Startup Spotlight: Let’s Go Du+ch!

Sharing experiences, creating memories, engaging with like-minded people, enjoying a richer life… this is the concept behind going “du+ch.” The company was born of longtime friends Vincent Paradiso and Debora McCleary, who partnered to create a social network for travel and entertainment. Both entrepreneurs in their previous lives, Vincent and Debora created a unique way for people to connect with others who would share the cost of excursions they may not otherwise have been able to experience due to excessive costs. Their efforts established a marketplace for sharing life’s adventures, big or small and I had the pleasure of catching up with Vincent to chat about some of his hopes, challenges, and goals for the future. I was also excited to gather a few sound bytes from Deb, who founded the premier New York beauty directory, The Debb Report. And you all know I’m a sucker for all things beauty and fashion… =)

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Vincent, prior to co-founding du+ch, you had a very successful professional career in ballet. What made you decide to delve into the world of entrepreneurship? 

I’ve always been bit of an entrepreneur. I love ballet, but I always knew I would do more. I’d always had an interest in real estate so I formed Paradiso Properties. My goal was to have multiple investment homes that I rent and manage, along with a real estate license to sell homes. But I quickly grew bored with my new career choice. I made money, but it wasn’t my passion. I started contemplating new ideas. I thought of all the amazing things I did with colleagues while on tour with NYCB, and how we would split the bill. We wouldn’t have been able to enjoy as much had we not shared the cost. I knew I had something but wasn’t ready to dive in. One night out with my girlfriend, I wanted to book bottle service at a club but didn’t want to pay $1,500. Our friends couldn’t join, so we skipped out and the idea for du+ch was born.

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Deb, what differences have you experienced between building du+ch and building the Debb Report? What unique challenges have you faced with each endeavor and how have you addressed them?

The first challenge with the Debb Report was having my partner drop out. I ended up funding the entire site on my own, and found a few friends to help me write all the salon bios that are (almost all) now in place. Updating my site is still a challenge, because aside from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram updates, I have to be on top of so much information. I realized that I couldn’t do it all on my own, especially with the time du+ch now needs. I recently hired a wonderful beauty/fashion blogger to help create original content to help grow my site and SEO. Having a partner who is fully engaged and committed is a necessity. Vincent and I definitely have a give and take when it comes to growing du+ch. We complement one another very well and have complete trust in each other, which is invaluable.  Because du+ch is an e-commerce site, it is a much more involved endeavor than my directory so Vincent and I are having to learn as we go. We constantly seek expertise from those who have done this before and people have been very generous with their time and knowledge.

Choosing the right partner is so important when founding a brand-new venture. How do you work through differences in opinion and what qualities do you each bring to the table?

(Vincent) Deb is a long time friend. We have great chemistry. When I approached her with du+ch, she was immediately ready to jump onboard. The key for us is making sure we always keep open lines of communication. She helps ground me and work through new ideas. As I’d mentioned earlier, the ideas don’t stop. You can’t attack all of them at once, you have to stay focused. du+ch would be nothing if I’d built it, then decided to go out and work on another idea. Being able to keep everything organized helps a lot. We have yet to have any major disagreements, but I believe we both are the types of people who will listen. We will acknowledge each others’ points, let them sink in, and compromise on a solution.

(Deb) Vincent and I agree on most things day-to-day, but when we disagree, we have a real ability to listen to one another and come to a joint agreement fairly easily.  Luckily we are both sane, thoughtful and committed to making du+ch a success, no matter how long it takes us.

What is the best part about running your own business?  

Exactly that, it’s mine. I’m directly responsible for its success and/or failure. I take great pride in bringing an idea to life. It’s challenging work, but when you know your hands are involved in every working aspect, it is so rewarding. I look forward to each and every day. I am constantly learning about every aspect of my business.

Du+ch is such a unique concept. Do you have plans to expand beyond more elite and trendy events? Do you see a market for couples, families, businesses?

