Category Archives: Positioning

Posted On July 5th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Building a startup: ingredient or solution?

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

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

Positioning your company based upon an ingredient

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

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

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


Posted On August 30th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

The Anatomy of a Successful Startup Launch

Ask anyone in Silicon Valley and they’ve got a theory on how to launch a startup. Most of them revolve around the role of Marketing. Those who doubt the value or efficacy of Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 9.04.47 PMMarketing cite the success of such startups as Slack, Atlassian and WhatsApp, who launched with limited investment in Marketing. But the other 95 need Marketing to grow their enterprise—click by click, demo by demo, free trial by free trial.

Having launched 42 startups, we’re often asked what are the ‘best practices’ in launching a company. So much depends on the market the startup is in as well as the company’s focus (B2B vs. B2C), but there are still some guidelines that apply across the spectrum:

  1. Launch with a cross-functional team. According to a feature in the latest 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.trough
  1.  CEOs need to be on the team, but as players, not coaches. If you want your launch to happen fast and well, put your CEO or co-founder on the cross-functional launch team. Otherwise you’ll spend more time socializing options and hunting down decisions than on getting things done. But make it clear to the CEO and everyone else: the CEO is a member of the team, not the leader. That role is reserved for Marketing. The CEO’s job is to reinforce the goals, deadlines and accountability of the launch. When tough decisions need to be made, it’s the team’s job to make them, the CEO’s job to support and implement them.
  1.  Banish pixel polishing. Part of the Steve Jobs legacy is his famous/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 ; and while this pursuit of perfection may be admirable in established companies, it can be fatal to a startup. A startup team in launch mode doesn’t have the time or the money to afford pixel-polishing. Just say no to pixel polishing and yes to “Done is good.”
  1. Beware nomadic board members. In a successful launch, board members should be heeded but not seen. Getting their input offline is both good business and good politics; but when we see board members ‘dropping in’ to the startup’s offices frequently prior to launch, it’s usually a red flag, a signal that the CEO is not strong enough to manage his board. In launch mode, feedback can be hugely valuable. But, it’s better to get feedback from early customers, not board members.
  1. Bring PR to the table early. There are two types of PR firms: ‘upstream’ strategic firms that have a seat at the big table in developing positioning and messaging and ‘downstream’ implementation firms. Startups should hire only upstream firms, then use their experienced outsider perspective to build a solid story that will attract attention and followers among media, analysts and industry influencers. Encouraging the team to challenge assumptions, build and test the message and advocate their point of view at the table.
  1. Build content early and often. Once positioning and messaging are established, start to work on the content. Launches are often delayed—once, even twice—due to product issues or customer feedback; but they should never be delayed because of lack of supporting content. You can never have enough content, so start developing—and reviewing—it the moment your positioning is finalized. Since iteration is a way of life in startup marketing, start drafting content early to hit your deadlines.
  1. 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.
  1. Anticipate—and prepare for–the trough. Before you launch, be sure to have a post-launch PR plan as well as 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, use smart planning to avoid the post-launch trough.

According to a CBInsights article from May 2015, your startup has a 1.2 percent chance of becoming a unicorn (a private company valued at $1 billion or more). Even so, there are a record number (but shrinking) number of unicorns roaming the Valley today. Success in unicorn-land has a lot to do with vision, team, and timing, but it also depends upon strong marketing and a great launch.



Posted On May 10th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Naming your startup (and 7 new tools to help)

We were recently asked to help name a new startup, and the process educated us on what had changed and what remained solid advice.crystalball

The new tools include name generators and crowdsourcing. In each case, you get what you pay for. The name generators are both random and incredibly prolix, filled with combinations of vowels and consonants that only a computer or a brain on peyote would yield. But most of them are free and playing with them might toggle an original thought for your startup.

Crowdsourcing is another matter. There are a number of firms out there (SquadHelp and Naming Force are but two) who have a solid group of marketers and would-be marketers who only get paid (prizes start at $250) if they name a winner. Definitely worth a try, given some of the solid results these have generated (which you can see on their websites).

If you decide to keep naming in-house, some basic rules still apply:

  • Keep the engineers out of the room. These guys (and let’s face it, they’re almost always only guys) often want the name to exactly represent what the product does. They also seem to like names with lots of ‘z’s’ and ‘x’s’ in them.
  • Pass the Sales Rep test: if, in introducing themselves, the sales reps have to either spell the name or can’t say it without wincing (too cute), go on to the next name.
  • Becoming a verb or common phrase (Google, Uber, Xerox, etc.) is ideal, but don’t get hung up on it. The market is going to make that call, not you.
  • Here’s one we recently heard: keep it to one word, 5-10 letters, with one of them making a hard sound. (Google, Honda, Apple, Exxon, Cisco, Mattel, etc.)
  • Remember mobile and email usages when choosing your finalists. This applies for the logo, especially.
  • Dictionaries are your friend, especially foreign dictionaries. One of our clients had a product that generated great insight into—and knowledge about—the network. The founder had a Yiddish dictionary: one of the words for ‘knowledge’ in Yiddish is ‘Kentik.’ A startup was born: Kentik.

