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Posted On October 15th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Cultural best practices that help build startup teams

In our travels in startup-land, we meet a lot of different kinds of startups with a variety of cultural norms and business practices.

Here are two unusual best practices that stood out for us:

Doughnuts for the new guy. At data transformation startup Trifacta, one of the ways that Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 9.29.58 AMthe team helps welcome and acclimate a new employee is novel. They buy a box of doughnuts or bagels for the team and place it on the desk of new employee on their first day. That way, anyone who wants free food will have an easy way to approach the new employee and welcome them on board.

Blog competition over lunch. At machine data analytics platform Sumo Logic, the team uses a weekly all-hands meeting over lunch to evangelize the company blog. The internal blog champion with overall responsibility for maintaining the blog shares a calendar of proposed topics and authors online so it is easy to see the pipeline. By using the lunch meeting to review the blog schedule, however, it’s also easy to give kudos to the author of the blogs that were most popular or that received the most comments. And by incorporating potential blog topics into a weekly social ritual at the company, it is a lot easier to make content marketing through the blog a priority for the entire team.

Posted On October 9th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

How a small thing helps a startup look bigger

The vast majority of our startup clients are enterprise-level B2B companies. Which means that they’re communicating with high-end professionals—perhaps a CISO or senior data architect, who, if they’re going to buy this product/service, will be spending tens of thousands of dollars.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 7.51.02 AMSo it’s always interesting to us when we see the CEO or Chief Revenue Officer of one of our clients have an email address that says ‘dave@newcompany.com’.

It may seem like a little thing (and it is) in the early days of building your company, but in our mind it makes the company seem both small and casual—neither of which appeals to enterprise buyers. You know that, as a company grows, they’re probably going to have to shift their email convention to ‘dave.smith@newcompany.com’ or ‘dsmith@newcompany.com’. That’s why we recommend to startups to do that from the start and look bigger than you are.

 

 

Posted On October 1st, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Keep It Simple – or, You’re Not that Interesting.

As we finish our Positioning/Messaging/Launch workshop with our startup clients, it’s time to turn all those ideas into Content. The first set of deliverables are usually two PowerPoint (and yes, most startups use PPT, not Keynote or Prezi) presentations—one for analysts and the other for Sales.

launch, outlook, planningAs we work with our startup clients, we start with Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 guide to PPT. Keep things to 10 slides, 20 minutes, and use a 30-point font. And everyone salutes, goes away and comes back with a slide deck that violates all of these rules—especially the first and third. They tried, and trust me, the story was just too complex or deep to fit within ten slides. And whoever heard of telling technology in 30-point text? It looks like you’re cartoonizing something that is very important.

Now, to be honest, we at Crowded Ocean have suffered from the same sins at times. But we try to reel ourselves back in and live by the 10 (no problem) 20 (again, no problem) 30 (well, a little problem) rule. But we’re a service company, and we realize that architectures and features are a different animal.

But not that different. Slides have a section called ‘speaker notes’ for a reason. We suggest to startups that you pack that area with specifications, as well as anecdotes that new sales reps can use in their maiden voyages. (As they get more experienced, they’ll swap in their own stories). The closer you can get to the 10/20/30 guidelines, the more impact you’ll have and the more will focus on you as the ‘expert,’ not the presenter.

 

Posted On September 23rd, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

‘Gun to the Head’ Management – for Startups

At the end of Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, the Misfit says of the old woman he just shot: “She would’ve been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” When it comes to managing our startups and our family of vendors, we know the feeling.

Startup Marketing Agencies: how best to manage

In our years of working with startups and their agencies, we’ve come across some vendors like this: they do good work but seem to do the least amount required. As a result we’re always actively managing them, which is a drag for them and for us. Or worse: if the contract calls for ‘notice’ (and we never agree to contracts that have longer than 30-day notices), then we wind up putting them on notice. At that point either they kick in to high gear and salvage the account or they go into passive mode and see out the 30 days with the minimum of effort and accomplishment.

