[quote style=”boxed”]I would have talked to more people about my idea earlier on and I would have released a more minimal MVP to users faster.[/quote]
Alex Gonzalez is the co-founder and CEO of Chatalog, an online product reinventing the way people shop online by mirroring the real-time meaningful experiences you have shopping with your close friends and family. In his role, he leads strategic product initiatives and overall business and financial operations.
Previously, Alex was the VP of Product and Marketing for HighTable, a member’s-only website that helps accomplished professionals find and connect with peers in order to help each other build more successful businesses. As a key member of HighTable’s leadership team, Alex led search engine marketing, social media, online PR efforts and informed product decisions to ensure the building of a feature set meant to engage and provide value to HighTable’s overall membership.
A serial entrepreneur, Alex began his online career right out of college in 1998 as a co-founder of an internet retailer, Chipshot.com, which was voted the #1 Online Golf Retailer by Gomez Advisors in 1999. After taking a few years to play on the South American PGA Tour throughout the Americas and in the Caribbean, Alex started a firm that provided direct sales and marketing services to small and mid-size businesses through a combination of online lead generation, phone based lead qualification and outside field sales efforts. In 2008, Alex returned to the tech space and worked for Tippit (later Focus.com) in building Focus’ Expert Services product comprised of high quality research, 1:1 analyst support and a thriving community of business and technology professionals. He managed the implementation of new vertical categories by identifying, recruiting, and bringing together thought leader Experts, end-users, and vendors who generated the information and research these profes sionals needed to make better business decisions.
Alex holds an AB from Harvard College in Romance Languages and Literatures and is on the advisory board for DietBet.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently focusing my energy on identifying and adding retailers into our pilot program and taking everything that we’re learning from the pilot and translating it into product improvements and new features.
Where did the idea for Chatalog come from?
After moving from CA to NY, my wife and I attempted to buy furnishings for our apartment. We joked that this was the first time that “we were going to be adults and buy real furniture”. We were excited about the process, but after trying to collaborate on those purchase decisions with friends, family and the stores we realized that it was completely disjointed, a huge mess, and not fun at all. What was supposed to be fun turned into a frustrating experience for everyone involved. We felt that there had to be a better way to collaborate with close friends and family when making meaningful shopping decisions.
How do you make money?
We charge retailers a combination of a nominal monthly or quarterly subscription and/or a commission on transactions enabled through Chatalog (typically ranging between 4-6%).
What does your typical day look like?
That is somewhat of a trick question because I really do not have a typical day. Every day presents different challenges and opportunities and being so early stage, it’s important to prioritize and make the most of our time. Currently most of my time is dedicated to checking in on current pilot customers to make sure we’re getting their feedback. I then spend time taking that feedback and prioritizing fixes and product enhancements with Natalie and Tito. Even though every day might be different, I do believe in making time for myself and ensuring that I have enough quiet time to think through the bigger picture. I typically do that on my morning or afternoon walks/jogs with my dog Luna.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I am a big proponent of talking about your company as much as possible and to as many people as possible. I find that conversations with people that typically are not involved with the day to day of your company lead to great feedback and new product or feature ideas. And of course, listening to your customers and getting their insight is equally as important. The problem then becomes taking those ideas and bringing them to the product and to the market. What’s great is that before you spend a bunch of time and engineering resources, you can test if there is a true market demand for your idea. If it’s a feature, you can email your current customers telling them that you’re launching a new feature and that you’re signing up 5 pilot customers to test it. If you don’t get any of your customers asking to sign up for the beta, then it’s probably best to pass on that idea. If it’s more of a product idea, then you can run a marketing campaign to a list of potent ial users and pitch the concept, having them “sign up” for the product idea on a landing page. Again, if you get a high conversion to sign-ups (even though the actual product doesn’t exist yet), then that might be an idea to pursue. I love hearing and getting fun, unique ideas from customers, friends, family or just random people and then designing really lightweight experiments to validate (or disprove) them quickly.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
