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The Growth Hacker's Dilemma: Process vs. Tactics

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Tue, Aug 27, 2013

 


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:


  1. Question - Why do visitors leave our registration flow after the first page?

  2. Hypothesis - They might be leaving because page two has too many form fields present and this scares them away.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.scale tradeoffs


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:


  • Pros of Process Oriented Startups

    • Without process oriented startups we would have no tactics.

    • They are able to find new growth hacks when old ones cease to work.

    • By understanding the process, their implementation of any given tactic will be more nuanced and effective.

    • They are more self sustaining, able to use the community, but not be entirely dependent on it.

  • Pros of Tactic Oriented Thinking

    • Allows smaller startups, with less funding, to implement tactics very cheaply.

    • It is an entry point into growth hacking which is more accessible than experimentation, even though it might lead to experimentation later on.

    • Not every experiment needs to be ran by everyone. Some best practices are near universal and can just be applied. We all do this to some degree whether we realize it or not.


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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The Most Important Word When Building Your Personal Brand

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Wed, Jul 24, 2013

 


Do your colleagues have a choice word for you? If not, here's why you want them to…

Sometimes one word can make all the difference.describe the image

I was at a conference and a friend who runs a startup introduced me to one of his friends, who was looking for a new opportunity. “I’d like you to meet Joe,” he said. “He’s great.”

I’m sure Joe is talented. I’m sure Joe is skilled. I’m sure Joe is, in fact, great.

But I only remember Joe because of something that happened a few minutes later. Another friend introduced me to one of his product managers. “This is Michelle,” he said. “She’s relentless.”

In the dictionary, “great” means remarkable in degree or effectiveness. “Great” is a wonderful word, especially when used to describe someone… but like “awesome” and “outstanding,” “great” is used so often to describe people that it has lost much of its meaning. When just about everyone is great… no one is great. Great is no longer impactful or memorable.

When described as “great, however remarkable in degree or effectiveness he may be, Joe seems like – however unfairly – just one of many. He doesn't standout.

But “relentless” – who can forget relentless? Hear the word and you instantly think of someone so determined, so persevering, so persistent and tenacious that nothing, absolutely nothing, can stand in her way.

A “great” product manager you might forget. A “relentless product manager you remember for a long, long time.

Authentic Positioning Matters – Especially for Individuals

Many companies, as Al Ries describes in his classic marketing book Positioning, try to own a single word or phrase in the minds of customers. For Mercedes it’s “luxury.” For Volvo it's “safety”. At my company HubSpot it’s “inbound”.

The goal of positioning is to create an immediate and direct connection in the minds of consumers; that’s what branding is all about.

Individuals need to think about positioning, too. Where Tony Hsieh is concerned, that word is “culture.” Where Eric Ries is concerned it’s “lean.”

So imagine you ask a colleague or a boss or a customer for to pick one word that describes you and they aren’t allowed to use words like awesome, fantastic, great, terrific, etc. They have to pick a specific, non-generic word. What word would they choose?

The word they choose – for better or worse and, where you’re concerned, intentional or unintentional – is your positioning in the minds of the people you work with. That’s how they see you. That’s how they think of you.

That is how they remember you.

What is Your Most Important Word?

The cool thing is, you get to choose how people view you. As long as your actions constantly and consistently match your positioning, as long as you are intentional in thought and action, you can determine the immediate and direct connection people make when they see, hear, or think about you.

What one word best describes you? Better yet, what one word do you want to describe you?

Here are a few possibilities – in the right circumstances these are all wonderful qualities:

· Insightful

· Shrewd

· Ferocious (hopefully in a good way)

· Unflinching

· Indomitable

· Irreverent

· Scrupulous

· Relatable

· Determined

So, back to the original question: What is the one word that can transform your career? As you've probably guessed — it's different for everyone. But, if you can find yours, it can have a profound impact on your person brand, and hence your career.

A short, powerful exercise…

Make a list of the adjectives you want people to repeat after they meet you, talk to you, see or read about you... what do you want other people to think of when they think of you?

Make your list. Then boil it down to the one word you want to encapsulate you – and, in effect, your personal brand. (If you don’t, other people will definitely decide it for you.)

Decide how you want to be defined.

Now, share your one word in the comments below. If you can't quite get it down to just one word, that's OK (I'm an easy going guy) — pick 2 or 3 words. But, leave them in the comments. We're not going to hold you to it, but the simple act of writing them down and sharing them is super-helpful. And, it will help others come up with their words.

I'll kick things off with the words I'd like people to associate with me: creative.

Read, think, GO!

