Category Archives: High-Tech Marketing

Posted On February 13th, 2018 by Crowded Ocean

How startups can avoid post-launch depression

The concept of the “trough of sorrow”, coined by Y Combinator’s Paul Graham, has clicked with Silicon Valley in a big way because it describes the very real trap that many startups encounter as they enter the market. They’ve invested so much time and money in the launch that they neglected to consider all the steps needed to maintain and leverage that momentum. It’s like two parents in the hospital nursery looking over the top of their baby at each other and wondering: Now what do we do?

The trough can be avoided with smart planning focused on content, lead conversion and nurturing with appropriate contingency planning. And you better be planning and executing on all these fronts, because in the first Board meeting after the launch, where you’re anticipating nothing but praise for your highly successful launch, the Board is going to give you your moment in the sun and then ask the same question as the parents of that newborn: Now what are you going to do?

It’s natural for market interest in your company to diminish to some degree in the weeks and months after your launch. But just as you went from 0 to 60 in the past two months, there’s no reason to go from 60 back to 0. This post-launch period is probably the first time that Sales and Marketing are coming under tough Board scrutiny—and it’s a time of transition for the founders as well. The creation process is over—we’re now in the growth phase. Which means everyone will be asking about numbers: lead pipeline and revenue first and foremost but also website traffic stats, lead status, and metrics. So you better be prepared.

Here are five steps to take to help you avoid ‘post-launch depression’:

  1. A 90-day plan: Easier said than done, but no startup team should claim they are ready to launch without a subsequent 90-day sales and marketing plan in place. The quarter after launch should be a fundamental component of the launch plan, its goal being not the interest generated by the launch into awareness, building inbound traffic, leads, and mindshare.
  2. Contingency planning: Every startup should have earmarked cash reserves to weather any post-launch setbacks. For example, what if the two offers you made to customers at launch don’t drive the clicks and conversions you forecast? If customers respond to door #1, rather than doors #1 and #2, do you have the money and resources ready to quickly tack with a new offer, content and promotion? Or, what if your competition leaps out unexpectedly with a new product that is similar to yours but 25% cheaper? Did you do some “what if” thinking prior to launch to help you mobilize a response quickly?
  3. Salute three chiefs: It’s a nice—and accurate—saying about early startups, that ‘Sales is everyone’s job.’ But ‘sales’ is one thing: revenue is another. In this post-launch phase you need a ‘Chief Revenue Officer’ (and it may be you): someone who is driving the sales process and making the company aware of where it stands vs. its revenue goals (which should be shared internally). That CRO should be a customer of the next ‘Chief’: your Chief Content Officer. This person should be continuing to add to the content on your website—fleshing out your market profile. But, more importantly, s/he should be generating fresh content that Sales can use to remain in touch with early customers, advancing the sales process by delivering new content that deepens their understanding and highlights the benefits of your product or service. Finally, someone on your startup team needs to be your “Chief Culture Officer” to keep a watchful eye on how the culture of your startup is evolving. That way, you can ensure that the attributes you aspire to are reinforced and even strengthened as your team expands. The Chief Culture Officer should be a team player who is tapped to “report in” periodically on how the culture is evolving and who can flag concerns for the leadership team.
  4. Content, content, content: As we said in our book, a startup can never have enough content. And that’s especially true post-launch. But with planning, you can build out a reservoir of content to support your demand gen programs, lead nurturing efforts, as well as content that can be quickly customized for new priorities that pop up.
  5. Listen, test, measure, and iterate: After launch, the path to customer traction also depends upon an iterative approach to messages, materials and focus. In other words, test what’s been done to date (and what response it generated), then tune your plan. Successful startup teams go into launch with the idea of listening, testing, measuring feedback and iterating their sales focus, content and tools based upon feedback and learning from the launch.Launch is a milestone in the long life of your company. Don’t make the mistake of thinking of it as the finish line.

Posted On January 30th, 2018 by Crowded Ocean

Startup CEOs: Overpay for initial employees

As 2017 ended, a number of forums asked startup CEOs the most valuable lessons they’d learned in their first forays into leadership. And the topic that came up the most was attracting and retaining those key initial employees.

The bottom line they discovered—and that we’ve seen in our work with nearly 50 startups—is that the days of the starry-eyed, ‘anything for the company’ employee are over. It’s a jungle out there—and the big animals (Google, Facebook, Apple) are offering both job security and top-dollar salaries.

