Understanding your customers and key influencers (video and PPT)

Going deep and engaging with customers is a critical part of start-up success.  I recently did a talk on this at the Founders Institute outlining the ways I like to do this and with many examples from our early days at Gist.  If you are developing a new business idea, check this out.   Here is their description;

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In this talk from Seattle Founder Institute, T.A. McCann highlights the importance of understanding both your customers and competitors in depth. He also stresses the value of knowing your influencers, being an expert in your space, and expanding your tribe by trading value for value.


Status updates are critical – Thinkfuse is going away, but here are some alternatives

Building a company requires building a tribe (team, advisors, investors, users, partners…). To build a tribe, you need to provide frequent updates to make sure everyone stays informed, aligned and energized.   But, keeping these groups informed is a technical challenge. So, when I found the guys at ThinkFuse (during Techstars) I was overjoyed and joined them as a mentor right away. Now, 2 years later they have been acquired by Salesforce (awesome for them) but are now planning to shut down the service on July 25 (sad for us).

So, to replace them for my team, the companies I advise and lots of other people I recommend the service to, I am now trying out;

http://15five.com/ – seems like it has much of the Thinkfuse with templates, email summary updates…

https://idonethis.com/ – which is really simple and easy to set up.

www.weeklydebrief.com – Aydin (CEO of Thinkfuse) reccomended it to me.

A Quora question on the same subject here – http://www.quora.com/Thinkfuse/Now-that-Thinkfuse-is-selling-to-Salesforce-what-are-some-other-options-for-easy-organized-team-status-reports

If you have a very large list (like customers or users), you can use http://mailchimp.com/ (we did at Gist for our marketing), but this is overkill for smaller teams, investors, partners…

Also playing with a Google doc/Google Group solution for this as well.

The real key is to be able to add a group of people, create template-based status updates, (the system sends updates via email to the group), allow people to respond to the email with comments (preferably in-line with) and everyone can see a history of the updates and comments. Clearly a simple email distrbution list can work too, but has none of the nifty features of these other solutions.  Still looking for the right way to build the tribe.

Other ideas?


Startup partnering – 10 do’s and don’ts that make successful partners

I work with a lot of startups as a mentor, advisor and as a CEO on my own.  I am often asked about how, who and when to partner with other companies.  Here is what I usually say;

Don’t partner until you have product/market fit – It is very easy to be distracted by partners early in the life of a startup.  In these early days, you are still looking for the right blend of customer-value proposition, feature set and business model. Until you have this working pretty well (~10,000 users or 10 paying customers), I would not recommend doing much partnering.  Focus your very limited time and resources on building and iterating the product.  Once you know what you are all about and where it works, you will have a much cleaner story.

Don’t partner with other startups – Both companies are small and trying to find their way in the world.  They have high variability in what they are doing, when they could deliver and in what direction they are moving.   For partnerships to work, they generally take about 2-3 months to negotiate (if they are meaningful), easily 3 months to get implemented and then another 3-6 months before they start bearing fruit.  In that time (6-12 months) a startup could have easily changed direction a few times.  Here are some common scenarios that could happen during this timeframe:

  • The startups move toward each other and become competitors (bad partnership).
  • They move away from each other and then do not have the resources to deliver on what they agreed upon (bad partnership).
  • In many cases, they run out of money and then all the hard work is for naught (bad partnership).

In addition, most startups have very limited working code or value (customers, market share, other partners…) so before partnering ask yourself what you will really attain from the partnership. Don’t get me wrong, partnering with other software companies (assuming you are a software company) can be a good idea if it’s the right fit. If you’ve decided partnering is right for your startup, here are a few tips to help.

Focus mostly on marketing managers – These are the people who control marketing budgets, sales conferences and events.  This is where you will acquire customers or market awareness.  These guys are also usually frustrated that the product teams are too slow in delivering certain features that they deem important to the market or customers, and are more eager to fill the void with partners like you.  They also know what is happening on the ground (vs. biz dev people who talk a good game but cannot actually make too much happen) and can give you a good view into what go-to-market programs are applicable.

Start small and informal – It is easiest to start with inclusion in a specific event or marketing program.  Get a tactical win and learn from it. Do not try to over-engineer a broad partnership before you understand how you will be marketed and what some potential customers think of the value of your combined solution.  I like to pick events as it is time-based and usually puts me directly in-touch with a bunch of the partners customers and often times carries some press potential as well.  Attempt to “get on stage” by being the “cool new thing” that a marketing manager can show off or at worst try to lead a session in your specific area of expertise.

Look for a lead customer example/win – Assuming you can get inclusion in a tactical event or program, try to identify 1-2 potential high profile customer wins.  You should be able to know from talking to the marketing manager who the important customers are at any given event and double your effort there to meet them and develop a game plan for success.  In parallel, find the “most innovative and aggressive customers” the partner has and try to get traction there.  They are not likely the biggest, but are more likely to try your solution, quickly.  Focus on two big ones and two innovative ones and do not let yourself get spread to others until you win there.  As you make progress, keep using the specific names and examples as you talk internally at the partner. For example, “we are working with (marketing manager) and (salesperson) to deliver a joint solution at (important and well known customer) to show off and promote (important customer/scenario) as a leader in the space.”  If you can do this, everybody wins.  If you can get interest, you can leverage this to expand with other sales/marketing people.  You will need to keep this rhetoric going in every venue you can find as you broaden the story and footprint inside the partner company.

Find areas that they think are important, but do not have committed resources – This can be an emerging trending area in the space (e.g. adding social media to CRM applications like we did at Gist) or an area where a major competitor has good traction.  Give marketing and sales managers (and your now joint customer) useful market data and examples of others who are having success.  You need to be seen as the expert in the space and having data, examples, news articles and references from other thought leaders makes the story all the more real and creates pressure on the partner to see you as strategic and critical to their success.

