Steve Blank's biggest failure as a startup CEO was at Rocket Science Games. The team lost $35 million because the business model and the founding team didn't match. When he looked around at the executive staff, there wasn’t a single founder who was a gamer. Worse, there wasn’t a single person who had come from a game company. Nor was there anyone with this experience on the board. In the end, it made beautiful looking products that weren’t much fun to play.
That said, if it’s possible to decode the ineffable magic of Silicon Valley success, Steve Blank has done it. His book The Four Steps to the Epiphany is considered one of the founding tomes of the lean startup movement. He’s taught a generation of founders at UC Berkeley, Columbia University, NYU, and UCSF. And even the U.S. government uses Blank’s entrepreneurial models to commercialize the work of scientists at the National Science Foundation, The National Institutes of Health and The Department of Energy.
For the students and founders who regularly seek his counsel, though, Blank’s greatest credential is simply that he’s been in the trenches himself for decades, working at 8 startups, 4 of them as a co-founder. By his own admission, there have been both craters and home runs — and along the way, he's worked alongside 16 co-founders. When it comes to understanding the tricky amalgam of science, business, and psychology that shapes the most successful founding teams, he’s the closest thing there is to a guru.
In this exclusive interview, Blank, now an associate consulting professor at Stanford's Engineering School, explains how to search for the best co-founder using a tool called the Business Model Canvas, and other tactics he's picked up along the way. He reveals that, when it comes to fit, finding the right skill set and personality may not be enough — just one of the lessons he's learned during 21 years working with teams to get great ideas off the ground.
“Good intentions don’t work.”
This is one of the most important things Anurag Gupta has learned from working at Amazon, where he is currently General Manager of Amazon Redshift and Amazon Aurora. It’s a counter-intuitive notion — after all, we all believe it’s our employee’s passion and energy that lets our companies accomplish great things.
“The problem is, your employees already have good intentions,” says Gupta. “No one comes into work and says, ‘Today I’m going to push a change that’s going to break the site,’ or ‘I’m going to hire someone I know I’ll let go in six months.’ But these things happen. Good intentions don’t fill the gap between what your employees want to accomplish and all the mistakes that inevitably seem to occur. And exhorting them to do better or focus harder won’t make a difference to the number of mistakes in the long run. Your employees already want to do the right thing.”
So, if good intentions don’t help you reduce mistakes, what does? At Amazon, Gupta learned that the answer is mechanisms — processes that are repeatable, measurable, auditable and improvable.
At First Round’s last CTO Summit, Gupta showed a number of mechanisms that could be applied to the hiring process to steadily raise the bar for new employees, improve candidate experience, reduce hiring mistakes and save time — which becomes increasingly critical as you scale.
Jennifer Hirsch is the founder of Marked Point, a storytelling firm working with new companies to build engaging brands that inspire. If she's ever unreachable, you can find her in the ocean, trying (and often failing) to surf. It's one of the best lessons for entrepreneurs.
Recently, I asked five PR professionals for their top referrals for a U.S.-based non-profit focused on women’s leadership. Of the 30 odd firms recommended, only two met my criteria to handle the proposed project — I eliminated most after only a cursory look at their websites. And therein lies the biggest challenge of startup PR: Finding the right firm and strategy to tell your story. At Marked Point, this is a huge part of my work with clients.
Most PR firms have a very standard protocol. They take the information you give them, combine it with data from other clients and run it through a type of algorithm to figure out how to bring your story to new audiences. Each PR firm has a unique algorithm that will determine the marketing channels it recommends for your company. Based on the firms' connections, experience and approach, the strategies they come up with can be vastly different. And of course, your results may vary widely.
So entrepreneurs, choose wisely. Not all PR firms are equal. In this article, we’ll cover how to select them, how to prepare for them, and how to tell that they're not working. Because without PR (whether you're doing it on your own or with a firm), no one will know about you... and building an audience is everything. Successful PR is getting the right people to pay attention to you at the right time. Knock-it-out-of-the-park PR is landing customers, money and partnerships too. Here's how to get the latter.
Mr. Shore Gregory was skeptical. As owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34 in Boston, he gets pitched by a lot of Harvard students who claim to be building the next 'distruptive' app for restauranteurs. Unsurprisingly, this is rarely the case, and the result is a huge waste of time. So when he got approached by Reserve, led by Co-founder and CEO Gregory Hong, he had his guard up. Here was another team with an app designed to improve the dining experience — only something was different. The product actually seemed to answer real needs.
“Right away, I think it was obvious that we had more than an idea — we were able to talk to him about features and show him things he could interact with,” Hong says. “More than that, I think we convinced him that our business depended on the strength of our partnerships with restaurants, and that we were really interested in creating an incredible experience for them, not just the consumers using the app.”
After a number of conversations, Island Creek Oysters was sold, and it's since become one of the startup's strongest advocates. “He realized that we're going all in on building tools that will help restaurants run their businesses better,” says Hong. And so far, this has been the case. For eight months before the app officially launched, Reserve diligently gathered feedback from hundreds of restaurants — as it continues to now — to craft a product that will attract more great restaurants, and in turn more customers.
Balancing all of these relationships, especially through rapid scale, is a massive challenge. But Reserve, a young company with a lot to prove, is approaching it as an opportunity to gain the feedback and influence it needs to become the market leader. In this exclusive interview, Hong shares his advice for startups that need to build strong, healthy partnerships to survive.
