Posted On September 17th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean
Like paisley ties, the word ‘grok’ seems to go in and out of style. Maybe not in the real world, where it hasn’t been in style since the early 70s, but in the world of technology, where, to be truthful, both ‘grok’ and paisley shirts have never gone out of style, grok is back, baby.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, ‘grok’ came from Robert Heinlein’s seminal 1961 sci-fi work Stranger in a Strange Land. It means: “to understand something intuitively”. The other day we were at a meeting with a big data CEO, who said, “I want our customers to grok what we’re doing from the first paragraph of the white paper.”
And, as Steve Jobs once said famously:
To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about.
To be fair, we haven’t found a term that works better than ‘grok.’ Explaining technology is demanding: it’s complex stuff and you never know what level of understanding your audience is beginning with. So when you do the difficult and explain something well enough that your audience ‘understands it intuitively,’ you can call it whatever you want.
Posted On September 9th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean
One of our favorite quotes comes from the writer, Ring Lardner, who concludes a short story about an argument between a husband wife with these four words: “Shut up,” he explained. Those sage four words also come in handy in the world of startup marketing.
For most of our accounts we’re in the unique position of being both vendor (to our startup bosses) and manager (to the firms we bring in to the account). And as we start working together and developing everything from a name and logo to graphics for the website, we work from a basic principal: we may know more than our clients about marketing, but ultimately it’s their company.
Advice to our startup clients
So we tell them about the Ring Lardner quote and tell them that, in areas where we disagree, it’s their responsibility to hear us out (since we’ve seen this movie at least 25 more times than they have, having launched over 30 companies), but at some point it’s time for the conversation to end. For them to explain: Shut up.
Advice to our startup vendors
We give the same advice to our vendors. They may have designed more websites than we have, but we know the market and the client better than they do. So we encourage them to hold their ground up to a certain point, to fire and fall back. But ultimately it’s time for the same conversation, for us to explain: Shut up.
Posted On September 2nd, 2014 by Crowded Ocean
Studies say encouraging your employees to work from home increases productivity. Others say that managers who support employees working from home, or “flex time,” make great bosses. And if your startup is trying to compete in the talent wars, offering a flexible work schedule will make you a more attractive employer and enable your startup to tap a larger pool of workers. But what happens to “face time” when your startup promotes flex time?
In other words, does flex time really work for a startup?
Answer: It’s tricky.
Despite the popularity of flex time, employees who spend more time in the office tend to be perceived as more dedicated, according to business management experts. They are certainly more available for spontaneous input and on-the-fly brainstorming sessions that make up life at a startup. No conference call, or screen-share or Google hangout can replace being there. In our experience, face time is vital in the early stages of a startup.
How much face time is required?
Face time delivers immeasurable benefits. When we’re working on site at a startup, for example, we get to overhear conversations (like an inside sales rep pitching the company on a cold call) that provide insights that can inform the marketing plan. This is input we’d never get in a scheduled meeting we had to call in for. The question is how much face time?
We take our clues from the founders. If they are on site most of the time, and if their style is to be hands-on to steer their team, then face time is important and you just better be there. When founders are hands-on, then there’s more room to hire newbies with technical smarts but limited people smarts. That’s where face time can also pay off. Most of us would prefer to be sitting at home in our underwear dialing in on a conference call for a fair number of meetings. But sometimes there’s just no alternative to being there.
Posted On August 22nd, 2014 by Crowded Ocean
We like to follow new terminology, trends and language emerging from new startups and technology priorities in Silicon Valley. Here are four of the latest that caught our eye:
Slow TV – the advent of ratings winners like 20 minutes of “sizzling bacon” on Netflix and the “7-hour Norwegian train ride” have won millions of viewers. The actual viewing experience matches the title – that’s 20 minutes of watching bacon fry, for example. But what are marketers to do with this growing “slow TV” movement?
Post-password products – new approaches to cybersecurity are emerging that use assessments of behavior to measure intent, identify criminals and thwart attacks.