I’m excited about the role that the internet is starting to take in helping consumers make purchase decisions. Traditionally, e-commerce was built to support the consumer that already knew what he or she wanted. Innovation was centered around product search and efficient purchasing (1-click ordering) and fulfillment (supply chain and shipping). But with the advent of communication tools, mobile devices and multi-channel presences by larger brands and retailers, the internet is integral in helping consumers make important purchase decisions. Consumers are starting to blur offline and online when it comes to making purchase decisions and they’re empowered with being able to access the internet from anywhere through their mobile device. So consumers are starting to bring more of the decision process online and retailers need to keep up with trend. Consumers expect to get to the information they need and to be able to collaborate with their trusted circle at anytime, an ywhere. This emerging omni-channel consumer needs a better way to collaborate across all channels with a trusted circle (friends, family, experts, brands). This is where Chatalog comes in.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I can’t say that I’ve ever had a job that I hated. I’ve been fortunate enough where every job that I have had has somehow developed me in one way or another. I have also primarily worked in start-ups most of my career but there have been a couple of exceptions where I’ve learned that sometimes people are just okay with the status quo. That’s when I become the most frustrated. I love it when people find ways to question and improve current processes or policies. But I become equally frustrated when companies and/or people respond with the “well, that’s just the way we do things here” and are okay with it. My goal with Chatalog is to make sure that as we grow we continue to empower and enable people to constantly question, improve, and innovate.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would have talked to more people about my idea earlier on and I would have released a more minimal MVP to users faster. We got caught up in having theoretical discussions on how we should build Chatalog and after looking back, all of the decisions and changes we made were a result of customer feedback. We hesitated to release the product because we were afraid that it wasn’t good enough yet. Users don’t care about the polish. If you’re going to solve a problem, they’ll use it. If you’re not solving their problem, it doesn’t matter how pretty the thing looks, they won’t use it. We probably lost a few months because we didn’t release and market the product sooner.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
My biggest advice to entrepreneurs is to not be afraid to talk about your idea to as many people as possible. It’s part of who you are, be proud of that and tell people about your idea and your product. Show your product, your pitch deck, your website to your friends, family, and strangers. It’s great practice, you’ll get valuable feedback and you might even get ideas that you may not have come up with on your own. Also, people typically have a soft spot for entrepreneurs and inherently want to help. I’ve gotten connections and introductions to current and potential customers and investors from the most random conversations. So get good at and comfortable with talking about your company to everybody. Do it all the time.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I’ve started several companies or individual business ventures over the years. I’d say that the biggest failure I’ve been a part of on paper was my first venture that I co-founded with 3 classmates from Harvard after graduating from college. We were the typical story of the late 90s/early 2000s dot com boom. We raised a lot of VC money, cared about nothing other than the top line and grew and grew and grew like crazy while ignoring basic business fundamentals like margins, profit, etc. Even though it ended badly, it was an unbelievable experience, I learned a ton about how to (not) run a business, when and why to take investment capital, and the importance of focusing on the fundamentals of the business. It was a tough lesson learned and it took awhile for me to rebound from it (which included running away to South America to make an attempt at playing professional golf), but now I feel confident that I can make better decisions on all fronts (capital raising, hiring, growing a business, etc).
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I’m a huge golf lover. My father taught me the game as a child and it has provided me with a ton of opportunities. Golf helped me travel the world as a child to play in big international competitions. Golf helped me get into Harvard. Golf provided us with the inspiration to start our first company. Golf has introduced me to great lifelong friends. As you can see, I’m passionate about golf, but I’m sad to see that it’s shrinking as a game in the US due to a bunch of factors, but it mostly comes down to two big ones – time and cost. Both of which are caused by golf’s stubborn grasp on its history – that golf is meant to be 18 holes, played on large, expensive golf courses. Why? That type of time commitment is just not doable anymore.
