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Josh Kligman On How To Go From Idea To Store Shelf

One thing to keep in mind is that asking others what they think about your new idea sometimes results in people giving you the answers they think you want to hear, just to be nice. While that’s admirable, it doesn’t help your business idea. You can combat this by asking potential customers if they would […]

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One thing to keep in mind is that asking others what they think about your new idea sometimes results in people giving you the answers they think you want to hear, just to be nice. While that’s admirable, it doesn’t help your business idea. You can combat this by asking potential customers if they would be willing to purchase your services once you get started, or even take pre-orders, and you’re off and running.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Kligman.

Josh Kligman is the Co-Founder of Yearly, a drag and drop report builder for nonprofits to create stunning, digital reports. Yearly can integrate your stories, videos, social media, polls and more to impress your stakeholders. Josh has 20 years of marketing and sales experience in radio, ad agencies, AOL and nonprofit marketing. He loves his family and thanks to his dad, the New York Jets and good old fashioned rock & roll.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

When I was about 7 years old I sold tickets, to my parents and my Grandma Julie, to come down to the basement and watch me give a concert. I think that was an early indicator that I would grow up and create some sort of product or a service. I actually built a stage with my toy blocks, turned off all the lights and had a spotlight built from flashlights shining on my face. I would announce myself through a toy megaphone and then sing and dance to The Rolling Stones, We are the World…you name it.

As a teenager, I created family newsletters, hung up flyers advertising my neighborhood tennis lessons and once even dressed as a clown for birthday party gigs. Even as a kid, I just loved to create.

I was always the one in the family to make sure the morning of everyone’s birthday was filled with balloons, streamers, the right paper plates and napkins and their favorite breakfast. The presentation of it all and the decorating of the room had to be perfect.

Truth be told, I do the same thing today. It probably rubs off on my work with Yearly and helps out in terms of how I represent the brand when creating digital annual reports for nonprofits.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In high school, I must have been behind in a subject and needed to catch up, and my dad told me to “make it your business.” That means that when it’s crunch time, you have to push through and excel. I work so much better and faster when my back is up against the wall, maybe that experience is why.

In my role today working with nonprofits on their annual reports, I know that I get one chance to make a good impression. I have to “make it my business” to execute to a level that makes customers want to refer us to their colleagues, so I often think back to my dad’s great advice.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Guy Raz’s How I Built This podcast on NPR has a new and creative impact on me with every episode I listen to. When I heard George Zimmer talk about his concept of stacking, which is a sales strategy set-up to offer customers complimentary items just before checkout, I was floored. Some people get emotional after a good Huggies or Tide commercial, for me, it’s these stories. George said that when customers were in the dressing room while trying on suits, Men’s Warehouse associates would collect matching shirts and ties and present them as options to purchase. He created that before e-commerce and now, upselling, leading up to an online checkout online, is a staple.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

We noticed that nonprofits were spending a lot of time and way too much money developing annual reports. There are over 1.7 million nonprofits in the U.S. and it’s a project most of them do every year, and it is such a heavy lift, most communication professionals that manage the job dread it.

There are a lot of writing edits and graphic design work that typically go into these reports, which means a lot of costly back and forth with vendors. When it’s done, it’s a fairly static document, meaning, someone really has to want to read it to stay engaged. We wanted to change that when we saw demand from nonprofits that were interested in creating more engaging reports that their stakeholders could really interact with.

My partner and co-founder, Jeff Rum, had nonprofit clients at his advertising agency that were asking for this solution and after it was built, he realized this idea of building digital annual reports could scale into a business if we built the software.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

We got really specific and found our niche, so that we can stand out and compete. Jeff and I also try to prioritize our work and focus on what will move the needle amongst our small team, because we can’t take on all of the great ideas we have at once.

We also just go go go. Too often I see people exhaust new ideas for months on end and while you definitely want to think things through and not just try everything, if you have a hunch, sometimes you need to take a leap. One way to do that is to reach out to potential partners and clients, any relevant stakeholders, and ask them what they think about your idea. If you see demand there, that can give you the push you might need to get started. If you don’t ask or try, the answer will always be no.

