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Posted On July 28th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Startup CEOs, Don’t Believe Everything You Read

There are a ton of books out in the market with sound advice for the startup CEO. We know: we’ve read most of them. And there are just as many blogs and forums with the same helpful goals but without the vetting actions of a good editor or publisher. Unfortunately, many of our CEOs don’t make the distinction.

One of the byproducts of the avid reading CEO is that he or she will remember one point from an article or blog and turn it into gospel. One recent example was a CEO who told us, with certainty, that people read websites in a ‘Z’ manner, and thus we had to align all our key design and content points along that structure. (The same also applies to colors: we lost count of the CEOs who tell us—and our designers—that it’s been proven that certain colors create angst in viewers and are to be avoided at all costs. When pressed for their sources, they tell you that ‘it’s well-known’ or ‘common knowledge.’

We want our CEOs to be avid readers, but we also want them to be discretionary readers. Because there’s a lot of crap out there.


Posted On July 20th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

How many assholes does it take to tank a startup?

Despite the celebrated “no assholes” rule that many founders claim defines the culture of their startup or is a guiding rule for interviews/hiring, our experience is a lot of assholes slip through the net.Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 6.30.52 PM

Let us count the types:

Dick, the brilliant coder: This is a stereotype, to be sure, but where do you think stereotypes come from? These are the socially- and hygienically-challenged guys who live in their own bunker and aren’t allowed to interface with customers. The largest % of assholes is among the technical group, many of whom lack both the social skills and the self-awareness to even know they have a problem. And they get to skate because of a simple fact: no product, no company. Unfortunately, they will hire in their own image and then you’ve got an engineering team of assholes.

Dick, the sales chief: Just as CEOs will defend obnoxious behavior by citing Steve Jobs, VPs of Sales will defend their boorish behavior by saying the pressure they’re under to drive revenue (often when the product is late or still being created) entitles them to be an asshole. Maybe it’s in the DNA, but, unlike the technical founders, these guys (and they’re almost always guys) can control themselves. They just choose not to..

Dick, the board member who is a self-appointed expert in marketing: This guy surfaces when launch plans, timelines and fundamental positioning and messaging are being finalized. Because he is a board member, he can claim the freedom to exit the boardroom and wander the halls, opining about everything from product nomenclature to website structure. Under the guise of ‘just trying to help’ he (and they’re almost always guys) can either hijack or move the launch off its track. Trust us, we’ve seen it. If the CEO lets this go on, it can be incredibly destructive to the team. Board members can bring pivotal insights and advice at critical points in the lifespan of a startup. But they never seem to offer advice as “a” point of view. It’s always “the” point of view (or an opinion that the offer as ‘fact’) that can sway the startup team in a way that shuts down conversation or consideration.

If you don’t believe us when we say assholes in Silicon Valley are a problem, read the book from 2007 by Dr. Robert Sutton. Or, better yet, take the self-assessment by none other than Guy Kawasaki.

Posted On July 13th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

How to survive a startup launch

In June, we announced the Data Intelligence Platform from Blazent, our 36th startup launch and the network performance platform from Kentik, our 37th. Based upon all of our scars and bruises and lessons learned, we have a few new rules-of-thumb to share with all of you out there in cubicle-land:Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 12.18.26 PM

Rule Number One: It’s not a launch unless someone is crying.

If you’re “pushing the envelope” of trying to maximize launch, your team is probably trying to add last-minute features; or maybe tweak the UI, or land that vital partnership; or maybe secure that tricky customer endorsement right up until the last days before launch.

All of those last-minute or stretch goals have implications across your team and for launch deliverables. But stretching is good. That’s normal. That’s why launches are hard. We always counsel our clients that in the stressful run-up to launch, people will cry. Get out the Kleenex. Stock up on Tums. This is normal.

Rule Number Two: There are no second prizes in launches.

Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 12.16.33 PMAs Alec Baldwin said in his famous rant in Glengarry Glen Ross: “first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

If your team is going to succeed, they need to feel the pressure of hitting their goals for launch. And that’s everyone – from the star coders to sales to the rent-a-CFO. (And don’t exempt the CEO from the pressure.) Launch is a critical milestone in the trajectory of every company. It is not the end-all, be-all. But it is an essential milestone that will enable many more after it, if all goes well. But stubbing your toe (think Color) can be incredibly costly.

