Entrepreneur Office Hours - Issue #4
Chatting with the founder of GeoCities, how to build partnerships, and a bonus article
What a week! I got to speak with David Bohnett, the Hollywood programmer who hacked a webcam and created a $4 billion company.
I also got overly excited and wrote an extra article, so there’s more in this issue than normal. Sorry! Or… maybe you’re welcome? And, of course, I answer one of your burning startup questions at the end.
Either way, now that I’m a few issues into these newsletters, I’m wondering if I should send two per week rather than squeezing everything into one issue. If you’ve got a preference, let me know.
Also, if you’ve got questions about startups, entrepreneurship, or anything related, reply to this email, contact me on Twitter, or find me on LinkedIn. And, as always, don’t forget to forward this email to friends. The bigger our community, the more we can all learn from each other.
Most entrepreneurs think fundraising is about presenting a compelling idea. But that’s not true. Investors aren’t looking for compelling ideas. Here’s what they actually want to see.
David Bohnett: The Developer Who Built Online Cities
In 1994, David Bohnett setup a live webcam pointed out of an office window at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine. That experiment became the seeds of a website called GeoCities — a place where people could create their own spaces online. Within five years, GeoCities grew from a simple online website builder into one of the world's most popular social networks (before that was even a thing!), with millions of users and a multi-billion-dollar acquisition from Yahoo! Listen to the full story of how it happened on:
…or just search “Web Masters” wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.
There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling like your “dream customers” don’t realize they’re your dream customers. But when that happens, it’s not their fault. It’s yours. So here’s how to fix it.
Office Hours Q&A
As a startup, how do I get the attention of a big potential partner?. We can tell they’re not even opening our emails. Or if they are, we’re being sent to the wrong people. They could use our new type of expertise, especially during a pandemic.
ANSWER: Let’s start with the most important caveat here, which is that there's no easy or magical solution. Getting partners is about establishing relationships, and that takes lots of time, patience, persistence, and luck. Even then, you’ll probably still come out with nothing. So, whatever you do, don’t put all your proverbial eggs in the “let’s land X big partner and all our problems will be solved” basket. That’s the worst strategy decision you could make.
With that caveat out of the way, what you’re asking about here is, fundamentally, a marketing problem. I realize you’re not explicitly trying to sell a product to potential partners in exchange for payment -- which would be the typical groundwork being laid by marketing -- but that doesn’t mean you aren’t selling anything. This is important framing because you need to remember that you’re still asking potential partners to commit to some sort of cost.
In this case specifically, since you’ve described the partner(s) as “big,” I’m assuming you’re trying to partner with relatively established brands/companies/entities. This means, as the entrepreneur, you need to appreciate just how big of an “ask” you’re making. In fact, in many ways, you’re asking for lots more than money. You’re asking for big partners to associate their brands with yours, and that’s a huge request to make of any established company. Keep in mind that the companies you’re targeting have spent years building their own brands and reputations. Why would they risk all that on some startup they don’t know or trust? What’s in it for them?
Incidentally, this is what you’re actually struggling with: Why should they trust you? And trust is the chasm every potential customer has to cross before they’re willing to buy from a company. Simply put, we don’t buy things unless we trust the people we’re buying from.
Unfortunately, two things are working against you: 1) the bigger the sale, the more trust is needed; and 2) establishing trust takes time. Lots and lots of time. After all, we don’t meet strangers on the street and immediately trust them. The same is true for you as you court a potential partner. You can’t just reach out with an email asking to partner. Put yourself in the position of the people receiving your emails. Why the heck would they trust you?
Instead of trying to partner, focus on connecting, building community, creating a dialogue, etc.
If I were in your position, I’d go with a straight-up guerrilla marketing approach. Basically, I’d try to become “friends” with the people I want to partner with before ever mentioning anything about a partnership. To accomplish this, I’d use social media.
LinkedIn is the obvious choice, but that’s probably still too overtly professional and aggressive. What about Twitter? What about TikTok? Or Instagram? Can you find any of the people you’re targeting on their person social channels and start engaging with their content? People love when you like their posts, retweet their content, etc. This will slowly start to build awareness of who you are and it’ll give you opportunities to subtly/casually drop in hints about what you do, establishing trust for both you and your startup.
If that’s not for you, a more traditional option is to establish trust through an intro from a mutual connection. Can you find someone in your network who might be able to make an intro? Or an intro to a person who can make an intro? If you don’t already have good connections, this may not be an option, or it’ll take you a little longer to make the right connections, but it’s usually the best way to get in the door for any potential partnership or sale.
Note that neither approach is mutually exclusive. If I were you, I’d be simultaneously working both angles.
One last point before I wrap: I know this answer isn’t the kind of answer anyone wants from me. People want magic solutions… “3 simple steps to close any partner!”
I’ll never give those kinds of answers because they don’t exist. There’s nothing magic about the entrepreneurial process, and anyone who gives you magic-sounding answers is lying (and probably trying to take your money).
Instead, I’ll remind you -- and anyone else who’s bothered to read this far -- that entrepreneurship is largely about trial and error. Keep trying different strategies and accept, at the beginning, that the vast majority will fail. In your case, partnerships are one strategy, but they’re by no means the only strategy to be pursuing as you attempt to grow.
Also, just to be a total buzzkill, it’s worth noting that even if/when you do close whatever partnerships you’re dreaming of, chances are they won’t be nearly as valuable as you think. I’ve made “the big sale” and “closed my dream investor” multiple times in my career, and the imagined value was always significantly greater than the actual value. That’s not meant as a knock against anyone else. It’s a knock against me... and most entrepreneurs. We’re naturally optimistic when it comes to our expectations about outcomes, and the reality rarely matches those expectations.
In other words, keep your head down, keep working, and keep fighting hard for each inch of progress.
Got startup questions of your own? Reply to this email with whatever you want to know, and I’ll do my best to answer!