Category Archives: Startup Marketing

Posted On November 28th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Anatomy of a Successful Startup Launch

Ask anyone in Silicon Valley and they’ve got their theory about how to launch a startup. There are plenty of startup founders (Slack, Atlassian) and industry watchers who will proudly boast that you can launch a unicorn without marketing. But then there are the 90 percent of startups that have to dig in and build their customers and grow their enterprise click by click, demo by demo, free trial by free trial.

Here’s our advice for the 90 percent:

1 – launch with a cross-functional team – According to a feature in the Harvard Business Review, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. That stat caught our eye because the heart of every successful startup launch is the launch team—which by its very nature is cross-functional. That’s product, support, sales, marketing, and the CEO/founder coming together to introduce a new solution that solves a real pain point. The dependencies, tradeoffs and decisions that need to be made to meet the goals of launch can be made faster and more effectively with a cross-functional team. And with an experienced marketing pro chairing the team, your startup can banish dysfunction.

2- tops-down support is essential – if you want your launch to happen fast, be sure to include the CEO or co-founder on the cross-functional launch team. The CEO is a member of the launch team, not its leader. The leader is your head of marketing or CMO. You want the CEO there to reinforce the importance of goals, deadlines and accountability, and when tough decisions need to be made, it’s easier when the CEO is at the table not coding or pitching new customers. Without the CEO engaged, the CMO will likely have to spend more time socializing options and hunting down decisions and less time getting everything done.

3 banish pixel polishing – part of the Steve Jobs legacy is his famous (and infamous) attention to the details of Apple product design that bordered on obsession, a habit we call “pixel polishing.” Now Jonathan Ive and Elon Musk are celebrated for their same rabid focus on product details — admirable but a huge obstacle for a startup preparing to launch. A startup team in launch mode doesn’t have the time or the money to afford to do any pixel-polishing. Just say no to pixel polishing and yes to “good enough.”

4 – beware nomadic board members– when board members start chiming in to “help” give feedback on messaging and marketing strategy, that’s often problematic. In fact, when we see board members dropping in to the startup’s offices frequently prior to launch, it’s usually a red flag. That often signals that the CEO is not strong enough to manage his board out of the way of his team. In launch mode, feedback can be hugely valuable. But, it’s better to get feedback from early customers, not board members.

5 – bring PR to the table early — there are strategic PR firms that can participate “upstream” with startup founders to nail down the positioning and messaging that’s core to launch. They can bring their experienced outsider perspective to build a solid story that will attract attention and followers among media, analysts and industry influencers. Then, there are “downstream” PR firms that are waiting to be handed the story. Hire the former, not the latter. Launch is too important not to invest in hiring an experienced PR team that will challenge assumptions, build and test the message and advocate their point of view at the table.

6 it’s never too early to build content – when a launch is delayed, it’s usually one of three reasons: product issues, customer problems, content delays. You can never have enough content and the way to avoid delaying the launch because of late or missing content is to start launch planning early. No, you don’t want to start drafting content before the messaging and customer targets are baked. But since iteration is a way of life in startup marketing, start drafting content early to hit your deadlines.

7 website UX trumps brand – if the founder starts talking about favorite brand colors and fonts, that’s another red flag. The most important thing for your launch website is designing the information architecture and content to drive conversions. Yes, design is integral to a successful site. Yes, building your brand is a process that starts with launch. But you need to focus on content and conversions first, or you’ll wander off into discussions of fonts and colors. See dangers of pixel polishing above.

8 anticipate the trough — before you launch, be sure to have at least two months of demand gen programs defined, funded and queued. Otherwise, you run the risk of allowing all of the visibility, brand awareness and site traffic from early adopters to vaporize. To leverage the blood, sweat and tears of launch and leverage early market momentum to build early sales, avoid the post-launch trough with smart planning.

 

Posted On November 21st, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

3 everyday lies you will hear at startups

Celebrated Venture Capitalist Ben Horowitz has called several familiar management mantras “just stupid.” So we thought we would share three comments we hear at startups that are just false – or hopelessly naïve–and then our take on how to interpret them.

