Page 2 | Advice and Insights for Entrepreneurs | OnStartups

About This Blog

This site is for  entrepreneurs.  A full RSS feed to the articles is available.  Please subscribe so we know you're out there.  If you need more convincing, learn more about the site.



And, you can find me on Google+

Connect on Twitter

Get Articles By Email

Your email:


Blog Navigator

Navigate By : 
[Article Index]

Questions about startups?

If you have questions about startups, you can find me and a bunch of other startup fanatics on the free Q&A website:

Subscribe to Updates


30,000+ subscribers can't all be wrong.  Subscribe to the RSS feed.

Follow me on LinkedIn


Current Articles | RSS Feed RSS Feed

The Pitch Deck We Used To Raise $500,000 For Our Startup

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Wed, May 08, 2013


buffer-seed-round-deck.003One of the big no-no’s we’ve learnt about early on in Silicon Valley is to publicly share the pitchdeck you’ve used to raise money. At least, not before you’ve been acquired or failed or in any other way been removed from stage. That’s a real shame, we thought. Sharing the actual slidedeck we used (and one, that’s not 10 years old) is by far one of the most useful things for others to learn from. In fact, both Joel and I have privately shared the deck with fledging founders to help them with their fundraising. On top of that, our case study is hopefully uniquely insightful for lots of people. Here is why:

  • Half a million is not a crazy amount: It’s therefore hopefully an example that helps the widest range of founders trying to raise money.
  • Both Joel and myself are first-timers: We couldn’t just throw big names onto a slideshow and ride with it. We had to test and change the flow and deck a lot.

Ratio thinking

One of the most important elements, that we had to learn during our fundraising process was the concept of “Ratio thinking”. Jim Rohn, the famous motivational speaker, probably explained it best:
“If you do something often enough, you’ll get a ratio of results. Anyone can create this ratio.”
It sounded simple enough as a concept to us, but man, this was one of the toughest things to learn. Here is how Joel described it in a recent article on ratio thinking:
“The law of averages really comes into play with raising investment. Overall, we probably attempted to get in contact with somewhere around 200 investors. Of those, we perhaps had meetings with about 50. In the end, we closed a $450k seed round from 18 investors. Perhaps the most important part of our success in closing that round was that Leo and I would sit down in coffee shops together and encourage each other to keep pushing forward, to send that next email asking for an intro or a meeting. In many ways, the law of averages is the perfect argument that persistence is a crucial trait of a founder.”
I believe that this is in fact one of the most valuable things to know up front. It requires a huge volume of work and meetings.

How to read this deck: It builds up to one key slide – Traction

If you go through the deck, you will quickly realize that the one key slide was the traction slide. We quickly realized that as first time founders, this was probably our only way to raise any money: By focusing everything on the traction slide. Here is how Joel describes this in his article on raising money as a first-time founder:
“So my advice for first time founders who want to raise funding is almost always to put that thought aside until you have good traction. Instead, focus completely on traction. Focus on product/market fit. When you have good traction, it becomes much easier to raise funding.”

Avoid confusion: Our second most important slide – competition

Another thing we quickly realized when raising money was this. Although investors were very interested in talking to us, especially because of our early traction, talks then stalled. Why? The social media space seems very crowded. From the outside, it looks like there are dozens and dozens of apps all doing the same thing. On the inside, you however quickly realize that there really aren’t that many options.

The question was almost always timed at the exact moment in each meeting: “So, aren’t there lots of other apps doing the same?” And we explained to them about the TweetDecks and Seesmics and that Buffer is different and so forth. That never worked. So after lots of meetings, we realized that the competition question (in our case) created the most friction and eventually left people too confused and not interested any more. We took some time aside and made this slide as easy to understand as possible and explain Buffers positioning without creating all the friction: buffer-seed-round-deck.011 

The slidedeck

Without any further explanation, here it is:

A note on transparency

With Buffer, our goal is to take our ideas of transparency for our company to a whole new level. That’s why it was very important for us to make this slide deck public. This slide deck is far from perfect. As previously mentioned, it probably falls into the average category. But it was what at the end of the day helped us raise the funds to turn Buffer into the company it is today. So it’s hopefully a real-world case study that clearly shows what is important and what might not be so helpful for investors to know about. We want to continue publishing our ideas and thoughts about topics that get rarely talked about. Joel and I will be around to answer any further questions you might have on our fundraising process. Please post anything you have in mind in the comments below.

This is a guest post by Leo Widrich (@leowid), co-founder of Buffer.  Note: I'm an angel investor in Buffer and my company HubSpot has a little bit of overlap in functionality in our Social Inbox product.

Article has 9 comments. Click To Read/Write Comments

5 Startup Hiring Mistakes That Can Crush Your Culture

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Apr 29, 2013

Remember your first business loan? Or, if you're like many entrepreneurs, you may have initially bootstrapped your startup by buying some stuff on your credit card. You were excited and apprehensive: Excited because now you had the cash to invest in your business, apprehensive because you had just taken on a debt you would have to repay.

But that was okay, because you were confident you could create more value than the interest you would pay. Even though you eventually have to pay off a financial debt, gaining access to the right resources now often marks the difference between success and failure.

That’s true for financial debt – but it’s almost never true for culture debt. describe the image

Culture debt happens when a business takes a shortcut and hires an employee with, say, the “right” the skills or experience… but who doesn't fit the culture. Just one bad hire can create a wave of negativity that washes over every other employee, present and future – and as a result, your entire business.

Unfortunately the interest on culture debt is extremely high: In some cases you will never pay off the debt you incur, even when a culture misfit is let go or leaves.

Here are five all-too-common ways you can create culture debt that can keep your startup from achieving its potential:

1. You see the ivy and miss the poison

The star developer who writes great code… but who also resists taking any direction and refuses to help others… won't instantly turn over a new interpersonal leaf just because you hire him.

The skilled salesperson who in the short-term always seems to outperform her peers… but who also maneuvers and manipulates and builds kerosene-soaked bridges just waiting to go up in flames… won’t turn into a relationship building, long-term focused ambassador for your company just because you hire her.

The interview process is a little like a honeymoon. You see the best the candidate has to offer. If a prospective employee doesn't look like a great fit for your culture before he is hired, he definitely won’t be after he’s hired.

Never risk making a deal with the culture-fit devil. The soul of your company is at stake. Seriously.

2. You discard the attitude and play the skill card

Skills and experience are worthless when not put to use. Knowledge is useless when not shared with others.

The smaller your company the more likely you are to be an expert in your field, so transferring those skills to new employees is relatively easy. But you can't train enthusiasm, a solid work ethic, and great interpersonal skills – and those traits can matter a lot more than any skills a candidate brings.

According to this study only 11% of the new hires that failed in the first 18 months failed due to deficiencies in technical skills. The majority failed due to lack of motivation, an unwillingness to be coached, or problems with temperament and emotional intelligence.

Think of it this way: The candidate who lacks certain hard skills might be a cause for concern, but the candidate who lacks the beliefs and values you need is a giant culture debt red flag.

3. You try to sell a used car

It’s tempting to over-sell a candidate on your company, especially when you desperately need to fill an open position and you've been recruiting for seemingly forever.

Don’t sell too hard. Great candidates come prepared. They've done their homework. They already know whether your company is a good fit for them based on what they've read about you online. The really great recruits might have been stalking your company for many weeks or months -- seeing what the company feels like.

Describe the position, describe your company, answer every question, be candid and forthright, let your natural enthusiasm show through… and let the candidate make an informed decision. But, don’t oversell.

The right candidates recognize the right opportunities – and the right cultural fit. If you have to try too hard to convince someone, and the love is unidirectional, it's not setup for long-term success.

4. You mistake the rumblings for hunger

Nothing beats a formal, thorough, comprehensive hiring process… except, sometimes, a dose of intuition and gut feel.

At my company HubSpot (grew from 0-500 employees in 6 years) there are five key attributes we value:

· Humble. They’re modest despite being awesome. They’re self-aware and respectful.

· Effective. They get (stuff) done. They measurably move the needle and immeasurably add value.

· Adaptable. They’re constantly changing, life-long learners.

