Elizabeth Yin is the co-founder of LaunchBit.com, an ad network for email. She is an old school coder for startups (of the dot com era) and was recently a marketing manager for Google. She also holds degrees from Stanford and MIT. She’s got some serious credentials to say the least.
I caught up with Elizabeth for another edition of The Startup Sit Down to find out what it was like growing up in Silicon Valley during the dot com boom, playing poker with her startup ideas and the joys of finding free stuff on listia.com.
Hi Elizabeth, thanks for taking the time to give us the LaunchBit lowdown. Our KillerStartups fans are looking forward to being inspired.
Let’s get started.
What’s LaunchBit all about and what makes it stand out from the competition?
Elizabeth Yin: LaunchBit is an ad network for email. We help newsletter writers monetize their emails and advertisers reach niche demographics. There are a lot of hobbyists who send out email newsletters about their passions, and we help them make money — some of them are nearly making a full income from doing this. While we do offer standard display banner ads, we have a heavy emphasis on text, which has significantly higher click through rates (and as a result, better monetization, for our publishers).
We also have companies who send out newsletters to promote complementary businesses. They’ll either keep the cash or use it to promote their own products.
Tell us a little about where you’re coming from.
EY: I hail from the Bay Area and grew up in the Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom. During high school, I interned and learned web programming at other people’s startups and got hooked. So, I’ve known that I’ve wanted to do a startup for a long time now. In fact, during my junior year, my best friend Jennifer and I actually made a pact that someday we would start a company together. Today, she’s my co-founder.
How was LaunchBit hatched, and what really sparked the inspiration?
EY: I had a failed startup a few years ago with a different co-founder. After that experience, I read some blog articles written by Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup, and realized that I’d done everything all wrong before… with my last startup, we built and built and built a product that no one wanted.
So, when Jennifer and I decided to start a company, we decided to be idea-agnostic and just do 2-4 week experiments trying to solve different problems with different prototypes. In so many ways, it was like playing poker. We would bet on an idea a little bit by way of time and resources. And if things still looked promising, we would bet some more, but if our hypotheses about a problem/solution/or market were wrong, we’d fold. We did this with so many ideas, and by the time we got into the 500Startups accelerator, we still didn’t yet have a product that we’d “gone all in on” and also realized that we really wanted to just focus on solving the problem of customer acquisition rather than exploring so many different problems. Many businesses find it very difficult to get new customers, so we wanted to come up with an effective platform that would make this easy.
Because we gave ourselves only 2-4 weeks to decide if an idea was worth continuing with, we had to be super scrappy and do some really hacky things to figure out if we were on the right track. So, for example, one idea that we tried was an AdWords optimizer tool for small businesses. 2-4 weeks doesn’t give you enough time to truly build out a well done prototype with fancy algorithms.
So, we simply put up a couple web pages where small businesses could input their AdWords campaigns. And, we would email them and say, “Hey, the optimizer is working on your campaign and will email you stats every few days.” Of course, there was no automated optimizer — it was simply us manually using AdWords in the back to optimize people’s campaigns. This was an experiment we ended up canning due to a whole number of reasons, and I’m glad that we didn’t build out that tool, because it would’ve been a complete waste.
About a couple weeks after that experiment, we tried an experiment in just manually placing a few ad creatives for advertisers into email newsletters. And, the initial results were good. So, we decided to continue betting on this idea more and more, building out our technology platform in parallel to get sales.
Biggest startup surprise (good or bad) so far?
EY: It’s possible (and highly recommended) to get customers *before* you even have a product.
One thing you would have done differently?
EY: It’s hard to say — probably would not have wasted 1.5 years on a failed startup? But on the other hand, if I hadn’t had that failure, maybe I never would’ve had success.
Do you have any interesting team morale-building/stress-busting techniques?
EY: With my failed startup, morale was always low. And, in large part, it was because we had no external validation. It was just us building a product continuously in the dark.
In the beginning, building something new is always exciting, but revising, refactoring code, and fixing bugs are downer-activities. So, you need something else to give your team motivation. Customers are a great source of this and honestly the best indicator of progress. Having people tell you that they love what you’re doing is so uplifting. Even having customers tell you they were disappointed is also a morale booster in some ways, because it validates that someone cares enough to tell you. Your own results showing progress (sales, profit, user growth, etc) is always great too. We look at all of these on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to keep morale up.
Favorite tech tool?
EY: Too many to name! But, followup.cc helps me keep in touch and follow up with customers/potential customers regularly.
What’s your “man, I wish I would have thought of that” startup and why?
EY: Haha, knowing what I know about how hard all of our experiments were, I don’t think there’s any startup that is actually easy to build. But, one of the coolest ideas I’ve seen in the web world is Listia, a marketplace for free stuff. The team there is super cool too.
Parting words of wisdom for startup newbies and wannabies?
EY: Even though money may be tight, time is actually your most limited asset. So, it’s important to figure things out as quickly as possible — decide within 1 month whether an idea is worth pursuing further. You’ll know very early on whether your idea has potential — even if you don’t have hockey stick growth (most people don’t at that point), you’ll have users/customers who will love/hate/be indifferent to what you’re doing.
Thanks Elizabeth! We’ll be sure to check out LaunchBit for all our ad network for email needs.