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8 Ways Writing a Book Is Like Starting a Company

Posted by Jason L. Baptiste on Tue, Mar 13, 2012

the ultralight startup resized 600If you've wondered why I haven't been blogging so much, it's because I have been been writing a full length book for Portfolio called the Ultralight Startup , from the same folks that brought you "Art of the Start" and all of Seth Godin's books. It's basically the book I wish I had when I started out as an entrepreneur five years ago and knew no one or nothing. While writing the book, I realized that it's a process very similar to creating a company and have even applied a lot of the lessons learned back to Onswipe. Both writing a book and building a web app are the same exact thing - creation.

Build Something You Wish Existed

I wrote the book as a way to give the world something I wish existed five years ago when I first got started as an entrepreneur. The book I wanted to read wasn't there, so like any entrepreneur, I set out to create exactly that. I looked at the book very much like a time capsule. When creating a product on the web, you want to create something that not only other people want, but you yourself want to see in the world. When you have a desire to see something become a reality, that will push you through the long nights.

It Will Take Constant Iteration

The total length of my book is close to 55,000 words, but after multiple revisions, I cranked out closer to 80,000 words. The same will happen with what you're coding. Code will get refactored and made better over time. Writing my book took just as much time to perfect the writing as it did to write the first iteration of the book. You need to set specific deadlines as an entrepreneur, but you should give yourself enough breathing room to iterate on the product before shipping it to the world. As a writer, I had a very tight deadline of less than 10 months to take the book from first word to being due to the publisher. This is the equivalent of having code locked for a product release. From there, the time and process of the publishing industry to shop takes a fair amount more time than launching a product on the web. When I finally turned the book in I felt completely satisfied and that I had created the best product possible after constant iteration. Since then I've strived to feel the same with each and every product release at Onswipe.

Getting Signed is a Lot Like Fundraising

I'm very fortunate that I was approached to write a book. Getting signed as an author is a lot like getting funded as an entrepreneur doing a consumer web startup - very very hard. The key is to start out getting traction on a smaller level. I was signed as an author due to my blogging on my personal site and here at Onstartups. Onswipe received funding due to starting on a smaller level as a simple side project that eventually gained project. Never start out looking for money or seeming desperate. If you create something on a smaller scale that people want, the money will come to you to turn that into something bigger.

Launching Is Just Another Step

Everyone thinks launching your product is the final step, when it is really just yet another step in the grand scheme of things. My book launches on April 12, but there is going to be constant promotion beyond that. Once your product is out there in the wild you have to think of how to constantly bring it to another level. Launching your product is the lift off, but you have to have gas to continue on through the trip. You will also want to start promoting the launch of your product well before it's out into the public. My publisher suggested waiting only a month before the launch to start promoting, whereas with a web app, you should be soliciting press/feedback/interest as soon as possible.

Managing Writing Is Just Like Managing Projects

Products get built in multiple steps and should have specs, a timeline, and more to it. If you don't organize how you're going to build the product scope creep kicks in and you never ship anything. I applied a lot of the basic project management skills from Onswipe to writing the book to get it "shipped" to the publisher on time. To get the book complete, I took the following steps: 1 - Outlined the main chapters and topics, which were the equivalent of writing a technical spec 2 - Put a date and time schedule to each chapter that I wanted to write, which is the equivalent of putting timelines to a technical spec 3 - Completed each part of the book piece by piece depending on what I was inspired by. 4 - Redid many chapter multiple times, which is like refactoring code 5 - Sent the book to my editor, who made suggested changes and found problems. This was a lot like bug fixing. 6 - The book finally went for cover design review and asked for blurbs (including one from Dharmesh!). This is a lot like getting marketing, ui, and ux ready.

Going from Blogging to Writing a Book is a Lot Like Going from a Side Project to Full Time

Blogging is tons of fun and I love it to death. That's why I'm writing this post. I've never made a single dime from blogging, but I've learned a lot and met some pretty damn cool people. The same is true with side projects. They are usually done for fun and some of the time result in profit, but not often. It's when that kernel of an idea from the side project can become something bigger that things start to matter. The feeling of going from blogging to writing a book is a lot like how it felt to go from Onswipe being a side project to a funded 25 person company. There was a lot more polish, work put into it, and also a larger audience to reach.

Nail Down Your Elevator Pitch

Explaining your book is a lot like explaining your product. You should be able to do it in one quick main sentence and then a few supporting sentences. At Onswipe, we have a very simple elevator pitch of "We make it insanely easy for a publisher of any size to make their content look great on tablet web browsers in under 3 minutes." With my book, I did the same of "The book I wish I had 5 years ago when I started as an entrepreneur and knew nothing or no one." The supporting information was: "The Ultralight Startup is a comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide that will prepare any entrepreneur for success. Learn how to raise money, launch a product, get covered on TechCrunch, and the secrets behind companies like Onswipe, Foursquare, Twitter, Dropbox, Mint, and more."Many books are published every month, just like there are many web apps launched every month. You have to come up with a very simple way to explain what your product does and why it matters to people.

Authors Help Each Other Like Startups Help Each Other

The most amazing thing I've found throughout the process is that writing a book is a lot like a startup when it comes to the community. When I was first negotiating my book deal as a naive blogger, Josh Kaufman introduced me to his agent. Dharmesh and authors like Seth Godin kindly wrote me very nice blurbs. Brad Feld wrote a very early review. Just like startups are a pay it forward industry, so is the publishing industry. We are creators in both industries and we have all been just starting out. My hope is that as an author, I can now pay it forward with advice to other future authors, just like I have been able to with other entrepreneurs.

Not everyone who blogs, wants to become an author and dealing with the publishing world can be a pretty cumbersome process. My hope is that some of the insights shown here bring clarity to you, the entrepreneur, who will be spared the process of writing a full length book :). If you're so inclined to read The Ultralight Startup, you can check it out here.

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13 Ways To Think About And Crush Your Competition

Posted by Jason L. Baptiste on Tue, Dec 27, 2011

A few weeks ago, there was an article that came out called "Google Currents, Onswipe's Nightmare?". I'm also preparing for our first board meeting with newly elected independents and one of the points we are talking about happens to be competition. As you start to grow competition becomes a healthy thing to think about. Here's how I think about competition as a cofounder and CEO of a growing venture backed startup:

Don't Worry About Google

300 competition startupsAlmost every growing startup comes to a point where they have to worry about "what if Google does it." If it is a market worth getting into, then Google or someone else as large as them will almost certainly get into the market. What you aren't remembering is the fact that it is probably going to be a smaller effort with little or no budget inside of the larger company. The main focus of any large company is their main profit driver, which is almost certainly not your startup's experimental business model. Microsoft, Google, and every other large company lacks the main asset of a startup: speed. By the time that a larger company really puts momentum and force behind competing against you, then the game is most likely over for them. Google took over seven years to truly compete against Facebook, which had 800 million users at that point. Everyone heralded Facebook Places as the end of Foursquare forever and that they should pack up shop. A year later, Facebook Places has faded into obscurity while Foursquare's traffic has soared. When a large incumbent comes into your space, largely ignore them and use the press for validation.

Find A Giant As An Ally

The enemy of my enemy is thy friend. If a giant such as Google comes into your market to compete against you, odds are one of the other giants are taking notice as well such as Amazon, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. . They might be planning to come into the market as well or already exist in the market with a flawed product. You should see this as the opportunity to partner with one of the other larger companies out there. You get massive distribution and they get the benefits of being in the space without a loss of speed or manpower. This route can also be one that leads to an acquisition at the end of the road.

Copycats don't have the roadmap

Before someone like Google comes along to compete with you, a slew of copycats will spring up. We recently had this happen with Onswipe as an unoriginal 100% ripoff popped up using our name to gain press with a shoddy product. Along the way, a copycat will constantly try to play fast follower by copying your latest and greatest feature. The problem is the fact that, copycats are always one step behind and often stay that way. They never started out creating the company as a problem they wanted to solve, but as a way to capitalize on the great opportunity that you shed light upon. The copycats will create confusion in the marketplace, which should be your greatest worry. Potential customers may ask how you are different than them. The way to combat this is to sell more than just the current snapshot in time, but the longer term vision. Since the copycat does not have your startup's longer term vision, you can out sell them.

Mis-education creates false competitors

If you are similar on the surface to another company, the press and potential partners may be fast to label you competitors. Many people think of Flipboard as a direct competitor to Onswipe. This happens because we both provide beautiful interface on the iPad, but our businesses are entirely different. The same false competition between Facebook and Twitter happened many years ago as both were thought of as Social Networks. Over time it has become very clear that Facebook and Twitter are two very different companies. To combat mis-education in the market, you should have a simple and clear 2-3 sentence reasoning of why you are different. Over time as both companies in a space mature towards their individual visions, it will become apparent to anyone the difference between the two companies. Up until that point, it will likely take a mix of explaining the difference to the market while having many one on one conversations.

