Category Archives: Branding

Posted On July 5th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Building a startup: ingredient or solution?

AI (Artificial Intelligence) is one of those ‘about to happen’ technologies that has finally happened. Just as every year from 1985 to 1998 was going to be ‘The Year of the LAN’, AI has had the same pre-announced success for what seems like the past 20 years. Now, though, it looks like reality has caught up with the hype.

Over the past two years we’ve worked with a number of AI-powered companies. And it’s been an interesting journey, as both the companies and Crowded Ocean search for the best way to leverage the growing interest in AI while at the same time trying to find a way out of (or above) the noise.

Positioning your company based upon an ingredient

But here’s the most important distinction we can impress on our clients: you’re not an AI company. AI is an ingredient; you’re selling solutions. AI just happens to be the best way to achieve that solution.

This is a tough concept for founders to grasp, since they were funded as much for their core technology as for their market. (In one case, we had a company that was focusing its AI on retail—predicting what the market was going to buy a year ahead of time. But when they looked at who was spending what, they pivoted before announcing and became a security company.) But, either way, our counsel to them would have been: “You’re a retail company. Or a security company. Not an AI company.”

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being an ingredient company. If the underlying technology is creative or distinct enough, it will definitely grab the interest of influencers, analysts—even early adopters. Everyone wants to play with the new shiny toy. And, again, if the technology is unique and compelling enough, that company will be acquired quickly and at a premium. So, if that’s your goal, we’ll work with you to make you the most compelling ‘ingredient’ play out there. But if you’re in it for the long haul, then that ingredient has to be secondary to the solution you’re providing and the market you’re trying to establish.


Posted On February 27th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

No-nonsense tradeshow tips for every startup team

If you’re a startup planning to devote some of your precious marketing budget (and human resources) to a tradeshow, we offer these tips:

  1. Make sure the booth team knows the business goals. It sounds so basic, but if your goals for the tradeshow include a specific # of leads per day or a specific # of demos or off-floor briefings, make sure the entire team knows precisely what the goals are so that all of their efforts and time can be dedicated accordingly. (And let them know you expect them to report on their results to the entire company upon their return! No pressure….)
  1. Better to go to a tradeshow to speak at. Whether it’s a keynote address, a breakout session or participation in a panel discussion, plan ahead to leverage the speaker tracks at a show to demonstrate your authority. And repurpose that speaker content from the show: a blog post, an annotated PPT on Slideshare, perhaps a recording of your talk.
  1. Script the booth staff. The team you’re sending will probably include a mix of veterans and newbies. It’s not uncommon for a startup to have to pull engineers away from their computers to staff a show. Therefore, invest in training your team on what the key messages are to enable each and every person staffing your booth, regardless of their title, to stick to the script of what your product or service does and why the customer should care. A team delivering a consistent message can help build the image of a professional organization and brand.
  1. Run your own event. In addition to staffing your booth during show hours, are you having off-floor meetings with customers? Partners? Media? Analysts? Is there an invitation-only customer dinner? Have you dedicated staff to track the conversations on social media during the show, so you can join the conversation? Engaged teams can respond to opportunities on Twitter during the show and create opportunities on the fly for private demos, exec meetings, etc.
  1. Trade leads with other exhibitors, especially complementary vendors or partners. An experienced tradeshow captain who is connected, can swap leads with another non-competitive exhibitor at the show. The swap may not double the leads you come home with, but it could significantly increase the leads you collect for nurturing, post-show.
  1. Sleuth out the competition. Make sure your tradeshow team has scouted the competitors during the show and has a plan to bring home valuable information about the competitors’ messages, materials, claims, demos, etc.
  1. Celebrate your returning team. When your tradeshow team returns, give them the spotlight to report on their results as well as their insights into customer concerns, and strategies employed by the competition, etc.
  1. Can you leverage a show without a booth? Yes, you can! There are shows that lend themselves to lots of off-floor briefings, meetings with the media and with partners. All it takes is planning. And if you’re sending a team to a show that your company is not exhibiting at, they should still have goals to meet and report on to the company.
  1. Have a response plan in place before the show starts. Do you have a follow up plan to nurture leads from the show? Is there content from the show to incorporate in the email response, post show? Perhaps there’s a blog post on the top questions from customers? Or the results of a survey conducted in the booth?
  1. Measure, measure, measure. Just because you went to the show last year doesn’t mean you should go again this year. Shows can have a high program and human cost. Startups have to be ruthless about measuring the ROI on tradeshows to ensure they really make sense in your marketing program mix.

