Desperately seeking critical feedback: Advice for startups from entrepreneur Matt Hudson

Startups need people willing to say bad things about them, says Matt Hudson. This feedback is the best way to find out whether you're on track with what your target market wants.

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Matt Hudson wears several hats. His current entrepreneurial venture is VoteRockIt, a platform for political candidates to build mobile apps, and his day job is as lead mobile developer for a privately held department store chain in the South. The University of Arkansas graduate is also a mentor in The ARK Challenge startup accelerator program. Earlier in his career, he founded, a mobile app and web development firm in Springdale, Ark.

During our engaging phone interview, he offered a lot of advice for startups, including the importance of: seeking critical feedback as a driver of success and as having a sense of urgency; understanding that gaining traction is much harder than you think but possible with hard work; knowing who your target market is, and realizing that you don't have resources to waste on marketing to the wrong people; and, at the enterprise level, getting ready to innovate and disrupt your firm.

TechRepublic: In your experience as an entrepreneur, what are the biggest lessons that you have learned?

Matt Hudson: The most important thing that I have learned is that you have to desperately want feedback -- and not just any feedback but critical feedback. You need those "speak out" people that are willing to say bad things about your startup. [You should] latch onto them and ask them for as much as you can possibly get them to give you. Because those are the people that are going to give you the clues as to whether or not what you're doing is on the right track.

I think the biggest challenge that startups face is that they think that their idea is necessarily good and useful. I tell all the startups that I talk to this: just because something has utility does not mean people will use it. In this day and age, an idea has to make their life easier.

"I tell all the startups that I talk to this: just because something has utility does not mean people will use it." Matt Hudson

It is very easy to build a feature that is needed for Facebook as a separate app, or something that possibly Apple could do as a separate app, but it has to make people's lives easier -- give them time, basically, in their life. If you can find the person that will tell you this isn't something that will benefit him or her on an everyday basis, that ultimately is the feedback that you will need to guide you.

Every startup company and developer thinks that they are their target market, and they simply are not. I am an iPhone developer myself, and my iPhone developer friends and I might say iPhone has the most penetration, because we don't know anyone with Android.

That is sort of the anecdotal evidence I have that you are not your target market. You have to find somebody willing to tell you whether or not they will buy your product and your idea. And that is probably the key to determining whether or not you will be successful.

TechRepublic: As a mentor in The ARK Challenge accelerator program, what in your view is the biggest things that startups need to know?

Matt Hudson: The most important thing they can know going in is the amount of work that it requires to be an "overnight" success. I think it's really, really easy to see success as in Silicon Valley, or they can see people who have raised millions of dollars for their startup, and think that's a success. Of course, raising money by itself is not a success.

Getting traction is about 1,000 times harder than most startups think that it is. The level of work needed, the kinds of relationships required, and the manual labor of getting your name out there -- even if you have funding -- these are extremely challenging. I think they have to accept that it is going to take a long time for them to be an "overnight" success. But once they do that, I think they'll realize if you have the will, you can be successful. It just might take longer than you expect.

One of the more profound things that I have found in the startup community is what I call "teach and share." Because whether or not you are successful, especially if you are outside of Silicon Valley, is going to depend on the relationships that you have made. So when you talk to your fellow startups, ask them how you can help them out.

That sort of karma is very, very real and palpable in the startup community. And most of the successes that I have had connecting with people are based on that. That's a big takeaway for me. Ultimately, it requires either your customers or your relationships to make you successful, so you have to do what you can to make other people successful in the startup community.

TechRepublic: What is your elevator speech for VoteRockIt?

Matt Hudson: What's great about VoteRockIt is that it gives small, medium, and large candidates an opportunity to engage with their potential voters and their advocates. It is inexpensive, it is ready-made, and it is easy to get set up. The goal is three simple things: get out the vote, raise money, and engage with your community. That's what VoteRockit does, and allows candidates to do.

TechRepublic: What can enterprise marketers learn from your experience at VoteRockIt?

Matt Hudson: Enterprise marketers have a lot of opportunities to learn from startups. The most important thing is that a startup needs to be potent, and it has to reach people that are their direct target market. They do not have any opportunity to waste marketing on someone who will not buy their product. Most of them do not have the budget to do that.

I think that understanding the sort of urgency and potency that is required in a startup can benefit enterprise marketers as well, because it is very easy to become a cog inside a large retailer, a big bank, or any of these large companies. You need to think about how you can make your business money, how your company can be directly impacted by the people you're marketing to, and who you're selling to.

Having a sense of urgency, knowing your target market better than anyone else can impact your enterprise business as much as anything.

TechRepublic: What can enterprises learn from startup best practices?

Matt Hudson: One particularly interesting subject, and I think it is making its way into the enterprise, is innovation. Understanding how to create an innovation team, and how to coordinate that team with the other departments that do day-to-day work.

When I was in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, one of the things we talked about is how large companies become myopic. They don't innovate. They tend to think "this is our core customer," and they don't want to leave that. But the best companies disrupt themselves. The best companies reinvent themselves every year.

When Apple went from being a desktop company to a mobile-oriented company, that obviously provided them an opportunity to be the most valuable company in the world. But if they had not been willing to disrupt themselves, then they would not be in that position. You know, iPads are now outselling laptops. So I would say that's the most important thing that enterprises can take away from what startups have to do on a daily basis.

TechRepublic: Here's a question from The ARK Challenge website -- why Arkansas? What can you tell me about the startup community there?

Matt Hudson: I have said this before -- I believe that Charlotte, N.C. [where he resides] and Arkansas actually have some parallels. There is an undercurrent of tech talent that is being incubated, if you will, by the big companies there.

Charlotte has the banking industry and also energy. There is this underlying group of people that work in these companies, but are talented and maybe want to go work for themselves.

What is great about Arkansas, why it has a big opportunity to make a dent, if you will, is that not only does it have that undercurrent of tech talent, but it also has investors looking to help. The ARK Challenge asks companies to come in that are oriented around retail, agriculture, or transportation. The leaders in that community do this because if you've got something that Walmart, Tyson, or J.B. Hunt can use, then you have built-in traction. And that obviously is the key to being successful.

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By Brian Taylor

Brian Taylor is a contributing writer for TechRepublic. He covers the tech trends, solutions, risks, and research that IT leaders need to know about, from startups to the enterprise. Technology is creating a new world, and he loves to report on it.