I spent a fun evening with Steve Blank’s class. Here are the slides from my guest lecture. There are a few additions to the slides I presented at Seedcamp last month in London. Slide 14 is new and there are major edits to slide 2.
CEOs often ask for my advice on the ideal candidate profile to lead their ongoing customer growth efforts once we’ve completed the key steps to unlocking growth. You would think that after running marketing at two startups through IPO filings that I could easily answer that question. But I’ve struggled to define the ideal profile of a successful startup marketing leader. After many course corrections, I finally believe I have it figured out. But to really understand the ideal profile, it is important to comprehend why the role is so challenging.
Based on anecdotal evidence, I’d guess that 90% of startup marketing leaders don’t work out. This corresponds to the overwhelming majority of startups falling short of expectations of founders and early investors. When a startup falls short of expectations, the startup marketing leader is the first to go. Even those fortunate enough to gain early user traction still face the uphill battle of finding cost effective ways to acquire users at scale. And if they do succeed, then startups are often tempted to hire a “next level marketer” to replace them.
A successful startup marketing leader must be undaunted by these risks and believe they uniquely have what it takes to succeed. That sounds a lot like the profile of most startup founders. So it’s not surprising that the best startup marketers are entrepreneurs at the core. Entrepreneurs are willing to take the risk and are generally tenacious enough to uncover the channels necessary to drive long-term growth.
I came to this conclusion after finding the common thread between myself and the two most effective people I’ve met at uncovering growth channels. One is still CEO of his company but has done more to drive customer adoption with a fraction of his time than most startup marketers do with undivided attention. The other highly effective startup marketer is a founder that transitioned to leading marketing. They share a persistent desire to connect their innovative solutions with the people that really need them. After implementing critical tracking systems and an efficient customer acquisition process, they are now relentless about experimenting with channels until they find things that work.
Contrast this to a typical marketer, who is generally more focused on marketing activities than marketing results. Most of these activities do nothing to move the needle on the business, but make the marketer feel good because they are working hard.
It may be tempting for a startup CEO to read this and think that aggressive targets can steer the marketer in the right direction. I don’t think that will work. Effective marketing leaders will challenge themselves by pushing the boundaries of the startup’s growth potential. The CEO should be a partner in this process rather than setting arbitrary unrealistic goals. If you don’t have confidence in your marketing leader, the founding CEO should micromanage the process by being an active participant in channel brainstorming sessions and challenging the marketer to ensure tests have been implmented to perfection. Once you have created a product that people really want, most of the remaining company risk and upside lies in your ability to aggressively drive customer adoption. This is not something a CEO should abdicate to the marketer until they’ve demonstrated a relentless drive to uncover profitable customer acquisition channels.
The CEO can also facilitate channel discovery by ensuring that the marketing leader gets the tracking systems they need to execute marketing efficiently. Of course the marketer should be able to make a case for why these resources are important.
What about successful startups that had an initial marketing leader with a more traditional background? First, there is nothing wrong with a traditional marketing background if at the core the marketer is entrepreneurial. Second, the marketer does not always deserve credit for strong user growth. Sometimes great products really do market themselves. My experience with Dropbox certainly supports this assertion. Also, I recently spoke to the former VP Marketing at a company that sold for billions and he agreed that his most important growth contribution was not getting in the way of the viral growth engine.
Of course the risk in hiring an entrepreneur to lead your marketing is that they’ll eventually leave to start their own company. Agree that this is an acceptable outcome if they are willing to give you at least a couple years.
Finally, only the marketing leader needs to be entrepreneurial. In my experience, it is not an essential characteristic for the rest of the marketing team.
Seedcamp is an innovative program that brings experienced entreprenuers together with a batch of several promising new startups from all over Europe for a week of mentoring. The best of these startup receive 50,000 pounds, but the mentoring is worth far more than that… Seedcamp provides a fantastic model for any region trying to replicate the startup ecology that has helped Silicon Valley thrive.
In addition to mentoring several of the startups directly, I also had an opportunity to present to the full group yesterday. Here are the slides I presented:
My favorite startup from the third session at TC50 was SeatGeek. Overall SeatGeek appears to have a strong value proposition – “buy event tickets at the right time and save substantially over the peak price.” It’s very similar to farecast, but for event tickets (sports, concerts, etc.). The product, market and business all seem to work/fit since SeatGeek is already profitable. The big question for a startup that reaches profitability and overcomes these big challenges is: Can it scale?
Based on their stated metrics, net proceeds from the average transaction to them is around $50 (10% of $500). Once they’ve acquired a user, lifetime value could be substantial (if we assume 10 transactions over their lifetime, lifetime value would be pushing $500). Within that allowable acquisition cost, there should be many scalable marketing opportunities.
I may have missed it, but I didn’t hear them address the specific way they would market the business. My assumption is that they would market primarily through search (both SEO and SEM). Given the breadth of events, there should be several keywords to test in order to find profitable, scalable customer acquisition channels. They also have strong alternative monetization ideas to further improve their allowable acquisition cost and/or profit per customer.