Posted On February 7th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

When should your startup focus on diversity?

When should your startup focus on diversity?

How much should diversity figure into any startup’s mindset and business plan? This used to be a conundrum for founders and their backers: on the one hand, they could, to borrow from Spike Lee, ‘do the right thing’. On the other hand, they’re in business—and they’re now not just beholden to friends and families but to the VCs who just bankrolled their startup.

But whether the above conundrum was real or imagined, it’s in the past. Studies tell us that diversity is good business. It turns out that doing the right thing literally pays off because businesses with diverse teams make better decisions, according to survey data. Not only do diverse teams lead to better decisions and greater success, but companies that put women in leadership positions are more profitable. Why? Because different backgrounds and ways of thinking lead to better outcomes. Women and people of color bring different ways of thinking that improve problem-solving which can foster an environment where new ideas can prevail.

Diversity doesn’t just happen. It takes planning as well as a certain pragmatism. Which is part of the reason why we see established companies like Salesforce, Apple, Google and Facebook, and now private companies like Slack, publishing their “diversity stats”.

But how can founders of an early-stage company make diversity a reality when they are hanging on for dear life and trying to overcome the 75% mortality rate of startups?

The answer is it starts with the definition of diversity. “Diversity” these days is focused almost exclusively on gender. Which is how it should be, given how much talent has sat on the sidelines as the Nerds sat in their technology tree houses that had everything except a ‘No Girlz Aloud’ sign on it. But, for a company to be truly diverse—and to leverage that diversity into success—a broader definition (and a sequence of phases) to building diversity is required.

Phase one: A diversity of founders

The vast majority of founders of tech companies are engineers—not the most social or outgoing group on the planet. As one of our founders remarked: “How can you tell if an engineer is an extrovert? He’s the one who looks at your shoes, rather than his own, when he talks to you.”

As founders look to their core team—and VCs look to fund them—our strong advice is that there needs to be an outward-facing person (generally in the CEO role) and an inward-facing person (usually the CTO or product architect.) This diversity and complement of talents and focus is essential to early success for a startup.

Phase two: expand your core founding team with misfits and oddballs

If your startup is funded at the seed-round or Series A stage (or even bootstrapped like an early Atlassian), the goal of building a team that’s ethnically and gender-diverse should really be a longer-term goal, like profitability. In the early days, startup founders should seek out misfits and oddballs. It’s a given that your startup will struggle in the talent wars against companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook that can offer richer compensation packages. So in the beginning, early-stage startups should think about seeking out candidates who “think outside the box” (and are risk takers on compensation) to bring a diversity of thinking to the team, regardless of their gender or ethnicity.

One of the nouveau practices among corporate HR policies today is the idea of blind hiring. The effort to diminish the influence of a job applicant’s resume and to focus instead on their talents is in vogue to try to rule out bias and to foster more diversity in hiring. We would go a step further and recommend that startups seek out candidates with non-traditional career tracks who attended non-elite schools as well as job applicants with quirky personalities. To advance your disruptive solutions, a few disruptive-thinking employees (especially in the beginning stages) might just help you retain the new and creative thinking you need to achieve your goals.

Phase three: institute “the Rooney Rule” after the second year of life. Once you have (1) hired your founding team; (2) put your product in the hands of early customers, and (3) focused your team on customer development, re-think who you want at a manager level in your company. Now is the time to focus on building gender and ethnic diversity, not before. To support that goal, mandate that every short list of finalists for a position that manages a team include female candidates and candidates of color, aka The Rooney Rule. Be like Slack and make it an HR policy.