Don't try to win on features

Competitors will try to constantly battle you by adding an incremental amount of features. It's tempting to want to constantly play a game of one-upping a competitor with features, but that usually results in a product that no one wants. It's the path that many tablet makers have taken when competing against the iPad. There is a constant game of one-upping on features like processor speed or 3D screens, yet nobody has even come close to overtaking the iPad in the tablet market. Why is this? Everyone is trying to BE Apple, not BEAT Apple. When it comes to features, march to the drum of your own roadmap and vision.

Price wars are a race to the bottom

Many entrepreneurs think that a competitor will come in and beat them on price. You may lose some customers, but in the long haul, a competitor can't be you by just being cheaper. If a competitor does come into your market and competes solely on price, do not be tempted to constantly lower your price to beat them. Instead you should fight on product quality and the true return on investment for the user. When it comes to a competitor that comes into your market and offers a product for free that you have charged for, then you may have a problem depending on what type of business you are building. If you are building a company built upon fast growth, then your business model may be flawed in the first place. If it's not, then you should dig in deeper as to why the competitor is offering the product for free. They will eventually have to turn a profit, whether it is by charging YOU or someone ELSE.

Speed wins

Larger companies are often slow, though large in size. They may ENTER your market, but they will often not have the speed to STAY in the market. Speed comes in a few different varieties when competing against a large company like Google or Microsoft. The first variety of speed is iteration. How fast can you iterate on a product after market feedback? A large company is going to have to stick to a much larger roadmap and won't be able to turn a ship on a dime. The second variety of speed is feature addition. Large competitors won't be able to add features as fast as you and will most likely be trying to play catch up to what you already have.

Focus on the normals

Pinterest has become a huge success and has < a href="">grown tremendously over the past year. The largest part of Pinterest's success story has not been its adoption by the inner circle of Silicon Valley or sex crazed college students, but those of women from Middle America. Most competitors will come into the market and try to create buzz amongst the early adopters of the tech community. Instead of falling into this trap, try to attract the normal users of the world ie- women in the midwest or a teenager that wants to find new music. It's hard to reach this audience and once you have a grasp on it, it will be hard for a competitor to come in and compete against you.

Cash matters when scaling

If you have started to grow and a new competitor comes into the market, it's wise to have enough cash on hand to really ignite your growth. Everyone thinks that products take off and that it's all taken care of. There are always financial barriers in place when rocket fueled growth kicks in. If you are lucky enough to hit that point, you want to make sure that you have the cash to leave your competitors in the dust.

You are your biggest competitor

You are often your biggest competitor. You should not completely ignore your competition, but the biggest battle happens inside of the four walls of your startup's office. Startups come down to pure execution of a strategy on a daily basis and maintaining the faith for the long haul. Most startups don't lose to competition, but because they lose the will to fight.

Avoiding the build versus buy problem

Many startups will not be competing with other startups, but with the internal development teams of their larger customers. Moveable Type lost the blogging wars to Wordpress by not moving themselves towards being a fully flexible platform. Instead of having conversations that are a build versus buy scenario where it's either your startup or your customer's internal development team, you should be positioning yourself into a build OR buy scenario. In order to do this, your product needs to become a platform that others can build upon to meet their needs. This will let you grow overtime to meet the needs of any customer without sacrificing your own roadmap. This will often require you to sacrifice some short term gains for long term sustainability. Any and all changes you make to your software have to be applicable to the greater good of the platform. That means no custom development and no bending to the wills of customers crazy demands.

Bring traffic to the table

The largest successes of the past few years have been audience driver. Twitter and Facebook have been killing search as a referral source, while YouTube has opened brought forth a new audience for professional and amateur creators alike. Tumblr has seen widespread adoption by major publishers due to the viral nature of the platform. Pinterest is getting adoption by mainstream fashion brands due to its ability to drive more traffic than Facebook. If you can bring traffic to your users, then they are going to be addicted to your service like crack cocaine. Once network effects kick in, a publisher is very unlikely to leave your service.

Bring money to the table

Most partners want two things. The first thing I touched on before, which is traffic. The second and most important is M O N E Y. If you can make partners money, then they are likely to side with you and stay when a competitor comes along. Cash is a powerful force and if your company can be a direct or indirect way for people to make money, then you are going to be hard to unseat. Everyone thinks that Google won the search wars by having JUST the world's best algorithm. They had a great product, but they gained distribution by powering search for publishers. With this, they were smart enough to make money for publishers and win the search wars. How have you dealt with competition in your space? Another interesting angle that I wish I could analyze is, what it is like to enter the market as a competitor to an existing incumbent. Whatever the scenario may be, the most important of the 13 lessons above is to remember that you are your own competitor. Keep fighting the fight and be prepared for the war, not just the battle.

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The Most Underrated Quality of a CEO

Posted by Jason Baptiste on Mon, May 23, 2011

under rated startup ceo trait resized 600You usually hear a lot about the early days of being a founder CEO, but I'm going to try to write more about the days of being a founding CEO as a company grows.  The articles will probably be shorter and more frequent.  Earlier today, someone asked me on Formspring what the most under-rated quality of a CEO is and I responded very simply with this: The Ability To Let Go. Late last week, I was lucky enough to get advice from a very successful CEO that told me: only focus on tasks that you yourself can specifically do. If it's something someone else can do and it constantly eats into your time, then you should find someone to fill that role if you have the resources. It resonated with me heavily as I find Onswipe growing faster than ever before and thinking about what tasks I should be taking on every day.

You Can't Do It All Yourself

As a growing company, there is absolutely zero chance that you can do it all yourself. Even if you had 24 hours in a day, there's no way to do it all. Eventually deals will start to take time, hiring will take numerous interviews, product will be in different divisions, and more. You need to realize this and find someone who can start taking over the burdens. As entrepreneurial CEOs, it's in our DNA to feel like we can do everything. The great CEOs realize they actually can't do everything all by themselves.

Find People Smarter Than Yourself

The best way to do this is to find people that are way smarter than you in the area of expertise. A CEO has to do a great job at setting the vision for the organization and orchestrating it. When your company starts expanding, you need to find people that are just way better at the specific task than yourself. It might be cutting deals with partners in BD or finding top notch engineers. You have to find those that are smarter than you.

Make Sure You Set The Vision

Make sure you set the vision as CEO before bringing people on board. Everyone needs to have cult like zeal in the mission and exact vision of what you're building. If they are not on the same page, it will ultimately destroy your belief that they carry it out when you defer your trust to them. Take the time to make sure everyone is on the same page with the entity that is your startup.

Trust and Defer

The phrase I use internally a lot is "Trust and Defer". I trust certain people with making decisions on certain areas of the company and defer to them for domain expertise. I do my job well by setting the overall course and vision for the company, so the decisions within their domain expertise fit within those confines. You have to trust the people that join your company with your life because that's literally what your product is.

It Will Hurt

There's no way around this. It's going to be a weird feeling if you're used to bootstrapping and running a company with 1-2 cofounders. When you're all of a sudden 10+ people working across the globe, it hits you in the face. It's okay, this is normal. If you've found people you trust and are smarter than yourself, it will work out better than you ever expected.

We're growing faster than I ever thought. A few weeks ago we got to the point where there are teams handling BD and teams that are handling Engineering. I've learned to make sure that the vision is set and make sure that I'm focusing my time solely on the things that solely I can do.  

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9 Ways To Disrupt And "Hipmunk" An Industry

Posted by Jason Baptiste on Mon, Feb 28, 2011

disrupt and hipmunk resized 600hipmunk [hip-muhnk],   1.  verb:  To bring sexiness and simplicity into an existing industry with a fresh approach that delights people.  Example:  The real estate mortgage industry really sucks.  Someone should hipmunk it.  2. noun:  Startup funded by Y Combinator that makes it easier to find flights. 

The word disruption is thrown around way too much.  It's often used to describe ideas that are not disruptive.  Recently though, I've noticed a trend of YCombinator backed startups that follow a similar theme: Go after an industry or process that is excruciatingly painful and make it better. Sure all startups are about solving a pain point, but in the case of Hipmunk and others, the pain is chronic and unbearable.  

