Your Landing Page Sucks (Probably)

The Landing Page. Yes, in 2017, this is still an important part of your arsenal of marketing skills as a startup. That’s why at StartupYard, I still do a full-on workshop on just this topic, and why with every startup we accelerate, we drill these basic themes over and over again.

Why? Because the ability to write and execute an effective landing page depends on a very clear grasp of good marketing in general. A landing page is a “single serving communication,” or a piece of marketing that has to speak for itself, and be judged on its own. So it is also a great testbed for ideas, and seeing what works, or doesn’t work.

Since we face many of the same challenges with startups year after year, I thought it was high time to publish a post about the basic principles behind an effective landing page. These strategies can be used in many forms of communication (like email), because they focus on understanding the *why* of messaging decisions, rather than the *what* of any particular message.

What is a Landing Page?

For the purposes of this discussion, a landing page is a part of your website (or online product) where visitors “land” first. Depending on what kind of company you are, you might have only one landing page: your Homepage. Or you might have many. A blog post can serve as a landing page if it is meant to draw people in via search or social media.

Here are some examples of successful modern landing pages of different kinds. Take a moment and appreciate what about them is consistent and familiar.

In this discussion, we’re going to follow the KISS principle, and only talk about one kind of landing page, which is the single-purpose landing page, with one target audience, one message, and one call to action.

The Trust Pizza

Over the years, I’ve worked as a copywriter on uncountable landing pages, and other single-use marketing materials for scores of startups. I’ve devised a very simple formula for determining whether I am being effective with a particular page.

Content is King, as we say. A great message is most important. But an effective message follows from the right approach. Having a formal structure that is designed to be foolproof is important in helping you shape a message.

My formal approach is simple. I call it the “trust pizza.” Here’s what it looks like:

Landing Page

What is important about the Trust Pizza is its shape and the order of ingredients. Follow this simple strategy, and you’re much more able to judge whether your landing page is likely to work or not.

 

  1. Trust = Crust

The most boring but essential element of the pizza is the crust. Not only do we grab a pizza by the crust, we also use the crust to judge the pizza overall.

Just think about evaluating a pizza. If the crust is burnt, what does that tell you about the overall quality of the thing? On the other hand, if the crust is soft and inviting, then you know the pizza will probably be good. Looking at the middle of the pizza tells us very little about it: it might be good, but we can’t know.

The “outer layer” of a landing page is just like that. Trust is composed of every background element of your page. Do you have a header and footer? Do you have appropriate links and contact details? Is the font, color and any background image on-brand?

You should spend as much time on these details as you do on the central message of a landing page. These things tell us whether you can be trusted at all, much less believed in this particular case. Get them wrong, and forget about anyone taking a “bite” out of your landing page.

The trust crust also reminds us not to get too clever. At the end of the day, no matter how revolutionary the idea, a pizza still looks like a pizza. So it is with a landing page. The content should be interesting, but not *less interesting* than the format.

Landing Page

Not only confusing, but actually disgusting.

 

If you want to give the impression that you’re incredibly hip and modern, do so with the understanding that this may be the only message that gets across. I may admire a pizza shaped like the Eiffel tower, but I don’t want to eat it.

2. Understanding = Toppings

The “understanding” aspect of your landing page is the heart of the message. It is the information you want to convey. It’s often a number or a date. It’s a key point. If a visitor remembers anything about you, it should be this.

Of course when you order a pizza, the toppings are the focus. They differentiate your pizza from all other pizzas. Cheese and pepperoni is totally different from a cream sauce with BBQ chicken.

But remember: an effective pizza has only the right combination of toppings. Go too crazy, and you turn something good into something truly nasty. Burgers are good. Fries are good. Nuggets are good. But all 3 on a pizza are not good, they’re gross.

Adhere to the KISS principle (Keep it Simple Stupid), when choosing your toppings. If you aren’t sure how to blend two ideas together, then don’t try. Choose the most important one, and go with that.

Better a few good toppings than a mess of bad ones, right?

Landing Page

All of these things individually are amazing. All of them together are horrifying.

