1 Million Cups Omaha-Lincoln took an unconventional approach to its usual weekly presentation and networking event on Wednesday.
Instead of presenting a new, upcoming startup, organizers invited Jimmy Winter of VoterTide to share a "postmortem" of what he learned through the social media analytics tool for political campaigns. VoterTide was acquired by MindMixer last February.
1MC organizer Danny Schreiber asked Winter last October if he'd like to do a presentation since they wanted to do some different types of stories to go along with the emerging startups.
"Do as I say, not as I do," he told the nearly 40-person audience Wednesday morning.
Winter hoped that by sharing his stories, others could learn from them and avoid making the same mistakes.
The project began as RockDex, a way for musicians to track social conversations, but pivoted to focus on politics in 2011. That's when VoterTide became a startup company in Omaha with Winter as CEO. The site could analyze 1,000 tweets per second and allowed candidates, political insiders and journalists to track the conversations surrounding a political candidate on Twitter.
VoterTide had successes like a Washington Post partnership, more than 1,000 users signed up for text alerts and nearly three dozen paid subscribers. But ultimately, VoterTide hired too quickly and thus burned through cash too fast. At one point, Winter says he cut his salary to $500 a month just to keep the startup afloat.
By December 2012, Winter told his employees he couldn't make payroll. There were hopes that follow-up funding would arrive in February if they met certain goals. They didn't.
"I wanted to keep fighting," he said. "We were low on cash, had too many employees and too much burn."
His first mistake—hiring too many people, too soon, without a plan to get them onboarded and armed with information they needed to succeed, he said. After about six months he had 12 employees.
That's when he hit the next problem: distraction.
"We didn't spend enough time talking with customers and were rolling out features that I thought were great, but we didn't gather enough input from clients," Winter (right) said. "We didn't realize it until it was too late.
"If you have a pivot, make sure it's the right one."
Winter had his employees work on an email matching system that took tweets VoterTide analyzed to help identify political fundraising targets who would be most likely to donate based on their sentiments on Twitter. If they were tweeting pro-Romney, anti-Obama they would be a good target to send out fundraising material, Winter said.
"They got a five percent response rate, and that was cool," he said. "We had several customers say they wanted this, and a couple politicians here in Omaha used it, but we didn’t have enough time in the 2012 election cycle, given the long sales lead time, to capitalize on the development before it was too late."
Another thing he wasted time on was a viral promotional video no one ended up watching, he said.
Winter said he also didn't manage his employees well enough for them to be successful. He said he never laid out a clear path to success and expectations weren't clear.
"People need to know what to do to be good," he said.
During the question and answer portion of Wednesday's 1 Million Cups, Winter was asked about what he learned from customer validation.
"It's easy to get tricked into thinking your thing is cool," he said. "You have to pay attention to your customers and adapt to their needs."
He was also asked about the acquisition, which he said happened in less than a month and went fairly smoothly. But the transition from founder to employee was hard.
"You're used to a culture and then put in a new culture... each has its own way of doing things," he said.
Winter recently accepted a job at Lincoln-based playbook software company, Hudl. He starts in April.
1MC hopes to feature unique learning opportunities each week
One goal for 1 Million Cups Omaha-Lincoln is to leave attendees with a learning point each week, Schreiber said.
"Though new startup founders often have one or two lessons to share, we felt giving veteran entrepreneurs the floor would ramp up our efforts to achieve this goal," he said. "Combine that with our search to fill up 52 Wednesdays each year with high-quality, past-the-prototype-stage startups and the pool in Nebraska isn't quite at the volume to support an event like 1 Million Cups.
"So with these two reasons in mind, we asked ourselves: How about holding a postmortem for a startup that exited or shut down?"
They reached out to Winter, who agreed, and Schreiber said he delivered just what they were hoping for from a postmortem.
In a few weeks, Dundee Venture Capital will present on the business side. Mark Hasebroock will give an inside look into establishing a venture capital firm in Omaha and talk about who he asks for money, what returns he aims for and what the day-to-day operations look like.
Credits: Presentation photo from Kelsey Janda via Twitter, Jimmy Winter photo from VoterTide.
var _gaq = _gaq || ;
var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script'); s.parentNode.insertBefore(ga, s);