In the former case the question in the client’s mind—and usually ours—is: why didn’t we see this effort all along? And just as critically: once Crowded Ocean leaves the account, will the vendor backslide? In other words, will we—or our startup client, once we leave—always have to be managing them with a gun to their head? And if the answer is yes, then we pull the trigger, so that our client doesn’t have to later on.

Posted On September 17th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Startup-land is hip to the rebirth of ‘Grok’

Like paisley ties, the word ‘grok’ seems to go in and out of style. Maybe not in the real world, where it hasn’t been in style since the early 70s, but in the world of technology, where, to be truthful, Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 7.57.00 PMboth ‘grok’ and paisley shirts have never gone out of style, grok is back, baby.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, ‘grok’ came from Robert Heinlein’s seminal 1961 sci-fi work Stranger in a Strange Land. It means: “to understand something intuitively”. The other day we were at a meeting with a big data CEO, who said, “I want our customers to grok what we’re doing from the first paragraph of the white paper.”

And, as Steve Jobs once said famously:

To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about.

To be fair, we haven’t found a term that works better than ‘grok.’ Explaining technology is demanding: it’s complex stuff and you never know what level of understanding your audience is beginning with. So when you do the difficult and explain something well enough that your audience ‘understands it intuitively,’ you can call it whatever you want.

Posted On September 9th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Startups, When to Tell Your Vendors to Shut Up

One of our favorite quotes comes from the writer, Ring Lardner, who concludes a short story about an argument between a husband wife with these four words: “Shut up,” he explained. Those sage four words also come in handy in the world of startup marketing.

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 9.11.01 AMFor most of our accounts we’re in the unique position of being both vendor (to our startup bosses) and manager (to the firms we bring in to the account). And as we start working together and developing everything from a name and logo to graphics for the website, we work from a basic principal: we may know more than our clients about marketing, but ultimately it’s their company.

Advice to our startup clients

So we tell them about the Ring Lardner quote and tell them that, in areas where we disagree, it’s their responsibility to hear us out (since we’ve seen this movie at least 25 more times than they have, having launched over 30 companies), but at some point it’s time for the conversation to end. For them to explain: Shut up.

Advice to our startup vendors

We give the same advice to our vendors. They may have designed more websites than we have, but we know the market and the client better than they do. So we encourage them to hold their ground up to a certain point, to fire and fall back. But ultimately it’s time for the same conversation, for us to explain: Shut up.

Posted On September 2nd, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

How much face time does your startup need to succeed?

Studies say encouraging your employees to work from home increases productivity. Others say that managers who support employees working from home, or “flex time,” make great bosses. marketingbrainAnd if your startup is trying to compete in the talent wars, offering a flexible work schedule will make you a more attractive employer and enable your startup to tap a larger pool of workers. But what happens to “face time” when your startup promotes flex time?

In other words, does flex time really work for a startup?

Answer: It’s tricky.

Despite the popularity of flex time, employees who spend more time in the office tend to be perceived as more dedicated, according to business management experts. They are certainly more available for spontaneous input and on-the-fly brainstorming sessions that make up life at a startup. No conference call, or screen-share or Google hangout can replace being there. In our experience, face time is vital in the early stages of a startup.

How much face time is required?

Face time delivers immeasurable benefits. When we’re working on site at a startup, for example, we get to overhear conversations (like an inside sales rep pitching the company on a cold call) that provide insights that can inform the marketing plan. This is input we’d never get in a scheduled meeting we had to call in for. The question is how much face time?

We take our clues from the founders. If they are on site most of the time, and if their style is to be hands-on to steer their team, then face time is important and you just better be there. When founders are hands-on, then there’s more room to hire newbies with technical smarts but limited people smarts. That’s where face time can also pay off. Most of us would prefer to be sitting at home in our underwear dialing in on a conference call for a fair number of meetings. But sometimes there’s just no alternative to being there.