  1. We have no politics. This timeless adage is complete fiction. Like every family, every startup has its characters, power structures and power plays. The key to success in any organization – large or small – is to balance the effort you spend on your ideas, deliverables and internal advocacy with the time it takes to make sure your ideas and deliverables are completely aligned with the goals of the company. Our advice: In other words, we’ve seen plenty of good ideas die because they weren’t sold and supported by the right folks in the organization. Do your homework on how the organization makes decisions to be sure you’re cultivating support among the key influencers.
  2. We have a very flat organization. This one makes absolutely no sense. Every startup starts out flat, if only because it’s tough to have a hierarchical org chart when you only have six employees. But very quickly you’ll have a hierarchy of: founders; C-level (C_O); V-level (VP of__) and Directors—if not in title than in practice. The founders are the passionate, single-minded believers that raised the money and quit their day jobs to build a new company around a new idea: they get more than one vote. Every startup has people in the organization who, despite the title on their business card, get to weigh in on decisions and influence the outcome. If you’ve joined a startup and you haven’t figured out how to tap into the founders’ brain trust in order to sell your ideas…well just make sure you keep your resume updated on LinkedIn. Our advice: after you figure out the “what” of your job, don’t get seduced into thinking that you can “just make it happen” by lunging ahead to implement your ideas. Take the time to figure out “how” you’re going to sell your idea and advocate with the key decision makers and influencers on the startup team (the ones with the most votes).
  3. There are no stupid questions. Actually, there are. Or, put another way, “There are stupid people answering questions.” How many meetings have you been in where a new-hire asks a question that’s just off-the-wall. And, yes, when you’ve just joined an organization, you can slow progress (as well as make a lousy first impression) by jumping in too early. Our advice: if you’re new on the team, get the lay of the land first. Learn the product. Listen a lot. And pay attention to the team that’s customer facing. Then after you’ve gotten integrated into the team, dive in with your questions. That way, you’ll be more credible and you’ll have real context for your questions and observations.

 

 

Posted On November 7th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Content, Customers, Competition, Conversions – a mantra for startup marketing

As we work with startups that are preparing to launch and that are, by definition, strapped for time, talent and resources, we find ourselves turning to the mantra of the four C’s: content, customers, competition and conversions. These four priorities should dominate the focus of your startup marketing team as you prepare to launch:

Content – It’s a rule of thumb in B2B startup marketing that there is never enough good content to tell your story. For written (not rich media) content, that means well-crafted, easily accessible, visually-rich content that drives your message home for your different targets (buyer, partner, analyst, etc.) and moves them through the sales cycle. That’s why we urge every client to start as early as possible to lay out a plan for content so that there is ample time to write, edit and review your content and to ensure that every piece is designed to move a prospect to the next stage in the sales process.

Planning for more time, somewhat conversely, also allows for your content to “gel” so that they can be shorter, pithier and more substantive. And more time will allow your content team to plan for ways to repurpose, say, that 5- to 7-page white paper into blog posts, contributed articles, and perhaps newsletter copy.

When it comes to creating a new website for launch, we know from experience that it’s almost always the content that lags, not the design or coding. That’s why we recommend you start your content development early.

Customers – It should almost go without saying that the customer needs to be front and center as a startup team prepares to launch. Customers are essential public validation (as logos on your website, quotes for the media, case studies for sales) for market launch that are almost always a prerequisite for launch. To make that customer focus a reality, the Chief Revenue Officer is involved in our launch planning and deliverables from day one.

Competition – Every startup preparing to launch benefits from having an enemy. Having a clear competitor gives your team a target to focus on and it helps to force your team to shift its aim from the internal development and early support issues to external customer development and sales. We recommend assigning someone on your team to study and monitor your competition and to regularly report on their progress to the rest of the startup to help your team be externally focused on sales growth and customer satisfaction.

