Category Archives: Best Practices

Posted On March 21st, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

New terminology seeping into the mainstream

Incidental collection: in case you missed this tantalizing term brought to you by the House Intelligence Committee hearings, when the NSA wire-taps a foreigner or U.S. citizen suspected of terrorist activities, they can sometimes collect other communications. That’s NSA-speak now entering the mainstream.

Explainable AI: a field of research that, according to the Wall Street Journal, can explain in natural language how a machine learning model arrives at a logical decision.

Filter bubble: According to the New York Times, “the filter bubble describes the tendency of social networks like Facebook and Twitter to lock users into personalized feedback loops, each with its own news sources, cultural touchstones and political inclinations.”

Echo boomer: Census data indicates that there are more 26-year-olds in the U.S. than people of any other age. Like the baby boomer generation, the economic, retail and labor force of that large number of our population are expected to “echo” the influence of the prior, very large baby boomer generation.

Gaymoji: No explanation required. But if you must, check out this New York Times profile.

Posted On March 14th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

It’s COO and COS season in startup-land

Most of the 45+ startups that we work with start with two technical founders, one of whom has the experience and desire to be a CEO, the other wants to be the CTO. Both of them are outward-facing in some way, either in a Sales mode (the CEO) or an SE role (the CTO). Which means they get around to managing the company in their spare time.

To balance that “outside” focus of the co-founders, many teams in startup-land are recognizing the need for adding an “inside guy” to the team. That third leader is operational in nature, focusing on critical components like finance, HR, systems, strategic planning and training. In the past, that person was not equal to the top two dogs (CEO and CTO), but that role—and its importance—is changing.

COO for growth

Recently, a couple of high-flying startups have announced plans to hire a COO. First, there’s Dave McClure, CEO of 500 Startups announcing plans to hire a COO in order to support growth plans. Although the skills and division of labor have not been described, this article on Quora provides a long list of the attributes of a successful COO. That COO is made from a position of strength and augments an already-positive situation.

COO for cleanup and discipline

Then there’s Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who is hiring a COO in the wake of allegations of sexism, sexual harassment and a public tirade by the CEO himself. And just a month ago, Uber was accused of taking advantage of the airport protests that erupted during the immigration bans. Although no plans have yet been announced by Uber about the division of labor between Kalanick and the new COO, the hope is that new discipline brought in by the COO will help button up and repair the company’s image, starting with the CEO.

Chief of Staffs for planning, systems and more

Another option—and this is more frequently being adopted by mature startups—is to hire a Chief of Staff, rather than a COO. Similar to a COO, the COS has a mostly internal focus but a wide-ranging charter to help accelerate growth and efficiency. See this interesting article that describes the popularity and role of Chief of Staff at startups. For more reading about COOs at startups, check out this cool article on Medium from 2015, including a nifty list of related articles on the topic.

Posted On March 7th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

How much time do you really have to pitch your startup?

In the process of researching our book, The Ultimate Startup Guide, we interviewed a wide range of VCs—some of whom we’ve worked with before, some of whom we knew only by
reputation. As we collated our notes by topic, there were a couple of back-to-basics takeaways that stood out.

The first had to do with the nature of the relationship you’re trying to cultivate.

The second had to do with how much time you really have to pitch.

Every single startup founder and VC partner stressed the long-term nature of the VC-startup relationship and likened it to a marriage (or family in some cases). The idea is that you’re in this relationship together for the long haul, so choose selectively. Founders will mistakenly focus on valuation or the term sheet and the brand name of the firm ignoring components like the stature of the individual partner within the firm, their capacity, domain expertise, individual track record and their potential to build rapport with you. This isn’t a marriage solely for economic gain.

You’re getting hitched

This is a marriage you are entering “soberly and advisedly” where the capacity of the partner to build trust and to guide and mentor you, the startup founder, is hugely valuable and not to be underestimated.

And you’re going to be in bed, so to speak, with your VC investor for a long time. As this Forbes article pointed out, according to the National Venture Capital Association, the median time to IPO exit since first funding for VC-backed startups was 3.1 years in 2000, and 7.4 years in 2013.

The second takeaway has to do with how much time you really have to communicate your new idea. The reality is that even though many VCs leave their laptops and phones outside the door (to show the startup that they have their undivided attention), they have their pad of paper…and they are human. More importantly, most VCs will cop to having some form of ADHD: they’ve got all their current portfolio companies as well as the ones they’ve recently met with that they’re considering funding. And they probably have three more meetings after yours. So there are a lot of places their mind can go while they nod at Slide 28 of your presentation.

