Thursday, April 14, 2011

State of the AnotherSocialEconomy Initiative

When my partner Steven and I started our startup adventure a few years ago, our main goal was to demonstrate our ability to convert an idea into a live project. As we used our experience to build a viable product, we knew it would add value to our resume.

Over the months, the project evolved slowly:
  • The core idea is: help the consumers who look for a specific product to find the retailer who has it in stock, and help retailers to connect with consumers online and drive them in-store. Our moto: the missing link between shopping online and buying offline.
  • The proof-of-concept was made of screenshots, live Twitter accounts, and a piece of Python code connecting those accounts together. This material allowed us to be among the semi-finalist companies of TechCrunch50 in 2009!
  • The first implementation of the engine connected consumers and retailers, each of them interacting with the system with direct messages (DMs), sent  from their own Twitter account. At that time, the tool was named Twetailer.
  • Later, we figured out Twitter was too geeky and we added a connector to accept and generate e-mails. Since then, the engine has a XMPP (instant messaging) connector, another one for Facebook, and a plan for VOIP (with Twilio).
  • At one point, we were approached to start an experiment for golfers: usually avid golfers have to spend a lot of time on the phone to get three buddies to play with and to book a tee-time. In two months, we created, developed an embeddable widget to ease the creation of a tee-off request, and developed a Web console for the golf course staff. The experiment was shut down because of a lack of traction...
  • Recently, we started another experiment in the used car market, under the name AnotherSocialEconomy. Our market researches found that the average time to buy a used car is six weeks in Quebec. Typically, consumers start on the Web, grab listings, and call dealerships one after the other. In the Montreal area, there are 300,000 pre-owned cars bought per month: ⅓ from dealerships, ⅓ from wholesalers, and ⅓ from individuals. Dealerships control 45% of the market value.
  • So far, this experiment has been a partial success: we get demands from consumers and forward proposals from used car sales people. We helped our first customer finding a car in only two weeks! But, as the dealership staff is not used to new technologies (sic), we manage the service for them and it's very time consuming...
What's next?

We are very happy with consumers trusting us. We work hard to continue to improve their experience, on our landing pages and in our communication by e-mail. The priority is to have them qualifying more their demands upfront.

Our focus right now is more on the retailer-side, in order to have sales people in the dealerships interacting with the system by e-mail too. If around 80% of them agree to work with us to serve our users, we have to prepare the proposal details and to reach them out for approval. For the business to scale, they should prepare and post the proposals themselves.

For now, we need more data to determine trends. This is a prerequisite for used car dealers to adopt our methodology. It is also possible that will lead to another pivot.

Lessons learned?

The first one is an obvious one now: nobody can be as committed as the founders! Since I left the company Compuware to become a full time entrepreneur, Steven and I have met many people we expected to work/partner with: a technology company CEO, a former manufacture owner and now real estate agent, a UX designer, a few VCs, a marketer, two successful startup founders, etc. If we sometimes got excellent feedback, none joined us.

The second one is related to the product development: two techies are not enough to make a great product! They can talk about their product at length, but they don't know how to convince decision makers. They need the help of a marketing genius!

Another one is related to the importance of the contact network. If you don't know the right people, very few will listen to you. Having a large address book or friends with deep pockets definitively helps a lot.

And the last one: developing a tool for the general public is difficult! Following the Lean Startup process can really help. Check Ash Maurya's blog, for example.

Technologies learned?

I continue to find Google App Engine an awesome environment. The recent addition of the Channel API which allows the back-end logic to push asynchronous notifications into Web consoles really improves the user experience. On the maintenance side, I appreciate the Java Remote API which simplifies the development of maintenance and data extraction tasks.

Web console side, I've started upgrading the code to Dojo 1.6 and its new HTML5 compliant syntax. I don't use the AMD loader yet, but I'm waiting for the one coming with 1.7. I have recently started to use Selenium 2 for my smoke tests and I really like it!

Mobile side, I wish to have more spare time to update my Android application for ezToff and to benefit from the Android Cloud To Device Messaging (C2DM) API. But I'm also thinking of building application with the awesome

To develop our customer base in the used car experiment, we have created two AdWords campaigns: one for each language, both in the Montreal area. Using AdWords and optimizing the campaigns was very instructive. There are many concepts to master: long tail, auto bid, average CPC, conversion rate, landing page quality score, etc. I know understand why so many people choose to become an AdWords certified partner ;)

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