Conversions – When preparing to launch your startup, it can be an endless distraction for a startup team to dive into logo design, taglines, and other elements of brand, especially the website. It’s a common wasteful detour for a startup team designing their launch website to engage in what we like to call “pixel polishing.” (that’s a form of “camel marketing”, or design-by-committee) That’s why we steer our clients to think about conversions instead. What is the path through the site for your target prospect? At every step through the site, what action do you want your target to take? What content do you have to move your target through the sales process? In other words, how do you convert a website visitor into a sales prospect as quickly as possible.

If your team is preparing to launch, repeat after us: content, customers, competition and conversions.

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.

 

Posted On October 4th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

More new jargon in startup-land

Flow: to push back on the tyranny of deadlines, email, and interruptions of social media that makes us surrender to our devices, evangelists are encouraging us to pursue “flow” which is a state of being so engaged and concentrated on a single pursuit/thought/project that we lose track of time. In achieving flow, proponents say you can integrate the mind and body into “embodied cognition”.

ICOs: that’s “initial coin offerings” that are an alternative to venture funding. According to this feature in the Wall Street Journal, “the main reason to do an ICO is to use the token as a means of exchange for a real blockchain technology for some tradable digital asset, but many startups are using ICOs just to raise capital,” said Ethan Kurzweil, a partner at Bessemer.

Moral disengagement: when a problem, rule-breaking kid grows up to be an asshole, law-breaking entrepreneur (think Martin Shkreli), researchers call that “moral disengagement”

Backdoor IPO: a “special purpose acquisition company” (SPAC) is an alternative investment path for startups to tap into public market without the roadshow, publicity, etc. For VC-backed companies, a SPAC could restart the IPO pipeline that has been stalled for years. According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, “unlike a traditional IPO, SPACs first raise money through a stock offering and then hunt for a deal on which to spend the funds raised. CNBC explains the role of the SPAC, or so-called “backdoor IPO” here.

Bone conduction audio: Amazon is pioneering a new way for a wireless personal device to be heard without having to insert headphones. First application will be a pair of “smart glasses” (remember “glass-holes”?) that will enable the user to access virtual assistant Alexa.

 

Posted On September 20th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

How to be a lousy client (#6)

Your sh%$ doesn’t stink…

The news these days seems to be either a wonderful range of perp walks (Martin Shrekli, Travis Kalanick, Parker Conrad) or staged mea culpas (a rogue’s gallery of VCs and tech executives who have suddenly gotten religion about sexual harassment and inequity within their companies). But how they got to these points was clear: along the way they came to believe that their shit didn’t stink. (The NY Times has a great article on this phenomenon, called ‘moral disengagement’)—a belief system that was reinforced by those who supported them (among whose number, we have to believe, were their investors as well as employees.)

It’s great, after the fact, to blame the parents and school officials who allowed this behavior to proceed unchecked. But you play the cards you’re dealt, and if employees or investors don’t call your clients on their behavior, strategic advisors/marketing agencies have two choices:

  1. call your clients on their behavior yourself (and probably lose the account), or
  2. shut up and do the work, knowing that you’re kicking the same can down the road.

Crowded Ocean is in a unique position because we get in to a company early (during its formation or as it goes to market). And we’re working with CEOs (often tentative, first-time CEOs) directly and behind closed doors.

As a result, we can offer our advice as being couched in self-interest. (“We’re only telling you this because we want you to get phenomenally rich and we can claim responsibility.”) We also appeal to their vanity. (“Better that we tell you that your zipper’s down than that the market does.”)

Does that mean that we’ve been able to steer our difficult clients from the path of ‘moral disengagement’? Hardly, but we sleep a little better at night for at least being on the record about their behavior.

 

 

 

Posted On September 5th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

How many assholes does it take to tank a startup?

Below is a past blog post that triggered many favorable comments from readers. So, we’re bringing it back for our fans…

Despite the celebrated “no assholes” rule that many founders claim defines the culture of their startup or is a guiding rule for interviews/hiring, our experience is a lot of assholes slip through the net.

Here are some of the types that we’ve encountered:

Dick, the brilliant coder: This is a stereotype, to be sure, but where do you think stereotypes come from? These are the socially- and hygienically-challenged guys who live in their own bunker and aren’t allowed to interface with customers. The largest % of assholes is among the technical group, many of whom lack both the social skills and the self-awareness to even know they have a problem. And they get to skate because of a simple fact: no product, no company. Unfortunately, they will hire in their own image and then you’ve got an engineering team of assholes.