One potential competitor is FanSnap, which is a price comparison engine on tickets across sites. I believe the primary improvement SeatGeek brings is a price predictor, since according to SeatGeek prices often drop.
It’s a bit strange that I’ve picked another “kids targeted” startup from the second batch of startups as my favorite – kids are a notoriously difficult market to acquire online. But in the case of ToyBots, I believe they are targeting a fantastic opportunity. It is likely that connected toys will be the next generation in toys and I love their example of having grandma read a story to the grandkids through the toy.
I believe Webkinz laid out a good marketing roadmap for this type of startup. My kids couldn’t walk into a Justice (previously called Limited Too) without asking for another Webkinz. I didn’t mind buying a stuffed animal, but am a little more hesitant to offer the kids my credit card for online purchases. From a business perspective, I was intrigued when my kids ripped off the virtual currency and threw the toy into the corner – never to be played with again.
ToyBots can create a tighter link between toys and a web experience than Webkinz, but leverage the same types of marketing channels. My recommendation would be to link the licensing to the marketing opportunities. The toy makers already have great distribution, but very few subscription opportunities. ToyBots can improve the ongoing engagement with kids for each toy manufacturer – increasing monetization opportunities and possibly creating a direct customer acquisition opportunity for manufactures to cross promote new toys.
It’s difficult to know how much progress they’ve achieved, but announced partnerships suggest that this isn’t a half baked idea.
I’m at TC50 and plan to write quick thoughts about demos that catch my attention. This is very “on the fly” so it will be pretty rough. I’ll try to clean it up later. Videos of the demos will be posted online, so I’ll add links when they are available.
ToonsTunes is my first…
- Who needs it/why?(They claim to be targeting Tweens, but the demo looked like it would appeal to a younger demographic. I think children 7-12 would probably enjoy this product, but would want to validate with research.)
- Product progress? (Great graphics, looks well developed.)
- Are they willing to pay for it/how/how much? (business model)
- Freemium (enhanced), Sponsorship, Merchandise
- I’d recommend premium subscriptions to save music
- Are there realistic ways to acquire users within economic constraints? (marketing)
- Viral (via parents social networks) – this is a great idea.
- I’d also recommend marketing via popular sites for kids.
- Is the likely cost of acquiring users plus marginal cost of service less than value per user? (business economics) - This would require a lot more exploration. But I like their idea of giving parents the ability to display their kid’s work via FB, etc. Not sure about licensing costs to music labels if they “borrow” from popular songs.
I’ve recently changed my long held belief that all startups should charge immediately upon the release of a new product. I now believe that non-enterprise targeted startups should only charge once you have achieved product/market fit. As explained in this earlier post, I define product/market fit as at least 40% of your active users saying they would be “very disappointed” if they could no longer use your product.
The evolution in my thinking to charge only after product/market fit is based on finally working with some “normal startups.” The first five startups I helped take to market all amazingly achieved product/market on the initial release. For these startups it was right to encourage a quick implementation of the business model. However, for startups that haven’t yet found product/market fit, a business model can hinder the process of figuring out how to deliver value. Users are forced to quickly decide if the product is worth the financial investment (and we already know it’s probably not since most wouldn’t be “very disappointed” without the product – when free).
It is safest to assume you won’t have product/market fit right out of the gate. If your initial release hits (think winning the lottery), then you can quickly implement your business model as you transition to a growth company.
If however, you are like most startups, you will spend an undefined period of time engaging users and evolving your product to better meet their needs. When surveys tell you that you’ve reached product/market fit, the final validation is charging for your product (or a version of it).
It’s Different for Enterprise Targeted Startups
For startups targeting enterprises, it actually does make sense to charge before reaching product/market fit. This is the best way to help the enterprise figure out how to get value from your product (somebody on the inside will be motivated to work with you to unlock value since they’ve already spent the budget). If you haven’t charged anything, your attempts to engage the customer and find value are likely to be perceived as an aggressive sales annoyance rather than genuinely helpful.
Growing Your Startup with a Business Model
Startups often delay implementing a business model claiming “we’re focused on growth right now.” But once you’ve achieved product/market fit, most startups will grow faster with a business model (I wrote a post on this earlier). A business model gives you rational constraints within which you can execute very aggressively – otherwise you are held back by fear that you may be wasting money on paid marketing programs.
Without a business model, you don’t know if your business is real. Of course some prefer to hope that a business model implemented in the future might work rather than know that one implemented today doesn’t work. If you are truly offering value (have achieved product/market fit), then there is a business model that will work. The only way to find it is to start experimenting.
A few people have asked for more guidance on getting to product/market fit. I updated my previous blog post with another quote from Marc Andreesen, but recommend that you read his full full post via archive.org (it has been removed from his blog).
Here is the quote that I added to my previous post:
“When you are BPMF (before product/market fit), focus obsessively on getting to product/market fit.
Do whatever is required to get to product/market fit. Including changing out people, rewriting your product, moving into a different market, telling customers no when you don’t want to, telling customers yes when you don’t want to, raising that fourth round of highly dilutive venture capital — whatever is required.”
Andrew Chen also has an excellent post on the same subject.
