Our Blog

Posted On July 22nd, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

When more is not better in startup marketing

The advent of new website development tools means that we are seeing new sites that trick out in ways that previous sites could never match. These are interesting developments in website design for startups moving from stealth to launch.

moreBut the question we ask is: are more tricks really better?

What about more scrolling? When the web page requires scrolling and scrolling (or if you’re on a mobile version, that’s flicks and flicks), we’re asking why? We’re simply not fans but we see it everywhere.

What about animations? If you can animate the banner of your home page with a GIF, we ask why? If you can animate your home page with video, we ask why? The key question is: does it drive more clicks, page views and downloads?

What about rotations and feeds on your website? The rule of thumb is usually no more than one or two because more than two rotations or feeds creates visual movement that often proves distracting to the site visitor. The Platfora site seems to rewrite the rules there – we see five separate movements on their home page – twitterstream, news stream, blog feed, customer logo tickertape, and rotating customer quotes.

When we ask our startup clients about their brand and how they want to bring that to life on their website, we often caution against the dangers of “more.” When it comes to tricking out on their new website design, we ask our startups to begin by answering the simple question “why?” and we go from there.


Posted On July 14th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

For success in startup marketing – get a toolkit

Thank you, Tech Cocktail for sweetly summarizing the new book for building successful startups: Disciplined Entrepreneurship.

strategyThe book describes 24 distinct and systematic steps to building and growing a startup. Author Bill Aulet, the serial entrepreneur and MIT Sloan Business School lecturer who teaches entrepreneurship, comments that based upon his years of teaching, he has learned that rather than coming up with a “single tool” approach to building a startup, entrepreneurs need a “toolbox.”

We think that same idea applies to startup marketing.

In our experience, particularly in the early days of a young company, it’s impossible for the marketing lead or team to command all of the marketing disciplines that are needed. The range of marketing specialties required in the “marketing toolkit” for a startup includes written and video content, web design, development, PR, social, mobile, SEM and so on  – all designed to maximize inbound traffic, conversions, and customer acquisition and, of course, to shorten time to revenue.

In our book, the best way for a startup to leverage the necessary marketing toolkit is by using a startup marketing agency (or perhaps an experienced rent-a-VP) who can:

  • Bring an ecosystem of marketing resources with the right industry/domain expertise
  • Pay for what your startup needs, and only when you need it
  • Minimize fixed headcount expenses for maximum flexibility
  • Pilot new marketing programs with a “best practices” orientation
  • Sequence, test, and iterate to figure out what works

Whatever you call it, our take is that startup marketing is too important, too complex and too fluid for startups not to embrace the need for a toolkit approach.

Posted On July 9th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Does Your Startup Have an Upstream or a Downstream PR Agency?

Over the course of our careers, both as VPs of Marketing and with Crowded Ocean, we’ve worked with over 30 PR agencies. And while it’s sometimes difficult—and unwise—to do broad groupings, we’ve found that agencies seem to fall into two groups:  those that are upstream of the client and those that are downstream.

startup culture

Downstream agencies are easy to identify. They are implementers. There’s nothing negative about that description, it’s just their modus operandi. They believe that the client knows the industry better than they do, so they wait for the ideas and campaigns to flow, then they do their best to implement.

That model may work for larger companies, but startups need ‘upstream’ agencies. These agencies take their place at the big table of ideas, often taking the lead. They take a backseat to no one in terms of PR program priorities, effective strategies and how to win “hearts and minds” among the critical influencers that will shape your brand and buyer preferences.

So when evaluating your first PR partner, we tell startup leaders to ask your prospective PR partner for both their philosophy (and understanding of their role) as well as concrete examples of how they’ve generated original campaigns that yielded tangible and measurable results.

Posted On July 1st, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

3 diseases your startup team may suffer from

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 7.45.26 AMThe Snowden Effect – small anomalies in employee behavior are a tip off to organizations that they may be suffering a computer breach from within. The “Snowden effect” is infecting IT and security teams and helping to compel organizations to invest in more cybersecurity strategies to secure their sensitive information.

Surveillant Anxiety – the fear that all of the big data that each of us is creating, seemingly every day, is too intimate a “paper trail” of our private lives and at the same time not truly representative of who we really are.

Stockholm Syndrome – included in its platform strategy, Apple says it intends to offer its customers a unified experience across all devices – from iPhone to iPad to desktop. Critics and industry watchers claim that customers are so enamored of the Apple experience, including non-essential features in the bells and whistles category, that Apple are essentially holding their customers hostage with promises of a better future.


Posted On June 24th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

How a “buddy system” can help build your startup

In the crucial early days of building a startup, there are three things in very short supply for your team: sleep, weekends, and hours in the day.

Looking for ways to stretch precious resources is a daily challenge. That’s why we recommend a “buddy system” for divvying up the responsibilities in tracking two vital constituencies.insight

First, track the enemy. It’s rare that a startup has no established competitors that it is trying to displace with a new approach.  Say, you’ve got three known competitors. We recommend recruiting three employees (these could be your co-founders as well) and assign one competitor to each. The assignment is more than tuning their “Google Alert” to “Competitor A.” It’s following them on social channels. It’s attending their webinars. It’s collecting their sales collateral. If there’s a free download offered by that competitor,, become a customer. The key is to ask that employee to collect and then share their expertise, insights, findings on a regular basis at internal company meetings. The discussion that this kind of sharing triggers can be very illuminating. And, the sharing spreads the knowledge and teaches your team to balance a focus on internal development milestones with an eye on the market. It also eliminates the hubris that we often encounter with our startups, that ‘we have no competition.’