Leave your one (or two) words in the comments.



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How I Hacked The Startup Launch Conference Circuit

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Jul 15, 2013

 


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.nathan small

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.

<END. Really.>



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Startup PR Tip: To Get Press, Don't Pitch Your Product

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Thu, May 16, 2013

 


Entrepreneurs that are looking to get attention from bloggers and journalists will often pitch their businesses themselves or though a PR agency.

It's sad that most of those pitches fall flat and are likely to be completely ignored. A waste of time and money for everyone.product pitch small

For example, here’s a pitch from a PR professional. I’ve changed it slightly to avoid embarrassing anyone:

“I’m working with a wonderful new business… The owners grew up together and decided to go into business… it’s a story I’m sure your readers will care a lot about!”

Uh, no. It's unlikely that people are going to care about this story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure the entrepreneurs are great people, but many entrepreneurs can tell a tale of struggle and euphoria and heartbreak and someday, against all odds, turning their dreams into reality and making their business a success. While occasionally readers might be inspired or motivated, for the most part we’re just not that interested in other people’s stories. Unless those stories are particularly remarkable we're more apt to just keep living our own dreams and writing our own stories. So, the things we're interested in is not other people's stories, but information that helps us write our own.

So what should you do if you’re trying to spread the word about new products and services, landing new customers, bringing investors onboard… all the stuff you hire PR agencies to do for you or, more likely, try to do on your own?

If you’re looking for press, forget the formulaic, cookbook approach to crafting a winning media pitch. That approach may result in coverage in a few outlets… but not the ones you really want.

Quick rule of thumb: Any media outlet that will do a story based on a crappy pitch is a media outlet that will get you crappy exposure.

Let’s pretend you’re thinking about pitching me an article idea for OnStartups.com (which has a modestly sized, but awesome audience).  You can apply the following to any media outlet or blog, though.

Here’s what to do and not to do:

Don’t tell me your story is unique.

No offense, but it really isn’t. There are thousands of Ramen noodle stories. There are thousands of 3 am “Eureka!” stories. There are thousands of maxed-out credit cards, relatives won’t return your calls, last-minute financing savior stories.

Your story is deservedly fascinating to you because you lived it (just as my story is fascinating to me), but to the average reader your story sounds a lot like every other entrepreneur’s story. Claiming your story is unique creates an expectation that, if not met, negatively impacts the rest of your pitch.

And if your story truly is unique, I’ll know. You won’t have to tell me.

Don’t tell me how much a little publicity will help you.

Never waste time by explaining how this could be a win-win relationship or, worse, by claiming you want to share your wisdom because you simply want to help others.

I know you want publicity, and I know why. I get it. I've been there. We’re cool.

Know what I’ve done recently.

It’s easy to think, “Hey, he recently wrote about choosing a co-founder, so I should pitch a story about how I help people find co-founders”

Um, probably not. If just wrote about co-founders. I’m probably good for a little bit on that topic. Never assume one article indicates an abiding fascination with a particular topic.

But do feel free to pitch if you aren’t a member of the choir I just preached to. Different points of view catch my attention; same thing, different day does not.

Know my interests.

You certainly don’t need to know I enjoy late-night walks on the beach. (Hey, who doesn’t?) But skim a few posts and you’ll know I have a soft spot for company culture, startup funding and startup marketing

So if you really want to get my attention, don’t use the tried-but-in-no-way-true “mention you really enjoyed something recent the writer wrote” approach.

Instead put your effort into finding an angle that may appeal to my interests. If you can’t be bothered to do that you’ll never get the publicity you want.

Forget a profile piece.

Straight profile pieces that tell the story of a business are boring. (At least I think so, which is why I don't post those)

The best articles let readers learn from your experience, your mistakes, and your knowledge. Always focus on benefiting readers: When you do, your company gets to bask in the reflected PR glow.

So,readers don’t want to know what you do; they want to know what you know. If you started a company, share five things you learned about landing financing. If you developed a product, share four mistakes you made early on. If you entered a new market, share three strategies you used to steal market share from competitors.

And while you may think the “5 steps to” or “4 ways to” approach is overdone, keep in mind readers love them… and even if I decide not to frame the story that way, developing mental bullet points ahead of time is a great way to organize your information (which helps me) and ensure you have great talking points (which definitely helps you.)

Realize that the more you feel you need to say… the less you really have to say.

Some people think bloggers are lazy and look for stories that write themselves. I can’t argue with the lazy part, but I really don’t want to read a 1,000-word pitch with a comprehensive overview of the topic and a list of semi-relevant statistics. The best products can be described in a few sentences, and so can the best pitches:

So now let’s get specific. Pretend you’re crafting your pitch:

Remember: forget what you want.

