The following is a guest post by Chris Sheehan. Chris is COO of TrueLens, an early stage startup in the social marketing space. He is also a board member, advisor and investor in many Boston and NYC startups. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_sheehan and his blog Early Stage Adventures.
What the heck is corporate development and why should I care?
Back in the first wave of the Internet, I was part of the team at BEA Systems that built up in-house corporate development. Our charter was simple: add significant market cap value through acquisitions, investments, and partnerships. Specifically our stated mission: “To support BEA becoming the industry standard ebusiness application platform by leading the process with senior management in developing and managing corporate-wide strategy, acquisitions, equity investments, and selected strategic relationships”
For entrepreneurs, I think its helpful to understand the role corporate development plays in larger software companies. Could be for potential partnerships — maybe an acquisition. Or, maybe you're growing fast enough yourself to warrant acquiring other companies. Regardless, it helps to have a basic understanding of what the corporate development team does.
What is corporate development?
- most public consumer and enterprise software companies (and increasingly many high growth private companies) have a person or sometimes a team in charge of corporate development
- the mandate varies from pure deal execution to a role that combines strategy, execution, and integration. Sometimes the charter includes strategic partnerships and minority investing
- for example, at BEA Systems, we adopted the former model. Each of us were embedded deep in a business unit, working closely with the product, engineering, sales, finance and marketing teams on overall strategy and how strategic alliances, investments or acquisitions could add significant value. Our team had a solid mix of backgrounds including investment banking, VC, engineering, and operations. So we covered strategy, deal sourcing/execution (partnership, investment or M&A), integration, and post deal measurement
Is there any point in talking with corporate development unless I am thinking about an investment or acquisition?
- I lean towards the view that it can be very helpful. It's often hard to navigate Byzantium organization structures from the outside and the corporate development executive can help facilitate who you should be talking to for partnerships/customer relationships. They can also be incredibly helpful in simply understanding the product and business priorities of divisions
- And most M&A deals typically don’t just magically happen. Rather, they are often the culmination of bus development/partnership/vendor-customer relationships where fit is tested first, the product is kicked around and deals are somewhat more de-risked. Developing relationships with corporate development early can prove very helpful later down the line when you might be thinking about investment or acquisition
How would my company be perceived from an acquisition viewpoint?
- the reason for doing an acquisition varies and it’s important to understand where your startup fits. Some reasons deals are done in the software space include:
- acquire talent (look at what Yahoo! has done in the mobile space)
- acquire important pieces of technology (vs build or partner. Quite often time to market pressure pushes companies to buy rather than build)
- extend the product suite (eg Oracle’s recent acquisition of BlueKai filled an important gap in their Market Cloud suite)
- acquire new capabilities (eg the acquisition of many cloud/SaaS/mobile companies by larger software companies as they move from on-premise/perpetual license business models)
- extend the software platform/portfolio into related/new markets (eg VMWare’s $1.5Bn acquisition of AirWatch is a big bet on the enterprise mobility space)
- I’ve also seen deals that are “change agent” deals, designed to help senior management change the nature and culture of an organization by bringing in new senior executives to be a catalyst for change
- Understanding the “why” from a potential acquirers perspective is key
Types of acquisitions
- very simplistically, software acquisitions tend fall into two broad categories – smaller, tuck-in acquisitions or larger more strategic deals. Some common characteristics of tuck-in acquisitions:
- small value relative to the market value of the acquirer
- the analysis is often build/partner/or buy
- cash & or stock deals with 1 to 4 year retention packages
- often done in-house (no investment bankers, but sometimes external counsel and accounting diligence)
- simpler integration (but that doesn’t mean it can’t be messed up)
- at the other spectrum are larger strategic acquisitions that will have a significant impact on the acquirer. Significant could be measured as % of market cap the acquirer is paying, impact on operating margins, earnings per share, etc.
- the much reported on Facebook acquisition of WhatsApp is an example of a significant strategic acquisition, with Facebook spending 10% of its market cap. These deals often involve investment bankers (Allen & Co advised Facebook while Morgan Stanley, one FB’s underwriters, advised WhatsApp), and investor calls to explain the strategic rationale of the deal (Facebook’s is here)
- prices paid in these deals often reflect the total addressable market opportunity
What’s the typical investment/M&A process?
- at any point in time, corporate development has a pipeline of opportunities which they are tracking. Some of this is inbound, some outbound (as I was writing this, I looked at one of my old BEA pipelines which had close to 50 opportunities listed, categorized between very high priority, high priority, low/medium priority, no interest)
- while corporate development plays a key role, finding a sponsor is critical, which could be the CEO, business unit president, head of product/engineering, etc. This person is the one raising their hand to champion the deal – and being held accountable for the results. How hard or easy this is within each technology company varies greatly. Knowing insiders can be very helpful (talk to other entrepreneurs who were acquired to give you a sense of process and key players)
- how long it takes to close a deal varies. Sometimes it’s a relatively quick process, other times it takes months, often driven by the complexity of the diligence and integration process, and the competitive dynamics
Can your VCs help?
- yes, by making the appropriate introductions to companies of interest, either at the corporate development or operations level
- an interesting, early trend, is the institutionalizing of a corporate development team within venture firms, to assist portfolio companies with their sell and buy side strategies. I think this is a smart move and has potential to add significant value to portfolio companies and help drive a VC firms returns and overall track record. See Andreessen Horwitz team here. Their pitch: “helping companies plan their strategic and financial future. It’s all about anticipating needs, and architecting the right way forward for your company”.
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I started working on Foundersuite in the Fall of 2012, and we launched our MVP in early 2013. Prior to this, I'd spent 10 years consulting to startups as a fractional CFO / BD / Ops guy, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect for my first real rodeo as startup CEO.
I was completely wrong. Here are eight areas where reality diverged the most from my expectations.
1. Identifying customer needs is only a fraction of the product-market-fit battle.
I'm a fan of the lean startup model and we are diligently striving to "build things that people want." But identifying customer needs and creating a solution for those needs is only part of the equation. The other half is removing the 1000 small friction points and barriers to adoption, which is in itself a Sisyphean task.
For example, we launched our Investor CRM product as a tool to keep track of investor discussions- it’s basically a way to bring some “order to the chaos” of fundraising. It’s a slick tool, built on top of APIs from AngelList, LinkedIn, Google Calendar, etc., and we were getting a lot of love-mail when users first signed up, but ongoing engagement was anemic.
It wasn’t until we probed deep via 1-1 calls that we discovered a lot of “blockers” to adoption—for example, many users already have lists of target investors they’ve collected in excel, so we needed to make an import function. As another example, people told us that since the CRM was an empty, blank slate, they didn’t know where to start; so we will soon be pre-populating it with “starter packs” of investors. It’s an ongoing process, but the good news is that every time we remove a major hurdle or friction point, we see a meaningful spike in adoption. Instant gratification!
2. Nobody gives a sh't about what you are doing (at least at first).
IMO, there's an entire generation of entrepreneurs who have a skewed perception that "a great product markets itself." That's bullshit. Sure, there are a few born-viral products like Mailbox or Pebble, but these are the extreme exceptions, not the norms. Most startups, even really good ones, have to make a ton of noise and hustle like hell to get anyone to pay attention. The founders of Xobni put it best a few years ago: "nobody cares about your stupid little startup."
Naturally, I thought we'd be different, that we’d be one of the immediately-viral outliers; I mean, we were a startup making software for startups-- how cool is that, right? Surely we would launch and immediately hit the hockey stick ramp...right?
We did get a nice little bump in adoption when we debuted at Launch.co and were written up in VentureBeat. But the growth spike was short lived, and like most startups, we had to start grinding away; we had to start building the business, brick by marketing brick; we had to, as Paul Graham would say, do things that don't scale.