3. Emotion = The First Bite

Finally the good stuff. The pointy edge of your landing page pizza is the spot at which a customer will “bite.” So you need to give them a good reason to do so. You’ve presented an appealing crust, a nice set of toppings, and now you want a nice, crisp wedge shape to finish the job.

This is the Call to Action. The button, or other cue which should prompt a person to do something (take a bite of the pizza), and be led somewhere else on your website, or in your customer funnel.

The call to action is the simplest but often most important part of a page. It prompts the user with their next move, and at the same time must show them exactly what happens when they click the button, follow the link, or enter their information. The “ first bite” has to be rewarding enough: it has to be mouth watering.

The Pizza Shaped Landing Page

Landing Page

The above is a tool for planning and assembling the elements of your marketing message for a landing page. But remember that just as you must form a pizza from raw ingredients into a certain shape, so must you shape a landing page to be enticing and “edible.”

One of the keys here is “visual momentum,” or what I call the pinball effect. That is, the attention and visual interest of the page should eventually lead down to the place where you want eyeballs to be. It can’t *start* there, but it shouldn’t end somewhere else. No big exciting things to see off to the side. No distractions: just one bigger message leader to a smaller one, leading to a simple action.

In principle, you should try to keep the three key sections of your landing page organized in order of interest:

  1. The Headline
  2. The Body (or Subhead)
  3. The Call to Action

 

The Headline

The headline, while simple, should grab the most interest from the beginning. It is something bold and maybe unexpected. It is not, I repeat, *NOT* a list of buzzy words like: “Analyze. Evaluate. Innovate.”

That’s just lame folks. Your headline needs to be a statement about why you’re different. It should be something ripped straight from the “unlike” section of your positioning statement. It can even be negative: “Don’t Be Lame,” or “Had Enough BS for One Day?”

That’s an eye-catching statement. Something weak and defensive is not eye-catching. “We Care about You,” is not compelling. “Our Customers Come First,” is an eye-roll at best. Say something definitive about what makes you different, and more importantly, why your customer should even care.

Remember: the Headline is about letting the visitor know what they’re in for. It’s a signal of what’s to come. So it needs to be a strong one.

 

The Body (Or SubHead)

Here you have the most freedom. You should include numbers, or statistics, or outcomes that your product or service will provide.

“Trusted by 3 of 4 Startups,” for example, or “Proven to lower your costs by 30%.” These are informative, direct statements about what the product is promising to do. If the landing page is for an event or a sale, then it might be time to include the date or time.

Now is *not* the time to sell or urge action. Don’t jump the gun here. You’re being informative. You’re showing the meat of the offer, not closing the sale.

The Call to Action

Now you’re closing. The call to action is simple but very tricky. You want to accomplish a bunch of objectives at once, to some degree or another. You want the visitor to know a number of things:

  • What am I supposed to do
  • When am I supposed to do it
  • What will happen
  • When will it happen

And remember, this is a call to action that may be as long as two or three words. It has to accomplish a lot in that space of time. It needs to rely on context and build upon the preceding elements to do that.

But always consider the call to action in this context: Is it clear to the reader exactly what will happen when they press that button? And is what they think is going to happen what will actually happen? As a landing page is meant to create a relationship, you need to start it off by delivering on what you’ve promised.

Don’t offer something in your call to action that you can’t deliver. Don’t lie. Don’t even get close to maybe being a little bit dishonest. Just don’t do it. 

Here are some common “Call to Action Lies” to avoid:

  • It’s Free! [But give us your credit card]
  • Start Your Trial [Actually give us your contact so we can sell you ]
  • Get it Now [But you have to wait a while]
  • Get the Beta [When it’s ready]
  • Learn More [Just Kidding Buy Now]

Instead, a call to action should do exactly what the user expects. If you want their email, say: “Enter Your Email,” if you want them to buy, say: “Buy Now, Save X.” If you want them to demo the product, then make the demo accessible when you say it will be.

Remember: If you’re thinking it’s a cheat, then your visitor is too. Don’t treat your customers as dumber than you are. Assume they’re smarter.