One thing to keep in mind is that asking others what they think about your new idea sometimes results in people giving you the answers they think you want to hear, just to be nice. While that’s admirable, it doesn’t help your business idea. You can combat this by asking potential customers if they would be willing to purchase your services once you get started, or even take pre-orders, and you’re off and running.

Technology is another great help that can take your idea from concept to reality. You can find vendors and partners faster than ever thanks to online resources. The other day I discovered websites HARO and Qwoted, which both connect brands with journalists looking for sources, which is a huge help with my PR efforts at Yearly. We also get help from contractors on Fiverr, who do freelance work from time to time. I also found #paid which is an agency connected to social media influencers that can help promote brands. For almost every problem, there is an app solution that can help get your business off the ground and promoted. If you can’t find one, maybe that’s your hint to start a new company.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

I would look around online and also talk to people in that industry. It’s amazing what can you find with a quick search on Google, but keep searching with different keywords to get varying results, to make sure your idea doesn’t exist. Those working at similar companies might also be willing to help, whether you know them or not, reach out. The worst that happens is they don’t get back to you. Don’t worry about sharing your idea either, you might never get going if you don’t share what you’re working on. You will be surprised by those that want to help you vs. the risk of someone actually stealing your idea and creating a business.

Even if your idea is out there, who’s to say you can’t do a better job at it, or create it with a slightly different angle, niche or target audience?

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

I look at people like Richard Branson, Mark Cuban and Gary Vaynerchuk, who have figured out what sells and go after it, one product after another. In selling annual report software to nonprofits with Yearly, I don’t want to stop there either. Sara Blakely is another role model for me because of her story on How I Built This. Sara was tenacious and determined to make Spanx a success. She took a huge risk in leaving her sales role at a fax machine company, flying to Dallas to land the Neiman Marcus account, and do whatever was needed to sell her new product.

We already have great services and other marketing solutions to create for this audience and it’s the fast moving, well-known entrepreneurs that I aspire to be like.

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

Once we had the concept for Yearly, we quickly realized we had software to develop and that we needed a marketing plan that included promotions, sales and pricing. We didn’t know what we were going to charge for the service at first, but we wanted to be competitive with what our customers were used to paying with outsourced graphic designers to create annual reports. We also didn’t know how much we could spend on marketing, and all of this highly depending on how much the software would cost us to build.

We couldn’t do the code alone so while we wrote a business plan and figured out every inch of how we wanted the report tool to act, we reached out to a developer we knew that also specialized in design. He gave us a quote to build everything we dreamed up and also helped create the look and feel of the brand. We hired him and had a functioning front end marketing website and back-end application for users a few months later.

Next, we had to bring in a few test customers and see how it functioned, work out the bugs and get their feedback for marketing purposes. That took a few months too, and we got it right, but not without several bumps in the road. During that process we were able to think about how we would promote our new service between content marketing on our blog, social media, public relations and paid ads. We also explored cross-functional partnerships with other tech-for-good companies, like Keela, and groups like the Association of Association Executives, where we could give free webinars to their nonprofit community. Basically, wherever there were nonprofit users, we tried to reach them.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We spent months working out bugs, specifically with a few nonprofits that were willing to test their annual reports with Yearly, and we were ready to start selling our service, finally. We earned a paying customer and of course the features they wanted to use had new bugs and errors we weren’t expecting, which causes some disruptions to their experience. We learned that there are always going to be trials like this and we can’t let them get in our way, we just have to fix errors best we can and move on.

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

We felt like we were doing everything right to get the word out, we were up to 15 subscribers for our service, but one day all of our marketing just started to slow down. With COVID in our way, nonprofit budgets took a plunge and our outreach wasn’t seeing success, let alone anyone on the other end answering the phone.