Dick, the sales chief: Just as CEOs will defend obnoxious behavior by citing Steve Jobs, VPs of Sales will defend their boorish behavior by saying the pressure they’re under to drive revenue (often when the product is late or still being created) entitles them to be an asshole. Maybe it’s in the DNA, but, unlike the technical founders, these guys (and they’re almost always guys) can control themselves. They just choose not to..

Dick, the board member who is a self-appointed expert in marketing: This guy surfaces when launch plans, timelines and fundamental positioning and messaging are being finalized. Because he is a board member, he can claim the freedom to exit the boardroom and wander the halls, opining about everything from product nomenclature to website structure. Under the guise of ‘just trying to help’ he (and they’re almost always guys) can either hijack or move the launch off its track. Trust us, we’ve seen it. If the CEO lets this go on, it can be incredibly destructive to the team.

Board members can bring pivotal insights and advice at critical points in the lifespan of a startup. But they never seem to offer advice as “a” point of view. It’s always “the” point of view (or an opinion that the offer as ‘fact’) that can sway the startup team in a way that shuts down conversation or consideration.

If you don’t believe us when we say assholes in Silicon Valley are a problem, read the book from 2007 by Dr. Robert Sutton. Or, better yet, take the self-assessment by none other than Guy Kawasaki.

 

Posted On August 29th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Why is the CMO role at a startup a turnstile?

Crowded Ocean spoke last week at the annual National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) meeting about a new framework for building an effective marketing program for enterprise startups. We call it marketing-as-a-service (MaaS).

This recent article in VentureBeat explains the MaaS model and how it works off of three basic principles:

  1. Hire the CMO last;
  2. Justify every hire;
  3. Hire only for the core; outsource the rest.

Below are answers to three of the top questions about MaaS that we addressed at the NVCA meeting and also on this new podcast entitled “How to find the right CMO for your startup”:

  1. Isn’t the problem that there is simply a shortage of trained marketing professionals?

Actually, the problem is that there is a different marketing skill set required during different phases of a startup’s life. The first phase is product management which is a highly technical focus on defining the product roadmap. The second phase is corporate marketing to drive the positioning, messaging and launch of the startup with a team of virtual specialists. The third phase is product-marketing, which requires a marketing leader steeped in the industry domain of the startup. A fourth component of marketing is about “instrumenting” marketing to automate and measure elements of marketing like content offers, calls-to-action, demand generation programs. No candidate that we’ve worked with in launching over 45 startups is versed in all four, so we suggest doing Product Management in-house with the founding team, outsourcing the launch to Corporate Marketing specialists, then hiring the CMO.

  1. How can a team of contractors actually deliver at the same level that a startup employee can deliver?

Startups should approach their staffing plans by having to justify every hire, which means hiring only for core capabilities. By understanding what is “core” to your company business and deciding to outsource the rest – particularly during the first two phases – a startup can keep headcount lean and can maximize the flexibility to build out the team after company launch.

  1. Do you have a way to measure the effectiveness of MaaS?

 Let’s start with the negative: The cost of hiring the wrong person to lead marketing, or hiring that person at the wrong time, is immeasurable, from market presence to team morale/retention to initial revenue. With best practices in marketing constantly evolving, Marketing as a Service lets you tap into marketing specialists in everything from web design to video content to email marketing—all without parting with a single headcount. The startup can stay lean, nimble and current while being prepared to iterate based upon data and feedback. Bottom line: the Marketing costs in a company’s earliest stages will be significantly lower than with the traditional Marketing model. And the initial success—however you choose to measure it—will be greater with this lean, focused MaaS approach.

Posted On August 16th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

The Importance of a Mentor for your Startup

In researching our book, The Ultimate Startup Guide, we went back and interviewed a number of our founders, the bulk of whom were first-time CEOs at the time. While it’s a cliché to talk about the importance of ‘knowing what you don’t know’ (a unifying characteristic of our most successful founders), a byproduct of this humility was the importance they attached to having a mentor, both in their earliest days (brainstorming ideas the researching the market) and in their tough moments in founding and managing an early-stage startup.