Stick to the Trust Pizza

Landing Page Pizza

Remember, whatever decisions you make about *what* to communicate, never forget the importance of *how* you communicate it. In my experience, more than half of the message is not the words you use, but rather their format.

Does it look right? Does it make visual sense? Is it weird or somehow off? These details make or break a landing page much more easily than a less than perfect turn of phrase. Stick to the pizza. Don’t reinvent it.

About Part Two: The Good The Bad and the 1999

In part two of this post, we’re going to look deep into some good, bad, and 1999 landing pages, and explore what about them works and doesn’t work.

We’ll be approaching that using the Trust Pizza methodology, seeing how effective landing pages approach visitors with building trust as their priority.

Until then: do a pizza.

Stortelling

What is Good Stortelling? (Part 2)

In our last post, we talked about the “Hero’s Journey,” the basic premise of most modern storytelling.  We looked at some examples of this story in action, and some examples of it done badly.

Now we’re going to talk about your story as a Startup. 

Starting with Characters and Plot

We start every round at StartupYard with Product Positioning Statements. The structure of a positioning statement has a useful clarity. In essence it’s this:

  • Who it’s for
  • What problem they have
  • What the solution is
  • What the competition is
  • What makes this solution unique

This is the plot of the story, and it introduces key characters.

But it isn’t enough. The key to a great story about what you and your company does is conflict. What are you fighting against? What is wrong with the world?

Building an Appropriate Setting

All stories take place against a backdrop. A time and place, or a certain part of the world or of society, or business. And that setting is a part of the story. The setting changes along with the characters. The characters are affected by the setting.

Your setting is a key part of your story because it helps to define the stakes of the story. Putting a story in the wrong setting can damage its impact. For example, telling the story of your Groupon-clone startup against the backdrop of the mobile revolution might be a bit too grandiose. Likewise, for a company doing something ambitious and far reaching, a setting that is too confining limits the story’s impact.

Your Story Seems a Bit Off

Thus, bad storytelling happens when there is a mismatch between the setting and the actual scope of the story. Increasing the efficiency of a complicated accounting process by 10% is not “making the world a better place,” just as altering the way that people travel and view hotels (such as with Airbnb), is not “increasing the availability of lodging by 15%.”

The stakes you are playing for are important. Don’t go too big, and don’t go too small. More importantly, particularly for early-stage startups: bigger is not necessarily better. We can’t all change the world right away.

Identifying Conflicts

Conflicts don’t always occur between competitors. Your conflict is what makes you, as a startup, different from everyone else.

Your conflict is what makes you unique. They are your reason for existing.

If I’m, say, a home security company, then what is the central conflict of my story? It might be that another security company rips off their customers, and I don’t. That’s a conflict with a villain. It might be that people need to be more concerned about their security. That’s a conflict with the status quo. Or it might be something else entirely.

Here are some examples of central conflicts companies use to define company stories:

  • Sustainability: Being more environmentally conscious than competitors
  • Affordability: Sticking up for the little guy and providing a better service
  • Accessibility: Being available to more customers, or to customers with more specific needs
  • The Underdog: A small company fighting the evils of a large corporation
  • Patriotism: Emphasizing a patriotic or locally-focused attitude
  • Exclusivity: Offering something with limited availability, for discerning customers
  • Charity: Using your profits, business model, or market position to do good for others
  • Design Focus: Emphasizing a high attention to material or visual design
  • The EveryMan: Portraying a company as representative of the average person, or lacking in pretension (often the opposite of design focus).

Why do we call these conflicts? Because in every case, the central conflict is put into contrast with an opposing force. Your company is sustainable, but others are not. Your company is charitable, while others are greedy. Your company is focused on normal people, while the competitors are for specialists or geeks, etc.

There is always an opposing viewpoint in brand positioning: there is always someone on the other side of the fence.

Putting Your Conflict Into Words

In Part 1, we talked about how all great stories are human stories. And so the conflict at the heart of a startup’s story has to be a human conflict.

Very often, startups get bogged down in talking about how they see themselves. They’re smart. They’re design-focused. They’re “fun.”