Many people think, “Wow, it would be awesome if OnStartups.com ran a story about our new product—think of the exposure! So many VCs would read it! We're looking for funding!"

Maybe so, but unless you focus on how readers can benefit from the story (learning about your new product isn’t a benefit to readers), that’s not going to happen.

Then, think about what I want.

I want to inform and occasionally – hopefully – entertain readers; the more you can help me accomplish that goal, the more interested I am in what you have to say.

Then craft your pitch with publicity as a secondary goal.

In the example above, the PR pro didn’t offer readers anything. His only focus was on getting publicity to benefit his clients.

Flip it around and focus solely on how you can benefit readers. When you do, your company will benefit by extension.

For example, if you want to spread the word about:

· New products or services: Share four lessons learned during the product development process; describe three ways you listened to customers and determined how to better meet their needs; explain the steps involved in manufacturing products overseas, especially including what you did wrong.

· Landing a major customer: Describe how you changed your sales process to allow you to compete with heavy hitters in your industry; share three stories about major sales that got away and what you learned from failing to reel them in; detail the steps you took to quickly ramp up capacity while ensuring current customers needs were still met.

· Bringing in key investors: Explain how you helped investors embrace your vision for the company; describe four key provisions that create the foundation for a solid partnership agreement; share the stories of three pitches to VCs that went horribly wrong and how those experiences helped you shape a winning pitch.

Sound like a lot of work? It is, but it’s worth it. When you offer to help people solve problems and learn from your mistakes, bloggers and writers will be a lot more interested.

More importantly, readers will be more interested in the news you want to share because first you helped them—and that gives them a great reason to be interested in your business.



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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…

Nothing.

Not a damn thing.

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

Who’s to blame for all of this?

That’s easy. TechCrunch. Those bastards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s a startup to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We pitched our press list.

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

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

Ouch.

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

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

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

The result?

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, here are a few ideas:

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

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



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Our PR Stinks: Here's What Your Startup Can Learn From It

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Thu, Dec 20, 2012

 


We were convinced from the very beginning that strong PR would be the answer to our market entry prayers. This is the story of how our reality turned into something of the opposite effect.

The Familiar Doubt

Many friends, fellow founders and business professionals told us along the way that creating a B2B interactive business platform would be a difficult project. (Hey, we knew that.)

People later told us that the most difficult aspect would be market entry. (Again, no surprise there.) The consensus among those critical of our venture was consistent, and usually along the lines of, “Don’t you want to do something more glamorous than a B2B platform? Maybe something B2C?”describe the image

(Actually, we believe our concept is glamorous and quite frankly, exactly what we believe the B2B market calls for.)

Any way you thought about it, the task at hand was going to be tough. The start was the most challenging, with an idea and an empty platform. But we were not the first facing this issue; surely there would be ways to maneuver our way into our key markets?

We knew some companies who successfully bought profiles or created fake ones, but decided that if we really believed in our concept, we would need real people behind genuine profiles and articles. And that we would need press coverage.

How did we solve the first problem of filling the platform?

We first talked face-to-face with various professionals we knew to get them interested and excited enough to participate on the platform, even though the it was new. It was hard, but we did it. Twice. Once on the German site, and again, when we went international with the English platform.

We were ready to move onto the next stage.

 Growth.

How do you go about growing something like a self-publishing platform for B2B professionals? How do you create public awareness? Would press coverage do the trick? High-profile technology publications, with all of their reach, would be a nice start…wouldn’t they?

Indeed, we tried various forms of press outreach. After making a bad choice with a PR company for the German market, we chose the PR Company for our international venture with care. After months of consideration, research and negotiation, we made a deal with high hopes that we would see the benefits of this lucrative investment. While it would be wrong to say we gained nothing from this several month contract, it would be an exaggeration to say that it was worth the time, energy and money to do it again.

Maybe we chose the wrong firm or worked with people not experienced enough with an international, startup market. Regardless of the reason, we only barely inched along.

Eventually, we were forced to go out on our own to create brand awareness and ignite public interest.

The Big Guys

This time, we aimed for the big guys and landed one on our own. Coverage on GigaOM inspired positive feedback surrounding our concept and functionality. But as it turns out, getting highly coveted coverage is not enough. What happens is this: you get a spike of traffic, a couple of hundred or even thousands of visits for a day, but only a fraction of the traffic persists.