· Remarkable. They have a super-power that makes them stand out: Remarkably smart, remarkably creative, remarkably resourceful…

· Transparent. They’re open and honest with others – and with themselves.

In short, we look for people with H-E-A-R-T, because they help us create a company we love. So we always weigh our impressions against more qualitative considerations. You should too. Think of it this way: The more experience you have – the more lumps you’ve taken and hard knocks you’ve received and mistakes you’ve made – the more “educated” your “gut.” While you should never go on intuition alone, if you have a funny feeling about a candidate… see that as a sign you need to look more closely.

And look more closely.

For a detailed insider’s peek into how we think about culture at HubSpot, check out our Culture Code slides (embedded below for your convenience).

Bottom line: Define the intangibles you want in your employees and never compromise by hiring a candidate who lacks those qualities.

5. You decide to double down

There are two basic kinds of risk you can take on a potential employee.

First the worthwhile risks: Taking a shot on a candidate you feel has more potential than her previous employer let her show; taking a shot on a candidate who is missing a few skills but has attitude in abundance; taking a chance on a candidate you feel certain brings the enthusiasm, drive, and spirit your team desperately needs. Those are good chances to take.

Now the foolish risks: Taking a shot on a candidate with a history of performance issues that you hope will somehow develop a strong work ethic; taking a chance on the candidate who left his last two jobs because "my bosses were jerks;" taking a shot on the candidate who has no experience yet only wants to talk about how quickly and often she will be promoted.

Why do you rationalize taking foolish risks? You're desperate. Or you're lazy. Or you have "other issues to focus on." Or you figure your culture is strong enough to withstand the impact of one ill-fitting employee.

Don't take foolish risks. They almost always turn out badly. Occasionally take potentially worthwhile risks, because they can turn out to be your most inspired hires and, eventually, your best employees.

And never, ever take a chance that creates high-interest culture debt.

The cost to your organization is just too high. And, life is short.

A variation of this article was also posted as part of my participation in the LinkedIn Influencers program

Article has 2 comments. Click To Read/Write Comments

12 Terrible (But Hilarious) Places To Work [slides]

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Apr 22, 2013


work runAfter the week we've had in Boston this week, I found it hard to focus on any overly heavy work this weekend.

So, instead, I created the slide deck below.  This is unlike the prior deck I worked on (Culture Code), which had 150+ slides, and proved to be useful.  This one is 14 slides, takes a minute to go through and is almost 

completely without use.  

But ye, it's fun. Hope you enjoy it.


(And, disclosure: This was not completely for amusement.  There's a call-to-action at the end, and the deck is intended to collect some data and tips for an upcoming talk I'm giving).

Oh, and as you'll see from the deck, I'm not the best comedic writer in the world, so if you have a better caption for some of those slides, please leave them in the comments.  

Thanks for indulging me every now and then. Now, back to real work.

Article has 0 comments. Click To Read/Write Comments

3 Biggest Mistakes When Choosing a Cofounder

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Thu, Apr 18, 2013


After spending a significant portion of the last couple of years talking and collaborating with countless entrepreneurs (through FounderDating) a few clear themes have emerged around partnering with cofounders. We’ve noticed some valuable best practices…as well as some very common mistakes. In the hopes that we can save more entrepreneurs some time and heartache, here are three of the biggest mistakes:woman troubled

1. Need

I actually don’t like to spend a lot of time convincing people they need a cofounder. There are enough people out there that either came to that conclusion right away, or felt the pain of not having one and realized it pretty quickly. Sooner or later, people will usually figure it out. For their sake, I hope that it’s sooner rather than later. But let me briefly to explain why the right cofounder is important (emphasis on “right”).

You don’t know what you don’t know

That’s always true, but in the case of starting a company or even a side project, you should assume that the body of knowledge you’re missing is vast. There is no way to make up for it all, but if your cofounder has complimentary skill sets, it will help shrink the missing body of knowledge. Chances are that it’s not only your role or the areas you know well that are tough to do and tougher to learn. It’s not a coincidence that, according to the Startup Genome Project, balanced teams with one technical founder and one business founder raise 30% more money, have 2.9x more user growth and are 19% less likely to scale prematurely than technical or business-heavy founding teams.

Your emotional partner

Beyond skill sets, starting a business is a test of your emotional will. Do you have any friends that are single parents? It’s not merely twice as hard, it’s exponentially harder than raising a child with a partner. Your cofounder is your partner – through every decision, every idea, each and every up and down of the emotional roller coaster. Only a cofounder will feel the high and lows like you do. Advisors and friends are great, but they aren’t nearly as emotionally invested as you are.

2. Approach

How do you approach someone about potentially being a cofounder? So many people start by thinking about an idea. I get that. It incites passion, you get excited, feel like there is something tangible to work on. But then you start thinking about a cofounder and pitching or hard selling someone on a specific idea. That [almost] never works. Chances are so good that your idea will change - either somewhat or completely - that Vegas wouldn’t even lay odds on it. So, let’s say you hard sell someone on the idea, they fall in love with it … and then the idea changes. Then what are you left with? Fall in love with the person, not the idea.

Even worse is pitching someone as though you’re offering a job that centers around your idea. The people you want to be your cofounder don’t just want to work on an idea, they want to be a part of something bigger. FounderDating ManagingDirector for Vegas and CTO/Cofounder of Wedgies, Jimmy Jacobson, sums it up perfectly:

“When I get someone pitching me an idea, I hear ‘I need someone to build my idea. I can't pay you in cash, so have some equity.’ That's not attractive to me. I have a LinkedIn account full of spam from recruiters, developer groups I belong to get spammed by people like this as well. This is why FounderDating exists. I don't want to work on a wine app. I want to work with awesome people, and if the idea we pick is a wine app, so be it.”

An idea is just that, AN idea. When the dust settles, it’s not likely to be THE idea, so don’t lead with it.

3. Timing

Which brings me to the final and probably most common mistake: When should you start thinking about a potential cofounder? The quick answer is ‘always.’ Huh? Yep, unless you’re in the throes of starting a new company full-time, you should always have a side project, something you’re curious about. It doesn’t have to be the next big thing. But it is the best way to start working with people you think could be cofounder material and figure out if a partnership might be feasible.

All too often I hear people say, “I’m not ready for a cofounder. I want to have the idea first.” At least 6-12 months before you quit your current full-time gig and “take the leap”, you should start talking to potential cofounders and working on side projects together. This gives you time to work with multiple people, and to walk away from relationships that aren’t clicking. It also affords the opportunity to learn so much about yourself - styles you like and don’t like, attributes you value and those you can do without.

When you wait until you’ve settled on an idea and even have a little bit of money committed (often conditional upon having a cofounder) you feel, well, more desperate. You’re much more likely to leap into the arms of the first person that agrees to work with you. Waiting until the end leads to bad decisions and relationships that really don’t work because, like it or not, you feel desperate. Searching for the right cofounder is a process and it’s vitally important, so start early.

Finding your partner should not be the last thing you do, it should be the first thing you do.

As an entrepreneur I’ve learned a lot from my own mistakes, but in this case you can learn a lot from the mistakes we’ve seen others make. Find the right cofounder is game changing – make sure you approach it like you would a partner and make it an early priority.

This was a guest post by Jessica Alter.  Jessica is the Cofounder & CEO of FounderDating, the premier online network for entrepreneurs to connect, share and help one and other. Previously, Jessica led Business Development and was GM of Platforms at Bebo (Acquired by AOL). She is also a mentor at 500 Startups and Extreme Startups. 

Article has 1 comments. Click To Read/Write Comments

Does HubSpot Walk The Talk On Its Culture Code?

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Thu, Apr 11, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, HubSpot shared our culture code deck ( — a document that describes what we believe and how we work. 

The presentation, despite being 150+ slides long and on a topic that doesn't involve celebrities, cat photos or currently trending topics has been remarkably well received. It has had over 340,000 views.  It's one of the most viewed presentations on slideshare in the past year. I've received many, many emails and tweets with positive comments about the culture code deck (thanks!)