In our case, this meant building distribution partnerships with incubators, co-working spaces, hackathons, etc. This is high-touch and long sales cycle relationship work (it takes us 2-3 months on average to close each deal); but it’s an effort we believe will lay a solid foundation for future growth.
3. Early evangelists are worth twice-- no, make that 3x-- their weight in gold.
There's a great quote by Brian Chesky of Airbnb where he says: "it's better to build something that 100 people love than 1 million kind of like." It's great advice, and we definitely didn't focus enough time or energy on cultivating “champions” in the early days; instead, I was addicted to vanity metrics like page views.
Why are these early, passionate users so insanely important? Many of the reasons are obvious: they tend to tell others (= free marketing), and they give you really valuable feedback on your product. But the real reason they're worth 3x their weight in solid gold is because their positive notes of encouragement will keep you going every time you take a beating by the universe (and this happens with surprising frequency). I’m pretty sure there’s a feedback faerie out there that knows exactly when to fire over a positive, encouraging note.
Bottom line, the next time I launch a startup, I will religiously spend 75% of my time hanging out with early evangelists, really getting to know them, and making them happy. I'm playing catch-up now.
4. Some people are just not that into you.
Cold reality: many of the people you really want to like you / your company / your product, simply won’t. This came as a something of a shock, since in my previous career as a consultant, I enjoyed really close relations with my clients and was consistently closing upwards of 75% of new prospect inquiries (probably since they were coming pre-qualified as referrals).
But marketing a consulting business is very, very different from marketing a SaaS product, and it’s taken some time to get used to the level of failure / rejection. With Foundersuite, I'm lucky to hit a 25 - 30% success rate with my partnership/BD work. To put it in perspective, this means that literally 7 times out of 10 that I pursue a distribution deal, I get a “no” (or more likely no response at all).
This was hard to adjust to at first, as I tend to get obsessive about winning a deal. It consumes me. For example, there’s an incubator in Palo Alto that we’ve been talking to for months about partnering up with (and we’d even got to a soft verbal "yes"). But then everything suddenly went silent, and it drove me f’ing nuts.
I've now come to realize that although persistence is indeed a critical trait for entrepreneurs, at some point it’s time to recognize when a deal's not going to happen. In short, don’t let “Deal OCD” become a detriment to your overall business.
5. A full sales funnel cures all ills.
I've learned that the best remedy to #4 is to keep the top of the sales or BD funnel overflowing with prospects; in other words, it's all just a numbers game. I've come to view BD work like dating, and as with dating, there are infinitely more potential prospects / partners out there in the world than you could possibly tackle in a lifetime. So when you’re chasing a target that's "just not that into you" move on, and quickly. Move on, and sometimes you'll even find they come around later (always a nice surprise).
6. Don't sell the product-- sell what users can do with the product.
This is borrowed / stolen directly from Steve Jobs, and it's something I have to beat into my brain every day. There are numerous layers and nuances to it: pitch the benefits not the features; sell the "why" vs. the "what" or the "how."
Ashton Kutcher’s motivational rant in the movie Jobs sums it up nicely: "You can make a great product; but you have to convince people that what you're selling is greater. We're not selling computers; we're selling what they can do with a computer. A tool for the mind. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is limitless. Because people will never stop believing that they could get more out of something; that no matter what you dream, you can do it. And Mac will help you get there." ‘Nuff said.
6. “Thought leaders” are like supermodels—great if you can land one, but…
Our original marketing plan was based on a variation of what Chris Dixon calls the "bowling pin strategy"-- we would get tech influencers and thought leaders to adopt our product, and the startup masses would follow suit. Sounds great in theory, but getting a Paul Graham or equivalent to trial, adopt, use, and endorse your product has about the same probability of success as getting Oprah to plug your book. In short, the odds are long, and although we did land some partnerships with luminaries like TechStars, Launchrock and Startup Weekend, these deals took months of nagging / begging / calling in favors; these guys are simply so bombarded with stuff, its all just white noise.
Instead of adding to the din, we started reaching out to areas of the startup ecosystem where the noise was significantly less; we started pinging incubators, hackathons, and co-working spaces in places like Atlanta and Pittsburgh and Indiana and Hungary and Australia. Dozens or even hundreds of areas have thriving entrepreneurial communities where the need for startup productivity tools is huge; the hunger is real, and we've seen fantastic adoption. The lesson here is to skip chasing "trophy partners"-- like trying to date a supermodel, they're expensive, time consuming and a hassle to deal with when you do land them. Instead, chase those who need you the most.
7. Building product is waaay more fun than expected.
In my next reincarnation cycle, I want to come back as a product manager. I had no idea how cool this job was until I was forced to step into the role when my original PM left to launch his own thing.
I’ve found that successfully completing the cycle of idea -> prototype -> feedback -> design -> build -> launch -> feedback -> iterate -> collect payment is hugely rewarding and gratifying; I think I'm rather addicted. I'm pretty sure it taps the same pleasure centers in the brain as winning on a slot machine.
8. People will surprise you in awesome ways.
If you've read this far, you'll notice that most of the lessons learned involve accepting failure or overcoming roadblocks and rejection. But a nice takeaway is that people-- often strangers-- will surprise you in delightful ways, too. Literally as I'm writing this, a Foundersuite user emailed me to say he just posted a glowing review / offer on the Facebook page for all Startup Weekend Organizers.
This is a guy who, on his own volition, decided to promote us to a powerful set of folks who collectively touch tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and potential customers. So cool. But it's not that unusual…if you're doing something interesting, and doing it for the right motivations (e.g. ours is that we want to make tools that help entrepreneurs succeed), then people will go out of their way to help. It’s a beautiful thing.
Good luck and thanks for listening,
This is a guest post by Nathan Beckord, CEO of FounderSuite.com
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The following is a guest post by Todd Garland, the founder and CEO of BuySellAds. Todd is a long-time friend, and was one of the early employees at HubSpot before he set out to build his own startup. This article is about how Google (the 900 pound gorilla) launched a product that directly competed with Todd's company. The story is worth reading because almost every entrepreneur with any amount of success will have this happen some day. -Dharmesh
A few week’s ago, Google launched a service that directly competes with what our business has been doing (very successfully) for 6 years now, a service that helps publishers sell ads directly to advertisers. While I have thought about the “what if’s” and the scenarios surrounding a goliath competitor taking us on before, I never thought this day would actually come.
The first hour
I was numb – not in a bad way, but just numb; uncertain what to think, what to do, while attempting to make sense of, and digest, what had just happened. I scrambled a defensive comment together to post on TechCrunch who covered Google’s product release.
Then, I composed an equally haphazard tweet:
… to which our supporters rallied around (ever so slightly) with support in the form of likes and re-tweets. “Ha”, I thought to myself, “don’t mess with us Google”, and the kind of bravado Google ad execs celebrating the release likely got a kick out of (if they even noticed…).
My team and I continued to talk about this, attempting to understand what it meant for our business. As a startup CEO, it’s times like this when the pressure is on. You have to sharpen your thoughts quickly and be able to articulate to your team how this might affect everything.
I’m uber-competitive, like most people trying to build big businesses, but sometimes being “uber-competitive” also means you venture into the “uber-defensive” state of mind. Lucky for me, I have a co-founder who helps me keep a cool head. All this to say: during the first hour you really just need to keep your cool and give yourself time, and some space, to let your thoughts process.
Knee-jerk reactions like those I made don’t actually do much for you, or the business. It’s best to just stay quite and give yourself time.
As the first hour came to a close it started to become evident that the BuySellAds world as we knew it wasn’t actually going to implode upon us. The following are my key takeaways from the 900-pound gorilla entering the ring with us:
The truth is that if Google actually wants to compete with your business, there is a decent chance you will lose. Google wins everything. Sure, there are outliers… Facebook, Twitter, et al who became so large that it was too late by the time Google entered the ring. The point is that most businesses the size of mine will get crushed if Google truly wants to compete… especially in the ad space. While the direct ad sales space is interesting, Google crushing my business will have an infinitesimally small impact on their balance sheet.