When Sahil Lavingia founded Gumroad in 2012, he got a lot of attention. At age 19, he was one of the youngest entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, and the press went wild with words like “wunderkind” and “prodigy.” But Lavingia has never shied away from admitting what he doesn't know or where he lacks experience. His approach has been largely defined by surrounding himself with similarly brilliant people and watching how things unfold — a method that has turned Gumroad, a platform where people can sell their own digital creations from books to art to music — into one of the best functioning startups that maintains a flat management structure.
“To be honest, in the beginning I had no idea what form the company should take,” Lavingia says. “It turned out that the first people we hired were incredibly self-motivated and self-policing. We let these first few people determine how the company would grow, and now they've become the models for the people we want to bring onboard. Flat structure has become something we're all excited about.”
Cutting through all the buzz about holacracy (the no-manager system used by Medium and Zappos), Lavingia and Gumroad are creating their own definition of flat. In many ways it's less intentional than it is advantageous. With all 20 of the company's employees technically reporting to Lavingia himself, they've been able to grow the platform lean and fast, onboarding millions of customers — including many who depend on the site for their entire income. In this exclusive interview, Lavingia explains how startups can stay flat, the benefits to this strategy, and how to know when change is necessary.
“There will be haters. There will be doubters. And then there will be you proving them wrong.”
This is how Robert Falcone thinks about product demos because he's lived it firsthand. As a co-founder of his own startup, and now working closely with customers at marketing software maker Monetate, he's given hundreds of product demos. For a while, many were not successful, but he’s used that experience to his advantage.
“I thought it was just as easy as telling people what the product was and what it did,” says Falcone. “But then I'd finish and people would either be confused or just politely say, 'Thank you,' and we'd never hear from them again.”
After getting this response time and time again, he was determined to crack the product demo code. If clarity meant conversions, how could he change his delivery to give people clarity the first time around? To find the answer, he continued to pitch and demo, A/B test, observe and repeat. The lessons he gleaned are collected in his new book “Just F*cking Demo,” which recently hit Amazon's list of hot new releases.
In this exclusive interview, Falcone shares the structure of a winning product demo and the tactics he's discovered to convince people that they need your product in just one conversation.
When Pam Turkin quit her job as VP of Marketing for a major merchandising firm, people were shocked to hear why: She was finally turning her passion project into a business by opening a cupcake shop in her hometown of Detroit. Today — after testing numerous flavors on her family and accepting credit cards with Square — her shop, Just Baked, is a chain with several locations.
It’s stories like these that grab Khobi Brooklyn’s attention. As Director of Product Communications and Marketing at Square, part of her job is to surface amazing anecdotes to amplify the company’s marketing efforts to an extremely broad audience — i.e. everyone who sells things.
This is what makes Brooklyn’s job so hard: She needs to get Square’s products in front of everyone from farmers market sellers to surfing instructors to barber shop owners. In this exclusive interview, she shares her tactics for marketing a product to extremely diverse audiences — including those that don’t care about what’s hot in Silicon Valley.
Two years ago, Emile Petrone posted a humble question to reddit.com/r/arduino: "Would you support an Arduino marketplace or am I totally off base?" After observing the market for a while, he saw the need for a central destination where people could buy handmade tech. Many others agreed, and Petrone started to build. Five months later, he quit his job and raised $500,000 in funding to turn Tindie.com into the eCommerce platform for these types of products. Today, the site draws customers from all over the world, including companies like SpaceX, Google and Intel that can't find what they're looking for anywhere else.
But Tindie had another big milestone early on: Julia Grace joined as Head of Engineering after gaining expertise at companies like IBM and VigLink. Now, as CTO, she heads up a team where engineering plays an enormous role in maximizing customer acquisition and sales. In this exclusive interview, she shares the lessons she learned developing the company from its scrappy roots into a major supplier, and the tactics that can give eCommerce startups a big, early lead.
You may not know Tamara Steffens by name, but you’ve downloaded her apps. Running business development for companies like Path, Color, and most recently breakout email app Acompli, she’s responsible for millions of mobile downloads and blockbuster deals with the likes of Sprint and Verizon that have brought in even more. In doing so, she’s come to signify a new breed of BD professional — a hybrid of quantitative marketer and sales leader who is laser focused on delivering what young startups need most: Users.
And not just any users, either — valuable users who will stick with you and generate revenue. With the data available to startups today, it’s easier than ever to find these people and keep them happy. It’s also easier than ever to get distracted by the wrong metrics. In this exclusive interview, Steffens — now senior vice president of business development at Acompli — sheds light on her approach to user acquisition and how both enterprise and consumer brands can capture the market share they need to win.
Noah Brier knew what he needed to do. As CEO of Percolate — the maker of full-stack marketing tools — he wanted to involve engineers earlier in the product design process to keep things innovative and agile. But he also saw the possible repercussions: A scramble to make sure the right people had the right information, duplicated work, wasted time. He didn’t want to create more process, so he built a tool instead that would automatically route relevant info to the right people.
Automating with tools over process like this has been a guiding philosophy for Percolate since the very beginning. In order to continue building great products to amplify brands like GE, Anheuser-Busch, and Unilever, the company has built a number of tools that no one on the outside ever sees. And, as Brier notes, this has laid the groundwork for the company to grow to over 150 employees in just over three years. In this exclusive interview, he shares why product-oriented startups should build internal tools early, how to approach the work, and how to get everyone on board to boost efficiency.