Deck is included below, for your convenience, in case you haven't seen it yet.


describe the imageNow that the deck is out there and has garnered so much interest, I thought it might be valuable to dig into some of the core tenets of the HubSpot Culture Code and try to do an honest assessment of how well we live up to the tenets. Or, stated differently, how well do we "walk the talk"?  In the deck itself, when a particular tenet was more aspirational than descriptive, we tried to call it out.  (I think this candor is one of the reasons people like the deck). But the call-out doesn't always capture the degree to which we live up to the ideal, so we're double-clicking here.

So, here are the core tenets with a self-score on how well HubSpot lives up to the tenet. Of course, even this take is biased (I'm a founder, and all founders are naturally biased about their startups) and it's a qualitative judgment call. On my list of things to do is to see if we can make this more measurable. But, that's a topic for another day. 

1. We are as maniacal about our metrics as our mission.

Score: 9.5/10

Lets break this one down a bit.  First of all, we are very passionate about our mission to transform marketing and move the world towards more inbound and creating marketing people love.  It's a noble vision, it's a big one — and we invest in it and mostly live up to it.

Mission score: 9/10:  I dock us a point because we do have some outbound marketing in our mix of marketing spend.  We're not pure inbound marketing. We spend some money on PPC, some telemarketing and some paid online channels.  Not a lot — but enough to deduct a point.

Metrics score: 9.5/10:  We really are maniacal about our metrics.  We pore over data.  We slice and dice things like customer cancellation data, SaaS economics metrics, employee happiness surveys, marketing channel data.  I've talked to many, many startups and fast-growing companies.  Of those, HubSpot is one of the most data-driven and metrics-obsessed companies I know.

2. We obsess over customers, not competitors and “Solve For The Customer”

Score: 8/10

The statement itself is mostly true (we spend 99% of our time worrying about customers and very little time worrying about competitors), but the underlying mantra of “Solve For The Customer” is not yet as true as we'd like it to be. 

We get points for the way we have handled pricing and packaging over our 6+ year history.  We have raised prices almost every year, and each time, we go out of our way to grandparent our existing customers and reward them for putting their belief in HubSpot.  So, on this front, I think we do really well.

We deduct points because the overall experience of HubSpot is not as smooth as it could be.  It's not customer-friendly enough.  We sometimes make decisions that are for our self-interest or convenience rather than customer happiness.  We're working on this.

We're getting better at having people call B.S. on decisions or directions that are not in the customers' interest.  People will speak up with questions like “What's in it for the customer?” or “How is this solving for the customer?” or “Seriously?”.  On the one hand, it feels good that people can be open and candid when they don't think we're living up to the SFTC (Solve For The Customer) credo.  On the other hand, in an ideal world, these non-customer-happiness focused things wouldn't have to be called out, because we'd always be acting in the customers' interest.  It would be natural and second-nature.  But, we're a metrics-obsessed, goals-oriented, for-profit company — so it may take some work and practice to have SFTC be natural, 100% of the time.  In the meantime, we'll continue to try and catch ourselves before we make decisions that don't make sense for the customer long-term.

3. We are radically and uncomfortable transparent.

Score: 9.5/10

We are super-duper, hyper transparent — and our transparency level has moved up over the years, not down.  We share all sorts of crazy things with every employee.  For example, one of the posts on our wiki goes into detail on every funding round we've done.  Details include the What the valuation was, what the common strike price was, how much money was raised, how much dilution there was, etc.  

We share just about everything.  And, the things we don't share (like individual salaries), we're deliberate and clear about.  Deducted half a point simply because nobody's perfect and we can always be better.

4. We give ourselves the autonomy to be awesome. 

Score: 8/10

We're good, but not great in terms of giving ourselves autonomy.  HubSpotters have a fair amount of freedom.  You can run with an idea.  Most things don't require permission.  You can talk to anybody in the company, including the founders about whatever you want.  We don't have formal policies and procedures for most things (our default policy on most things is “use good judgment”).

So, why the lower score?  A few things:  First, although we philosophically believe in the “work whenever, wherever” idea, this is not universally enjoyed to the same degree by every HubSpotter.  We trust our team leaders to do what is right for their groups and use good judgment.  We're also a bit conflicted because the data overwhelmingly shows that working together in the same office leads to more creativity and productivity.  So, we understand the importance of co-location, but don't want to force it and take away freedom.  For now, we've straddled the issue.  Bit of a cop-out.

Our unlimited vacation policy has been a good thing (it's been in place for over 3 years).  But, there were a couple of issues.  First, some of us didn't really feel like they could take vacations without negatively impacting their work.  Second, we had growing suspicion that on average people might be taking less vacation than they should.  We didn't know if this was true, since we don't track vacation days — but we wanted to make certain that “unlimited vacation” didn't turn out to be “no vacation” for anyone at HubSpot.  So, we made a tweak: Everyone has to take at least two weeks of vacation a year, or face ridicule by their peers.  We've also tweaked some things to make it more likely that people do the right thing and take regular vacations. 

5. We are unreasonably picky about our peers.

Score: 8.5/10

This is true. We are really, really picky about our peers.  We're fortunate to have a lot of interest in the company, and for every open position we get many (often hundreds) of candidates.  So, we can afford to be picky.  It's actually harder to get a job at HubSpot than it is to get into MIT. Our acceptance rate is lower.

The reason for deducting a couple of points is related to the attributes we look for (Humble, Effective, Adaptable, Remarkable and Transparent). For the most part, HubSpotters manifest these attributes — we try to make sure of this during the recruitment and interviewing process.  But, we don't always get it right.  So, we get a negative point for that. 

Also subtracting a half point because not only do we make hiring mistakes sometimes (despite our best efforts), we're not as good as we should be at calling people out when they do un-HubSpotty things.  For example, we have being “Humble” as a core attribute (it's actually been an attribute from the beginning).  But, not everyone acts in humble ways, and we often fail to call it out. Part of having a great culture is defending it.

6, We invest in individual mastery and market value.

Score: 8/10

Though we've always believed in investing in our people and wanting to “build not just a company we're proud of, but people we're proud of”, this hasn't been explicit in our culture code until recently. So, we have some work to do here.

First, we're going to take a hard look at where our “discretionary culture spend” (aka “employee happiness expenses”) — which, incidentally is over a million dollars a year.  We want to shift our budget to things that help increase mastery and market value. Things like education and leadership training.  Yes, we enjoy parties and celebrations too (and those are important), but all things being equal, we want to invest these dollars (in our people), not spend them

But until then, we still get an 8 on this front.  We can do much more.

7. We defy conventional “wisdom” as it's often unwise.

Score: 8.5/10

This culture attribute goes towards how much we question the status quo and do things differently.  We're actually pretty good at this.  Good, but not great. We get points for things like not having offices and executive perks.  Our radical transparency and openness defies conventional wisdom.  We're one of the few private companies that publicly shares its key financial data (like revenues) every year.

8. We speak the truth and face the facts.

Score: 9/10

We have a very strong culture of facing the facts and reality.  Nobody is allowed to walk around with rose-color glasses on. We don't brush problems under the rug. We don't hide from issues. If anything, we can be faulted for being too critical sometimes.  We also do a great job of speaking the truth and being candid about the problems we see in the organization.  This happens in meetings, in hallways, over email and on the wiki.  When problems show up (as they do regularly), we are usually quick to react.

9. We believe in work+life, not work vs. life

Score: 8/10

This one is a bit squishy and hard to measure.  Generally, we do a really good job of work-life fit.  Mostly flexible hours, unlimited vacation, centrally located and relatively easily accessible office.  All of those things help.  Things that fall into this bucket that we're not great at is diversity — particularly gender balance and getting more women into leadership roles.  We're “leaning in” on this, and hope to get much, much better at this over the next few months.  Stay tuned.

10. We are a perpetual work in progress.

Score: 9.0/10

This one's a bit of a gimme (note to self: We need to replace this tenet with something that's more substantive and less platitudinal).

We don't sit on our laurels.  We celebrate victories big and small — but celebrations are short-lived.  Though we are pleased with our modest success so far, we recognize that there is still much work to be done.  We're constantly trying to improve how we run the busines and ourselves.

