Category Archives: culture

Posted On March 28th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

More chiefs than you can shake a stick at

Your startup must have a few chiefs already: chief executive officer, chief technology officer, chief marketing officer…and maybe now you’re considering hiring a Chief of Staff which is a role that’s becoming popular in larger startups. (See our recent blog on this trend.)

But it turns out there is a veritable explosion of chiefs out there: everything from Chief Customer Officer to Chief Wonk to Chief Algorithms Officer. After a quick tour through LinkedIn, we found a bunch of noteworthy titles listed below. Title inflation? Hard to say. But as a watcher of trends, both good and bad, we caution all startup teams to go easy on handing out the title “chief” (primarily because higher equity expectations come with that title).

Taking a bit of editorial license here: remember that too many chiefs in the kitchen spoil the MVP…

Chief Revenue Officer

Chief Algorithms Officer

Chief Innovation Officer

Chief Data Scientist

Chief People Officer

Chief Network Architect

Chief Product Officer


Chief Evangelist

Chief Culture and Talent Officer

Chief Customer Officer

Chief Wonk

And they’re hiring:

Chief Merchandising Officer

Chief Impact Officer





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 September 13th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

The Meh list for Startups

This is our list of some of the attributes of startups that are “in” and others that are just, well, “meh”….screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-2-10-23-pm

* for more on the bold claim, see our earlier blog post

Posted On August 23rd, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Living Through History: a Renaissance in Silicon Valley?

Before Tom went into the technology industry, I was an historian—specifically, a Lecturer in Holocaust and Genocide Studies (happy guy, I know). Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 8.12.32 PMAnd one of the things that we History dweebs would do when we got together was wonder, out loud, what events of today are going to be ‘history-altering’ and which of them, though seemingly important at the moment, are going to be quickly forgotten (see: Trump, Donald).

History is a matter of perspective: the later you come along, the more perspective you have.

For example, it’s hard to image Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, over a glass of wine in Florence in the early 1500’s, musing to each other: ‘Isn’t it great to be alive during the Renaissance?’ Why? Because they were caught up in something so new that it didn’t have a name. In short, they lacked the perspective to appreciate how unique their situation was.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 8.13.44 PMWhy all this historical musing? Because we have an opportunity that those who have come before us haven’t. We’re living in a time that is easily the equal of the Renaissance (or Industrial Revolution) in terms of its impact—and we should appreciate it now, not in our dotage. Just as the printing press and steam engine dramatically changed the world, so, too, have the internet and the PC/smartphone. And these tools are only a couple of decades old: think what the world will be like as they mature and their availability extends to every corner of the globe.

At Crowded Ocean, given the wide range of companies and industries we work with, we have a ringside seat to a variety of new technologies. Are any of them as potentially impactful as the internet or the PC/smartphone? Probably not (though we’re just scratching the surface of what Artificial Intelligence can do), but it’s important for all of us—not just those of us in the business—to stand back every now and then and marvel at the world we’re living in today and speculate on what tomorrow will bring.

Posted On June 15th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Open space: friend or foe for startups?

Virtually every startup that we’ve worked with in the past three years has gone exclusively to the open bullpen office layout, with hardly a wall in sight. At first glance it’s collegial, it’s democratic in its lack of hierarchy and it’s cost-effective.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 9.24.35 PM

But is it good business? Is it good for your employees’ frame of mind and productivity? The open floor plan has now been in place long enough that there are studies, not just anecdotes, about its role in business. And the findings are almost all in favor of some kind of return to ‘personal space’. Here are some stats to consider as you plan your next workplace:

  • Open office noise results in an increase in epinephrine (adrenaline)—great for a short burst of activity, bad for the long run.
  • Workers in open offices took 62% more sick leave than workers in single offices.
  • A University of Sydney study found that loss of productivity due to noise distraction doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices.

We’re not productivity experts: we’re just reporting what we see and hear in our experiences with multiple startups. And the only positive spike we’ve seen—and the most collegial conversations we’ve overheard—are new employees asking the veterans which high-end headphones they should invest in.


Posted On November 24th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Cultural best practices that help build startup teams

In our travels in startup-land, we meet a lot of different kinds of startups with a variety of cultural norms and business practices.

tipsHere are two unusual best practices that stood out for us:

Doughnuts for the new guy. At data transformation startup Trifacta, one of the ways that the team helps welcome and acclimate a new employee is they buy a box of doughnuts or bagels for the team and place it on the desk of new employee on their first day. That way, anyone who wants free food will have an easy way to approach the new employee and welcome them on board.

Blog competition over lunch. At machine data analytics platform Sumo Logic, the team used a weekly all-hands meeting over lunch to evangelize the company blog. The internal blog champion with overall responsibility for maintaining the blog shared a calendar of proposed topics and authors online so it was easy to see the pipeline. By using the lunch meeting to review the blog schedule, however, it was easy to give kudos to the author of the blogs that were most popular or that received the most comments. And by incorporating potential blog topics into a weekly social ritual at the company, it was a lot easier to make content marketing through the blog a priority for the entire team.

Posted On November 3rd, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

Startup Marketing and The New Kid in Town

The Crowded Ocean model is for us to join our companies as initial VPs of Marketing, do a positioning/messaging workshop, then implement the resulting marketing plan using our ecosystem of vendors: PR, web, content, demand generation, events, SEO, etc.strategy These marketing partners speak startup, learn the company and its culture, and work with the founders to provide best practices and all the tools for a great launch.

Rip and replace?

Another part of our model is hiring our replacement and exiting the account. As you might guess, an incoming VP of Marketing (or CMO) wants to start contributing as soon as possible. Which is great. Unfortunately, we often find that, either out of convenience or ego, our successors often replace all of our vendors in one fell swoop. Which is just plain bad business. The last thing an incoming VP of Marketing needs, as he or she is learning the technology and business workings of the company they just joined, is to also have to educate a new team of vendors as well.

Our recommendation: leave whatever team you inherit in place for at least three months. Test them out—they may be better than your old team. But at least you won’t be trying to orient and educate them while you’re orienting and educating yourself.


Posted On October 20th, 2015 by Crowded Ocean

“Plays Well With Others” – What Softer Skills are Valued in Startups Today?

We’ve written before about the importance of concise, articulate writing skills in the world of startup marketing. This article in the Sunday New York Times explains that while there is a slowdown in growth of high-skills jobs today, the jobs that combine technical skills with social skills have experienced rapid growth. Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 11.39.42 AMIn other words, social skills are becoming more highly valued but are also difficult to find in selected job categories.

We place a high value on communication skills – especially in marketing and in leadership roles – but we agree with the NYT feature that it’s the so-called softer skills of cooperation, empathy, and flexibility that are highly prized and that can help a talented startup team excel.

There are a number of related soft skills that we would add to the list, but we’re not quite sure how to sum each one of them up with a handy label. Here’s our expanded list of wished-for skills:

  • The ability to admit what you don’t know;
  • The ability to listen to another point of view, as well as give and receive constructive feedback without getting defensive or resentful;
  • A willingness to change your point of view without a fight;
  • Whenever there’s a decision put up for a vote, the willingness to “lose” and not be resentful of the proponents of the winning vote;
  • The ability to foster an environment where new ideas can be offered and where the best idea can carry the day, regardless of who comes up with it.

If this sounds like a Boy Scout manual or a checklist for a vague employee review, it’s because it’s a tough set of skills to articulate. But if you establish the above—or something like them—for building your culture, you’ll see the difference.




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 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.