Absolutely! We’re now in all of those markets. The beauty of du+ch is that everything on the site is user-generated. The same way you can sell anything on eBay, you can share anything on du+ch. It is a marketplace that puts the power of the sharing economy in the hands of the masses. You no longer have to build an app to enter this space, you can use our platform to share anything you want. Every user, individual or corporate, can host and search for anything they want to share. The look of our brand is luxurious, but users can share free events, basic group packages, or even ultra luxe experiences. We take the social element of Facebook events, the payment features of Eventbrite, and combine them into one site. The greatest thing is you can reach more than just your current circle. The point is, friends cannot always join in the fun. With du+ch, you can find those who can, get to know one another, and pool your funds to make anything within reach. The great thing about du*ch, and what separates us from a Groupon/Eventbrite, is our social transparency. Every user has a profile with reviews and verifications, so you can meet new people and feel comfortable sharing with them.

If you knew then what you know now, how might you have advised yourselves before launching du+ch? Any big aha! moments?

I would have been a lot more specific in the design and build of the website. I had it in my head, but translating it to developers was difficult. They needed every single specification and I didn’t anticipate providing them that level of detail. I would have also done more research on payment processors. When we create the app, I am going to document every last detailed requirement for the developers. I won’t leave any stone unturned.

What would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur? 

Discipline, focus and creativity. It is so important to stay disciplined. There are too many distractions surrounding us everyday – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. You have to resist the temptation and prioritize. You also have to focus on your goals, plan your short- and long-term strategies and then execute your plans to achieve them. That said, you have to remain creative, think out of the box and fill a perceived need. Always strive to disrupt the status quo.

What have been some of your failures since launching du+ch, and what have you learned from them?

I assumed once the site was built, the audience would come. I thought people would just find it, sign up and leverage the network, which wasn’t the case. I also focused too much energy on creating the perfect user experience. Marc Cuban once said, “Perfection is the enemy of profitability, you can try to make everything perfect, but you’re losing opportunity somewhere else.” What may seem perfect and simple to one may not be the same for others. I also mistakenly assumed that upon launch, I would play a support role. I didn’t realize I was going to have get out there and sell. That is the biggest challenge. Once you fill the need, you need to let the world know you’ve filled it. You have to make your own opportunities.

To what do you most attribute your success? What would say are the five key elements for starting and running a successful business?

Taking the lessons I’ve learned from the ballet and applying them to the business world. For both, you need to exhibit the discipline, focus, and creativity mentioned earlier, but you also have to be willing to fail, deal with rejection, perform, and not let anyone define you. We failed all the time while dancing. If a step wasn’t executed as expected, you didn’t give up. Instead, you figured out what went wrong, fixed it, repeated it, and tried to perfect it.  We dealt with rejection on a regular basis. In business, you have to do the same. Not everyone will love you or embrace your vision and that’s okay. So many of my most rewarding experiences came from taking a leap. Never be afraid of failure.

How do you go about marketing your business? What has been your most successful form of marketing?

Getting the word out is our biggest challenge, especially on a shoestring budget. I have seen a big jump in traffic when I advertise and share available listings on Facebook, but it hasn’t converted much yet. One experience that did convert was dinner with a private chef. The price was extremely reasonable and users wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. We are working on lining up fun yet cost-effective experiences. Giving corporate partners a chance to list group deals as they would with Groupon, but without the heavy fees, will help line up some great offerings. I also notice that when I do interviews like this, we get a major boost. I think it helps so much to get the word out. This interview engages a new audience and helps us connect with them. Some readers may skim our story, some may read the whole thing, some will love it, some will hate it, but either way I just grabbed the attention of a potential user and was able to get my entire message across. It is the best way to acquire new users and highlight interest in our brand.

Follow du+ch: Website  Facebook Twitter Google+ YouTube Instagram

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Taking It To The Street…Maybe With Some Wine And Cheese

In a world where virtual is no longer the alternate reality, there is still a lot to be said for direct human contact as a driver of prospects and sales.

Let’s face it, we’re all way too dependent on our mobile devices and completely absorbed in email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube…and on and on. But all the action is online, right??

