The Transparent Startup Experiment: A weekly look behind the scenes of “Time Off”


“I love reading stories about startups raising money, launching, or being acquired, but I want to learn how to take my startup to the next level with marketing. Is there any good examples I could check out? Where do I even start?”

I received this email from a TSF reader a few weeks ago, and I’ve been trying to figure out the best resource to send him. I sent him Noah Kagan’s Marketing plan for Mint (which is required reading), but I didn’t feel like it was enough. I wanted to be able to dissect a startup from top to bottom and show actual numbers as well as the thinking behind each decision. Beyond that, I wanted something that would teach other startups how to have the same success.

A finished product, with no marketing

A few months went by, but I still hadn’t found a resource like I described above. I was about to give up on the idea until I met Ryan Smith. Ryan is a very smart guy who loves building products. In fact, he built Time Off, an application that let’s small businesses employees easily manage vacation days, as a side project. It integrates with Google Apps and is a solid product. The problem is, Ryan wasn’t sure how to market it. I asked Ryan if I could come on board with him to do the marketing, and use Time Off as a real world case study for TSF.

We’re going to build a transparent startup that will walk TSF readers through a basic marketing plan, and share our results. This project will be a fantastic real world example to discover and learn what tactics actually work for startups. I’m very excited to bring this to TSF readers via a weekly column. It will be a fantastic resource to learn from, and I’ll do my best to explain the thinking behind our decisions. Be sure you follow TSF on Twitter @startupfoundry and on Facebook to stay current with “Transparent Startup Experiment”.

To get the ball rolling, this is the game plan that we’re going to be executing starting next week:

Our Game Plan For Time Off:

Objectives
a) $2,000 a month (in revenue) in 6 months.
b) Write up in 2 major publications

Target Users
1) Small Business
2) Google Apps for your domain users

Metrics
a) Page views
b) Number of users who sign up for trial that we convert – Who’s paying for our product (identify industries to target).
d) Measure the impact of weekly articles about Time Off on The Startup Foundry.

Registration Process
a) It’s already fast (which is really good), but it needs to be polished
b) Look at implementing Chargify instead of Google Checkout.
c) Use 37signals model of pricing.

Branding
a) Logo
b) Home page redesign
c) Improve copy on home page
d) The sales page needs to be redesigned.
e) Email through @timeoffhq.com instead of @gmail.
f) Social Proof needs a higher visual hierarchy on home and sales page

Increasing paid conversions
a) 1 month trial instead of free
b) The visual hierarchy of the site pushes customers to the free version. Let’s change this.
c) Collect emails, and have regular content go out to paid users

Blank State
a) Improve “first run” experience after signup.

What do you think? As you look at the site, do you see anything we missed?

  • What a fantastic idea. I’m genuinely excited to watch this unfold.

    • ReWrite24

      Seconded! I want to see some gritty numbers 🙂

    • Dito!  This should be a great series of articles! Can’t wait to see some metrics and the thought process behind the decisions.

  • Another great one Paul!

  • Anonymous

    We published an article on an idea like this in February called The Open Startup Constitution: http://www.iijiij.com/2011/02/22/the-open-startup-constitution-07672

  • Tris

    Very much looking forward to this!  Hopefully will be extremely useful

  • Simon C

    I’m almost at the point of designing my marketing strategy so this should be great to watch!

  • Jugger

    We haven’t heard of an update in startup foundry page traffic for a while or revenue? I loved the transparency, but it seems to have gone?

  • We did something similar last year on http://nakedstartup.com, now it’s more sparsely written (we’re launching multiple products) but it captures a lot of our thinking over the last year.

  • I am very excited to see how this turns out as well 😉

  • Auston Bunsen

    It will only be fair if you don’t use your TSF mojo 😉

  • I’m sorry I didn’t think to ask you first 🙂 In seriousness, this is a good first post but we need more if we really want to understand the process. Why and how did you pick each of these? What did you decide not to do? For instance, why $2k per month in 6 months. Is this a metric that drives toward funding? Is this company expecting to be funded? Why are the various success metrics the best metrics for this company? Were there others you decided not to use? what conclusions do you hope to draw from them? Why is revenue not one of your metrics when it is one of your stated goals?

    I also wanted to emphasize that sharing the emotions of the team as you go through this process would also be highly instructive. I’ve been running start-ups for 14 years and the stress and roller coaster seems to be so rarely talked about. It has an outsized impact on company success, though.

    This could be an awesome case study but only if you share your deepest thoughts on this and the inside on the decisions you made. Otherwise, frankly, I think it is just more start-up fluff and link-bait material.

    I’m certain you will give the inside scoop and I can’t wait to read about it!

  • Sokocha

    Great post, this should be very interesting. How will you reach your target users?

  • You are making an implicit assumption that you have the right features for the right target customer to deliver a compelling benefit. This is a marketing campaign that assumes you have validated the customer hypothesis.  Normally you are in a customer discovery mode with a new app like this, formalizing your assumptions/hypotheses and engaging in conversations with early prospects and early users to determine where you can create differentiated value. This is a brutally competitive space and a target of  “Small business” is not a useful discriminant.  Vacation obligations and payment are  subject to regulatory oversight, so while it’s good to stress the ease of use it would be useful to explore the integration required with the payroll system to make it truly stress free for a manager or small business owner.

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  • Andrew Scharhag

    I was thrown off by the color of the homepage. I think the dark blue was a bit to heavy for the product type (and the personality of the founder). I would suggest a light color scheme to reflect the joy of being on vacation.
    -Just an Observer

  • Wade

    Weekly look?  It’s been over a month and no update.  I agree with skmurphy.  Customer validation needs to be done before getting to heavily into marketing.