Find Something Tied To A Process That Consistently Sucks

Some things are just a pain and never ever change. The industries that can be hipmunked are ones that you repeatedly ask yourself "Why hasn't anyone made this better?" It can't be a temporary cure either, it needs to be a full blown relief of pain. In the case of HelloFax , it seemed like a silly idea at first to most. Fax machines are a thing of the past it would seem, but in reality they aren't. With all of the innovation we've had, trying to send a fax is still a pain. EFax is cumbersome and real fax machines are far worse. Every blue moon, there is no way to do anything other than send a fax. It's still horrible. With HelloFax, they took a process that consistently sucks and made it just work.

Simple And Clean Interfaces Come First

One of the best ways to make a product enjoyable and easy to use is with an interface that is simple+clean. Give the user what they want, the bare essentials, and make the information easy to digest. It's not about being the prettiest either. I love the hipmunk interface, but it's not whiz bang beautiful. It's clean, simple, and organizes information well. The flow of information should come first and foremost in a clean interface. Problematic and painful industries usually have a high amount of friction between the customer and information. They usually want to access or deliver information in a fast manner, but it often takes way longer than they would like.

It Will Probably Be Unsexy...So Make It Sexy

The industries most ripe for disruption are usually the unsexy ones that no one wants to touch. That's okay, look at it like the startup version of the popular teen movie "She's All That". Find the ugly one and turn them into something absolutely beautiful. It's not in the DNA of unsexy industries to think about everything else in this article. That's why they're unsexy and people despise them. The travel industry? Absolutely boring. Look at email. Everyone thinks that email is long dead and gone, but at the end of the day it's still widely used. Companies like Groupon and Thrillist are growing faster than any other company before. They figured out how to leverage an unused, unsexy asset and make it work for the user.

Take a look at Square.  Payment processing is a sleezy, unsexy, and just headache of an industry.  Square took that and turned it on its head.  They added a beautiful interface and made it frictionless for real world merchants to have a payment processing engine without the headaches involved.  

Call Out Your Competitor

Don't be afraid to call out your competitor and wage war. You should be respectful of course, but it's okay to stir the pot. Look at Salesforce. They proclaimed the end of downloadable desktop software and Marc Benioff was no stranger to letting the world know the companies that are his enemy. His spat with Microsoft is supposedly one of the greatest things that ever happened to the company!

Deliver Great Support

Most unsexy industries don't have a love for customer support. It's not that they deliver bad customer support, it's just that they don't deliver GREAT customer support. Zappos for example... they sell shoes. Who would have ever thought that a shoe retailer could be an iconic company? Well, Zappos is really a company with great customer service that happens to sell shoes. If you have a passion for support that mirrors Zappos, you can extend the great experience you deliver with your application to the real human interaction you may have with customers.

Look For An Industry That Rarely Changes

I've always believed that those who get comfortable and think they are immune to disruption are the most likely to be disrupted. Having a large customer base makes large incumbents feel like they will never leave. In actual reality, they will, but they just need a great solution... your solution. Problems don't make people change. Problems make people search for a solution. Until a good solution exists, they stick with the current one. It's like a do while loop of seemingly neverending pain. Do deal with pain while looking for a better solution, until you find a better one.

Work Towards Building Fanatics

The hipmunk mascot is barely a year old I believe, but boy do people love that little critter. Some have even created fan art! In a short period of time, Hipmunk has created valuable brand equity and fanatical customers. Some companies never get to achieve that. If you're able to resolve pain, finding fanatical customers will happen a lot faster.

Be Disruptive, But Respectful

It's fun to shake things up, call out your competitors, and make a lot of noise, but always be a gentleman or a classy lady. Have logic and let people see the rationale behind your argument. You should always have an answer that is more than "just because". Show those trapped in the Matrix why your solution is better and will free them from the pain that currently exists. Use a loud mouth and PR to get the world's eyes on you, but deliver sound logic. There is a thin line between being passionate and just being insane. Rationale is usually the difference.

Focus On Power Users

Not every solution should do this, but I noticed that it worked very very well for Hipmunk. A lot of the people that I know who are Hipmunk users, travel VERY often. Sometimes you just want to focus on the normal users, but you can get fanatical users and strong advocates by solving the pain for those that have it the most often. A person that travels multiple times a month with long flights is much more likely to want your solution when you first launch/unproven than a person that travels a few times a year, often for vacation+light work travel. Hipmunk, padmapper, hellofax, and others are just the start. The number of processes that are beyond painful run deep and present a world of opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs. What other industries are ready to be "hipmunked"? My vote: the domain purchasing industry. Someone should "hipmunk" Godaddy :).

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How To Know Your Side Project Is Ready To Be A Startup

Posted by Jason Baptiste on Thu, Feb 03, 2011

turn idea into startup resized 600The word startup seems to be used too loosely in this day and age. Some people think something built in a weekend or over the course of time on the side is a full fledged startup, when it is often just a side project. Building things is great, more people should do it and do it often. The problem is, most people either take the leap at the wrong time OR they don't take a leap at all, when the signs are there. I recently went through this process a few months ago myself on taking PadPressed, now Onswipe to a full time startup. Here are the 8 things that I realized, which are telltale signs that you might be ready to turn your project to a full time startup.

You’re Doing Something You Love

This is key not only early on, but for the long haul. I know it sounds cliche and you hear this from everyone, but it's one of the most true and consistent pieces of advice given out in the startup world. Startups are a marathon and even though you often hear about the good times, you will rarely hear about the difficult times. There are always more difficult times than good times. Any normal person would just give up, pack it up, and return to the real world. If you absolutely love what you do, then there is a higher motive there that will keep you going on. The work you do needs to transcend being "work" and become even more than that.

You’re Making Revenue

Getting somebody to give you their credit card and their hard earned cash is way harder than most think. For some companies it will happen easily, but for most, it just doesn't. If you start making revenue that can pay your most basic expenses, you're on the right path. The difference between zero dollars and one dollar is huge. If you have figured out how to bring your first dollar in, you might be ready to take things to the next level. If those dollars are rapidly growing, even more reason to continue onwards.

You Know The BIG Vision

This is key and often an awkward point for most aspiring entrepreneurs. It's a side project, two guys in an apartment, nights, weekends,etc., so how is it possible to imagine going from that to being a multi-billion dollar company? It just feels really weird thinking about that, right? DON'T LET IT. It's a point you can get to, but it will never happen if you don't start to formulate those thoughts. Zuck started FB at one college with one photo, but I bet you he knew exactly what it could become one day. Having a larger vision to aspire to will motivate you to accomplish something grand. It will make you feel as if you are taking on the world, which you often will be. Realize that it doesn't happen overnight, but it does happen to great companies. Here is the one question I ask all startups I meet that ask me for in-depth advice: "If you succeed to your fullest extent, how will the world be a different place in five years?"

Your Big Vision Does Not Have A Ceiling

The problem with big visions is that the excitement of this big vision can often cloud the ceiling that it may have. You have to be going after a vision in a large market that has a very high ceiling. You won't get 100% penetration or possibly anything near it, so the market has to be large enough that you can continue going forward. Niche businesses can be nice, but they often lead you down a path of boredom. You hit your peak, make your money, but soon realize there isn't much more left to be done. You do either of two things: get bored, quit, and give up OR you try a new riskier direction. The riskier direction option can work, but it means that your initial business wasn't large enough. Find the big vision within a large market that has a lot of untapped potential.

You Are Ready To Be Selfless

This is a lesson I've recently spent a lot of time thinking about. I think it's one that not enough people talk about and is the most important thing an entrepreneur can know before going full time on a startup. You have to be 100% selfless. It is no longer just about you. You are really last on the totem pole. You have responsibility to more than just yourself or another cofounder. It's such an important piece of the puzzle that it needs to be broken down into three further points below.

You Have A Responsibility To Employees

Everything you do has to have the well being and care for your employees in mind. Every decision you make will have a small impact on your life, but it will have a large impact across the lives of so many others. It might even be 5 people at first, but those 5 people have family members, kids, loved ones, and many more that depend upon them. If you make a selfish or poor decision, it will end up having an impact on a large chain of people. Expand from 5 to 50 then 500 and you are now responsible for the lives of many many people. One of the people working with us hard at Onswipe has a young kid. One night on Skype when we were announcing our plans to expand I saw their kid walk into the room. That moment forever changed my life. I realized I was now responsible for so many more people than myself. If I screw this up, it impacts so many other individuals.

You Have A Responsibility To Customers

Customers will depend on your service working in order to do business and some core functionality of what makes them tick. You need to realize that the decisions you make will have an impact on those customers and their customers. They have trusted a core piece of their business to you. The product decisions and pricing decisions often have an impact on companies. Your customers trust you to perform a function and you need to keep yourself healthy for the long haul.

