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Posted On November 24th, 2015 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.

tipsHere 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 the team helps welcome and acclimate a new employee is 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 used a weekly all-hands meeting over lunch to evangelize the company blog. The internal blog champion with overall responsibility for maintaining the blog shared a calendar of proposed topics and authors online so it was easy to see the pipeline. By using the lunch meeting to review the blog schedule, however, it was 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 was a lot easier to make content marketing through the blog a priority for the entire team.

Posted On November 16th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

New terms in startup-land: Nov 2015 edition

Cord-nevers – an amazing 18% of the US population have never subscribed to paid TV. They are native computer consumers of premium content.Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 8.28.27 AM

Princess manufacturing complex – celebrated investor Chris Sacca railed against the lack of women and minorities in tech recently and described the environment in which young girls are raised as a “princess manufacturing complex” that we all need to change.

Care-abouts – the value proposition that hits home with a startup’s target customer addresses their needs and what they care about, aka their “care-abouts”

Bio-hacking – tweak your diet and exercise routines to yield the optimal you.


Posted On November 11th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

LIFO Marketing is Bad News in Startup Marketing

When we do our Positioning/Content/Launch workshop, a core part of that program is building the core sales and analysts decks for our startup clients. Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 8.37.04 PMMost of the time that means coming up with fresh terminology and concepts that are not only new to the market, they may be new to our clients as well (since we jointly developed them during the workshop). So the next step is testing those concepts and nomenclature and seeing if we’re on the right track.

Here’s where the idea of LIFO comes into play. The term comes from Inventory Control and how to rotate stock: “Last In, First Out”. Which makes all the sense with inventory—especially perishables—but not with Marketing. Case in point: the sales guy goes out with the new sales pitch, tries it out, and comes back with this input: “Remember that imagery, where we likened our solution to a sniper’s rifle? Well, I gave the pitch yesterday and the client said it was more like a flame-thrower.”

Testing, Iteration and Indecision

That’s great input and definitely something to consider. But Sales (and often this is the CEO in early-stage companies) can be overly influenced by the “LI” (Last In) input and want to change the pitch deck in time for tomorrow’s next sales meeting. It’s the job of Marketing to hold firm and try it out for at least another handful of meetings before making changes. At that point, if everyone is going with the flame-thrower analogy, it’s Marketing’s job to pull back the deck and make wholesale changes. But only after there’s enough data to justify the change.

Marketing Holds the Line

Bottom line: CEO’s and Sales will often say they’re being ‘nimble and responsive’ with their changes, when in fact they’re being indecisive. It’s Marketing’s job to urge them to make the current deck and imagery work before making large changes. Otherwise, you’ll be changing your positioning—and supporting materials—so often that the market won’t be able to keep up.

Posted On November 3rd, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Startup Marketing and The New Kid in Town

The Crowded Ocean model is for us to join our companies as initial VPs of Marketing, do a positioning/messaging workshop, then implement the resulting marketing plan using our ecosystem of vendors: PR, web, content, demand generation, events, SEO, etc.strategy These marketing partners speak startup, learn the company and its culture, and work with the founders to provide best practices and all the tools for a great launch.

Rip and replace?

Another part of our model is hiring our replacement and exiting the account. As you might guess, an incoming VP of Marketing (or CMO) wants to start contributing as soon as possible. Which is great. Unfortunately, we often find that, either out of convenience or ego, our successors often replace all of our vendors in one fell swoop. Which is just plain bad business. The last thing an incoming VP of Marketing needs, as he or she is learning the technology and business workings of the company they just joined, is to also have to educate a new team of vendors as well.

Our recommendation: leave whatever team you inherit in place for at least three months. Test them out—they may be better than your old team. But at least you won’t be trying to orient and educate them while you’re orienting and educating yourself.


Posted On October 20th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

“Plays Well With Others” – What Softer Skills are Valued in Startups Today?

We’ve written before about the importance of concise, articulate writing skills in the world of startup marketing. This article in the Sunday New York Times explains that while there is a slowdown in growth of high-skills jobs today, the jobs that combine technical skills with social skills have experienced rapid growth. Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 11.39.42 AMIn other words, social skills are becoming more highly valued but are also difficult to find in selected job categories.

We place a high value on communication skills – especially in marketing and in leadership roles – but we agree with the NYT feature that it’s the so-called softer skills of cooperation, empathy, and flexibility that are highly prized and that can help a talented startup team excel.

There are a number of related soft skills that we would add to the list, but we’re not quite sure how to sum each one of them up with a handy label. Here’s our expanded list of wished-for skills:

  • The ability to admit what you don’t know;
  • The ability to listen to another point of view, as well as give and receive constructive feedback without getting defensive or resentful;
  • A willingness to change your point of view without a fight;
  • Whenever there’s a decision put up for a vote, the willingness to “lose” and not be resentful of the proponents of the winning vote;
  • The ability to foster an environment where new ideas can be offered and where the best idea can carry the day, regardless of who comes up with it.

If this sounds like a Boy Scout manual or a checklist for a vague employee review, it’s because it’s a tough set of skills to articulate. But if you establish the above—or something like them—for building your culture, you’ll see the difference.




Posted On October 14th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Can your startup marketing be both integrated and agile?

