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Posted On April 20th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

How to speak startup – new vocabulary for startup denizens

Nomophobiathat’s separation anxiety when you and your cell phone are parted. Apparently, it’s epidemic and here to stay.

Humint – that’s “human intelligence” and something that cyber security strategies need to incorporate, say security experts and pundits.

Cloud cloaking – a strategy for eluding hackers, at least for now.

Perceptual learning – scientists are exploring how to marry data with intuition to garner powerful insights. Experts explain how “the brain works to find the most meaningful sights or sounds and filter out the rest.” Can that concept be applied to big data?

Posted On April 13th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

In startup marketing: done is good

In the movie “All That Jazz”, the Roy Scheider character (read: Bob Fosse) continues to make changes to his movie, even long after the editing process had closed and each change meant significant cost overruns. Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 12.19.45 PMHis harried producer goes to the monitor, knowing that each change means thousands of dollars, and ready to veto it. But each time he steps back from the monitor, his anger thwarted by his acknowledgement that the SOB (Scheider) had just improved the finished product.

That’s a problem we often encounter with our startup clients. Given all the time and money in the world, you can always improve on a process or deliverable—such as a logo or website. And who can argue against a desire to ‘get it right.’

Well, we can. There’s a saying that applies to startup marketing: “Done is good.” There’s so much to do in bringing a startup to market that often the work required to bring a B+ work up to an A isn’t worth it. The key is to know when to keep grinding on something and when to slap it and call it a baby.Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 12.22.37 PM

An example: often it dawns on founding executives, only as they near the finish line of a project (such as a logo or website) that they haven’t involved the other employees the way they have in the past. That’s usually a good thing—the company culture is growing up and they’re growing as executives. But sometimes (if the company is still small and in founding stages) it’s appropriate. In that case, we recommend getting the other players involved in the early stages (when the clay is wet), so that they feel ‘consulted’ but aren’t under the impression that they have final say.

It’s not ideal, but in today’s startup culture, anything that gets you to the decision final line is a positive. Done is good.

Posted On April 6th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Subtle sexism and the daughters of tech titans

Subtle sexism.

Casual sexism.

Everyday sexism.

Forget glass ceiling. That’s so 1970’s. The new thing is the insidious and institutionalized ways that women are overlooked or excluded from opportunity and access. Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 10.22.48 AMIt’s corporate sexism and it’s part of the culture of the majority of companies in Silicon Valley.

The conversation that’s been stirred up in Silicon Valley over the Ellen Pao gender discrimination suit is fascinating and discouraging at the same time. We watched all of the women cheering Ellen from the sidelines. The cheering sections even include a Facebook page and a crowd-sourced full page ad (“Thanks Ellen”) in a local Palo Alto paper.

But we heard nothing from the men. Where are the fathers who want more opportunities for their daughters. What is their point of view? Why are they not cheering?

Silicon Valley is celebrated as a meritocracy. If you are a white, Indian, or Asian male with a technical background, almost all doors are open. But to all of you fathers out there, what do you say to your daughter about Ellen Pao?

Posted On March 30th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Can you build a strong company culture if your startup is virtual?

We’ve asked this question of startups that operate with many key members of the team working from different times zones. In turn we’ve been asked the same question by our earliest stage clients. search eyes visionWhen a startup has a few remote team members, there are a bunch of communications processes and planning tools that are commonly followed to integrate those two guys working remotely from Boston or that amazing coder in Berlin.

The argument for ‘going virtual’ comes down to one word: talent. You’re expanding your potential labor pool and not competing with the geographic Big Boys (Google, Facebook, etc., if you’re based in Silicon Valley). It’s a compelling argument, especially if you’re trying to land one or two key players.

But it’s a different story when the entire company is distributed. When there is no critical mass of talent or team, how does a startup stitch together a group of people to operate with a shared focus, passion and results? And when it comes to marketing and launching that virtual startup, how do outsiders (like Crowded Ocean) work efficiently with a virtual startup team?Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 2.37.28 PM

It’s not about a bunch of startup culture hacks like gourmet lunches, free neck massages and flex hours. That’s the kind of cosmetic quirkiness that’s a reflection of the early employees and founding team. Building a successful team that’s all virtual requires much more effort.

