At Founder Hangouts, Deena Varshavskaya explained why her company skips marketing to focus entirely on product and offers tips on how to build something truly great.
By Sonali Mathur (CEO & Co-founder, TestRocker)
For the last few months I have been spending my Tuesday evenings participating in Women 2.0’s new Founder Hangouts program with fellow women founders hailing from as far and wide as San Francisco to Buenos Aires. The initial decision to commit to becoming a part of Founder Hangout was difficult because like every other entrepreneur I am constantly pressed for time and already have a calendar full of networking coffees and lunches. However, what drew me to this program is that it isn’t about networking but learning from fellow founders and then hearing brutally honest experiences from now successful entrepreneurs.
Our last and final Founder Hangout was with Deena Varshavskaya, CEO and Founder of Wanelo (“wah-nee-lo,” from Want, Need, Love), an online community for all of the world’s shopping. Wanelo is democratizing and transforming the world’s commerce by reorganizing shopping around people. With a growth in members from one million to ten million members in the last nine months, I was practically salivating to learn Deena’s secret sauce to customer acquisition. Where was she planning to start? SEM, SEO, Facebook, Twitter, PR? WRONG. Deena talked proudly about doing no traditional marketing whatsoever. In fact, Wanelo doesn’t even have a head of marketing. She and her team start and end their day with product. That’s right – a great product is your best marketing bet.
How to Build the Best Product
So the big question is how to build the best product? Deena described it as more art than science and repeatedly called it a messy process. But here are some consistent themes I took away:
Solve a problem: Start by framing the problem you are trying to solve on a piece of paper then ask your target users to agree or disagree with your problem statement. Reconfigure your problem statement till you get a resounding and vehement headshaking YES from your target users. Then you have discovered the big problem you need to create a product for.
Be a minimalist: Build a product that addresses the problem statement directly. Early on Wanelo had a lot of bells and whistles that didn’t resonate with its users. Deena and her team had to go back to the drawing board and remove features till they got to the ones that really mattered. By simplifying their product, both Deena’s team and Wanelo’s members understood the value of its offering. Being minimalistic sounds simple but needs deliberate execution. The mindset of “isn’t this cool and therefore we should build it in” happens to the best of companies. Seeking constant feedback on your product is essential not only to continually enhance your offering but also to aggressively eliminate distracting features.
Have a mission: Be connected to the problem you are solving. Don’t let investors dictate metrics that remove you from your mission. You have unique insight into the problem your product is solving and the community you are serving. Use this unique knowledge to change and lead the conversation with investors and even with the press. Focus on the metrics that serve you best. Your mission will constantly remind you of your long-term vision and steer you away from making distracting short-term decisions.
Putting This Advice to Work at TestRocker
I share Deena’s intensity for product. I am the co-founder of TestRocker – an online education platform focused on disrupting the private tutor market. Our first product is SAT test prep, which we launched in December 2012. TestRocker has the privilege of changing lives through education. We have a deep connection with our users as we guide them during one of the most pivotal journeys of their lives – the college application process. This puts a tremendous responsibility on us to provide the best possible product.
When I say product I mean everything from content to customer service. Like Wanelo, TestRocker hasn’t spent money on marketing. Our best marketing channel to date is offline customer referrals. We have students and parents who serve as advocates on our behalf every day. In addition to customer acquisition, these referrals have opened some incredible doors. For example, schools that wouldn’t take our call when we launched are now reaching out to us to secure a meeting. Only a product with good market fit can create such an authentic relationship with its customers.
Today, Wanelo serves ten million members with seven million products sourced from two hundred thousand stores. All with no marketing! However, Deena will be the first to admit that it was far from the proverbial overnight success. She has been working on her idea and mission since 2006. Wanelo’s success should serve as a reminder for founders to never be removed from product.
As startups become successful, founders find that more and more of their time is spent on legal, marketing, finance and investor and press relations. While some of this is unavoidable, don’t let it monopolize your productive hours. These activities can trick you into thinking you are working long hours with little time to focus on your long-term vision. But a successful entrepreneur like Deena would be quick to tell you that more hours worked does not equal higher productivity. Take it from her – starting and ending your day with product makes everything else fall into place and saves you a ton in marketing expense.
Are you dividing your time correctly between product and marketing?
About the guest blogger: Sonali Mathur (@TRSonali) is CEO and co-founder of TestRocker– an online education platform focused on using technology to connect the best private tutors to students around the world. Today TestRocker is in 20 cities across 9 countries, with paying customers from day one.
Photo credit: JD Lasica via Flickr.