Category: Startups

01
Aug

The End of the Org Chart

There isn’t much to do in Maspeth, NY on a weekday afternoon. Nestled next to an expressway on the outer Brooklyn-Queens border, Maspeth’s defining feature is its warehouse district  — a collection of gritty, similar-looking buildings next to a small creek and set of train tracks. At peak mid-summer heat, with temperatures north of 90F, Maspeth almost feels like a desert — a mix of industrial stone dunes and sandy brown streets. I know all this, because a bad customer experience incident sent me there.

A week before, my phone broke and I ordered an upgrade replacement to my office (it’s easier to get packages at work). Here’s the remaining minimum viable context: I had a busy week of meetings in the city, the phone was incorrectly shipped to my home in Brooklyn (signature required), neither my phone company nor Fedex could change the delivery address, and I was about to leave for a trip. I had a choice to make: (1) either let the phone get returned to sender and wait another week for a second phone unless I go buy a second out of pocket, or (2) go pick up my phone before it got sent back. In Maspeth.

Riding there, I started thinking about the experience, how it could have been prevented, and why ‘customer friction’ happens more with certain business characteristics than others. That thinking led me to a realization I first shared on Twitter: five years from now — at most ten — the best companies won’t have “departments” or “business units” as they exist today. Or if they do, they’ll look very different from the today’s accounting team down the hall that reviews spreadsheets with methodical precision.Continue Reading..

23
Oct

Managing A Startup’s Most Valuable Resource: Time

Covey's Four Quadrant Time Management Matrix

[The following is an excerpt from my essay “Time Management for Startups: Quantify, Prioritize, and Automate” that originally appeared on Sixteen Ventures. To read the article in its entirety, including Lincoln Murphy’s forward, conclusion and other productivity recommendations, please go here.]

Whenever I write a guest post or article, I start by brainstorming how I can organize a collection of past experiences into a targeted story or message around a topic. I started doing that for this essay too, when a simple thought occurred to me: I have a lot of different experiences to choose from. In fact, I’ve been working at or on early-stage SaaS companies for over five years now.

Wow. It certainly hasn’t felt like five years. Between trips to CES and SXSW (and close to a dozen different countries), hiring — and, sadly, firing — great people, building two successful businesses and struggling through two disappointing failures, five years got archived in a flash, almost 2,000 days.

Could I have made better use of that time professionally? Could I have achieved more goals over that span? On reflection, I think the answer is “yes” – particularly early on. Because entrepreneurship is so centered around urgency, most of us not only find it challenging to maintain healthy work-life balances to begin with, but we often over-focus on the next customer meeting or feature release or conference, and the one right after that, failing to optimize around our most precious resource: time.

Why Time is So Precious for Startups

Startup time is different than normal time. Startups succeed by doing more with less, and they rely on the core advantages of speed, focus and vision to grow and distrupt rapidly despite smaller budgets, fewer people, scarcer resources and less established brands. Somewhere between 75-90% of startups fail and the average Y Combinator startup goes 23 months between its founding and either exit or failure. If you consider Y Combinator class-members to generally be the cream of the crop, that means the average tech startup has an even shorter lifetime. But although startups fold as a result of things like founder incompatibility and lack of product-market fit, ultimately, every startup’s most previous resource — and biggest risk – is time.

Running out of money, not getting product traction, getting beat out by a competitor – all symptoms of not moving fast enough and losing out to time.

Paradoxically, despite the fact that time is the lifeblood of innovation, most entrepreneurs don’t really focus on time management systematically or strategically. Prioritization is done out of necessity, so execution can keep base with business realities (i.e., getting sh*t done).

But science and success suggests there are some better ways, and if you’re willing to commit to five more minutes of reading you can take advantage of them too.

Three Principles for Optimizing Startup Time

Although there’s no one size fits all time management cure-all, here are three practical, data-backed productivity principles I strongly encourage you to test professionally, particularly if you work at a startup:

1. Passively quantify how you spend your time
2. Prioritize for growth impact by focusing on growth importance, not growth urgency
3. Automate as much as [non-]humanly possible

Let’s walk through each one.Continue Reading..