For the last 6 years, they’ve had bigger fish to fry (until now)
I discovered that they had actually started working on this product about 4 years ago (two years after BuySellAds first launched). Which means one of two things:
1. It could be that the direct ad sales landscape is just starting to mature enough to the point where they think it’s worth making a play.
2. Perhaps they are just closing off one of their flanks as this space starts to gain traction.
Competition from Google is a blessing in disguise
There are many reasons for this:
1. There’s no better way to get the most out of life, than knowing that one-day you will die. The very threat of a larger competitor will help us sharpen our product and our pitch to customers.
2. We have learned quite a bit that they have yet to learn about the direct ad sales space. Believe it or not, we have a hand up in experience in this specific space.
3. We’ve had a series of competitors over the last 6 years who haven’t seemed to achieve blazing success (despite raising large sums of money), which always worried me. Sure, it’s fun to think that you’re doing such a great job that you are beating them, but the truth is that they aren’t blazing a trail by us because the market just isn’t there. Trust me, our balance sheet, while showing signs of “success”, doesn’t have a hockey stick (yet). Any competitive market that is worth being in usually has at least a few solid competitors duking it out.
4. Smart people work at Google, and smart people typically like to work on things that are interesting with the hopes of achieving some level of success. Sure, not every product Google launches turns to gold; however, somebody smart at Google got the concept for this product past the $100 Million Dollar Man, who gave it his blessing to be worked on. That’s a positive signal for our space in general.
5. A teeny-tiny wee bit of added validation. Similar to my previous point, anything a company the size of Google does is noticed. They have far greater reach than BuySellAds, and there’s a good chance that they will end up sending us a decent amount of business simply because we have one of the best competitive solutions in the space.
Nothing actually changes
This is the most important takeaway. Sitting here a few weeks since Google’s launch, I can tell you with absolute certainty that nothing has actually changed. Looking back at the 6 years we’ve spent building BuySellAds, it’s clear that any time we spent thinking, researching, or reacting to our would-be competitors was a complete waste of time. In fact, there’s no better way to waste time than to think about (or even follow) what your competitors are doing. The only thing that truly matters are YOUR customers. I can’t tell you how hard it has been to get this engrained into my mind. It is by far the most important thing in building a business (to focus on your customers), yet so hard to practice when you see other activity and the glorious tech-headline touting presumed (or actual) success. They call it “customer driven development” not “competitor driven development” for a reason.
I must say, 6 years feels like a very long time looking back. We’ve written a ton of code, been through hell and back, and are still here. We’re bootstrapped, have been profitable, grown quarter over quarter, made the Inc500 (the only popularity contest that involves your balance sheet…), and while it certainly would be fun to coast off into the sunset, I feel like we’re just getting started. There is no better way to reinforce this feeling than welcoming the 900-pound gorilla into the ring. Everybody loves an underdog, and for us, it’s time to get to work.
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There are many articles and blogs claiming to have THE list of things to do to find the perfect technical cofounder - as if it’s that easy to find a cofounder in general. From my purview at FounderDating, however, one of the most important and least-discussed (in the press, at least) questions is from technical entrepreneurs. For the last year the longest- running trending topic on FD:Discuss (the Q/A section of the site) is: how do technical cofounders evaluate non-technical cofounders?
Why It’s Hard
When you’re technical and interviewing or planning to work with other people who are technical, you’re used to giving them objective “tests” that help you determine their abilities, white board problems, coding projects, pair-programming sessions. Even if you’re not technical and you have someone do a coding project, you can easily show it to technical friends and advisors and quickly get their expert opinions. Of course, this isn’t enough to decide whether you should work with someone -- especially as a cofounder -- but it’s at least cutting to the core of the skills question. (You also need to address the chemistry/personality question.)
Unfortunately, there isn’t a white board test equivalent for business folks that really mimics these (if anyone has one please share). You can get a rough idea of how they think, but there isn’t a concrete “result” to help you figure out if they are any good e.g. can they acquire customers, can they recruit someone, etc.
The Most Common Mistakes
You don’t know what you don’t know. And that leads many potential technical cofounders to fall back on criteria that seem important but are typically false positives. A few of the most popular characteristics people tell us they look for that aren’t good indicators on their own:
1. Expert in the field you’re interested in - I guess this is nice if there is no chance that the idea will change industries (read: almost never). But some of the most successful companies were started by people that had no experience in their industry, and that’s precisely why they were able to change it. Kevin Hartz didn’t have a background in ticketing nor did Max Levchin in payments. Often times having spent a career in an industry means you can’t re-think it.
2. Top schools or top companies on their resume - It’s nice to tout, but if you joined Facebook as the 4000th employee this just doesn’t tell you much - good or bad.
3. Built a prototype - This is helpful but only in that it shows they can DO and not just talk. But it’s unlikely you’ll want to inherit that code or that the idea will remain the same.
What To Look For and How
As a non-technical cofounder your job ranges from product to hiring to taking out the trash. There isn’t one test or one white board problem to give, but here are the characteristics you should be looking for:
1. High FSO (Figure.Sh*t.Out) quotient - When you start a company or a side project there are few guarantees. Pretty much the only one I can make is that there will be a large body of work that comes your way that neither you nor your cofounder(s) have ever faced before. This heap of work will far outnumber the portion you have actually encountered. Can your cofounder figure sh*t out? And can they do it quickly? Being amazing at one thing is nice, but honestly not what you should optimize for in a cofounder. Founders are typically just “good enough” at a slew of things: fundraising, product, partnerships, etc. You can hire for the very specific positions later, right now you need an all around athlete –calls plays and executes at different positions
2. His GSD (Get.Sh*t.Done) quotient - The sheer volume of work that needs to get done when you start a company is, well, never ending. It’s great to be able to talk to crowds and VCs but given a list of 20 things that you need to do, can they prioritize and knock them off at an impressive rate (especially the ones they haven’t done before - see #1)? You should feel totally confident that when they say they are going to do something it will get done -- and done exceptionally well.
3. High Determination Quotient - OK, so I lied: There are two guarantees I can make about starting a company - the second is that you will get rejected (over and over again). Can this person handle that kind of negative feedback? How long does it take them to get back up? This is the reason having previously been a cofounder or joined a startup as an early employee is important. It shows that they’ve been to battle, have scars and are opting back in. It’s less the industry and more the psychological experience that matters. Paul Graham has a famous essay on Determination. Cliff notes version: “We learned quickly that the most important predictor of success is determination.” This means you need to work on something together long enough to hit a road block (or four) and see how they react.
4. High Communication Quotient - There are actually two parts to this requirement.
i) Can they speak your language? You can’t expect them to know as much about engineering as you do. But do they make an effort to understand? Have they worked with engineers before and comprehend the questions to ask? If you don’t know the answer, ask to talk some of these previous co-workers. A non-technical cofounder learning to code is an encouraging sign – not necessarily because they’ll be contributing meaningfully on the engineering side, but more as a helpful signal that this person is curious and wants to understand your language.
ii) Can they communicate with others effectively? This means investors, potential employees, customers. If you have a SaaS product, can they sell the first customer? If you have a consumer-focused product, can they go get an alpha group to test and then gather their feedback and work off of it? Can they present to a crowd and get them excited? That could mean a startup weekend crowd or a group of students; you don’t have to wait until you’re pitching investors to figure this out.
