How I Solved My Own Problem And Turned It Into A Side Business

$1,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
1
Employees
product
Posture
from Galway
started January 2018
$1,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
1
Employees
285
followers
platform
accounting

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I am Aidan Breen. I’m an entrepreneur, musician and generally creative person from the west of Ireland. I run a company called APB Software and Hardware Ltd which I started while doing my PhD.

I started the company 5 years ago to learn about how a real company works from the trenches. I started with zero experience, and only a couple of side-projects while I was completing my studies.

Now, it has grown to be my full-time job. Posture is the flagship ‘hardware’ product, which supports my other role as a software consultant.

Posture is a portable laptop stand for home, office and hotdesk. It’s super lightweight, and folds away to fit in any backpack or briefcase. Posture helps prevent neck and back pain by raising your laptop screen, allowing you to sit upright as you work, straightening your neck and relieving pressure on neck and back muscles.

Most importantly, at €39.99 (with free worldwide shipping), Posture is a fraction of the cost of competing portable laptop stands.

Better yet, there’s a 20% discount for Starter Story readers when you use the code STORY2019 at checkout.

how-i-solved-my-own-problem-and-turned-it-into-a-side-business

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

When I finished in university in the west of Ireland, I moved with my partner to Dublin to try and grow my business. It was a massive change for us, coming from small towns to the big city, and living in really cramped shared accommodation.

I spent most of my time going to startup and business networking events, which was exhausting as an introvert who had just spent 4 years working alone on a PhD. When I had time (and energy…) I took on short-term freelance projects. I worked at hot-desks, open workspaces and snuck into university libraries - anything to get out of the house and get my name out there.

It was a pretty tough time. My future was far from certain. My business wasn’t making very much money so I depended on my partner’s salary as a part-time teacher. On top of that, my first client refused to pay me for three months of work! I was so eager to get a client at the time, I didn’t bother with a deposit.

The stress of it all lead to physical tension and working crouched over my laptop at hot-desks made things even worse. Eventually, I ended up with chest pain and back pain that kept me from work for weeks at a time. I couldn’t take a bulky laptop stand with me on my bike, and I couldn’t afford the expensive ones made of carbon fibre.

So I started tinkering, and eventually took a knife and soldering iron to some cheap plastic rulers and combined that with a 50c nut and bolt. The result was...less than ideal...but I could finally work on my laptop without pain!

how-i-solved-my-own-problem-and-turned-it-into-a-side-business

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

That first prototype was a godsend. I could assemble it or take it apart in less than 5 seconds and it folded up as flat and light as a ruler so it fit in my bag while I cycled. Unfortunately, I got some pretty funny looks from the hipsters walking past with their expensive cold-brewed coffees and factory ripped jeans.

“You can take the man out of the west of Ireland!” I thought, “But this works for me.”

Then a potential client saw my creation and pretty much laughed in my face so I realised I had to find a better solution. I decided I would get a small batch of stands laser cut and maybe I could put my own branding on them and give them away as promo material. Little did I know how challenging the manufacturing process would be.

Launch early. Fail fast. Learn your lessons and move on. My Dad once told me: “You only need 1 in 10 ideas to work out”.

Getting accurate and correct drawings done was a good deal of work I didn’t anticipate, but that was really only the start. Finding the right material proved to be the main challenge. It turns out that injection moulded plastic is actually super brittle and when you introduce a bend in the design, it becomes dangerously loaded, ready to send shards of plastic into an unsuspecting eye. On top of that, getting moulds produced was prohibitively expensive.

It took me three months of research and countless useless samples to find the right material that would bend safely, retain its shape, and hold up a laptop of reasonable weight. The material is very difficult to source, and must be produced with a very specific method that not all manufacturers even understand. So I’m keeping that a secret ;)

Eventually, I produced a product that I am extremely proud of, and that I use every day.

how-i-solved-my-own-problem-and-turned-it-into-a-side-business

Describe the process of launching the business.

I’m a software guy. I’ve built countless websites, apps and APIs. But believe it or not, I actually used Squarespace for tryposture.com. I didn’t have the time to put something custom together and it provided all the features I needed.

I financed the initial run of laptop stands out of my own pocket. I still had some savings left, and this project almost drained them, but I discussed it with my partner and she was totally supportive. I guess we didn’t have much to lose, and everything to gain.

I thought about running a Kickstarter, but in the end, I figured I didn’t already have a following to share it with so it would have been a massive risk and a lot of work. Instead, I decided to launch on Product Hunt, and just leverage my own social network.

Here are a few quick Product Hunt (PH) launch tips:

  • Photos and graphics win. Use an eye catching animated gif as your product avatar. It’s the first thing people will see, and the most effective way to grab attention.
  • Time your launch. PH works on a daily loop. If you post just as the new day starts, you have less competition for a few hours. It’s an easy way to get more eyes on your product.
  • Upvotes matter. Like reddit, hackernews and others, PH weights your upvotes by frequency and recency. So, to get up to the top of the list, you want as many upvotes as early as possible. This is where your own social network comes it. Don’t use shill accounts, but build a network of people who already use PH and get them to see your product as early as possible to increase your chances.

