees also stop telling you the truth and when CEOs start "drinking their own Kool-Aid." In an early stage startup, there are too many variables: is what you are offering a vitamin or painkiller? Will there be competition from existing players? Can there be an execution risk? Is it the right team? My goal is to reduce the number of variables. Easier said than done.
I use the following strategy... "Iterate fast, fail fast." This involves:
1. Strategy review... at least quarterly
2. Execute and iterate quickly... weekly releases of the product
3. Get qualitative feedback... Show it to real customers early and get their feedback
4. Get quantitative metrics... Measure everything... usage, traffic, conversions
5. If you get good feedback, move to execution phase... otherwise go back to step 1
I wish I could say that it will take 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 iterations to get the strategy right. The amount of money in the bank determines how many times you can iterate.
Luckily for us, the July offsite was a move to the execution phase of the business. We are now locked in on our strategy. The feedback from merchants has been very positive and we have already received more than 25 pilot-customer requests. Our organic traffic in our B2C service has also been growing fast. Now we face execution challenges, which was what was the focus of this offsite:
1. Getting the product ready before mid July
2. Getting the pilot customers up and running before late July and being operationally ready
3. Putting a staffing plan for an outbound sales team
4. Pricing model
5. Self service signup... so we don't miss the holiday season
The discussions at the offsite were great. We only focused on sales and revenue goals, pricing, PR and go-to market plans, product roadmap and staffing for sales. We plan to launch our pilot in late July and our public launch of our B2B service in early September. Most of my time today and tomorrow will be spent in putting together the roadmap for our pilot launch and for our public launch. I plan to share this with our board and our employees this week. It's a good feeling.
Day 2: Tuesday July 6, 2009
We have two interns who are spending a couple of months at IMshopping. Sam has more of a product/UI and has been helping product management with some new features for our B2B service. Brandon is much more interested in sales/customer service and has been supporting us on some of our outbound sales effort. Each day, I spend a few minutes with each of them to see how they are doing with the job and getting their feedback. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Brandon had signed up a customer. Very cool!!! Sam was working on some specs for customer signup pages. I see the excitement in each of them and the passion for the job that is very refreshing.
In the morning, we had a strange problem with our site. It kept getting slower and was intermittently down. For a web-based business like ours, this is the lifeblood of our business and causes a lot of anxiety for everyone. I was looking at the traffic and revenue numbers and there is a clear drop in both. The engineering/ops teams are on it. I hope this can be fixed quickly.
Most of the afternoon was spent in finalizing the pricing sheet with Kevin. Took a couple of hours, but it looks good. After that, I made a few calls to prospective customers. Salesforce has been good for management of the pipeline, but I still miss the simplicity of a spreadsheet. Spent late afternoon reviewing some of the specs Mary sent over for review. We are a small company, and as a CEO for a small business, I never want to take myself off of the product. Before going home, spent sometime with one of the sales reps about his compensation/commissions structure. Right now the sales reps are working part time, but I plan to move to a full-time model as soon as we go live with the service.
Day 3: Wednesday July 7, 2009
Started the day with a weekly marketing meeting. This is always an interesting meeting. We are working with a marketing firm, OuterJoin, who helps us with SEM campaigns, SEO efforts and other user acquisition strategy. Some of the team members are in India and Ukraine, so we have these meetings early in the morning. We discussed different ways to accelerate our traffic growth and reviewed results from prior efforts.
Spent a couple of hours working with Kevin on follow up sales calls. We still have a number of merchants we met at the conference who are waiting for us to go live. Spent early afternoon meeting a couple of billing vendors. I am hoping we can finalize on a service provider by next week. We are experimenting with a number of pricing models and from my previous experience, you don't want to spend a lot of time building your billing/collections system. Nice to see there are SAAS services out there that offer this.
Later in the afternoon, I spent time to Mary, our head of products, on the roadmap and release later in the day. It is great to have her on the team. Mary is a rare combination of someone who is creative and who is process driven. She rarely drops the ball. She is responsible for a big part of the success of our product.
Day 4: Thursday July 7, 2009
Had our U.S. staff meeting. Our weekly meeting is when the team gets together and updates each other on what we are doing. We bring in lunch from different places, so that is definitely a highlight. Updates are a little informal and some of the members bring in their laptops to show what they are doing. Since we are moving so fast, this is a good time for everyone to get in sync about things. Dheeru, our data mining researcher, showed us some of the improvements made to auto-tagging of product. Hongbiao showed us the templatization infrastructure. There was also a good discussion on pricing when I announced it to the team.
Spent the afternoon reviewing the financials, cash position and preparing for a meeting with the board next week. We spent a little over our plan last month, because of conference expenses and a couple of other expenses. Hopefully, we can bring that down next month.
After dinner, had a late-night call (11:00 pm to 1:00 am) with Alex and Alexey of our Ukraine team, going over the affiliatization plans. It has been a long day.
Day 5: Friday July 9, 2009
Spent the day at the Crunchup live event in Palo Alto. The event was interesting, with a number of roundtables and demos. I think, however, that monetization and revenue models were not really clear and most of the startups were trying to do some kind of simple user apps that show trends or allow you to personalize your feeds on top of Twitter, Digg and other live streams. The big challenge that everyone is facing is how do they make money? And how to get out of Twitter's shadow when you talk about live search, streaming?
I think live updates and streaming can have an impact on e-commerce: from keeping track of deals; imaging giving merchants the ability to post deals that are currently on; allowing shoppers to post and see deals anywhere (offline or online); or giving customers live updates on what products are being discussed about right now. Live streaming is inherently part of what IMshopping does and that is what makes it exciting.
Went home early to spend some time with family. Took my kids to the driving range. My son is 4 years old, but can hit the ball about 50 yards! You never know, he may have a career as a professional golf player?