So what’s a startup CEO to do? Well, first off, the one advantage you have over the Big Boys is founder’s equity. For many early/critical employees the romance of the startup is still there—especially if it’s complemented by stock. So use your equity both generously and wisely to attract—and most importantly, to retain—those critical employees.

Finally, at the risk of sounding like Dr. Phil, know your prospects’ “currency”—what matters most to them. If it is, in fact, currency itself, then you’re screwed, since you can’t compete with the Big Boys. But take a look at the imaginative practices of other companies (such as Netflix’s self-policing vacation policy) and put them to use in creating the kind of culture and environment that will make you attractive—initially and in the long term.

Posted On January 18th, 2018 by Crowded Ocean

Decision-Making: the essential cultural trait of startups

There is no single prescription for success for leaders of early-stage companies. Personality-wise, founders can range from transparent to ultra-secretive. Culturally, they can create perk-rich environments or go with Spartan surroundings. And when it comes to their leadership style, startup founders can choose from a number of successful models, from the consensus-driven to the dictatorial.

But there is one area in a startup’s early history that is a major determinant for long-term success: how decisions are made and communicated to the company. Because those initial decisions are critical, not just from a business or product perspective, but in terms of the cultural tone it sets.

Company-building experience trumps technical brilliance

It’s sometimes hard to say what brings employees to a specific startup: it can range from the track record of the founders to job titles to dress codes or the length of their commute. And of course, equity is always a factor. But regardless of the initial draw, none of those things will have staying power if each employee in the company doesn’t understand, contribute to, and feel a part in advancing the vision/mission of the company. Which brings us back to the decision process.

Decision-making is not for everyone

In an early-stage startup, every employee is heavily invested, emotionally and financially. Which translates into their believing that they should have a voice in company decisions. But herein lies the problem: most early-stage employees shouldn’t be involved in the decision-making process. Which poses a major problem for the first-time CEO.

For work-life balance and economic reasons, many of our startup companies are going ‘virtual’, with employee locations scattered around the globe. Managing these employees and making them feel a part of both the culture and the decisions shaping the company’s future is an ongoing challenge. Employing free tools like Skype and Google Hangouts, we encourage our startups from Day One to hold regular town hall meetings so that information is shared and so that the implications of decisions can filter across the entire team, regardless of location.

Good decisions come from diverse teams

This communication and collaboration is essential, since while good decisions can occasionally come from a single individual, in the long term the best decisions come from well-informed, diverse teams. Data shows that diverse teams make better decisions because different backgrounds and ways of thinking lead to better outcomes. In another study of the accuracy of decision making of groups, when participants were in diverse company, their answers were 58 percent more accurate.

Challenges to Participative Decision-Making

Despite the compelling data and logic behind adopting an open and participative decision-making culture, achieving it in today’s startup environment can be challenging for these reasons:

  • Early employees are often “narrowly brilliant” in their particular technical domain (aka “nerds”) with limited general business experience in building successful organizations that make and communicate decisions;
  • The structure of many startups today is “virtual”, with many key employees hired because of their domain expertise and track record. But vital team members working remotely can be a huge obstacle to communication and participation;
  • Instilling “ownership” across the team, from top to bottom, is a trait that startup leaders want to foster and reward, but only if it’s genuine. Ownership that’s recognized and rewarded typically makes people work harder. Even if a CEO is seriously top-down in his/her decision-making, we encourage them to find areas of genuine ownership, however narrow, for each employee.
  • Startups are always on. Critical business decisions regarding priorities like market segment focus or hiring decisions require real business experience, and often, there’s very little time for discussion. Getting participation from the right decision makers (with real-world company-building experience) is what counts.
  • It doesn’t matter if a CEO models him/herself on Hitler or Gandhi, as long as employees feel that their voices are heard and their ideas are fairly considered and evaluated. But CEOs need to distinguish encouraging participation across the team in a decision from assigning the ultimate responsibility and accountability for the decision.

The difference between participation and communication

Given the limited business sense and remote locations of many of their early employees, CEOs have an obligation to their investors—even to the employees themselves—to limit how actively they open up participation by employees in the company’s early decisions. Instead, we caution CEOs to open up participation in the “direction” of the company. But, cynical though it may sound, it is possible to “look” participative (through communication tactics like regular “town hall” meetings of all employees; published company business goals on Google docs and posted performance “actuals” against goals) while keeping the decision-making firmly in the hands of the management team. Because, ultimately, if employees feel like their ideas are appreciated and considered, and if decisions and their results are announced on a regular basis, employees will feel engaged in their company rather than cynically excluded from the decision making process.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

It should be the goal of every startup to have a participative decision-making culture. But in the early stages we encourage our CEO’s to “fake it, ‘til you make it.” And as the company grows, and you’re able to hire professional managers who can build strong teams, your culture of “participative” decision-making will hopefully transition from altruistic goal to active reality.

