According to one report the number of unemployed Americans who tried to raise a start-up last year was the lowest in more than 25 years. In 2011 just 3.3 percent of Americans without a job started their own businesses, a fall from 4.7% the year before. In 1989 more than one in five saw themselves as entrepreneurs in the making. The reason for that decline may be that building a business from scratch is harder than ever, and demands a broader knowledge of skills that range from incorporation and hiring staff, to pitching to VCs and planning social media operations. One startup is trying to make the process easier with step-by-step “plays” that guide would-be entrepreneurs through each stage of business-building.
Startup Plays comes from Scott Annan, an entrepreneur and CEO of Mercury Grove, a software company that specializes in collaboration software. Entrepreneurs, says Annan, usually know what they need to do in order to create the business they want, but can find it difficult to focus and execute at the level they need. They’re strong in some areas but spend a lot of time trying to figure out all of the other tasks that owners of new businesses are expected to do themselves.
“You’ve got to execute every area of your business like a pro, in a short period [and] on a tight budget,” says Annan. “Ninety nine percent of the time we do it through trial and error – and sometimes we get lucky.”
Better Than a Book
The usual way to get lucky is to turn to books and blogs, to take classes and watch videos. It’s a demand that allows sites like Clickbank to distribute information products that generated more than $350 million in 2011.
For Annan though that kind of learning isn’t sufficient. It provides passive, conceptual learning, a transmission of knowledge rather than a guide to action.
“When you take a course, you absorb information and sometimes do exercises that are conceptual,” he says. “To apply this learning, you need to absorb and understand the information, create a plan, and then execute it.”
There’s a difference between knowing and doing, and the test bed for any new entrepreneur isn’t going to be the kind of sandbox used as practice by developers and designers but the new business itself. As attempts to find money, outsource tasks and build interest fail, the failures build experience but they also eat away at savings, time and the small pool of funds available in the startup’s earliest stages.
Startup Plays provides an alternative approach by offering step-by-step task lists in which each task contains everything that an entrepreneur needs, including detailed information, professional tips, links to resources and templates used by the entrepreneur.
The plays aren’t static, like an ebook. Users log in to StartupPlays.com and work through lists that might require them to create job descriptions for existing employees or determine compensation for a new worker. Each task comes with an explanation and might even be accompanied by a downloadable template or a form the entrepreneur can use to complete the task. As you’d expect from a product created by a firm that builds collaboration software, entrepreneurs can also assign tasks to other members of a team.
Startup Plays currently offers eighteen plays with two going up each week. The prices vary. A play that explains how art firm DNA 11 manages to win publicity contains four milestones, 24 tasks and four excel templates. It promises entrepreneurs that they’ll have a media calendar, a press contact list, a killer pitch for their startup and “press in major publications.” And it estimates that the execution time is just one week. The play is available for $99, a 66 percent discount on the list price of $299.
Been There, Done That
If that sounds significantly more expensive than a typical ebook, the extra value lies in both the play’s practical nature and in the experience of the person who wrote it. Adrian Salamunovic, co-founder of DNA 11 and CanvasPop, has been mentioned on Mashable!, TechCrunch, and Wired, and profiled on CSI:New York and the Conan O’Brian show. Other contributors include Jeff Goldenberg, co-founder of Top Chef University, Aaron Hall of Dressrush and investor Dave McClure.
“We look for founders who have demonstrated success in the specific area (not consultants, people who have done it),” says Annan. “We try to focus on recent success and more on substance than hype.”
What all of those entrepreneurs have in common, of course, is that none of them used plays to build their success. How much they might have benefitted from them is debatable. Although being able to take a shortcut from concept to successful execution is going to be worth more than the $99 charged for a play, each startup is also unique, presents its own challenges and has its own needs. A playbook that worked for one entrepreneur and one business might be less effective when used in a business in a different field and in a different stage of development. The key to making the plays work won’t be in following them slavishly but in applying them to the firm and mixing them up to create your own playbook.
Startup Plays would also like to see successful entrepreneurs contributing their own formulas for other startups to use. Revenue share for plays ranges from 40 percent to 70 percent, depending on the level of co-marketing activity.
But perhaps the most important aspect of the plays isn’t just that they contain distilled experience and the practical steps followed by successful entrepreneurs. It’s that they give the owner of a new startup a chance to engage in focused action. They’re no longer reading then wondering how to apply what they read. They’re able to do exactly what the play says to produce a definite result.
The only thing that’s missing is a play for winning luck. But maybe when you’ve created the right playbook, that luck comes by itself.