Milestones to Startup Success

Update added to end of post

When your startup accepts outside money (such as venture capital), you are obligated to focus on maximizing long-term shareholder value.  For most startups this is directly based on your ability to grow (customers, revenue and eventually profit).  Most entrepreneurs understand the importance of growth; the common mistake is trying to force growth prematurely.  This is frustrating, expensive and unsustainable – killing many startups with otherwise strong potential.

Most successful entrepreneurs have a good balance of execution intuition and luck.  This was definitely the case at the two startups where I ran marketing from launch through NASDAQ IPO filings.  While we didn’t follow a specific methodology, our CEO was intuitive enough to know the right time to “hit the gas pedal.”  We didn’t accelerate until verifying that the team had created a great product that met real customer needs and we could generate sufficient user revenue to support sustainable customer acquisition programs.  It’s taken years for me to realize that our growth was less a function of clever marketing tactics than beginning with something that customers truly needed.  Some growth would have been automatic; the marketing team simply accelerated this growth.

Several startups later I have a much better understanding of the key milestones needed for a startup to reach its full growth potential.  These are based more on observing universal truths than inventing some type of methodology.  Reaching the full growth potential of your startup requires focus, specifically focusing on what matters when it matters.  In my post on the startup growth pyramid I talk about the high level milestones you must achieve in order to unlock sustainable growth.  This post looks at it on a more granular level with links to several of my previous blog posts and other resources that provide additional details.

Day 1: Validate Need for Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

Before any coding begins it is important to validate that the problem/need you are trying to solve actually exists, is worth solving, and the proposed minimum feature set solves it.  This can best be achieved by meeting with the prospects most likely to need your solution.  Steve Blank published a great post on this today.

Eric Ries offers more details on the minimum viable product concept in this post/video.

Where’s the Love?

Vinod Khosla, one of the most successful Silicon Valley VCs in history, once suggested to me that startups should think of their early users as a flock of sheep.  He explained “the flock always finds the best grass.”

For you this means you should start looking for a signal about who loves your product and why as soon as you release your MVP.  Most products have at least a few people that truly consider it a must have.  These people hold the keys to the kingdom.  Learn everything you can about them including their specific use cases and demographic characteristics.  Try to get more of these types of people.

A good place to start collecting this information is the survey I’ve made freely available on Survey.io (a KISSmetrics product).    You can read more about this product/market fit survey in this blog post.

If you’re lucky you’ll be able to use this early signal to find the product/market fit.

Expose the Core Gratifying Experience

The majority of our project focus at 12in6 recently has been helping startups find their core user perceived value and exposing it in messaging optimized for response.  Your objective should be to remove complexity from the initial user experience and messaging in order to highlight this core user perceived value.  Often this means burying or even completely eliminating features that don’t relate to this gratifying experience.

Metrics

Metrics don’t matter until you achieve product/market fit – then they are critical to your success.  Dave McClure has a great video on startup metrics that matter (relevant part is at about minute 2:20).

Most of the tools out there provide way too many irrelevant metrics and miss the essential few.  Both Dave McClure and I are advising KISSmetrics on a solution to this problem.

Start Charging

Another key step before growing your business is to implement a business model.  The ideal timing for implementing your business model is discussed in this blog post .

I’ve often heard the argument that startups are focused on user growth and prefer to delay revenue in the short term.  I believe the fastest way to grow is with a business model and explain why in this blog post.

Extreme Customer Support

Now that you have a business model in place, your first marketing expense should be to expand the customer support team.  Anyone that cares enough about your solution to contact customer support is a great source of insight about your target market.  Also, customer support will uncover issues that will help you grow faster without spending.  And fixing these issues will make it much easier to grow when you do start spending.

If your customer support team is overwhelmed now, I don’t recommend trying to grow until you address the issues driving most support calls. Once you’ve addressed these issues you’ll have fewer barriers to adoption and will be able to grow without overwhelming customer support.

This will enable customer support to go above and beyond expectations, which is an important way to drive customer loyalty and enhance word of mouth.  This approach pays more dividends today than ever before – as I explain in this post on Social Media.

Update: See comments for additional thoughts on extreme customer support.

Brand Experience Over Brand Awareness

Back in the “Dotcom Bubble” days billions were wasted on brand awareness campaigns for startups.  Today most entrepreneurs understand that brand awareness campaigns are a waste of money for startups.

Instead, it’s much cheaper and more effective for startups to focus on creating a fantastic brand experience.  While startups often realize the importance of brand experience, they focus on it too early, fine tuning things that customers don’t care about.  Instead, wait until you understand why certain customers love your product; then obsess over every element of this customer experience.

Apple is probably the best tech company out there on coordinating a perfect brand experience for its target users. I cover more on brand experience in this blog post.