You may have noticed that you can’t figure out #s 1-4 in just a few meetings. The best way to figure all of this out is -- to work together first. Start a side-project. These quotients are exponentially easier to calculate when you’re working on something real together. It doesn’t matter if it’s the idea you actually end up working on, you’ll see far more revealed doing this than you will over 10 coffees or hypothetical white board sessions. Yes, that also means you can’t find the right partner in just a few weeks. So be constantly putting yourself out there.
These aren’t the only things to look for -- there are big questions around motivation and alignment and of course personality fit -- but these are much more telling characteristics than a resume-based checklist.
This was a guest post by Jessica Alter. Jessica is the co-founder & CEO of FounderDating, the premiere online network for entrepreneurs to connect, share, and find co-founders. Previously, she led Business Development and was GM of Platforms at Bebo (before it was acquired by AOL). She is also a mentor at 500 Startups and Extreme Startups.
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There is an unspoken rule: to launch a startup, you need to build a product, and to do that you need someone that can write code.
Whether that means chasing down a technical co-founder, learning to code, or even building that "Lean MVP" - the conventional wisdom is that without tech abilities you're nothing more than a dude (or dudette) with a Powerpoint.
A growing number of startups, however, are quietly disproving this assumption.
They're getting their first customers with minimal technology, and often no code at all. Instead of building fancy technology from the outset, they're hacking together inexpensive online tools such as online forms, drag-and-drop site builders, advanced Wordpress plugins, and eCommerce providers.
They're jumping right in to serve customers in any way possible - heading right for their first paying customers.
Most importantly, unlike the majority of their peers, by the time they start building a product, they already have a humming business.
How are they doing it?
Focus on Serving Customers Instead of Building a Product
Successful founders all know one thing: it's more important to serve a customer than it is to build a product.
This is the mindset you must get into when you start out. Most entrepreneurs are narrowly set on building a product that they lose sight of the real goal - to solve a problem for a customer.
Or, as Ben Yoskovitz eloquently put it,
"Customers don’t care how you get things done – just that you get it done and solve their pain."
Replace Technology with People
Think about the hardest part of the business you want to build. The part that would require the most complex development - the true innovation that no one else does.
Can a real person perform these tasks manually?
For many startups, this was the secret to massive success:
David Quail is a super talented software engineer, with one exit already under his belt. He wanted to solve his ultimate annoyance: scheduling meetings over email.
David's original idea was to build an artificial intelligence tool that could read an email chain and automatically schedule the event. But this would take months if not years.
His shortcut to launching a business ASAP? He simply set up an email address for his customers to "CC" that forwarded to him, and did the work manually at first to prove that customers were willing to pay.
Over time he automated more of the service - but not before he already knew there was clear demand and was making revenues.
Another example - a marketplace:
Tastemaker is a marketplace connecting interior designers with homeowners for small design gigs. They started by contacting interior designers and building a physical list of those interested in extra work.
They then asked their network who needed help with interior design - and made the connection, processing payment themselves.
The Tastemaker founders used pen and paper to solve their customer's needs and prove the market. They then built their online platform in parallel (which eventually became their core business).
You've probably heard many famous stories like ZenLike and Tastemaker. They range all the way from companies like Groupon or Yipit (raised $7.3M), to Aardvark (acquired by Google) and Diapers.com (acquired by Amazon).
What did they have in common starting out? At the core of many businesses, instead of fancy algorithms, you would have found the founders themselves, like the "man behind the curtain" in the Wizard of Oz, working hard, acting as the secret sauce.
Use These Off the Shelf Solutions
While your core tech might in fact be a service starting out, you can wrap it with an online presence, digital interactions, and the administration of a true technology business.
In short, you can act, look, and smell like a fully automated online company that employs a posse of software developers and an in-house graphic designer.
* Use e-commerce services to accept payments and even subscriptions using "hosted payment pages" - requiring zero code.
* Let your customers interact with you through sophisticated online forms you can publish (and brand) using drag-and-drop editors.
* Build a support knowledge base and community forum with Zendesk, Uservoice, or GetSatisfaction
* Use copy-paste widgets from around the web like contact forms, Skype buttons, live chat, etc.
* Use simple-yet-sophisticated website creators to publish your central website and glue together all the tools into one presence. Strikingly and Unbounce are great for beautifully designed landing pages.
I could go on listing these forever (well, I did here). As you can see, the web is full of tools that let you conjure entire features with the click of a mouse.
The key is to always search for what you want before reinventing the wheel. Chances are someone has already thought of how to make your life easier.
The Hidden Treasures of Wordpress
To most of us, the Wordpress brand connotes a free blog, or a simple way to create a content website for non-technical folks.
But the true magic of Wordpress is the ability to extend its functionality to create many kinds of web platforms - while keeping your hands (mostly) free of code.
Wordpress itself is free, and you can purchase inexpensive plugins that automatically transform your website into a membership site, ecommerce portal, social network, and even daily deals site.
Instead of spending thousands on a designer, you can buy a high-end theme for around $40 and customize it to your brand. If you have a bit more saved up, you can hire a local Wordpress expert for a few hours of their time for small custom tweaks and a personal tutorial. And, if you don't want hosting headaches, you can use WPEngine (hi, Jason!).
Wordpress is one of the most incredible tools on the web for non-technical entrepreneurs. There's a bit of a learning curve, depending on how you want to use it, but definitely a faster option than finding a developer or learning to code.
It puts fate into your own hands.
Put It All Together
Go back to that core customer need, and think of how to satisfy it by any means. Now how can you make that solution accessible? What would the process be for finding you and reaching out? How can you charge and provide support?
Chances are good that you can pull it all off yourself. If not, consider starting a bit smaller than you originally imagined, if only to start generating revenues today and fund your development.
Once you have your first few customers, you'll have a very good picture of where your business is going, and what technology you absolutely need to build - and very clear motivation.
Does working this way pay off?
Tech companies started this way have sold for between $50-$540 million, or have gone public. They are growing at double digit rates. And they launched in a matter of weeks or months - not years.
If this approach makes you uncomfortable - that's great. It's a sign that you're learning to think differently. However, entrepreneurs presented with this approach often have similar gut feelings:
What Will Investors Think?
They will think you are clever, resourceful, flexible, persistent - and know how to focus on the right things.
To quote one of our investors, Len Brody, on his portfolio: "I call them the workaround culture... [they] just work around anything - and you have to."
If for any reason they are put off by your creativity and resourcefulness, then you're not talking to the right investors.
What About Scaling?
This is a very understandable fear. It's a scary situation to think, "Great, we got our customers, and now we're going to disappoint them."
Don't let that thought paralyze you. Growth is rarely if ever a black and white, rocket-ship-spike. It's a steady process that leaves you plenty of time to transition between solutions.
In other words, there's a spectrum between do-it-yourself and full-robot-revolution. You might hire a few people in the meantime (with the revenue that their hire would naturally generate) while also developing a scalable technology.
As most entrepreneurs will tell you the way you get your first 50 customers certainly won't be the way you get your first 5,000.
For those of you feeling held back by your lack of technical skills - or deep in development muck - ask yourself, what can you do *today* to get your first customer.
Give it a shot. In contrast to paying a developer, you don't have a lot to lose. Do whatever you need to do to get your business going.
Remember: you're not here to build a product - you're here to solve a problem. And you certainly have the skills to do that.
Want more specifics, examples, and tools? Check out my newest Skillshare course, How to Launch Your Startup Without Any Code (use code ONSTRTPS for %15 off)
This is a guest post by Tal Raviv. He is the co-founder of Ecquire.
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tl;dr: If you work in the business of software the one must-attend event is the Business of Software (Boston, Oct 28th – 30th 2013)
Note from Dharmesh: This is a guest post from Patrick Foley. I normally don't post articles that promote an event — but Business of Software is not a normal event. It's the ONLY conference that I've spoken at 5 years in a row (an am speaking again this year). It's the only conference for which I stay at a hotel in Boston (5 miles from where I live) just so I can hang out with the people attending the conference as much as possible. It's that good. You should attend. (Note: I am not affiliated with the organizers, my selfish reason for convincing you to go is so I can meet more awesome people).