PR can work if you manage to stay continually on the radar of journalists. We did not succeed in getting enough “coverable” news out over and over again and thus faced the problem of limited exposure.

After personal and fired efforts, what did we learn?

Our PR still stank.

Without a celebrity investor or seven-figure financial round each month, we were forced to do what startups do best: build something from nothing, by using what we had.

Looking back, this hardship turned out to be a great thing for our business development. Without being able to rely on press coverage, we were forced to learn and engage in a marketing strategy - to find other ways to generate traffic and convert our target audience.

Essentially, our lukewarm PR made us better entrepreneurs.

How, exactly, did we manage to grow?

As a social publishing and content marketing platform we decided to do exactly what we had been advising our target group to do: run a content-based, social media campaign. The steps were as follows:

1. Research our target group: This involved getting to know the habits and motivations of our target group within each social media and online channel. It also required us to understand the conversations that were talking place about issues relevant to our service and knowing what our industry influencers were saying. Specific to our success, were analyzing Twitter and LinkedIn.

2. Connect with influencers: Connecting with influencers allowed us to learn the language of our industry and lay the foundation for future interaction. When we later began to produce content, we could guest post on these influencers’ blogs/websites and involve them in a series of interviews. In both cases, we found ways to expose ourselves to their followers.

3. Create content of utility: We knew that content had to be informative and engaging. Yet, the content that really made a difference for us was that which offered our platform and social media communities a sense of utility. If our content could be used to better understand the industry or tackle a common problem, it was more likely to be shared and discussed.

4. Publish content: This was when we had the opportunity to do what we had been advising our target group to do the whole time: publish on exploreB2B. Not only did we publish articles on our platform, we guest posted on active and relevant sites and blogs.

5. Distribute content: Publishing content was only one step of the battle. Distributing the totality of our content through our social communities served to create leads to our platform and, in turn, grow these subsidiary networks.

6. Continue to grow online communities: This was one of the largest factors in our spike in traffic and referrals. Once we grew our Twitter accounts and initiated daily interaction in LinkedIn groups, whole communities of like-minded people were exposed to – and became familiar with – our brand name. Growing our Twitter account from miniscule numbers to five-figure followers became a powerful increase in our visibility. Even though we are B2B, this kind of “social branding” played a large role in our growth.

Through a campaign of trial and error, we learned that social media and content marketing success is not immediate – and that it is not the result of one magical post. The persistence of our actions and the combination of the different measures resulted in a social media following, trust in our content, visibility, and stable platform growth.

What were our end results with PR?

1. A spike in traffic during April 2012.

Yes, that’s it. And it was smaller than our current (steady) growth rates.

What were our end results with content marketing?

1. Brand awareness.

2. Connection to key, industry influencers.

3. Large and active social media followings on more than one network.

4. Trust in our useful and engaging content.

5. An increase in weekly visits by a factor of ten.

6. An increase in registrations by a factor of ten.

In the few months we have spent content marketing, we have achieved something that gives much more value to our company than traffic spikes created by media coverage. We have an ongoing dialogue with our users, a network base that constantly returns to our site, and consistently grow our traffic.

Results from our content marketing campaign far outweigh any benefits we gained from being covered in the press.

We have survived by making ourselves the leaders of our own movement, utilizing the platform we created, employing the marketing strategy we recommend and connecting to thought leaders in our field.

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Weekly traffic of exploreB2B from March 2012 to November 2012

Though our content marketing results were not instant, we were able to use this time to build trust and establish a reputation in “social business.”

With positive user feedback and a steady increase in their own article production, we now sense real stability in our social media and platform interactions.

At this point in time, our PR still sucks.

But, maybe that is just the point. It is due to the fact that our PR was not successful that we attained something that has proven more valuable in the end: steady, self-achieved, and sustainable growth.

The Fate of Your Brand

My advice for startup growth is to not rely on press to determine your market reputation. Instead, formulate a connection to your target group members by telling your own stories and sharing knowledge that defines your industry leadership. This provides a foundation for your own means of security and growth.

Using methods such as social media and content marketing, figure out where you can reach your target group and pursue them in helpful and entertaining ways. It’s not the tech journalists, bloggers and authors covering your competitors who protect and ensure the bottom line of your company.

In the end, it comes down to the people who trust you and find value in your ideas to decide the fate of your brand.

This was a guest post by Susanna Gebauer.  She is one of the founders of the social publishing and content marketing platform, exploreB2B. You can also find Susanna on Twitter.