Ummm, research shows that’s not exactly the case anymore.

Successful selling is rooted in relationships…personal relationships established via in-person meetings and informal, lighthearted conversations. So we need to turn our focus to OFFLINE advertising to differentiate us from the competition. Making yourself accessible to potential customers, giving them a chance to find out who you are and what you’re all about – it goes a very long way and may make them more inclined to patronize your business.

Hitting the pavement may be just the ticket to launch your company to the next level. If you were wandering around a bookstore, wouldn’t you think it was cool to run into an author in your favorite genre hosting a meet and greet? Maybe get a chance to pick their brain about their characters, what drives them to write, where they draw inspiration from? Maybe you might buy one of his/her books because you were just so impressed with their warmth and engaging personality. Maybe you read the book, love it and recommend it to a friend. Maybe that friend is Ellen DeGeneres and the author gets picked up for a segment based on your referral and hits the New York Times bestseller list the next week. Just saying, it could happen. And so the story goes…no pun intended. =)

Don’t discount the importance of face-to-face interaction. A handshake and a smile feel so much better than a private Facebook message, don’t they?? Hosting a cocktail party is a great way to get to know prospective clients!

Red and white wine pouring on wood background

Just make sure you don’t kick back too much.  Remember, you’re working not partying on spring break. =)

Couple having fun in disco night club with body tequila party

Put A Little Sex In The Headline

Okay, it may not always work as planned, depending on your audience. But I can tell you it will make your headline click-worthy. It doesn’t have to be graphic either, by the way. Just suggestive. =)

PR is EXPENSIVE so anything you can do on your own to generate buzz will reduce your burn rate. You can pitch editors yourself but if you don’t have a hook, they don’t have a story. The surest way to get a response is to give them the whole setup. If you can’t hook an editor, you won’t have a shot of hooking readers.

Press conference

An attention-grabbing headline is the first step. Think about this blog post. Did you click the link because there was a sexual reference in the title? Don’t be shy, it’s all good. I’ll bet everyone reading this was just as curious as you. If I hadn’t written it, I’d have done the same thing.

Eliminate the mundane. People won’t care. You need to find the angle that will pique their interest and work it into your pitch.

Here’s another little tip. Less is more. Your pitch needs to be short and sweet. Make your point once, quickly, before the editor loses interest otherwise your brilliant story will most assuredly end up in the desktop trash bin.

7 Must-Do Tips For Startups To Generate Good PR – Entrepreneur

Oh yeah, one more thing. Proofread your email and make sure you’re addressing the right editor because it would really suck if you sent your pitch to the wrong person at the wrong publication because that’s your one chance to make a first impression, folks.

Wine and editorial pitches DON’T mix!!!

Time To Bust Outta That Box!!!

You’re a startup entrepreneur. By nature, that makes you an idea generator. It also probably means you’re operating on a shoestring budget.

So you have to wear multiple hats – innovator, marketer, developer, designer – and figure out how to get your offerings to market in an expedient and cost-efficient way. Not an easy task…but you’ve got the tools in your arsenal. =)

For those of you without huge marketing and advertising budgets, it’s frustrating to get your voice heard. I liken it to swimming (okay, it’s probably more like furiously treading water. LOL). You jump into a pool, not realizing it’s the deep end. You’re not a strong swimmer and panic sets in. The pool is packed; swimmers are frolicking, splashing, screaming, laughing. And there you are, right in the middle of it, flailing and floundering. But nobody can help you because you aren’t screaming loud enough. Your lungs are filling with water and you can barely choke out a syllable. DANGER LURKS…need a lifeline!!!!

Lost at sea

Yep. That’s how it is for a lot of us. Markets are flooded with companies trying to pimp their wares. But how many are doing it successfully? Is anyone trying to do things differently to stand out from the virtual crowd?