ABSTRACT: If you’re not satisfied with some aspect of your career, go to a great conference like Business of Software. The best conferences can dramatically alter your perspective and ultimately change you.
Four years ago, I attended my first Business of Software conference. Back then, I was a technical evangelist for Microsoft, and since my customers were other software companies, I thought I knew all I needed to know about this “business of software.”
Obviously, I was wrong. For three days I listened to amazing speakers like Jason Cohen (founder, WPEngine) explain how the different personal goals of founders have an enormous impact on their business actions – meaning you should pay more attention to advice from founders with similar personal goals. I was inspired to hear Peldi Guillizoni (founder, Balsamiq) explain how he built his business – and how his journey actually started while working for a big company (hey, just like me!). I was shocked to hear Joel Spolsky’s very intimate description of how funding really works. I learned measurement concepts from Dharmesh Shah (founder, HubSpot) that I didn’t even know were knowable. I was genuinely moved by the stories from these founders and all the other brilliant speakers. And that was just the first year for me (more great speaker videos from 2010, 2011 and 2012).
At a great conference, the attendees are as important as the speakers. Many of the people I’ve met at Business of Software have become my friends and advisors. One became my cofounder in my first effort at a building a software company (a story for another day). There’s a bond that develops among Business of Software attendees that’s hard to describe. Part of it is that the speakers are highly engaged attendees themselves – something you don’t see often – this is their community, their tribe, and the speakers clearly look forward to being a part of the event from both sides of the stage.
There was something about attending that conference in person that shook me to my core and sparked a passion for learning how software companies really work and what makes them successful (spoiler alert: it’s freaking hard). Yes, I already worked for one, but Microsoft is HUGE – I was a deckhand on a battleship. Although I was working with other software companies, I was ultimately selling to them … you don’t learn how things really work in that situation. I even had a podcast that allowed me to speak with some brilliant founders … but it took being in a room with all these people at once to change me. BoS changed me. (I wrote about that special year and even have a manic podcast episode describing it.)
Great conferences like Business of Software aren’t cheap, but they’re a great investment. Microsoft paid my way to a couple of conferences a year – that’s a HUGE perk of working for an established company! If you work for a company that has multiple layers of management, then they probably have a conference budget already. Use it! I attended Business of Software on Microsoft’s dime in 2010 and 2011. Last year, I took vacation time and paid my own way, because I was preparing to leave my job.
This year took me in another direction. When it became clear that my product company wasn’t going to work, it was still time to leave Microsoft, so I reluctantly returned to consulting. I was a consultant for 14 years before joining Microsoft, and I’m pretty good at it – but I still felt defeated. Sometimes you just gotta lick your wounds, recover, and figure out a new path. I figured I’d build up my financial resources for a few years as a consultant and then try again to build a software company.
But then a crazy thing happened … a few weeks ago, a couple of friends that I met at Business of Software contacted me about a job. They have a small, very successful software company, and they think I could help with their next stage of growth. WOW! I didn’t see that coming. I’ll have my hands in all parts of the business, improving anything I can and learning everything I can. It’s not a startup (they’ve already found product/market fit), but it’s actually a better fit for me at this point in my life, because it provides greater financial stability, and it will allow me to experience how a successful company operates. A while back, I asked Jason Cohen for life/career advice, and this was exactly the sort of situation he said I should be looking for. It’s PERFECT.
I’m sure you can guess the call-to-action of this post by now … sign up for Business of Software and GO. It just might change your life. The best work I did for Microsoft stemmed from Business of Software. Then it inspired me to leave Microsoft and pursue work that I like even better. And now my dream job FOUND ME because I went to Business of Software.
My new company and I haven’t actually finalized my role or my start date yet … we’re going to formalize things in 2 weeks at Business of Software … I hope to see you there! It’s going to sell out, so you need to jump online and order your ticket now. My understanding is that it’s going to be several hundred dollars more expensive next week (if you can get in at all). If you’re on the fence about going, feel free to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to talk about it.
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After conducting nearly 100 interviews with some of the world’s best growth hackers on Growth Hacker TV, I have become keenly aware of a certain tension that is in the growth hacking ecosystem. Some growth hackers choose to emphasize the process of growth hacking while others choose to see growth hacking as a set of tactics that can be applied to various scenarios.
First, let me define the growth hacker’s process. There is no one single agreed upon order of operations, but a growth hacker’s process is based loosely on the scientific method. If you can remember high school, the scientific method is basically the following:
Question - Why do visitors leave our registration flow after the first page?
Hypothesis - They might be leaving because page two has too many form fields present and this scares them away.
Prediction - If we have more registration pages, but less form fields on each page, then our completed registrations will increase in statistically significant ways that could not be the product of chance.
Testing - For the first 2 weeks of September we will run an A/B test, showing 50% of new visitors our current registration flow, and showing the other 50% our new registration flow which increases the number pages but decreases the fields per page.
Analysis - The results show that our new registration flow had 27% more completions than our current registration flow, and this is statistically significant enough to conclude that we should implement our new registration flow.
Here is where things get interesting. Some startups will actually use this scientific method (or something similar) as a means of gaining insights about their product, thereby enabling them to make progress. Others, however, will not have a rigorous process like that listed above, but they will instead use the results of other people’s experiments. Put another way, some startups have a process, other startups just implement the tactics (best practices) that are the results of someone else’s process. If someone read about the above experiment on Quora then they might adapt their registration flow without a scientific process in place to support such a move.
The question is, which kind of startup should be applauded and which should be reprimanded? It might seem obvious to celebrate the rigors of the scientific method and side with any startup that uses such a process. However, I think there is a case to be made for both kinds of companies. Obviously, if someone doesn’t run the experiments then we will never arrive at the tactics in the first place. The tactics are the byproduct of someone’s hard work and that should be appreciated, but think about how the scientific community actually operates. The scientific method is a tool that serves the entire scientific community, and the results of that tool are often fair game for the community. Scientists don’t expect each other to run every relevant experiment for their personal endeavors. Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Why can’t a startup simply use the results, as discovered by their fellow entrepreneurs in lab coats, as a benefit of the community?
The truth is, there are pros to both ways of thinking, which I’ll list below, but I don’t want us to view growth hacking as only a process or only a set of tactics and simultaneously miss the community aspect of our enterprise. Here is how I see things:
So, what is the answer to the dilemma? Is growth hacking a process or a set of tactics? Well, both, and here is what that means practically. If you are in an organization that has a growth hacking process in place then see yourself as a part of a larger community. We are grateful for your work, but you don’t need to be pompous about your place in the universe. Share what you find, grow our collective knowledge base, and understand that not every company will imitate you, and that’s ok. If you are in a non-process oriented startup that is still trying to use growth hacking principles then be extremely appreciative of the companies that are supplying these best practices, and consider creating your own process so that you can give back to the community as much as you take from it.
Startups aren’t going anywhere, and growth hacking is here to stay as a robust methodology for growing them. Whether you are in the lab, or reading the research paper that was spawned from someone else’s lab, understand that this is a community, not a zero sum game.
This article was a guest post by Bronson Taylor who is the host and co-founder of Growth Hacker TV, where the experts on startup growth reveal their secrets.
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Kathy Sierra was once among the world’s most popular tech bloggers. On her smart, funny, and vivid blog Creating Passionate Users, she tackled neuroscience, presentations, and how to build software that makes users kick ass. She helped develop the reader-centric Head First series of books for O'Reilly Publishing, and traveled the world giving speeches at tech events.
