“We almost died before going to market”: Startup lessons learned

This article was first published June 12, 2012, by Joanna Wiebe of Copy Hackers in her monthly copyhackers newsletter.  If you haven’t read her books and you market products online, you should! http://copyhackers.com. A must read.

by Joanna Wiebe
June 12, 2012

I’m in a pretty enviable position as a copywriter working with startups – tech startups in particular.


I mean, there’s almost nothing as inspiring as working with scrappy, smart people who are solving real problems for folks… and spreading the word about those solutions.

It’s über-challenging… which is what’s so fun about it.

(A lovely photo of Mark Fischer)One of the startup founders I’ve been lucky to work with is Mark Fischer (shown here –>), who’s got InspireCommerce and InspirePay under his belt.

  • InspireCommerce is a merchant service solution for accepting payments online or on the road (more)
  • InspirePay is like a shopping cart for service providers – it makes getting paid as easy as sharing a URL (more)

Mark and I first connected just weeks after Lance and I launched Copy Hackers, and then again when he asked me to work with him on InspirePay.com – which I jumped at the chance to do.

Since then, we’ve chatted tons – and I’ve found myself thinking, again and again, “Da-zamn, I wonder how many startup founders out there would kill to learn what Mark’s already learned?”

After all, Mark’s a guy who’s put in over a decade of his precious time building businesses online.

He’s got the battle scars. …You’d be crazy not to learn by way of his scars instead of earning your own, wouldn’t you?

I happen to think so.

Which is why I recently asked him to wax wise-ole-owl for a while… and he was kind enough to oblige.

The result is the following top takeaways of successful startup founder Mark Fischer, which I hope you’ll enjoy:

Mark on Increasing Conversion: 3% to 8.6% (Breaking news… 14.4% in June)

“As an internet strategy consultant for 12 years, I’d made a career out of building lifestyle brands for companies. So when we first launched InspirePay, the website was a ‘lifestyle website’… and unfortunately it just wasn’t doing the trick.”

“Our conversion rate was about 3%.”

“I realized we needed to say WHAT InspirePay is and WHY someone should use it. InspirePay is a powerful tool, and, as such, it really required us to take more of a features/benefits approach. We needed a single page everyone would just understand. I think we accomplished what we set out to do with the new InspirePay.com – where our conversion rate is now 8.6%.”

Mark on Copy Hacking
“No, this isn’t a paid endorsement… but the 1 thing I would tell any startup founder working on their own copy is to buy and read Copy Hackers. Let copy lead design… There are many moving parts to telling a story properly, and your books are a solid starting point. We followed the books step-by-step for select Inspire Commerce pages, and sales have really increased.”

“Working with you, Joanna, as our copywriter on InspirePay was a huge blessing. Moving a 3% conversion rate to an 8.6% conversion rate – actually, 12.45% in the past 7 days – is stellar.”




Mark on Making “Big Mistakes”

“When we started, I let myself get sold on a very cool ‘social engagement’ platform, which cost a LOT of money every month. We lost weeks trying to integrate the platform into our developers’ app framework… and we burnt tons of cash on the integration. I spent $1000s on integrating a service, which we then owed money to – for every month going forward – yet I lacked the funds to build the Viable part of my Minimum Viable Product. Yuck.”

“We almost died before going to market. Thank God the engagement company let us drop our contract and my developers were cool working for equity for a couple months.”


Mark on What It Takes to Get Through Challenges
“Level-headedness. And perseverance.”
Mark on Launching as a Minimum Viable Product
“The best decision we ever made was just getting an MVP to market. The process of defining an MVP is intense, and it requires a massive amount of letting go. Minimum was easy… there is a web page a customer can setup, and people can go there and pay said customer. We all agreed on minimum. …What was hard was sucking up the fact that the product was 1/100th of what should have been there and that it wasn’t even close to “wowing” us when we launched it.”

“It was a hard decision to launch something that was less than I wanted, but we immediately got press and investor trust, and now we’re able to iterate regularly based on actual user feedback. We’re at the point where a development sprint for us means we are developing ONE thing and launching it. We develop one feature at a time. It makes deliverables and focus clear. We’re not lost and stuck in pre-launch, where 99% of startups die. We’re live, secure, transacting, and improving often.”

Mark on Identifying a Target Market
“The vast majority of our users are professionals, non-profits, and associations collecting fees. Yes, there are some people requesting beer money, but the majority of our users are professionals.”

“Now, do we favor a market? I have to say no. At this time, we’re facilitating markets where we feel a pull. We’re being receptive and responsive, and when we see a user in a market that has glowing feedback, we facilitate that user and reach out to that market in order to serve more people.”

Mark on Differentiation
“The difference between us and Square or Stripe is that we are really looking at empowering the merchant to have choice.”

“Square is a closed world. You sign up for an account with Square, they are your provider, you are stuck with them for support, there is no freedom. Not a bad company to be stuck with, but no freedom.”

“With InspirePay, we allow the merchant to choose who will be moving the money. They could setup Stripe, or a merchant account with our preferred partners, or choose their own via their bank and a gateway like Authorize.net. Dwolla and Paypal are also integrated. So, unlike Square, we are an open provider. Dwolla is $0.25 / transaction to move money in any quantity. Compared to Square at 3.5% + $0.15 for keyed transactions… we see an obvious value in promoting freedom of choice.”

Mark on Building a User Base
“InspirePay’s website traffic is still 100% word of mouth. Every day, we bring on a handful of new users who hear about us through their network, and just this past month our adoption rate doubled – our user base is growing at nearly 30% month-over-month.”

Mark on Getting Great Investors
“We have a lot of investors right now, but my first investor was a guy named Michael Abdy… who was just 19 years old at the time. To date, my relationship with him has been invaluable.”

Mark’s 2 Pearls for Startups
1) There is a gift in being of service to others.
2) If you have a clear vision for a project, start today. Don’t be worried about failure or about having your ideas seen too early. Just do it.