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Posted On May 25th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean


In this age of dire warnings about spending and an upcoming ’nuclear winter’, what the hell are we doing, expanding our employee base by 50%? 

Good question. But, as always, we have a good answer. Because we need to.

emblemmatic-sales-based-marketing-logo-4As many of you know, we’re under contract with Career Press to author “The Ultimate Startup Guide”, which is due out in January. Consistent with that is the requests we get to take the lessons we’ve learned in launching 40+ startups and offer them in some form of workshop or class. So we’re looking for a sharp sales and marketing agent who can help us with the following:

  • Workshops for accelerators (groups of startups)
  • High-end workshops $4-5K for 3-day seminar on starting and succeeding in the world of startups
  • MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for universities and business schools
  • Subscription-based video series based on the 20 chapters in “The Ultimate Startup Guide”

The position is commission-based, with the agent receiving 20% of any revenue she/he generates from the above activities or any other original programs. The ideal candidate has 3-5 years of sales and marketing experience, great phone skills and a desire to own and manage what could be a substantial and growing segment of the agency.

So if you know of any hard-chargers looking to join forces with two wonderful marketing gurus, please put them/us in touch.

Posted On May 18th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

The New Startup Budget Crunch

Everywhere you look, there are articles forecasting the bursting of the startup bubble and the coming of a ‘nuclear winter.’ It’s true that VCs are starting to heed their own counsel and beginning to scale back on their investments, but they’re not stopping altogether—they’re just taking a more critical (and longer) look at their candidates and options.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 4.08.30 PMOne item that is continual concern is a company’s burn rate. Which is why more and more companies are looking at their bottom line from a ‘must-have’ perspective—especially in the area of headcount.

It’s easy for Crowded Ocean to tout the idea of ‘just-in-time’ hiring, since we’re essentially a just-in-time VP of Marketing. But the same reason that startups have for hiring us (no overhead, no commissions to headhunters, we’re hired for our specific expertise—positioning, staffing and launching a startup—and then we go off the books) they’re now employing that same rationale for everything from coding to quality assurance to legal and financial services. With so many just-in-time resources available these days, the burden is now on the CEO and CFO in Board meetings to justify a large number of full-time hires.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 4.10.39 PMWe’re not saying that full-time employees are unnecessary or passe; we’re saying that what used to be an open box on the org chart should now be viewed by the function needed (short-term or ongoing) and the budget ramifications. And, whether the long winter is coming, already upon us, or a reality that never materializes, this way of thinking and hiring is here to stay.

Posted On May 10th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Naming your startup (and 7 new tools to help)

We were recently asked to help name a new startup, and the process educated us on what had changed and what remained solid advice.crystalball

The new tools include name generators and crowdsourcing. In each case, you get what you pay for. The name generators are both random and incredibly prolix, filled with combinations of vowels and consonants that only a computer or a brain on peyote would yield. But most of them are free and playing with them might toggle an original thought for your startup.

Crowdsourcing is another matter. There are a number of firms out there (SquadHelp and Naming Force are but two) who have a solid group of marketers and would-be marketers who only get paid (prizes start at $250) if they name a winner. Definitely worth a try, given some of the solid results these have generated (which you can see on their websites).

If you decide to keep naming in-house, some basic rules still apply:

  • Keep the engineers out of the room. These guys (and let’s face it, they’re almost always only guys) often want the name to exactly represent what the product does. They also seem to like names with lots of ‘z’s’ and ‘x’s’ in them.
  • Pass the Sales Rep test: if, in introducing themselves, the sales reps have to either spell the name or can’t say it without wincing (too cute), go on to the next name.
  • Becoming a verb or common phrase (Google, Uber, Xerox, etc.) is ideal, but don’t get hung up on it. The market is going to make that call, not you.
  • Here’s one we recently heard: keep it to one word, 5-10 letters, with one of them making a hard sound. (Google, Honda, Apple, Exxon, Cisco, Mattel, etc.)
  • Remember mobile and email usages when choosing your finalists. This applies for the logo, especially.
  • Dictionaries are your friend, especially foreign dictionaries. One of our clients had a product that generated great insight into—and knowledge about—the network. The founder had a Yiddish dictionary: one of the words for ‘knowledge’ in Yiddish is ‘Kentik.’ A startup was born: Kentik.