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Building It Is Not Enough: 5 Practical Tips On User Acquisition

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Wed, May 02, 2012



The following is a guest post by Brian Balfour, Co-Founder and CMO of Boundless. You can read more of his writing on his blog at BrianBalfour.com.

Stories about the growth of "hot" startups such as Facebook, Instagram, AirBNB, and others have created a belief that if you build the right product, customer acquisition will be easy. Don't be fooled. These stories are the exception, not the rule, and don't tell the entire story of the immense effort it took to grow their customer bases. Finding scalable acquisition channels is a time consuming and strategic effort.

If you build it, they may not come.

field of dreams

You probably have a product roadmap and a development process. But do you have a process and plan to discovering your scalable customer acquisition channels? For software development we have well documented processes such as Agile, Waterfall and Kanban. For finding product market fit we have an increasingly defined process in customer development and the lean startup methodology.

Finding scalable customer acquisition channels is as much of a process as software development or finding product market fit. Here are five mistakes to avoid in finding your initial customer acquisition channels.

1. Do Not Test A Lot Of Channels At Once

This is the ol' throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks strategy. Unfortunately this rarely works. Consider this, with Facebook ads you typically need to change your creative every 24-48 hours across 10 - 20 different segmentation combinations, with 4 - 10 ads per combination. That is in addition to all of the landing page testing you'll need to do for those combinations. It is easily a full time role. Think you will have time to focus on another channel at the same time?

Inbound marketing takes an incredible amount of time for content development. SEO requires testing thousands of page combinations, time to build influential links, and plenty of on-page optimization. My point is, properly testing any single customer acquisition channel is extremely time consuming and requires focus.

It is easy to think that the fastest way to find a channel is to test a lot at once. But with limited resources it is the exact opposite. Let's look at it a different way. If you had very limited engineering resources, would you have them try to build 4 different products at once to find one that works? I hope not. You would end up with 4 partially built products with little information on which one is going to to work.

Instead, you would likely evaluate each product idea, strategically choose one, focus, iterate on it for at least a couple months, and only then decide to keep moving forward or move on. Finding scalable customer acquisition requires a similar amount of strategic decisions, focus, and iteration.

The quickest way to finding your first scalable channel with limited resources is to focus on one at a single time and iterate based on feedback (metrics) just like you would with building product. At Boundless, we have been lucky to have enough resources to test two channels at once. But even with close to $10M in funding, we won't go beyond testing and optimizing two channels for awhile. Don't underestimate what it takes to properly test and optimize a single customer acquisition channel.

2. Diversity Of Channels Is Not Important In The Early Stage

Entire companies are typically built on the back of one or two channels. Look how far Zynga has gotten with basically two channels - Facebook Ads and Viral Mechanics. Only now are they starting to diversify with the launch of their new platform. Facebook itself relied completely on viral growth until they had reached millions of users. Only then did they start optimizing for SEO. AirBNB grew their initial user base almost completely on the back of craigslist.

For reasons discussed in number one, diversity of channels actually increases your risk that you never find a scalable channel at all. Remember this - momentum of growth trumps diversity of channels. Once you find a channel that is working at a small scale, don't be tempted to add another channel to the mix. Instead, focus on optimizing, scaling, and milking your initial channel for all its worth.

Your goal in the early stages is to grow as fast as possible with limited resources. Finding further growth in a channel that is already working is typically easier than finding a completely new acquisition channel. When you start to reach the max potential (where the growth curve starts to flatten), only then should you add another channel to the mix.

3. Paying For Users Is Ok

Magical stories of instant viral growth has formed a negative stigma around paying for users especially in the early days of a product. Entrepreneurs almost feel guilty if they pay for users. This leads to startup pitches that often include a slide that says "we've grown to X# of users with out paying for a single one."

Every, and I mean every, acquisition channel costs money. It is just a question of whether the cost is direct or indirect. Channels such as PPC obviously have a direct cost. However channels such as SEO and Viral are commonly seen as "free" channels. They aren't. To properly optimize SEO and Viral mechanics takes significant engineering and other employees' time. That time is costing you money. The cost is indirect, but you are still paying for users.

Those "free" channels are certainly valuable in the long term. But they often come with short term disadvantages. For example, SEO typically takes months of effort before you gain meaningful traffic. In the early stages, speed of learning is the most valuable thing. Do you really want to wait a few months to learn the same thing you could learn in less time with another channel?

Viral growth deserves its own mention here. It is the treasure that most entrepreneurs are seeking. They want to be the next Pinterest or Instagram. Keep in mind a lot of products aren't suited for viral growth. I think a lot of entrepreneurs overestimate whether or not their product is a fit for pure viral growth. If your business isn't suited for viral growth, that doesn't mean you have a bad business. You just need to find a different customer acquisition strategy.