Plan on just 10 minutes, even if you’re booked for an hour

Therefore, even though the meeting you’ve booked is 60 minutes long, you should plan on 10 minutes of attention. (Sequoia partner Aaref Hilaly advises founders here to plan to hook your audience in the first 5 minutes of the meeting.) The point is that you need to engage quickly and powerfully and leave plenty of time for discussion. Pro tips:

  1. Make the meeting more a conversation than a pitch. Check in with the VC early in the presentation (as early as the 5-minute mark) to ensure engagement.
  2. Lead with the opportunity for the VC—not the dreaded ‘About Us’ or ‘Market Share’ slides. Why should they invest—what’s in it for them?
  3. Plan on bringing your product to life with visuals, screen shots, maybe a mini demo.
  4. After you’ve established that the market opportunity is Trumpian “yuge”, keep the detailed market metrics in the appendix.

For more insights into the “pitch and ask”, take a look at The Ultimate Startup Guide, available now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and more. And here’s a review of our book that appeared last month in Inc.

 

Posted On February 22nd, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Two-word descriptions you’ve probably never heard before

Barista robots: an automated coffee shop called CafeX in San Francisco (of course) is now using robots as baristas.

Artisanal infographics: the always popular, chart- and icon-heavy infographic is a popular marketing tools for brands around the globe. But instead of using data visualization tools or highend graphic design software to create them, some designers are pursuing the hand-crafted look. In other words, don’t throw out that napkin that captured your original genius. It might just work as an “artisanal infographic”

Live chilling: the new way to hang out for the so-called Generation Z, ages early teens to early 20’s, is using live chat applications (Facebook Messenger, etc.) to communicate with a group of friends without ever leaving the house.

Posted On January 30th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

We use new words, the best words in Silicon Valley

The frightful five: That’s the behemoth tech giants that dominate globally: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Alphabet (Google) and Microsoft.Screen Shot 2017-01-29 at 6.32.53 PM

Mini-IPO: When a hot robot startup raised a small amount of money, and from an uncommon source, it was called a mini IPO.

“The Pipeline Effect” When companies put women on boards, more women make it into leadership roles at that company.

Phygital: a blend of physical and digital marketing has been dubbed “phygital” and (puhleeze) let’s see if this one sticks.

“The adjacent possible” A new mathematical model that describes how innovation arises is described in an article published January 13, 2017 in The Technology Review as “The adjacent possible is all those things—ideas, words, songs, molecules, genomes, technologies and so on—that are one step away from what actually exists. It connects the actual realization of a particular phenomenon and the space of unexplored possibilities.”

 

Posted On January 17th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Delegation: a much-needed startup CEO skill

Most startup CEOs are like those guys you know who built their own house: they have a wide range of impressive skills and an accompanying high level of confidence. screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-9-37-22-pmWhich can make them great founders and lousy leaders at the same time.

One of the hardest skills for a startup CEO to acquire is the ability to delegate. And it’s understandable why it’s problematic. When it’s your company and you’ve done everything at the start—perhaps including writing the initial website—it’s tough to watch someone with less knowledge about the company or technology try to do something that you could do more quickly, and probably, better.

But the inability to delegate is a one-way ticket to dual destinations: failure (for your company) and the fun house (for you). The key is: how to learn to delegate without seeing your product or company degrade during the process.

Applying “Successive Approximation” as a Training Tactic

The key is the old psychology term: ‘successive approximation’. If it’s a task that can be shared, do it the first time with your successor. Then do a little less the next time and the time after that, until the little bird can fly on its own. If it can’t be shared, then monitor it more tightly (daily, if necessary) so that it doesn’t get too far off track.

Many startups with a great idea or early market success stall out because of their inability to scale. Sometimes it’s the product/technology that can’t scale—or the ability of Sales and Product to support wider success. But just as often, it can be due to the inability of your talent to scale. Which means you never learned that most critical management skill: delegation

 

 

Posted On January 10th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Market traction and market momentum: are they the same?

Successful VC investors are famous for wielding the power of their intuition or gut instinct when assessing a startup founder or her company before making an investment. That little challengesvoice that speaks to the VC investor about a hot opportunity is also informed by due diligence on the market size, team and growth.

A company on the move…

A startup that can demonstrate market momentum is a positive sign for investors. But, market momentum is generally largely qualitative. It’s that quality of a company “on the move” that’s largely unsupported by any graphs on charts but is still an indicator of market opportunity.

Market traction = market adoption

Market traction, on the other hand, is quantitative and it’s based upon real indicators of growth and market adoption.

