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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.

Posted On September 9th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Why startups need to fear the trough

The concept of the startup “trough of sorrow” coined by VC titan Ben Horowitz has clicked with Silicon Valley in a big way.. The trough is a stumble in the life of a startup, just after launch, when marketing momentum stalls out, customer acquisition slows (and the words “customer traction” are no long uttered). Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 7.58.22 PM

Having launched 38 startups, we’ve lived through our share of troughs and now making ‘trough avoidance’ part of every launch plan.

The trough is a period when marketing, understandably, comes under tremendous scrutiny. Everyone from the office manager to the Board will ask for website traffic stats, lead status, and metrics. Here’s our advice to help your startup go into launch with a strategy to avoid the trough.

  1. Plan ahead: Easier said than done, but no startup team should claim they are ready to launch without a three-month marketing plan in place. In other words, the quarter after launch should be a fundamental component of the launch plan. That way, the visibility that your launch creates can be converted into visibility, leads, and mindshare with less cost and downtime.
  1. Invest in value nurturing : As our marketing colleague Anne Janzer stresses in her new book Subscription Marketing, successful marketing teams focus not just on lead nurturing, but on value nurturing in order to maximize the loyalty, longevity and revenue potential of their customers. Value nurturing is the logical next step after lead nurturing and should be part of the best practices of every launch strategy.
  1. Test, measure, and iterate: After launch, the path to customer traction also depends upon an iterative approach to messages, materials and focus. In other words, expect to tune your plan. Successful startup teams go into launch with the idea of listening, testing, measuring feedback and iterating their sales focus, content and tools based upon feedback and learning from launch.

Bottom line, think of your launch as a major milestone, rather than the destination, along the path to growing your startup.


Posted On August 31st, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Why most startups need a COO

In prior blogs we’ve talked about the need for our startups to have ‘virtual’ positions that are partially staffed by existing employees: a ‘Chief Content Officer’(usually a Product Marketing guy) to keep generating content in support of Sales; a ‘Chief Culture Officer’ (usually the office manager) to ensure that you’re living up to your cultural and ethical goals (and to keep a pulse on the internal climate among the team.)

Add to that ‘Chief Operating Officer.’

growthThe idea of a startup having a COO is seemingly contradictory to the lean/mean philosophy that prevails in the startup world today. But we’re not talking about a full-time position: we’re talking about drafting someone (usually one of the founders) to ensure that the ship stays on course.

This COO role is essential in the early stages of the company, as everyone is living at warp speed and balancing multiple demands. As a result, we recommend that our clients have a weekly Operational Review, guided by a spreadsheet of open items that everyone can review and contribute to. (Put it on a Google Doc and keep the priorities transparent for the team.) Then the COO runs the meeting, reviewing the spreadsheet item by item, tracking progress and requiring accountability.

NOTE: we find that most of our companies are already doing this kind of review, daily or weekly, in Engineering. The key is to extend that practice and mindset to the other areas of the company. The gains will be in team productivity and enhanced collaboration across the team.

Posted On August 25th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

A New Way to Think about Startup Marketing

Guest Post by Anne Janzer, Author, Speaker, Content Marketer

Marketing in a startup is often a crazed endeavor. Desperate for growth, an understaffed marketing department struggles to keep up with constant demands for more leads.

I’d like to suggest something almost heretical: Startup marketers should focus just as much energy in creating practices for engaging with customers after the sale.

Startup Stock Photos

Startup Stock Photos

Invest your time now planning how you’ll engage with customers to increase their success and ongoing loyalty. (I call this practice value nurturing, as the natural follow-on to lead nurturing.)

Start marketing as if you’ve already won the customers.

Spend time up front creating new customer launch plans, building customer communities, and fine-tuning the customer interactions throughout the lifecycle.

There’s Always Something More Urgent

When most startups hear this suggestion, they respond with something like this:

“That sounds great, but right now we are focusing on getting leads. When we have enough customers, we can start doing those other things.”

This answer has three logical flaws:

  1. You never have “enough” new customers. Startups are always chasing aggressive growth targets. New leads are urgent, while long-term customer loyalty is important.
  1. Once established, the marketing culture is difficult to change. A startup has the opportunity to build a culture focused on long-term customer success rather than quick wins.
  1. Increasing customer retention and loyalty takes pressure off growth and lead generation. You don’t have to acquire new customers to replace ones that churn. Better yet, happy customers will refer others, essentially doing your marketing work for you. (See my blog “It’s never too early to start planning for customer retention” to talk about the compounding effect of changes to customer retention rates.)

Not convinced yet? I have two words for you: Homejoy and Slack.

Homejoy and the Hazards of Chasing Growth

Homejoy was a cleaning services marketplace. Note the past tense. The company has shut down. And according to Ellen Huet’s article in Forbes, the company chased growth at the expense of customer retention.

Heavy discounting lured in new sign-ups, but attracted the wrong customers, resulting in high churn rates. Houses don’t stay clean by themselves – cleaning is a recurring business. If you can’t keep the customers, you don’t have a sustainable model.

