Wensing, M.

Things I'm learning about business and life through the act of starting a startup.

October 12, 2010 at 1:28pm

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Marketing Stormpulse: rise early, work hard, strike oil

Like many startups (particularly the bootstrapped kind), in the early days of Stormpulse we struggled a lot with that terrible little t-word: traction.  We don’t struggle with this much anymore. [1]  This is the story of what changed and how.

All marketers like numbers, so let’s start with two: 157 and 1,009,896.  

157: the number of people that visited our website August 1, 2008.

1,009,896: the number that visited on September 11, 2008 (41 days later).

That may not seem completely incredible to some of you (perhaps you’ve benefited from a Super Bowl ad campaign that’s achieved similar results), so let me underline these numbers with two facts:

#1.  66% of those visitors came to Stormpulse directly, either by typing our web address into their browser or by searching Google for some derivative of ‘stormpulse’.

#2.  We spent $0 on advertising.

This is the story of how the right product at the right time tapped into pent-up demand and rocketed “Stormpulse” from an obscure compound noun to a spam word in 45 days.

RISE EARLY

Hurricane Ike damage

When chronicling our bootstrapping efforts, I mentioned that Stormpulse started as an organic startup idea.  In Paul Graham’s (PG) essay coining the phrase, he writes:

There’s nothing more valuable than an unmet need that is just becoming fixable.  

I went looking for a superior storm-tracking/mapping experience in September 2004.  But I was 5 months too early; Google Maps didn’t launch until February 8, 2005.  In its wake came a bevy of weather map mashups that might have satisficed my need.  What if I had been a year late?  These alternatives might have blunted my motivation just enough to prevent me from building my own solution from scratch.  

PG continues,

If you find something broken that you can fix for a lot of people, you’ve found a gold mine. 

A major benefit of an organic startup idea is the fact that the problem spurring your need has a strong chance of existing in a wider audience.  If the need had time to rupture in your experience, it’s probably festering in others as well (in the case of severe weather, it festers to the tune of $11 billion in damages annually in the U.S. alone.  But I didn’t know that when I started).  

So the ideal situation is that you (as a capable entrepreneur) become the most vexed first.  And in September 2004, the available solutions were profoundly vexing.  

Your life and property are in the path of nature’s fury, so you head to the world-wide web with all the shiny goodness and bright hopes of web2.0 shimmering in your eyes, and find

Hurricane Frances NHC

Hmm.  That’s not what I was hoping for.  

Oh, I know, video clips on the web!  Yes!  

AccuWeather broadcast

Uh, dude?  You’re standing in front of my house.  Can you please move?  Yes, thank you.  Now just a little farther.  Ye—no, no … NO!  You can’t go to commercial yet!  I didn’t even get to see!!!  ARGH!

Fine!  So I have to wait until it gets closer to making landfall.  Then we’ll get some serious analysis, right?  Of course!

Landfall in WPB

NOOOOOOOO!!!! 

Ammo squirrel

ALL OF YOU COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP AND GIVE ME THE DATA! Why do I always have to wait for your updates anyway?!

And with that gut reaction, the desire to build something better was born.  

Some of you may be wondering about the “a lot of people” part.  PG states that the immense value of an organic startup comes from an unmet need, just becoming fixable, that exists for a lot of people.  Since entrepreneurs are often beholden to investors, and many investors like to talk about market size in terms of raw population, this question may weigh heavy just about the time our little idea is sprouting.

Problematically (sort of), this is NOT the kind of question that comes to mind when you’re infected by an organic startup idea.  By experience, your approach is need-driven, not market-driven.  If this question does weigh heavy, it may be a signal that your need isn’t that great.  When you’re having a heart attack, you don’t care if anyone else ever benefits from your solution. [2] 

WORK HARD

As with an actual gold mine, you still have to work hard to get the gold out of it. But at least you know where the seam is, and that’s the hard part.  (PG)

Economically, an organic startup idea can be a gold mine.  But I would argue that as a founder the experience is more like drilling for oil.  This fits with Marc Andreessen’s (MA) statement that

In a great market — a market with lots of real potential customers — the market pulls product out of the startup.