4. You Only Need 3 Tools To Test Your Customer Acquisition Channels

The "measure everything" mantra has lead to a belief that an array of tools is needed to find a scalable channel. Between analytics, A/B testing, ad platforms, feedback, support and a host of other tools it is easy to get lost. If you wanted to learn to play basketball, would you go out and spend $1000 on the latest gear first? Or would you just grab a ball, find a hoop and start playing? Hopefully you answered the latter.

To test any customer acquisition channel all you typically need is Google Analytics, Excel, and some basic SQL skills. Those three things will take you surprisingly far for any channel before you need anything else. Don't get caught up with the tools, just get testing.

5. Avoid The Button Color A/B Testing Rabbit Hole

The rise in A/B testing and other analytics tools have created fairy tale stories of changing a button color, or moving the CTA from the left to the right and suddenly you have game changing improvements. Once again, these stories are the exception, not the rule. It typically takes 10 A/B tests to find one that produces any improvement at all. And when you do have a positive improvement, it is typically incremental instead of game changing.

Being metrics focused is important. But knowing how to properly influence them is even more critical.

In the early stage you should not be focused on incremental improvements. Your initial CPA for any new channel is likely to be a factor off from your target. That means you need to try and make big improvements to understand the viability of the channel. To see big improvements, focus on messaging, targeting and activation methods. Save your color experiments for when you are ready to optimize and scale a channel. Not when you are testing the viability of a channel.  

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What do you think?  Any additional tips on how to acquire users for early-stage product?



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Startup Branding: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, Jan 20, 2012

 


The following is a guest post by Mike Troiano. Mike is a former New York ad man turned venture-funded entrepreneur, now a Principal at Boston-based Holland-Mark. You can follow him on Twitter at @miketrap, and connect with him elsewhere through About Me.

1. What does startup branding really mean for an early-stage company? Is it just picking a name and a logo?

"Brand" is one of those words everybody uses and nobody really understands, so I'll start with a definition.

It's important for entrepreneurs to understand that their "Brand" is the collective emotional response to their product or service. A brand is not a logo, and it's certainly not a URL. Those things are the stimulus, while the brand is the response. It's something out there, in the hearts and minds of the people you hope to sell to.brand

So... Do I think it's important for startups to be thoughtful about the nature of the emotional response that might serve their interests, and try to build a graphic identity designed to elicit that response? Abso-freaking-lutely.

2. Any favorite startup examples that they think are particularly clueful about brand and drawing out the right emotional response?

Sure, a few come time mind right away:

Zipcar a brand we've played a role in since the beginning - isn't about urban lifetstyle, or being green, or collective commerce, really. From day one it's been about Freedom, from both the hassles of car ownership and car rental (Wheels when you want them.) Focus on that emotional value proposition has guided everything from brand identity to vehicle selection at the company, and Zipsters around the world have responded with not just loyalty, but advocacy.

Path 1.0 was a decent execution of an interesting idea, that you could derive more value from a smaller social graph of actual friends than you could from Facebook's comparatively industrial-sized cohort. Problem was, there wasn't anything in the original UI to inspire an emotional response, and the service foundered. While much has been made of the radical turnaround in user experience for v 2.0, for me the result of those improvements is a kind of easy intimacy on the mobile device, something that distinguishes Path from other networks, and is the root of user's newfound enthusiasm for the product.

Instagram is interesting because they got it so right in the product, and so wrong in the messaging. Does anybody really love Instagram because it offers Fast, beautiful photo sharing on the iPhone? Really? I think Instagram helps us notice and share more of what we find beautiful in the world. And I know that promoting it that way would help them grow faster.

3. Speaking of names, how do I pick a great name for my startup? Does it really matter all that much?

I've always thought it matters less than people think.

10% of names are great and that helps a business at the margin, and 10% of names are crap and that hurts a business at the margin. The implication is that 80% of names are not a material driver of brand impact or business success, so sometimes it's just best to get on with it.

For proof of this, there's a great story George Lois once told me, about the first time he heard about a client called "Xerox," in the 60's.

"It sounds like a Chinese laxative," he said. I bet it did to most people, and they did OK.

The point is you can make just about any name mean something to people with great product execution over time. Spend some time getting the tactical fundamentals right - url-friendly, sticky, distinctive, that kind of thing then pick something 3 of your cooler friends think is decent, and move on.

4. What about logos? Can I just hack something together? Use a crowdsourcing service like 99Designs? Or is that a waste of time?