Rule Number Three: Plan as if launch day is history already.  (Or “Plan as much for Day 2 as for Launch Day)

Picture the mother in labor and delivery with her new child but no diapers, baby clothes, crib. She’s been planning for this wonderful day for nine months, and now that her baby is here, now what.

This is a classic startup misstep. It’s been written about by Steve Blank in The Startup Owner’s Manual. If you want to launch successfully, you plan ahead to leverage all of the visibility and inbound traffic that launch generates with a systematic program and measurement of content, demand generation, sales support and news. Launch day is a once-in-a-lifetime milestone for a startup, but it needs to be the beginning of a sustained marketing plan to reap the full benefits of launch.

Posted On July 7th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Pixel-Polishing and the Startup CEO

blog - insight, plan, strategyWe’ve said it before on different topics: in some ways, Steve Jobs is the worst thing that happened to startups—specifically first-time CEOs. They’ve all read the books and heard the stories, then use Jobs as their excuse/model for anything from boorish behavior to poor hygiene.

Where the Jobs fixation is perhaps most detrimental to startup CEOs isn’t in the area of personal habits but in the areas of time management and prioritization. They’ve read the stories of Jobs’ obsession with the smallest detail and use them to justify spending hours and multiple revs on every project that comes across their desk. And while we admire their diligence, from a business standpoint we have to wonder if that time were better spent in strategic planning and managing the growth that is hopefully coming their way.

Modeling yourself after Steve Jobs is like modeling yourself after Willie Mays: they are sui generis. The key is to take the lessons from CEOs and then personalize them, creating your own model along the way.

Posted On June 29th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Startup launches: 3 takeaways for startup teams

According to a feature in the latest Harvard Business Review, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. That stat caught our eye because the heart of every successful startup launch is the launch team—which by its very nature is cross-functional. Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 8.51.20 AMEvery launch team that we form and lead for our startup clients represents a cross-section of the company, including the CEO, product, engineering, sales, customer support, systems engineers and marketing.

So how do you ensure that your launch falls in the effective 25% and not HBR’s 75%?

Last week, we announced the Data Intelligence Platform from Blazent, our 37th startup launch. Here are three takeaways from the Blazent launch that we urge every startup launch team to follow:

  1. Top-down support allowed us to go fast: Our most successful launches have support from the CEO and founders. That support means clear goals, owners, deadlines and accountability. Without that support, we have had to spend a lot of extra time socializing ideas across the organization to build consensus – time that could be better spent on priorities like content, website refinement, demand gen programs, etc. Recommendation: make your CEO part of the launch leadership team and brief him/her daily on progress. It does wonders for staying on schedule and accountability of all parties.
  1. Programs, not ideas, delivered results: Launches can be a time of wonderful creativity across the organization. The best launch teams foster an environment across the startup to invite new ideas. In other words, there is no single source for good ideas, especially for naming, visuals, demand gen campaigns or promotions. But once the ideas flow, there needs to be a single person who is accountable for turning that good idea into a program. A program has a goal, owner, deliverables, deadlines and metrics. Without turning ideas into programs, you don’t have a launch.
  1. Publishing launch plans reinforces urgency: One of the best free tools for cross-functional launch teams is Google docs, where program plans, timelines, content drafts, budgets, etc. can be shared. The over-used word transparency should be applied to every launch. Every cross-functional team should have nowhere to hide by sharing and reporting on their deliverables. By being transparent and working off of a shared plan, cross-functional teams can quickly know where they stand and avoid missteps.

Posted On June 24th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

On Startup CEOs — ‘Indecisive’ vs. ‘Flexible’

We deal with a lot of first-time CEOs in our work. And while it’s truly invigorating and rewarding to work with these individuals to help them launch and grow their companies, it’s also can be an exercise in frustration. Why? Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 2.37.28 PMBecause most of our clients have been funded by the top VCs in the world, and they know that many of these firms have a reputation for moving first-time CEOs to the side and brging in one of their own guys.