01
Mar

What Hubspot’s IPO Announcement Says About the Future of Marketing

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported marketing software company Hubspot has started IPO discussions with Morgan Stanley after achieving 50% year-over-year revenue growth in 2013 to $77 million. As most already know, Hubspot’s central offering is a suite of software that helps companies manage their inbound marketing, a strategy focused on creating quality content to pull people toward your company’s website and products.

At its core, inbound marketing is a structured marriage between content marketing and analytics, centered around an owned content hub: your brand’s website. Hubspot’s own value creation in this space has come from providing agencies and brands — primarily SMBs — with a system of record for website-based marketing content to drive business leads. Although Hubspot and similar SaaS vendors like Marketo are often designated “marketing automation” software, their true focus is about influencing the customer lifecycle with content, then tracking their progress from prospect to customer.

To me, Hubspot’s recent success — and their decision to now go public — highlights three important trends currently happening in marketing, ones that will have significant influence on what inbound becomes.

1. The marketing funnel now extends well beyond the website. Originally, inbound was a marketing system with the website (and its blog) at the center. But several of Hubspot’s recent product releases — in particular social inbox — tie into a broader theme that social (largely due to mobile) has massively broadened the outer reaches of the marketing funnel. Buyers don’t contact brands until the majority of their purchasing decision process is already complete, and 78% of consumer purchasing decisions are influenced by social. Social platforms are the first place buyers learn about and interact with brands, and its not an owned part of the funnel. The shape and size of the content marketing landscape is changing, and it’s driven by social.

Inbound Marketing and Content Marketing Usage Trend Growth

Continue Reading..

23
Jan

The Five Cornerstones of Growth Hacking

Growth hacking is currently going through a turbulent adolescence. After being thrust into the public spotlight by opportunistic media pundits and loosely-correlated startup success stories, the innovation community has struggled to define and defend growth hacking as a practice or designation with substance.  To borrow from a thoughtful, recent article by Lincoln Murphy, the growth hacker community has been heavily compromised and co-opted by “…linkbait [name-dropping] people use to get traffic while they rehash the Hotmail and AirBnB ‘hacks’ or talk about SEO or Copywriting or [any generic marketing tactic] and tag it #growthhacking.”

Today, we seem to be past the point of no return, and stuck at two opposite extremes. At one end, doing anything successful at a startup that required more technical acumen than opening a web browser is heralded as “growth hacking.” Yet, at the same time, growth hacking is being increasingly lumped in with spammy, smarmy and coercive promotional tactics used by over-eager startup marketers to try to get an edge.

Can growth hacking rise above all this self-induced backlash? Does growth hacking still have a reputable professional identity that gives it legs to stand on? Am I a growth hacker? Are you? Growth hacking feels like it needs a clearer, nobler definition, and here’s my first attempt to suggest one. Growth hacking achieves a business vision using digital resources (code, content, data) to capitalize on economic or technical opportunities in order to produce sustainable yet rapid growth for a company or cause. If a strategy or tactic doesn’t have a technology-enabled vision, doesn’t identify and expose a market opportunity, isn’t sustainable and/or secure and doesn’t result in helping a company grow faster, bigger or both, it’s not growth hacking.

How is this different from, well, digital marketing? Let’s take search engine optimization (SEO) as an example and break it down:Continue Reading..

18
Jan

How to Not Get Hired at a Tech Startup in 2014

I’ve been doing a lot of interviewing recently (#we’rehiring @Percolate), and have seen a very broad range in overall candidate thoughtfulness and “preparedness” for today’s startup workforce. As a result I thought I’d put together a list of observations and recommendations that might help anyone interested in a job at a tech startup bolster their resume and be better prepared for their first interview. Although I’ve interviewed developers in the past, in my current role I’m interviewing almost exclusively for non-technical (or “soft technical”) marketing and PR roles. Because I think the developer interview track is very different, I’m going to focus this essay on suggestions for non-technical job applicants. If you’re applying for a job at a tech startup in 2014, here’s how you can pretty much guarantee you’re not going to get hired.Continue Reading..