Part of phase three includes seeking out an equal blend of experienced employees and newbies. The only way to ensure you have a team that knows how to build and manage an operation at scale is to hire employees that can bring first-hand experience of best practices and processes at a large company. For many startups, this is an aspect of diversity not to be overlooked. In other words, startup experience is great, but if that’s the only experience a candidate brings, pass.

Decide up front who gets to be work remotely and who must be on site. To state the obvious, making your “virtual” policy explicitly in the beginning will help your team vet the right people for the right roles (which is part of building a successful and diverse team.)

Phase four: celebrate diverse cultures to make “going global” an early reality. Startups like Snowflake Computing (Sutter Hill, Redpoint) and Sumo Logic (Greylock, Sutter Hill) were founded by immigrants who, from day one, embraced their collective heritage of different cultures and ethnicities. The founders and their early hires reinforced diversity by sharing their own cultures and histories at internal company celebrations, office décor and even in company blogs.

Posted On December 14th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Growth hacking without sales integration? Fuggedaboutit

This article by the co-founder of about the value of rapid experimentation by teams within Amazon got us thinking about how often we see a lack of integration across marketing and sales teams at startups. Perhaps it’s the emphasis on speed and everyone’s love affair with “failing fast” that causes an integrated plan to get left behind. And perhaps that’s because an integrated plan takes time to get input and buy-in from both marketing and sales and seems to conflict with today’s bias for constant revision.

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 12.25.42 PMSometimes it’s the sales team that’s out of synch. For example, we will see a sales team that’s prioritized a particular use case or industry segment without telling marketing, which runs the risk of the vital supporting product or customer content not being accessible on the website. Or, it’s the web team (typically a part of marketing) conducting a test of new page layout, calls-to-action, colors, headlines, etc. or the paid advertising team trying out a new offer, content or keyword. But when these tests are led by marketing without communicating to the inside sales team responsible for lead development, missteps and wasted effort are inevitable.

Growth Hacking or Rapid Iteration?

Whether you call it “growth hacking”, or traditional incrementalism, or maybe “rapid iteration” to increase sales, the ingredient that can be costly to omit from startup marketing is integration across the sales and marketing plan. We see this omission very often in early-stage companies when content is being planned or when the “journey” through the website is being mapped out. In the crush of deadlines, no one talks to the head of sales or the inside sales team before finalizing those priorities. In other words, speed trumps integration which can turn into a misfire that translates into lost time and money when you have to stop and correct programs that are not in synch across sales and marketing.

To fix the lack of integration in startup marketing and sales, our advice to startup marketers everywhere is to convene a standing weekly 30 min meeting of sales and marketing as a pillar of your company culture. The meeting includes a review of all marketing programs, content, and metrics along with a review of sales pipeline. This meeting can also become the forum for brainstorming new experiments to answer questions for both the marketing and the sales teams. And it will reinforce that wonderful company value: we’re in this together!


Posted On November 1st, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Why slide-ware and demo-ware must match

When we’re going through the positioning phase of our marketing planning with a startup team, 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.SecretSauce

You’d think that nailing down that secret sauce wouldn’t be too difficult to achieve, especially when the leadership team of the startup is often made up entirely of technical founders. But we find there’s often a disconnect between what the execs say in their Powerpoint deck compared with what the Systems Engineer (SE) are demo’ing to early customers.

In other words, startup marketers need to make it a priority to ensure that the “epiphany” captured in the slide pitch matches what the SE is showcasing in the demo. If the language and “aha” moments in the product demo don’t reinforce what’s in your Powerpoint, that’s a serious and potentially disabling disconnect.Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 10.16.49 AM

This is often what can happen:

  • 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 takeaway is that our work to re-position a startup isn’t done when there’s a new Powerpoint deck (or website…) One of the key early deliverables that must be aligned with the pitch is the demo. We try 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 July 26th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

How much money should a startup founder raise?

Guest Post by Vito Palermo, Managing Director, 38 Degree Advisors

There are many variables that go into answering this question. One is the attractiveness of the market category of your company. Then, there are factors such Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 12.58.30 PMas the current funding environment; the experience of your team and the stage of development of your company. However, in general, the earlier the stage of development of your startup, the leaner your funding plan should be; and the later the stage of development, the larger the rounds should be. It’s not uncommon to raise 6-12 months of burn rate at the seed or startup stage, 12-18 months at the product development and early customer interest stage and 18-24+ months at later stages of customer acceptance, business model viability and rapid sales growth and international expansion.