Slack and the Focus on Delivering Value Quickly

Now look at another startup success story, Slack.

As an enterprise collaboration tool, Slack needs entire work groups to start using it if it’s going to provide any value to its business customers. In an interview with Kara Swisher on the Re/code podcast, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield shared his strategy:

“We focused all of our effort on the new user experience, and I think that’s what’s made the difference.”

The strategy is has served the company well – people love it, and the company is tearing into the enterprise software market. In April 2015, Slack had a market valuation of $2.8 billion.

You may not be able to create a clever Slackbot to inform the new user experience. But marketing can certainly step up to the challenge in other ways:

  • Creating marketing campaigns to help customers find a rapid success
  • Creating customer communities where loyal customers support others and share insights
  • Finding ways to be relentlessly helpful to customers over time

Competitive Advantage Comes After the Sale

Startups have a unique advantage over established competitors: the opportunity to completely design the way that the company will interact with, support, and nurture customers. You don’t have long-established practices and immovable walls dividing the groups who interact with customers.

As a startup marketer, you can look beyond traditional lead generation strategies and find creative ways to differentiate your business after the sale.

Market as if you’re maintaining a long-term relationship.

Build the ongoing customer focus into your marketing organization from the start, and you’ll reap ongoing dividends in the form of sustained growth and long-term viability.

Posted On August 18th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

On the Startup Sales/Marketing Funnel

At Crowded Ocean, we’re in the business of ‘sales-based marketing’, the idea being that the purpose of marketing comes down to three words: Make Sales Easier. To that end, it’s critical that, before we begin work on building a sales/marketing demand gen funnel, we understand—in as much detail as possible (and from Sales directly)—how Sales is selling the product and what problems they’re encountering along the way.

sales funnelThe key is to get Sales to be as specific as possible—especially since we’ve never met a sales person who was satisfied with what Marketing provides. So pin them down. If they complain about how the leads all suck, pin them down: what sucks about them, what would they change? And once the lead problem is addressed, have them walk you through each stage of the Sales cycle: what specific problem are they encountering at each stage: are they getting a lot of interest but not enough trials? Enough trials but not enough purchases? Enough early purchases but no broad-scale deployment? (And, what kind of signals are you getting from your marketing/sales systems – data from Marketo, SalesForce, the website?) Only then can we line up marketing programs in direct support.

Only after gathering all of the above info can you put together an effective Sales/Marketing funnel and supporting programs. If the problem is early trials, is there a bold claim that we can issue to goose the process (give us 30 days with your data and if we can’t show you how you could save the cost of our product in the first six months, you can have it for free)? What additional Content (or program) do we need to move a hesitant prospect from one stage to the next? All of that depends on an honest and specific articulation of the Sales process and data from your systems to focus where to iterate, where to test, where to pilot new content and offers.

Posted On August 11th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

On Bullshit and Startup Marketing

We love Jon Stewart and miss him already.

Over the years, the idea of “calling bullshit” on the stupidity, hypocrisy and the immorality of government and leaders has been one of the fundamental themes of The Daily Show.

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 1.45.42 PMMuch has been made of Jon’s final “rant” on his last show as host of The Daily Show – a farewell essay on bullshit. His final words: “if you smell something, say something.” As a riff on that wonderful wisdom, we have to confess to smelling a few things regularly in startup-land. So, we’re saying something:

Bullshit bingo: The recent winner of Fast Company magazine’s competition to name the worst business jargon was – wait for it – “opening the kimono.” (Personally, we voted for “at the end of the day.”) Whenever we’re in the a meeting and the startup team starts talking about a “compelling” product that “resonates” with customers because of its “seamless integration,” we sound the alarm (that’s a verbal “ding, ding, ding.”) Calling bullshit is a powerful thing. And it’s essential to building your story and communicating effectively with your customer.

The Traffic Light Rule: You have one minute to speak your mind, says author Marty Nemko, before you lose your audience. But we interpret the rule more narrowly and assert that you actually have less than 30 seconds to hook your audience with a memorable message that is repeatable. If you yammer on, you’ve lost them. One of our deliverables in every startup marketing engagement is a messaging framework that reinforces the core positioning and differentiation we have created for the company’s technology or service. If every member of your startup team can’t deliver your message powerfully and consistently in less than 30 seconds, your customer will never remember it. Game over.

Posted On August 3rd, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Content marketing for startups: relentless and never done

This NYT feature entitled Writing in a Nonstop World, is a strong reminder that content development in startup marketing is relentless and almost never done. Here are a few tips that we like to share with our startup clients:

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 5.11.36 PMSubheads tell their own story – In today’s ADHD world, the 10-15 page white paper is a thing of the past. Even blogs are getting shorter. (most industry pundits recommend 500 words, though we often see blogs closer to 300, like this post.). Which means that subheads have to do more of the work, both in orienting the reader and boosting your site’s SEO.

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.

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.

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.