Category Archives: Our Clients

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 December 28th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The soft launch

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

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

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

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

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

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

The un-launch

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

The serious launch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted On November 11th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

How to stay small – startup marketing in reverse

We’re on the ground in Silicon Valley. We’re not reading term sheets or balance sheets of our startup clients. We don’t have insight into a startup’s burn rate. But we see different kinds of warning signs when we work with early-stage companiesScreen Shot 2014-11-11 at 1.52.22 PM that we’d like to flag right now:

  • Cubicles for everyone: People marvel that Steve Jobs cared so much about office design and purposefully created work environments that fostered easy interaction between different groups. But, he also gave his people offices because serious thought and serious conversation or confidential conversation requires privacy and quiet. When we see too many senior execs of a startup regularly heading to the parking lot to conduct important phone calls, you’ve got to ask why universal cubicles are a good thing.
  • DIY PR : Yes, we’ve seen amazing news coverage created by media-savvy tech execs. But they are a rarity. And what didn’t get done while that exec was chasing the reporters? If you have a lean team, that means that at a critical juncture in the growth of your startup, you’re going to have to bring in the pros and invest in a full PR program to put your rocket startup into orbit. In other words, ask yourself how many jobs you can seriously do well and whether you want to trust the importance of your media and analyst relations to one of your over-worked execs.
  • Make bullshit bingo a company sport: Is everything ‘compelling’? Do you worry about what ‘resonates’? Is your voice authentic? Are rhetorical questions and jargon wearing you out? As the new book Sense of Style by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker reminds us, simple language can be a powerful tool for effective communication and marketing. And we think that really applies to buzzword-laden startups.
  • Put mission statements on the wall: Forget the bromide ‘mission statements’ that speak to corporate values or goals of being ‘the best goshdarn_____ in the industry.’ Instead, we like vision statements because that’s where a team is going and a vision statement usually communicates to an investor and to an early customer that a startup team can see a bigger picture. A startup may enter the market with a tool or a point-solution but startups that see and communicate a consistent vision to solving a bigger problem for customers are startups to watch and invest in.

Posted On January 29th, 2013 by Crowded Ocean

Startup Marketing and the NetCitadel Launch

Without sounding too sappy, one of the reasons we founded Crowded Ocean is the satisfaction we get out of helping founders and their core team realize the vision on which they founded the company.  For most of our clients, that signal moment is The netcitadel logo

The process—in terms of our involvement—begins with the PMB (Positioning/Messaging/Branding) workshop, an engaging and sometimes contentious two-week process where we analyze and often revise our clients’ vision, position in the market, messaging, sales propositions and proposed culture. Then we take all that input and move into the Content Marketing phase, where we build out the website, SEO strategy, white papers, videos, collateral and presentations for core audiences (analysts, press, customers and investors).  Finally, we package all that up, combine it with a PR strategy, and enter the Go-To-Market phase to drive sales and scale the company.

The transition from Content Marketing to Go-To-Market is the company launch. Today, we participated in our 20th launch, an innovative network security company called NetCitadel. They’re turning the security market upside down with their new ‘Security Orchestration’ technology, which brings intelligence into the core of the network, turning existing security devices from “dumb” into context-aware tools that can deal with the latest innovations in virtualization, cloud and BYOD as well as continuing threats.  Check out press coverage of their launch and their rich website.  And congratulations to the NetCitadel team.

Posted On August 9th, 2012 by Crowded Ocean

What Do Pop-Tarts Say About Your Startup?

It’s a very common practice these days for a startup to bring in lunch every day for its team. In our travels in Silicon Valley, we see quite a range of food types. We’re getting pretty good at doing the forensics on what food types say about your startup and the challenges ahead. Here’s a sampling:


While pop-tarts are a timeless classic for U.S. college students everywhere, it skews to an older crowd. And it’s a truly rare offering in the array of junk food choices made available at most startups. If we see pop-tarts in the vending machine, it’s either an idiosyncratic choice of a talented engineer or we’re looking at an older crowd that’s probably got some dated marketing practices. So if we see pop-tarts, we also start noticing how many printed brochures and direct mail pieces are still in use. Pop-tarts tell us we need to gird ourselves for introducing the team to some of the new basics like email marketing.  Pop-tarts can mean real trouble ahead!


Right off the bat, a trough of hamburgers and all of the fixings signals a male-dominated team of programmers. Average age: well under 30. The famous documentary Super Size Me about the health consequences of a diet of junk food, and specifically McDonald’s junk food, debuted 8 years ago in 2004 (when a lot of hot coders were probably in college or maybe still in high school.) Nevertheless, hamburgers appear to be a staple in Silicon Valley. Even in health-conscious Northern California, home to foodies and local organic farmer’s markets, hamburgers are the fuel of programmers. By the way, if you see the “suits” at lunch at the trough with the coders, that’s a really good sign in our book. That’s today’s version of MBWA (management by wandering around) that means the startup team may be diverse but it’s connected.

Posted On April 14th, 2011 by Crowded Ocean

Startup Leadership: 3 Mantras for Building a Company

In a tribute to our client EndPlay on their launch this week, we want to share three favorite quotable quotes from the founding chairman, president and CEO Dr. Christos Cotsakos, Internet legend and digital media guru:

  1. “No plan survives the first point of contact.”
  2. “Never give up.  Never surrender.  There’s always another move.”
  3. “Leading at the edge: that’s what we do.”

That’s the kind of drive that makes a launch come together in a mere 70 days.

Congratulations to the team.  They are building a different kind of company and they intend to transform the web content management market.

And they are hiring.  Check out their 17 open jobs.

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Posted On April 11th, 2011 by Crowded Ocean

EndPlay Launches at National Association of Broadcasters

Our client EndPlay is officially launching today at the National Association of Broadcasters Show (NAB) in Las Vegas. EndPlay is led by Dr. Christos M. Cotsakos, founding chairman, president and CEO.  The team is previewing its new WCM (Web Content Management) platform for media companies this week at NAB.  Check out the news here.

EndPlay is a SaaS-based solution, powered by Intelligent Rendering technology, that will transform the way businesses engage audiences, and develop, monetize and deliver media-rich content on virtually any device.

Christos was Chairman and CEO of the E*TRADE Group, a pioneer in personal online investment. He also served as global co-CEO, president, and COO of AC Nielsen, where he led its transformational change in strategy and direction. He joined FedEx in its early days and spent 19 years building its global transportation and logistics network. Christos views the WCM market as an industry ripe for transformation.

On February 1st, we kicked off a positioning-messaging-branding workshop with Christos and team.  Barely 70 days later, EndPlay is launched with a new name, branding, websites, sales tools and PR team.  Follow this amazing team’s progress on Facebook and Twitter.

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Posted On March 23rd, 2011 by Crowded Ocean

Snaptu Acquired By Facebook

Facebook Acquires Snaptu—an Israeli startup (and former client) that provides ‘smart-phone functionality’ to feature phones. It’s a nice exit for the team and we’re proud to have been part of their success.

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