All of which leads some of our CEOs to be extremely cautious in their decision-making. This caution manifests itself in two ways:

  • They don’t make a decision at all, saying that they need ‘more information.’ Or
  • They make a decision and then retract it. This is often either the result of what we call ‘the LIFO (‘Last-In-First-Out) syndrome, where whoever they talked to last sways their decision or they make the mistake of socializing their decision with friends and families.

The problem is: no one wants to be seen (in their own eyes or others’) as indecisive. So they depict themselves as being ‘flexible’ and ‘open to new ideas.’ Which all may be true—some of the time. But in the meantime nothing gets done.


Posted On June 16th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

When startup marketing sucks

In every one of our startup marketing engagements, the essential first deliverable is to nail down the positioning and messaging with the founding team before we make any other decisions or spend any program dollars (on staff, website, content, PR, etc.) strategic directionThat sounds straightforward, perhaps even obvious. But it’s rarely a linear process. It’s often very messy. Sometimes it sucks.

In fact, it’s often more of a “three steps forward, two steps back” kind of iterative process to get to the finish line on positioning. The process involves defining, refining, test-driving and then revising the positioning to reach clarity on the fundamental claims, actual words, definitions, emphasis, product nomenclature and sequence of the narrative.

If that sounds like a messy or fuzzy process, it is. But if you’re going to work in the startup world, you have to be comfortable with ambiguity. While veterans of the startup world—especially in areas that are hard to quantify, like marketing—may be okay with ambiguity, it can really be frustrating for technical founders who are used to precision and certainty and predictable outcomes. In our experience, the best way to achieve that all-important foundation of positioning with the startup team is to frame it as a process and to remind them that while we’re going through it, the iteration along the way will get us to the finish line.

Posted On June 9th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Building a unicorn: 10 rules for successful startup marketing

Having launched 36 startups in our decade of operation, we’ve been fortunate to be involved with our share of ‘unicorns’ (Palo Alto Networks, Nimble Storage) and really nice white stallions (Sumo Logic, Trifacta and Snowflake Computing). Given the wide range of companies we’ve worked with—and their equally wide range of success/failure—we’re often asked to sum up the characteristics of a successful startup. So here goes:

  1. No assholes allowed. Following in the footsteps of business giants like Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, all startups should adopt a “no assholes” policy to build a stellar team. Here’s a list of companies that have adopted the rule. This is a great group that every startup should strive to join. (If you don’t agree with this rule, you might be the asshole in question.)
  1. Study the competition, then steal from them. Most startups have myopia—they’re focused only on their own product/technology and the immediate road ahead. But others have traveled that road already—otherwise there wouldn’t be a ‘market’—so we tell our clients to not only learn from their competitors’ failures but their successes as well. So study the competition to understand their messaging, keywords, content plan, customer acquisition strategy. And we’re not above borrowing and modifying a good idea someone else invented.
  1. Value diversity to build a better team. Most of our startups are laudably diverse—ethnically. Gender-wise, not so much. The data shows that teams that include women are more successful. Build a great team by hiring “diversity” early. That means hiring professionals who bring different backgrounds and ways of thinking and, yes, that means hiring women into the mix early so it’s really part of the DNA of your startup.
  1. Done is good. With plenty of time and money, a startup team can shoot for excellence. Tweaking deliverables can be indulged. But that practice never works in the long run because a growing startup never has enough time or resources. In other words, it’s quantity, not quality that is going to be the name of the game. A productive team needs to set their goal and hit it, but abandon their pursuit of that last 2% of ‘excellence’.
  1. Every launch slips twice . We may have invented this rule of thumb after launching hundreds of products over decades of working at corporate tech giants. We don’t exactly know why it’s true, but it is. Whether it’s a delay in securing vital customer validation or a delay in the overhaul of the UI or a monkey patch gone wrong, startups need to assume that their launch date will slip. A savvy startup team will therefore plan critical dependencies (like the timing of a fundraising round or ramping their hiring) with a careful eye on the timing of launch.
  1. Fire employees faster. Every startup makes hiring mistakes. Sometimes, it’s a good person who just got hired too early; sometimes it’s just a bad fit that made it through the interview process. Remember, you’re a nimble startup. It doesn’t matter why you made a mistake. It matters that you fix it. The sooner your mis-hire is gone from the building, the sooner the rest of your team can acknowledge and recover from the mistake and move on.
  1. Build your culture, but don’t obsess about it. Free donuts, lunchtime neck massages, and dogs at work – these offices perks are interesting window dressings for a startup. But in the long run, this is the stuff of the startup-of-the-month. It’s eye candy. It all sounds good in an interview, but only do them if they’re genuinely a part of your own values and the company DNA that you aspire to. State your goals, then let your office manager work on instituting them so that you can focus on the business.
  1. SWOT yourself and post it for the rest of the company. We always ask the management team of our startup clients to do a self-analysis using the tried and true “SWOT” paradigm of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The exercise usually sifts out interesting gaps in strategy identified by selected members. The SWOT process may by 50 years old, but it works because the process of exploring each gap helps unify priorities across the entire management team. Rather than file away the results of that SWOT examination, we recommend that startup teams post the results for the entire team to consume.
  1. For outside help, work only with principals. When your startup outsources marketing hires like web design, photography, writing, UI design – use principals only. In other words, don’t hire a big-name firm for your early-stage startup and expect to work with the people with their name on the door. You’ll end up working with the junior players—and you don’t have the bandwidth or time to mentor or train them. Hire only small, expert firms where you can demand to work with the principals.
  1. Test everything. Startup marketing is all about experimentation and educated guesses. It’s also about constant iteration. Everything from product pricing to the color of the free download button on your website can be tried, tested and changed based upon feedback. Don’t tell others you’re experimenting; that sounds indecisive. Say you’re running a pilot—it sounds better.