Every six months I rethink the optimal startup go to market approach based on new insights gained at recent startups. Lately I’ve been using a pyramid to represent the process I’m using. Startups require a solid foundation of product/market fit before progressing up the pyramid and scaling the business.
Achieving Product/Market Fit
Product/market fit has always been a fairly abstract concept making it difficult to know when you have actually achieved it. Yet many entrepreneurs have highlighted the importance of creating a product that resonates with the target market:
- Paul Graham: The mantra at Paul’s successful startup incubator YCombinator is “make things people want.”
- Steve Blank: In Steve’s book Four Steps to the Epiphany he writes: “Customer Validation proves that you have found a set of customers and a market who react positively to the product: By relieving those customers of some of their money.”
- Marc Andreesen: A couple years ago Marc wrote the following on his blog: “…the life of any startup can be divided into two parts – before product/market fit and after product/market fit.” He goes on to write: “When you are BPMF, focus obsessively on getting to product/market fit. Do whatever is required to get to product/market fit. Including changing out people, rewriting your product, moving into a different market, telling customers no when you don’t want to, telling customers yes when you don’t want to, raising that fourth round of highly dilutive venture capital — whatever is required.”
I’ve tried to make the concept less abstract by offering a specific metric for determining product/market fit. I ask existing users of a product how they would feel if they could no longer use the product. In my experience, achieving product/market fit requires at least 40% of users saying they would be “very disappointed” without your product. Admittedly this threshold is a bit arbitrary, but I defined it after comparing results across nearly 100 startups. Those that struggle for traction are always under 40%, while most that gain strong traction exceed 40%. Of course progressing beyond “early traction” requires that these users represent a large enough target market to build an interesting business.
You should measure your product/market fit as soon as possible because it will significantly impact how you operate your startup. If you haven’t reached product/market fit yet it is critical to keep your burn low and focus all resources on improving the percentage of users that say they would be very disappointed without your product. Avoid bringing in VPs of Marketing and Sales to try to solve the problem. They will only add to your burn and likely won’t be any better than you at solving the problem. Instead, you (the founders) should engage existing and target users to learn how to make your product a “must have.” Sometimes it is as simple as highlighting a more compelling attribute of your product – but often it requires significant product revisions or possibly even hitting the restart button on your vision. For more on getting to product/market fit, I recommend reading Marc Andreesen’s full post via archive.org (it has been removed from his blog).
Race up the Pyramid
Once you have achieved product/market fit, it’s time to accelerate through the next steps of the pyramid and then begin scaling your business. Here’s a brief description of what to do at each of the steps before scaling:
- Promise: Highlight the benefits described by your “must have” users (those that say they would be very disappointed without your product).
- Economics: Implement the business model that allows you to profitably acquire the most users.
- Optimize: Streamline a repeatable, scalable customer acquisition process by testing multiple approaches and tracking to improve the right metrics.
Effectively executing these pre-scale steps often improves the conversion rate to transactions by 5X or more. This directly boosts the effectiveness of every future marketing initiative by the same proportion. Just don’t rush into this fine-tuning phase until you have first achieved product/market fit.
I recommend reading this post on Milestones to Startup Success for additional details.
Working with four startups at the same time has steepened my customer development learning curve (and also explains why it has been a month since my last update). To help balance the load, I’ve brought on a conversion designer and a researcher; we’re finally firing on all cylinders.
Our customer development goal with every startup essentially boils down to a race to be able to focus on growing the business. But in order to avoid wasting effort and money on tactical growth drivers, the following steps need to be completed first:
- Validate the product/service is gratifying a reasonable percentage of users.
- Create a value proposition that will attract the right type of users and pull them through the conversion funnel to gratification (and ultimately a transaction).
- Eliminate friction from the conversion funnel.
- Fine tune a business model that supports scalable customer acquisition channels.
If these steps have been executed well it is relatively easy to grow a sustainable business. But many startups skip these steps and jump right into trying to grow the business – making their job much harder or even impossible. Some will get lucky, but most will fail.
Given the importance of getting customer development right, I’m certain that eventually most startups will contract a specialist to help them navigate the challenges of this pre-scale phase. I’m often asked how I plan to expand 12in6 to help more startups. Most people are surprised when I tell them I don’t have a desire to expand the business. I really enjoy being able to work hands on with two new startups per quarter. If I built a large team to fill the current void of specialists, I’d be too busy managing the team. This would mean less time learning how to improve my customer development approach.
As I explained in my last post, I’m now validating that a startup’s product is gratifying users before I commit to working with them. While I love to hear from as many funded startups as possible, I can barely scratch the surface of the number of startups that need help. If I don’t have the capacity to help you, here are a few others that specialize in customer development: (I haven’t dug into their approach enough to be able to endorse them, but I encourage you to check them out)
If you are specializing in customer development or know someone else that you can recommend, please add names/recommendations in the comments. The main things to consider when evaluating a specialist is their track record building successful companies. And be sure to check references (especially around chemistry with the team).
I have been sharing discoveries on Twitter (follow me @ http://twitter.com/seanellis) and hopefully I’ll resume regular blog posts next week (after I get back from a short vacation in Hawaii).