1. The Alternate Reality – Never assume people are only seeking information online. If you come into contact with potential customers, don’t waste the opportunity to tout your offering. I shamelessly hand out postcards advertising my novel (as well as papering restrooms, hair salons, nail salons, fitting rooms at Nordstrom…LOL). Guess what? After a mass distribution, my sales jump. When I work alongside my street team of hot male models, even better. Know your customer, folks! =)

2. You’ve Gotta Have Swagga – Don’t discount the impact of swag, no matter what Mark Cuban thinks. =) Slap your logo and tag line on mugs, keychains, t-shirts, tote bags and bumper stickers. Zazzle and VistaPrint always run sweet deals!!! Put it out there so people can see it and ask about it. If you don’t know something exists, how can you possibly buy it???

3. Incent & Engage – Contests are a fabulous way to raise awareness of your company name. Get prospective customers to engage with you online and have them invite others to join the party! Photo, video, caption, submit your vote – the options are endless! Just make the incentive worth the effort. The trick, of course, is to find participants. That’s where your social media network comes into play. But don’t stop there. Head to online sweepstakes websites and post your giveaways there. You can find plenty of freebies that will promote them and these sites typically have oodles and oodles of visitors. i mean, who doesn’t love something for nothing? =)

Internet Marketing Diagram

How Do You Keep The Music Playing? How Do You Make It Last??

So you’re sitting in front of your laptop a couple of months post-launch scratching your head, thinking “What the heck should I do NOW?”

Courtesy of www.alwaysinfo.us

Courtesy of www.alwaysinfo.us

Very good question. It’s one that I’m pretty sure most small business owners have.

Launch week ROCKED!!! We sold a TON!!! But now? Two months later? CRICKETS.

You’re still a ways off from releasing 2.0 so what are you supposed to do in the interim? Twiddle your thumbs while you obsessively refresh your sales numbers? How long can you publicize your initial offering while you prep for the new one?

It’s not easy, especially if you don’t have a ton of discretionary capital to toss at promotional services. When our Krina handbags debuted in InStyle magazine and OK! Weekly, sales skyrocketed. But the problem was maintaining that momentum when those issues were off the newsstands. Sure, we tried to capitalize on the wins but it only got us so far. Everyone wanted to see what was coming next…and we were still trying to figure out how to find the funds to produce what would come next.

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Building momentum takes time. So instead of panicking that sales are dropping off, consider different ways of reaching customers. Your primary goal is to keep your brand name top of mind. So get it out there to the masses and establish yourself as a source of knowledge in your industry. All of your efforts will indirectly help raise awareness of your brand. It may take time for your sales numbers to rebound but if you reach people on another level, they just may be interested enough to find out about your offerings. Don’t shove the buy links down their throats…try some new ways to build your customer base.

Consider these ideas:

  • Create a website and BLOG – Figure out what your audience wants to read and create a content niche for yourself.
  • Submit guest posts on websites where your target market congregates – This will help associate your name to a particular type of content. Say you run a handbag design company and you love fashion. Find blogs that cater to fellow fashionistas and inquire about submitting articles about topics in fashion and style. When you include your social media contact information in the post, readers will be able to see that you are also a designer/entrepreneur and maybe they’ll be interested enough to buy one of your handbags!
  • Post in forums that focus on your product and market – This is a networking opportunity, a chance for you to find fellow fashionistas who love handbags! Tell them about your faves and begin nurturing relationships (and hopefully, future fans)
  • Identify channels for cross promotion – Research owners of complimentary businesses and ask about cross-promotional opportunities. Offer to promote their brands if they do the same for you. Share the love and see how it positively impacts your business.

In the early stages of a business, the most important thing is to raise awareness of your brand. The more people that know about your products/services, the more of a chance you have to convert them to customers.

Still Plenty Of Time To Shop Startups!!!

This is such a fun post because it combines several components I’m very passionate about….FASHION, TECHNOLOGY, SHOPPING and ENTREPRENEURSHIP!

Women 2.0 put a list together of 21 gift ideas born of female-owned startups. This is right up the Idea Mama’s alley!!!!!