Posted On January 10th, 2018 by Crowded Ocean

Startup CMOs Are Today’s Executive Unicorns

Virtually every industry has some version of the saying: “You want it fast. You want it cheap. And you want it good (or ‘of high quality’). Pick any two. That saying applies to one of the most valuable and strategic positions on the executive staff today: The CMO. And it also explains why everyone from Venture Capitalists to corporate recruiters refer to quality CMOs as ‘unicorns’, as in ‘impossible to find.’

Why is the CMO such a difficult job to fill? Much of that is attributable to the changing nature of Marketing. In the old days Marketing was a qualitative, or “feel” discipline: there were no real measurable standards. And so the CMO (called a ‘VP of Marketing’ in the past) was someone with a good feel for the market, who knew what strategies to adopt, what ads to develop, and how to communicate the intangibles of their value to the leaders in the executive and Board rooms.

But in the past two decades Marketing has transitioned from ‘feel’ to fact. Software platforms such as Marketo have created a tangible, measurable dimension to Marketing that never existed in the past. So the CMO, who might have been the only primarily right-brain (creative-focused) executive on the staff in the past, is now most likely as left-brain as the rest of his/her executive peers. According to the 2016-2017 survey by Gartner, enterprise marketing budgets as a percent of revenue continue to rise with a lot of growth driven by the shift to data-driven digital marketing investments. And yet the CMO has to still be able to recognize and manage individuals of a highly right-brain nature—and to communicate and sell their output to the higher-ups.

And that is only part of what makes CMOs so unique—and rare. In high tech companies, the CMO needs to be, in essence, a 3-headed beast:

  • Head One is steeped in product to the point that the CMO is welcome in engineering and product management discussions and is active in shaping the product roadmap.
  • Head Two is strong in traditional product marketing steeped in customer needs, technology integrations, trends and issues, and able to drill down on specific use cases or applications to help translate customer needs to product management/engineering.
  • Head Three is strong in both traditional “corporate marketing” and its derivative, “digital marketing,” with its proliferation of tools, channels, content marketing, and metrics.

Good luck finding a CMO with all of these qualities. Because individuals with all of the above often have a different job title: CEO.

In the world that we inhabit—technology startups—the CMO is often the last hired and the first fired. Why? In addition to all of the above, there is the issue of sequence. Founders often do the Product marketing themselves and then bring in a CMO with strong go-to-market, Corporate Marketing skills to launch the company and generate early sales success. But once that launch takes place, the need for those skills diminish and the need for a product- and technology-centric CMO rise. Which often means the initial CMO is shown the door—or demoted.

On the flip side, if the company goes with a product- or technology-centric as their initial CMO, that person has probably never launched a company or developed an initial go-to-market strategy. Which means they’re just as likely to be shown the door as their Corporate Marketing peer.

So the challenge for today’s CEO isn’t always finding the right CMO—it’s keeping and developing them once they’re hired. Which means recognizing their orientations (right-brain vs. left-brain; product vs. corporate marketing), helping them develop the sides where they are weaker, and hopefully winding up with a unicorn of unique and lasting value.

Posted On December 22nd, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

How is “momentum” part of a startup’s “secret sauce”?

When a startup team is heading into launch, ‘momentum’ can be that intangible ingredient that helps fill in gaps in execution, blurs missteps and invigorates a team that is flagging from staff shortages, high expectations and competitive pressures.

Success, according to the “Yoda of Silicon Valley”, Sam Altman, CEO of startup accelerator Y Combinator is:

something like idea times product times execution times team times luck, where luck is a random number between zero and ten thousand.”

In other words, who the hell knows. Or, if someone did know the secret to a winning startup, there’d be an algorithm for that.

This 2016 article in the New York Times contrasts the “mojo” of social media favorite Snapchat to the tumbling fame (and valuation) of Twitter. In the recent past, it was Google vs. Yahoo or Slack vs. Hipchat. The point that matters is that momentum can be a powerful force that helps accelerate success in startup teams.