Knowing what you don’t know

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. The obvious mentor for the first-timer is a friend who’s just a few years ahead of them in the startup game, someone whose scars are fresh and on-point to what our CEO is facing. Or it can be a more established CEO—someone from their past that they admire and perhaps subconsciously (or consciously) want to emulate.

But sometimes the mentor falls a little further afield, such as the business professor who inspired them in the early going. Or the VC from a previous company who may have stepped back from the action and has time to meet and coach.

From The Ultimate Startup Guide:

We know of one young startup CEO who uses an established organization as a critical advisor. The CEO is a member of the Young President’s Organization, a peer group and network that offers education, support and idea exchange for young company CEOs. That’s a rarity. More commonly, strategic advisors are invited into the tent based upon their past relationships with the founding team or board or specific referrals by friends-of-the-founders.

The advisor role generally resembles a part-time consultant and reports to the founder, or perhaps a board member. The typical relationship between startup and strategic advisor includes a grant of stock options to the advisor in exchange for their counsel. (See the handy FAST document noted at the end of the chapter from Founder Institute for guidelines on the amount of equity.) Advisors typically report to the CEO and often get a lot of latitude and access to the startup team, early customers and board members. And a group of advisors that include marquee names can bring a halo of early shine to a company while still in stealth and certainly through launch.

But, remember: Every advisor you retain is going to require some of your personal time, so walk before you run. Start with one, maybe two advisors. (And making time for your strategic advisor outside of the office in order to cultivate rapport and trust will pay off. But, again, that’s your precious time you are committing.) So, make sure every advisor fills a strategic gap; is a complement to you and your personal style; is well connected, accessible and available to you. Once you’re an established company and you have a number of advisors in key areas—that’s the time to bring them together as an Advisory Board. Until then, recruit and manage them individually.

Finally, don’t overlook the idea of mentors in different fields. A friend who has been a VP of Human Resources (or still is) can be a great resource in staffing (and how to fire, if it comes to that). If asked to, they can help you not just with your current situation but with developing a long-term plan in their discipline that will help you grow the company.

Bottom line: it’s great to acknowledge what you don’t know. Mentors can help you do something about filling that gap in your experience and knowledge.

Posted On August 9th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Why startups need a “COO in a box”

For most of our existence, our clients have used the short-hand phrase ‘corporate marketing in a box’ to describe who we are and what we do. While the more accurate description might be ‘Marketing-as-a-Service (MaaS), we’ll answer to either one.

Recently, as more and more services, functions and departments go on an ‘as-needed’ basis, we’re seeing a new function evolve: The COO in a Box. It’s a function that, at least from our perspective, is badly needed at many of our startups.

Think about the standard enterprise startup: it’s usually founded by a core team of technologists, the most business-oriented of whom wants to be a first-time CEO. That’s a lot to handle, especially in terms of learning the ins and outs of sales, marketing, legal, support services, etc. When—and how—they need help will change with each company, but it’s the rare company that doesn’t need some sort of operational support in its early stages.

Here are the two times that we see the COO In a Box as being particularly valuable. The first is right after the launch. Up until that point, our experience is that the team has the capability and focus to do it on their own. Launching a company is an exhausting, all-hands-on-deck initiative, but it also pulls the company together, especially since it has a finite timeline and a nice payoff at the end. The question, post-launch, though, as everyone goes back to their regular jobs is: how are we going to sustain this momentum? That’s when a COO in a Box can help.

The second area usually comes around the Series B timing. The company has launched and had early success. Now it’s time to leverage that success and do the most important thing a new company can do: Scale. Again, the team is probably inexperienced and ill-equipped to scale, but a COO in a Box, if s/he has done this before (and they better have, if they’re marketing themselves as an experienced officer), is the right person to focus and align the company, leaving the CEO to focus on product, long-term planning and vision and the rest of the company to keep the engine going.