You Have A Responsibility To Investors

Your investors have probably been pitched by hundreds of other entrepreneurs throughout the year. They chose you and maybe a select few others to go take on the world. You have a responsibility to do well by them. If they are angel investors, they have trusted you with the money they have earned through the same exact hard earned blood, sweat, and tears you are currently going through. If they are venture investors, their job is to pick the best of the best. They have to provide returns to their LPs and also risk their reputations on your company. Yes, many venture backed companies fail, but they will go in expecting the worst, but hope for the best.

Keep in mind, you don't need to hit all of these points. You may just be at the idea stage and be nowhere close to achieving anything listed above. That's okay as I wish I had these points when I started as an entrepreneur. The points in this essay were adapted from a talk I gave at Plusconf. I will be giving a more polished and refined version of this talk at Columbia University in New York City at 7 pm this Friday - Details:

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Slides From The Talk

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14 Ways To Be A Great Startup CEO

Posted by Jason Baptiste on Tue, Dec 28, 2010

great startup ceo mark zuckerberg resized 600Everyone thinks that being a startup CEO is a glamorous job or one that has to be a ton of fun. That's what I now refer to as the "glamour brain" speaking aka the startup life you hear about from the press. You know the press articles I'm talking about... the ones that talk about how easy it is to raise money, how many users the company is getting, and how great it is to be CEO. Very rarely do you hear about what a bitch it is to be CEO and how it's not for every founder that wants to be an entrepreneur. I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about what it takes to be a great Startup CEO that is also a founder. Here are some of the traits I've found.

Be A Keeper Of The Company Vision

The CEO is the keeper of the company's overall vision. I'm not talking about the vision for the next few months, but the larger road ahead. The CEO needs to be able to keep things on course for the current quarter to make sure that the large overarching vision of the company can be achieved. The takeover the world vision of a startup usually can't be achieved in one year or even in some cases, like Google, in a decade. It takes a great startup CEO to keep the company on track to achieve that vision. A great startup CEO will often judge upcoming initiatives to see if they fit in as a piece of the large puzzle for the bigger vision.

Absorb The Pain For The Team

A startup CEO needs to be the personal voodoo doll for a startup. They need to be able to take on a strong burden of stress, pain, and torture all while making level headed decisions. You can't have the troops stressing and worrying about the difficult challenges at hand. A good startup CEO will absorb the stress, so the rest of the team can carry on. He also needs to be able to mask this pain and stress. Not that he should hide or lie to the team- I'm not encouraging that. Most of the day to day nuances+stresses of a startup aren't worth having the entire team worry about and the CEO needs to bear that pain.

Find The Smartest People And Defer On Domain Expertise

A startup CEO has a great knack for finding talent. The key is finding people that are smarter than you on specific topics. It might be technical team members/leaders or it might be a new VP of Biz Dev. A startup CEO has to have the ability to find these people and make relatively fast decisions to hire them. They also have to be able to show the fire and passion to convince them to leave what is most likely a better paying and more secure job to join the company. The real key to hiring as a startup CEO comes after the hire. A great startup CEO will be able to trust the hires that they make and defer to them on areas of domain expertise. It's hard to let go, but you have to learn to, especially when the company grows.

Be A Good Link Between The Company + Investors

Whether you want to believe it or not, you are not an investor's only portfolio company. Even if you are a superstar, they have a handful of other companies to help and a ton of incoming potential portfolio companies. A good investor will pick 2-3 new companies per year to work with. A good startup CEO will be a good link between progress, issues, and areas where they need help with investors. A good portion of early stage startups that raise money will have a board comprised of 3 people: the CEO founder, the investor, and an independent board member. You are the lone representative for your cofounder and other employees.

Be A Good Link Between The Company + Product

I have this unwavering belief that the best companies are those that keep a founder as CEO for the long haul. Not because the founders have the right to be CEO, but because the CEO needs to be close to the product vision of the company. Founding CEOs understand this the best and can carry out that same unified vision over time. To fill in the management gaps a great COO, other board members, and heads of divisions will come along. It's a strategy that Facebook has employed and why Apple has had a great resurgence with Steve Jobs at the helm. It's all about keeping the CEO as close as possibly linked to the product.

Be Able To Learn On The Job

Most startup CEOs didn't start out with an MBA or some background in growing a company from nothing to something. The best have an ability to learn along the way and embrace their failures to become a better leader. Zuck started when he was 19 and now 7 years later, runs the most powerful internet company. Don't worry about whether "you're qualified" as it's hard to put typical qualifications on the job. You'll learn the really core stuff along the way. The best startup CEOs will surround themselves with smart mentors to be a sounding board along the way.

No Experience Almost Preferred

It's almost better to have a blank slate of zero experience as a startup CEO. If you come in with preconceived notions and block out the scrappy methods of a startup founder, it actually hurts you. Traditional education often trains you to be CEO or manager for a much larger company, not for a startup of under 50 people. It's a different kind of leadership and company.

Have An Uncanny Ability To Say No

You will be inundated with a list of requests from potential partners, investors, employees, and more. They will all sound absolutely wonderful. As you grow, you will also have the resources to execute more of them. Don't. It's easy to say yes, but so very hard to say no. By having an uncanny ability to say no, you can keep your company on track with the large vision you maintain. It will also keep your team members (notice I don't like to use the word "employees") laser focused and feel more rewarded as they are able to focus on one thing for a good chunk of time. I've seen too many startups sink because the CEO keeps changing what the head of product and engineering should be doing.

Have Some Technical Knowledge And Skillset

A good startup CEO shouldn't be afraid of a little bit of code and a text editor. They don't need to be diving into the source code on a daily basis, but they need to understand the technical requirements. It's easy to say "go build this", but it's a whole other ball game to understand how to build it. What seems simple may be a huge mountain of a technical feat that just isn't feasible with the given resources and deadlines. It can also help lend some street cred with hiring early technical team members too.

Be Able To Break Things Down Into Sizable Chunks + Milestones

Remember that huge unwavering vision that you are the keeper of? Odds are it only makes sense to you and your cofounder. You will need to break it up into sizable chunks and milestones for the rest of the team to understand it. You also need to be able to pick when and where to conquer things strategically. What is the past of least resistance so you can gain traction? What can you do first with your given resources?

Have The Ability To Call An Audible

Nothing goes according to plan. Things fall through, people quit, shit happens, servers crash, and other random things go bump in the night. You're going to have to deal with it and fast. This is a football term:

"Seen when the quarterback goes up to the line of scrimmage, sees a defensive alignment he wasn't expecting, and adjusts by yelling out a new play."

You're going to come up against things that you didn't expect and just be able to call an audible. Launch faster, spend more money here, or even abandon a project.

Can Motivate The Team Through Despair

People love to talk in this business. People love to talk even more when you're company isn't fairing well. A great CEO will be able to take those moments of public despair and keep the company focused. They will be able to debunk the rumors or even approach them head on by keeping the members of the company focused on the bigger mission at hand. It can come in simple 5 minute talks or motivational emails. The worst thing you can do is avoid the situation and be passive aggressive. I repeat: DO NOT WUSS OUT.

Be A Great Communicator

You need to be able to portray the energy and passion that you feel into others...over and over and over and over and over and over again on a daily basis. As a startup founder you need to communicate the vision and hope for the future of your startup to the rest of the world. You need to be able to break down the overall vision of the company into something that mere mortals can understand. You can't speak in crazy technical jargon or industry terms. It needs to be simple, clear, and compelling. You also need to be able to argue your point. Many will pick "fights" with you just to see how strong willed you are. Be respectful, but be very confident in your answer. Often wrong, but never in doubt my friend.

Don't Be A "Fake CEO"

Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga, makes a strong case for not being a fake ceo. In short, worry about things that produce results, not fame. If it's between going to a conference/doing an interview or completing a deal, get the deal done. Don't "leave it to someone else". You need to get your hands dirty every single day.

By no means is this an exhaustive or definitive list. In some cases, the traits listed above might be counter-intuitive. What are some traits you've seen in great founding startup CEOs? Not the glamorous job you thought it was, eh?