So how do you foster momentum across your team? From our vantage point as CMO guns-for-hire, teams with momentum share a few basic attributes that are always modeled by the founders. These may not be all of the steps to momentum, but they are our top favorites:

  • Goal setting: Everyone on the team knows what the company goals are and how their own job goals support those goals.
  • Accountability: Maybe it’s an individual or maybe it’s a team but there’s an owner for every deliverable and it’s understood across the organization, from top to bottom.
  • No excuses: When mistakes are made, they are acknowledged and the team pulls together to fix them and move on. No finger pointing. No blame.
  • No assholes: When there’s a new-hire who’s a bad fit, culturally, or who brings a toxic style to the office, they never last long. Mistakes in hiring happen, unfortunately. But life is too short to tolerate them.

Posted On December 14th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Four reasons to invest in a “soft launch” of your startup

Launch day for a startup is a major milestone for the entire team – founders, investors, customers, partners, suppliers, employees and their families.

In the world of technology startups, launch day is typically when a startup steps out “officially” (out of stealth, out of beta) to make its product or service widely available. Launch says the startup is ready to stand up to public evaluation and scrutiny of its product and value; typically, it is also when the team has invested in PR to generate favorable coverage and inbound traffic to garner visibility that can turn into new business.

But sometimes a startup team chooses a “soft launch.”

So what is a “soft launch” and why do it?

A soft launch 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 space and the funding it has received. It may also involve a “limited” release of the product but without significant details.

Here are four motivations for a soft launch:

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.

Competition – with an ear to the ground, a startup may believe that a competitor is going to beat it to market. In order to be first – to define the market need on their terms and to set the stage for why their technology is superior – many startups will launch in two phases, with a soft launch intended to blunt the competition and relegate them to followers.

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.

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.

 

Posted On December 12th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

3 new terms in startup-land

Have you heard of these new terms?

Capsule network: an advanced approach to AI that researchers are using, instead of traditional neural networks, to teach computers to “see” and recognize objects in the same way that humans do.

Ambient AI: industry insiders predict that the addition of AI development tools into cloud computing platforms will automate machine learning and accelerate the development of new software applications and services.

Blank-check IPOs: According to this article in the Silicon Valley Business Journal, “blank check IPO” firms are designed to help the companies they buy go public without all of the cost and disclosures of doing an investor road show and IPO themselves.

Posted On November 1st, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

The path to diversity at a startup requires 3 phases

Congratulations to the rocket ship startup Slack for joining giants like Salesforce, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon in taking a public stance on diversity hiring practices. Like the giants, unicorn Slack has published the breakdown of their “diversity numbers” to illustrate their goal and progress towards building inclusion and diversity in their company.

Survey data show better decisions come from well-informed, diverse teams. Diverse teams make better decisions because different backgrounds and ways of thinking lead to better outcomes. And, bringing people together who have different ways of thinking and problem-solving skills can foster an environment where new ideas can prevail.

Building diversity at technology companies in Silicon Valley is a hot topic. But in our world of early-stage startups, we think a broader definition of diversity and a different approach (and some cold pragmatism) is needed to get there.

If your startup is funded at the seed-round or Series A stage (or even bootstrapped like an early Atlassian), we believe the goal of building a diverse team is really a shiny object on the horizon–like profitability–that founders need to see as a longer-term goal. And, startup founders should adopt a multi-phase plan to get there.

Phase one: seek out misfits and oddballs in the early days. 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. The ethnicity and gender of those misfits is a completely secondary consideration in the early days of every startup (where the mortality rate of startups is about 75 percent.)

Phase two: 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. We recommend mandating that every short list of candidates 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 two 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. In our view, this is an aspect of diversity. In other words, startup experience is great, but if that’s the only experience a candidate brings, pass.

 

  • Stick to the no-assholes rule. You can call them jerks or idiots, but the label “asshole” seems to need no interpretation among a team of startup founders who are striving to build a company. We proclaim “no assholes” as a universal guideline for all emerging companies to follow. We would go so far as to state it as HR policy, right along side the Rooney Rule (see #3 above.) Especially in the early days, there can be no assholes on your team. Because assholes will often hire their own kind and your team just can’t afford that.

 

  • 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 three: 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 own ethnicities and cultures. 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 October 24th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Speak like a native: latest tech jargon

Sensor-veillance: Law professor Andrew Ferguson warns that we are entering this new era when “we can expect one device or another (think Fitbit, smartphone, webcam) to be monitoring us much of the time.”

Reverse mentoring: Need a lesson on best practices in social media or how to hire millenials? Maybe you, or your senior executives, need to seek out regular coaching sessions from younger employees. The trend is called reverse mentoring and it’s being embraced by older leaders of established companies around the globe.