21 Gift Ideas That Technology Made Possible

There were several that really popped out…really super-cool, sleek and cutting-edge. Check out these awesome finds and support these fabulous females this holiday season!!!

ElemoonJing Zhou, Co-Founder & CEOBoring rubber wristbands…yeah, they’re considered “smart tech” but they are NOT considered stylish…at least not by self-proclaimed fashionistas like myself. Elemoon combines a touch interface, activity sensor, notifications and colorful lights into one elegant accessory. The Elemoon’s LED light designs and colors can be customized to match different outfits. Can we say WINNER????

Courtesy of www.women2.com

Courtesy of www.women2.com

Ringly Smart Jewelry – Christina Mercando, Founder & CEOLove the look of this finger bling! I hate the feeling that I’m going to miss an important text or call when I’m out, but I also dislike carrying my phone in hand. This brilliant tech invention comes with an app that helps you decide what’s important and what’s not. If something is critical, your ring will alert you by buzzing or lighting up while your phone is tucked safely away in your bag. And it’s PRETTYcrafted with a rhodium plated setting and a tourmalated quartz semi-precious stone and available in black onyx, pink sapphire, rainbow moonstone and emerald. YUM!

Courtesy of www.women2.com

Courtesy of www.women2.com

EverpurseLiz Salcedo, Founder & CEOBrilliant! How many times are you in the situation where you’ve completely drained your device battery from obsessively checking Facebook and your email? Everpurse is a clutch that charges your iPhone 5, iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, or Samsung Galaxy S4. You charge the clutch on a mat overnight and when you wake up in the morning, you can keep your phone juiced for up to 48 hours!

Courtesy of www.women2.com

Courtesy of www.women2.com

CuffLinkDeepa Sood, FounderCuff smart wearable technology enables you to connect with friends and family members in emergency situations. Activating the device will send a notification with your GPS location. It also incorporates audio so whoever you notify can hear what’s happening around you. Safety plus fashion equals a surefire winner!!

Courtesy of www.women2.com

Courtesy of www.women2.com

To Boost Or Not To Boost

I’m not a Facebook guru, by any stretch.

My fan page confuses the heck out of me, specifically why some posts get minimal reach whereas others get tremendous engagement…we’re talking mind-blowing numbers. From little old me. =)

I still have yet to figure out how these posts are evaluated by the elusive Facebook algorithms but here is what I suspect…they pick up on certain words and if there is anything remotely related to a contest or giveaway or solicitation of business, they hide those posts (or at least bury them in the News Feed).  This may not be a revelation to everyone but I’ve tested this on my own page and believe it to be true.

Courtesy of http://www.envisageinternational.com

Courtesy of http://www.envisageinternational.com

Here’s a simple example…yesterday’s post asking for erotic novel character names received engagement of over 500 folks to date, whereas a post that announced a giveaway with a $25 Amazon gift card mention got a pathetic reach of 13!!!!!!!

Facebook clearly holds the cards here.  =)

So, I decided to take the leap and BOOST.  I’m testing this over a non-consecutive two-day period.  I only went with friends and friends of friends and I paid $10 for the initial boost. I’ve heard negatives and positives associated with boosting but I figured, for $10, it wasn’t a really huge financial risk. Lord knows, I’ve spent much more on much less. =)

So we boost…today and again on Monday.  And let’s see what kind of activity my $20 can buy!!!

I Built The Perfect Product, Now What?

I was overly anxious to get my beloved Krina handbags out to market…and social media was only a glimmer on the horizon…we’re going back about ten years.   So my partner and I had to rely on human contact to make any inroads in the fashion industry – a super-important but near-impossible task.  After all, the first step in building a network is to establish contact…but how were we supposed to find these people…the ones who would determine the fate of our bags?

Courtesy of www.popsugar.com

Courtesy of www.popsugar.com

Finding the Influencers…

Today, startup business owners can easily locate and connect with influencers in their target industries, although now we have a different issue…way too much noise.  How do you navigate around it?  In some instances, the scale definitely tips in the direction of the startup CEOs in that we have a plethora of information available with the stroke of a few keys.  Conversely, it becomes that much harder to stand out from the crowd.