Stuck coming up with a new name? Check out these five new name generators: Panabee, Naminum, NameMesh, NameBird, Wordoid


Posted On November 17th, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

What’s the BFD in Startup Marketing?

At Crowded Ocean, we’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of ‘game-changing’ startups. Looking back at them, we’re struck by how unaware most of the founders were about the impact their technology might have.Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 8.28.31 AM

At first we thought it was modesty, but actually what we have learned is that startup founders are often so wrapped up in the technology and building the product that they haven’t really spent much time discussing the larger business/market implications of their creation.

Which means that our job is to get our startup clients to think as Big (within reason) as possible. Our ally in this effort is often the investors, but even there we find that VC partners, often technologists themselves, often ‘got’ what these founders were all about (and the market implications) but, again, couldn’t fully articulate the game-changing nature of their investment.

So now, at the start of any startup marketing engagement—as we’re preparing for our Positioning/Messaging workshop—an initial homework assignment to the founders is for them to answer this question: “What’s the BFD (Big Fucking Deal) about what you guys are up to, anyway?” Nine times out of ten they come up blank or mouth some technical platitudes. We then revisit that question over the next three sessions, until we’re all happy with the answer. And the founders are usually stunned at how different their final answer is from what they started with.


Posted On October 1st, 2014 by Crowded Ocean

Keep It Simple – or, You’re Not that Interesting.

As we finish our Positioning/Messaging/Launch workshop with our startup clients, it’s time to turn all those ideas into Content. The first set of deliverables are usually two PowerPoint (and yes, most startups use PPT, not Keynote or Prezi) presentations—one for analysts and the other for Sales.

launch, outlook, planningAs we work with our startup clients, we start with Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 guide to PPT. Keep things to 10 slides, 20 minutes, and use a 30-point font. And everyone salutes, goes away and comes back with a slide deck that violates all of these rules—especially the first and third. They tried, and trust me, the story was just too complex or deep to fit within ten slides. And whoever heard of telling technology in 30-point text? It looks like you’re cartoonizing something that is very important.

Now, to be honest, we at Crowded Ocean have suffered from the same sins at times. But we try to reel ourselves back in and live by the 10 (no problem) 20 (again, no problem) 30 (well, a little problem) rule. But we’re a service company, and we realize that architectures and features are a different animal.

But not that different. Slides have a section called ‘speaker notes’ for a reason. We suggest to startups that you pack that area with specifications, as well as anecdotes that new sales reps can use in their maiden voyages. (As they get more experienced, they’ll swap in their own stories). The closer you can get to the 10/20/30 guidelines, the more impact you’ll have and the more will focus on you as the ‘expert,’ not the presenter.


Posted On December 23rd, 2013 by Crowded Ocean

What are the 3 most common tools for positioning a startup?

Here are the three most common tools we use in positioning a startup:

  1. The whiteboard – go crazy with paper and pen all you want, but the tool for invention and collaboration at startups is the whiteboard. Even better, the white wall, courtesy of products like IdeaPaint, can turn every wall in your office into a whiteboard for inspiration and doodles by your team. As the Wall Street Journal recently profiled, the whiteboard is a great tool for instant collaboration. And no room is safe – we even see mini whiteboards hung next to the toilet at some of our startup clients.
  1. The Magic Quadrantthis two by two matrix of the competition, pioneered by market analyst firm The Gartner Group, is the ubiquitous tool for outlining the competitive landscape. In our world of early-stage startups, the Magic Quadrant has become a required step in the positioning process.
  1. Powerpointin startup-land, we run across Keynote aficionados and even the occasional Prezi user, but the tried-and-true tool for translating an emerging company’s story into early sales leads is Powerpoint. In our experience, it’s actually an indicator of a rich, differentiated story if the startup founder’s slides violate presentation best practices — like too many bullet points, too many icons or too many slides overall. That’s an addressable problem: a dense story in need of recasting and simplification. At the end of the day, distilling a startup’s narrative into a concise Powerpoint deck is a critical step in nailing down the positioning.

Posted On January 14th, 2013 by Crowded Ocean

Startup Marketing and Creating a Strong UVP

For many of our startup marketing clients, the toughest part of the PMB workshop (Positioning/Messaging/Branding) that we do to kick off an account is to formulate a UVP, or Unique Value Proposition.  You would think it would be core to their thinking, since they founded the company around it and got people to either invest in or join based on it.  But all too often it’s ‘a bunch of things, really’ or ‘it’s too complicated to boil down to a single statement.’  So it goes undone, unless we push.