Neuromorphic chips – IBM announced plans to invest $3 billion over the next 5 years to invest in new semiconductor technology that mimics the brain. Check it out – they’re hiring.
Contextual computing – following in the footsteps of Google Now, the latest entrant is Humin, an app that pulls information from your contacts and sifts your calendar to anticipate and organize your social needs.
Posted On August 14th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean
The cover story of a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review is about “talent spotting” and about identifying the “high pots” (potentials) to build your organization when experienced candidates are few.
With the talent wars raging in Silicon Valley, we can’t think of a more timely topic.
We always love a good self-help read especially when it’s about the softer stuff of building team, culture and collaboration. The HBR feature keys on four qualities to look for when scouring for talent potential: curiosity, insight, determination and engagement.
We’d like to add a fifth quality that we think is absolutely essential and often in short supply in both experienced startup players and those new-hires with “potential.” That’s advocacy.
By advocacy, we mean:
- selling your own ideas up and down the food chain of your startup team. Not just selling your boss but your peers, too, when required. Savvy startup players know that sometimes in order to get your idea implemented, you have to invest time to bring your colleagues along as “co-owners.” As the saying goes: success has many parents but failure is an orphan.
- evangelizing along the way may also be important to your success. While there is value in just putting your head down and “going for it,” startup players who understand the importance of advocacy will stop to communicate their progress in order to tamp down hallway critics and naysayers
- pro-actively providing feedback at important milestones can also go a long way to quieting critics. That’s a tricky skill to uncover in an interview, but it’s a very coachable skill to cultivate in your new-hire.
Bottom line, our advice to startups is that as you sift for “high pots” in your candidate pool, be sure to keep an eye out for candidates with skills in advocating their ideas across a diverse organization. Advocacy is a valued skill that helps build successful organizations.
Posted On August 5th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean
There are three familiar warning signs that give us pause when we meet with potential startup marketing clients:
Launch date slipping – Our adage from back in the day used to be that “every launch slips twice.” Translated, that means that a startup who is driving hard can often set some very aggressive dates for launch. Inevitably, that can lead to dates slipping. But if the launch dates slips more than twice, that’s a warning of problems other than an aggressive team.
Board member sightings — If we notice a board member in the building frequently, that’s a red flag. On the one hand, it could be a board member who has been sought out by the founders to help steer important decisions. And the advice of a board member with true operational experience can be hugely valuable to a startup. But the frequent presence of a board member can also be a sign that something’s off course or that the CEO is in over his/her head.
On the other hand, it may not be the founders’ fault, other than their inability to say ‘no’ to a founding investor. (If that’s the case, other BOD members should take the overly enthusiastic micro-managing investor to the woodshed.) Either way, in our experience, if there is a board member on scene a lot, you’re looking at a symptom of a larger leadership problem at the startup.
Multiple VPs of Marketing – Founding VPs of Marketing need to be match in two key areas: they need to keep pace with the rest of the company (usually engineers at this point) and they need to mesh with the founding team. If they can’t keep pace, don’t click and aren’t part of the ‘we’re all in Sales right now’ culture, swap them out. Everyone’s entitled to a misfire. But if we meet a young company and there have already been two or more heads of marketing – alarm bells.
Posted On July 29th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean
Over the past few months, we’ve been approached by two groups:
- friends of ours whose kids are graduating from college and looking to break into high tech; and
- former clients of ours who have vested their stock options and are looking for their next career move (which might include consulting).
Our advice to both is to acknowledge what’s happened to marketing in the past decade—and where it’s going. What used to be a ‘trust me’ industry based more on intuition than measurement is now a science. And the people with the hard marketing skills in customer acquisition—SEO/SEM, lead generation, content marketing and marketing automation—are writing their own ticket.
For most companies, hiring that person who can drive and measure customer acquisition with content marketing and lead management is both critical and extremely difficult. Recruiters refer to this “left-brain” position (as well as to the CMO position) as ‘unicorns,’ incredibly difficult to find.