I think logos and the graphical identities of which they are a part matter a lot. They're something the West coast and NY-based guys seem to care about and do way better than Boston-based startups, and that's always bugged me.

Look... in the early going perception is reality for a startup. So is it worth investing a little dough to encourage the perception that you're professionals; that this is a serious and professional undertaking; that you care about design and brand response? I guess there are a few businesses where it isn't. But for the vast majority I'd say it absolutely is, that it's worth investing in a professional identity.

If you're among this vast majority, you want to work toward something smart, not just something pretty. What I mean by that is you want to start by being thoughtful about your brand meaning the emotional response you want your product to elicit as well as any practical ideas or metaphors that will help people understand what you do. Armed with that you should sit down with a reasonably-priced freelance designer to brainstorm some treatments, and keep at it until you hit on something you and others seem to like.

In my experience great design comes from the collaboration between someone with a clear vision for a problem (a thoughtful entrepreneur,) and a professional with the talent and craft to create something great (a real designer.) You just don't get that interaction using the crowdsourcing guys, which is why I think you get what you pay for there.

5. Any tips on where to find a great freelance designer for a startup logo? And, what would you consider reasonably priced?

Try checking the portfolio sites, like Carbonmade. Find someone whose work you admire, then call them to talk about your project. Look for someone with whom you have chemistry, who can bring ideas to the table and not just pictures. And take theiry're advice when they offer it they do this for a living.

Expect to pay $50-75/hour, and to be glad you did.

6. How do I decide what category my startup falls into? Is it better to find an existing category, or blaze the trail of a new one?

The short answer is, it depends, but on balance it's better to pick a category that already exists.

From a marketing communications standpoint, a category is a frame of reference for the buyer. If you think of it that way the value of one becomes clear, as does the time, hassle, and expense of creating your own.

That's not to say that sometimes it doesn't make sense to create a new category, and I've used HubSpot as an example of a company for which it was necessary. For entrepreneurs enamored of that idea, I often follow my HubSpot observation with the question, "So how's your book coming?" That question is usually met by a blank stare, but the truth is that level of commitment to IP is what it's going to take to create a category.

If the opportunity cost of doing that is too much for you, just hold your nose, pick a category, and focus on communicating your distinction within that category in a way that resonates with your target.

7. How much does good branding matter when trying to raise capital? Is smart money really fooled by that kind of this? Will I look foolish for having invested in brandinged in one?

I'll say it again: Perception is reality for an early-stage startup. One can argue  that the world would be a better place if this were not so, if Excel drove more decisions than PowerPoint. But that argument is a waste of time, my friends.

VCs invest in the companies that win over their hearts and their minds, usually in that order. If you're trying to raise money it's important to remember this, and to invest the time and energy you need to court a little loving, and not just a good first look scorecard.

And the same is certainly true for customers, so sooner or later you're going to need to spruce up a bit and look like a brand they want to be a part of. Why not start now?



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Cult of Product: Marketing Isn't Just For Losers Who Pay For Sex

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Wed, Nov 30, 2011



The following is a guest post by Mike Troiano. Mike is a former New York ad man turned venture-funded entrepreneur, now a Principal at Boston-based Holland-Mark.  You can follow him on Twitter at @miketrap, and connect with him elsewhere through About Me.

Product, product, product. More focus on product was at the center of Brad Feld's comments at last week's Silicon Valley Bank CEO event, in response to a question about what he'd do differently if he had it to do over. More focus on product is at the core of the Lean Startup Revolution we're all getting behind, and in the spine of the Steve Jobs bio we're all reading, and in the frequent posts of the startup bloggers we all pay attention to.

And it's all true. Product is the key, at the very center of building a viable business from nothing. And by implication, marketing is so 15 minutes ago. Marketing is for products unworthy of passionate advocacy, a crutch for nice-to-have startups who invest in sprawling web sites and launch parties like losers with no choice but to pay for sex.loser

I spend a lot of time fighting this perception, talking about the difference between the kind of strategic marketing that can corrupt your vision with the external reality, marketing communications, which consists largely of the promotional sham-ware of the mid-twentieth century.

But you know what? I'm giving all that up. I'm going to take another approach, one I think will resonate more clearly with the Cult of Product sub-culture which seems to be sucking all of the oxygen out of the shill-o-sphere.

Ready? Here it is: You should focus on the desired response to your product, not just on the product itself.

Why must you focus so intently on your product? Isn't it because you want people to respond to your product in ways that propel your businesses to greatness? Isn't your product, then, a means to an end? Isn't it a stimulus hoping to evoke the right response on the part of the customers who buy it?