12
Jan

What Can We Expect from Jelly?

Jelly, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s new mobile startup, is pretty fascinating.  For context, Jelly is a social question app based on mobile photos, placing it at the intersection of Q&A (Quora), local, real-time information (Foursquare), short-form visual content (Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter) and ephemeral, person-to-person swipe-based interaction (Tinder). Creating a visual layer (interlaced with conversation) over local information is a big, ambitious idea that in most cases I’d say is trying to bite off more than it can chew, if the founding team wasn’t so strong and well-connected. Continue Reading..

27
Nov

Re-Creating My Favorite Growth Hack from Dropbox – Part 1

If you scan the volumes of growth hacking literature on the web, there’s a lot of good data and post-mortem analysis on how startups like DropboxPaypal and Uber used referral marketing programs to accelerate early user adoption and brand-building. As a result, I’m assuming if you’re here reading this, as a baseline, you agree: IF you have a good product, a customer referral program is an effective way to incentivize your existing user community to do some of your marketing for you.

But this post isn’t about repeating why customer referral programs are a tasty growth hacking recipe: instead, we’re going to walk through how to bake the cake, structure and implement one.Continue Reading..

27
Oct

Easier to Do Well Than Good

If you’ve ever been hand-delivered a cease-and-desist, you’ll probably agree with me they’re pretty under-whelming—just a plain manilla envelope of papers that kind of resemble some high school essays teachers return to you at the end of the semester. When I got mine years ago from a former employer saying the startup my friend Josh and I were launching belonged to them, it turned out to be my first lesson as an entrepreneur that it’s often a lot easier to do well than do good.Continue Reading..

22
Sep

How I Got My Startup Profitable in 6 Weeks

[Originally posted as an essay on Medium]

My previous startup had a sales cycle problem. We sold an enterprise product targeted at agencies and big consumer brands, and — while we could clearly articulate benefits — we could only point to an opaque, fuzzy ROI for the buyer during the sales process. As a result our sales cycle (including delightful hurdles like vendor approval that consumer web startups should thank their lucky stars they never have to deal with) could stretch for months.

“Never again,” I said to myself, and I set a goal: my next product would have a two week sales cycle. If I couldn’t get a user to convert from free to paid in fourteen days I’d move on and test if retention emails and down-the-road product upgrade notices would entice them back.Continue Reading..

15
Sep

Growth Hacks: Website Traffic Generation Tips

A common question I see asked a lot by first-time startup founders and marketers on sites like Quora and Reddit Startups is “How do I drive traffic to my startup’s new website or landing page?”

In the interest of sharing some of my favorites, here’s a quick list of some of the channels I’ve found to be most effective for growth-hacking (particularly when you’re working with a limited marketing budget):Continue Reading..

19
Aug

Quibb: The 10 Right Ways to Launch a Modern Web App

Quibb is a startup-centric web community for reading and sharing links, created at a time when the last thing the internet needs is another place to read and share startup links. Or, rather, you might think that, right up until the point where it becomes clear that Quibb got its launch strategy exactly right. Unwilling to be overshadowed by Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn and Quora’s titanic content feeds (as well as the lively, focused dialogue emanating from incumbent communities like Hacker News), Quibb is consistently carving out enviable bandwidth among entrepreneurs and the early-adopter technorati.

What did Quibb do that was so spot on? In my view there are at least ten things, and they’re a textbook case study about the right ways to launch a modern web application:Continue Reading..

21
May

5 Lessons for Startups Working With Large Brands

As a one year old social video advertising tech company, our core target customer base is medium-to-large brands, agencies and media companies. In a lot of ways, we’re selling enterprise software products and video content marketing services. It’s been a blast so far, but at the same time we’ve definitely learned a few lessons over the past year as startup entrepreneurs serving the enterprise space that it would have been really helpful to know on day one. With the hope of imparting some wisdom that may help other current and future startups, here are 5 Lessons for Startups Working with Large Brands:

1. Expect Older Technology

“By the way, your [web]site keeps breaking in my browser,” an exec at a Fortune 500 company emailed me one afternoon.