But in 2007, just as I took my first tentative steps into the world of social media, that all came to a screeching halt. Sierra became the target of a campaign of online harassment so severe that both Sierra and blogger Chris Locke ended up on CNN discussing the case.
Since then, she's lingered in almost total obscurity online. She threw her considerable passion and drive into learning to ride Icelandic horses as an experiment in better understanding how people learn and what it takes to achieve mastery.
But she stayed off the internet. For a while she was on Twitter -- then she left even that behind.
Over the course of my startup and social media adventures for the last few years, I took heart knowing she was still out there. She would pop up anonymously to comment on blog posts I had linked to via Twitter. I would email to see how things were going.
I went to see her in California in January 2012. We rode her horses and talked about the impact of gamification on learning and productivity. It was invigorating to see her mind in full swing, albeit privately.
But she didn't blog again; not for more than 6 years.
But Now, Kathy's Back!
As of this week, one of my all time favorite bloggers has returned to the world of blogging and the internet at a new site she playfully calls Serious Pony, in a salute to some of her favorites: The Oatmeal, Commander Taco, and Lonely Sandwich.
“I missed blogging,” she says. “For the past couple of years I kept telling myself that I was going to start up again.”
On her new blog, Sierra will write about a few topics that have become important to her during her hiatus. One is exploring new research on how to develop skills and knowledge, which Sierra calls “how to be bad-ass.”
Another topic is what Sierra calls “the API of you,” which is about the ways companies use gamification and other techniques to manipulate consumers, and how to spot those techniques and resist them.
“There are a huge pile of books that have been published in just the past few years about how to manipulate, seduce, and make things addictive -- how to work on people’s brains,” she says. “But the number of books designed to help you fight back, as a human, as a consumer? It’s like one book,” she says.
Her first post -- "Your app makes me fat" -- playfully digs into the topic of products that drain cognitive resources.
We're looking forward to hearing much more. We’re especially excited about her return to blogging because Sierra, who inspired our founders so much we have a conference room named after her in our newest expansion, has agreed to speak at HubSpot’s INBOUND conference in August. This will be her first public appearance since her return. We can't wait to hear her talk on Word of Obvious: competing in a post-word of mouth world.
Want to hear firsthand what makes us such big fans of Kathy? Attend her talk and many others at INBOUND 2013. Fans can save 30% off the ticket price with offer code KATHYSIERRA.
This was a guest post by Laura Fitton (@pistachio), inbound marketing evangelist at HubSpot. Dan Lyons contributed to the reporting for this post.
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The following is a guest post by Nathan Beckord. Nathan is founder/CEO of Foundersuite which provides software and templates for founders.
We launched my startup Foundersuite in June of 2013 with nearly 800 startups on our platform, several strategic partnerships, and press coverage by VentureBeat.
Nearly all this traction came from hustling, pitching, and “launching” at 5 different startup events, at a total out-of-pocket cost of $883.
Here’s how we did it. You can do some of this too.
Event #1: Startup Exits Conference, January 17
What it is: Startup Exits is an event I produce two or three times a year focused on “hacking the exit process.” We run it at Rocketspace, and it draws a crowd of about 150 entrepreneurs and VCs looking to connect with corporate acquirers.
What I did: Since this event is my baby, I had the liberty of inserting a 2-minute preview of Foundersuite into the mix. To ensure the maximum number of eyeballs, I staged my demo right before the segment with John O’Farrell of Andreessen Horowitz, who I knew would be a big draw.
To avoid the risk of an embarrassing crash or bug, I mainly showed screen shots of the product instead of an actual demo. I also framed it as something coming down the pipe, vs. any kind of actual “launch”-- a very, very soft sell.
Result: By giving a “sneak peek” we were able to get initial feedback on our product (this was the first time anyone outside the company had seen Foundersuite.) The overall reaction was good, which provided a boost to morale. This event also served as a “deadline” to hit, which rallied the dev team and got us focused.
What I could've done better: We had a registration page to collect beta users, but it wasn’t fully baked-- 10% of those who tried to register got spit out of the system. Also, we had no structured way to collect feedback, which is so critical to do early and often.
Cost: Nothing. In fact I made a small profit on the event, which went straight back into development. :)
Takeaway: Of course, I had the inside advantage here. It takes some effort, but putting on events is surprisingly easy-- and it gives you a captive audience to pitch whatever you’re hustling. And no, I'm not suggesting you host events just to peddle your stuff. The event should need to exist and focus on delivering value to the audience.
Event #2: SFBeta “DeveloperWeek Edition,” February 4
What it is: SF Beta is a bi-monthly mixer held at 111 Minna, a bar-cum-art gallery in the SOMA area of SF. Roughly a dozen startups set up demo tables, and it draws about 150 attendees. This event was held to coincide with Developer Week, and it focused on platforms and APIs.
What I did: I printed up two Foundersuite t-shirts from Zazzle-- one for me, and one for my product guy, Victor. Huzzah! We were official! I also printed up stickers and business cards, and I brought along a 27” Apple monitor. At the event, we put out a cardboard box and offered free beer for developers in exchange for their business card, and we ran demos of the product all night.
Result: This event served as a good catalyst to finally get our “game face” on and produce some marketing collateral. It also forced us to polish and tighten our pitch. In the end, we got about 40 new beta users to sign up. In addition, we made friends with a few external developers, and got their perspective on the product vision-- useful, since we eventually plan on opening up an API.
What I could've done better: Realistically, it was too early for us to start courting developers; although there was interest in building on Foundersuite, there’s nothing for them to do (yet). It might be tough to re-engage later.
Cost: $250 for the demo table, $88 for shirts, and $100 for stickers and cards. Also about $60 for follow-up beers with a couple engineers.
Takeaway: Find a small or low-key event for your first “coming out” party; use it as a shakedown cruise to tighten the screws and hone your messaging.
Event #3: VatorSplash, February 13
What it is: VatorSplash is an evening event of about 400 attendees that includes an on-stage startup pitch competition, a keynote, and VC panel discussions. There is also a demo pit for 30 companies. It’s held about 3 or 4 times a year in SF, LA and New York.
What I did: Because Vator was held only a week after SFBeta, I basically recycled the demo table setup. For extra visibility, I printed a large foam board placard at Kinkos and duct-taped it to the wall behind the table.
Result: The demo pit was somewhat empty, except during intermissions. Nonetheless, we had a strong run of investors stop by and check out our software. These visits led to a couple great follow-up meetings with guys like Mike Walsh and George Babu, both of whom provided some awesome feedback. We also signed on about 40 new beta users.
What I could’ve done better: I should have hired someone to run the booth, as the action was really in the main ballroom. Also, the event had an after party featuring the BSD-heavy band, Coverflow-- think VCs and ex-Facebook execs. If I’d been really ambitious, I would’ve rallied for some additional networking fun.
Cost: Zero. My friend Russ Bertuccelli was one of the sponsors and hooked me up with a free table, and we used the collateral left over from SF Beta.
Takeaway: Don’t be discouraged if a demo event is slow or mellow; it's the quality of the interactions that matters, not the quantity.
Event #4: Launch.co Festival, March 4, 5, 6
What it is: Along with TechCrunch Disrupt and DEMO, the Launch Festival is one of the largest startup events of the year. It’s put on by consummate hustler and promoter Jason Calcanis, and is held at the cavernous Design Center.
This thing was massive-- 50 companies demo’d their wares on stage over the course of three long, grueling days. The organizers claim 6,000 people registered, and I’d estimate that at peak times, close to 4,000 were actually there. The list of VC judges and sponsors reads like a startup founder’s dream. In short, this was showtime.
What I did: First let me start off with what I didn’t do-- I didn’t land a spot on stage, though not for lack of trying. I used LinkedIn to see how I was connected to Jason, and then worked every connection, avenue and back-channel to get intros and endorsements. He was responsive, but no stage time for me; however, I did get a free demo table out of these efforts.