There’s a common belief within the startup community that startup marketing can be either integrated or agile, but not both. In this school of thought “integrated” is synonymous with ‘plodding’—something no startup can afford to be. We disagree. We believe you can have both, but it won’t happen on its own.Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 12.03.25 PM

Successful marketing is integrated first, agile second. Integrated marketing is ‘planful’, which in the end means it’s far more efficient than the aim/shoot/ready school of thought that is gaining traction in some quarters. But if you coordinate your activities inside the company you’ll appear far more consistent outside the company.

There are steps in the agile software development process – frequent sprints, testing, iteration, repeat – that sound like they should be followed in startup marketing. But effective startup marketing still needs to be implemented (across all sales channels) and integrated (across all audiences and functions) which takes planning.

No spaghetti on the wall. The push to throw something out there and let the market respond runs the risk of confusing stakeholders. We see that in the “growth hacking” culture that floods the blogs of marketing best practices.

Do you have an idea or a program? We’re advocates of the basics. When we meet an enthusiastic co-founder or board member, the question we end up asking on a fairly regular basis is, “what’s the plan?” For a good idea to be a plan – or in marketing parlance, a program — there are goals, metrics, owners, deliverables, deadlines and a budget. And they’re written down. Because, yes, you want to go back to review your performance to plan. It’s just basic.

Posted On October 6th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Acronyms and Spellchecking: cultural dangers in startup-land

Startups cultures are delicate creatures. We know, we’ve been part, as Crowded Ocean or as startup VPs of Marketing, of over 40 startups. Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 8.55.50 PMPart of making your way through the cultural shoals of any startup is discovering certain cultural markers:

  • Do they communicate primarily through text, phone or email?
  • What cultures are represented and how much do you need to respect them (outside of ordering the bring-in lunches)?
  • Are they a direct company (confrontations and expressing emotions okay, if not specifically encouraged) or an indirect company?

But even with all of the above discovered and in place, we’ve found two inadvertent areas that can do a lot of damage:

  • We had one account where the 4 founders couldn’t agree on a key subject. One of the founders, summarizing the matter, said there were ‘certin’ members of the team that didn’t agree. Spellchecker helpfully changed ‘certin’ to ‘cretin’ (a stupid, obtuse or mentally defective person). Another of the founders thought the ‘cretin’ was directed at him and sabotaged two meetings before we were able to get him to explain why he had a bug up his ass. Lesson: either turn spellcheck off or proof your messages before sending.
  • Even before cell phones introduced their own short-hand into our vocabulary, the high-tech world was enamored of TLAs (three-letter acronyms). We had another client who was working with a young vendor on the website. The client kept trying to make a change that was technically difficult, if not impossible. The younger vendor finally summarized his position as ‘IDK. See if someone on site can help.’ The client, showing either his age or spelling ignorance, fired back: “Well, I Do Care! And I’ll find someone who does too and work with them!” No real lesson here, other than if you’re going to use acronyms, make sure your client was born in the past 30 years.


Posted On September 30th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

New words in startup marketing – the September 2015 edition

Siloization – that’s a bad thing, mind you. Startups and large organizations alike are “anti – siloization” in their approach to planning, process, data. Dr. Steven writes about this in his new book The High-Velocity Edge.


Decacorns – that’s startups valued at $10 billion or above. Unicorns are so common now, don’t you know.

Organizational doxing – it’s a growing and disturbing trend when hackers break into corporate networks and servers, steal documents and emails and publish them on the Internet. Recent victims: Sony and Ashley Madison

indistinguishability obfuscation – also known as “IO” it is a powerful cryptographic tool described as a unified basis upon which to reconstruct familiar cryptographic tools like public keys and selectively secure signatures

Nearables – new beacon technology, sensors and the IoT race has produced the ability to track objects in your physical world, aka those nearables.

You’re welcome.

Posted On September 21st, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Startup marketing – this is bullshit bingo, Q32015

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 3.47.08 PM

Posted On September 14th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

What startups overlook when they design their logo

It’s been quite a time for new logos in Silicon Valley. We’ve been following the chatter and commentary with interest:

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 4.03.59 PMThere’s the new Google logo. And there’s commentary galore about that design.

Then, there’s the controversy over the new NASA logo and the fondness for the old one.

And, as Los Angeles begins to lobby to host a future Olympics game, the logo for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was withdrawn due to allegations of plagiarism. This reminds us of the new Yahoo logo rolled out over a 30-day period recently that struck many as self-indulgent. And, in the end, the new Yahoo logo never satisfied any industry watcher.

Helping a startup define the visual identity of their brand is a vital step in the definition and launch of a startup. But, here are two steps that startups typically overlook when they design their logo:

  • Do a competitive study. Whether you hire a professional designer, agency or decide to crowd-source the design, be sure to include a competitive study. Identify your competitors before you design your logo so that you understand and can differentiate your logo compared to the colors, shapes and taglines of your chief competitors.
  • Focus on now. The logo is a vital component of brand, but founders need to temper their perfectionism and appreciate that there is time for refinement. Some founders – even when their startup is still in stealth – obsess over design choices for their company logo. They think that, even at this early stage, they need to define and refine their logo for the long term. This leads to unnecessary expenditures of time and money that could be better directed at customer acquisition, market development, recruiting, product development, etc.) In reality, many startups will end up refining their logo to accommodate new branding needs.