Driving Growth

Once you’ve achieved all of the previous milestones, then you can focus on driving growth.  CEOs must take an active role in driving customer growth whether or not they have an interest in marketing. Nearly all of the risk and upside in a startup is in your ability to gain customer traction and then drive scalable customer growth. The CEO should not abdicate this responsibility to the marketer.

It’s important to stay aggressive and take all slack out of the market (make it completely uninteresting to pursue the market for any other competitor).  Your early advantage is the ability to iterate on the customer feedback loop and leverage strong customer loyalty to drive word of mouth.

While ROI lets you know if a user acquisition channel is sustainable, the key focus should be on exposing lots of the right people to your fantastic product experience.  It’s much easier to get passionate and creative about this than purely thinking about things from an ROI perspective. Of course positive ROI is essential for any customer acquisition program to remain in the mix.

When it’s time to hire a marketing leader to partner with the CEO, this post explains my recommendations for an ideal startup marketing leader.  The most effective startup marketers are relentless about experimenting with channels until finding things that work.

Start by building out free channels such as listing in directories and basic SEO.   When you begin building paid channels, extra effort should be put into channels that show strong potential for scale.

Unfortunately you can’t count on effective online tactics working forever.  I’ve seen many hot online marketing tactics lose their effectiveness over time.  This is because online tracking makes it easier for marketers to quickly figure out what actually works.  As a result we start piling into the most effective tactics.   Eventually online tactics get saturated, as explained in this post.

Business building

Fast growing businesses are difficult to manage.  This is the point where you should bring in some experienced operations people if they aren’t already on the team.

It Won’t be Easy

Finally, the top three risks to growing via these milestones are:

  1. You lose patience and decide that one or more of the milestones really aren’t that important.
  2. VCs and/or board of directors lose patience because you did not achieve conceptual agreement on this approach from beginning.
  3. You delude yourself into believing that for “our type of business” customers really don’t need to consider our product a “must have”.  For us, “nice to have” is good enough.

Building a successful business is hard.  Hopefully this milestone driven approach to growing your startup will make it a bit easier.

Update: It’s hard to write a blog post on “milestones to startup success” that covers every type of startup.  Some startup types may need to reverse the order of some of these milestones.  For example, with marketplaces (EBay, social networks, eduFire, dating sites, etc.) user gratification increases with more users so there is a bit of chicken and egg here…  Ad supported sites also benefit from early scale. Many of the articles linked to from this blog post also cover exceptions such as when a startup should start charging (it’s different for enterprise targeted startups).

The Difference Between Word-of-Mouth and Viral Marketing

I often hear knowledgeable people say “that’s not viral marketing, it’s word of mouth.”  Rarely do they go on to try to explain the difference or why the difference is important.  I’m not sure why it’s particularly important, but I’ve tried to decipher the difference below.

The confusion probably stems from their shared potential for driving exponential growth rates by leveraging existing users.

Based on the two sources I’ve found that tried to answer this question (pasted below) and my own experience, I’ve reached the following conclusion.  The primary difference is that strong word of mouth is primarily based on a compelling customer experience while viral marketing is more “engineered” to specifically propagate a product.

It’s easier to “engineer” viral marketing into some environments than others.  For example, a few years ago my accountant in Belgrade asked me to download Skype so we wouldn’t run up a big phone bill.  Skype didn’t need to do a whole lot to drive this virality, but making it easier to invite friends improves their viral growth rate.  Like Skype, every new communication platform shares this viral characteristic (the first fax machines, early IM products or Facebook).  There is a strong incentive to tell other people to join the network, because it improves the value of your own experience.

Word of mouth, on the other hand, is really based more on doing a favor for the other person (clueing them into something unexpectedly cool).  TIVO is a great example of this.  There is no inherent usage benefit for telling other people to buy TIVO.  But it is such a surprisingly great experience that people tell their friends about it anyway.  Even if TIVO were to offer a free month of service for everybody you tell, I still wouldn’t consider this a viral growth driver.  It’s just incentivized word of mouth.

While they may technically be different, I’ll take either exponential viral growth or exponential word-of-mouth growth if I can get it.  Or even better combine the two.  Skype falls into this combo camp.  You’d probably be compelled to tell friends about the ability to make free phone calls (especially overseas) even if the software weren’t required on both ends.  The fact that you also benefit when they install the software only accelerates this growth.

Before you obsess over viral marketing and word of mouth, make sure you have completed these critical baseline marketing steps.

Here are links from other bloggers that try to answer this question:

Andrew Chen’s comparison is a response to the question I posted on his blog.  He mentions multilevel marketing and chain letters as a couple of great non-online examples of viral marketing (and MLM is an example of a non-communication form of viral marketing also).

Seth Godin’s post points out the decaying nature of word of mouth.  A great experience fades quickly when it reaches a couple links into the word of mouth chain.  However, this wouldn’t be the case if word-of-mouth referrals always result in a new user who also refers the product/service.

For more details on the process of engineering viral growth, see this earlier post.