Stuck coming up with a new name? Check out these five new name generators: Panabee, Naminum, NameMesh, NameBird, Wordoid


Posted On May 3rd, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Anatomy of a successful startup launch

Ask anyone in Silicon Valley and they’ve got a theory on how to launch a startup. Most of them revolve around the role of Marketing. emblemmatic-sales-based-marketing-logo-4Those who doubt the value or efficacy of Marketing cite the success of such startups as Slack, Atlassian and WhatsApp, who launched with limited investment in Marketing. But the other 95 need Marketing to grow their enterprise—click by click, demo by demo, free trial by free trial.

Having launched 42 startups, we’re often asked what are the ‘best practices’ in launching a company. So much depends on the market the startup is in as well as the company’s focus (B2B vs. B2C), but there are still some guidelines that apply across the spectrum:

  1. Launch with a cross-functional team. According to a feature in the latest Harvard Business Review, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. That stat caught our eye because the heart of every successful startup launch is the launch team—which by its very nature is cross-functional. That’s product, support, sales, marketing, and the CEO/founder coming together to introduce a new solution that solves a real pain point. The dependencies, tradeoffs and decisions that need to be made to meet the goals of launch can be made faster and more effectively with a cross-functional team.Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 2.18.07 PM
  1.  CEOs need to be on the team, but as players, not coaches. If you want your launch to happen fast and well, put your CEO or co-founder on the cross-functional launch team. Otherwise you’ll spend more time socializing options and hunting down decisions than on getting things done. But make it clear to the CEO and everyone else: the CEO is a member of the team, not the leader. That role is reserved for Marketing. The CEO’s job is to reinforce the goals, deadlines and accountability of the launch. When tough decisions need to be made, it’s the team’s job to make them, the CEO’s job to support and implement them.
  1.  Banish pixel polishing. Part of the Steve Jobs legacy is his famous/infamous attention to the details of Apple product design that bordered on obsession, a habit we call “pixel polishing.” Now Jonathan Ive and Elon Musk are celebrated for their same rabid focus on product details ; and while this pursuit of perfection may be admirable in established companies, it can be fatal to a startup. A startup team in launch mode doesn’t have the time or the money to afford pixel-polishing. Just say no to pixel polishing and yes to “Done is good.”Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 8.35.59 PM
  1. Beware nomadic board members. In a successful launch, board members should be heeded but not seen. Getting their input offline is both good business and good politics; but when we see board members ‘dropping in’ to the startup’s offices frequently prior to launch, it’s usually a red flag, a signal that the CEO is not strong enough to manage his board. In launch mode, feedback can be hugely valuable. But, it’s better to get feedback from early customers, not board members.
  1. Bring PR to the table early. There are two types of PR firms: ‘upstream’ strategic firms that have a seat at the big table in developing positioning and messaging and ‘downstream’ implementation firms. Startups should hire only upstream firms, then use their experienced outsider perspective to build a solid story that will attract attention and followers among media, analysts and industry influencers. Encouraging the team to challenge assumptions, build and test the message and advocate their point of view at the table.
  1. Build content early and often. Once positioning and messaging are established, start to work on the content. Launches are often delayed—once, even twice—due to product issues or customer feedback; but they should never be delayed because of lack of supporting content. You can never have enough content, so start developing—and reviewing—it the moment your positioning is finalized. Since iteration is a way of life in startup marketing, start drafting content early to hit your deadlines.
  1. Website UX trumps brand – if the founder starts talking about favorite brand colors and fonts, that’s another red flag. The most important thing for your launch website is designing the information architecture and content to drive conversions. Yes, design is integral to a successful site. Yes, building your brand is a process that starts with launch. But you need to focus on content and conversions first, or you’ll wander off into discussions of fonts and colors. See dangers of pixel polishing above.
  1. Anticipate—and prepare for–the trough. Before you launch, be sure to have a post-launch PR plan as well as two months of demand gen programs defined, funded and queued. Otherwise, you run the risk of allowing all of the visibility, brand awareness and site traffic from early adopters to vaporize. To leverage the blood, sweat and tears of launch and leverage early market momentum to build early sales, use smart planning to avoid the post-launch trough.