Angel List co-founder Naval Ravikant describes market traction as “quantitative evidence of market demand.” In other words, do customers want your product? When it comes to an early-stage company, VC investors will take a measure of a company’s traction using private market data that go beyond publicly available info like the track record of the team, market size and financing rounds.

Quantitative evidence of market demand

In the absence of traditional metrics like average deal size and the true cost of customer acquisition, non-traditional measurements like share of voice, website traffic and social media growth and engagement do shape market traction of an early-stage company. Take note, startup founders! A focus on growing social media engagement can favorably affect the perception of your brand, but also of your market traction.

book-cover-largeOf course, quantitative growth and trends do count. Growth in average deal size, for example, is an early meaningful signal of market traction. Showing that you understand the sales cycle of your business and that it is shrinking is another meaningful early signal of market traction.

Bottom line, demonstrating market traction is the way to de-risk the idea of “more” (investment, hiring, partnerships, office expansion, etc.) for your stakeholders and investors. You can always celebrate market momentum, but what matters more is measuring market traction.

 

Posted On January 2nd, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

The Ultimate Startup Guide: Revisiting the MVP

In our upcoming book, The Ultimate Startup Guide, we address a major consideration for many clients: how to develop and release their products. book-cover-largeThe concept of Minimal Viable Product (MVP) and its role in a startup’s early success was popularized in the last few years by tech leaders and authors like Steve Blank and Eric Ries. Adherents of MVP have strong opinions that this is the only way to go to market; others caution more restraint in the process, ironing out more of the product before pushing it out into the fast-moving stream.

Here’s what we had to say:

The decision on what you’re going to sell may be the most important one you make in the early stage of your company. This may seem like a stupid question—or at least one with an obvious answer: ‘the product we’ve been working on all this time.’ Duh.

But wait. It’s extremely rare that what a company is developing is exactly what the market wants—or thinks it wants. So what do you do with the ‘delta’, the difference between the two?

The MVP (Minimal Viable Product): Let’s start with the definition provided by one of its inventors, Eric Ries: “the version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” Those last two words are what some people seize on, leading them to portray the MVP process as a lazy one: ‘throw shit at the wall and see what sticks.’ But that’s hardly the case: MVP is a structured approach, one that requires a lot of discipline and diligence to be effective. Once you’ve created and released a ‘minimal’ product, you have to then be in constant contact with the market and then constantly iterating the product in line with that feedback. Done right, MVP can be very effective.

ASIDE: A good friend of Crowded Ocean—and of many people featured in this book—is associated with a concept known as the “Sales Ready Product” (SRP) in the same way that Steve Blank and Eric Ries are associated with MVP. The late Don Templeton perfected not just the SRP process but a means of shortening it so that it was at least competitive with, if not superior to, the MVP. In Don’s honor the folks at Sequoia named his process “The Templeton Compression Factor”. The process, executed correctly, could shrink an enterprise-level sale (which normally takes 180 days) to 30-60 days. (To learn more about Don’s Compression Factor and SRP, please see the link at the end of this chapter.)

authors1So which approach—Minimal Viable Product (MVP) or Sales-Ready Product (SRP) is right for you? It depends on your product team and your market. The younger/newer you are as a company, the more forgiving the market—as long as your product group revs the product, quickly and accurately. But we’ve also had established companies who try to practice MVP and their Sales department complains that they’re getting killed out there—that their customers expect something more fully-baked from them. And if your product is (to use a phrase that has been done to death) mission-critical, then SRP is probably the route to go.

We saw this difference of approach play out with our most recent client—a 14 year-old open-source player moving from a professional services model to a product/service focus. Their core constituency in the past has been the open-source community, which expects its product for free and is tolerant of early product flaws. But the new targets—government agencies and enterprises—while appreciating all the benefits of open source, are not as forgiving. For the money we’re talking about here, they’re expecting a more finished product and have little interest in being part of the testing and development process.

Who’s right? If the client can convince their customers that they are now functioning as a startup (with the major shift into the product area) and inviting the customer under the tent, then the MVP approach can work. But if they get pushback, they should pivot quickly to the more traditional SRP approach.

Posted On December 28th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Book excerpt: how to launch a startup by Hogan and Broadbent

Our new book, The Ultimate Startup Guide, is launching January 23, 2017. That’s less than a month, people! Check out an excerpt from Chapter 15, “Launch” below. It was originally published in VentureBeat.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 8.04.28 PMEveryone in Silicon Valley has their own theory about how to launch a startup. There’s the “Soft Launch,” the “Rolling Launch,” the “Steady Drumbeat Launch.” You get the idea.

Then there’s the founder who brags that he didn’t spend a dime on marketing and sold his company for a gazillion dollars (that rarity — of which WhatsApp is a great example — is responsible for more company failures than we can count).

