Shifting Gears at 105 mph -- Without Flying off a Cliff

Part IX: The Growth of a Brand. Karen Post continues to offer branding lessons from a social-networking startup.

If you've just joined us, Oddpodz is a new online community for creative doers and problem solvers. Founder and branding expert Karen Post, who writes a regular column for fastcompany.com, brings you the play by play of a startup brand. Check out more on FastCompany.com.

Since my last Fast Company column, life’s been plugging along and Oddpodz has made steady, forward progress. But soon will come our first true test -- the one separating the drug-store entrepreneurs from the real warriors of the start-up battlefield.

Our test began about 60 days ago as we were reaching out to the technology community to recruit an IT leader. Through our networks we acquired names of recruiters, programmers, project managers, and development firms. The process introduced us to many new, smart people, but also confirmed the high volume of total flakes out there. Most of all, it put a big spotlight on a gap in a core element of our brand.

"Oddpodz, we have a problem."

As technology and online marketing folks checked us out, they would forward their complete analyses of the site to us. And their verdict was not good. Outside experts seriously questioned the site platforms, the navigation, and the features of our social network.

How did this happen? Because we, the Oddpodz team, did not know what we did not know. We do know marketing and we’re good businesswomen, but we’re not technology experts. We had hired trusted professionals to guide us, but unfortunately that particular firm had tremendous staff turnover. They build great corporate websites, but that’s a completely different species than a social networking animal.

There have certainly been moments where I look for a white flag -- or better yet a triple shot of Cuervo -- but then I ask myself, "Is anyone literally shooting at you today? No? Then get back to work."

Freaking out does not fix businesses. Learning from lessons, coupled with a laser focus on finding solutions, does.

Back to the true test: All this shifting gears, even with an occasional legal U-turn, still needs to happen seamlessly, moving ahead at the speed of light, even though we have limited funds and a small team. While this site issue really sucks, how we deal with it will predict the final score. We’ve achieved so many positive milestones that I’m confident we can do this too.

In a nutshell, here’s what we learned and how we’re going to stay on course for success:

Things can change a lot in a year.

When we started our journey, social networking wasn’t what it is today. There were just a handful of social networks; MySpace was just for teenagers and Facebook for college kids.

There were a few open source development solutions, but they weren’t very flexible, and our brand from the beginning has been about being different. There were a couple of out-of-town pioneers building custom social network sites, but they were geographically undesirable and very expensive.

There was a successful corporate web development house in our backyard that, given the right budget, would promise to build anything. Since we had raised outside funds, we believed the big, local firm was the right choice, and after conducting thorough due diligence we hired them.

One year and enough money to build a decent-sized house later, we now have a "not ready for prime time" website. It’s not an ugly baby: there’s good content and the look is cool and doesn’t resemble a phonebook -- as is the case with some of the other popular social networks.

The dysfunction is found under the skin. The user interface is clumsy, the basic features of networking are missing, and it sure doesn’t drive like a social network Porsche on the autobahn.

Hire only specialists.

When dealing in a new space or with a breakthrough product, if the founders don’t come from that discipline area (as in our case) you’ve got to hire a master surgeon, not a general practitioner. Even if they’re outside of your home base.

Work from a Business Requirements Document (BRD) first.

Not one ounce of site planning or even budgeting should start without a detailed BRD that’s aligned with your business goals and financial model. If you’re unable to think things through and create this document, you should stop immediately and reconsider what you are doing.

Avoid hourly budgets.

They can easily become a runaway train. Instead, from your BRD have the firm build a fixed estimate with lots of detail -- not only about features, but also function and performance metrics.

For sizeable investments, don’t sign any contracts unless you’re a lawyer. If you’re not a lawyer, get one!

Most sophisticated vendor contracts are one-sided. Unless you have modifying language to level the field, deciding to pursue a legal remedy over a dispute will double your work, expense, and risk. If the vendor won’t budge on the contract language, look for a different vendor. If deadlines are important, include penalties in the contract for any failure to meet these. Pay close attention to warranty terms and what is and is not included in a fixed-price estimate.

Beware of over-promising vendors.

Along with all the good that comes from the entrepreneurial world and its spirit can come a tendency to over-promise. Even if you’re generally optimistic, always keep your skeptic’s hat on when you examine schedules and low-ball budgets -- especially when it comes to high-dollar investments.

Stay connected and communicate honestly with your brand evangelists.

In light of this bump in the road, we’ve received tons of supportive e-mail from our Oddpodz members. They’ve provided some incredible feedback and some ideas that we’ll certainly introduce in Phase 2. We will remain open and honest, and be an authentic brand.

Where does Oddpodz go from here?

We stop blaming stuff, people and circumstances. We stop beating ourselves up. We remind ourselves nothing we did was reckless, and things like this happen to the very best of companies. We will stay focused on all that is right, leverage every bit of consumer insight we have gathered, and most importantly we’ll focus on finding the most efficient solution to this area of our vision.

In terms of technology, what we have today is Phase I. But our concept of the Oddpodz brand continues to get great reviews. We’re getting members and positive press from around the world daily. Because we remain an evolving, growing start-up, we will likely rebuild the entire site backbone in an open source manner in Phase 2.

After nearly three weeks of searching for the right candidate, this week we engaged an independent, project-specific IT manager to assist in writing a killer BRD, identifying qualified vendors, and preparing a BRD-driven request for proposal (RFP).

Beyond our technology, we’re also honing in on a strong micro market of the "creative class," i.e., creative professionals. In my next column I’ll share what this looks like, how we handle the introduction to our current members, and why I think you’ll really like it.

Until then, brand on!

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