Article has 5 comments. Click To Read/Write Comments

Clear Eyes, Full Heart: Beating The Series A Crunch

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Tue, Apr 09, 2013

The following is a guest post by Alan Wells, co-founder & product designer at Glyder. [Disclosure: I'm an angel investor in the company. -Dharmesh]

It has been widely reported that at there will be least 1,000 orphan startups this year - companies that raised a seed round last year and will fail to raise follow on financing.  The popular opinion in the tech press is that most of these 1,000 orphan companies will die due to lack of capital. As a founder, it's hard not to let this influence your thinking - with all the talk of failing fast, acqui-hires, and overnight success stories, it's easy to believe that your only options are to find a soft landing or shut down and try again with something else. And compared to sticking it out, walking away is most certainly the easier path (although it might make you a punk).

But I believe that in those 1,000 orphan startups, there are great companies - companies that can still put a dent in the universe, companies that can break through if the founders stick to it. Ben Horowitz says that all great CEOs have one thing in common: they don't quit, and at Startup School last year, this theme played out over and over again. Almost every founder that spoke went through a trough of sorrow that lasted 18-24 months before things really started to click for their companies.hang in there

Maybe it’s coincidental that the trough of sorrow is usually just a bit longer than the runway you have after an average-sized seed round, but I’m beginning to believe that great companies are often the product of these trying circumstances. Unfortunately people don’t like to talk about what’s not going right with their companies, and there’s not much discussion going on around what founders are doing to successfully navigate these waters.

I’m the founder of a startup that recently decided to double down and do our best to beat the series A crunch, and in the interest of focusing on the road instead of the wall, I wanted to share some of the things I’m learning as we find a way forward.

Acknowledging Your Reality

Founders are optimistic people, so it's easy for us to believe that if we just add this one thing to our product, hit that one key metric, or sign that one partnership deal, investors will come banging on our door begging to give us money. However, if you know things aren't going well or you are already having trouble raising your next round, what your startup needs more than anything is a lucid founder that can realistically assess the situation and identify a path forward.

Doing an honest appraisal of the things that were and weren’t working in our business was an important moment for our decision to press forward. Inside the head of a founder, things can seem great one minute and terrible the next, so getting outside perspective can be valuable as a check to your instincts and emotions. Meeting with advisors and existing investors also helped us get some third party perspective about trends in the market and issues we’re facing.

Understanding Why You're Not Fundable

As a startup founder, you're working in a four dimensional problem space: team, product, market, and timing. Hopes and dreams are often enough to raise money at the seed stage, but in my experience, you need more than that for your next round: you need to convince investors that you're the right team building the right product for the right market at the right time.

If you've been fundraising for three months and haven't gotten a check yet, something is probably wrong in one or more of these areas. Understanding what's wrong is critical to figuring out your path forward, and investors that pass can be the best source for understanding what the missing pieces are.

Until recently, I don’t think I quite appreciated the complexity of getting all this right at the same time, especially when you throw in the added complexity of trying to match up with the various investment theses and historical biases of top tier firms. As Ben Horowitz said, “this is not checkers; this is mutherfuckin’ chess.” Getting useful information isn't always easy - most investors seem to be worried about offending founders and prefer high level statements like "not enough traction" over candid feedback about the holes they see in your business.

I want to thank a few folks that were candid and helpful to us in this way - Ashu Garg (Foundation Capital), Thomas Korte (AngelPad) and James Currier were among the the people that gave us really insightful, critical feedback.

The Founding Team Gut Check

With some honest datapoints on the investor perspective of your business, you have the information you and your co-founders need to have a gut check conversation about the state of your business. You'll likely find your product, market, team or timing are in conflict with what investors see as likely to be a homerun, and you need to decide how to respond to that mismatch.

In our case the problem seems to be mainly around market - we're targeting very small businesses, a fragmented market where there is no historical precedent for big winners being built within the timeline that venture investors need for their 10x returns. We're well aware of the historical challenges in serving this market, but we believe that due to a number of new trends, big winners will emerge in this space in the next 3-5 years. Very few investors agree with us.

Our focus on very small business is one of the founding principles of our company, and we believe deeply in the potential that lies in serving this market. Our conviction in serving this market increased when we launched Glyder and started seeing the positive user response to the product. Because of this conviction, we decided that we would rather continue focusing on this market than switch to a different target market, even if that means we're not fundable in the short term.

Having an open and candid conversation with our team about the challenges to our company was a great chance to gauge everyone's commitment to the business. Building our business without more capital will be difficult, but when everyone voiced renewed desire to keep going forward, it helped me as the CEO get excited about figuring out how to do it.

Moving Forward & Changing Tactics

Paul Graham likes to tell founders that "the surest route to success is to be the cockroaches of the corporate world." The analogy works particularly well for orphan startups, because without additional capital, you must be resilient, resourceful and self-sufficient as quickly as possible. Here are some of the changes we’ve made as we continue building our business.

Incentivizing Existing Investors to Stay Involved and Excited 

Before we started trying to raise a new round, we gave our existing investors the opportunity to put more money into the company on fairly favorable terms. The cap on this new note was lower than the cap that we had previously raised money on - although our business was much further along, the funding environment had changed as well, and we wanted to make the decision to put additional capital in easy for our existing investors.

We also went back and amended the documents for all investors who had put money in on the higher cap and gave them the lower cap instead. This is unusual, not legally required, and meant that we were giving up additional dilution.

Why would we voluntarily increase dilution? Our investor group includes friends & family, angels, and the great team at 500 Startups. Our relationships with most of them started long before this company, and we hope they will extend far into the future. These relationships motivate us to keep building the business - they trusted us with their hard earned dollars, and although they all know the risks of betting on our startup, we want to show them results. When it comes to a decision like the one we made with the cap change, the cost in dilution was well worth the goodwill it generated among our investors. It also demonstrated our commitment to acting with integrity even when things aren't going according to plan.

Re-evaluating the Product Roadmap

As we heard the skepticism from potential investors while trying to raise more capital, product priorities were the first thing to change for us. We no longer have the luxury to focus on user growth over monetization, so our entire product roadmap shifted to focus on revenue. Our app, once offered for free (to maximize signups) is now a paid download. We don't have the luxury of supporting users that aren't willing to pay for what we make.

Lowering Burn Rate 

In addition to shifting product priorities to revenue, we also made dramatic reductions in burn rate so we could reach profitability faster. This meant letting several team members go - by far the hardest decision in this entire process - and asking remaining team members to take a pay cut (we softened the blow with this by giving additional equity). The changes in product and burn rate have put us on a path to reach cash flow positive before we run out of capital.

Preparing For Battle

In addition to the tactical changes in our business, the process we’ve gone through in the past three months has mentally and emotionally prepared our team for the road ahead. We know who we are and what we’re working toward, we’re aware of and very comfortable with the contrarian stance we’re taking, and we believe the long term opportunity is well worth the short term sacrifices we are making. As they say on Friday Night Lights, “clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.”

I think Andrew Chen had it right when he said, "there’s always another move." If you’re the founder of a startup staring headfirst at the Series A Crunch and you can find the will to keep going, your job is to find that next move and make it happen. I hope to see more discussion on how companies are sticking with it and navigating the trough of sorrow. If you're in the midst of this process and need someone to bounce ideas off, drop me a note at @alanwells.

Article has 0 comments. Click To Read/Write Comments

How To Survive a Ground-Up Rewrite Without Losing Your Sanity

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Apr 08, 2013


aka: Screw you Joel Spolsky, We're Rewriting It From Scratch!

This is a guest post by Dan Milstein (@danmil), co-founder of Hut 8 Labs.

Disclosure: Joel Spolsky is a friend and I'm an investor in his company, Stack Exchange (which powers the awesome Stack Overflow) -Dharmesh

So, you know Joel Spolsky's essay Things You Should Never Do, Part I? In which he urgently recommends that, no matter what, please god listen to me, don't rewrite your product from scratch? And lists a bunch of dramatic failures when companies have tried to do so?

First off, he's totally right. Developers tend to spectacularly underestimate the effort involved in such a rewrite (more on that below), and spectacularly overestimate the value generated (more on that below, as well).