According to a CBInsights article, your startup has a 1.2 percent chance of becoming a unicorn (a private company valued at $1 billion or more). Even so, there are a record number (but shrinking) number of unicorns roaming the Valley today. Success in unicorn-land has a lot to do with vision, team, and timing, but it also depends upon strong marketing and a great launch.


Posted On April 27th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Crowded Ocean in Q2: 42nd launch; 12th exit


Posted On April 26th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

New startup terminology in April 2016

Re-shoring: when manufacturing jobs return from overseas (when they went “offshore”), it’s called re-shoring.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 10.47.06 AMCockroach startup: In a tough market, or in a challenging funding market for startups, there are startup teams that keep going forward in spite of changing environments, market conditions and investment scenarios. They live on, just like a cockroach.

An “Uber moment”: When an industry is forever disrupted by the onslaught of innovation from startups, it’s experiencing the same thing that happened to private taxi services worldwide when Lyft and Uber introduced their on-demand car services. Now, it is banks, under pressure from fintech startups, that have reached a tipping point of change causing them to reach an “Uber moment.”

Bubble-style returns: the current flood of corporate VC funds have helped to inflate startup valuations creating artificially high returns reminiscent of the so-called bubble (that later burst) in the late 1990s.

Posted On April 20th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Firing Your Employees (an acquired skill)

We’ve been interviewing venture capital partners and entrepreneurs for our soon-to-be-published book: “The Ultimate Startup Guide”. And, as we discuss what makes for a good leader, one component that comes up repeatedly is the ability to recognize a mistake early and take corrective action.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 8.07.10 AMWhen it comes to product development, most leaders grade out at an A or B+. They’re technologists by trade and can recognize errors early and accurately. And then, given their background and capabilities, they’re well-equipped to talk to the product team and develop an action plan to get things back on course.

That same decisiveness and quick action is often lacking on the employee side of the equation. Which is only natural: most of us are confrontation-averse, and technical founders (who are often naturally introverted) are probably the worst of the lot. But it’s the rare startup that doesn’t have at least one mistake (or bad fit) in its midst—usually more. And the leader who can recognize and take corrective action on this front is the kind of leader that VCs will back every time.

Posted On April 12th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Diversity in your startup: psychological diversity

A client of ours—one of the founders of a highly-successful startup and an engineer—told us that the way to recognize an extroverted engineer is that he’ll look at your shoes when talking to you, rather than his.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 9.01.45 AMWe love that joke, primarily because it’s got so much truth to it. Many of our startup founders are self-identified nerds, which means they’re naturally introverted. But they’re also outgoing and confident enough to be entrepreneurs. Which one of these—natural introversion or learned extroversion—carries the day goes a long way to determining what kind of leader they turn out to be.

There’s casual leadership (hosting the Friday check-ins with the employees) and then there’s packaging these leaders and taking them on the road (for meetings with press and analysts or with potential investors). The ideal scenario, if there are two technical founders, is for one of them (usually the CEO) to be more outgoing and charismatic, while the CTO can be anything he wants (as long as he delivers the product).

The same goes for the rest of the company: make sure there’s psychological diversity within your ranks. And where there isn’t, create environments, social and work, where the two types can become better acquainted, even work together. It will benefit the individuals and the company as a whole.





