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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.

 

Posted On August 1st, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

New terms in startup-land: August 2017 edition

Chipmunk speed: podcast fans are flooded with so many choices of content these days that avid listeners have started to consume content at 1.5X or 2X (or more) the normal speed using the feature in the podcast app settings. Maybe this is a new way to keep up with your friends and startup denizens: speed-listen to your favorite podcasts and consume more in the same amount of time.

Smishing: short for “SMS phishing”, this security attack targets a user to download malware onto their cell phone via text message, rather than email.

Cyber-physical systems: that’s a physical system that can be manipulated by digital means, such as an industrial pump, could be vulnerable to a cyber attack. Security researchers at the 2017 BlackHat Conference illustrated how industrial systems in physical infrastructure that’s far beyond traditional security barriers, can be quietly hacked.

Bimodal IT: the new label for corporations that are managing legacy systems while embracing new technologies like AI and machine learning. According to a recent survey of CIOs, senior IT managers and other IT decision makers, 79% said they are already or are planning to adopt a bimodal IT strategy this year.

Posted On July 24th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

On the radio: startup strategies with Crowded Ocean

Check out Tom and Carol interviewed about The Ultimate Startup Guide:

Listen to KGO Radio 810 Techonomics with host Jason Middleton

  • Part one (11:44 minutes)
  • Part two (19:06 minutes)

Check out more about Techonomics Radio on Facebook.

Posted On July 17th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

A Manifesto for Startups

The following article by Crowded Ocean partner Tom Hogan originally appeared in AlleyWatch:

When we work with our startup clients to help them position and launch and develop programs for early sales success, one item that we encourage them all to have is a ‘manifesto.’ It’s a core document that explains to the market the original thinking—some of it provocative, some of it just compelling—that went into the company’s founding and original whiteboard sessions. That document can either stand alone on the website or be parsed into a series of articles and blogs.

Taking our own advice, we developed The Crowded Ocean Manifesto, which contains a number of provocative ideas for our startup clients to consider. Here are some excerpts:

Team trumps technology

VCs will tell you they invest in teams first, technology second. Smart, well-functioning teams build smart, well-functioning products. But if something goes wrong, smart teams recognize errors earlier, respond quicker and make better decisions. Smart teams can solve product-market fit misfires. And be guided by the industry data that shows diverse teams (gender, ethnicity, psychological) make better decisions and build more profitable businesses. Make diversity part of your culture from the beginning.

Hire for your core:  outsource the rest

Determine what is core (or ‘essential’ to your success). Be harsh in this determination. Staff to those functions and outsource everything else. On-demand resources are cheaper and usually more experienced than a general in-house hire. For example, the CMO owns building, orchestrating and executing the Marketing or Go to Market plan, but should outsource the specific components, from PR to SEO to content development to event marketing.

Positioning is something you develop with the Market, not something you thrust on it

Your customers—not your Product group—are the ultimate arbiters of what product you should build (and what market you’re in). So as you interact with your early customers, identifying your target buyers and use cases, use that information to develop your positioning and messaging. Then make sure that as Marketing develops and deploys these in core programs, that you continue to check in with your core market and adjust accordingly.

You can create a market segment, but not a new market category

As a startup, you don’t have enough time or money to create a brand new market category for your product. Focus on defining a new market segment and growing from there. Identify the market influencers who can help define or endorse your segment and build market understanding. Don’t try to go it alone.

How you make decisions is critical not only to your emerging culture but your long-term success

Company culture may initially focus on Bagel Wednesdays, free neck massages and a foosball game on site, but it ultimately has to do with how decisions are made—and who makes them. Great CEOs let their employees know what’s going on in company meetings, solicit their input, then ultimately make and implement the decision, communicating to the company clearly and decisively. The company knows that it’s been heard and also has the positive feeling that it’s being led by a confident leader.

You can never have enough content. So plan accordingly

The normal enterprise sale requires a minimum of 7 customer touches. So unless you want your sales reps to be chihuahuas tugging at their customers’ ankles with nothing new in their arsenal, you’ll need to provide Sales with at least 7 pieces of supporting content. Market awareness, inbound traffic, sales preference:  they all start with Content. Develop a steady stream of unique, compelling content that captures the imagination of your target buyer by breaking through the market noise. Whether it’s written or rich media (audio, image, video), your content has to be accessible, shareable and increasingly—it also has to be personalized and brief enough to be consumed in a single sitting.

No one is replaceable, including you

A smart CEO should know going in that the company and market may outgrow his/her capacity to lead it. History shows that by the time a startup has raised its third round of financing, 52% of founding CEO’s have been replaced, most of them fired (or re-deployed) by their own board. Leaders with longevity are self-aware enough to ask for help to close their own gaps. True leaders know they are building a kingdom, not a king. And if they want to remain the king, they listen and learn from their Board and mentors, rather than letting their ‘inner Steve Jobs’ set their leadership style.

Conclusion

Is a Manifesto always right? No. But any company or organization needs to stand for something, to take a position on core issues and live by those beliefs. If the market (and that can include your own employees and Board as well as those you’re selling to) shows you the errors of your way, seek a new way. And when you’re confident that you’ve reached a new level of certainty and execution, modify and re-publish your Manifesto.