Thankfully, the Product Hunt launch went well. It didn’t get top spot, but we got on the front page for most of the day. This lead to a good few early orders, which let me break even. More importantly though, I quickly received a lot of emails from interested companies who wanted to help spread the word. Three separate companies wanted to carry the product (for a cut), and two companies wanted to help promote it through video (for a fee). I didn’t follow through with these opportunities but it told me that Posture was a product that would sell.

My biggest lesson here is just to launch early and fail fast. If I had spent months running a kickstarter, I might never have launched the stand and would have missed out on a lot of early feedback that improved my process and the product.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

I experimented a lot with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter ads, and then google ads and even listed Posture on Amazon for a while. All of those were a total waste of money. I spent hundreds of euros on campaigns that produced 0 leads.

Don’t neglect the stuff that is right in front of your face. It’s okay to aim for the low hanging fruit before you aim for the top of the tree. If you want to launch internationally, make sure you can deliver locally first.

Maybe I didn’t set up my campaigns right, or invest enough time or money into the campaigns, but I never saw any real return. Amazon, in particular, was a total waste and I wish I never even tried. I didn’t sell a single unit and spent hundreds on monthly fees.

Most of my marketing now consists of word of mouth with personal recommendations from existing customers. I mostly sell the stand in bulk to startups and consulting firms for their staff. Posture makes a great addition to welcome packs, and can be branded with your company logo and website which is super visible wherever your staff work.

The sales process here is not an exact science, and I am far from the greatest salesman on the planet but here’s my approach:

Dogfood** your product**

Use it yourself. As a software consultant, I work in a many different offices week to week. I always whip out my laptop stand and make sure it’s visible on my desk. This leads to a lot of enquiries.

Talk to everybody

Random strangers who ask about the stand get the same pitch as department heads and buyers. Use these conversations to promote the ease of use, the usefulness and the sexiness of the product.

Always be closing…maybe?

I don’t know if I actually understand that phrase, but in my mind it means having a spare stand in my bag at all times so that when somebody shows interest, I can hand it to them right there and then. Often, I’ll say: “Just try it out for a couple days, see how it feels. If you like it, pay me through the website and I’ll know it was you.”

Yeah, sometimes they forget to pay and to be honest, I don’t even bother chasing them up. Occasionally I’ll ask “Hey, how did you find the laptop stand?” and that’s enough to get them over the line, but 90% of the time they pay me before the end of the day.

Leverage relationships

There is no hard and fast rules here. Follow up with the people you think like the product and can make a larger order. Hopefully they can now see the value of the product and the sale should make itself.

how-i-solved-my-own-problem-and-turned-it-into-a-side-business

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Posture is available worldwide and basically ticks along by itself right now which is great for me as I’m focusing on finding balance in my life after a long period of stress. That’s the short term goal: balance.

Long term, I realise the laptop stand market is incredibly competitive. I’m not going to retire off the profits, but on top of my consulting income, my business has healthy revenue and continuous growth which I am focusing on going forward.

My customer acquisition costs are now essentially nil. But I have sunk maybe €2k into ads and marketing that never paid back. I don’t track any other metrics. Is that bad? Eh. I have enough numbers and KPIs to worry about with my day job.

As far as my company in general is performing, I have achieved >100% year-on-year growth for the last 4 years. I have big plans for the next 18 months but unfortunately I am bound by non-disclosure on that. Read between the lines if you wish ;)

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I started my company specifically to learn about how business works in the real world. I’m a computer scientist, not a business or commerce major. In that respect, I have learned everything I know through starting the business.

My main lessons are:

  1. Minimize risk. Take deposits if you’re freelancing / consulting.
  2. Launch early before you’ve sunk too much into a product before validating it. The only real validation is market validation.
  3. Nurture good relationships. It’s easiest to sell to people who like you. And it’s easy to get people to like you. Just be nice, work hard and respect people and their time. Be honest and earnest. Almost all of my revenue comes from customer referrals - that’s the key.

I don’t believe in luck, except for the circumstances of your birth. Everything else is statistics. Obviously, it’s easier to take bigger risks with bigger payoffs if you have wealth to fall back on. But it’s still possible for the rest of us to foster good relationships and build great things without risking too much.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Squarespace saves me so much time and effort - and I’m a tech guy! It’s fantastic.

Otherwise, a good old spreadsheet is invaluable when calculating risk and keeping track of expenses vs revenue.

I use waveapps.com for invoicing which is super convenient and looks great but I’m not totally satisfied with their dashboard / website.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

My two must-read books, that have changed the way I think about business and sales are:

The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries

Not just for new ideas, though it’s invaluable in that regard. You can manage any project, product or piece of work in a lean manner and see benefits.

Influence, by Robert B. Cialdini

A legendary book in sales and marketing. Some content is a little dated by today’s standards but the concepts hold true and stand the test of time. It’s also a very well written book that is a pleasure to read.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Launch early. Fail fast. Learn your lessons and move on. My Dad once told me: “You only need 1 in 10 ideas to work out”.

Most importantly, and I think I see this a lot, particularly with the companies I consult for: Don’t neglect the stuff that is right in front of your face. It’s okay to aim for the low hanging fruit before you aim for the top of the tree. If you want to launch internationally, make sure you can deliver locally first.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Not right now. But soon. I will announce any positions on Twitter.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Aidan Breen,   Founder of Posture

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