Posted On August 22nd, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

More lingo from the Valley – 4 startup marketing terms to follow

We like to follow new terminology, trends and language emerging from new startups and technology priorities in Silicon Valley. Here are four of the latest that caught our eye:

Slow TV – the advent of ratings winners like 20 minutes of “sizzling bacon” on Netflix and the “7-hour Norwegian train ride” have won millions of viewers.  The actual viewing experience matches the title – that’s 20 minutes of watching bacon fry, for example. But what are marketers to do with this growing “slow TV” movement?

Post-password products – new approaches to cybersecurity are emerging that use assessments of behavior to measure intent, identify criminals and thwart attacks.

Neuromorphic chips – IBM announced plans to invest $3 billion over the next 5 years to invest in new semiconductor technology that mimics the brain. Check it out – they’re hiring.

Contextual computing – following in the footsteps of Google Now, the latest entrant is Humin, an app that pulls information from your contacts and sifts your calendar to anticipate and organize your social needs.

Posted On August 14th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

How to hire for your startup when the pickings are few

The cover story of a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review is about “talent spotting” and about identifying the “high pots” (potentials) to build your organization when experienced candidates are few.growth

With the talent wars raging in Silicon Valley, we can’t think of a more timely topic.

We always love a good self-help read especially when it’s about the softer stuff of building team, culture and collaboration. The HBR feature keys on four qualities to look for when scouring for talent potential: curiosity, insight, determination and engagement.

We’d like to add a fifth quality that we think is absolutely essential and often in short supply in both experienced startup players and those new-hires with “potential.” That’s advocacy.

By advocacy, we mean: 

  • selling your own ideas up and down the food chain of your startup team. Not just selling your boss but your peers, too, when required. Savvy startup players know that sometimes in order to get your idea implemented, you have to invest time to bring your colleagues along as “co-owners.” As the saying goes: success has many parents but failure is an orphan.
  • evangelizing along the way may also be important to your success. While there is value in just putting your head down and “going for it,” startup players who understand the importance of advocacy will stop to communicate their progress in order to tamp down hallway critics and naysayers
  • pro-actively providing feedback at important milestones can also go a long way to quieting critics. That’s a tricky skill to uncover in an interview, but it’s a very coachable skill to cultivate in your new-hire.

Bottom line, our advice to startups is that as you sift for “high pots” in your candidate pool, be sure to keep an eye out for candidates with skills in advocating their ideas across a diverse organization. Advocacy is a valued skill that helps build successful organizations.

Posted On August 5th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Adages and warning signs to guide your startup marketing ambitions

There are three familiar warning signs that give us pause when we meet with potential startup marketing clients:

panic noise distractionLaunch date slipping – Our adage from back in the day used to be that “every launch slips twice.” Translated, that means that a startup who is driving hard can often set some very aggressive dates for launch. Inevitably, that can lead to dates slipping. But if the launch dates slips more than twice, that’s a warning of problems other than an aggressive team.

Board member sightings — If we notice a board member in the building frequently, that’s a red flag. On the one hand, it could be a board member who has been sought out by the founders to help steer important decisions.  And the advice of a board member with true operational experience can be hugely valuable to a startup. But the frequent presence of a board member can also be a sign that something’s off course or that the CEO is in over his/her head.

On the other hand, it may not be the founders’ fault, other than their inability to say ‘no’ to a founding investor. (If that’s the case, other BOD members should take the overly enthusiastic micro-managing investor to the woodshed.) Either way, in our experience, if there is a board member on scene a lot, you’re looking at a symptom of a larger leadership problem at the startup.

Multiple VPs of Marketing – Founding VPs of Marketing need to be match in two key areas:  they need to keep pace with the rest of the company (usually engineers at this point) and they need to mesh with the founding team.  If they can’t keep pace, don’t click and aren’t part of the ‘we’re all in Sales right now’ culture, swap them out. Everyone’s entitled to a misfire.  But if we meet a young company and there have already been two or more heads of marketing – alarm bells.