But sometimes, on certain rare occasions, you're going to be justified in rewriting a major part of your product (you'll notice I've shifted to saying you're merely rewriting a part, instead of the whole product. Please do that. If you really are committed to just rewriting the entire thing from scratch, I don't know what to tell you).

If you're considering launching a major rewrite, or find yourself as the tech lead on such a project in flight, or are merely toiling in the trenches of such a project, hoping against hope that it will someday end... this post is for you.jump rewrite

Hello, My Name is Dan, and I've Done Some Rewrites

A few years back, I joined a rapidly growing startup named HubSpot, where I ended up working for a good solid while (which was a marvelous experience, btw -- you should all have Yoav Shapira as a boss at some point). In my first year there, I was one of the tech leads on a small team that rewrote the Marketing Analytics system (one of the key features of the HubSpot product), totally from scratch. We rewrote the back end (moving from storing raw hit data in SQLServer to processing hits with Hadoop and storing aggregate reports in MySQL); we rewrote the front end (moving from C#/ASP.Net to Java/Tomcat); we got into the guts of a dozen applications which had come to rely on that store of every-hit-ever, and found a way to make them work with the data that was now available. (Note: HubSpot is now primarily powered by MySQL/Hadoop/HBase. Check out the HubSpot dev blog).

It took a loooong time. Much, much longer than we expected.

But it generated a ton of value for HubSpot. Very Important People were, ultimately, very happy about that project. After it wrapped up, 'Analytics 2.0', as it was known, somehow went from 'that project that was dragging on forever', to 'that major rewrite that worked out really well'.

Then, after the Analytics Rewrite wrapped up, in my role as 5 Whys Facilitator, I led the post-mortem on another ambitious rewrite which hadn't fared quite so well. I'll call it The Unhappy Rewrite.

From all that, some fairly clear lessons emerged.

First, I'm going to talk about why these projects are so tricky. Then I'll pass on some of those hard-won lessons on how to survive.

Prepare Yourself For This Project To Never Fucking End

The first, absolutely critical thing to understand about launching a major rewrite is that it's going to take insanely longer than you expect. Even when you try to discount for the usual developer optimism. Here's why:

  • Migrating the data sucks beyond all belief

I'm assuming your existing system has a bunch of valuable data locked up in it (if it doesn't, congrats, but I just never, ever run into this situation). You think, we're going to set up a new db structure (or move it all to some NoSQL store, or whatever), and we'll, I dunno, write some scripts to copy the data over, no problem.

Problem 1: there's this endless series of weird crap encoded in the data in surprising ways. E.g. "The use_conf field is 1 if we should use the auto-generated configs... but only if the spec_version field is greater than 3. Oh, and for a few months, there was this bug, and use_conf was left blank. It's almost always safe to assume it should be 1 when it's blank. Except for customers who bought the Express product, then we should treat it as 2". You have to migrate all your data over, checksum the living hell out of it, display it back to your users, and then figure out why it's not what they expect. You end up poring over commit histories, email exchanges with developers who have long since left the company, and line after line of cryptic legacy code. (In prep for writing this, when I mentioned this problem to developers, every single time they cut me off to eagerly explain some specific, awful experience they've had on this front -- it's really that bad)

Problem 2: But, wait, it gets worse: because you have a lot of data, it often takes days to migrate it all. So, as you struggle to figure out each of the above weird, persnickety issues with converting the data over, you end up waiting for days to see if your fixes work. And then to find the next issue and start over again. I have vivid, painful memories of watching my friend Stephen (a prototypical Smart Young Engineer), who was a tech lead on the Unhappy Rewrite, working, like, hour 70 of an 80 hour week, babysitting a slow-moving data export/import as it failed over and over and over again. I really can't communicate how long this takes.

  • It's brutally hard to reduce scope

With a greenfield (non-rewrite) project, there is always (always) a severe reduction in scope as you get closer to launch. You start off, expecting to do A, B, C & D, but when you launch, you do part of A. But, often, people are thrilled. (And, crucially, they forget that they had once considered all the other imagined features as absolutely necessary)

With a rewrite, that fails. People are really unhappy if you tell them: hey, we rewrote your favorite part of the product, the code is a lot cleaner now, but we took away half the functionality.

You'll end up spending this awful series of months implementing all these odd edge cases that you didn't realize even existed. And backfilling support for features that you've been told no one uses any more, but you find out at the last minute some Important Person or Customer does. And, and, and...

  • There turn out to be these other system that use "your" data

You always think: oh, yeah, there are these four screens, I see how to serve those from the new system. But then it turns out that a half-dozen cron jobs read data directly from "your" db. And there's an initialization step for new customers where something is stored in that db and read back later. And some other screen makes a side call to obtain a count of your data. Etc, etc. Basically, you try turning off the old system briefly, and a flurry of bug reports show up on your desk, for features written a long time ago, by people who have left the company, but which customers still depend on. This takes forever all over again to fix.

Okay, I'm Sufficiently Scared Now, What Should I Do?

You you have to totally own the business value.

First off, before you start, you must define the business value of this rewrite. I mean, you should always understand the big picture value of what you do (see: Rands Test). But with rewrites, it's often the tech lead, or the developers in general, who are pushing for the rewrite -- and then it's absolutely critical that you understand the value. Because you're going to discover unexpected problems, and have to make compromises, and the whole thing is going to drag on forever. And if, at the end of all that, the Important People who sign your checks don't see much value, it's not going to be a happy day for you.

One thing: be very, very careful if the primary business value is some (possibly disguised) version of "The new system will be much easier for developers to work on." I'm not saying that's not a nice bit of value, but if that's your only or main value... you're going to be trying to explain to your CEO in six months why nothing seems to have gotten done in development in the last half year.

The key to fixing the "developers will cry less" thing is to identify, specifically, what the current, crappy system is holding you back from doing. E.g. are you not able to pass a security audit? Does the website routinely fall over in a way that customers notice? Is there some sexy new feature you just can't add because the system is too hard to work with? Identifying that kind of specific problem both means you're talking about something observable by the rest of the business, and also that you're in a position to make smart tradeoffs when things blow up (as they will).

As an example, for our big Analytics rewrite, the developers involved sat down with Dan Dunn, the (truly excellent) product guy on our team, and worked out a list of business-visible wins we hoped to achieve. In rough priority order, those were:

  • Cut cost of storing each hit by an order of magnitude

  • Create new reports that weren't possible in the old system

  • Serve all reports faster

  • Serve near-real-time (instead of cached daily) reports

And you should know: that first one loomed really, really large. HubSpot was growing very quickly, and storing all that hit data as individual rows in SQLServer had all sorts of extra costs. The experts on Windows ops were constantly trying to get new SQLServer clusters set up ahead of demand (which was risky and complex and ended up touching a lot of the rest of the codebase). Sales people were told to not sell to prospects with really high traffic, because if they installed our tracking code, it might knock over those key databases (and that restriction injected friction into the sales process). Etc, etc.

Solving the "no more hits in SQLServer" problem is the Hard kind for a rewrite -- you only get the value when every single trace of the old system is gone. The other ones, lower down the list, those you'd see some value as individual reports were moved over. That's a crucial distinction to understand. If at all possible, you want to make sure that you're not only solving that kind of Hard Problem -- find some wins on the way.

For the Unhappy Rewrite, the biz value wasn't perfectly clear. And, thus, as often happens in that case, everyone assumed that, in the bright, shiny world of the New System, all their own personal pet peeves would be addressed. The new system would be faster! It would scale better! The front end would be beautiful and clever and new! It would bring our customers coffee in bed and read them the paper.

As the developers involved slogged through all the unexpected issues which arose, and had to keep pushing out their release date, they gradually realized how disappointed everyone was going to be when they saw the actual results (because all the awesome, dreamed-of stuff had gotten thrown overboard to try to get the damn thing out the door). This a crappy, crappy place to be -- stressed because people are hounding you to get something long-overdue finished, and equally stressed because you know that thing is a mess.

Okay, so how do you avoid getting trapped in this particular hell?

Worship at the Altar of Incrementalism

Over my career, I've come to place a really strong value on figuring out how to break big changes into small, safe, value-generating pieces. It's a sort of meta-design -- designing the process of gradual, safe change.