Since this was such a large show, we pulled out all the guns. I brought along Victor and also hired my charismatic friend Rebecca Harris to run the booth with me, and that was money well spent. Not only did she master our pitch in about 15 minutes, but it allowed me to get out and wander the halls, which led to some great strategic partner discussions.
We also ran a “mildly guerrilla” marketing campaign at the show; for example, we changed our tagline from the plain “Startup Management Software” to the more provocative “Tools To Get Startup Sh*t Done” and plastered this slogan on our t-shirts, materials, and signage. Right before each lunch break, I would fan a dozen Foundersuite stickers on the lunch tables, which surprisingly, drove a number of people to our booth, while Rebecca did the same at the coffee stations.
Result: This show set in motion several things that, four months later, are still paying dividends. For example, we did a deal with Hack Reactor to use their students for a few projects. We also landed a free Ruby engineer for the summer via a deal with Innovation Norway. I met the folks from Draper University, which led to a speaking gig to their entire student class, and we struck marketing partnerships with two incubators. In addition, we gained about 150 new users and collected an absurd amount of feedback and new product ideas from the hundreds of folks who stopped by our booth.
What I could’ve done better: I still ruminate on how we could have better hacked the application process to land a spot on stage; we were probably dinged a few points when we temporarily took down the beta wall, as Jason saw it and called us on it (this conference is aimed at startups in stealth, who are making their first real debut).
Having a dubstep-blasting rainbow bubble machine (or at least a full-size banner display tower) might have helped, as the level of professionalism WRT booth accessories was a notch higher here-- our neighbor had a futuristic police car with a siren and flashing lights, while we were still using our cardboard box with the “Drop Your Card, Win Free Beer” call to action written on the side in red marker.
Cost: Parking was $15 per day x 3 days = $45. Rebecca cut me a deal and charged $240 for two days of demo help. New T-shirts and other collateral was about $100.
Takeaway: If you pay for-- or get selected into-- one of the large demo events, don’t hold back; such events can “make” your fledgling company.
Event #5: SFNewTech, April 24
What it is: SFNewTech is one of the longest running demo events around. Once a month, six new startups take the stage for an efficient format: 5 minutes of live product demos, followed by 5 minutes of audience Q&A. It’s a fun and casual vibe, held at a nightclub.
What I did: I got a slot as the third speaker to take the stage. Since Foundersuite has a lot of moving parts-- e.g., we have 4 separate software modules as well as template collections-- it was a challenge to demo it all in under 5 minutes. Thus, I gave a super-quick, high-level summary of everything, then drilled into one module, Investor CRM, to show the user flow.
During the demo, I focused mainly on the value proposition for the founder-rich audience. I also spent roughly 20 seconds of the opening explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing-- our mission-- and about 20 seconds at the end showing where we’re going next, which was a nice way to “bracket” the core content of the demo.
Result: This event generated about 55 new users, some great social media activity, and we got a cool video out of it. Also, a writer for Venture Beat was in the audience; he followed up afterwards, and we gave him the exclusive on our launch coverage.
What I could’ve done better: I wish I’d lost about ten pounds and got a decent night’s sleep before going on stage. :)
Cost: Free; the ringleader, Myles Weissleider, is a friend.
Takeaway: Getting stage time in front of a large audience of target customers is extremely efficient marketing.
...and that’s how we successfully hacked our launch. Net-net, our results by the numbers:
5 pitch events
~5000 relevant people exposed to our product
~300 new users of our product + an additional ~500 new users via viral loops
2 partner deals
1 speaking gig
3 interns, all technical
1 major media placement (and several smaller ones)
Lots of fun and new friends
Total cost: $883
...a pretty decent ROI, IMO. But remember, your mileage will vary (I had some inside connections which kept costs relatively low)
Nathan @foundersuite @startupventures
Want more? For the extended mix, I now present “Key Tips & Lessons Learned”:
• Use the novelty of being the “new new thing.” The period between your private beta and your public launch is a special time, when interest levels and curiosity about your startup run unusually high; you basically have a brief window where you can leverage the lure of the “sneak peek” to effectively generate buzz, get feedback, and make friends. Use it to your advantage.
• Be an all-consuming, feedback-eating machine. Events are Customer Development on steroids-- so figure out a structured, efficient way to collect and process the avalanche of feedback and ideas you will get. To be honest, we didn’t do a great job of this-- I’m still finding business cards and scraps of paper with user comments scribbled on the back. But the feedback we were able to process has been priceless.
• Play to the motivations of the event producers. Almost all of the event organizers I worked with were cool people, genuinely motivated to see startups succeed. But they are also building their brands, and / or trying to turn a profit on their productions. They are looking for interesting companies that people will talk about, and in doing so, create a halo effect around their event. Be that interesting company. Make it memorable for their audience.
• Pay it forward. You may have noticed that I was “hooked up” for free at nearly every event; this wasn’t by accident. In most cases, when someone set me up with a demo table or pass, it was 10% because I’m a nice guy, and 90% because I’d helped him or her out on some previous initiative. No one’s keeping score; but when you’ve been paying it forward long enough, it’s amazing how receptive your network is to helping out when it’s your turn to ride the startup roller coaster.
• Being cheap increases your ROI. Demo events are fun a great way to engage potential users and investors in a casual, low-risk way. But they take a lot of time and energy; in the case of the bigger ones like Launch Festival, they suck up the better part of a week. They can also be expensive-- TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Alley will set you back $1995. Work your network for the free booth hookup, or ask the producers for the “pre-funded startup” rate. Volunteer to work the door in the morning, or offer to promote the event to your network for a free pass. (Related note: It helps to have built a network that folks are interested in leveraging).
• Start the SEO clock ticking. Many startup founders repeatedly delay their launch because they’re not “ready,” and I definitely get the desire to avoid putting out a bunch of crap too soon, as public scrutiny can be brutal. But as Paul Graham eloquently writes, startups need to release early and often; in addition to getting user feedback, there’s a ton of value in making some noise and laying down an online presence early in the game. For example, it helps you to establish your social media voice (something we did way too late). Also, getting your logo on a few high-traffic sites will help boost your SEO; both the Launch Festival and SFNewTech events are still driving a steady flow of organic traffic.
Still here? Color me impressed. I’ll leave you with a few tips for hacking your onstage pitch and demo booth:
• Make your demo short and sweet. Get your product demo to < 3 minutes (5 minutes max). Keep it high level-- skip all the tiny product features and nuances that are important to you, but often turn into a confusing rat hole for people seeing your product for the first-time. With a shorter demo, not only will you be able to talk to more people over the course of the show, but you’ll have better attention and retention of what you’re offering.
• End with a call to action. What do you want people to do after they’ve listened to your demo? Do you want them to register on your site? Introduce you to users? Give you feedback? Invest in you? The CTA may differ depending on who’s listening; for example, at the SFBeta event, we printed two giveaway cards, one for developers and one for users. Each had a specific call to action of what we wanted to happen next. Bottom line: if you don’t have an “ask” connected to your demo, then you’re just expelling warm air and sound.
• WIIFT? For on-stage demos, build your pitch story line using the “what’s in it for them” framework (them being the audience). In other words, don’t show what your product does; rather, explain how it benefits your users, who ideally-- if you’ve picked your event right-- are also the folks listening to you onstage. If you can’t use the WIIFT approach, at least explain why you’ve built what you built. People love origin stories and mission-driven companies.
• Staff appropriately. Always have at least two people giving demos-- crowds come in waves, and a solo founder won’t be able to efficiently process the queue. But never have more than three booth staffers out front-- that just makes for a crowded booth and will scare people off.
