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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.

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.