I thought I was just building a couple of screen scrapers in PHP.  But what I was really building was one of these:

Oil well

As the product-creator and first customer, my first creative act was to pull the product out of myself.  Think of this as the creative zen goodness stage where you eat your own yolk before hatching.  

The market needs to be fulfilled and the market will be fulfilled, by the first viable product that comes along. (MA)

Viable means successfully getting a line into the swelling demand.  And in our case, our competitors were not in the drilling business.  They were in the real estate business—selling audience to advertisers.  This is quite orthogonal to giving people the answers they’re looking for as fast and clearly as possible.

Which is why the first time I compiled and ran the interactive map, I literally got queasy, because I knew the need was finally going to be met, and I had never seen anything like it.  

STRIKE OIL

In the summer of 2008 my web dev job at The Palm Beach Post gave me the unique opportunity to put the Stormpulse map as an embeddable widget in front of their regular storm-tracking audience of 1k-5k mainstream South Floridians.

That product placement jumped our own website’s traffic into the thousands of uniques, but without anything interesting happening, things plateaued.  We finally had our drill over the perfect spot, but we still needed some market pressure before we could bring anything substantial to the surface. [3]

That pressure would take the form of the third-costliest ($29.6 billion) hurricane in U.S. history: Hurricane Ike, who began his march toward the Gulf of Mexico in the last days of August 2008.  

BOOM!

oil field strike

In a matter of days, the threat of Ike’s forecasted path into the Gulf of Mexico and increasing intensity drove scores of other newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations to adopt our map display.  Each of these placements allowed us to become people’s preferred solution without forcing them to change their behaviour.  And once people experienced the Stormpulse map, they would never want to go back.  Which meant they were confident enough in the product’s superiority that they would unabashedly tell their friends.  

Emails like these started pouring in:

I have been glued to your site and about 20 others tracking Ike. Your site is the best. It’s concise, easy to understand, filled with great information and best of all amazingly easy to navigate! My agency has it’s own small army of weather people, but they do not convey the info as well as you guys. I work for NASA (Houston) and the web address to your site is spreading across the 13,000 employees and contractors like spam email on steroids! Fantastic job!

Looks like yall have really got it together on what is needed to see the status of Storms. I have provided your web link to all employees at the Chevron Pascagoula Oil Refinery (some 3,000 workers). Your site is a tremendous help with quick displays and up to date information.

During those 41 days, over 540,000 visits were sent to us from mail servers.

Our daily unique visitors grew like so: 

daily uniques

The SEO boost we got from all those media placements shouldn’t be understated.  For while “Stormpulse” was beginning to crowd people’s Inboxes, it was also becoming one of the hottest searches in the United States.  Consequently, we started seeing our company name appearing on auto-generated content pages like this one (unfortunately I can’t provide an example because Google doesn’t seem to want to keep spam cached!).  

Simply put, people were fanatically, ecstatically excited about the product.  As a result, they spread the word, they thanked us for building it, they thanked us for helping them navigate certain perils at sea, they thanked us for helping to save lives.  

AFTERMATH

It’s easy to get lost in the phenomenon.  Lest someone misunderstand, while our web servers were experiencing ‘success’ as measured in the startup world, this is what was happening to everyday folks living in Texas and Louisiana:

Ike damage

Which is the imagery in my mind that drove me to create the site in the first place.  It underscores the fallacy of focusing on market-size over pain.  This image is pain.  And it’s the pain that drives people.

I’ll never forget going through the grocery store in South Florida with my wife, daughter, and newborn son, and getting a frantic email on my iPhone with a phone number to call.  A group of survivors were stranded on a rooftop with rising waters.  And they were calling us for help.   I did the best I could, called back, tried to connect them with the local fire-rescue.  I was told that help finally came, though it was unclear in what form.  

