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Derek Ting, CEO, TextNow
Everyone is talking about disruptors – companies or individuals that are identifying a gap in an industry and filling it in a new or unique way. This is the very nature of business success since the beginning. Still, people always ask me if I set out to disrupt the traditional wireless business when I first thought about creating my company, TextNow. The truth is that sounds cooler than the reality. Here are some lessons I’ve learned as all the cliché terms – “tech CEO,” “millennial CEO,” and “wireless industry disruptor”:
- Motivation: Never underestimate the motivation of someone who is hungry, desperate, bored or just simply frustrated. Some of the best ideas and the biggest game-changing technology comes from those moments where you just feel like you’re done. The truth is, I was a poor college student trying to save a buck. I knew if I could game the system a bit, I could circumvent the wireless giants and get my iPod Touch to talk to my friends’ phones. And it worked. We were saving lots of money and it was cool. That morphed into conversations about why we all felt trapped by traditional wireless carrier plans and why cell phones were getting smarter, while cell phone service was not. Instead, it was getting more expensive, less flexible and we were all frustrated. The rest is history.
- No is the Default Answer: I’m an unlikely CEO. In fact, as I was looking at entering university, I didn’t know what I wanted to do because I just was never really exceptional at anything. It’s true. I wasn’t the fastest or the best at anything. In fact, I was rejected almost all the time when I applied to software engineering internships while my peers all had many interviews lined up. It took a long time and a lot of persistence before I landed my first software engineering internship – with a small company that made software for ATM machines. This helped me along the way because building a company requires the ability to take rejection really well. You’re told “no” almost all the time – especially when raising money. All of the “Nos” didn’t scare me or prompt me to reassess. I just shrugged and moved on. Committed to what we were doing, I kept plugging away. I could brush off any “No” because “No” had been a default and it still is in business and financing so much of the time. The important thing to remember is, all the “Nos” in the end do not matter if just one person says “Yes.” It just may take many “Nos” to get to the “Yes.”
- Focus Group of One: Many business pundits will tell you that this is a very dangerous and isolating practice because if you only think about what you want or need, you haven’t captured what the market wants or needs. I believe that if there’re a couple of people who find value in it, then others might too. By starting there, we were also able to find different use-cases for and find much larger adjacent markets.
- Minimum Lovable Product: Too many people overthink or over-perfect their idea. It is important not to overthink or overbuild. By doing so, we’re losing the opportunity to get valuable market feedback sooner. What we always do is build the minimum lovable product – what is the minimum we need to build to solve the users’ problem and prove our hypothesis? It is only after we get it into the customers’ hand that we get feedback on how to improve the product. Nothing is going to inform you better or surprise you more than feedback from the people using it. They always come up with something you haven’t thought of before.
- Listen. Really Listen. This can’t be overstated. You absolutely have to hear your customers out and understand what’s happening. I often reach out to customers personally through email and in our forums so I can hear first-hand what’s happening, what’s not working or what may be tripping them up. If one person is having an issue, chances are others are having it too. I also recommend using analytics tools to get aggregated feedback from all customers using the product.
- People Matter. You can never underestimate the power of people to spread the word about something they love. This is why customer feedback and listening is so critical. TextNow basically got to 8 million monthly active users relying solely on word of mouth. When people love it, they’ll spread the word. And when people don’t love it, they’ll spread the word. Putting people at the heart of what you do matters. Maybe it’s cheesy, but it’s also true.
- The A-Team. Bringing the right team on the bus is extremely important. The best people are highly engaged, passionate about the company and what they do, and motivated to deliver maximum impact. It’s hard to find people as passionate about the mission as you are, but when you do, you have to hold on tightly. We do this by investing a lot in the relationships we have with our employees and make sure they feel appreciated. We provide lunch every day, arrange regular team events, offer a lot of time off, cultivate a “no hierarchy” culture and reward great work. This builds a committed and passionate team.
- Sometimes It Doesn’t Work. Sometimes we make hiring mistakes and the new recruit doesn’t share our passions and ability to make an impact. One of the biggest mistakes that I have made along the way is holding on too long to someone who is not right for a particular role. In the end, respectfully parting ways is the best thing for you, the team, and the individual. It’s hard, but necessary.
- Don’t Settle. In hiring, we have the philosophy that we won’t settle. If we can’t get our first choice, we’ll figure out what it takes to get our first choice – even if it means opening another office or figuring out a telecommuting strategy. Hiring the best people will translate into the best product in the marketplace for our customers.
- Take a Break. If you’re thinking about personal sacrifice and what you’re missing out on as you build your company, then you shouldn’t be in this line of work. It’s not for everyone. That said, it can be all-consuming. I have learned to identify when I need to step away. A quick break enables me to clear my head, and I always come back with a renewed energy and a fresh viewpoint on something that was a struggle before. Always remember to get enough sleep. Sacrificing sleep to get more time is not only ineffective, but also will impair critical decision-making that may cost you millions.
About the Author
Derek Ting is the co-founder and CEO of TextNow, the world's first truly flexible, affordable, and innovative mobile phone service that is available to everyone. With more than 10 million monthly active users and revenue growth of 277% from 2012 to 2016, TextNow is experiencing tremendous momentum as a disruptor in the wireless space and as a strong alternative to the traditional carrier model.
[Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]
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