But for 98 percent of us — the ones who haven’t caught the market at the perfect time with the perfect product — there is “The Launch.” It’s your coming-out party, the milestone that moves your company officially from stealth or “in the bunker” into the public marketplace with a generally available product. In other words, this is it. Don’t screw it up.

To make the most of that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity requires planning, care, collaboration, and creativity. Even in the era of The Lean Startup, with its iterative approach to tuning your product feature set and product applications based upon active customer feedback, nailing the official debut of your company is a huge deal. It’s possible to survive a botched launch but not likely.

Some startups launch to “legitimize” their business in the eyes of customers and potential investors. Everything that takes place prior to your launch — even if you have a preliminary website — can be regarded as trial and error. Typically, your launch is your announcement to a wide variety of audiences — customers, investors, market analysts, the press, the competition — that you’re serious and open for business. You’ve polished and defined your market message through components like your website, sales content, and PR. Perhaps you’ve even upgraded your office space. All because customers want to do business with a brand they trust, one that they believe has staying power. Same for the next round of investors. Same for employees. Every startup wants to look larger than they are, and an official public debut (including favorable press coverage) can go a long way to achieving those business goals.

There are other reasons to launch. Some startups will tell you that their launch was key in attracting the right talent to build their team in a competitive job market. Others say that, post-launch, they were approached by investors or potential partners who wouldn’t return their calls prior to launch. Bottom line: Your launch is about investing in getting your story out into the marketplace in a powerful, differentiated, memorable, and unified way in order to connect with stakeholders so you can grow your business and scale your company.

The soft launch

In contrast to a one-time, major launch, some companies will choose a soft launch, which is usually phase one of a two-phase launch that involves a greater focus on the company than on the product. It may focus primarily on the founding team, its market space and the funding it has received. It may also involve a limited release of the product but without significant details.

When is a soft launch appropriate? Here are four reasons to go that direction:

1. Recruiting.  Startups, especially in the super-heated and super-competitive job market of Silicon Valley, will often soft launch in order to use the visibility it generates to be able to recruit top talent to build out their team.

2. Competition. A startup may believe a competitor is going to beat it to market. In order to be first – to define the market on its own terms and to set the stage for why its technology is superior – the startup will launch in two phases, with a soft launch intended to blunt the competition and relegate them to second-to-market.

3. Buzz-building. To be the shiny new thing in tech, even in a less sexy, geeky market segment, can be a very valuable, momentum-building period. Social media and press buzz can help a startup accelerate recruiting, fundraising, and customer development.

4. Enterprise-ready. Large enterprises are more sophisticated these days about the value of new technology from young startups. But that doesn’t mean they want to risk a vital portion of their IT operation and budget on a product from a newly minted startup. But, the market validation and favorable coverage by analysts and press of a soft launch can convey a great deal of legitimacy to a young startup that can help it close pivotal deals with early-adopter, brand-name enterprise customers.

The un-launch

Companies like Slack and WhatsApp have famously boasted that they spent next to nothing on marketing, that they never launched, that they just released their new product “into the wild” to gauge public reaction. This strategy is one that has worked well for a very select group of startups. It’s not a “thumb your nose” strategy, where the company is deliberately flaunting established market presence. Instead, it’s an experiment that goes so well that it obviates the need for the traditional launch. So if you want to go that route, take your shot. Just remember that press and analysts do their research, and if you come back to them because there was limited market response to your “un-launch,” they normally won’t cover you, since you’re yesterday’s news.

The serious launch

You need a lot of things lined up in order to launch. Here are the key ones:

Launch leader: The heart of every successful startup launch is the cross-functional team chartered to build the story and tools to put your startup on the map. While marketing is in charge of the launch, it’s an all-hands effort, with the founders and representatives from product, support, and sales joining the marketing team to craft the value and benefits of a new solution that solves a real pain point.

While everyone still has their day job (finalizing product, supporting early customer trials, and staffing critical job functions across the company), the launch will only come off if it is Job One for the entire company. To that end, we recommend creating the position of Launchmeister and telling everyone (founders included) that during launch period everyone (again, founders included) reports to the Launchmeister. Without that commitment you’ll either miss your launch date (which looks bad) or produce a half-ass launch (which looks worse).

We’ve covered who should be involved in the launch. There’s also the matter of who shouldn’t be. When board members, or well-meaning investors (or the founder’s spouse) start chiming in to “help” with such launch items as messaging, materials, or taglines, that’s problematic. In fact, when we see board members dropping into the startup’s offices frequently prior to launch, it’s usually a red flag.