The whole experience was sobering.  I was freed from the idea of thinking that this thing wasn’t bigger than me.  In truth it was much, much bigger than anyone.

THE NEXT FRONTIER

Oceaneering using Stormpulse

The scale of the opportunity is frightening, because one thing that can kill you even after striking oil is not having the capital to bring it to market:

In short, customers are knocking down your door to get the product; the main goal is to actually answer the phone and respond to all the emails from people who want to buy. (MA)

At this point, with a 2.5 person staff, we barely have time to keep the equipment upgraded and existing customers happy.  When asked about market size these days, I try to explain it from the standpoint of finding commonality among customers.  But as weather cuts across so many verticals, they rarely have much in common: 

  • a Fortune 100 healthcare company uses Stormpulse to monitor and alert their staff of changing weather conditions at over 400 locations in the United States; 
  • a chemical company with $6 billion in annual sales uses Stormpulse to get alerts for bad weather along the Gulf Coast and eastern United States; 
  • during their efforts to cap the BP oil spill, Oceaneering runs Stormpulse in their command and control facility to keep tabs on the weather while performing their unmanned submersible operations (pictured above);
  • a major railroad uses Stormpulse to notify construction teams of severe weather events in the southern U.S.;
  • one of the world’s largest shipping companies uses Stormpulse while assessing weather risk for their 400+ aircraft and 25,000+ vehicles;
  • a Fortune 500 fertilizer company uses Stormpulse during hurricane season to monitor the level of risk to their phosphate plants clustered in the southern U.S.
  • an oil rig manufacturer in Houston, Texas uses Stormpulse to alert port personnel of impending severe thunderstorms and hurricanes.

FILLING YOUR NEW BIG SHOES

Acceleration

Thanks to my co-founder’s engineering, our site boasted 100% uptime throughout, and we passed our first big test.  But traction brings new, life-threatening challenges.  To the extent our users diverge, the market opportunity gets larger but the risk of leaving money on the table or dying halfway to market also increases.  Decisions are harder (or impossible) to undo.  Our marketing strategy has to evolve to continue packaging the product in the appropriate language, messaging, and pricing.  And our customer support has to scale in quantity and quality as we court business-class clients with business-class prices.

There’s a popular backlash against founders who worry prematurely about hardware and software scalability.  But if you’re rising early and working hard on an organic startup idea, you have to design your business as a loosely-coupled chain of scalable systems as early as possible.  Because unless you have a purposeful plan to throttle your growth, you aren’t in control of your own tipping points.  I say points because each is a transition to another.  The feeling is something like driving over a series of those speed-boosting arrows in your favorite racing game.  If you miss one, you’ll probably miss the rest.  And that could make all the difference.

Comments on Hacker News.

(If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy “Bootstrapping Stormpulse.”)

Thanks to Noah Kagan, Sahana Mysore, Zack Linford, and Mark Hartnett for reading drafts of this.

[1] Our focus these days is on getting money in exchange for the value we’re giving.  In other words, turning our visitors into customers instead of selling our visitors to other customers (advertisers).  That said, Stormpulse Free is still ad-supported, which we don’t plan to change anytime soon.

[2] Some may fear this will lead to a one-off solution that doesn’t help anyone but the hacker and thus isn’t marketable.  It’s true that a marginal niche can kill you, but if the reason you end up in that niche is because you’re solving a very painful problem, then I wouldn’t worry about it.  If you can write software well enough to solve a very painful problem, you can probably increase your addressable market size through abstraction. 

[3]  But we didn’t twiddle our thumbs.  We made sure that the map could be easily embedded into more sites than just the Post.  We knew for things to take off, a low friction of adoption was paramount.  In addition to making the price free, we made sure that even the least technical producers would be able to embed the map with an email request and a couple of copy-paste operations.

Notes

  1. amichalek reblogged this from wensing and added:
    Great blog post about a successful bootstrapped startup. The best quote from it: Read the full post.
  2. blog-pub reblogged this from wensing
  3. wensing posted this