• Usher along the salesmen. One of the annoying parts about having a table or booth is that you’re “captive prey”, and inevitably, you’ll get booth visitors who feign interest in what you’re doing, but who are really trying to sell you something-- banking, insurance, HR services, etc. Without being an ass, quickly end the conversation by asking for their card, saying, “awesome-- thanks for stopping by” and shaking their hand. Remember why you’re there: to talk to as many interested, relevant parties as possible. Keep the pipeline flowing.
• Be polite (ish) to competitors. Another annoying element of the demo table is when competitors come sniffing around. A key identifier is when a person has obviously intentionally turned their name badge around, or tucked it under their sport jacket. I don’t suggest you worry too much about this-- most attractive markets are plenty big enough for multiple firms. But one way of heading this off is by asking them where they work before launching into your demo-- then if it’s clearly a competitor (or an investor in a competitor), give the abridged demo version without the secret sauce.
• Have fun with it. You’re living the dream, pitching and hustling your startup baby. ‘Nuff said.
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This following is a guest post by Jonathan Gebauer. Jonathan is the founder/CEO at exploreB2B, based in Berlin, Germany.
There is a lot of talk about startup hubs world wide – the places where the next Facebook will originate from, the next Instagram, the next Pinterest. I am from one of these places, Berlin, the capital of Germany. There is no lack of technology startups in this city.
But to be a place where new technologies and innovations thrive – well, there are a lot of things missing.
I was born in Berlin, I live here and we founded exploreB2B here. I breathe the air of this city and feel at home. But when we started, the air tasted different – I thought I could feel a vibe in the air that consisted of innovation in the startup scene. Today I know: this taste was more hype than vibe.
A story that got me thinking
Let me start with something that has recently happened to us, and which inspired me to write this article. I received an email from a US based VC which read: “Hey, we love what you are building at exploreB2B, let us know if you would like to talk to us.”
(I am sure Silicon Valley startups receive these every week.)
So far so good – naturally I wrote back. When they found out that we are located in Germany everything turned stone cold. They replied how sorry they were but since we are located in Germany, they would need to inform their European team and they would get in touch.
Their European team never got in touch. So far, not so global.
This is no big deal – it just got me thinking. Why is it that the European arm of a Venture Capital firm seems to think and act so differently from their U.S. counterparts?
This also was not the first time something like this happened to us. The story of our PR failures has already been published. We Berliners often make ourselves believe that Berlin will become the “next Silicon Valley” – but being second does not matter. Silicon Valley is not going away – so: who cares about Berlin?
The exceptions: Berlin startups that reached international fame
There are, of course, exceptions to the general rule. Innovative tech companies that reach international fame and success. Let me list the few that come to my mind: Soundcloud, ResearchGate, Aupeo, Wooga.
The same timespan in the US has brought us: Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Dropbox, Zynga, Box, Yammer, Foursquare, Twitter, Quora, Groupon, LinkedIn… The list goes on.
There are a lot of things missing here. And the successful cloning of successful US startups (which happened with Facebook, LinkedIn, Groupon, and many more here in Germany) is not the same as innovation.
Tech is not global – why no startup hub can really prosper without Silicon Valley’s support
At first glance, Berlin seems to have it all. There are startup competitions every other day, meetups, hackathons, conferences, … There is a network of business angels and investors, the city has had a couple of exits recently. A couple of tech blogs write about the city’s tech companies (both in German and English). With Ashton Kutcher’s not-so-recent investments in Amen and Gidsy a slice of Hollywood glamour was introduced. The area in the city center where most startups reside likes to be called “Silicon Allee” now – noting a resemblance to Silicon Valley.
There also is a lot of talent in the city – talent, which startups can hire. Three universities and multiple “Fachhochschulen” offer a supply of well educated developers and marketing minds while the city’s historic background shows a tradition for risk-taking – including the risk to start your own company.
But technology and innovation needs more than just founders and employees.
It needs a community and this community needs to include established tech people and companies as well as access to the traditional economy. Not just people who are new to the industry but also professionals from companies of any size and stage. It needs access to the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Google. You need to be able to see the shining light of Bill Gates talking on stage. You need investors who have a crap-load of money to invest on nothing but a crazy idea and feeling in their gut. You need access to marketing experts that can give advice, to tech companies that provide exit perspectives.
Berlin does not have those things.
Silicon Valley can provide this to other so called startup and tech hubs. It does so in some cases. But other tech hubs currently only exist by way of Silicon Valley’s support. They get as big and as successful as Silicon Valley allows them to be.
We Berliners might not admit that this is a fact, but we do know it in our hearts. A common first prize in our startup competitions is a trip to the valley. Or office space in the valley. Or a trip to attend a tech conference Or… You get the picture.
The consequences for young companies
This situation forces companies in other startup hubs to adjust. In Germany, the Samwer brothers face a lot of criticism for their cloning operations of international and US startups. It is true: they have been involved in cloning Groupon, Facebook, Zappos, Pinterest, Fab, Amazon, and many more. What is also true, is: This is a way to deal with our situation. Cloning companies also means you have access to information on how marketing strategies will perform and how you can achieve growth. When expertise and support is lacking, this is a valid way to replace it.
Another strategy is to prepare for an early exit. Selling your company early for comparatively small sums seems to be quite common in Germany – creating concepts for a global approach is not. The latest example for this is the formerly hyped startup Gidsy (which got famous by the Ashton Kutcher investment) – which just sold out to a competitor in a not so glamorous way.
There is no tech community in Berlin – just a startup community. This makes it hard for companies to break out of the startup hemisphere. Gidsy was criticized for its lack of professionalization, but you have to ask the question: How can a group of crazy founders get professional if there is no community to help with the process?
The few exceptions to these rules are companies and founders that usually readjust their geographic locations sooner rather than later. Soundcloud has offices nearly everywhere, others are moving their operations to San Francisco.
How to bend the rules: A way out for those that still want to think big
I do not like rules that cannot be bent – and I do not like to go small when others hit it big. I like to compete and I do not like failure. I did not invent exploreB2B for a small audience and I do not want to think small. In a world where creative minds are thinking up solutions, there are always options to become more competitive.
Those of us being unlucky enough to have founded our companies in places like Berlin, London, Paris or Sao Paolo still have a lot of options – the whole tech industry was created by people who bent the rules but refused to be bent by them.
In the beginning I told you about a VC not noticing where we are located – well, this sort of thing happens to me all the time. I receive emails, tweets, Facebook messages asking me whether I will be able to come to a meetup in San Francisco, or New York, or London… I always answer: “Hey, I am in Berlin.”
Most of the time the next message is: “Ok, give me a call when you are back.”
The way out for us is to stop worrying about Silicon Valley. In today’s world it is like any other place in the world: a place on the map.
I get emails from London, have Skype calls with bloggers in France, worked with a PR agency in the US (that didn’t go so well…), had articles published on an Australian blog (Big thank you to Jeff Bullas).
The community we need is there – you do not have to see people face to face to be able to get their advice. When you are creating a company on a global scale stop thinking narrow. Never limit yourself to the things you can do in your city.
By doing that we will force Silicon Valley to do the same. The big investments might not yet have reached our startup hubs, but they will come.
We need to stop picturing ourselves in direct competition with Silicon Valley – Berlin will never become “the next Silicon Valley”. But it does have its own strengths. As does London, as does any other city in the world. Each one of those places should play on its own strength – instead of highlighting its shortcomings in comparison to the Bay Area.
For Berlin, I can think of a lot of strengths: the talent supplied from universities, its geographic position and its history of being a place where eastern and western Europe unite, its history of being a place where people take risks.
We need to play our local strengths – and remove our weaknesses by acting globally.
Think less local.
We are entrepreneurs, we are founders, we are innovators. We were born to break the rules.
What's your take? What should entrepreneurs do to make tech innovation truly global?
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