Me: “What browser are you using?”

Exec: “Internet Explorer 7.”

Me [to myself]: *facepalm*

It was a particularly funny and pointed lesson that big, mature companies tend to use older technologies. Yes, I realize we’re all tearing through Github with our blazing-fast Macbooks doing epic, efficient things backed by cloud-hosting, but we need to keep in mind most of our big brand clients and prospects are probably reading emails in Outlook, working on PCs and using much different workflow tools than we are. Not only does this make product elements like backwards browser compatibility (and, *shiver* IE support) for your website important, but it’s also important from the standpoint of thinking about how your product might incorporate into an existing B2B user or department’s existing workflow.

2. Nothing Happens as Quickly as You Want it to

I’m going to preface this by calling this a generalization – in some cases I’ve seen big companies execute very quickly. That said, generally, there are controls, checks and decision-making hierarchies in place at enterprise customers that will never move at the pace of your lean, nimble startup.
Before you even start selling to most large brands, you’ll need to go through vendor approval. Rarely does vendor approval ever happen quickly. Sometimes vendor approval processes can completely stagnate, even if you have an internal champion trying to push your application through. If you’re selling a B2B product (unless it’s a low ticket item that can easily be expensed by a department manager with a small budget), add vendor approval timelines into assumptions about your sales cycle and revenue roadmap. It really matters.

Vendor approval however is just one example; others include invoicing, setting follow-up meetings, getting contracts completed and many more. As much as you want to come into a first business development meeting with a client ready to revolutionize their business, just realize their world is a lot bigger, safer, slower and more process-controlled than yours and set realistic expectations.

3. Most Big Companies Are Not Looking for the Next Hot Thing

Personally, I’m scanning Techcrunch and my Twitter feed on a daily basis trying to keep up with the pace of startup innovation and information flow. If you’re reading this, you probably are too. Most people are not like us. Quite the opposite, there’s genuine professional (and businesses) risk in adopting a new enterprise app that doesn’t work, doesn’t perform or doesn’t deliver its expected ROI. It’s a really good thing when your product or service makes someone at another company look good internally, or helps make their job safer. It’s a bad thing when it doesn’t. Build this thinking into your product development, sales and customer support process.

4. Always Go Into Meetings With an Agenda

A meeting with a Fortune 500 company is not a daily standup. When I’ve gone into meetings with a clear agenda and structure to run the meeting they typically go well. When I’ve gone into meetings with big clients unprepared sometimes it goes very not well. [Painful] lesson learned.

5. You Really Can’t Over-Communicate.

If you’re working with large brands (or agencies), chances are you’ve got stakeholders and points of contact in different business units, roles and teams. Unless you’re selling lower-priced, no-touch SaaS without much client-side customization or implementation, it’s critically important for your mutual success you try to ascertain what each contact is looking for out of the relationship, how each unit or stakeholder benchmarks their success, and how they like to be briefed or communicated to you. Moreover, there really is no such thing as over-communication with your larger clients. Quite the opposite, in many cases it can be really reassuring that at least one person on your team is a stable, available, friendly and transparent presence during the course of the relationship or engagement. It also re-communicates your brand and value. Even great inbound marketing companies with self-service SaaS products like Marketo andKissMetrics maintain consistent communication with customers via emails, blog updates and new product announcements (even if most of it’s automated). Again, to repeat, you really can’t over-communicate to your customers early on, particularly when it’s done on a person-to-person level.

What has your experience been as a startup or entrepreneur working with larger clients? Care to share your wisdom or war stories in the comments section?