Now, I’m an author so I think in terms of books…

Ten years ago, I could write a book, get it published by a traditional publishing house and it would land on the shelf at a Barnes & Noble where customers may pick it up, peruse the first couple of chapters and if they like it enough, buy it.  Pretty simple.  Finite number of choices, not an overwhelming amount of competition.

Today, if you’re perusing the web for a book, good luck. The choices seem endless and the market is saturated.  And this doesn’t just apply to the publishing industry…it’s much more far-reaching.

Cutting Through the Noise

With tons of information comes a larger mass of information-CREATORS.  Even if you have a great product, how do you get the attention you need without spending a fortune to get recognition for said product?  At the end of the day, what makes someone click to buy?

Heed my words…be careful…do plenty of research…perform your due diligence…spend CAUTIOUSLY.

Trying to launch anything is a daunting task. I’d have paid a small fortune for a plan that laid everything out for me…a checklist of items I could tick off that would catapult me to the land of success and celebrity.  How nice would THAT be?

A Bit of Free Advice

Learn from my mistakes and haphazard spending.  Connect with people who have been successful, study their patterns, follow industry influencers to see how they accomplish their goals, try to get them to notice you, be persistent but don’t stalk.  That will just annoy them.

Make a list of free promotional options and try those routes first.  Then, sprinkle in some lower dollar cost alternatives.  There is no guarantee any of these will yield sales but test them out and study the results to create and refine a publicity campaign that works for you.  For example, lots of entrepreneurs swear by video to make human connection with a target audience.  I’m personally not an advocate. I don’t really watch videos and I definitely don’t like to appear in them. Yeek…nope, definitely not a fan.  I’m no Gary Vaynerchuk. But if it works for you, go for it.

The key is to assemble a plan and work through it.  When I was running promotions for Krina, I was all over the place…trying to boil the ocean.  There was an utter lack of targeted focus.  I’ve since smartened up and while I still don’t know the magic formula for “what works,” I definitely know what doesn’t.

I Promise I’m Not An Author-Stalker!

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I’m a little bleary-eyed as I write this.  It’s been a looooong day for me.  I woke up at 4:00 AM because I couldn’t breathe (damn forced air).  Then I tossed and turned for about half an hour before I gave up on any hope of getting a few more winks. 

By that time, my mind was on high alert and I got the brilliant idea for a high drama scene in my second book (still sans title because I’m only on page 30).  I logged a few notes in my iPhone but it just didn’t suffice.  I needed to get the words out, right then.  So I got a cup of coffee and clacked away on my keyboard for an hour. 

I love it.  It’s rough, but has so much emotion.  I’ll go through it again tonight and make some tweaks.  Only one tiny issue. I’m not exactly sure where it fits into the overall timeline.  I have a million ideas surrounding it on both sides, but I don’t know how to position it in the story quite yet.  That will come.  But the scene can work in so many ways.  I’m so excited to figure out how best to use it.

Today was an ultra-busy day and the next few look just as full.  My energy is all but sapped by now, especially after yelling and screaming about homework.  But I got a bit of a second wind after dinner, so I Googled how to become a bestselling author.  Just to get some ideas.  =)

I came across a blog post by an bestselling author and social media guru named Kristen Lamb with tons of great sound bytes about the trade.  I was hooked.  So I followed her blog, followed her on Twitter, commented on her post, commented on another post, and then she followed me on Twitter!  After some more Tweeting and re-Tweeting, I bought her book on Amazon – Rise of the Machines:  Human Authors in a Digital World.  Awesome cover, Kristen!

Even though I have a Kindle, I bought the paperback.  Yes, I’m one of those people who like to make notes on the pages, fold them down, highlight passages and revisit as needed.  I need the hard copy for all that.  It’s just my thing.

Anyway, I hope she doesn’t think that I’m some wacko author-stalker.  I’m just happy to connect.  =)

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