Dharmesh Shah


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Getting Crunched, Mashed Or Beaten Is Not A Launch Strategy

By Dharmesh Shah on March 19, 2013

This is a guest post by Alex Turnbull.  Alex is a serial SaaS entrepreneur and the CEO of Groove, a customer support software platform for startups and small businesses.  Alex was previously a co-founder of Bantam Live, acquired by Constant Contact in 2011.

It’s here!

After many, many months of long hours, take-out and cheap beer, launch day is finally here.

Your eyes are sore from not having looked up from your computer in what seems like ages, and every part of your body is screaming at you to get some sleep, but you’re too hopped up on coffee and adrenaline to listen.pot of gold

This is it. This is what we’ve been working our asses off for. To reveal ourselves to the world in all of our disruptive glory. Silicon Valley will kneel before us.

It’s like the slow, painstaking ride to the top of the first drop on a roller coaster; you just know it’s going to be absolutely exhilarating, but first you have to trudge all the way to the peak of a steep climb. Tired of waiting but itching with anticipation, you finally reach the top, and then…

Nothing.

Not a damn thing.

Scoble isn’t billing you as the next Instagram. You’re not showing up on Techmeme with a dozen stories about your launch. And the traffic. That sweet, traction-building traffic that you’ve been awaiting — the traffic that was going to prove that people were interested. That they wanted you. It never comes.

Who’s to blame for all of this?

That’s easy. TechCrunch. Those bastards.

If only they had read your press release, they would’ve seen that your story needs to be told! Your product is unique and compelling, dammit! How could they do this to you? How could they crush your dreams of a successful launch by totally ignoring your pitch?

Of course, you’re a startup. Bouncing back is in your DNA, and you get right back to work. But the experience is discouraging, and I've seen this story play out way too many times with friends and founders I’ve spoken to. And know that I’m speaking from experience: I've absolutely made this mistake before, too.

Here’s the reality: pitching TechCrunch is not a launch strategy.

It seems obvious, but it takes more than one hand for me to count the number of times a founder has told me that they expect their launch traction to come from getting picked up by TC (or Mashable, or VentureBeat, or AllThingsD, or any one of a number of similar outlets).

What every single hopeful founder with a similar plan doesn't realize (or doesn't take seriously enough) is that there are hundreds of other founders doing the exact same thing, and hitting the exact same “Tips” email account with their pitches.

Don’t get me wrong, here. Press is good, startup bloggers tell important stories and press outreach should be a part of your launch strategy. But it’s not enough.

So what’s a startup to do?

Let’s get this out of the way: a lot of folks will tell you that the first thing you should be focused on is building a great product that improves people’s lives. And they’re absolutely right. Nobody wants to hear about a crappy product, and more importantly, nobody wants to share your crappy product with their friends.

But let’s assume you've got something amazing. How do you get the world to notice?

First of all, shift your thinking. F*ck the world. It’s “tell everyone” approaches like this that lead to launch strategies like the one above. You don’t need the world to notice. You need highly qualified potential users to notice, and there’s a huge difference.

At Groove, we spent twelve months in beta, rigorously testing and iterating our HelpDesk and LiveChat apps to get them ready to launch.

But here’s something else we did, that you can do, too: we spent that time rabidly collecting email addresses of potential users. We asked our most engaged beta users to share our website (and lead collection portal) with their networks, we blogged about topics that were interesting to a customer support audience, and we wrote content for external outlets that brought value to readers, and loads of inbound leads to us.

When launch day came, we were ready: press release, pitch list, product video, blog post, email blast, the works. Here’s how it played out:

We pitched our press list.

The good people at TheNextWeb covered our beta launch a year ago, so they were interested in how far we've come. They wrote a great piece about us, and the inbound traffic got us about a few hundred signups. It was awesome.

Like everyone else, we also wanted to get Crunched. Or Mashed. Or Beaten.

Ouch.

But what hurt even more, is that like almost everyone else, we didn't get covered by any of them.

I have no doubt that a barrage of press coverage would've gotten us even more new users, but we knew that the odds were against us, so we planned for it.

Taking our carefully nurtured list of email addresses, we sent out an announcement about our launch, with clear calls to action to sign up and get in on the fun.

The result?

Double the signups, at nearly four times the conversion rate of visitors coming from the TNW piece.

Note that we didn't email this list cold: we had spent months giving away content for free, nurturing the relationships, before asking for anything. I can’t stress the importance of this enough.

We also sent an email out to beta users, announcing the launch and asking them to share Groove with friends who might find it useful. That email netted us another 120 users, at a conversion rate nearly double that of the TNW traffic.

It shouldn't be surprising that the most valuable traffic we got came from qualified leads we had already nurtured. But the problem is that most startups won’t make the effort to build that audience until after launch. I know, because as I've mentioned, I've made that mistake, too.

Look, I know that as an early-stage team, the chances that you have a full-time content person are nonexistent. But the chances that someone on your team has a modicum of writing chops are pretty damn good, and getting them to invest a couple of hours a week in this exercise can pay off in spades when the time comes.

At a loss for what to write about? Every startup should know how their customers think, and knowing what’s interesting to them is a major part of that, and it’s absolutely okay to ask them what they’d like to read about from you. Email them, survey them, chat with them. They'll appreciate it. Trust me.