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How To Become Legendary- 23 Things Michael Jordan Taught Me About Entrepreneurship

Posted by Jason Baptiste on Mon, Dec 06, 2010

If you know me personally, or even digitally , then you know that I am a physical fitness and athletic enthusiast. I find that there is a certain level of determination that is built up by being physically fit and sticking to a regimen. Athletics and exercise are the purest physical expression of true mental discipline that one can find. As an entrepreneur, I don't think I would be able to do what I do without the mental preparedness a daily workout routine brings. michael jordan entrepreneur resized 600With so many parallels between athletics and entrepreneurship, I asked myself "Who is the Steve Jobs of athletics?" This question can certainly be debated, but at the end of the day I arrived with an answer of Michael Jordan. A recent ad campaign by Nike with Michael Jordan is focused on the phrase "Be Legendary." and the quotes that come from them are absolutely golden. In truth, some of the best entrepreneurial advice I have ever received has come from Michael Jordan and this campaign. Here are 23 insights that I've learned from Michael Jordan:

It's About Knowing Where You're Going

You have to have a clear path as to where you want to go. As a startup, things change along the way. Your execution might make you pivot or implement a different solution. At the end of the day, you need to stick to a clear vision and problem that you're trying to solve. If you're lucky enough to succeed, the road to where you're going may look a lot different than it did when you first started. Take a look at Google- make the world's information freely available. That has been the goal from day one, and despite solutions consisting of email, maps, video, operating systems, and more, that is still their goal at the end of the day. Never forget where you are going as an entrepreneur with your company.

Don't Forget Where You Started/Came From

This holds true for you as a person as much as it holds true for the company itself. Though we do it for more than the money, money can often change people to forget their humble beginnings. Many great entrepreneurs came from absolutely nothing - just an idea that might change the world one day. Don't ever forget that child like desire you had the first day you started. If you harness that essence, no money or fame can ever change you. Never forget your family and your close friends that were there before you started upon this journey. The best thing a company can do is keep a list/wiki of company lore that will remind them of their adventures. The long flights, the growth in employees, the launches, the failures, and more from the early days. Andres and I have been traveling the country with PadPressed. We've encountered some victories and many failures along the way, but we're keeping a record of it through writing, tweets, and pictures.

Have the courage to fail

Failure is a part of anything in life, but having the courage to face it head on is what makes you stronger. We hear so much talk about "it's okay to fail", but I don't think there's enough clarification. You shouldn't let your startup as a whole fail, that's not something you should easily let happen. Startups are really a compilation of many small instances of victories and failures. It's embracing those small instances of failures that will let you learn and adapt better. Think of embracing failure as the entrepreneurial equivalent of an immune system. By embracing failure, you learn what went wrong, what's bad, and how to prevent it from happening again. You build up a resistance to that specific instance of failure.

Don't break when broken

What goes up, must come down. Starting a company is a roller-coaster ride like none other. YCombinator actually has a graph here about this exact subject . You will feel broken inside and figure it's time to give it all up. That might be quitting yourself, selling the company, taking a weak deal, or even calling it quits on a smaller scale. DON'T. Emotions are fleeting and cloud your judgment. For the most part, something that makes you feel broken, should not break you. The true also holds same for the opposite.

Take everything given to you and make something better

Society is all about evolution, especially in technology and software. The greatest technologies take the fundamentals of what already exists in some form, but improves them with the new pieces that have evolved. I wrote about this earlier in a piece called "Build What Was Previously Not Possible." As an entrepreneur you will continually find new tools and innovations brought forth by other entrepreneurs. Take every single relevant thing you can find and bake it in to your product to make something better. For some that might be mobile, social, local,etc. Always ask yourself: "Am I using all the resources that are available and making something better?" We literally get nowhere with complacency, but get everywhere with advancement. Don't change the game, evolve the game.

Work Before Glory

The best entrepreneurs are humble and don't really care about the glory. One of the things that Dharmesh has taught me over the past few months is to keep a level head and be humble. Don't worry about the next press article that comes out about your company. Eventually there will be too many of them that it won't matter. It should be about the work you produce instead of the side benefit of glory. Your work will live on forever, but the glory will fade away when the next acquisition or rumor pops up. Legends are products of their work, NOT their glory.

Do what they say you can't

The competitive nature of entrepreneurship is a fun one. Many people will tell you that it can't be done or that it is too crazy. They will tell you that a better X can't be built or you won't be able to accomplish a small goal like fundraising or hiring. The people telling you this might not even be strangers, but close friends and family members. The only way to prove them wrong is to do it.

It's not about the tech, it's about what you do with it.

The tools and technology that is available to entrepeneurs just keeps on growing. Whether it's social, HTML5, geolocation, node.js, cloud services, or whatever else, that's not what this is about. Those tools by themselves are cool, but not that useful. The technology tools are like an artist's paint brush or a baseball players bat. It's about what you decide to create with those tools.

Be Scared Of What you won't become.

As an entrepreneur, you probably have a very big long term vision that you want to accomplish. It can't happen right now, but over time it eventually will. I always point out that Facebook started at one college, with one photo, no wall, and a mediocre design. Look at decisions as if they might compromise what you could become. If you take the easy route and make the wrong decision, you will not become what you should be. That should absolutely scare you. What if Zuck sold to Yahoo! many years ago? That has to be a scary thought as Facebook would not have become what it is today.

Make Others Scared Of What You Could Become

Entrepreneurs are often asked "So what if Google enters your market?" That's a worthy question, but at the end of the day, your vision should be so mind numbingly amitious and huge, that it scares Google or someone else. Today you might be something small, but if you play your cards right, what you end up becoming is scary. The really smart entrepreneurs aren't scared of the bigger guys as much as they are of the smaller, more nimble startups that COULD BECOME who they are now. At some point, everyone was no one.

Don't finish where you began

Startups are all about momentum and forward moving progress. Every task, project, or new feature should be able to take you forward. It might even be okay if it took you backwards, as the journey backwards is still a journey. Spending a ton of time on something and just ending up where you began is something you should avoid as an entrepreneur.

Know what is within you, even if others can't see it

Sadly, too many people in our industry disregard others that aren't in the in crowd or very visible. They look at who an entrepreneur is now, but not at the true future potential of who that person will become. The same way a smart person knew that Facebook would be something big in 2004, is the same way a smart person knew that a 19 year old unknown kid from Harvard would change the world. Some people ask me why I put my phone number and other contact information out there publicly (fyi- it's 201-305-0552). It's simple- You never know who you might meet. They might not be somebody now, but over time they might become somebody legendary. If you can help them get there, it benefits everyone involved. By helping others, you eventually start to develop pattern recognition for finding great talent, which is a key component of being a leader.

Patience is more important than courage

We always want success now or even yesterday. It's hard for us to realize that things won't happen as fast as we want them to. Courage is certainly a very important trait, but more important is having the patience to see things through. When we look at the success of others, we only see the end result. Even if we see the journey along the way, it is still a small snapshot. Take in the whole picture and realize that there are no overnight successes.

Fulfill your destiny.

It takes a while to get to this point, but you eventually realize what your destiny is in life. You clearly know what you were meant to do with your life and what the end result will be. It takes a lot of trial by fire to get there, but once you do, you will become unstoppable. The real key to fulfilling your destiny is figuring out exactly what it is. Once you figure out what that specific destiny is, it's a long journey, but the fire it generates inside, will put you on auto-pilot.

The press leads us to believe it is easier than it is

The press' job is to write about stories that generate pageviews, since pageviews generate more advertising dollars. Failure and the grueling times don't really get too many pageviews. Success, money, glory, and the end result of hard work certainly does get pageviews. This skews us to think that raising money, selling your company, or launching is just so easy. I'd wager a fair amount of money that you will almost never hear a story titled:"Startup X Fails To Raise $2,500,000 Dollars" unless there is some juicy gossip backstory attached to it. Get back to work and close the RSS reader.

The real work starts at the keyboard and with customers.

If you're in a startup you're either making something or selling something. If you haven't made anything or sold anything, then I sincerely have no clue what you're doing at a startup. Sure there are operational tasks that need to be handled, but all founders can bear that burden. As a whole, founders + early employees need to make sure their actions have a direct impact on something be made and/or something be sold.

Not every product or feature launch is a winner

Remember Beacon? Remember Google Buzz? Remember Yahoo! Live? Remember AppleTV V1? Well, you might, but not for good reasons. Not every feature or product launch is going to be a slam dunk. Even the giants in our industry like Apple can have products launch that don't perform well. It's impossible to shoot 100%, but what matters is that you take 100% of the shots that you should be taking.

Fire over flash

Pretty interface and nifty features are not the path to success. They are certainly a great advantage to have, but the product also has to have fire behind it. If you have a pretty application that provides no real "fire" aka utility to the user, then it won't be used for long. Make sure you have fire before you have flash in your product.

Find Strength In Your Weaknesses

More and more, I'm finding out that my weaknesses are my strength. Weaknesses can be identified and attacked. If your company has a hole in its team, business model, or customer acquisition model, you can attack it head on. Find your weaknesses and figure out how to attack them in order to make your company stronger. It's simple: the less weaknesses you have, the stronger your startup becomes.

Be motivated by your pain

Some athletes hit their high points when they reach the area of most pain. The pureness of facing the most difficult parts of your journey should be the most rewarding as they allow you to level up. When Facebook first started in the college market, they didn't go after the schools where they could gain market share the easiest. Instead, Facebook actually went after universities where they would experience the most resistance and have the most pain ie- schools with existing social networks. If they could conquer this pain, they could easily conquer everything else.