We’re sympathetic to our clients’ dilemma, especially since technology really is complex.  But in the UVP it’s not the technology we’re stressing, it’s what the technology does for the prospect.  And that can be done in a single sentence or two, if done right.  So here are some guidelines:

  • How are you different or better?  Quantifiably different or better.
  • How are you unique—and is that uniqueness important to your market or just to you?
  • What does your market want—that up to now they haven’t been able to get?
  • Are there companies beyond high tech that you can learn from?
  • What problem do you solve or how do you make your prospect’s life better?

Remember this:  what might be obvious to you isn’t always that obvious to your prospect.  They don’t care about you—they care about themselves and what you can do for them.  Keep that in mind as you develop your UVP.

Posted On November 28th, 2012 by Crowded Ocean

When is a pivot just a f__k up?

In our marketing engagements with startups, the core of our work requires that we define the essence of a company, its unique value proposition (UVP), and then align all marketing programs and investments to support this narrative. Defining that crisp and memorable essence and messaging is the bedrock upon which a successful startup marketing plan depends. And if we can’t nail down that UVP, there’s trouble ahead.

The startup market today, while heating up, isn’t as romantic or as successful as the press often makes it out to be. Today’s reality is that 3 out of 4 startups fail and, according to Reuters’ Felix Salmon, the majority of venture capital funds (which back startups today) do not outperform investment gains in the public markets. Studies of startups by The Startup Genome, The Kauffman Foundation, and Harvard University examined thousands of young companies looking for the keys to reverse those realities. They’ve come up with conclusions like startups with a single founder grow more slowly than a startup with at least two co-founders. And, startups that pivot once or twice raise more money and grow larger than those that don’t.

Professor Steve Blank in his book The Startup Owner’s Manual explains: “pivots are driven by the learnings and insight from a continuous stream of “pass/fail” tests you run throughout discovery and validation.”  Eric Ries, in his frequent presentations from his book The Lean Startup, describes a pivot as a deliberate change in strategic direction (not vision) based upon validated learnings.

Our take is that the more a company pivots, the bigger the bullseye on the back of the founders. It’s pretty straightforward. After all, it’s the guy or gal at the top who led the decisions that motivated the need to pivot. You may get one chance at a pivot, but beyond that, it’s usually time for a change at the top.

According to Professor Noam Wasserman’s new book The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup, “by the time start-ups raise the third round of financing, 52 percent of founder CEOs have been replaced.” And, the majority of those founding CEOs were fired by their own board. Maybe all that means is that we agree with those boards.

It may sound like a throwback to a simpler time with longer product lifecycles, but maybe all this talk about pivoting is really telling us to examine the caliber of the leadership team, and their track record which are vital to building and growing a startup team to tackle inevitable challenges, solve problems and build a successful company together.

Posted On September 6th, 2012 by Crowded Ocean

Startup Naming and Missing Vowels

The subject of naming comes up a lot in startup marketing. We’ve written before about the importance of naming your startup and the challenges in setting the visual identity portion of your company’s brand. But there’s one trend in naming we’d like to put a stop to right now.

That’s choosing a name with no vowels.

Take the new enterprise startup Sqrrl. It’s a spinout from NSA and it’s in the super-heated big data and security markets. With great funding from major venture firms, the future’s so bright. But the name makes the company look small and consumer-focused. If you had to guess, you’d probably think a web app.  And if you heard the name, how would you spell it?

Take the consumer fashion startup Srsly, pronounced “seriously.” Nice write up in the New York Times, but how do you spell the name of this startup? If you see the name written, do you know how to pronounce it?

You have to ask yourself: do either of these names help make the company behind them seem large, established, trusted, innovative?

Maybe choosing names with no vowels is evidence of the impact of Twitter and texting. Maybe founders think that in today’s world you can always pivot to a new name just like you can pivot to a different market or business model. Whatever the reason, if your prospective customer, partner or employee is going to have to ask how to spell the name of your company, it’s a bad name. Go back to the drawing board. Better yet, get some professional marketing help.

Posted On July 12th, 2012 by Crowded Ocean

Startup Marketing: Positioning and Euphemisms

I started losing my hair at 28, so I had to re-calibrate my vanity early on—and my vocabulary. In those early days (before I went with the buzz cut, using the same electric clippers we use on the dogs) going to the barber was always an interesting exercise in semantics.

“How long do you want me to leave it?” my Supercuts ‘stylist’ asked uncertainly. I knew where she was going with this one: The Combover.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, some men like you who are….”

“Careful,“ I said. “Your tip depends on the next word.”

“Thinning?” she said faintly.

“Thinning is good,” I assured her.

Thinning is not ‘balding’. Point for Supercuts ‘stylist’.

I watched an equally adept positioning exercise the other night when Melinda Gates visited The Colbert Report. As the Gates Foundation tackles the divisive issue of family planning, she danced away from terms such as ‘contraception’ and evoked the concept of ‘family spacing’ and all its benefits for women and families.

We counsel our clients that they don’t have the money or the time to create new categories. But they can create new terminology—and reshape existing terms—to their advantage. When they do that, they should take guidance from Melinda Gates and the woman from Supercuts.