“HELL YEAH WE'RE USING @SlackHQ AT WORK I. LOVE. SLACK.”
“Dear @SlackHQ, I love you. Yours, Dan”
“@SlackHQ YOU COMPLETE ME”
You’ve probably heard about Slack’s exponential growth. And you may have read about how the internal-communication platform — now just two years old — is already used by more than 30,000 teams and valued at over $1 billion. But have you visited its Twitter Wall of Love?
These tweets are real, and they're the stuff of founders’ dreams. And yet Slack hasn’t run any big integrated marketing campaigns — they don't have an elaborate email strategy or buy million-dollar billboards. (In fact, they hit those user numbers without a CMO.) So how did the company not only launch with enviable momentum, but so quickly win users' hearts? If there’s one theme that emerges when founder Stewart Butterfield talks about Slack's success, it’s that the company made customer feedback the epicenter of its efforts.
In this exclusive interview, Butterfield — previously one of the founders of Flickr — reveals how the company’s go-to-market strategy worked like gangbusters. Here, he explains the importance of prioritizing your product’s unique features (and why you can let go of the rest), and shares tips for becoming essential to your customers right away.
In 1989, Liz Wiseman took her first job out of business school at a mid-size startup called Oracle. With no previous experience, she was recruited as a technical trainer, charged with teaching programming to all of the company's new engineering recruits. She admits she barely knew what the company did, much less how to teach engineers. A year later, she was promoted to manage the training department and make CEO Larry Ellison's vision for what he called 'Oracle University' a reality. She was 24.
“I really didn't know what I was doing. All I knew was that this was a grown-up job and I wasn't quite grown up yet, but no one seemed to be bothered by that but me,” says Wiseman. It was scary then, but looking back, she sees clearly how being a rookie made her an ideal candidate for the blue-sky project. “My real value didn't come from having fresh ideas. It was having no ideas at all. When you know nothing you're forced to create something.”
Little did she know that she'd spend the next 17 years leading the University effort and Oracle's global human resources. Since then, Wiseman has written three books about what makes people effective as employees and leaders, and has conducted extensive research on how management can maximize performance inside organizations. Now president of the Wiseman Group, training executives around the world, she recently spoke at Stanford's Entrepreneurship Corner and shared her findings about the advantages of the rookie mindset, how knowing too much can be dangerous for innovation, and what leaders can do to help everyone around them achieve their potential.
Adam Pisoni, co-founder and CTO of Yammer, talks to a lot of tech leaders about building more responsive organizations. But his go-to success story isn’t about a mobile app or a hot SaaS product. It’s about a burger. In one particularly crucial meeting, he needed to convey the value of companies being flexible, rapidly adaptable — in a word, responsive. So he told a story about restaurant chain Red Robin.
“They released a new type of burger at a handful of restaurants, the Tavern Burger, and allowed servers to directly and instantly communicate with the product's creators on Yammer. This allowed kitchens to literally iterate on the burger within the same day based on what customers were saying,” Pisoni explains. With a change in communication, the company empowered its employees, responded immediately to customer feedback, increased their rate of experimentation and decreased the cost of failure. And they rolled that new burger out in four weeks — down from the 18 months it usually took to launch a new product. Pisoni’s story was a slam-dunk, and he got heads nodding about why organizations should be built for agility.
Incidentally, that meeting was with Bill Gates.
In this exclusive interview, Pisoni shares more tales from the vanguard of the responsiveness movement, and explains how a culture shift toward transparency, experimentation and empowerment can make companies more successful at any size.
Aaron Patzer had come to a crossroads. He knew he was onto something with Mint — but he realized he couldn’t be a successful CEO and also run product for the company. “He's one of the very few founders I've seen who knew it was time to let go and hand things to someone new,” says First Round Partner Rob Hayes, who worked closely with Mint. “He wound up hiring this great guy Aaron Forth, and it helped move the company to the next level. That moment when a CEO gives up their core competency to someone else so they can focus on running the company is the moment they become a great leader.”
Hayes started investing in early-stage startup founders a decade ago, and he always gets the same question: “What should I be doing right now?” Through this experience, he's narrowed down his answer to three things. Patzer did a brilliant job at all three, and notably the most important thing on the list: Hiring the right people. “The other two are don't run out of money and always have a North Star,” says Hayes.
While each of these pieces presents a huge challenge, this framework can be very powerful. “Founders who achieve these goals always succeed,” says Hayes, citing Mint's lucrative sale to Intuit. “If they're constantly thinking to themselves, 'Okay this work in front of me... am I actively achieving one of these three things?' they don't fail.” We recently sat down with Hayes to delve into these three areas of focus and tactics to win at each one.
Gabriel Luna-Ostaseski's sales team at Calfinder had just hit $8 million in revenue. They were feeling good about their process — like they had finally hit their stride — and the numbers were looking good. “There was just this shared feeling of, 'Hey, let's hit the 'Go' button on this thing,” he says. And they did — they scaled the team from 6 to 24 reps in thee months on a bootstrapped budget.
At first, things looked promising. They doubled and then quadrupled the number of contracts they landed each week. But then it happened, what Ostaseski now calls the 'Oh Shit moment' when they realized a few cancellations were turning into many. “It literally started to feel like a tidal wave behind us. Churn increased by 2x. We didn't catch on to the churn and we stopped paying attention to how we were selling things.” Ultimately, they had to shrink the team back down the six. But many lessons were learned.
Ostaseski leveraged all of this knowledge to build his current company, Upshift Partners, one of the first programs ever designed to help companies scale sales efforts. No one is immune to mistakes. At every stage and size, different pitfalls emerge, but the most dangerous time comes right before serious growth. “The most common mistakes are made by companies who have their first customers, have raised a round, and want to take it to the next level. Post-validation and pre-scale, you can run into big problems.”
In this exclusive interview, Ostaseski shares the patterns he's recognized supporting sales teams of many shapes and sizes, the seven major sales sins he sees committed every day, and how startups can survive them to achieve long-term success.
Early last year, I found myself sitting across from Caryn Marooney in Facebook's cafeteria talking about how startups get noticed. What is that ineffable quality that separates the successful media darlings from the companies no one ever hears from again? It's a huge question, and Marooney — now head of Facebook's tech communications and past founder of the OutCast Agency — had good answers. She's been at it for a while, getting press that has distinguished dozens of startups (including eventual giants like Salesforce). Talking to her, it hit me how special this situation was, and how valuable the advice — based on real experience, wins, losses and lessons.
In the last year, I've had the privilege of speaking to nearly 100 people like Marooney who are among the very best at what they do — from hiring designers to building technical teams to increasing employee happiness. They hold the puzzle pieces for how to build startups from the ground up, and here, on The Review, we're assembling them for an ever-growing audience.
We spoke to people like Pandora CTO Tom Conrad, lead Spotify designer Tobias van Schneider, Twitter VP of Engineering Chris Fry, CEOs and founders — and each of them shared their experience with one goal in mind: To build the strongest possible community of entrepreneurs. What follows is a roundup of the 30 most incisive and helpful pieces of advice we published this year. We can't wait to bring you more in 2015.
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.