Treat entrepreneurship like a privilege, not a right

I'm lucky to live in a country where entrepreneurship is something that anyone can get into. Many people often forget that other countries are not as lucky and have oppressive governments. We often talk about entrepreneurship as a way out of poverty, but this isn't even possible in some countries. Don't treat this as a lackadaisical experience. Many people would literally kill to be an entrepreneur, because it meant their survival. Be grateful for the opportunities you have and never take it for granted.

You must work for it every single of your day

Work/life balance is important, but there is no off switch for being an entrepreneur. You can't just turn it off and come back to it 3 weeks from now. If you really want to do this. If this is your destiny, which for many many people it just isn't, then it is something you have to keep at every single day of your life. Some are lucky enough that their first thing takes off. Your first, second, or even third thing might not take off. Stick with it and keep working at it every single day of your life.

Do not make excuses

Accomplishing something is a binary outcome. You either accomplished it or you did not. A lot of the times the end result will be the former, but don't sugercoat it. It happened for a reason and don't make excuses that act as scapegoats. Face success or failure head on. We often associate excuses with failure, but I think they can also be present in success as well. Though it's good to be humble, you shouldn't also make excuses for your success. Realize your what you did right and the hard work associated with it. Excuses are exactly just that- excuses. What other athletes and sports references have helped you become a better entrepreneurship? Instead of Michael Jordan, who might you pick and what has been their advice?

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11 Ways Your Startup Can Deliver Support That Will Increase Sales

Posted by Jason Baptiste on Fri, Oct 29, 2010

support for startupsSupport is often an after thought for many startups in terms of the impact it has on your time, sanity, and development resources. It's usually a tedious chore that is a second class citizen. Or...Maybe it's not. Maybe your startup worships at the altar of Zappos. If you do, odds are the influx of support hits you from out of nowhere like a sucker punch. Here's what I've learned about preparing for support, how it decreases churn, and increases sales.

Pre Sales Support Will Bring Up Patterns Of Lost Sales

Everyone seems to think that their funnel and their website copy is absolutely awesome. In reality, it comes down to not knowing what you don't know. There are usage patterns that will cause confusion amongst potential purchasers of your product, that you could have never imagined. By implementing a strong pre-sales support system, you will start to gain pattern recognition into what is causing you to lose sales. The best way to catch these issues is to implement live chat systems like Olark, a phone system like Grasshopper, or a simple pre-sales FAQ.

Example: With PadPressed, many potential customers wanted to see a working demo on their iPad. We thought we had this clearly stated on the Demo page. As it turns out, we didn't. After five requests in a day, we realized that we needed to heavily emphasize the working demo portion in the copy. We modified buttons on the homepage and we highlighted the links to the live demos on the Demo page. It worked. There have been more clicks and more requests about this.

Build As If You Have To Support It

I'm stealing this quote from Kevin Hale of Wufoo, but it's truly one of the most important product focused quotes I've heard over the past year. Whenever you want to add a feature, especially the nifty ones that may be confusing or buggy, think about the impact that will have on support. Also think about a feature's implementation and how it plays into cross platform compatibility. For every feature you plan on adding, expect more of the following:
  • Extra support ticket requests ie- Each feature will bring about way more support tickets that require more time, which is something you're already strapped on.
  • More pre-launch documentation ie- You will have to spend more time on Q&A, writing documentation, doing tutorial videos, etc.
  • More complexity in your sales and/or fundraising pitch ie- Your cool new features have nothing to do with your simple problem/solution statement.

Triage Critical Requests Post Launch and Freeze New Dev

After every launch of PadPressed, there are usually one to two specific problems that are major issues. For our most recent launch, the timthumb library was being wonky with Wordpress MU + external images. Instead of adding some of the new things we had planned, we had to focus solely on releasing a major update for this issue. The adrenaline from a successful launch will lure you into wanting to do more "cool stuff" for customers. In reality, if you don't double down on getting past the critical bugs, they won't be customers for long.

The Knowledge Of The Customer Community Will Save You

If there's a way to create a customer support forum, I strongly suggest it. It could be something like GetSatisfaction or it could be a private forum. Most problems that customers would normally open up a ticket with you for, will have been solved in the past and publicly available in the forums. I suggest that all tickets are made public and viewable by users. Another benefit of having a great community is the fact, that other customers will help out new customers and give suggestions. The math adds up over time. Here's some math:
  1. Assume each support request takes an average of 15 minutes to deal with.
  2. You have a total of 400 support requests per month.
  3. 50% of those support requests could be solved by having past knowledge public. (200 total)
  4. That's a total of 50 hours a month, which adds up to a lot of saved time, energy, and frustration.

Support Is A Reason To Charge

Support is a reason to charge, especially when dealing with a freemium model. As geeks, we may be able to do everything ourselves, but in the real world, most normals love to have their hand held or have someone on call to help them. You could charge for premium support or you can even bake it into your price. Apple's genius bar and training programs seem free to customers, but they're actually a good reason why Apple products command such a premium. Look at Zappos as well. They spend good money on providing a first class support experience and it's why they're able to do so well. Once again, THEY SELL SHOES. The support experience has allowed them to command a dominate spot in the market and differentiate themselves by selling shoes. Apple and Zappos' models are indirect ways to charge for support. Many open source and freemium companies charge directly for support and make big bucks doing it. Some may say that this model doesn't scale, but I say baloney. We're a connected and distributed world where there is an infinite amount of labor on demand to help with support.

Escalate With Discretion

As a startup with strapped development resources, escalating issues to the development team requires a certain graceful balance. Certain critical issues and larger customers require you to bring issues to the attention of the core dev team. The problem is, attending to these issues can slow down new development and an already large onslaught of bug fixes. This is also another area where you can charge for a more advanced level of support.

They Will Calm Down

Odds are you will get the fanatical pissed off customer that thinks they are entitled to everything to going perfect or ELSE. Chill out and breathe. They've been burned by the pain that is poor service in the past and they want to make sure your little unknown company pays attention. Respond fast, help them out, and just hold their hand. They will likely calm down and become your best friend at the end of the day.

Be Directly Wired Into Support As A Co-Founder

Even if you're lucky enough to have the funding/profits that you don't run support yourself, you should be directly piped into what is happening with pre and post sales support. I have every customer inquiry for pre-sales sent to my phone instantly and all support threads pushed via email automatically. Some I don't respond to as the rest of the team takes care of that, but I know every issue that is going on.  A culture where support is important needs to come from the top down.  If the co-founder of a company doesn't care, then why should anyone else?  Set an example.

Email is a Sandtrap

Users and customers will undoubtedly email you asking for support. It's not that you should avoid helping the customers or that supporting them through email is beneath you. It's actually the worst way possible to deliver support. Conversations get lost in the shuffle and require cc'ing and sending emails to other team members. Keep email for pre-sales support only as that is a much easier way to deal with customers. Here's the trick to deal with email support requests:

  1. Take the issue they stated.
  2. Create a forum thread with that issue and copy/paste their email exactly 
  3. Respond to their email with a nice note, thank them for being a customer, and give them a link to the issue you opened. Make sure you let them know the following: a) We opened a support thread so we can serve you more rapidly and b) You get the benefit of having an entire community that may be able to help you.

Bad Support Won't Sink You, But Great Support Will Make You Rise

Listen we all complain until the cows come home about Comcast and AT&T, but at the end of the day, we still have our iPhones and Cable. I don't advocate bad support, but somehow companies get away with it. Maybe in a world of transparency due to social media that won't be the case in 20 years, but it sadly is right now. That's not the way to think about it. Look at it the opposite way: Having great support WILL make you rise above the pack. People will remember it and people will talk about it to others. That great experience will let you rise above the rest.

Don't Skimp On Awesome Tools

As a startup and/or developer you don't skimp on your equipment and you shouldn't skimp on the software you use either.  $50 a month might seem a lot for a piece of software, when you're running on ramen. Guess what?  It's a long term investment that pays off in the end.  If the lifetime value of your customer is close to $100 and you lose 2 customers a month because your support is a mess due to stringing together email, you actually lost a net of $150 per month.  Don't be pennywise and pound foolish.  Here are some of the good tools I've come across.

