We haven’t been blogging very much (actually not blogging at all), so we are hoping this first “real” post about KeyCuts will give you a good idea of how KeyCuts started. Our good friend Roger at lifelaidout.com interviewed KeyCuts founder Al Chen about leaving his 9-5 to start KeyCuts and other business ventures.
Here’s the link to the full blog post on Roger’s blog: http://lifelaidout.com/2013/06/16/keycuts-all-about-spreadsheets/
I had the opportunity to meet up with my friend, Big Al, who recently left his job to work on a variety of startup ventures, one of which is focused exclusively on Excel spreadsheets. Given that I love spreadsheets, I had to get the scoop on this business and I thought it would be helpful for you to get a sense of the who, what, why, and where of Big Al’s story so that you may be able to apply some of the lessons to your own life (i.e. why Big Al decided to leave a stable job, how he started something from nothing, and specifically, how he began making money from working on something everyone loves (spreadsheets))!
Joining the Startup Wave
What made you take the plunge and decide to quit your job to pursue startups?
Big Al: I started thinking about taking the plunge about 8-12 months before I quit my job. I had many other interests outside of ad sales at Google, but at the time, I found myself making up excuses for not pursuing those activities. I realized that I’d continue making excuses unless I devoted my full attention to those interests.
Even prior to that, I had been working on a small startup with some friends, just for fun. We told each other that we would quit our jobs if we knew our company would make it big (knowing that the chances of that happening were one in a million). I immersed myself into this startup on nights and weekends, and even sometimes at work. I began to feel very committed to the venture and had very optimistic visions of how I could lead the team to a billion-dollar buyout one day by Google. These kinds of dreams are dangerous for people working at desk jobs they hate, because it fuels the entrepreneurial itch to just drop everything and go follow your passions, interests, and dreams. Needless to say, with the startup, and other business ideas I had brewing in my life, the decision to quit became very simple.
How did you get comfortable with the fact that you wouldn’t be making a regular salary for some time?
Big Al: The freedom to set my own schedule, work on my own projects, and pursue my interests far out-weighed my interests in having a salary. I was very fortunate to have saved up enough to live in an apartment in Manhattan, so I knew I would be okay. Psychologically, I knew it would be tough not getting a regular salary, but when I started looking at my life and career 1-3 years out, I realized I wouldn’t be making any large investments (i.e. house, car, etc.). This gave me more confidence that not having a regular salary would not be as bad as I thought it was. I am a huge believer in Mint and I set up a simple monthly budget for myself. When you sit down and really analyze what you need to simply survive, the monthly cost isn’t that huge after you get past the rent check. This was a pleasant surprise for me since you always feel like you’re burning through cash in NYC on cabs, restaurants, etc. Once you put it all down on paper, you realize where you can make your cuts – eating out and cabs for me – and you realize how easy it is to “get by.”
Did you give yourself a timeline of how long you would allow yourself to do startups before going back to the corporate world (if things don’t work out)?
Big Al: Mentally, I told myself 1-2 years, but this is just a rough guide depending on what progress I made with my ventures and if any life events occur. Maybe my parents will get sick (god forbid), maybe I find the love of my life and need to buy a house; these events would probably nudge me back to the corporate world. The more I pursue my business ideas, the more I don’t want to return to the corporate world, so I may just keep on working at it until I succeed so that I would not need to receive a regular salary anymore.
KeyCuts: A Business About Spreadsheets
What kind of products or services does KeyCuts provide?
Big Al: KeyCuts provides a keyboard cover product for Macbooks that helps you learn Excel for the Mac. The keyboard covers have the 20 most common keyboard shortcuts printed right on the cover so the shortcuts are literally “at your fingertips.” KeyCuts also provides custom Excel consulting if your business is looking to streamline reports and business operations. Finally, we also offer a workshop called Speed Excel, which teaches the most common keyboard shortcuts in Excel, for PC and Mac, to help you be more productive and efficient at your job.
Do similar covers exist already and if so, how is your product different?
Big Al: Our keyboard cover product is different from current solutions in the market because you can visualize the shortcut on the keyboard without having to look at a sheet or a website. The product is also different in that we only show you 20% of the shortcuts that will help you accomplish 80% of the tasks you will face on the job. This way, you are learning the shortcuts in a manner that is efficient for your job as an analyst, MBA student, or whatever.
People who are good at Excel also carry this stigma that they are boring types who sit in cubicles all day crunching numbers. Our keyboard covers come in a variety of colors that make your keyboard stand out from the typical black keyboards on Macbooks, adding some creativity and fun to your computer.
What pushed you to create the keyboard covers and what made you think there was demand for this type of product?
Big Al: My co-founder actually saw these stickers that you stick on your keyboard teaching Gmail shortcuts. We thought about doing something similar for Excel, but realized that stickers are too permanent and just look kind of tacky. I did some research, and found keyboard covers to be a good solution to solve this problem of showing you the shortcuts when you need them, but then being able to easily “hide” the shortcuts as well when you want to go back to your normal keyboard.
At a high level, I had just finished reading Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Work Week and was fascinated with the “muse” concept – a low-maintenance product or service business that generates a residual income. I’ve always wanted to build a physical product and reading this book helped me take the necessary steps to make it happen. I did prototypes, tested it with some Excel users, and saw that there would be a good demand for the product as long as we marketed it correctly. After doing a simple search on Google, we found that there really aren’t many physical products that help you learn Excel on the Mac as well.
How long did you brainstorm and plan before actually taking steps toward production?
Big Al: It took about 1-2 months. We brainstormed the idea for a week or so and I literally created the first mockups in PowerPoint. We sent this mockup to the manufacturer in China and within 2-3 weeks, we had our first prototype. We played around with the colors, formatting, etc. and pulled the trigger and ordered a crap ton of KeyCuts keyboard covers to sell on our website!
In terms of Excel classes and consulting, how were you able to get this part of the business started (i.e. get customers)?
Big Al: It’s pretty much all connections. I’ve had various sales roles in the past, and I always thought it was about pushing your features and benefits until your customer got to the “A-ha” moment and bought your product or service. I’ve realized 90% of the time it’s through your professional network, referrals, and personal life where these opportunities come about. I had no idea I would get into the teaching game, but now I have this under my belt and it’s all about getting the first customer to validate your service by paying you for the service. I luckily had taught my Excel class at Google before I left the company, and had received positive results from my students in the class. This gave me confidence that this class could be helpful for other businesses looking to increase their employees’ productivity and would be willing to pay for this workshop.
For the consulting side of the business, I would echo what I said above: it’s all just word of mouth, and having the first client. I facilitated a class on Speed Excel at NYU Stern last Fall, and one of my students sent me an email afterwards about one of her friends who needed some Excel help for a private investment fund she manages. After getting this investment fund’s business, I’ve been able to legitimize the consulting side of KeyCuts as well as give myself confidence that there are businesses out there willing to pay me for my expertise. To be frank, I haven’t done much marketing for the consulting side of the business, since it just happens organically through word of mouth.
Snagging a Keyboard Cover
If you’re interested in getting some keyboard covers to learn Excel shortcuts (or just to pimp out your Macbook), you can find the full selection of KeyCuts’ keyboard covers here. For information on anything else about KeyCuts, including classes and consulting services, you can take a look at their website.