Kent Beck calls this Succession, and describes it as:

"Design changes are usually most efficiently implemented as a series of safe steps. Succession is the art of taking a single conceptual change, breaking it into safe steps, and then finding an order for those steps that optimizes safety, feedback, and efficiency."

I love that he calls it an "art" -- that feels exactly right to me. It doesn't happen by accident. You have to consciously work at it, talk out alternatives with your team, get some sort of product owner or manager involved to make sure the early value you're surfacing matters to customers. It's a creative act.

And now, let me say, in an angry Old Testament prophet voice: Beware the false incrementalism!

False incrementalism is breaking a large change up into a set of small steps, but where none of those steps generate any value on their own. E.g. you first write an entire new back end (but don't hook it up to anything), and then write an entire new front end (but don't launch it, because the back end doesn't have the legacy data yet), and then migrate all the legacy data. It's only after all of those steps are finished that you have anything of any value at all.

Fortunately, there's a very simple test to determine if you're falling prey to the False Incrementalism: if after each increment, an Important Person were to ask your team to drop the project right at that moment, would the business have seen some value? That is the gold standard.

Going back to my running example: our existing analytics system supported a few thousand customers, and served something like a half dozen key reports. We made an early decision to: a) rewrite all the existing reports before writing new ones, and b) rewrite each report completely, push it through to production, migrate any existing data for that report, and switch all our customers over. And only then move on to the next report.

Here's how that completely saved us: 3 months into a rewrite which we had estimated would take 3-5 months, we had completely converted a single report. Because we had focused on getting all the way through to production, and on migrating all the old data, we had been forced to face up to how complex the overall process was going to be. We sat down, and produced a new estimate: it would take more like 8 months to finish everything up, and get fully off SQLServer.

At this point, Dan Dunn, who is a Truly Excellent Product Guy because he is unafraid to face a hard tradeoff, said, "I'd like to shift our priorities -- I want to build the Sexy New Reports now, and not wait until we're fully off SQLServer." We said, "Even if it makes the overall rewrite take longer, and we won't get off SQLServer this year, and we'll have to build that one new cluster we were hoping to avoid having to set up?" And he said "Yes." And we said, "Okay, then."

That's the kind of choice you want to offer the rest of your larger team. An economic tradeoff where they can chose between options of what they see when. You really, really don't want to say: we don't have anything yet, we're not sure when we will, your only choices are to keep waiting, or to cancel this project and kiss your sunk costs goodbye.

Side note: Dan made 100% the right call (see: Excellent). The Sexy New Reports were a huge, runaway hit. Getting them out sooner than later made a big economic impact on the business. Which was good, because the project dragged on past the one year mark before we could finally kill off SQLServer and fully retire the old system.

For you product dev flow geeks out there, one interesting piece of value we generated early was simply a better understanding of how long the project was going to take. I believe that is what Beck means by "feedback". It's real value to the business. If we hadn't pushed a single report all the way through, we would likely have had, 3-4 months in, a whole bunch of data (for all reports) in some partially built new system, and no better understanding of the full challenge of cutting even one report over. You can see the value the feedback gave us--it let Dan make a much better economic choice. I will make my once-per-blog-post pitch that you should go read Donald Reinertsen's Principles of Product Development Flow to learn more about how reducing uncertainty generates value for a business.

For the Unhappy Rewrite, they didn't work out a careful plan for this kind of incremental delivery. Some Totally Awesome Things would happen/be possible when they finished. But they kept on not finishing, and not finishing, and then discovering more ways that the various pieces they were building didn't quite fit together. In the Post-Mortem, someone summarized it as: "We somehow turned this into a Waterfall project, without ever meaning to."

But, I Have to Cut Over All at Once, Because the Data is Always Changing

One of the reasons people bail on incrementalism is that they realize that, to make it work, there's going to be an extended period where every update to a piece of data has to go to both systems (old and new). And that's going to be a major pain in the ass to engineer. People will think (and even say out loud), "We can't do that, it'll add a month to the project to insert a dual-write layer. It wil slow us down too much."

Here's what I'm going to say: always insert that dual-write layer. Always. It's a minor, generally somewhat fixed cost that buys you an incredible amount of insurance. It allows you, as we did above, to gradually switch over from one system to another. It allows you to back out at any time if you discover major problems with the way the data was migrated (which you will, over and over again). It means your migration of data can take a week, and that's not a problem, because you don't have to freeze writes to both systems during that time. And, as a bonus, it surfaces a bunch of those weird situations where "other" systems are writing directly to your old database.

Again, I'll quote Kent Beck, writing about how they do this at Facebook:

"We frequently migrate large amounts of data from one data store to another, to improve performance or reliability. These migrations are an example of succession, because there is no safe way to wave a wand and migrate the data in an instant. The succession we use is:

Convert data fetching and mutating to a DataType, an abstraction that hides where the data is stored.

Modify the DataType to begin writing the data to the new store as well as the old store.

Bulk migrate existing data.

Modify the DataType to read from both stores, checking that the same data is fetched and logging any differences.

When the results match closely enough, return data from the new store and eliminate the old store.

You could theoretically do this faster as a single step, but it would never work. There is just too much hidden coupling in our system. Something would go wrong with one of the steps, leading to a potentially disastrous situation of lost or corrupted data."

Abandoning the Project Should Always Be on the Table

If a 3-month rewrite is economically rational, but a 13-month one is a giant loss, you'll generate a lot value by realizing which of those two you're actually facing. Unfortunately, the longer you solider on, the harder it is for people to avoid the Fallacy of Sunk Costs. The solution: if you have any uncertainty about how long it's going to take, sequence your work to reduce that uncertainty right away, and give people some "finished" thing that will let them walk away. One month in, you can still say: we've decided to only rewrite the front end. Or: we're just going to insert an API layer for now. Or, even: this turned out to be a bad idea, we're walking away. Six months in, with no end in sight, that's incredibly hard to do (even if it's still the right choice, economically).

Some Specific Tactics

Shrink Ray FTW

This is an excellent idea, courtesy of Kellan Elliot-McCrea, CTO of Etsy. He describes it as follows:

"We have a pattern we call shrink ray. It's a graph of how much the old system is still in place. Most of these run as cron jobs that grep the codebase for a key signature. Sometimes usage is from wire monitoring of a component. Sometimes there are leaderboards. There is always a party when it goes to zero. A big party.

Gives a good sense of progress and scope, especially as the project is rolling, and a good historical record of how long this shit takes. '''

I've just started using Shrink Ray on a rewrite I'm tackling right now, and I will say: it's fairly awesome. Not only does it give you the wins above, but, it also forces you to have an early discussion about what you are shrinking, and who in the business cares. If you make the right graph, Important People will be excited to see it moving down. This is crazy valuable.

Engineer The Living Hell Out Of Your Migration Scripts

It's very easy to think of the code that moves data from the old system to the new as a collection of one-off scripts. You write them quickly, don't comment them too carefully, don't write unit tests, etc. All of which are generally valid tradeoffs for code which you're only going to run once.

But, see above, you're going to run your migrations over and over to get them right. Plus, you're converting and summing up and copying over data, so you really, really want some unit tests to find any errors you can early on (because "data" is, to a first approximation, "a bunch of opaque numbers which don't mean anything to you, but which people will be super pissed off about if they're wrong"). And this thing is going to happen, where someone will accidentally hit ctrl-c, and kill your 36 hour migration at hour 34. Thus, taking the extra time to make the entire process strongly idempotent will pay off over and over (by strongly idempotent, I mean, e.g. you can restart after a failed partial run and it will pick up most of the existing work).

Basically, treat your migration code as a first class citizen. It will save you a lot of time in the long run.

If Your Data Doesn't Look Weird, You're Not Looking Hard Enough

What's best is if you can get yourself to think about the problem of building confidence in your data as a real, exciting engineering challenge. Put one of your very best devs to work attacking both the old and the new data, writing tools to analyze it all, discover interesting invariants and checksums.