PR: An important goal of any launch is favorable media coverage. Which means investing in PR. You’re going to need PR earlier than you think — and pay more for it than you want. By “earlier than you think,” we mean that, ideally, your PR agency has been in on the positioning and messaging process from the beginning. Ideally, they’ve even been a participant in the process, giving their feedback on what their market — analysts, press, and market influencers — will accept/believe and what won’t play with them.

This is also the point at which you find out how good your agency is. In launching as many startups as we have, we’ve worked with too many PR agencies to count. And the most important thing is to have an active partner in this process.

Product: Unfortunately, almost every launch will hit a snag. If a launch date slips, it’s usually one of three reasons: product issues, customer problems, content delays. Products have a nasty habit of taking erratic paths to completion. In the technology world, the unstated expectation is that products will slip at least twice on their way to market. Plan accordingly.

Customers: The union of product and customer — especially in early days — is a delicate one. On the one hand, early adopters are pioneers, willing to take on an incomplete product so that they can play an active role in its finishing. But early adopters are also notoriously squirrelly, sometimes working without the knowledge or approval of their company. So, we have a rule of thumb: We won’t launch a startup unless/until it has three referenceable customers — people who will take calls from press and analysts and say glowing things about their experience with the product, both in its current state and long-term. There are exceptions, such as the secretive cyber-security market, where getting companies to deliver a public “testimonial” is problematic. (Press, in particular, won’t write about a product without a customer as reference; they’ve been burned too often by company claims about their product that simply aren’t true.) The reason for requiring three is that there’s at least a 50 percent mortality rate of referenceable customers due either to product malfunction or company policy about talking to the press.

Content: In today’s arena of immediately available online information, the adage that “you can never have enough content” is true. It’s true for your website, simply as a means to make it richer (keeping viewers on-site longer, building brand loyalty), but it’s even more true for your sales efforts. These days, unless you’re selling an impulse-buy product, you need to nurture your prospects. It’s estimated that the normal enterprise sale requires 5-7 interactions (or touches) with your prospect. That means, unless you want to approach them empty-handed, with nothing new to justify the contact, you better have 5-7 pieces of content (it could be a white paper, data sheet, a demo video, a copy of your CEO’s latest article, a new blog on topic, etc.) available at launch and beyond. So don’t let your launch be delayed — or incomplete — because of a lack of content.

Demand programs: In the run up to launch, we recommend that your launch team develop at least three months of demand generation programs so that you have some “canned” programs available subsequent to launch that can help turn the increased awareness and interest generated by launch into sales leads. Otherwise, you run the risk of allowing all of the visibility, brand awareness, and site traffic from early adopters that respond at launch to go unleveraged.

Measurement: On the quantitative front, look at the conversions that were planned into the website and whether you are actually seeing the signups, downloads, and registrations you were aiming for. On the qualitative front, it’s about what the sales and customer support/success team are reporting. What are they actually hearing in conversation with customers and prospects, live and on social media? And does it validate or contradict what the data from your website is telling you.

Posted On December 6th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Building your startup: start with the press release

A VC partner whom we greatly respect, and who shared some valuable lessons that we incorporated into our book (that’s The Ultimate Startup Guide—which we’re shamelessly thinkingstrategpromoting here—due out Jan 23) approached us a while back with an interesting proposal. In conversations with him about past shared clients, we talked about what it takes to get founders’ attention—to really make them commit to what they’re all about and translate that essence into the core positioning of their company. And we all agreed that it was the press release. Powerpoint can be changed, whiteboards are too vague. But seeing your company, product and news and the claims behind them in a legal-looking doc—that seems to get the attention.

Company building by press release

So this VC told us that, for his next company, he wants us to come in and do our regular workshop. But, unlike most of our engagements, where we come in 3-4 months before the company (or product) launch, he wanted to do the workshop at the company’s founding. Then based on what we heard in the workshop, we were to write (with the involvement of the team) the press release for the new company and its product. And then he wanted his team to work to make the claims and promises in the press release a reality.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 8.04.28 PMExpand a tactic of PR firms and web design firms

It turns out that this is a tried-and-true planning practice already employed by many public relations firms and web design firms. PR firms will ask the management team during the message planning phase to identify the key headlines and takeaways for the reader of targeted media that you want to compel to cover your news. This exercise can help focus everyone on simplifying your message and making it consistent while also identifying different approaches or angles to your story.

Web design firms typically have an input session where they will ask the management team to identify the key takeaways of a visitor to your future website. They are looking for words, tone, attitude and treatments. And some of this is the “same stuff” that writing that press release early will help identify and make consistent across your marketing tool set.