The Lean Startup strategy for fundraising

For early stages, one of the common themes is a “Lean Startup Strategy”, which emphasizes establishing the product-market fit before spending a lot of resources on sales and marketing trying to sell the wrong product. Lean startups launch as quickly as possible with a “minimum viable product” and then continually and incrementally refine the product features while not investing in scaling the business until they are sure the solution matches the market problem. Applying this approach to funding leads to a lower amount of funding required and a lot less dilution for the founders.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.17.45 PMFundraise for specific stages of company building

Therefore, at early stages you should think about how much money your startup requires to get to specific stages such as proof-of-concept/prototype, first revenue, a proven business model, etc. and make sure you have enough funding plus some hedge to achieve those goals. The benefits to this approach include: reducing the risk for investors; lowering dilution and maintaining a lean and focused startup culture from the beginning. The risk to this approach is that you may miss milestones and run short on cash so be sure to give yourself a margin for error.

Fundraising to scale your startup

In later stages you now have lots of stakeholders involved such as customers and employees to be concerned with. At this stage the business challenge is often more focused on building sales and marketing, expanding internationally and scaling the overall business infrastructure. During this stage, the competition is often more acute so be sure to give your company a bigger margin of error and maintain a bias towards raising more money, not less. While the focus should be how much money you need to raise to get to profitability, it could also be on how much capital you require on the balance sheet to make sure more conservative customers and business partners are comfortable with your long term viability. To address these questions it’s not uncommon to see $20 – $100M late round financings.

Bottom line, your business objectives and market requirements should define your funding requirements. It’s imperative to be able to crisply determine and communicate your aggregate cash needs and monthly cash burn rate. For example, statements such as “We need $1M to complete development of our product in order to get to market” or “with $2M we can prove out our business model” will help establish your credibility and transparency with investors while also presenting them with a roadmap that is measurable and often investable.


Posted On July 12th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Managing Your Startup Board of Directors

We work with a lot of venture capital firm partners, and once we’ve worked with them enough that they can be candid with us and vice-versa, one of the things we discuss with them is how unproductive Board meetings often are.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 9.56.17 AMFirst, the company (or at least the CEO) shuts down for a week or more to prepare for the Board meeting (since the CEO never wants to look like he/she doesn’t have all the answers). Second, the Board feels like it’s only getting the sunshine part of the story, not the rain—and when they push for the bad news, they feel like they’re bullying, rather than looking for areas where they can help. And third, many Board meetings are just a forum for the VCs to opine, but nothing really gets done.

So, after enough of these conversations, we’ve put together a summary of the guidelines we’ve received from our VC partners on how to get the best out of both your Board and the meetings:

  1. Set a format and publicize it before the first meeting. It should consist of three components:
    1. What’s going right. Highlight the best programs and deliverables, with supporting stats. Aim for a level of detail that’s “executive summary” in nature.
    2. What’s not working . Own up to it before the Board discovers it. Be truthful and have a plan on how to address and remedy issues.
    3. What can the Board do to help. This isn’t a one-way street. Identify areas (recruiting, introduction to key accounts, etc.) that can benefit from their involvement, assign action items with deadlines and hold the Board member accountable (put all Action Items—including those assigned to Board members—on every agenda.)Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 2.37.28 PM
  2. Don’t let assholes hijack the meeting. Here’s a headline: some VCs are full of themselves and love to hear themselves opine. (Helpful hint: make sure these get the most Action Items). Keeping to your agenda can help dampen their self-promotion, but if this behavior keeps up, remember that you’re not in this alone. Hopefully your other VC is more like a consigliere and you can ask him/her to address the issue with your fellow VC off-line.
  3. Always pick a different area of the company to focus on for each meeting. First, it’s sales. Next, it’s marketing, and so on. Invite the person who’s running that department into the meeting. It gives them their moment in the sun (or under a harsh spotlight) and shows that you’re not making the whole thing about you.
  4. It’s okay to say: “I don’t know. I’ll have to get back to you with the answer.” That’s far better than spending hours that you don’t have trying to anticipate and answer every possible question.
  5. Give your Board members a summary of the meeting that they can take back to the ranch, since they have to update their partners on a regular basis.