A good rule of thumb for migrating and checksumming data: until you've found a half-dozen bizarre inconsistencies in the old data, you're not done. For the Analytics Rewrite, we created a page on our internal wiki called "Data Infelicities". It got to be really, really long.

With Great Incrementalism Comes Great Power

I want to wrap up by flipping this all around -- if you learn to approach your rewrites with this kind of ferocious, incremental discipline, you can tackle incredibly hard problems without fear. Which is a tremendous capability to offer your business. You can gradually rewrite that unbelievably horky system that the whole company depends on. You can move huge chunks of data to new data stores. You can pick up messy, half-functional open source projects and gradually build new products around them.

It's a great feeling.


What's your take?  Care to share any lessons learned from an epic rewrite?

Article has 2 comments. Click To Read/Write Comments

Measuring What Matters: How To Pick A Good Metric

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, Mar 29, 2013


Ben Yoskovitz is the co-author of Lean Analytics, a new book on how to use analytics successfully in your business. Ben is currently VP Product at GoInstant, which was acquired by Salesforce in 2012. He blogs regularly at Instigator Blog and can be followed @byosko.

We all know metrics are important. They help report progress and guide our decision making. Used properly, metrics can provide key insights into our businesses that make the difference between success and failure. But as our capacity to track everything increases, and the tools to do so become easier and more prevalent, the question remains: what is a worthwhile metric to track?

Before you can really figure that out it's important to understand the basics of metrics. There are in fact good numbers and bad numbers. There are numbers that don't help and numbers that might save the day.

First, here's how we define analytics: Analytics is the measurement of movement towards your business goals.

The two key concepts are "movement" and "business goals". Analytics isn't about reporting for the sake of reporting, it's about tracking progress. And not just aimless progress, but progress towards something you're trying to accomplish. If you don't know where you're going, metrics aren't going to be particularly helpful.

With that definition in mind, here's how we define a "good metric".

A good metric is:

  • Comparative

  • Understandable

  • A ratio or rate

  • Behavior changing

A good metric is comparative. Being able to compare a metric across time periods, groups of users, or competitors helps you understand which way things are moving. For example, "Increased conversion by 10% from last week" is more meaningful than "We're at 2% conversion." Using comparative metrics speaks clearly to our definition of "movement towards business goals".

A good metric is understandable. Take the numbers you're tracking now--the ones you think are the most important--and show those to outsiders. If they don't instantly understand your business and what you're trying to do, then the numbers you're tracking are probably too complex. And internally, if people can't remember the numbers you're focused on and discuss them effectively, it becomes much harder to turn a change in the data into a change in the culture. Try fitting your key metrics on a single TV screen (and don’t cheat with a super small font either!)

A good metric is a ratio or a rate. Ratios and rates are inherently comparative. For example, if you compare a daily metric to the same metric over a month, you'll see whether you're looking at a sudden spike or a long-term trend. Ratios and rates (unlike absolute numbers) give you a more realistic "health check" for your business and as a result they're easier to act on. This speaks to our definition above about "business goals"--ratios and rates help you understand if you're heading towards those goals or away from them.

A good metric changes the way you behave. This is by far the most important criterion for a metric: what will you do differently based on changes in the number? If you don't know, it's a bad metric. This doesn't mean you don't track it--we generally suggest that you track everything but only focus on one thing at a time because you never know when a metric you're tracking becomes useful. But when looking at the key numbers you're focused on today, ask yourself if you really know what you'd do if those numbers go up, down or stay the same. If you don't, put those metrics aside and look for better ones to track right now.

Now that we've defined a "good" metric let's look at five things you should keep in mind when choosing the right metrics to track:

  • Qualitative versus quantitative metrics

  • Vanity versus actionable metrics

  • Exploratory versus reporting metrics

  • Leading versus lagging metrics

  • Correlated versus causal metrics

1. Qualitative versus Quantitative metrics

Quantitative data is easy to understand. It's the numbers we track and measure--for example, sports scores and movie ratings. As soon as something is ranked, counted, or put on a scale, it's quantified. Quantitative data is nice and scientific, and (assuming you do the math right) you can aggregate it, extrapolate it, and put it into a spreadsheet. Quantitative data doesn't lie, although it can certainly be misinterpreted. It's also not enough for starting a business. To start something, to genuinely find a problem worth solving, you need qualitative input.

Qualitative data is messy, subjective, and imprecise. It's the stuff of interviews and debates. It's hard to quantify. You can't measure qualitative data easily. If quantitative data answers "what" and "how much," qualitative data answers "why." Quantitative data abhors emotion; qualitative data marinates in it.

When you first get started with an idea, assuming you're following the core principles around Lean Startup, you'll be looking for qualitative data through problem interviews. You're speaking to people--specifically, to people you think are potential customers in the right target market. You're exploring. You're getting out of the building.

Collecting good qualitative data takes preparation. You need to ask specific questions without leading potential customers or skewing their answers. You have to avoid letting your enthusiasm and reality distortion rub off on your interview subjects. Unprepared interviews yield misleading or meaningless results. We cover how to interview people in Lean Analytics, but there have been many others that have done so as well. Ash Maurya’s book Running Lean provides a great, prescriptive approach to interviewing. I also recommend Laura Klein’s writing on the subject.

Sidebar: In writing Lean Analytics, we proposed the idea of scoring problem interviews. The basic concept is to take the qualitative data you collect during interviews and codify it enough to give you (hopefully!) new insight into the results. The goal of scoring problem interviews is to reduce your own bias and ensure a healthy dose of intellectual honesty in your efforts. Not everyone agrees with the approach, but I hope you'll take a look and try it out for yourself.

2. Vanity versus Actionable metrics

I won't spent a lot of time on vanity metrics, because I think most people reading OnStartups understand these. As mentioned above, if you have a piece of data that can't be acted upon (you don't know how movement in the metric will change your behavior) then it's a vanity metric and you should ignore it.

It is important to note that actionable metrics don't automatically hold the answers. They're not magic. They give you an indication that something fundamental and important is going on, and identify areas where you should focus, but they don't provide the answers. For example, if "percent of active users" drops, what do you do? Well, it's a good indication that something is wrong, but you'll have to dig further into your business to figure it out. Actionable metrics are often the starting point for this type of exploration and problem solving.

3. Exploratory versus Reporting metrics

Reporting metrics are straightforward--they report on what's going on in your startup. We think of these as "accounting metrics", for example, "How many widgets did we sell today?" Or, "Did the green or the red widget sell more?" Reporting metrics can be the results of experiments (and therefore actionable), but they don't necessarily lead to those "eureka!" moments that can change your business forever.

Exploratory metrics are those you go looking for. You're sifting through data looking for threads of information that are worth pursuing. You're exploring in order to generate ideas to experiment on. This fits what Steve Blank says a startup should spend its time doing: searching for a scalable, repeatable business model.

A great example of using exploratory metrics is from Mike Greenfield, co-founder of Circle of Moms. Originally, Circle of Moms was Circle of Friends (think: Google Circles inside Facebook). Circle of Friends grew very quickly in 2007-2008 to 10 million users, thanks in part to Facebook's open platform. But there was a problem--user engagement was terrible. Circle of Friends had great virality and tons of users, but not enough people were really using the product.

So Mike went digging.

And what Mike found was incredible. It turns out that moms, by every imaginable metric, were insanely engaged compared to everyone else. Their messages were longer, they invited more people, they attached more photos, and so on. So Mike and his team pivoted from Circle of Friends to Circle of Moms. They essentially abandoned millions of users to focus on a group of users that were actually engaged and getting value from their product. From the outside looking in this might have been surprising or confusing. You might find yourself at a decision point like Mike and worry about what investors will think, or other external influencers. But if you find a key insight in your data that’s incredibly compelling, you owe it to yourself to act on it, even if it looks crazy from the outside. For Mike and Circle of Moms, it was the right decision. The company grew their user base back up to 4 million users and eventually sold to Sugar Inc.