What used to be called “integrated marketing” has an expanded meaning today that includes facility with marketing infrastructure, systems and metrics as well as specific marketing tools (e.g. Salesforce, Marketo, Hubspot, Eloqua,) So our advice to college graduates as well as to former clients looking to branch out is to go to the left-brain side of Marketing. It’s where the money is—and the people aren’t.
Posted On July 22nd, 2014 by Crowded Ocean
The advent of new website development tools means that we are seeing new sites that trick out in ways that previous sites could never match. These are interesting developments in website design for startups moving from stealth to launch.
But the question we ask is: are more tricks really better?
What about more scrolling? When the web page requires scrolling and scrolling (or if you’re on a mobile version, that’s flicks and flicks), we’re asking why? We’re simply not fans but we see it everywhere.
What about animations? If you can animate the banner of your home page with a GIF, we ask why? If you can animate your home page with video, we ask why? The key question is: does it drive more clicks, page views and downloads?
What about rotations and feeds on your website? The rule of thumb is usually no more than one or two because more than two rotations or feeds creates visual movement that often proves distracting to the site visitor. The Platfora site seems to rewrite the rules there – we see five separate movements on their home page – twitterstream, news stream, blog feed, customer logo tickertape, and rotating customer quotes.
When we ask our startup clients about their brand and how they want to bring that to life on their website, we often caution against the dangers of “more.” When it comes to tricking out on their new website design, we ask our startups to begin by answering the simple question “why?” and we go from there.
Posted On July 14th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean
Thank you, Tech Cocktail for sweetly summarizing the new book for building successful startups: Disciplined Entrepreneurship.
The book describes 24 distinct and systematic steps to building and growing a startup. Author Bill Aulet, the serial entrepreneur and MIT Sloan Business School lecturer who teaches entrepreneurship, comments that based upon his years of teaching, he has learned that rather than coming up with a “single tool” approach to building a startup, entrepreneurs need a “toolbox.”
We think that same idea applies to startup marketing.
In our experience, particularly in the early days of a young company, it’s impossible for the marketing lead or team to command all of the marketing disciplines that are needed. The range of marketing specialties required in the “marketing toolkit” for a startup includes written and video content, web design, development, PR, social, mobile, SEM and so on — all designed to maximize inbound traffic, conversions, and customer acquisition and, of course, to shorten time to revenue.
In our book, the best way for a startup to leverage the necessary marketing toolkit is by using a startup marketing agency (or perhaps an experienced rent-a-VP) who can:
- Bring an ecosystem of marketing resources with the right industry/domain expertise
- Pay for what your startup needs, and only when you need it
- Minimize fixed headcount expenses for maximum flexibility
- Pilot new marketing programs with a “best practices” orientation
- Sequence, test, and iterate to figure out what works
Whatever you call it, our take is that startup marketing is too important, too complex and too fluid for startups not to embrace the need for a toolkit approach.
Posted On July 9th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean
Over the course of our careers, both as VPs of Marketing and with Crowded Ocean, we’ve worked with over 30 PR agencies. And while it’s sometimes difficult—and unwise—to do broad groupings, we’ve found that agencies seem to fall into two groups: those that are upstream of the client and those that are downstream.
Downstream agencies are easy to identify. They are implementers. There’s nothing negative about that description, it’s just their modus operandi. They believe that the client knows the industry better than they do, so they wait for the ideas and campaigns to flow, then they do their best to implement.
That model may work for larger companies, but startups need ‘upstream’ agencies. These agencies take their place at the big table of ideas, often taking the lead. They take a backseat to no one in terms of PR program priorities, effective strategies and how to win “hearts and minds” among the critical influencers that will shape your brand and buyer preferences.
So when evaluating your first PR partner, we tell startup leaders to ask your prospective PR partner for both their philosophy (and understanding of their role) as well as concrete examples of how they’ve generated original campaigns that yielded tangible and measurable results.