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Posted On February 2nd, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Making the transition from individual contributor to manager

If you’ve been to ORACLE World in the past fifteen years, you’ve been one of 50,000 attendees at one of the industry’s largest and most influential events. But events like OOW don’t just spring up—they evolve.

light ideaI was reminiscing the other night with someone who had worked with me at Oracle at the inception of OOW. Back then it was called ‘International Oracle User Week’ and all 400 attendees and exhibits could fit into the Washington Hilton. Five years the event had exploded, been renamed, and we were signing a long-term contract with Moscone Center in San Francisco.

One of the biggest challenges for both of us, as the event grew, was how to move from being an individual contributor—where getting the job done fell directly on us—to a manager, where we achieved through the efforts of others. The formula was simple: take what you know, impart it to others, then let them do their jobs.

That’s the formula. The reality is this: most likely, since you’re the expert, you could do the job better than they could. And, depending on the importance of the task, you’re going to be tempted to move them aside at the last minute and complete the task yourself. But unless the issue at hand is a company game-saver, don’t. You’re not only projecting a sense of distrust but, unless you want to be stuck as an individual contributor forever, you’re going to have to do the same thing over—this time with a disgruntled employee.

Our advice? At the danger of being seen to be micro-managing, check in early and often—until you’re confident that the task is in hand. Set smaller, incremental goals that can alert you earlier than usual when a task might be going awry.

Most importantly, encourage the employee at each step and congratulate them at the conclusion. And recognize that, just as they’re stepping up to learn a new skill, so are you.


Posted On January 27th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Startup Hiring: the declining status of the GPA

In its earliest days Oracle was a very elitist place to work. Its workforce was determinedly young (average age: 24 in 1990) and was generally recruited from a very small number of schools: Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon—with a few outliers). And, of course, GPAs figured prominently into the hiring decision.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 11.29.29 AMFast forward to today. I was talking to an Oracle VP the other day and she was telling me that her new department had six programmers—two with Ivy degrees, two with degrees from UC and two who had only graduated high school and who had gone directly into programming.

Earlier this month, I wound up at a fundraiser with a Gartner analyst and the conversation came to the makeup of his department. He said that he didn’t even check GPA—most of the time he didn’t even check what school they attended. The two things that mattered were:

  1. that they had attended a university; and
  2. what they had done since graduation. In other words, accomplishment post-graduation trumped accomplishment pre-graduation.

In the old world there was a hierarchy: in this area, the people who went to community college wound up working for the people who went to a state school, who wound up working for the folks who went to Stanford (maybe Santa Clara). Silicon Valley—with its legion of unschooled developers (and role models like college dropouts Bill Gates and Steve Jobs)—is giving startup entrepreneurs a new hiring model: quite simply, can they do the job? That’s all that matters.

Posted On January 20th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

It’s not just websites that are going mobile

mobileIn developing our clients’ initial websites, our initial caution used to be: “Don’t forget about Mobile”—meaning that whatever we designed also had to work on a mobile phone or tablet. These days, though, the guideline is: “Mobile first.”

In 2015, search on mobile devices surpassed search on desktop. In addition, mobile commerce and mobile advertising are exploding and accelerating and are predicted to overtake desktop spend. And yet, one in four websites has not yet been designed for mobile. Enterprise marketers need to take note.

And while sales of Apple mobile devices are a juggernaut, enterprises need to build mobile sites that are optimized for multiple device types and browsers. (Personally, we’d love for the world to consolidate on just one or two dominant browsers like Chrome and Safari, but it’s not that simple. Yet.)

It’s not just websites that need to be designed for mobile, but content and conversions. Video, for example, needs to be mobile-first. In 2015, online viewers watched more video on mobile devices than on desktops and laptops combined.

We advise our clients to focus on creating content that be consumed on mobile devices and, most important, can be easily shared. We remind our clients that users on mobile are two times more likely to share content than those on a desktop. That means content like blogs need to be built for sharing in order to support customer acquisition.

And because we know it bears repeating, being mobile-first also means investing in A/B testing to optimize offers and design elements of our website and content. And it means using data from your marketing automation and CRM systems to measure results.