  • SupportBreeze- SupportBreeze is by my good friend Mark Bao. It's a great, simple, and elegant support ticketing system. It's simplicity and workflows make it a fan favorite
  • Wufoo- Wufoo is great for simple contact forms that can then be integrated into other systems such as MailChimp, SalesForce, and more. They can also be sent directly to your cell phone.
  • SnapEngage- SnapEngage is a module that allows customers to ask for help and get live support.
  • Olark- Olark is similar to snapengage as it also allows you to receive pre-sales support requests from customer currently browsing your site.
  • Vanilla Forums- Vanilla forums is an open source piece of software that also has a hosted counterpart.
  •  ZenDesk- ZenDesk is a support desk and support ticket item
  • TenderApp is a knowledgebase and customer support application. 
  • GetSatisfaction- GetSatisfaction provides user powered support forums with employee interaction. 
  • UserVoice- UserVoice allows users to leave feedback on a site with bugs and new ideas. 
  • Assistly- Assistly is customer support made easier and more affordable. I love this product and would invest myself. The workflow and social media integration is very smart. What are other ways startups can use support to increase sales and decrease churn?  Leave your victories, horror stories, tips, hints, and tricks in the comments.


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Lessons Learned From StartupBootcamp 2010

Posted by Jason Baptiste on Tue, Sep 14, 2010


This is the first article from Jason L. Baptiste, a new writer at OnStartups and local Boston entrepreneur. You should follow him on Twitter (@jasonlbaptiste) or say hi via email.  Expect to hear a lot more from him in the future.  He's awesome. -Dharmesh


On Saturday, MIT hosted Startup Bootcamp to provide a diverse group of lessons to hopeful founders and those teetering on the edge of jumping into a startup. The tagline for the event was actually "Starting a company is easier than you think." The videos will be online soon as well if you want to relive the experience. I thought it would be useful to sum up the important lessons from each talk instead of doing a direct play by play. mit logo onstartups

You can also check out more coverage at:

1) Startup Bootcamp Take Aways

2) Why I'm Going To Get A Dog, Lose My Ego, And Just F'Ing Do It

Chris Wanstrath (GitHub) - Your Customers Are Your Best Sales Team

The story behind GitHub and how the team got there always amazes me. Github started out as a side project and morphed into a monster primarily by using their customers as a strong distribution+sales channel.

Let Your Product Help Customers Shine

  If your product helps customers shine, they will attach it to their work and give you increased visibility. GitHub helps developers show their code off and have a better experience. Through this, hackers/founders share the product with others.

Build For More People

  Build your product to leverage Metcalfe's Law (THE Metcalfe of Metcalfe's law also spoke btw), and grow in strength when more people are added to the system. The key to Metcalfe's law is the ability to GROW UTILITY when more people are added. Make sure you aren't DECREASING utility.

Spend Face To Face Time With Your Customers

  It's always good to spend face to face time with your customers. Sure tweets and emails get the job done, but that's not personal enough. Go spend time with your customers. Body language and that open level of communication make for an understanding that can't be had through any other medium.

Mick Mountz - Seek Funding Through Your Customers (Kiva Systems)

We funded my first startup through the product stages via an actual customer. That's why I love the B2B space as a large market will often let you fund the company through early customers that are begging for your product.

Funding Through Customers Should Be Priority One

Funding through larger channels such as angel or VCs can come later on, but they are not a given. Funding through customers? That's called revenue and is the lifeblood of any company. By discipling yourself to raise money from your customers, you put yourself in a position of power from early on.

Customers Provide Benefits Outside of "Revenue"

Customers pay you, but they will also provide you other valuable information. They will tell you what works and what does not work. Don't over-engineer the first concept. Get to customers fast and let them give you feedback. That hour of feedback in the early days will be worth more than their LTV in dollars.

Ayr Muir (Clover Food Lab) - Know Thy Customer

I'm a customer development junkie. Listening to your customer and getting inside their head can give you insights to solutions you would have never seen before. 

Get Inside Their Head

Ayr started working at a Burger King to fully understand the food business. I think this is the entrepreneurial version of method acting. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. It lets you truly understand their pain and understand what product they want.

Experiment, Fail, Learn, Repeat.

Ayr suggests that entrepreneurs should experiment on the cheap and be fast while doing it. Many things will fail fast and that's a okay. From there, the goal should be to learn as much as possible. Sometimes it's just as important to know what NOT to do rather than what to do.

George Bell (Excite/General Catalyst) - Build For The Long Haul

George's talk works really well in conjunction with Stephen Wolfram's. George is a VC at General Catalyst now along with being the former CEO of Excite.

Culture Helps You Endure

Building a great culture for the long term will help you endure for the long term as a startup. A strong culture makes an enjoyable environment that people grow attached to and will not want to leave behind.

Listen. Listen. Listen

Listen to your employees and build around them. You may have your own vision as a founder, but each company may have 3-4 founders maximum. Beyond those 3-4 individuals you need to build a company for hundreds and maybe even thousands time that. By listening to not only your employees, but the market you can position your company to endure time. Your original market will fade and listening can keep you prepared.

Bob Metcalfe (3Com/Polaris Ventures) - It's Not About You, It's About The Company

Bob is at Polaris Ventures now, but he is a legend by all standards. He invented Ethernet and founded 3COM. Not only is he a genius, but he is just someone that radiates love for the game. Even though I'm sure he gets praise all the time, the fact that he almost teared up at someone thanking him for ethernet says a lot.

Build A Synergistic Team of Geeks and Suits

We need each other and I'm glad a geek like Bob brought this forth to the crowd. As a geek, it's sometimes hard to realize you need someone with a good sales+marketing background. Without a good product, you have nothing to sell and without selling, your good product means nothing.

Sum Of The Parts Is Greater Than The Whole

It's about building a company with smart people that share the same vision as a whole. Bob has taken roles at 3Com from marketing to engineering. Don't lock yourself into one role and gain experiences so you can hire people smarter than you for those roles. Don't have an ego and don't think you're above a role.

Bill Clerico (WePay) - How To Endure

Startups are not for the weak at heart. Everyone tries to do attribute startup failure to business forces or some other error. I personally think the biggest reason for failure is due to the fact that it is just tough. Not everyone that tries to be a Navy Seal makes it through training. Not everyone that tries to be an entrepreneur makes it through until the end. Bill shared some good lessons on enduring as a startup founder.

Think About the Bigger Picture

Bill brought up the fact whether or not you would regret doing the startup 50 years in the future. Jeff Bezos says the same thing with his regret minimization framework. I also noticed an underlying desire to focus on creative things / quirks in order to forget about the abyss in front of your face.  For example, they have a company dog in order to keep them going every day.

Roll The Dice

They gambled their last dollars to make up for the rent they were $500 short on. They ended up making $600 and enjoying a good dinner too. Rolling the dice is risky and not always something you should do, but sometimes it's all you have. If you aren't about taking risk then the startup game probably isn't for you.

Product Changes The Game

Product changes absolutely everything. Until you have a product that users can play with and hopefully pay for, you are fighting a completely uphill battle. Don't worry about raising money or other things until you have a product that the market can play with, even if it is "ghetto".

James Lindenbaum (Heroku) - Be a Machete

Heroku is a beast of a company with a ton of users and a large number of paying customers as well. When looking at the live stat counter I think it caught James off guard as it increases so much everyday he didn't know what the exact number was. Very candid and very inspiring moment.

What is a machete?

A machete is a simple straight forward tool that allows you to accomplish and be many things while staying simple. The same could be achieved with a swiss army knife, but that's bloated and really 50 things crammed into one. A machete is really one thing that can serve AS 50 things. What can you discover from your product and through customer development?

Throwing Things Away

In order to be a machete, you have to be ultra lean and able to stay simple. In order to do this, you need to be able to throw things away that aren't necessary to your customers. Don't have too much emotional attachment to a product or feature.

Alexis Ohanian (Reddit/YCombinator) - The Time Is Now

This was by far my favorite talk of the day. Alexis has seen things from both sides of the table as a young 20 something entrepreneur and now as an angel investor via Das Kapital Capital / YCombinator.

Angels Are Everywhere

The recent influx of super angels and costs to get a startup off the ground have made capital widely available to smart entrepreneurs. With ideas costing a fraction of what they used to and more angels available, the number of startups in the wild should be able to increase dramatically. I suggest raising revenue over raising capital, but if it's needed, there is more of it at the early early stage level than ever before.

Live Cheap And Go Far

For the most part, the audience was filled with current college students and some recent graduates. Instead of taking super big salaries from traditional jobs like wall street, you should go start a startup. Now is the best time as the burden of responsibilities are just insanely low. Your standards are also low as well. The difference between ramen profitable for an out of school entrepreneur and an entrepreneur with a wife, mortgage, and 3 kids is vastly different.

