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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.

Posted On May 19th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Secret Sauce: where slide-ware and demo-ware collide

How the disconnect between slide-ware and demo-ware trips up startup marketing

When we’re working with the founding team of our startup clients to develop the right positioning and messaging, there’s a lot of sifting and teasing apart of the core message, including trying to devise a crisp articulation of the secret sauce of the underlying technology.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 9.01.45 AMYou’d think that nailing down that secret sauce would be the easiest part of the equation, since it’s often at the core of why the technical founders came together in the first place. But we find that no one’s taken the time to define and articulate that core component—that ‘aha’ moment–leading to a disconnect between what the execs say in their Powerpoint deck and what the Systems Engineer (SE) are demo’ing to early customers.

This is often what happens:

  • There are so many cool attributes of the new system that no one can agree to define “the secret sauce” around a single set of innovations;
  • The team gets hung up on how to describe the value of the solution/product as it is today versus what it will be tomorrow;
  • There are attributes of the system here today, but there is an internal debate over what attributes are going to make it into the next release;
  • Key selling points of the solution that address ease of use or ease of administration are impossible to show because there is an overhaul of the UI in the works or just ahead;
  • The startup counts a handful of C-level execs as customers of record, but that level of testimonial sale is not repeatable until the product evolves

Our work in positioning a startup is done only when the core deck is complete and aligns with the demo. Our goal is to make the PPT deck and the demo align in message, nomenclature and sequence as early as possible. That way, the rest of the marketing deliverables (website, content, sales tools, demand gen) can move into development much more quickly and with fewer hiccups.


Posted On May 12th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Launching our 36th startup: PowWow Mobile

We’re proud to launch our 36th startup. That’s PowWow Mobile, a pioneer in enterprise application transformation that will be showcasing its Application Transformation platform at the Citrix Synergy tradeshow in Orlando this week.

PowWowMobile-logoPowWow can transform any enterprise app for any mobile device in ten days. PowWow is helping enterprise IT deliver trusted, workhorse applications that are core to the business as a native mobile experience for its users. That results in tremendous cost savings and helps enterprise meet the needs of their increasingly mobile workforce.

Since stepping in as PowWow’s interim VP of marketing at the beginning of 2015, we have tapped our ecosystem of marketing partners to build a virtual marketing team ofpowwowbooth experts to position, staff and launch the company:

  • Web design team – Dystrick
  • Video content – Launchsquad
  • PR agency – Eastwick
  • Demand gen – Marketing Operations
  • Design – Jer Jager
  • Marketing Automation – Hubspot

And we’re pleased to be handing over the reins to the new head of marketing starting next week at PowWow Mobile. Congrats to the PowWow team. Sell, team, sell.

Posted On May 4th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

How Many Chiefs Does a Startup Need?

After being approached this week via LinkedIn by someone with the misguided (and erroneous) title of “Chief Conversation Starter,” we decided to take stock of all of the “chiefs” out there these days in startup-land. Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 3.09.22 PMAnd we’re going to pretend you asked this question: who are the “chiefs” that every startup needs but that are often overlooked:

Chief Content Officer: Eventually, the chief content officer for your startup will be a senior player on the marketing team. But in the early days, the CEO needs to appoint someone to the role, someone to identify and oversee the production of vital content. Whoever it is, it needs to be someone who is steeped in the product story and whether you have the right tools (website, white papers, demos, etc.) to connect with your customer and support the sales process. And it’s definitely not a shared responsibility. For example: who is producing next week’s blog post? Who is going to create that competitive kill sheet? Without an owner who is accountable for driving content development, it simply won’t get done.

Chief Culture Officer: That’s your office manager, or it should be. We advise our startup CEOs to pay attention to the culture of your startup by fostering values and practices that are important to your team. But let it grow organically and let it be authentic. (Just because XYZ startup offers free bagels on Wednesdays, you don’t have to do that, too.) And once you’ve settled on some cultural norms that you want to foster, assign someone on your team to be the owner or the shepherd of those practices. That way your culture will grow, but it’s not on the CEO’s already overflowing plate.

Posted On April 27th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

In startup-land, why does very launch slip twice?

The above adage is true. We’re not sure why, but our experience in launching literally hundreds of products working at corporate tech giants like Oracle, Lucent, Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 2.18.07 PMSun Microsystems, SynOptics/Bay Networks and Aspect—as well as with over 35 startups—is that the vast majority of launches slip twice.

At least.

Perhaps it’s a delay in securing vital customer references needed for launch. Perhaps it’s a delay in the overhaul of the product UI (which pushes out production of vital content for the sales team and launch.) Or, perhaps something went wrong in the last-minute crunch of cramming more features into the last software release.

To minimize slips in a launch, we advise our clients to get into “launch mode” at least three months prior to launch. This requires appointing a “launchmeister” to lead the cross-functional team (product + support + sales + marketing) to deliver against precise goals, deadlines, metrics and deliverables. That way, critical launch dependencies (like the timing of a fundraising round or the ramping up of hiring) can be planned carefully and with a minimum of changes and fallout.