4. Leading versus Lagging metrics

Leading and lagging metrics are both useful, but they serve different purposes. Most startups start by measuring lagging metrics (or "lagging indicators") because they don't have enough data to do anything else. And that's OK. But it's important to recognize that a lagging metric is reporting the past; by the time you know what the number is, whatever you’re tracking has already happened. A great example of this is churn. Churn tells you what percentage of customers (or users) abandon your service over time. But once a customer has churned out they're not likely to come back. Measuring churn is important, and if it's too high, you'll absolutely want to address the issue and try to fix your leaky bucket, but it lags behind reality.

A leading metric on the other hand tries to predict the future. It gives you an indication of what is likely to happen, and as a result you can address a leading metric more quickly to try and change outcomes going forward. For example, customer complaints is often a leading indicator of churn. If customer complaints are going up, you can expect that customers will abandon and churn will also go up. But instead of responding to something that's already happened, you can dive into customer complaints immediately, figure out what's going on, resolve the issues and hopefully minimize the future impact in churn.

Ultimately, you need to decide whether the thing you're tracking helps you make better decisions sooner. Remember: a real metric has to be actionable. Lagging and leading metrics can both be actionable, but leading indicators show you what will happen, reducing your cycle time and making you leaner.

5. Correlated versus Causal metrics

A correlation is a seeming relationship between two metrics that change together, but are often changing as a result of something else. Take ice cream consumption and drowning. If you plotted these over a year, you'd see that they're correlated--they both go up and down at the same time. The more ice cream that's consumed, the more people drown. But no one would suggest that we reduce ice cream consumption as a way of preventing drowning deaths. That's because the numbers are correlated, and not causal. One isn't affecting the other. The factor that affects them both is actually the time of year--when it's summer, people eat more ice cream and they also drown more.

Finding a correlation between two metrics is a good thing. Correlations can help you predict what will happen. But finding the cause of something means you can change it. Usually, causations aren't simple one-to-one relationships--there’s lots of factors at play, but even a degree of causality is valuable.

You prove causality by finding a correlation, then running experiments where you control the other variables and measure the difference. It's hard to do, but causality is really an analytics superpower--it gives you the power to hack the future.

So what metrics are you tracking?

We’ve covered some fundamentals about analytics and picking good metrics. It's not the whole story (to learn more see our presentations and workshops on Lean Analytics), but I'd encourage you to take a look at what you're tracking and see if the numbers you care the most about meet the criteria defined in this post. Are the metrics ratios/rates? Are they actionable? Are you looking at leading or lagging metrics? Have you identified any correlations? Could you experiment your way to discovering causality?

And remember: analytics is about measuring progress towards goals. It's not about endless reports. It's not about numbers that go constantly "up and to the right" to impress the press, investors or anyone else. Good analytics is about speeding up and making better decisions, and developing key insights that become cornerstones of your startup.

Article has 0 comments. Click To Read/Write Comments

Why I Spent 200 Hours Writing Culture Code Instead of Python Code

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Wed, Mar 20, 2013


If someone had told me a few months ago that I'd be spending more hours in PowerPoint than PyCharm (an IDE for programming in Python) I'd have laughed at them (not out loud though). Sure, I've been known to create some slides — and I do some occasional public speaking, but I don't usually spend crazy amounts of time on a slide deck. 

Except this time.  I've now clocked well over 200 hours on a single deck (including thinking/discussion time).  It's the HubSpot Culture Code deck (available for your viewing pleasure below, or  


I've been reading, thinking and talking a lot about culture lately.  A couple of years ago, I started a simple document for use within my startup, HubSpot, that talked a bit about culture.  The document described the “people patterns” of HubSpot — what kinds of people were likely to do well at the company.  Said differently, if I were to write a grading algorithm to predict the likelihood of success of a given employee, what would the parameters of that function be?  We identified things like being humble and analytical (2 of the 7 things).  That document turned out to be relatively useful — and well worth the time.  We've used it during the interview process, we use it during reviews. 

I continued to get feedback from the HubSpot team that the original culture deck at HubSpot was starting to get a little dated — and it didn't go far enough.  It talked about the kind of people that were a match — but it didn't talk at all about beliefs or behaviors.  Meanwhile, the company is growing like wildfire.  We're 460 people now and adding 25+ people every month. 

So, I thought to myself:  “Self, maybe it's time to update the deck…”  I set out on a quest to talk to a bunch of folks, run some surveys, get some feedback, read a bunch of stuff, etc.  One thing led to another…and another…and another, and here I am. 

If one needs 200 hours and 150+ slides on culture, is something wrong?

Maybe.  But, this is likely more a function of my neuroses than a reflection on HubSpot.  And, all things said and done, I don't really regret having spent the time.  The result, I think, is really good.  People I trust to tell me the truth and that I respect immensely have told me the deck is good.  It's not the same level as the Netflix culture deck, but it's not terrible.

Speaking of the Netflix culture deck, you've read it right?  Right?  If you have time to read only one 100+ slide deck about company culture, you should read the Netflix culture deck (convenient URL:  If you have time to read two 100+ slide decks on company culture — read the Netflix deck twice.  It's that good.
brain digital

Why I'm thankful to Jason Fried and 37signals

Jason is a brilliant thinker and a brilliant writer.  He's got some great posts on culture, like “You Don't Create a Culture”.  Which is why I was a little worried when I sent him a preview (private beta) of the deck I was working on to get his reaction.  I was fearful. My thought was “He's going to think I'm an idiot.  Or worse, clueless.”  Turns out, he was gracious. He acknowledged that 37signals and HubSpot are different companies, pursuing different paths.  I could have been brave and dug into this comments a bit more, but I decided not to push my luck because it would have been somewhat crushing.

I also enjoyed “When Culture Turns Into Policy” by Mig Reyes of 37signals.  He's right  But, I feel like I'm in the correct side of truth and justice on this particular front.

The more sobering article was “What Your Culture Really Says” (not by 37signals, but by @shanley — someone I don't know).  Well written and biting in its criticism of what she calls “Silicon Valley Culture”, it was something I read a couple of times and circulated around to a few folks on my team. I recommend it. It's dark, but worth reading.

Why I think it was worth it, and why I'd do it again.

1. Culture is super-duper important, and it's worth spending time on.  Check out my recent post “Culture Code: Creating a Company YOU Love”. I think it makes a pretty good case.

2. Already, the deck is being used internally within HubSpot.  I've gotten both physical high fives and virtual high fives from people on the team.  That makes me happy.

3. Even before posting the HubSpot culture code deck to public beta today, I had already started sending it to people that I was trying to recruit to HubSpot.  Though ideally, I'd get to meet everyone and tell them about our culture code in person, that's just not possible.

4. Going through the exercise was one of the most challenging and revealing things I've ever done since starting the company 6+ years ago.

5. Working on our culture code project caused me to talk to a bunch of people that I didn't otherwise know and would probably not have been able to connect with.  People like Patty McCord (co-author of the Netflix culture deck). 

6. It's been therapeutic.  Now, if HubSpot ends up going down in crashing, burning flames (which is totally not the plan) — at least I'll know that we tried to design and defend our culture. 

7. We're about 4 hours into the public beta release of the HubSpot culture code deck.  It's already gotten 16,000 hits and is going strong.  This is gratifying.  My hope is that a few of those people found the deck useful. (And maybe a few of them will join our merry band of misfits at HubSpot someday).

If you're getting started, spend 20 hours, not 200.

One of the common questions I get from my startup friends is how much time they should be spending on culture — given everything else going on (like you know, building a business).  I'm not sure what the optimal number is — but I can say with confidence that the number is not zero.  I'd suggest 20 hours.  Just enough time to think about it, talk to your team, read some stuff and describe it.  You don't need to put posters up on the wall.  Just something — even if it's a one-pager that captures your current thinking on the kind of company you want to be.

Quick hint:  You want to build a company that you love working for.  The rest will work itself out.

What do you think?  Have you scanned through the deck?  Was it useful?  Lame?  Interesting?  Would love to hear your thoughts.  I think of the deck as being in “public beta”, so I'll be iterating on it and updating it regularly.   

Article has 0 comments. Click To Read/Write Comments

Getting Crunched, Mashed Or Beaten Is Not A Launch Strategy

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Tue, Mar 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…


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.


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.

Article has 0 comments. Click To Read/Write Comments

Previous Page | All Posts | Next Page