When Cas McCullough’s son asked for help with a letter writing project, she had no idea it would change the course of her career. Here’s how she went from being a blogger to becoming a startup founder and CEO.
“I’m a content strategist and writer by trade. And as content marketing became more and more of a must-have, I started getting a lot of inquiries from business owners and marketers who were frustrated with how to create great content. They found it frustrating and time consuming,” Cas says.
“When my son asked for help with writing a letter, I went looking for information on how to structure them. And it dawned on me that blog posts could be structured in much the same way. That’s basically how Writally was born.”
Writally is a content creation tool that helps people write original content when they don’t feel confident about writing for regular people, or their content lacks engagement. Imagine a chiropractor who wants to attract patients to their clinic, or a researcher who wants to raise their profile to attract funding.
“Just as Canva gives you different layouts and images to work with, Writally gives you different story prompts to work with. Each Content Recipe combines these prompts in different ways and each is tweaked for style, tone and voice,” Cas says.
Here are Cas’s biggest tips for anyone contemplating a startup, based on what she’s learned so far.
Don’t confuse startup and blog monetization
A startup is a business you plan to scale fast. It’s not a blog monetization strategy in the same way a book or a retail line is. A startup is time consuming, and requires a high level of commitment and the willingness to see it through for at least five to ten years. It means planning to hire staff, learning about finance options, attending events in the startup ecosystem, and applying for numerous grants.
There’s a lot of money being thrown at startups. But it’s not something to take on lightly. When I pondered taking the funding deal I was initially offered, I sat down with my kids and discussed it at length. I made sure they understood what kind of commitment it was going to be.
Solve a big problem
One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to solve a big problem. A headache is one thing, a migraine is another. You’re more likely to make money by providing a solution to a migraine. One way to test whether your problem is big enough is to pre-sell your idea through a landing page. If enough people sign up and pay money then you know you’re on a winner.
After initially pitching my idea in a startup competition in early 2015, I decided to offer my idea as a service so I could validate it further. I started testing the idea with members of a small business forum. Within a week, I had paying customers.
I highly recommend reading Dan Norris’s classic book The 7 Day Startup for some inspiration on idea validation. Dan was one of the first people I talked to about Writally, and his feedback and his book were invaluable.
Get to know the lingo
When I first began my startup journey, I thought MVP stood for Most Valuable Player. It turns out it meant Minimum Viable Product. An MVP is the first version of your product. I’ve had to learn terms such as ‘convertible notes’, ‘agile’, ‘full-stack’, ‘product-market fit’ and more. It really helps to understand the language when you’re networking with other founders, potential co-founders, accelerators, and investors. You don’t feel quite as lost in the fast-paced startup world.
Apply for accelerator programs
My idea was originally funded when I won the Suncorp Small Business Challenges Competition held by the Chamber of Commerce & Industry Queensland, startup accelerator Bluechilli, Microsoft, and Suncorp Bank. Entering a competition like that is a great way to learn how to validate your ideas and how to put a pitch together.
Having the support of an accelerator has made a massive difference in my journey. I’ve been thoroughly trained in how to raise capital, pitch, growth hack, hire the right staff and manage board meetings. And I’ve had access to company and investor introductions through Bluechilli’s amazing network. I still work with them as we take our next steps.
There are many opportunities to join accelerator programs in Australia, particularly if you live in a regional area or have a product that serves regional areas and primary industries. But keep in mind that accelerators and early investors will want to take a bigger cut of your company to start off with. Ten to 20 percent is typical for early equity providers with some funding thrown in.
Be prepared to fail
While nobody enters a startup thinking they’re going to fail, in 75% of cases they do. Your first product offering (MVP) may not work, so it helps to approach your product development like a science experiment.
Many startups in accelerator programs apply what’s called ‘lean methodology’ (created by Eric Reis, author of The Lean Startup) where you test and measure whether or not a hypothesis is true.
Our MVP launch went well, and we’ve had more than 1150 users sign up to the platform so far. But we weren’t achieving the daily usage we wanted, so we had to go back to the drawing board. We’ve had great feedback on the end product and the Content Recipes, but the process is what seemed to be getting in the way.
We’re currently experimenting with a few different ideas to work out how we can achieve product-market fit (the term that describes your product flying out the door). In some cases, you may drop your initial idea altogether. It’s important to have good advisors so you make the right call for your situation.
Be prepared for rejection
Startups look for funding so they can accelerate growth. Investors look for opportunities that will bring them a tenfold investment within five to ten years. Most investors want you to exit within that timeframe, too. Usually that would be a bigger company buying you out.
If investors don’t feel confident they’ll get that kind of a return from your startup, they’ll look for other companies to fund. In essence, finding funding for your startup is a lot like dating. Being turned down by potential investors or grant bodies is always hard, but you can’t take it personally. Each rejection is an opportunity to ask questions and seek feedback.
The biggest lesson for me has been to stand for the difference my product makes no matter what, and look for investors that get the content marketing industry. I’m looking for a lead investor (a $100K to $200K investor who’ll be a board member of my company) for my current seed round.
Understand how being a founder will affect your family
Some days, being a parent can be a challenge in the face of board meetings, events and investor pitches. When I first started Writally I was homeschooling my boys. Now they’re in school. I just couldn’t manage both, and they were keen to start school, so it worked a lot better that way.
Being a founder can put pressure on relationships as well. It’s often difficult for non-entrepreneurial partners to understand how the startup life works (or doesn’t work). Founders typically don’t earn a wage for up to three years, spend a lot of time away from home attending events and meetings, and work late into the night. Communicating with your family is essential to make that work for everyone. You definitely have to be judicious and responsible with your time and your money.
Get to know the startup ecosystem
In Brisbane there are regular events in the startup ecosystem. It’s worth joining a startup co-working space just to start your networking. You never know who might introduce you to a new enterprise client or investor. It’s also an opportunity for you to give back to others who have just started out. A great way to give back is to participate in Startup Weekend. These events are a lot of fun, and a great way to test new ideas.
I’ve had some amazing opportunities by being active in the startup scene. In November 2016 I visited Facebook, and it wasn’t just the typical tour. It was a real behind-the-scenes tour with a Facebook engineer. We saw a meeting taking place with head people including Sheryl Sandberg. We were told not to take photos or even touch our cameras, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to pitch Writally to investors and dignitaries at the Commonwealth Games. Then shortly after that I returned to San Francisco to join high profile investors, startup founders and dignitaries on #MyriadAir, a Qantas jet chartered by the Myriad Innovation Festival. I pitched Shark Tank’s Steve Baxter on the plane, and was interviewed by the Brisbane Times. I met many amazing founders on that trip and got to know some key people in the ecosystem.
Buckle up for the rollercoaster ride
Startup life is a rollercoaster ride. One week everything is going well, and the next everything’s falling apart – or at least feels like it. But it’s exciting, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. I’ve met some incredible people, including seven-time TED Presenter Jonathan Trent on #Myriadair, and Canva Ambassador and former Apple Evangelist Guy Kawasaki at the Angel Hack Global Demo Day a couple of years ago.
The personal growth I’ve experienced has blown my mind. I used to lack confidence, but now I’m very clear on what my strengths are and how I can contribute to others. My journey is far from over, and there will be more challenges, but creating something that has a massive impact on how people express themselves makes it totally worth it.
For more information about Writally, email Cas at ‘cas at writally.com’ or visit https://writally.com
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