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Posted On January 26th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Lessons learned – Crowded Ocean’s latest startup marketing workshop

riversideworkshopThanks to the entrepreneurs from the InSoCal startup incubator who attended our startup marketing workshop last week. We spoke to a crowd of about 40 startup founders. The title of our talk: Scars and Bruises – Startup Myths and Best Practices.

Here are some of our takeaways from the workshop:

We speak jargon too. Even basic business shorthand like ROI, POC and TCO can be confusing. And when we get going, some of our basic marketing terminology like SEO, inbound traffic, and sales funnels needs to be explained to small business owners and tech entrepreneurs. We’re in the bubble in Silicon Valley. Sometimes we forget.

hoganpreparesFounders don’t always get PR. We were pleased to have Joanna Kulesa and Danielle Salvato-Earl from the Kulesa Faul PR agency join us as speakers. Some of the basic PR strategies of briefing the media under embargo and news-jacking were unfamiliar concepts to the audience. But Joanna and Danielle did a great job explaining how startups can leverage PR and answering questions.

Success stories are better with numbers. When we say that we are no longer in the age of “trust me” marketing and that it’s all about being data-driven, it would be helpful to back up our own best practices with metrics. We like to preach: “what gets measured gets funded.” But we’re like the cobbler’s kids. After we have launched a startup client, we move quickly to their next priority. That means tracking metrics like site visits, page views and lead captures on our client’s site or at their first public tradeshow showcase can get lost to history. We need to track those better.

Powerpoint will never die. We trimmed the number of words on our presentation slides and we trimmed the overall number of slides before we spoke. But, again, we were surprised by how many people still wanted a copy of our slides. We kept the presentation conversational. And we used more images than words on slides. But people still like to have their own copy of speaker slides. Go figure.


Posted On January 19th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

New entrants in startup marketing “Bullshit Bingo”

We love to track how the jargon factory that is Silicon Valley churns out new terms and catch-phrases that are quickly adopted (and satirized) by industry watchers and pundits (Colbert, we will miss you.)

Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 9.33.38 AMAnd since it’s that time of year when everyone likes to make predictions, we thought we’d take a shot at identifying terms that in 2015 may be headed to the trash heap of overused terms (think: “compelling”).

Disrupt – When a startup claims to be “disrupting” the mayonnaise market with a new plant-based product, we know that we’ve got a term that’s a new entrant in the land of bullshit bingo. Congrats to startup team Hampton Creek on their funding, growth and vision. But, really, let’s not call your vegan mayonnaise disruptive.

Industry-leading – Do we need to explain why this is on the list? What’s surprising is that it will not die.

Mission-critical – We’ve declared this one as officially dead long ago, but it’s a zombie term that keeps coming back. It’s a trusty phrase for bullshit bingo play.

Agile – Despite the fact that agile software development is a legitimate business practice, the term “agile” has become hackneyed. Proof is that it’s got it’s own bullshit bingo play here.

Let the best bullshitter win. Play on.

Posted On January 12th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Why Social Media Fails for Startups

According to the Buddhist proverb:

If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking.

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 8.22.54 AMWhen it comes to social media, that elegant quote rings true. Many of our startup clients that have made the decision to invest in social media, and they have wisely pared their social media targets to a manageable two or three…say LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.

But for a startup to be successful on social media, you also need ownership and tops-down support directly from the CEO or co-founders. That is a critical step not to be overlooked. Your startup may have a community manager “owning” the channels. Or your startup may have your PR firm temporarily at the social media helm in the very early days. But if the CEO, or your leadership team doesn’t invest time and attention, your social media program doomed.

And it takes time. And that’s the point. We tell clients that to reap the real benefits of social media, you must invest consistently and let time and repetition pay off for you. Instead of thinking in terms of three to six months, think 12 to 18 months.

If your startup has identified the channels that will connect your startup to your key audiences and you can provide relevant content on a regular basis, you’ll collect the followers, friends, fans and connections you value. Over time, that will translate into creating a community that can become an important forum for influencing buying decisions, a sounding board for shaping opinion, a place to seek out feedback on product features that will help build your reputation and, over time, leadership in your market space.

Channels like Twitter can be a valuable source of new business for consumer and enterprise startups. But it won’t work if your leadership doesn’t jump on and stay on the social media bandwagon.