Entrepreneurs Are Superheroes

This last point has motivated me a ton over the weekend. Alexis' last two slides referenced the fact that startups can save our country. I truly believe this is the case and in some ways entrepreneurs are like superheroes. We have a higher calling and civic duty that can help save the world. We can create new jobs, provide a rewarding life for our team members, and solve the problems of the real world. We also have a higher tolerance for pain than the normal human. You have to be able to have a high threshold as an entrepreneur, the same way Wolverine has regenerative powers. Get up, get out, and create a company. Now is the time and the world needs you.

Stephen Wolfram (Wolfram Research) - Control Your Destiny Without Funding

Many startups focus on raising capital and putting themselves on a timer to be primed for an exit of some sorts. Sadly, that exit often comes in the form of a small M&A acquisition instead of building a long term enduring company. Wolfram showed that it was possible to control your destiny and build a company that can last for decades.

It Starts With Something You Understand

Wolfram started Mathematica after having a deep understanding of the field and the need for its existence itself. When you create a startup that you want to see in the world, you grow a certain attachment to it. This attachment is akin to something a fanatical customer might feel. You're less likely to throw the company away on a "flip acquisition" due to your attachment and caring for the product with the hope that it won't go away.

Be Weary Of Managers That Are Hired

Wolfram has done a number of startups and some came before Wolfram Research. His biggest mistake was hiring managers that weren't in the same stage of life and/or on the same wavelength as him. This created a disconnect in product vision and his desire to stay with the company. Surround yourself with peers that you would want to spend time with for a long time.

You Can Do Cool Exploratory Things When You Own The Company

WolframAlpha may have never existed if Stephen Wolfram did not control the company himself. It is a big undertaking with huge capital and human resources being required. By controlling the company you will want to stay with the company for the long haul as the possibility of incubating and creating "startup-like" projects can be done.

Kevin Hale (Wufoo) - Awesome Customer Support Is Your Secret Weapon

If you haven't seen Kevin give a talk, then you're missing out. I originally saw Kevin give a talk at BarCamp Miami back in 2009. I made sure I was back from the break early not to miss his talk as I had a hunch it would focus on the overlooked, but very important aspect of customer service for startups.

Build As If You Had To Support It

Thinking about adding a radical new feature with crazy complexities and absolutely amazing effects? With those crazy new complexities and absolutely amazing effects will come an onslaught of customer service inquiries. Think about the customer support funnel and how that will be impacted by the features you are adding.

Measure Emotion

Measuring emotion is critical when asking a customer to fill out a support inquiry. Wufoo added a box that asks a customer to identify how they are feeling when submitting a support inquiry. They didn't think too many people would fill it out, but over 80% did. This was on par with how many people filled out what browser they were using.

Adding a Personal Touch Goes a Long Way

Wufoo team members still write thank you letters by hand to customers that have been with them for a short while. In a world where the expected customer service experience is usually something negative, a small personal touch can go a long long way. Surprise your customers with a personal touch. I'm aware Wufoo does this, but seeing it again always blow me away.

Ric Fulop (A123 Systems) - Focus On The People.

Ric is a hardware guy, which is often foreign territory for web app entrepreneurs like myself. He was previously the co-founder of A123 Systems. From day one you should be focused on the people involved with your startup.

Plant The Seed With 1-2 People

Every startup begins with 1-2 other people. Building that team at first is the key to the long-term DNA and product of your company. You're not doing this to be a small company for the long haul and you can scale up your organization later on.

Find Relevant Advisors

Hardware startups are especially difficult. How do you break into the hardware side of things or any other difficult territory where credibility is a must? Find advisors who have relevant domain expertise and credibility that you can borrow. Once you have that credibility, it can then be used to provide momentum to the business as a whole.

Focus On The Person Making The Investment

Money is the common denominator when raising capital. All investors have it and all dollars are green. What really matters is the person at the firm and their relevant domain expertise. I don't have any plans of doing a hardware startup, but if I did, Ric would be on my shortlist of people to approach. Your startup is solving a very specific problem and the investors on your side should be able to bring access to relevant domain knowledge and other people inside the sector. This is the true definition of "Value Add Investing"

David Cancel (Compete/Performable) - Data Provides A Reality Check.

David Cancel of Performable closed out the show with a useful, but well needed reality check for hopeful entrepreneurs. Too many times we come away amped from reading a press article about startup success or going to a conference with successful speakers. This energy can often make us forget to listen to reality itself and take a look at objective facts. When your energy is high, you often feel as if nothing else matters. Here are the key things that matter:

Business Plans and Demos Are Useless

BPlans and Demos are controlled environments with no customer interaction. They can't survive in the real world and will never work out there. No one cares about them and neither should you.

Evoke Emotion

You don't want to be stuck in the emotion and get hit with "that's interesting" from an investor. You want customers, investors, or any potential partner to be fired up with emotion.

Listen To The Data

Stop reading TechCrunch and listening to the end-game / feel good stories. What should really get you amped up is the data coming in from your customers. Have a company-wide dashboard, measure your analytics, and get to know your funnel. Want to test something? Listen to the data, not the praises or hatred from the press.

I hope the summaries give some motivation and insight into starting a company for hopeful entrepreneurs. As entrepreneurs we are lucky and very fortunate. Right here, right now is the best time in the history of civilization to start a company. More on that soon.

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Startup Marketing ABCs

Posted by Mike Volpe on Wed, Jun 09, 2010

The following is a guest post from Mike Volpe, the VP of Marketing at HubSpot, who has helped grow our marketing software company from a handful of customers to nearly 3,000 customers over the past 3 years.  You can find more of his thoughts through the HubSpot Blog, on Twitter, and his personal blog.

I was recently asked to speak about "startup marketing" at Atlassian Starter Day in San Francisco.  I have spoken about marketing at over 50 conferences, but never specifically about marketing at startups.  I decided to try to have a little fun and talk about some of the learnings from our experiences at HubSpot according to the alphabet.


Avoid Addiction

Google AdWords and most forms of advertising are addictive drugs to marketers.  They make you feel good (leads!) but they are expensive, and when the good feeling is gone, you need to buy some more to feel good again.  This leads to marketers being lazy, and not building assets that improve the value and business model of the company.
A much more sustainable strategy is to build assets - just like equipment in a factory.  Marketing assets are blog articles, subscribers, inbound links, SEO rankings, social media followers, opt-in email lists, and other tools that help you generate more and more leads over time without ongoing expenses. 

Blog Beforehand

Many startups today have a blog, but most of them do not start blogging until after they have launched a product.  One of the smartest things the HubSpot co-founders did was start blogging before HubSpot had a product to sell, helping to build an asset 
The second mistake most startups make is that they blog about their own product and on topics that they want people to read about.  That works ok, but not nearly as well as thinking about your content from the point of view of the customers that you want to attract through inbound marketing.  Media companies think about what content people most want to consume - you should think of your blog as a media company for your market.  Don't talk about your product much at all, talk about what people are most interested in reading and sharing.

Create Convenience

More and more people have the expectation and the capability to sever themselves.  Making each and every thing that you do to acquire new customers as simple and convenient as possible helps to increase the conversion rates for each step in the process, and improves your yield.
One of the things that has worked well for HubSpot is creating free tools that are really convenient.  For instance with Website Graderyou just type in your URL and you get a pretty useful report back quickly.  Making our tools and content as easy to use and as easy to share as possible has helped them spread far and wide at a low cost.  To date Website Grader has been used to evaluate over 2.4 million websites, and we have spent almost nothing marketing it. 

Data Drives Decisions

Most entrepreneurs know that marketing at a startup requires you to do some experimentation and use that marketing data to drive your decisions.  We have found that taking this to the extreme works well.  Each month the marketing team produces a report about marketing that is over 100 pages long, plus many other special reports.  We produce over 2,000 pages of reports each year, just for marketing.  We have targets for our key metrics and track those daily.  We know within a couple days if we are behind on a certain metric and can adjust our activities to compensate.
Tracking our business each month (or day) helps us optimize and evolve faster.  If you track your business monthly, you optimize and improve your marketing 3 times faster than a company that measures quarterly.  Measuring in smaller increments is key to evolving your startup marketing faster, by experimenting more and learning more quickly. 

Employ the Exceptional 

In the Inbound Marketing Book Dharmesh and Brian talk about the DARC criteria for hiring.  We use those criteria for hiring at HubSpot, also adding criteria for hiring marketing pros that "get stuff done" and are smarter than we are.  Experience is not as important as many people think because marketing is changing and evolving fast, such that too much experience can actually be a liability because you might prefer older and less effective marketing techniques. More than 2 years of experience might not add any additional value in terms of marketing expertise. (It does add value in terms of leadership and management and communication experience.)
What do you think?  What are the most important startup marketing lessons you have learned?  Leave a comment below and share with the community.

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