So now onto my idea. Sign up a network of golf courses and enable them to sell play by the hole. Golf courses have fixed costs and because of tradition are only “allowed” to monetize that asset by selling rounds of 18 holes of golf (some might offer twilight 9 hole rates) with players starting on the first hole. There is so much excess inventory (especially if you break the inventory into 18 distinct sellable holes). This excess inventory especially exists during the week and during work hours. Similarly, the technology would allow the golfer (if he or she is overly serious) to track the golf holes played over whatever period of time to enable them to add them up to a full 18 hole rounds of golf for traditional handicapping purposes. So imagine a golfer on a Tuesday having an open hour at lunch, going to this application online and finding that he can buy 3 holes of golf at the golf course down the street for some fair price and be able to go play and be back in the office in an hour. Or on a weekend, find a golf course where he can play 4 or 5 holes with his son and daughter in a hour and half and be back home in time for a BBQ with the rest of the family?
Granted, this one would require some major “open-mindedness” from golf institutions like the USGA and traditional golfers, but I think it could turn golf around and make it accessible both economically and from a time standpoint to anybody that wanted to play it.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?
This one might come a bit from left field, but I’d legalize drugs in the US. I grew up in Juarez, Mexico and during my childhood, my hometown was the poster child of Mexico – a boom town that had taken advantage of international trade and NAFTA. The city was vibrant, safe, economically healthy. It was a great place to grow up. In recent years Juarez has turned from that boom town to a ghost town wrought with drug violence that stems from the government crackdown on the drug trade in Mexico. The problem is that the demand for drugs in the US is so strong that drug trafficking has become such a lucrative business – so lucrative that people are willing to literally fight to the death to control that trade creating a violent warpath in its wake. I don’t have the exact “how”, but I feel that if drugs were legalized in the US, that its trade could be regulated both in the US and Mexico turning a black, underground, dangerous business into a controlled and legitimate t rade.
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
I carry both of my passports on me at all times. I like to travel and like to be prepared for whatever opportunity might arise.
What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?
Dropbox, Basecamp, Skype
I believe in collaboration and staying close to those important to you. All 3 of these tools have taken the huge pain of staying close and communicating with individuals dispersed in different parts of the world (whether it be for fun or for work) and made it easy and fun.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. After reading this, I decided that this was a great time to be an entrepreneur.
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
This is a tough one. I think it depends on why you’re using Twitter. I use Twitter as a way to keep up to speed with what is happening in my industry. So I mostly follow my top competitors and thought leaders in the space.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
I probably laugh out loud too much! I got my laugh from my father. It’s a deep laugh that can be heard across any room. I love to have fun and enjoy what I’m doing. I’d say the most recent episode was caused by my dog Luna jumping into Lexington reservoir (she’d never learned to swim before) to chase a duck. It turned into this hilarious chase where Luna would swim and finally get close to the duck and then the duck would obviously fly off as soon as she approached. Instead of being smart and realizing that chasing a duck in a lake was not going to bear fruit, Luna kept chasing and chasing repeating this episode over and over. I guess it’s a testament to her determination! I couldn’t stop laughing!
Who is your hero?
My hero was my grandmother, or as I used to call her “Abuelita”. She is originally from Guadalajara, moved to El Paso as a young adult with my grandfather and played a key role in raising my sister and me. She unfortunately lost her husband as a young adult to a stroke and single-handedly raised my mother and her 3 siblings on her own. She put them all through college and was a great role model for not only them but for all of her grandchildren and great grandchildren.
If you could fast-forward your business a year and make one thing be true for your business, what would that be?
I believe meaningful collaboration makes for better decisions and outcomes in life. If I could fast-forward one year, I’d want to be able to prove that using Chatalog not only enhances relationships through collaboration, but that it ultimately leads to more confident purchases.
What do you like to do when you’re not working on Chatalog?
Travel with Natalie, go on hikes with Luna (my husky), and play golf…..in that order.
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Alex Gonzalez on Twitter: @TheChatalog
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.