Posted On January 6th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Refrigerators and startups

Everyone knows about the stocked refrigerators and bring-in lunches that are the hallmark of the startup world. And the same ‘everyone’ knows that it’s not generosity but productivity that is the driving force behind these stocked items.Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 9.29.58 AM

Recently we’re seeing an alarming trend in these refrigerators: healthy items. Red Bulls and diet Cokes are having to share space with flavored waters and vegetable juices. Caffeine and MSG are no longer the mother’s milk of the startup world.

It took us a while to figure it out, but now we—and the VCs we counsel—look at the refrigerators as we’re evaluating a company and its prospects. Our take: the ones with the healthy foods are in it for the long haul—the IPO. The Red Bulls are looking to be acquired.

Posted On December 8th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Berlitz Lesson #6 – how to speak startup marketing

GAFA – it’s an acronym for the four mighty horsemen of tech – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. The acronym is taking hold in Europe as the pundits and lawmakers there bemoan the global dominance of these tech giants.

Phubbing – that’s snubbing someone in a social context by inappropriately favoring your mobile or tablet for the human you’re meeting with.

Solopreneur – this mash-up of “solo” and “entrepreneur” started showing up last year to refer to a business owner or startup founder going it alone.

Air-gapped – a computer that is not physically connected to the Internet via a network or via another computer connected to the Internet is called air-gapped and is considered more secure than other computers.

Posted On December 1st, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Revisiting the mission statement for startups

Recently, with Google in the news, answering the question of whether it’s time to revise their mission statement: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, we’re asked by our startup clients whether they need a mission statement.

ideasAnd our answer is always the same: you need a Vision Statement, perhaps even an Operational Statement. But leave the Mission Statement for when you’ve got a significant market presence for other companies to be asking ‘what do you stand for?’

Let’s look at the role of each statement:

The Vision Statement should be bold and broad—and if you’re posting something on your walls, this is the one: (Example: “To change the way enterprises store, access and analyze Big Data”) Ideally, it’s targeted at 3 audiences:

  • analysts/press (why should I follow you guys);
  • customers (why should I buy from you); and
  • potential employees (why should I join you).

The Operational Statement (not the Mission Statement) is what a startup should review in its monthly updates with employees. It should be tight and measurable:

  • By the end of 2016 we will have over 40 customers with an ASP of over $100,000.
  • We will have 10% market share by….

The idea behind the Operational Statement is simple: if an employee isn’t engaged in activities that help accomplish those Operational goals, you need to either change the employee’s job or change the Operational Statement.

So you can see that both the Vision and Operational Statements have a bottom-line role. Focus on these and leave the Mission Statement for when someone outside your company cares enough about you to ask for one.

Posted On November 25th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Startups: The danger of speaking shorthand

When we do positioning and messaging workshops with our founders and their core teams, we’re always struck by how much they know about their technology and how little thought they’ve put into articulating it for the customer and market.Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 2.45.05 PM

There’s an old movie where two friends are so close that she says to him: “I’ll meet you at that place where we saw that thing a while back.” And he says: “Okay. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

That’s what most of our founders are like: they’ve been together so long and have been working so intensely that they’ve developed a shorthand for their approach and terminology. Which is great for productivity as long as they’re on the same page. Where it starts to fall apart is when you use the same shorthand in tangibles, such as sales presentations and white papers.

At that point we often find out how much the two (or more) founders differ in their understanding of key terminology and their role in the core capabilities of the technology. Terms such as ‘parallel’ or ‘cloud-based’ (vs. ‘cloud-centric’) turn out to mean different things to different people. And while those different interpretations may not have hurt the development of the core product, they’ll hurt the sales effort by confusing the sales team and potential customers and partners.

So the lesson is: when you start moving out of stealth, make sure, messaging-wise and terminology-wise, everyone is on the same page.

Posted On November 17th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

What’s the BFD in Startup Marketing?

At Crowded Ocean, we’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of ‘game-changing’ startups. Looking back at them, we’re struck by how unaware most of the founders were about the impact their technology might have.Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 8.28.31 AM

At first we thought it was modesty, but actually what we have learned is that startup founders are often so wrapped up in the technology and building the product that they haven’t really spent much time discussing the larger business/market implications of their creation.