Cognitive diversity: Like its cousin “viewpoint diversity”, this trendy notion is that a homogeneous group of, say, a dozen white men could actually represent “diversity” if they bring different life experiences to their job or role in society. The concern, of course is that the goal of racial and gender diversity (the “traditional” or “old-fashioned” kind of diversity) is sidelined by this new idea.

Phubbing: That’s short for “phone snubbing” and it’s the common practice of snubbing others in favor of your mobile phones.

Posted On October 17th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

5 Steps to Pump Up Your Startup Marketing

 

  1. Write your launch press release first. Then manage to it.

As much as startups like their white boards, when it comes to their core positioning, product capabilities and supporting messaging, they don’t take anything seriously until they see it in print (or in PPT or HTML). As important as a launch is to a startup—and as important as press coverage is to the launch—you’d think they’d recognize the fundamental importance of the press release and act accordingly. And yet most startups don’t write the release until about 3 weeks prior to launch. Only then are fundamental inconsistencies and misunderstandings revealed, causing everyone to scramble, from website authors to the PR firm. Instead, draft your news release as early as possible to crystallize messaging. Start by writing your ideal headline for the launch, then write the release that will best generate that headline. Then take the components of that release and insert them into all your key marketing and sales materials.

  1. Kill your “elevator pitch”; replace it with your “bold claim”

The “elevator pitch” is a time-honored marketing exercise and tool for distilling your company’s value proposition. But we’re living in an ADHD world where your prospective customer is addicted to nonstop interruptions in multiple streams delivered on multiple screens. So forget the elevator ride: you don’t have that long. Imagine you’re on an escalator instead, with 30 seconds to make your pitch. Lead with your ‘bold claim’. It starts with: “what if I told you that…” (An example: ‘What if I told you that you could wash your car while driving it home from work?’) An effective bold claim poses a question that generates this customer response: “I don’t believe you can do that, but I’ll take your card.” It’s a statement that sits at the core of your sales pitch, PPT decks and website–one provocative enough to grab your customer’s attention and initiate the sales process. 

  1. Posterize your “buyer persona” 

Defining the buyer persona is a best practice supported by business books, courses, institutes and online tools. And it makes more sense than ever now because customers have more power and more options. But for so many companies creating a customer persona is just a paper exercise. The key is to develop a 3-D understanding of your persona’s personality and affinities, knowledge that you can then apply to your website, sales pitches, and white papers—and to make it a company exercise. The more advanced startups not only create these 3-D images of their customer, they name them and put an image (or imagined photo) of them on their walls, reminding everyone of what (and whom) they’re working for. This is particularly true of the Sales “war room,” where the customer persona should have equal wall space with all of your competition’s material, a constant reminder to stay focused on your customers—their needs, their options and their reasons to choose you.

  1. Name a “chief content officer” and give them a seat at The Big Table

Think about it: in an enterprise product sale, the average sales process requires seven ‘touches’ (or interactions) with your prospect. So, to support their transition from prospect to buyer, you’ll need at least seven pieces of original content. And yet, for many startups, content is a last-minute addition to their launch and sales efforts.

Content needs to move to the top of a startup’s Maslow hierarchy. And it has to be everybody’s job. The problem is that every team at early-stage companies is so busy iterating on their product—both in features and possible business applications—that crafting sales content for lead nurturing and demand gen often takes a back seat. We recommend designating a “chief content officer” and giving him/her a seat at the big table for sales pipeline reviews, product planning meetings, maybe even board meetings. Make generating topics and content ideas a corporate-wide function, then recognize and reward those who generate this content—blogs, mini-white papers, etc.

  1. Treat diversity like revenue: set goals and manage to them

Diversity is not only good for a company’s culture, it’s good for business, paying off in better decisions and improved profitability. But how to achieve it? A few innovative startups like Slack have adopted the Rooney Rule that requires that “persons of color” and women be candidates for strategic hires within an organization. Meanwhile, VC firm and startup builder Kapor Capital has taken the Rooney Rule a step further by requiring their own firm be diverse. Now, Kapor Capital partners are requiring the startups they invest in to create a culture of inclusion from the beginning. They ask their startup founders to sign a diversity pledge, then deliver a diversity report every quarter to investors.

Tech titans like Apple, Google and Salesforce have diversity initiatives that they report on publicly. Startups can build diversity in from the ground up by giving it the same status in their business plan as goals for customer acquisition, revenue and profit. And, by reporting on those goals every quarter to your board, investors and your team you’ll be able to reinforce diversity as a value and a business goal that will help set your startup apart.