In a very real way, I'd argue yes. More than that, I'd argue that the primary dimension of product response that propels businesses to greatness is emotional response.

What do great un-advertised, Billion-dollar brands like Dropbox, Facebook, and even (until recently) Google have in common? We love them. They make us feel respectively Liberated, Connected, and Empowered in ways that enrich our lives. They make us grateful, make us want to share with others. A brand is nothing more than an emotional response out there in the world, but building brands with products instead of print advertising doesn't make them any less important, or any less worthy of early focus, thoughtful strategy, and effective execution.

It's becoming a cliche to say your product is your marketing, in an era where customers trust each other more than they do media. Well if that's true it might be time to bring a little more marketing into your product, in the form of treating the softer science of brand development with the same respect you give the harder sciences of product management and engineering.

What do you think?  Where do you stand on the Cult of Product? Would love to read your comments.



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Forget The MBA: How About a Masters In Startup Awesomeness?

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Nov 07, 2011



This weekend marks the 6 year anniversary of OnStartups.com (it was launched on November 5, 2005).  The OnStartups community has grown -- a lot.  There are now over 30,000 RSS subscribers, and 218,000 members in the OnStartups LinkedIn Group -- making it the largest entrepreneurial community on LinkedIn.  There's also OnStartups on Facebook, with over 27,000 people there.  And, of course, the Q&A OnStartups powered by StackExchange. 

Thanks very much for all of the support and encouragement over the years.  The blog started as a birthday present to myself, but it also had an academic purpose.  I was working on my master's degree at MIT at the time, and as part of my degree requirements, I had to write a graduate thesis. The title of my thesis was “On Startups: The Patterns and Practices of Contemporary Software Entrepreneurs”. I needed some “real world” feedback from actual software entrepreneurs to include in the thesis. I figured out quickly that this would involve talking to humans (something I found reasonably unpleasant). And, I had heard about this “blogging thing” so decided to give it a shot. I took the first two words of my thesis title, tacked it together, and came up with OnStartups.com.graduate onstartups

I had a really good time in business school at MIT. Learned a lot, met some exceptional people.  But, I think the whole MBA thing is a little old-fashioned. How many people do you know that want to get really good at business administation? What would be cool instead is a Masters in Business Awesomeness.  The coolest would be a Masters in Startup Awesomeness. Of course, there is no such thing, and no university you can go to get that degree yet (but there should be).  The good news is MIT -- and other great universities are starting to introduce much more entrepreneurial content in their programs. [Shout out to my friend Bill Aulet, chair of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center]

So, below, are some of my favorite (and I think most useful) articles from 6 years of OnStartups.com. If I were to design a curriculum for the Masters In Startup Awesomeness, some of this material would likely be included. I recognize that this a lot of stuff, so feel free to just bookmark this article and read later.

The Best Articles From 6 Years of OnStartups.com 

Sales and Marketing

Startup Websites That Work

Startup Marketing: Tactical Tips From The Trenches

17 Mutable Suggestions for Naming A Startup

The 5 Minute Guide to Cheap Startup Advertising

Building Startup Sales Teams: Tips for Founders

How to Pick a Company Name: Tips From The Trenches

A Geek's Guide to Hiring Marketing People

5 Startup Sales Tips From Turkish Rug Dealers

The 900 Pound Gorrilla: Why Strategic Partnerships Aren't

People

Choosing A Minimum Viable Co-Founder

14 Ways To Be A Great Startup CEO

The 11 Harsh Realities of Being An Entrepreneur

SaaS 101: 7 Simple Insights From Inside HubSpot

Startup Founder Compensation: The Good, The Bad and the Irrelevant

17 Pithy Insights for Startup Employees

Startup Hiring: Why You Should Date Before Getting Married

Pricing

Important Questions Startup Co-Founders Should Ask Each Other

How to Price Software Without Just Rolling The Dice

Startups and the Challenges Of The Freemium Pricing Model

Strategy

4 Quick Tips on Raising Funding Without a Plan or a PowerPoint

14 Reasons Why You Need To Start A Startup

The @dharmesh Test: 16 Questions for Better SaaS Companies

Startups: 10 Things MBA Schools Won't Teach You

Startups: Your Customers Are Not Ignorant, Selfish, Control Freaks

Development Shortcuts Are Not Free: Understanding Technology Debt

17 Pithy Insights for Startup Founders

—-

Thanks again for all of your support.  If you want to find me online, I'm @dharmesh on twitter and +Dharmesh Shah  



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