Focus on working code – Big companies are slow.  This goes for the company you are partnering with and their customers.  So, focus on real working code and demos of your stuff and theirs.   Nothing gets execs more excited than seeing something working and it really greases the sales cycle or on-stage marketing demos.  In the absence of working code, do a really good job of “coding in PPT” which would include high-quality mock ups of the solution you are proposing vs. a bunch of bullets on a slide.  Make people think it is real and they can deploy it tomorrow and keep in mind “tomorrow” for them may mean months vs. days.

Focus on public APIs – If you are partnering with someone on the data or service level (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn…) focus on working and public APIs.  Anyone with good data gets a hundred requests a day from random startups like you to get access to something special.  Even with a good VC connection, they are not likely to want to give this to you, so don’t ask, just focus on making something cool and meaningful using their existing APIs and then demonstrate what you could do if you had more.  Also, if you have real user data in phase one (using only public APIs) that is compelling (> 10,000 for B2B and 100,000 for consumer services) and/or clear market differentiation, you are more likely to get a meeting, but asking for anything special is going to slow everything way down.

Try to do everything with a handshake until you have traction – Contracts take a huge amount of time and are usually very expensive (legal fees, travel and time).  So, try to do your first trial runs without any agreements in place (other than a standard NDA using the big companies standard forms).  Focus on the market (customers and market awareness) vs. looking at each others code.  If you can get good interest from the market or customers, then you can start looking at something more formal or longer term, but wait until you get strong interest from ~5 customers, sales reps, marketing people…

Finally, partnering like other things in a startup is a competency.  So, to be good at it, everyone in the company should have an understanding of what is required, that you are choosing this as a key way to expand the business and that everyone (investors, marketing, dev, test…) should expect to be engaged to make it work.

Overall, I generally think time is way better spent focusing on your own product, your own users and iterating as quickly as you can without the distraction of partners.  Have a different opinion or success story, share it here.  If you choose to go after deep partnerships, I wish you the best of luck!

image credit – http://screenrant.com/dumb-dumber-sequel-farrelly-brothers-schrad-103620/

5 key trends on the future of social and mobile

I am confident that a few things will be really important over the next few years (mobile and social).  Esteban Contreras put together this deck with lots of good stats.  Here are the ones I found most interesting with a few takeaways for entrepreneurs;
– WRT to social networking users, Indonesia and India are growing very fast, >50% year/year.  – learn what you can from scenarios that work in Indo and India
– Over 50% of Facebook users are “daily active users” – bet on Facebook and connect your apps, leverage the OpenGraph
– US social media ad spending to reach $9.B by 2016 – it is very early days for the social ad space, Facebook has lots of page views, but ads perform poorly relative to other strategies, focus on ways to make ads more powerful and relevant for FB users 
– over 6B mobile phone users, ~1B are smartphone now but growing rapidly, Android leading the volume game (~400M) – keep investing in mobile scenarios and despite the dev/test fragmentation challenges, think hard about Android
– Video will be really important in the near future (especially in developed markets).  Things like Viddy or YouTube Channels or Google Hangouts…lots of room for more “what’s next” scenarios, especially when you combine it with brands (placement and advertising)
Thanks @socialnerdia (Esteban Contreras) for putting this together.

When should you quit your day job to launch your startup?

Within entrepreneur groups, there seem to be lots of questions about when you should quit your day job and go full time on your new startup idea.  Generally, I am a fan of keeping your day job as long as possible as everyone needs money to live and having a day job means you keep that income and reduce the stress of paying rent and buying beer and pizza.  In addition, when you start your new company, you are likely to be working nights and weekends so training yourself, your friends and your family on this new lifestyle is a good thing.  Also, by having very focused time on your new startup (part-time vs. full time) you will focus on the most important issues, the “critical few vs. the important many”.  Finally, you will find that doing your new idea will take alot longer than you planned, so letting that time play out while you have an income is a good thing.  Here are some rules that I would apply;

  • Spend at least 3 months on your new idea – this means telling people what you are working on, finding customers, finding other people to work on it, making prototypes and getting comfortable that this is the one…
  • Develop a workstyle that involves at least 3 nights/week and 1 weekend day, preferably with other people who you want on the team.  This will get you into a rhythm.  You might try to do some specific things on each night (product dev, customer dev…) and get you/your team into some form of Agile sprint process where you can define meaningful progress on all relevant aspects of the business.  Get into the hard working habit.
  • Consider having 6-12 months of living expenses in the bank and discuss this with your family/partner/roommates…you need to know how you will pay the bills while you do the startup.  Depending on your progress, you could be courting investors at this time so that investment in the company is a trigger to quit your day job.
  • Have a commitment of 3 people who will join you and quit their own jobs and understand their parameters ($, focus, understanding of equity stake…) – to build a big idea, you need people and having them lined up before you jump it will be important.
  • Try to get verbal commitments from at least 10 customers (for b2b companies) or 100 consumers on how they would pay for your solution.   This is the hardest one to get, but if you are working on a big problem and you know where the market is, you should be able to have a group of people who are begging for the solution.  Sometimes not having a real product yet is even more powerful in the early days, but keep working on customer development, it will be critical.  Steve Blank has written about this extensively in his book The Four Steps to the Epiphany and you should read it.

If, after all these steps, you still have increasing excitement about the customers, problems, solutions and team, you can really consider taking the plunge.

image credit – http://www.etsy.com/listing/79054001/art-for-artists-motivational-print-quit