But what is smart? What is design-focused? How do we define fun? Why do we want a company to even be fun? We want those things because of how they make us, the customers, feel about ourselves. People don’t buy products from a company because the company is cool, they buy them because the products themselves are cool, and because owning them makes us feel cool too.

Your central conflict has to drive your story: it has to be what customers think of when they think of you.

Try a creative exercise: Pick a list of negative adjectives to describe how your customers feel about the problem you are solving for them. That list might be something like this:

  • Annoyed
  • Angry
  • Tired
  • Frustrated
  • Trapped
  • Unhappy
  • Hopeless

Do that step first. Now go back and supply a list of roughly opposite adjectives:

  • Relieved
  • Joyful
  • Energized
  • Pleased
  • Free
  • Happy
  • Hopeful

These are the words with which you will describe your customer’s feelings. The feelings your products give to customers are the opposite of the bad feelings they have now.

Thus, a story about a company helping its customers might go something like this:

“So many ordinary people are tired, and frustrated by X. They feel trapped and hopeless because there’s no way to stop X from happening. That’s why we worked long and hard to create [our product], it frees you from X, so you can enjoy relief, feel energized, and be hopeful for a happy future.”

That’s an extremely blunt story (and it sounds like an advert for hemorrhoid medication), but it is a story of conflict. There is evil, human suffering, sacrifice, and triumph. It’s everything a story needs to be.

Picking A Conflict You Can Win

It doesn’t matter how big your competition is, or how big the problem is that you’re solving. A startup story is about how you are different: how you see things differently from others.

In 2000, Google’s startup story was based on the words: “Don’t be Evil.” For a company positioning itself against competitors like Microsoft and Yahoo, both of which already had a reputation for being sort of evil, this story worked well. Google wasn’t bigger. It wasn’t more powerful. But it was *not* evil.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that 17 years later, this is no longer Google’s story. Yahoo is gone. Microsoft isn’t a member of the “Big 4” any longer. There’s no one for Google to be less evil than anymore.

Your conflict has to be something you can win at, though. Otherwise it’s just ridiculous. Better logistics than Amazon? Probably not. Better natural language processing than Google? Doubtful. You have to be able to win at something a competitor doesn’t do well. What is that thing?

Identifying Arcs

The way that a character in a story changes is called an “arc.” A character begins as one thing, and ends as another. Foolish to wise. Arrogant to humble.

The arc of a character is best seen as a change in what motivates that character- how what they want changes over time. As in the Hero’s Journey, a character with an arc not only becomes wiser, but also wants different things at the end of the story. He or she learns to see the world differently, and thus change their priorities.

When we talk about character arc, it’s convenient to view it in a binary way. Characters are either “rising” (becoming better), or “falling” (become worse). In this way, almost any character arc in a story can be described:

  • Rags to Riches (rise)
  • Riches to Rags (fall)
  • Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  • Icarus (rise then fall)
  • Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  • Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Thus, archetypal characters have arcs that are some combination of rising and falling. But this trope is not contained in just literature. It is all around us. A person’s life story and the story of a startup are a series of these arcs. Telling a story is about showing how a person has changed. Likewise, a startup story is about how the startup, or the founder, or any other character has experienced an arc.

Bill Gates is a Rags to Riches story (not just in the sense of money). He rose from a solitary geek to the king of a software empire. Steve Jobs is a Cinderella story: he rose to the heights of fame, then was drummed out of Apple, but returned to become one of history’s most impactful CEOs.

These arcs are all around us: they play out in every life and in every startup. Which is your arc?

Putting Your Story on Paper

One of the hardest things about my job is getting founders to sit down and commit their stories to words. The anxiety it provokes is very real. Does this story mean anything? Do I sound stupid?

There is a natural tendency for people to avoid exposing themselves for possible shame and ridicule. However, telling your story is a risk: if it doesn’t feel risky, it isn’t a compelling story.

Try to keep in mind the elements we’ve covered here: Your setting, your conflict, your characters, and their arcs. If you’re doing that, you’re probably not doing it wrong.

What is Good Storytelling? (Part 1)

First: What is Storytelling?