Which means that our job is to get our startup clients to think as Big (within reason) as possible. Our ally in this effort is often the investors, but even there we find that VC partners, often technologists themselves, often ‘got’ what these founders were all about (and the market implications) but, again, couldn’t fully articulate the game-changing nature of their investment.

So now, at the start of any startup marketing engagement—as we’re preparing for our Positioning/Messaging workshop—an initial homework assignment to the founders is for them to answer this question: “What’s the BFD (Big Fucking Deal) about what you guys are up to, anyway?” Nine times out of ten they come up blank or mouth some technical platitudes. We then revisit that question over the next three sessions, until we’re all happy with the answer. And the founders are usually stunned at how different their final answer is from what they started with.


Posted On November 11th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

How to stay small – startup marketing in reverse

We’re on the ground in Silicon Valley. We’re not reading term sheets or balance sheets of our startup clients. We don’t have insight into a startup’s burn rate. But we see different kinds of warning signs when we work with early-stage companiesScreen Shot 2014-11-11 at 1.52.22 PM that we’d like to flag right now:

  • Cubicles for everyone: People marvel that Steve Jobs cared so much about office design and purposefully created work environments that fostered easy interaction between different groups. But, he also gave his people offices because serious thought and serious conversation or confidential conversation requires privacy and quiet. When we see too many senior execs of a startup regularly heading to the parking lot to conduct important phone calls, you’ve got to ask why universal cubicles are a good thing.
  • DIY PR : Yes, we’ve seen amazing news coverage created by media-savvy tech execs. But they are a rarity. And what didn’t get done while that exec was chasing the reporters? If you have a lean team, that means that at a critical juncture in the growth of your startup, you’re going to have to bring in the pros and invest in a full PR program to put your rocket startup into orbit. In other words, ask yourself how many jobs you can seriously do well and whether you want to trust the importance of your media and analyst relations to one of your over-worked execs.
  • Make bullshit bingo a company sport: Is everything ‘compelling’? Do you worry about what ‘resonates’? Is your voice authentic? Are rhetorical questions and jargon wearing you out? As the new book Sense of Style by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker reminds us, simple language can be a powerful tool for effective communication and marketing. And we think that really applies to buzzword-laden startups.
  • Put mission statements on the wall: Forget the bromide ‘mission statements’ that speak to corporate values or goals of being ‘the best goshdarn_____ in the industry.’ Instead, we like vision statements because that’s where a team is going and a vision statement usually communicates to an investor and to an early customer that a startup team can see a bigger picture. A startup may enter the market with a tool or a point-solution but startups that see and communicate a consistent vision to solving a bigger problem for customers are startups to watch and invest in.

Posted On November 4th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Startup Marketing: making ‘buzz’ happen

The idea of ‘buzz’ is a topic with some of our startup clients—how to get it, how to maintain it. We tell our clients to look at the entertainment business—movies, specifically. There are perennial stars, who the public is interested in even when they don’t have a movie to promote. Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 8.03.49 PMAnd then there are the ones you don’t hear from—even if they’ve got a great publicist—until they’re back in the public eye.

Take ‘Gone Girl’, which debuted last month. Ben Affleck is a perennial. Rosamund Pike, who critics are saying is an ‘undiscovered gem, wasted in her previous efforts’, could be either today’s flavor or tomorrow’s perennial.

Startups—especially at launch—are like Rosamund Pike: in the hands of a good PR firm their story translates analyst interest, media coverage, and early sales. So, naturally, they think they’re Ben Affleck. Wrong. Once the buzz dies down from the launch, it’s as much their job as the PR firm’s to create the next round of interest. And it can’t come from product releases alone (they’re too infrequent and not always that newsworthy). It comes from finding topics that they can speak, write and blog about—topics interesting enough to keep them in the public eye. It comes from becoming so expert in their area that they become a go-to source for journalists in their area.

And it means translating a company’s expertise into compelling commentary that reinforce their reputation. And it also comes from the basics of being available, credible, knowledgeable and responsive to the press when they call. Time and again, we’ve seen startup CEOs who are spread too thin and who are just too busy to respond patiently to a media inquiry. As the adage goes, you are investing in a relationship with the media, and that requires being available when they call.

In short, startup buzz is a manufactured process: it’s the PR firm’s job to manufacture it, but it’s the startup’s job to provide the raw materials. And before you decide you want to be the Ben Affleck of your industry, remember “Bennifer” and “Gigli”.