Running a Non-technical Startup

Over the past few months, my life has transitioned a fair bit. I’m not longer designing software full time, but I have been working on a number of personal projects. One of those projects in Music Lives, a website that a friend of mine and I launched a few years back. Music Lives helps promotes local live music events in my hometown of Guelph, Ontario. You can check it out at http://www.musiclives.ca. Go on, I’ll wait here…

Back? Who knew that a city the size of Guelph has such an amazing music scene, eh? That’s what we think too, which is why we’ve taken a few steps lately to help Music Lives reach the next level.

Printing a Magazine

The first thing we decided to do was print a magazine. We were generating enough content from the blog to fill out a 20 page magazine with little effort (or so we thought). Our goal was to print off the magazine on our own to try and minimize the cost of printing. We ran an Indiegogo campaign and raised enough money to buy a cheap printer and get our first edition out the door. Since then we’ve launched two more editions and the magazine has been really well received.

Registering as a Not For Profit

Because really, we aren’t trying to make a profit – we are trying to help out the local music scene. After looking into grants to help fund the magazine, I realized we would have much more success as a NFP. And we don’t really have a solid business model, so it was move that just made sense. We found some friends to make up a board and sent the paperwork in to weeks ago. We are really excited about the opportunities available in Guelph to help out with the local music scene, and registering as a NFP gets us a few steps closer to turning those opportunities in to reality.

With these changes to our operation, that has been a lot of learning happening lately. Aaron and I were hell-bent on printing the magazine ourselves to have full control over the process, and I’ve learned what makes for good layout in a print magazine versus online webapp or website. I’ve found myself retelling people the stories of how we have changed our process a fair bit and it wasn’t until recently that I realized that all the pitfalls of running a software startup also apply to starting a non-software startup.

Product Market Fit

While pointing fingers at music fans is easy enough, getting people of all ages and demographics out to live shows night after night, band after band, can be a challenge as any promoter will testify. It may seem that Music Lives has a very specific market that it caters towards, but as we are reaching more and more people, we have found that our initial assumptions about who we wanted to reach have changed. Aaron and I both have friends that we know will go out to every show – the goal with Music Lives is to reach NEW people that don’t already know what an awesome scene we have.

One of our long term goals is to break into the university crowd. The University of Guelph is home to 2000+ undergraduate students that make up the bulk of the nightlife in the downtown core. Many of them will hit up dance clubs or sports bars rather than going to see an awesome live show by a local indie band. We want to change that. We want the students to be a huge part of our market, but it won’t be something that happens easily. Finding the right product for that market, and developing the right strategies for reaching them is going to be an important part of our long term plan.

Being Agile

I mentioned briefly above that Aaron and I REALLY wanted to print our own magazine on our own printer. We were convinced that it would save us overhead, keeping the operating costs of printing the magazine cheaper than if we outsourced the job. Well, after three months, I can say with 100% certainty that that is not the case. We tried two printers, two types of paper, toner versus ink, refills… and it was still cheaper to outsource the monthly printing. Mind you, we managed the find a very cost effective print shop in our province that ships for free.

The point being here: we had to revise our plan, give up on initial assumptions, and grind through the pain if we were going to succeed in the long run. While we aren’t necessarily following the agile principles of software design, we are staying true to the dictionary definition of agility and keeping light on our toes.

Funding

Ugh. Funding. It’s the last thing we want to deal with, but with the addition of the print magazine, we now have overhead costs as well as the fact that Music Lives is taking up a significant portion of both Aaron and my lives. Registering as a not-for-profit was an excellent way to increase our likelihood of finding grant funding, but doesn’t guarantee that we will even cover our costs over the next year.

As an alternative, we decided to hit the streets looking to local business and members of the music scene to help us get the ball rolling. We now have one official sponsor of Music Lives, with a few more potentials on the way. We are also selling ad spots in the magazine that will make sure that we aren’t digging too deep in our own pockets to fund what we love doing.

Wearing Many Hats

If you’re ever read a job description for a position working at a startup, one of the requirements is that you know how to do a lot of things really well. Over the last 3 months, I’ve worn the hat of designer (I wear that one pretty well), sales person, marketing, support, technical services, journalist and finance. I’ve written grant proposals, haggled down costs, interviewed bands, designed advertisements, and posted some events on the site when I have time! If you’re ever looking for experience in a specific field, my advice to you would be to join a startup because you’ll be doing a little bit of everything.

Who knows what will happen to Music Lives over the next year. I’m sure we will grow, but I’m not sure in which direction. And like any good software startup, we will continue to be innovative and respond to the needs of our users in order to consider the project a success.

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