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Posted On November 16th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Make your brain bigger with these 4 new terms

Analog fever: Call it the rise of the retro or the nostalgic in modern culture, but a reaction to the digital revolution is emerging in the popularity of hybrid design in consumer products that combines simple design with embedded computers.

Meta-learning: A growing trend in AI research is to enable AI-enabled computer systems to master new skills. This will be a significant advance over the single-task systems and robots we know today.

Ethical hacking: When a corporation hires a team of “white hat” software developers or testers, it’s harnessing the power of the good guys to combat the “black hat” bad guys. Companies like @bugcrowd (former Crowded Ocean client) and others (HackerOne, Synack) use crowd-sourced vulnerability testing to help corporations prevent cyber attacks. This white-hat hacker explains all about it here.

YIMBY: New groups have formed in cities around the globe lobbying for the development of affordable housing. They call themselves “yimbys” for “Yes in my backyard”. The movement started in – wait for it – Silicon Valley where the cost of housing, including rental costs, is among the highest in the U.S.

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 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.

 

Posted On October 12th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Startups: Mission, Vision and Purpose statements

Readers of this blog know that we’re not big fans of ‘Mission Statements’. Even for those companies who aspire to—and perhaps even achieve—the goals of their mission, these goals are too often vague and euphemistic. Worse, they’re self-directed, focused inward, rather than out towards the market. In the early phase of building a startup, we practice sales-based marketing* and mission statements rarely helped your sales team open doors with critical early customers which is another reason we’re not in favor of them.

Purpose Statements, not Vision Statements

While we like ‘Vision Statements’, often as an early slide in an investor deck, there is an even better ‘statement’, one that combines Mission and Vision: the ‘Purpose Statement’. It has the benefit of being pragmatic, answering the question “Why are we in business?” More importantly, it has multiple audiences: for investors, a well-written Purpose Statement is more pragmatic than most Vision Statements. And for employees, a CEO can stand in front of a Purpose Statement and say: “This is what we’re all about. If your job isn’t in direct support of this statement, then we either need to change your job’s objectives or change the statement.”

Take a step back

Our suggestion: if your team is laboring over your Vision or Mission statements, take a step back and look at why you started the business in the first place. Then go from there.

* Sales-based marketing: The job of Marketing comes down to 3 words: Make Sales Easier. If it doesn’t initiate new sales, shorten the sales cycle, or make repeat sales easier, don’t do it.

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 26th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

How to make your company vision more like a cause

If you want to make your company vision feel more like a cause, write a manifesto. Here is our manifesto for building the ultimate startup.

  1. Hire the core and outsource the rest. Companies that distinguish their core (sales and go-to-market strategy, technology, product roadmap) from what can be outsourced or hired on-demand maximize flexibility in the face of a changing market dynamics and competition. For example, the program mix, orchestration and sequence of the marketing deliverables is what an experienced head of marketing owns. But, he/she can outsource to specialists deliverables such as SEO, content development, PR, event marketing.

 

  1. Pick your board carefully. Experience and true partnership trumps valuation. A team of experienced investors and advisors can help cultivate and coach a good team to become great. Worry about the structure of the deal (liquidity and preference) more than valuation.

 

  1. Leadership comes with a sell-by date. The familiar tropes of successful startup leaders are the demanding dictator with a mercurial temperament; the brilliant engineer with stunted social and leadership skills; the cerebral and brooding visionary. These are stereotypes today because we’ve seen them at the helm of successful startups over and over. But as soon as the sales numbers falter, out goes the leader. Nowhere is the tenure of the CEO more limited than in an early-stage startup. That’s why startup leaders have to constantly, relentlessly be vigilant that it’s the company that must triumph, not the leader.

 

  1. The most important attribute of company culture is how you make decisions. Successful startups understand where they are on the spectrum of company culture. Culture that matters has nothing to do with whether there are bagels on Wednesdays or free neck massages or whether there is a ping-pong or a foos-ball table on site. Successful companies can be consensus-oriented. They can be transparent or secretive. The but the core of the culture that matters is really all about how decisions are made and better decisions come from well-informed, diverse teams. Diversity as a value

 

  1. Team trumps technology. Smart teams can solve product-market fit misfires. So there is nothing more important to long-term success than hiring the right team. Assume you will make hiring mistakes, so recognizing and firing as early as possible is essential. Salute the industry data that shows diverse teams (gender, ethnicity, psychological) make better decisions and seek out diversity from the beginning.

 

  1. Nail down your positioning during your customer development phase. As you invest early in customer development to identify the profile of the target buyer and use case for your new product, build in time to start nailing down your positioning and messaging. Then, it’s the job of the VP of Marketing to bring a toolkit approach, including a knowledge of “best practices,” and a willingness to pilot new ideas and measure the results to figure out what works to gain early market traction for your new product out in the market.

 

  1. Successful marketing is upstream and integrated. There are steps in the agile software development process – frequent sprints, testing, iteration, repeat – that are popularly applied to company building as part of the “lean startup” mantra. But when it comes to marketing, startups still need to integrate marketing across all sales channels and across all functions and this takes experience and the discipline of planning. Protect your go-to-market strategy as “core”, so it can have its greatest impact positioned upstream in the planning process, at the management table, and right along side customer development.

 

  1. Sales-based marketing accelerates customer acquisition. If it doesn’t initiate sales or make repeat-sales easier, don’t’ do it. An almost rabid focus on customer development first, is what helps drive early market traction. But marketing still requires piloting, testing and measurement to figure out what works. There is no “single tool” approach that will accelerate customer acquisition and shorten time to revenue.

 

  1. Launch is one milestone in the process of building a company, not the finish line. Startups say they launch to “legitimize” their business in the eyes of customers. Some startups say that launch is needed to be able to attract the right talent to build their team in a competitive job market. Still others say launch is about wooing future investors and channel partners. Many say it’s all of the above. Bottom line, launch is about investing in getting your story out in the marketplace in a powerful, differentiated, memorable and unified way in order to connect with stakeholders in order to grow and scale your company. Launch is a milestone in the long life of your company. Don’t make the mistake of thinking of it as the finish line.

 

  1. There can never be too much content. Building market awareness and sales preference for your product requires a boatload of content. Your ability to capture the imagination of your target buyer and to break through the market noise requires a steady stream of new, fresh, updated content. Whether it’s written or rich media (audio, image, video), it’s got to be accessible and shareable and increasingly, it has to be personalized and snackable. Equipping your sales team or channel with the right tools to reach your prospect starts with compelling, consistent, quality content.

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 12th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Do you speak Silicon Valley? Test your vocab

Dark UX: the UI architects at sites like Facebook are investing in research and testing of subtle changes with “persuasive technologies” to their site to go beyond “increased engagement” by users to foster non-stop interaction, and critics say addiction. There is a sliding scale of intrusiveness, manipulation and safety attributes to elements of Dark UX say industry watchers.

SPAC: the new “special purpose acquisition vehicle” is an alternative route to public ownership for tech startups. 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.

Liquid democracy: making the power of the vote a digital capability that is combined with blockchains to make it secure as well as borderless. Theoretically, this would be the system that would allow a voter to delegate their vote to someone to represent them. The New Scientist explains in this article. There is even a Liquid Democracy organization based in Berlin.

Biohacking: the latest craze in self-improvement in Silicon Valley combines intermittent fasting with tracking of vital signs like body composition and blood glucose levels.