Jeff and I got together on a Friday night and decided we have to try something different, so we made Yearly free for nonprofits. It was a major switch, one that made us rethink our revenue stream, which then became based on premium services. We decided that access to our self-service tool would be at no cost beginning on Giving Tuesday Now, a big day online to give back to charities, which was a nice thing to do for struggling nonprofits, and this would also get users interacting with our report tool. For those interested in having our company provide graphic design support for their nonprofits, such as designing their nonprofit reports for them, we offered those services. With this model, we believed the paying customers would come to us instead of our team relying on cold calling.

The tipping point came right then because we grew from 15 users to over 500 during the summer, and revenue from premium services is working out. We learned to be flexible and nimble, and we aren’t afraid to make changes because of that.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. It’s a Grind, Be Patient: I don’t mind the day after day worrying about moving the needle, but I wish I knew there wasn’t a magic switch you turn on and customers are just there. I can get in front of several qualified customers and not make a sale, it takes patience and more than just a few social media posts.
  2. Pricing is Fluid: When I first launched Yearly I thought the pricing was spot on. It was priced very well for nonprofits and a steal. It was, but little did I know it would drop from $1,000-$2,000 to $0 with the nuisance of offering premium services. We try to react to the market and meet their needs.
  3. Content is King: Content marketing is driving our word of mouth marketing and dominating our Facebook promotions. I find it really useful to tell our story in Facebook groups with like minded professionals, just remember to provide valuable content to share with your audience.
  4. You Should Re-Post Social Media Content: One great post can be recycled and used again. You can change the content or just post it twice. If it performed well the first time, it might do well the second time and reach new audiences.
  5. One Piece of Marketing Content Can Act As Dozens of Social Media Posts: As I learned from a Gary Vaynerchuk marketing post on LinkedIn, you can take assets like a blog post and chop it up into various Facebook posts highlighting different aspects of it. Then those can be Twitter posts and so on. You don’t have to create content all day long to have a lot of social media posts.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

First, go and see if there’s demand by finding actual potential customers. Tell them your idea and see what they say. Then, do some homework on how to make your product or service and find out how much it would cost and all the logistics involved.

If you can find a partner to go in with you, get someone who compliments your expertise with something else.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

If you don’t have any knowledge in the industry you’re trying to break into, a consultant might be a good idea, but that could bring a price point you can’t afford. If that’s the case, try to find someone on LinkedIn from that industry that is willing to help. Reach out and let them know what you’re up to and see if they can lend a hand with their opinion.

Saving your start-up money for building a website, incorporating and marketing might be a better use, but it depends on your level of industry knowledge and your confidence level going into your new venture.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

It depends on your long-term growth plans. We are just looking for late-seed or angel funding at Yearly now, because we want to grow the company quickly. If you’re okay with slow growth, you don’t need the outside funding, but you can scale a lot quicker with capital. Yes, you’re likely giving up equity, unless if you go after an SBA or bank loan, but between angel groups, venture capital, accelerators, and even crowdsourcing options like Fundable, you have choices that can help you fund your build and marketing to get the word out quicker.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Giving nonprofits access to our software is providing them with a necessary marketing tool to help with their fundraising strategy. We want their donors to become more engaged with our customer’s reports, so they get excited about donating back to their cause. If the nonprofits have success with that, we’ve done our job, because the money raised goes back to their community.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d like to help create more opportunities for people to help clothe and feed those in need, by seeing more partnerships between corporations and nonprofits. Perhaps round-up campaigns at retailers could be matched by corporations, so if your coffee and bagel costs $7.50 at a local shop, you can round up to $8.00 to make a $0.50 donation. Then the credit card company who processed the transaction, or another third party corporation, matches the amount and the total $1.00 donation goes to helping people in your neighborhood?

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Oh it’s Gary Vaynerchuk, for sure. If there is a savvy entrepreneur with empathy for nonprofits that would also see the value in Yearly’s business exploding to reach 10 million organizations worldwide, it might be him. This isn’t the first time I thought Gary might be interested in our business model, but it may have to be breakfast over Zoom.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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