22
Feb

Virool: The Viral Video Black Box

Self-serve YouTube video ad network Virool seems to be on a tear, raising a $6.6M seed round in February from investors that include Thomvest Ventures, Menlo Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurveston, 500 Startups, Phenomen Ventures, TMT Investments, DominateFund, FundersClub and a cadre of well-known individual investors. Virool also boasts some solid traction, including 30,000 registered advertisers and a network said to be capable of reaching 22 million viewers.

I first experimented with Virool in August 2012, and, even back then can say simply: Alex and Vlad built an intuitive product that works. Enter the URL of your YouTube video, pay money and it gets views through their embed network. The team has also clearly done a good job scaling their affiliate network, making the product an interesting alternative to AdWords for Video. As a result, since mid-last year, I’ve run several different Virool campaign split and A/B tests, with frequently interesting results.

However, once you get past its basic product efficacy, Virool is, at its core, a bit of a black box that leaves some important questions unanswered about it’s ad network. Specifically:

1. Who’s watching?Virool currently allows you to “target” your demographic (demo) by age, gender, placement, geography and keyword. However, the results have yet to inspire full confidence. Geographic demo-targeting at a basic level seems to work: Virool maps your views in the dashboard and assuming the views aren’t being run through proxies if you select United States only you’ll get United States-based view views. However, after that, the system offers very little transparency. If I select “Blogs/Sites” only for my view placements, what blogs and sites are these? And how is a blog or website segmenting its traffic by keyword or visitor age/gender? I can say that video campaigns targeted at a very specific demo (say, 18-24 year old male baed on a small set of keywords) doesn’t produce results consistent with YouTube’s demo analytics on the back end.

2. Where are they watching? I’ll give Virool some credit here because in a lot of cases Google/YouTube hasn’t been able to do any better, but going to the digital team at a sophisticated consumer brand or agency and presenting campaign results as “5,000 people from Brooklyn watched your video on some blog or website” is going to invite a lot of hard follow-up questions. What website(s)? News sites? Tech blogs? Are videos ever run through gates or video view exchanges? Currently with Virool it’s impossible to tell.

3. Do Virool viewers care or pay attention? Beyond the question of who’s watching where, an additional open question is how engaged are they? Specifically, when split-testing the same video across different distribution “channels,” I’ve found in particular that Games and Virtual Currency API’s can rapidly chew up ad spend and generate views that seem to have near-zero content engagement, even it it’s something like a Gamer Walkthrough or Live-Action Shooter clip. Why is that? My hypothesis is simply that audience-members want to play their game or build their currency base, not necessarily actually watch your content (some of these services you can even bot and run through video after video on mute in the background while you do something on a different browser). Trading virtual currency for YouTube views is hardly a new model, and if Virool is plugging into virtual currency view exchanges or gated ad networks to run through inventory it’s generating non-engaged shadow views at the expense of the advertiser.

4. So engagement is really a total dice roll (Do Virool viewers care or pay attention – Part 2)? For those who haven’t noticed, YouTube’s focus is on subscriptions and minutes watched, not views. Yes, there’s still a huge psychological reinforcement mechanism when you see a video with 4 million views, and at scale video virality can in some cases become a self-fulfilling prophecy (see: the Harlem Shake), but YouTube’s algorithm heavily weights audience retention, minutes watched and click-throughs at the expense of views. Here again, Virool’s view service is awfully sexy (particularly because it can be achieved quickly at lower CPV levels than Google’s PPC networks), but it doesn’t build audiences and it doesn’t give video marketers actionable data and insights about their viewership.

In order for me to really see Virool as the next generation of video ad exchange, Alex, Vlad and the rest of the team really need to develop the product to make it more transparent and address these unanswered questions. I’ve followed Alex on Quora for a while, even pre-Virool, and it’s clear to me he has significant expertise in the video space, the arbitrage he’s put together is really clever, and it would be awesome if Virool can apply its big raise to bring a lot more transparency to its viral video black box. Without it, it’s hard for a knowledgeable video marketer to really trust the product, because I know the shortcuts that can be taken and need conviction to know that Virool is taking the high ground.