Posted On January 13th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

New Words in Startup-land: the January 2016 edition

Live GIF-ing – these new soundbites are mini, sound-free, Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) recordings that are showing up all over Twitter. Coverage of events (like the GOP debates) include coverage via live GIFing.

thinking planning strategyBlind hiring – some companies are advocating “blind hiring” as a technique for building diversity in their teams. The idea is to eliminate a focus on a job applicant’s prior work experience at brand-name employers or education at marquee-name universities in order to focus on talent and experience.

Universal basic income – prominent VC partners like John Lilly of Greylock and Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures are advocating that all citizens should receive cash grants as an alternative to welfare programs and to foster a more gender-equal society.


Posted On January 7th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Just say no to branding–a rant for startups

No enterprise startup should be spending a dime on defining their “brand essence” before achieving beta product and/or Series B funding. It’s money, time—and management bandwidth—better spent hiring and getting the product right. And part of that process is focusing outward—on the user—rather than inward navel-gazing.

UXDefining and creating the ultimate user experience will play a greater role in your long-term success than trying to define your brand essence up front. In fact, the growing importance of design is evidenced in Silicon Valley in everything from celebrated VC firm KPCB adding a design partner to the juggernaut of the Stanford D School .

Let your brand evolve organically

But that’s different than visual identity and logo. If a startup’s focus on “brand” (not UX) extends to investing in the development of “brand guidelines,” or the publishing of a media kit or, generally speaking, to any investment in pixel polishing to get the logo mark “just right,” we sound an alarm.

Brand definition is important but it is evolving in the formative days of a startup. When we see a young startup team placing a lot of emphasis, time and money on the visual identity of their brand, we gently recommend that they reset and refocus much of that energy on customer and product. The brand guidelines for your logo can wait.


Posted On December 29th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

3 warning signs of a struggling startup

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

go-leftLaunch 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.


Posted On December 21st, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Content, Customers, Competition, Conversions: a mantra for startups

As we work with startups that are preparing to launch and that are, by definition, strapped for time, talent and resources, we find ourselves turning to the mantra of the four C’s: content, customers, competition and conversions. Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 9.16.24 AMThese four priorities should dominate the focus of your startup marketing team as you prepare to launch:

Content – It’s a rule of thumb in B2B startup marketing that there is never enough good content to tell your story. For written (not rich media) content, that means well-crafted, easily accessible, visually-rich content that drives your message home for your different targets (buyer, partner, analyst, etc.) and moves them through the sales cycle. That’s why we urge every client to start as early as possible to lay out a plan for content so that there is ample time to write, edit and review your content and to ensure that every piece is designed to move a prospect to the next stage in the sales process.

Planning for more time, somewhat conversely, also allows for your content to “gel” so that they can be shorter, pithier and more substantive. And more time will allow your content team to plan for ways to repurpose, say, that 5- to 7-page white paper into blog posts, contributed articles, and perhaps newsletter copy.

Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 8.43.48 PMWhen it comes to creating a new website for launch, we know from experience that it’s almost always the content that lags, not the design or coding. That’s why we recommend you start your content development early.

Customers – It should almost go without saying that the customer needs to be front and center as a startup team prepares to launch. Customers are essential public validation (as logos on your website, quotes for the media, case studies for sales) for market launch that are almost always a prerequisite for launch. To make that customer focus a reality, the Chief Revenue Officer is involved in our launch planning and deliverables from day one.

Competition – Every startup preparing to launch benefits from having an enemy. Having a clear competitor gives your team a target to focus on and it helps to force your team to shift its aim from the internal development and early support issues to external customer development and sales. We recommend assigning someone on your team to study and monitor your competition and to regularly report on their progress to the rest of the startup to help your team be externally focused on sales growth and customer satisfaction.

Conversions – When preparing to launch your startup, it can be an endless distraction for a startup team to dive into logo design, taglines, and other elements of brand, especially the website. It’s a common wasteful detour for a startup team designing their launch website to engage in what we like to call “pixel polishing.” That’s why we steer our clients to think about conversions instead. What is the path through the site for your target prospect? At every step through the site, what action do you want your target to take? What content do you have to move your target through the sales process? In other words, how do you convert a website visitor into a sales prospect as quickly as possible.