In the meantime, here are a few ideas:

  • Write about your startup experiences - be honest and transparent (check out Balsamiq-founder Peldi’s blog, where he captures this masterfully)
  • Stir the pot. Share your thoughts on controversial topics with your audience.
  • Offer best practices for your space.
  • You’re probably an expert in whatever it is that you do — share your knowledge.
  • Everyone likes a success story. Or one about failure. Tell yours.
  • Show off case studies and interviews with your customers. This clues your audience in to what others using your product are doing well, and makes the featured customers feel good about themselves (and their relationship with your company).

Summary: Getting Crunched is not a launch strategy, and you shouldn't bet on it to make your startup blow up. Reach out to the press, but diversify your launch plan to reach qualified leads that you've already been nurturing. Invest in content. Profit. The end.

Topics: guest marketing PR
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Culture Code: Creating A Company YOU Love

By Dharmesh Shah on March 9, 2013

This article is available at http://CultureCode.com -- the slides and content will be updated periodically. I'm working on a really big project on the topic of culture.  Follow me on twitter (@dharmesh) to get an update on March 20th when it comes out in public beta.

This article represents the notes and slides related to a talk I'm about to give (in less than 60 minutes) at the #LeanStartup event at #SxSW 2013.


Here are my notes on the talk.  Note:  I'm writing these roughly 90 minutes before I go on stage, so they're a bit rough.  

1.  Posted the historical recurring revenue numbers of HubSpot.  Rationale:  Transparency is one of our core cultural values at HubSpot.  So, every year, we post our financial deck with details   

2. Entrepreneurs don't spend many calories thinking about or working on culture.  There are several common reasons for this:

a) Culture?  We don't need no stinkin' culture!  We're putting a dent in the universe.  That's our f*!#ing culture!

b) Culture?  Relax.  We got this one covered.  We have free beer and a ping poing table.

c) Culture?  You can't really create that.  It has to be built organically. It just comes from the behaviors and example of the founders.

All of those are reasonable positions to take.  They're misguided, but they're reasonable.

a) Most of the startups that did end up putting a dent in the universe didn't really know that they were going to succeed at it.  And, one of the few common characteristics of super-successful companies is that they have a distinct culture.  Google.  Facebook. Zapps. Netflix.  The list goes on and one.  

b) Maybe you can't create a culture -- but you can certainly destroy it through neglect.  The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics applies here.  Left alone, most things degrade to crap.  In the early days, it's OK to rely on the behavior of the founders and early team to set the culture.  That works great.  The problem with this model is that as you start to grow, there's a fair amount lost in translation.

3. Convention over Configuration.  Yes, you could just let people make decisions organically based on their best interpretation of whatever they think the right model/framework is.  But, I generally favor convention over configuration.  Why not just have a convention (i.e. culture) that makes a large body of easy decisions and a small body of hard decisions easier?  The result is more efficient and more consistent decision-making.   

4. product:marketing :: culture : recruiting
product is to marketing as culture is to recruiting.  Yes, you might be able to do amazing marketing -- but it's not going to matter if the product isn't amazing.  It's a tough slog.  Similarly, if you're looking to recruit amazing people (who isn't), you're going to need to a great culture.  The kind of culture that will appeal to the right kinds of people and get them to self-select.
5. The interest on culture debt is really high.
You've heard about technology debt.  That's when you take short-cuts today, because you *need* to get something out the door.  You willingly take these short-cuts, because time is suer-valuable (just like cash is valuable when you take on financial debt).  But, you understand that there will be a time to pay off that debt.  And, the debt carries an interest rate.  Culture debt is when you take a short-cut -- hire someone now because they have the skills you need and you're *hurting* for people -- but they're not a good culture fit.  You let the "culture bar" down.  You might do this for logical reasons.  For the same reason you might incur technology debt or financial debt.  
I'm going to posit that the effective interest rate on the culture debt you take on is often higher than that of technology debt.  That is, when it comes time to pay off the debt -- a lot of damage is done.  There are a couple of reasons for this:  1) When you incur technology debt (like not adding sharding to your database), you generally will start feeling pain at some point, and you'll then decide to pay off that debt.  It's a *known* problem and when you solve it, you'll sort of know you did. That's not the case with cultural debt.  Culture debt is insidious.  It creeps in slowly.  It's hard to measure.  2) Technology debt is often "forgiven".  This happens when a short-cut you took ends up not being a bad thing anyways.  An example might be that you hacked together an MVF (minimum viable feature) for something in the app.  The code is crap.  You're not proud of it.  Then later, you decide to abandon that particular feature.  Guess what, your tech debt on that feature was just forgiven.  That almost never happens in cultural debt.  If you bring on people that aren't a fit, they'll infect other parts of the organization, and will be really hard to get back to where you want to be.
6. Create the culture you want, not the one you think you should have.
There's a lot of content out there regarding "winning" startup cultures.  Some will advocate for an open/transparent culture.  Some for a design-focused culture.  Some for a service and customer-centric culture.  Fact is, any of these will likely work.  The key is to understand what it is that defines your culture (and importantly, what makes it differetn from other companies) -- and to build alignment around that culture.  And, in order for the culture to survive long-term, you need to love it.  You need to believe in it.  If you simply try to tweak the culture based on what you think the right answer is, you'll lose steam and lose conviction.  Game over.
Summary:  You can nudge your culture.  It's worth it.  You're going to have a culture anyways -- might as well build one you want.  
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