Posted On June 2nd, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Print Advertising: is it back in startup-land?

Robin Williams used to joke that ‘cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you have too much money.’ We feel the same way about print advertising for our startup clients.

IMG_4031Recently we saw Splunk run a full-page print ad in the Wall Street Journal. Since Splunk is the primary competitor to our client, Sumo Logic, we were excited for two reasons: 1) it validates (and upgrades the value of) the market; and 2) Sumo is able to reap a tangential benefit from this campaign without spending a dime.

IMG_4021Which brings us to the question we’re often asked: is print advertising a viable vehicle for startups? The short answer is: No.

The longer answer is, if you’re going to do print, do magazine over newspaper. Magazines have longer shelf life and a tighter target. But even magazine advertising, by most accounts, is ‘brand’ advertising. And brand advertising is a luxury that most startups can’t afford.

Bottom line: spend your early startup marketing budget on outbound, targeted direct response campaigns. Use print as you gear up for your IPO.

Posted On May 26th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Startup marketing series “How to be a lousy client” (Part 1)

At Crowded Ocean we’ve got a great ecosystem of marketing vendor partners who give us discounted rates for our startup clients. We don’t get these discounts because we’re wonderful people (though we are); we get them because we don’t waste their time (and income) with lousy clients. And if you don’t think the quality of the client matters, just talk to our vendor partners.

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 10.03.48 AMLousy clients aren’t just a pain in the ass to work with, they’re also money pits. Consider this scenario for a startup:

The web design firm we’ve hired sits down and gets the client’s input on what they’re looking for, visually, from their website

  • The design firm comes back with three options: a puppy theme, a field of flowers, and a tank mowing down its opponents.
  • The client selects the tank.
  • The design firm comes back with three different tank executions
  • The client brings them home and their spouse says, ‘what happened to the puppies. I really liked them.’
  • The client tells the design firm to junk the tanks, go with the puppies.
  • Vendor is faced with a dilemma: either piss of the client by explaining that they owe more money (and most vendors are confrontation-averse) or eat the charges.

It’s our job to make sure the above scenario doesn’t happen. Or if it does, to educate the client that they’re being a lousy client (and, more importantly, they owe the vendor another $4k). It’s a win-win: the client is more educated and less likely to repeat the error and the vendor remains with the client, ensuring consistency and continuity.