Goals: It is about coming together with shared goals. We think that means the leaders need to make a deliberate investment to bring together the entire team regularly to articulate and communicate their goals and purpose. If that means spending money to fly everyone on the team to a single location twice a year, so be it. That’s a high ROI investment for a startup that wants to make being virtual work.

Vision: It is about having a shared vision of how your team works. What are the principles and values that underpin your product or service? Those need to be articulated and reinforced to the entire group in person and in subsequent, regular conference calls.

Plan: It is about having a plan and measuring progress against that plan. There needs to be a single plan that the entire virtual team sees, reviews regularly and can articulate.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 9.04.47 PMCommunication: It’s probably not possible to over-communicate across a virtual team. We recommend that there be regular, weekly, mandatory staff meetings that are organized, disciplined and respectful. Tight, well-run meetings are usually the best attended (but very often hard to make happen without commitment from the top.)

Diversity: More than ever, a virtual team needs to rely upon diverse but complementary team members to be effective. Studies show that teams are more successful when their members have higher emotional intelligence and include more women.

Discipline: It’s rare that the first-time CEO can lead a virtual team. It takes experience and discipline at the helm to make being virtual a success.

Bottom line: we’re advocates for going virtual on a selective basis (a few key players that you work hard to keep involved in the company culture/fabric). But if you’re thinking of running the entire company as a virtual entity, think again.

Posted On March 23rd, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

How bait-and-switch staffing from your marketing firm hurts your startup

When we hire a marketing firm for our startup clients, we want to work with principals. Whether that firm is web design, a PR agency or the video content creator, we want to thinking planning strategywork with the guys at the top who have the talent, experience and business acumen that helped them build their own business—and can help our clients built theirs. In other words, large firms and newbies need not apply.

And your comment is, really? Why?

Startups have less margin of error than established companies, so while new talent is great for companies who can afford a mistake or two, when you’re launching your startup, can you afford to trust your launch to an unproven marketing leader?

Startups constitute a unique marketing challenge. Almost every startup we meet has limited management processes, no defined sales cycle, fuzzy messaging and a lot of one-off or custom deals that are not repeatable. It takes marketing experience and wisdom (In short: veterans) to sift out sales targets and opportunities that can help a technically brilliant (but young) startup team grow and to make decisions upon which a marketing plan can be based.

Bottom line: don’t be a victim of bait and switch. Insist on working with principals.

Posted On March 18th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Content Uber Alles – startups can never get enough

For our enterprise startups with sales cycles stretching to more than 6 months, there’s a huge need for effective content to support the sales cycle. When we get into planning mode with our startup clients, we work very hard to plan and recruit content creators inside the company to help map out content.

marketing journey, time, perspectiveFor those startup denizens we draft into content creation roles, we have 3 rules to live by:

1 – 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.

2 – 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.

3 – 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.


Posted On March 9th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Does Silicon Valley lead the world in ‘assholes per square mile’?

We think there are five reasons that assholes abound in Silicon Valley:

  1. Startups are led by the single-minded. Startups are famously founded and led by incredibly talented, passionate, driven technologists who are often young, single-minded and unburdened by the baggage of maturity (mortgage, family, 529 funds for their kids). That combination of youth, talent and freedom comes at a price. Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 6.39.20 PMOften it’s a lack of grace, emotional intelligence, and empathy that can come across as arrogance and impatience with the rest of us who just don’t get it. (at least not as quickly as the founder) That’s why so many startups outgrow their brash and brilliant founder, and that’s why “adult supervision” is an important ingredient in a successful startup with staying power.
  1. Startups lack diversity. They are over-staffed with men, with the majority of those men being white. Studies show that diversity (more women and more members with different skills) encourages teamwork and better outcomes of those teams. In other words, if the success of your startup depends upon teamwork, you’ll have smarter, more effective teams if you mix it up with different kinds of talent and more women.
  1. Nerds are still the core of the Valley labor pool. They may not have tape on Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 6.40.37 PMtheir glasses, but the core of most startups is still the engineers and those guys often mask their lack of social skills with arrogance and asshole behavior.
  1. Assholes hire assholes. Hard-charging, fast-growing startups often have a hard time establishing policies and processes at the right time to support their growing organization. Consequently, jerks and assholes can get away with bad behavior in such an environment. (And talented assholes in a vital role become someone that everyone puts up with because their contribution is so important.) And if you’ve got an asshole involved in the interviewing and hiring process, then assholes are guaranteed to make their way into your organization.
  1. Steve Jobs was an asshole. As we’ve commented before, every founder that we encounter who exhibits boorish behavior justifies it by recounting some Jobs story. Our counter: Steve Jobs wasn’t successful because he was an asshole. Steve Jobs was successful AND he was an asshole.