Second, track the influencers. Just like having a buddy system for your top competitors, we recommend having one for the key influencers. Inevitably, that will include market analysts like Gartner, Forrester, IDC and more. Sometimes, there will be a lot of influencers/analysts because your disruptive solution is so new that it doesn’t fit the status quo of market categories followed by a single analyst at a firm. Sometimes, the influencers in your market will include customers or bloggers. To get smart on who these people are, the language they use and perhaps even their biases, we recommend recruiting employees on your team to follow the influencers and report on their insights internally for the rest of your team.

Adopting a buddy system for tracking competitors and influencers will help stretch your precious resources and also build the knowledge of your entire team.


Posted On June 16th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

How to hire for your startup when the pickings are few

The cover story of the June 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.

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 June 10th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

How to feed your startup customers with snackables

Sometimes getting a big idea across in this noisy world requires serving up small bites. Call it “snackable content.”

Is your customer on Ritalin?

We advise startup clients to assume your audience has an attention disorder, Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 11.49.26 AMor said another way, assume they are reading your email in a meeting or in line at Starbucks. In other words, you really do not have the full attention of your customer.

So to reach your target, it’s best to make your content short, to the point, memorable and shareable.

Don’t forget the power of subheads, images and well-captioned graphics to hook your audience or at least to appeal to those targets who might scan copy but won’t read it.

While we don’t see a lot of B2B solutions make use of super-short 6-second Vine videos or 140-character tweets to communicate their value proposition, we do see savvy B2B startups leverage social channels like Twitter and Tumblr with bite-size content that bolsters their brand. The idea is quick hits of information packaged well for easy consumption.

How to make it bite-size

Here’s an article that explains more on snackable content

And don’t forget snackable images. Infographics that are bite-size and highly shareable are explained in more detail here.

Posted On June 6th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

In startup marketing, can you take sales personas too far?

We practice ‘Sales-Based Marketing’, which means everything is about Sales. Which also means everything is about the customer. So we’re huge fans of ‘knowing your customer.’

sales personaIn the early days of a startup, that often means taking what you’ve learned from the ‘friends and families’ stage of selling and applying that knowledge to shape and target your next set of customer targets. It also means incorporating feedback from early customers into iterations of the product features. This is textbook best-practices to building a company because the needs and problems of early advocates will often transfer to the more general audience.

What we’ve never gotten is the establishing of detailed Sales Personas and posting them around the office. These ‘personas’ are great up until a point: we want to know what their job title is, their role within the company, their skill sets, who they report to, and especially what are their needs and problems are. But for startup marketing, with lean marketing resources that are almost entirely dedicated to customer development in those crucial early days, we don’t get it when the Sales folks—or a consultant—details the Sales Personas to include what kind of car they drive, their favorite coffee, and marital status.

Again, the customer is king. And speculating or generalizing customers in a company’s early stages is often necessary. But only to a point.

Posted On May 28th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Frenemies and enemies – which one does your startup need?

A term that crops up more and more with startup clients recently is ‘frenemies.’ As in: ‘we can’t take these guys on—they are both “friend”(in the ecosystem of inter-dependent partner, customer, channel) and an “enemy” (or a direct competitor.)

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 6.55.30 PMWhile we understand the concept, we also think it’s a nuance that many startups can’t afford.

Sometimes  when a startup with a new approach launches, it’s tough for prospective customers to understand what you’re all about at first glance. But if your startup is  taking on an established player in the market, that direct comparison with an established “enemy” can go a long way to helping quickly communicate your startup’s value proposition.

If you can find another enemy than the one you’re in ‘co-opetition’ (another word that is dangerous for startups) with, then go there. In other words, there’s real value in having an “enemy.”

In fact, there are a number of internal and external advantages for your team to having a designated enemy. We’ve written about them here.

Posted On May 19th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Fast and furious content for your startup

This NYT feature entitled Writing in a Nonstop World, reminded us that content development in startup marketing is fast, furious and almost never done. Here are a few tips that we like to share with our startup clients:

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 6.11.35 PMSubheads tell their own story – In today’s ADHD world, the 10-15 page white paper is a thing of the past. Even blogs are getting shorter. (most industry pundits recommend 500 words, though we often see blogs closer to 300, like this post.). Which means that subheads have to do more of the work, both in orienting the reader and boosting your site’s SEO.

Most of us don’t read, we scan  –We recommend organizing your content into small paragraphs with subheads that work hard to deliver or reinforce the key takeaway of the copy below. The visual presentation of a series of short paragraphs is far more inviting that one large block of text. And each short paragraph gives you the opportunity to insert a subhead. We like to see a string of subheads that, when read together, are able to tell their own story. In other words, assume your audience scans, so be sure to give them takeaways in your choice of subheads.

Headlines matter more than ever – This article analyzes what words and phrases used in headlines can increase the viralty of your content. You can make your content even stronger with a well-crafted headline that grabs your reader. And for startups that are comfortable exhibiting a bit of an attitude or “cheek” in their content, headlines can be a great way to grab the reader and connect with them in a tone that reinforces your brand.

Great visuals propel content – Strong icons, diagrams and visual support can boost the consumption of your content. (Even on Twitter – check out this article on virality of content.) We recommend that startups be sure to include in their content plan the resources to ensure that your visual support can strongly build content and reinforce your brand.