Most important, from the start, try to make this an ‘Us’ forum, with everyone on the same team. If you’re already in an ‘Us/Them’ scenario, you can reclaim it, but only with the help of your most influential Board VC. But it’s more than doable—it’s necessary

Posted On February 23rd, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

The 20×20 Rule for Startups

As part of every onboarding process, we get asked by the startup founding team what we think of trade shows. Implicit in that question (since most of them come from established companies who are frequent participants in trade shows) is: when do you think we’re ready to start exhibiting?

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 8.28.27 AMThe immediate answer (and remember: there are always exceptions) is: not yet, and probably not for a long time. The reasoning behind this answer is:

  1. Trade shows are cripplers for startups, from finding and customizing a rental booth to building a demo to staffing the show. It brings product development and early Sales to a grinding halt.
  2. A rental 10×10 booth (even in Startup Alley) makes you look small, perhaps even temporary.
  3. Trade show leads (in the opinion of most of the Sales guys we’ve worked with) don’t rank as highly as those from other sources, such as webinars or outbound e-blasts.

The exceptions to the rule are those events where everyone is given the same real estate, such as certain Gartner shows. Quality of lead is good and everyone’s in a 10×10.

So our counsel to our clients is this:

  • Stay off the show floor for as long as you can. Your time and money is better spent playing off-floor—renting a hotel suite and bringing clients and analysts there for a more controlled (and peaceful) environment.
  • If you’re determined to exhibit on the show floor, don’t go until you can afford a 20×20 booth. If you can afford a booth that size, Sales is probably established, the product is stable, and you’re large enough to staff the show without bringing your entire operation to a halt.


Posted On February 9th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

The Value of Advisory Boards to Scaling Your Startup

thinking, ideasWhen you’re launching your company (and we’re in the process of launching our 41st and 42nd startups), it’s easy to get caught in the daily tasks (website, white papers, presentations) and overlook some of other components that can contribute to a great launch.

One of those is an Advisory Board. Not a Customer Advisory Board (that will come later), but a group of industry experts who are privy to your technology and your long-term product goals. Their initial value comes into three areas: 1) they can review and contribute to your technology roadmap; 2) they can make introductions to potential customers, software and channel partners; and 3) most importantly, they can speak to analysts and press who are looking for outside validation of what you’re launching.

Some startup founders will align themselves with an informal group of mentors who can provide one-on-one coaching as well as access to important resources at the executive level. And we see some of the best-run early-stage companies formalizing that Advisory Board membership which enables the founders to focus on their own areas of expertise while they surround themselves with experts to contribute their experience to help scale the company.

So invest in an Advisory Board. It may cost you a bit of stock, but it will be well worth investment.

Posted On January 7th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Just say no to branding–a rant for startups

No enterprise startup should be spending a dime on defining their “brand essence” before achieving beta product and/or Series B funding. It’s money, time—and management bandwidth—better spent hiring and getting the product right. And part of that process is focusing outward—on the user—rather than inward navel-gazing.

UXDefining and creating the ultimate user experience will play a greater role in your long-term success than trying to define your brand essence up front. In fact, the growing importance of design is evidenced in Silicon Valley in everything from celebrated VC firm KPCB adding a design partner to the juggernaut of the Stanford D School .

Let your brand evolve organically

But that’s different than visual identity and logo. If a startup’s focus on “brand” (not UX) extends to investing in the development of “brand guidelines,” or the publishing of a media kit or, generally speaking, to any investment in pixel polishing to get the logo mark “just right,” we sound an alarm.

Brand definition is important but it is evolving in the formative days of a startup. When we see a young startup team placing a lot of emphasis, time and money on the visual identity of their brand, we gently recommend that they reset and refocus much of that energy on customer and product. The brand guidelines for your logo can wait.