Posted On July 11th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Three new terms in startup-land

New-collar jobs: an emerging job category in the U.S. is skilled workers who do not have a four-year college degree but who can qualify for so-called “middle-skill” jobs Economists applaud the trend as a new route to the middle class and evidence of opportunities through skills-based jobs. 

Manterruptions: California Senator Kamala Harris was repeatedly interrupted during her questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a Senate Committee hearing in June. As a result, she’s become the poster child for this bad habit and the double standard that women leaders experience in the workplace. Her predecessor in this controversy surfaced two years ago in the lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins filed by female partner Ellen Pao. Pao described the company culture at KP as “interrupt-driven” and was even offered “interrupt coaching” to help her acquire the skills to hold her own with aggressive male colleagues.

Steganography: a new source of cyber security alarm is the concept of hackers hiding malicious code or content inside benign software. It’s possible, for example, to hide malicious information inside an image.

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 June 28th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Startup Hiring: Get Out of the Cocoon!

In today’s increasingly competitive hiring market, the advantage is clearly with the job candidate, not the company. As a result, companies often hire rapidly, only to regret the lack of a strong vetting process later, when the new hire turns out to either be overmatched or a poor cultural fit.

The former is rarely the case when it comes to technical hires, since their peers are generally able to sniff out the overmatched candidate in early interviews. But in roles with broader, less defined boundaries, such as Marketing and Sales, it seems to be easier to make a hiring mistake. Sometimes, it’s that technical founders lack the experience and instincts to successfully hire a non-technical role and this is a problem that VC board members often identify as a common early stumble.

Cultural diversity pays off in building for the next growth stage

One way startup founders can limit their hiring mistakes is to get an outside perspective. A startup runs at a certain pace and has a certain set of values, which often makes it difficult to recognize the potential of a candidate who doesn’t immediately fit into that cocoon-like environment. But consider two things: 1) the candidate who doesn’t immediately fit may broaden the company’s perspective, leading to more success; and 2) that same candidate may be a better fit for the next stage of the company—just when the earlier-stage employees are running out of ceiling.

As we’ve noted in these earlier blog posts, “Diversity in your startup: psychological diversity”, and “When should your startup focus on diversity”, hiring for diversity pays off in smarter decisions and better business. So, whether it’s a Board member or a trusted Friend of the Company (an advisor who has some incentive, such as equity, to dedicate time and effort to the process), broaden your hiring process to get the fullest possible perspective—and the best possible candidate.

 

 

Posted On June 20th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

The Overlooked Startup ‘Office Manager’

One of the staples of news coverage of the early days of Silicon Valley was the story of the original ‘office manager’ at ________ (Name your hot startup) who got stock options along with every other early employee and, years later, was able to retire early and wealthy when the company went public.

In the early days of Silicon Valley, this Office Manager was typically a woman who served a vital role as a “jackie of all trades” keeping the place running, operationally, culturally and psychologically. She was an intrinsic part of the company culture and the resulting success and deserved every share (and resulting dollar) that came her way.

Over the past two decades the importance and visibility of the Office Manager has waned, in some cases considerably. While the position is now gender-neutral, it’s also junior in nature, often given to a first-time employee with promise. That person then graduates to a position such as Sales Operations or Marketing Coordinator (usually focusing on events) and is off and running with his/her career.

Yes, a Chief Culture Officer

But we counsel our startup CEOs to take the position seriously and to hire someone who is not only comfortable staying in that position but who can leverage their experience across the company to “own” and nurture the company culture. We believe that in this new era, the Office Manager is so important that they should become the company’s ‘Chief Culture Officer’, someone who not only helps the founding team develop the company—its brand, values, talent and culture—but can speak truth to power when the company goes off-track in any of these areas.

So, as you build your company, determine the importance of the role of the Office Manager and hire accordingly.

 

Posted On June 13th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Four new terms in startup-land; one inspired by Trump

Prebuttal: a pre-emptive rebuttal, a prebuttal is familiar to anyone following politics and the circus that is President Trump’s administration and Washington D.C. these days.

Neurotech: an emerging field that combines neurology, neuroscience, neurosurgery and the hardware of smartphones is changing the lives of people with innovations like deep-brain stimulators.

Neural lace technology: a hardware innovation of billions of tiny brain electrodes that “may one day allow us to upload and download thoughts,” according to Elon Musk.

FAANG stocks: the giants of technology stocks are closely watched and often trade up and down as a block. That’s FAANG, which stands for Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google (Alphabet).

 

 

Posted On May 31st, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

New terms are bubbling up in startup-land

Fat startup: According to the New York Times, the changes in capital markets now favor startups with grander visions and needs for funding levels on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. As a result, “ideas that once seemed too expensive, too risky or just too crazy are now getting off the ground.” These start-ups are “fat” with capital funding and ambition.

Stack logic: The concept of a “software stack” is well understood in tech-land as separate layers of software working together to accomplish a task. The metaphor of a stack has now bled over to futurists and trend-watchers to describe a common set of resources according to this recent New York Times article.

Genericide: So far, the courts have held up the trademark protection of “Google” but it is quickly following the path of aspirin by transitioning into the mainstream as a verb and thereby causing Alphabet (the Google mother ship) to lose its trademark protection.

Hiring pipeline: This phrase is being used over and over to explain why real progress in gender and ethnic diversity is not evident in management and leadership roles at technology companies. As the theory goes, there simply aren’t enough qualified women or people of color coming into the candidate pool. But there’s more to it, of course.