If your team is preparing to launch, repeat after us: content, customers, competition and conversions.



Posted On December 16th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Can you really take time off from your startup?

Vacation time for most of our startups are like those ‘honor snack bars’ you find just off the lobby in a number of hotels. Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 11.45.29 AMYou grab your soft drink and package of Lorna Doone’s and put in $2.00. Of course there’s always the schmuck who cleans the place out without leaving a dime, but those are the extreme rarity, making it overall cost-effective for these establishments not to have to staff a snack shop or trouble their front-desk staff with such small transactions.

Honor system?

A growing number of startups—either for recruiting purposes or as part of a general overall focus on the mental health of their employees—are opting for a similar approach to vacation time: take it when you need it, no one’s keeping track. They adopt this policy knowing that their employees—like the hotel snack aficionados—won’t abuse the system.

Startups, by their nature, are tight and inter-dependent, which means that, in the case of time away from the tasks at hand, they are also self-policing. So our advice to our startup is: have an ‘as-needed’ or honor vacation system for the first few years—or until you notice someone cleaning out all the Lorna Doones without paying.

Posted On December 8th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Does your startup team have momentum?

The current winning streak of the Golden State Warriors is just so fun to watch. Even business publications are talking about the team’s “hot hands” and momentum this NBA season. Just like a sports team, when a startup has momentum, you can almost feel it. Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 8.44.45 PMHere are some of the signs of a startup on a roll that we also love to watch:

  • The team generally knows each other so well that they are speaking shorthand. That usually means fewer meetings, more hallway interactions and swift decision-making. (NOTE: this means you’d better be on site because things are moving so fast that you’ll be out of step if you’re working remotely.) Decisions are made without a lot of visible process or deliberation. In other words, you just get stuff done.momentum
  • There is trust across the team that when someone says they are going to deliver on a deadline (later that night…or first thing in the morning…it gets done.)
  • Everyone knows who on the team is delivering. And because of that, “credit” does not seem to need to be formally granted for a job well done. It’s recognized and celebrated all along the way.
  • Everyone on the team knows who the customers are. Their logos may be on the wall. Or, they may be the destination for a special feature in the next code release. Regardless, the customers are almost always front and center for a startup team with momentum.
  • And, even when mistakes are made, they don’t seem to hurt that much. A team on a roll is making a lot happen and so, even with a mis-fire, the team just keeps going, learning from missteps, and staying focused on the goal.

It’s hard to say anything that hasn’t already been said about the stellar performance of the NBA MVP Steph Curry and his leadership of the Warriors team. And there are no shortage of results from the rest of team – a model for every startup! May the streak continue.


Posted On December 1st, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Launching a startup: it’s a 4-month journey

We’re in the midst of launching our 41st startup, and inevitably the question comes up about both budget and schedule. Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 8.35.59 PMOur answer is usually not what our clients want to hear: that a launch, done right, takes three months minimum, four months normally.

The first month is spent establishing and codifying the core positioning and messaging. (NOTE: this may sound like we’re padding the schedule, but we find that most of our clients have never truly articulated their core messaging, and that this process takes a good month. But it saves a good two months of rework.)

The second month is all about Content: designing and writing the website and the white papers. A good video (we typically prepare at least two—an animated demo and a series of interviews with founders and early customers) will take six to eight weeks to produce. And don’t forget customer case studies, use cases and data sheets.

The third month is about finishing Content and preparing the PR plan. This includes test-driving the messaging from Month 1 with analysts and key influencers, then baking this into finished decks that again get tested with core audiences.

The fourth month is not just about the launch but leveraging the launch into initial sales—moving from Friends and Family to true outbound efforts that hopefully leverage the coverage that the launch generates to build inbound traffic. This will also include getting up and running on basic sales and marketing software, such as Salesforce and Marketo or Hubspot.

So there it is: four months. We’ve done it in less and are sure we’ll do it again. But the startup clients that we work with on these abbreviated schedules always tell us afterwards that they wish they’d planned for—and budgeted for—that extra month.