Audio Interview on Venture Hacks

I recently sat down with Nivi from Venture Hacks and discussed what it takes to build a successful startup.  The full conversation is available here.  There have also been some great thought provoking questions that I’ve answered in the comments section following the Venture Hacks post.  Please jump in and join the conversation over at Venture Hacks.

More on CEO’s Role in Driving Growth

I just wanted to highlight a reply to a comment on my post Founders Make the Best Startup Marketing Leaders :

“In hindsight, probably one of the most important points of the blog post is that 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.”

Quick Thoughts from TC50: SeatGeek

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.

Quick Thoughts from TC50: ToyBots

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.

Quick thoughts from TC 50: ToonsTunes

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.

Social Media Marketing Strategy for Startups

In the last year, Social Media sources (blogs, Digg, Twitter, Facebook, etc) have quickly emerged as the most powerful growth drivers in the startups I’ve helped launch. Despite this, I’d have a hard time writing a ten page book on Social Media Marketing. So on a recent trip to Barnes & Nobel I was surprised to see several thick books on the subject. One contained over 350 pages of social media marketing “wisdom.”

I’m sure there are a few useful nuggets in each of these books, but I doubt it would be worth wading through hundreds of pages to find them.

This will be a very brief blog post explaining how we’ve been able to drive hundreds of thousands of new users through social media in recent startups. OK, here it is: effective customer development… By figuring out who needs your product/service, why they need it, what constitutes a gratifying experience with the product/service and getting more of the right type of people to this gratifying experience (highlighting the right benefits and reducing barriers) social media can become a powerful driver for your business too.

You are probably asking: How can this possibly be an effective Social Media strategy? To understand this, you need to understand why social media is important for startup marketers. The most relevant part of social media is that it includes a person’s network of trusted online contacts. Some of these contacts broadcast their opinions widely through blogs, others a bit more narrowly through twitter and status updates and finally others through facebook wall posts, etc. Social media has given consumers better access to their expanded personal networks and a megaphone to broadcast their opinions and experiences to people who actually care.

So how does this help startups? The best innovations have always come from startups, but we’ve been blocked from the channels that were so critical for established companies. Over time these companies educated the channels and expanded their presence. A little startup had a very hard time competing even if they had a vastly superior product. And the channels were seldom awarded for trying to help the startup, since most startups went out of business anyway.

Today, social networks make it much easier for useful innovative products to spread to the masses (especially when combined with Google Adwords). But for a startup to leverage these social networks, they need to get their innovation into the hands of the right users and ensure they have the right experience. And if they are able to create a clear value proposition, these users will be able to more easily spread the innovation to their networks.

While social media makes it easier to spread useful innovative products, it also empowers vigilante customers that have been wronged. Therefore be very careful trying to game these systems. One of the most common short-term gaming tactics is address book scraping where users are prompted to invite their entire address book to join a service. This is often successful because a small percentage of users inadvertently agree to allow their address book to be scraped when they initially sign up for the service. If one in ten people get their address book scraped and each one has 100+ contacts, growth quickly goes viral. In the short-term the marketer looks brilliant as numbers go through the roof. But many of these (former) customers are now furious and let their network know about it. Eventually these tactics bite the company in the ass.

One of my favorite travel services recently burned my mother with this tactic (after I introduced her to the service). Not only has she expressed her anger to every contact, I will never recommend the service again. And that is after I earlier blogged about the service and verbally recommended it to many. I’d reveal the name, but a good friend is an investor. Was that really worth the short term gain of address book scraping?

Effective social media marketing is really just about good old fashion doing the right thing for your customers. Once you’ve accomplished this, you can use these networks to enhance your relationship with your customers (through a company blog, twitter account, facebook page, etc), but I believe these tactics are minor compared to the approach described above.

Startup Theory VS Reality

In addition to recently starting two new customer development projects, I’ve also been busy prepping for my guest lecture in Steve Blank’s Customer Development course at Haas (UC Berkeley business school).  The lecture was Tuesday night.  One of my key objectives was to help the students understand that everything seems intuitive and easy in the classroom, but in the heat of execution you quickly get overwhelmed.  A single board member demanding quick growth can easily push you from a logical sequence of figuring things out to desperately throwing money at potential growth drivers.  Anyone who thinks it’s going to be easy is in for a big surprise. 

This blog shares the objective of grounding entrepreneurs is reality.  Most entrepreneurs (especially first timers) are unrealistically optimistic.  If they logically thought about the risks, they probably wouldn’t be starting a company in the first place.  The chances of failure far outweigh the chances of success.  But everyone thinks they are the exception to the rule – and some actually are…

I’m often disappointed that I don’t have more time to update this blog.  I guess if I did have a lot of time to update the blog, it would be full of impractical theory that isn’t grounded in reality.  Real entrepreneurs (not the armchair wannabe entrepreneurs) would quickly recognize it as an exercise in mental masturbation.  But I understand that the infrequency of my posts causes some readers to forget about it.   So rather than risk the impression that I’ve given up on the Blog, I’m going to try to start posting on a regular schedule – a new post every Monday. Fortunately the majority of my readers don’t have time to read several posts per week.  They are busy growing their own startups, etc.

More Customer Development Cycles

I kicked off this quarter’s two new customer development projects earlier this week. It seems like I just started with Dropbox and Eventbrite, but we’ve actually completed the full six months with Eventbrite and we’re in the last few weeks with Dropbox. Eventbrite and Dropbox were really the “Beta” customers for my six-month customer development program. I am extremely grateful to both for taking an early risk on my program. We’ve made enormous progress, but you never really finish customer development, so I look forward to continuing to help both however/whenever I can. Going into these next two projects, I feel like I have a much clearer understanding of the customer development success hurdles and opportunities so we can make even faster progress.

On a personal note, I’m thrilled that I can make a viable business out of working with startups on their customer development. I couldn’t imagine doing a job that would be more fun. This is by far the most exciting time in the company creation process – watching the startup get validation for years of hard development work.

One of my biggest challenges these days is keeping focus on execution while still finding time to select the next quarter’s startups. I’m averaging 15-20 introductions per month for the two spots I have to fill each quarter. Of course in this economy, this is a much better problem to have than the alternative.

I’ve gotten fairly efficient at determining which companies are a good fit. We start with a quick 10 minute phone call to see if the company is too early, late or competitive with an existing/previous client. I then give the founder/CEO a quick overview of my background and the customer development program. If they are still interested, I ask if they would be willing to have their users fill out a brief survey. This gives me some idea about early user perceptions as to how well the product meets their needs, the intensity of those needs and potential substitute products. When I combine this with potential viable angles to approach customer acquisition and information about the business model, I can quickly narrow down the list. So for the two openings for May I have it narrowed down to 7 very good fit companies. But I’m reluctant to fill both spots because I’m getting several more interesting intros each week. I’ll probably commit one of the spots in the next couple of weeks and leave the other open through the end of March.

The whole process is pretty time consuming, but essential for finding the right companies.

I apologize to anyone who I’ve been introduced to recently if this seems a bit impersonal. Hopefully this blog post will help to put it in context a bit… If we do end up working together in the future, you’ll be happy to know that I’m not spending several hours per day with prospective new startups. Once it looks like a good fit, I’ll definitely spend the time to make sure we have the right chemistry.

One other quick request for anyone that is considering working together… Please wait until we both agree there is a good potential fit before reaching out to my existing/former CEOs. As you can empathize, they are very busy. Once we agree it’s a good fit, I feel very comfortable having you contact them.