Posted On April 4th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

How Silicon Valley is fascinated with public failure

What industry tracks failure so intently and with as much fascination as the land of tech startups? The closest parallel may be the film industry with its cult of personality, big redeye failurebudgets, and high-risk concepts. Just as an Ishtar or Heavens Gate can haunt its participants for years, Silicon Valley (or Silicon Alley, Silicon Desert, etc.) loves to dissect, then revisit failures for years to come.

Consider these public tales of startup failure:


On top of that, there is a roster of so-called zombie startups that are a virtual watch list of upcoming failures. And for answers to the question of why startups fail, there are no less than 100 responses to that question from notable authorities (as well as opinionated bystanders) on the discussion site Quora.

lone survivorMaybe startup founders can turn to expensive private psychotherapy like failures do in Hollywood. But, again, there are public resources in Silicon Valley. To head off the conflicts between founders that can undermine the trust of employees that leads to failure, startup founders can turn to partnership therapy for co-founders. And then there’s a community website called The Startup Couch to offer resources to founders.

Many recruiters say they look for a history of failure in job applicants because mistakes are a sobering experience that can bring insights and maturity. Maybe making failure public is part of the same bias for iteration that drives product development and customer acquisition phases in startups. Whatever the reasons, the public confession of failure seems to be a way for startup founders to accelerate getting to lessons learned, incubating their next big idea and moving onto their next startup.

Photo credit: Pixel Addict via Visual hunt / CC BY

Photo credit: Panegyrics of Granovetter via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-SA

Posted On March 30th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Why startup founders demand “on demand”

This concept can go by multiple names: ‘just-in-time’; ‘kanban’ (Japanese for ‘just-in-time’;) and the more trendy ‘fluid’. Regardless of what you call it, it comes down to this: pay for only what you need, when you need it. It applies to startup Marketing, but increasingly, to all phases of the startup world.surveillance

When Tom started at Oracle, he was one of three members of the nascent Corporate Marketing department, writing all the company’s product literature, annual reports and ads. During his six-year tenure there, as the company exploded, he wound up as Sr. Director of Corporate Marketing, with a staff of 70 (running ORACLE Magazine, Oracle Open World, seminars, direct marketing, advertising, etc.) Think of the overhead and downtime associated with that many full-time employees—not to mention the lack of fresh thinking and skills. In today’s world, with so many great contractors out there and so many collaboration technologies, that department of 70 would be between 15 and 25, most of them managers sourcing and collaborating with outside contractors.

This is especially true of Marketing at today’s startups. With full-time talent both expensive and hard to find, founders should consider ‘on-demand’ not only for marketing programs but for virtually every part of your operation—from financial to coding to sales. In the course of our engagements with startups (usually from 3 months before they launch to three months afterward), we generally employ the following programs:

  • Corporate ID
  • Content writing (white papers, data sheets, case studies)
  • Public Relations
  • Website design and development
  • Event Marketing (trade shows, webinars, partner programs)
  • Demand generation
  • Sales and Marketing systems
  • Video production
  • Social Media

At best, in Phase 1 of your Marketing programs, in addition to an initial or interim CMO, your startup should have at most one full-time employee: a strong Marketing manager who can hire and manage all of the above contract services. As your startup moves into Phase 2 (Early Sales) you’ll need a second employee, someone strong in demand gen, web analytics and sales/marketing automation systems. That’s it. The rest should be on-demand.

The above logic applies not only to Marketing but to virtually every discipline within your startup. There are some obvious areas: no startup needs a full-time CFO or legal counsel, but in the eight years that Crowded Ocean has been operating, we’ve seen even the ultimate in-house, full-time positions—coding and Sales—going on-demand.

There is definitely a logic and benefit of having a number of full-time employees, but in today’s environment the bias should be to justify every full-time position rather than assume each role in the company is a full-time one.