When it comes to building a successful startup, we’re big believers in the “no assholes rule” but, unfortunately, it doesn’t always work in Silicon Valley.

Posted On March 2nd, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

The Shit Startup CEOs Say – part #66

We’re now working with our 33rd, 34th and 35th startup clients. And, before forming Crowded Ocean seven years ago, we worked as initial VPs of Marketing for a number of early-stage companies. In working with that many founders and CEOs we’ve encountered everything from dead-on brilliance to things that make you wince.

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 10.16.49 AMWe started writing down some of these gems because they crystallize so perfectly that what a CEO says can quickly become a guiding force in a startup’s culture and brand. (So, beware…)

Here are some of our favorites:

We don’t invest in market research because it just tells us something we already know. 

We do have some competitors. There’s one in Boston that’s the brightest of the retards.

 We need to be careful with our next hire because our team is already far too asp-y.*           

(asp-y = Asperger’s)

Our decisions come later than most startups because we’re more sausage-y.

 Our VC Board member is worth listening to. But he’s at least 85% as smart as he thinks he is.

Posted On February 24th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Startup Marketing’s Best Friend: the Status Quo

In working with startups, we often find ourselves having to remind our clients that, as startups, they have a built-in advantage that many companies don’t. They have a built-in friend and a built-in enemy.Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 5.27.57 PM

The friend is the whiteboard. Given that we usually join an account 4 months before they go to market, it’s been at least a year—often closer to two—since they started the company.

And we have to remind them that they started with a whiteboard and an idea. No aging architecture to amortize, no installed base to preserve, no legacy mindsets inside the company. So we have them go back to those days of original, fresh thinking and we start our marketing messaging from there.

The built-in enemy is the Status Quo. If the Status Quo is adequate, your startup is doomed. By definition, the core of Startup Marketing is this: expose and attack the Status Quo. It’s just sitting there—aging, limited, usually unpopular. If you can’t win a fight with it, get out of the business. Now.

Posted On February 16th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

What does it mean to have a “soft launch?”

Launch day for a startup is a major milestone for the entire team – founders, investors, customers, partners, suppliers, employees and their families.

In the world of technology, launch day is typically when a startup steps out “officially” (out of stealth, out of beta) to make its product or service widely available. Launch says the startup is ready to stand up to public evaluation and scrutiny of its product and value; it is also when favorable press coverage is expected to garner visibility that can turn into new business.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 8.35.59 PMBut sometimes a startup wants to have a “soft launch.” So what is a “soft launch” and why do it?

A soft launch is usually phase one of a two-phase launch that involves a greater focus on the company than on the product. It may focus primarily on the founding team, its space and the funding it has received. It may also involve a “limited” release of the product but without significant details.

Here are four other noteworthy reasons for a soft launch:

Recruiting – startups, especially in the super-heated and super-competitive job market of Silicon Valley, will often “soft launch” in order to use the visibility it generates to be able to recruit top talent to build out their team.

Competition – with an ear to the ground, a startup may believe that a competitor is going to beat it to market. In order to be first – to define the market need on their terms and to set the stage for why their technology is superior – many startups will launch in two phases, with a soft launch intended to blunt the competition and relegate them to followers.

Buzz-building – to be the shiny new thing in tech – even in a less sexy, geeky market segment – can be a very valuable, momentum-building period. Social media and press buzz can help a startup accelerate recruiting, fundraising and customer development.

Enterprise-ready – large enterprises are more sophisticated these days about the value of new technology from young startups. But that doesn’t mean they want to risk a vital portion of their IT operation and budget on a product from a newly minted startup. But, the market validation and favorable coverage by analysts and press of a soft-launch can convey a great deal of legitimacy to a young startup that can help it close pivotal deals with early-adopter, brand-name enterprise customers.