There’s no single compact definition that can cover every modern use of the word “story.” You may think of news articles, or children’s fairy tales. You may think of “user stories,” that product designers use to figure out what to build. You may think of a novel. In fact, most stories have common characteristics: characters, settings, plot, conflict, and an ending.

But in talking about a “brand story,” or a “cultural story,” or a “life story,” we are really discussing a specific kind of story: the “Mono-myth,” also commonly known as a “Hero’s Journey.” At the heart of what we call “storytelling” in the modern world, you find this core structure:

The world’s oldest documented story is The Epic of Gilgamesh, written 4000 years ago on clay tabletsIt’s the story of Gilgamesh, a God King of the Sumerian state of Uruk. He begins as a restless and foolish young man, who leaves his city behind to explore the world, faces many challenges, becomes wise, and returns home a hero, ready to lead his people.

That ought to sound familiar. It’s the basis of every epic story from the Odyssey to Star Wars.

The Hero’s Journey works incredibly well at persuading audiences because it is a simple and flexible vehicle for conveying the human experience. It speaks to us about our experiences in life, by recreating those experiences, only with more flair, more danger, and bigger stakes.

The Hero’s Journey

Pick a big successful brand at random. Recall what you can about their “story.”

Chances are excellent that it is a “Hero’s Journey,” following the same pattern laid out 4 millennia ago in Gilgamesh. McDonalds has its Ray Krok, Apple has its Steve Jobs, and Microsoft its Bill Gates.

Not coincidentally, there are movies about all these characters, and they are all Hero’s Journey movies. The appeal of this story is so great that it is virtually synonymous with storytelling in film.

Within each of these stories is a familiar narrative: a misfit, naive and ambitious, confronts a cruel world, fails, grows, and finally succeeds. That is the simple core of every human story, and thus, every company story as well.

Qualities of a Great Story

Now we know what a story looks like. So which are the specific qualities of a really strong story? What makes this overall structure work best? Here are a few things I think are essential in a good story:

Great Stories Have Human (imperfect) Characters

Great stories appeal to the listener by being, essentially, about human nature. Great heroes are appealing because of their humanity, and not because of their power.

 

The 2010’s Most Popular Hero

Think about why people love Batman, or Iron Man: it’s because they are flawed human beings. It is the human experience to face moral tests and temptation. Thus, a story in which good and evil are too easy to separate is a story without any moral tension.

For Example:

You may have at some point spotted this meme making the rounds on Facebook. It’s got enormous viral potential, which is why it has been shared so widely (by both those who find it hilarious, and those who take it seriously)

It’s also a great example of bad storytelling.

In this story, we are presented with two characters in conflict: one entirely sympathetic and brave, the other entirely unsympathetic and cowardly. Thus, the point of the story, or the moral, is never in doubt. While the story creates suspense by making it unclear exactly what will happen, it creates no suspense over what the story thinks should happen.

No one in the story learns anything. No one changes as a person. One wins, and the other loses, but nothing is different at the end.

Great Stories Are About Change

I attended a panel on startups by the renowned actor Kevin Spacey this past weekend. One phrase above all stuck out to me as an example of how he sees storytelling. When asking a founder a question about his motivations in business, the founder responded: “Well, that’s complex.” To which Spacey responded: “Go ahead. Be complex.”

People are complex. So stories must also deal in moral complexity. They must give the heros and the villains an “arc.” As in Gilgamesh (or any epic story), the hero must fail to become wise. A villain must experience pride before the fall. Otherwise, nothing has changed.

Take, for example, this highly compelling commercial from none other than Budweiser, simultaneously America’s best selling, and worst tasting beer:

This is practically the definition of a Hero’s Journey. A young man with a romantic vision leaves home, only to find that the world is harsher than he expected. Enduring many trials, he finds help in unexpected places (the black man on the river boat). Having grown through his experience, he reaches his new home ready to accomplish great works: in this case, brewing beer.

This ad was seen as shockingly political (released weeks after the 2016 US Presidential Election), but it was also very successful. And that is because it is a real story, not just an ad.

It seeks to reframe the story of Budweiser, “America’s Beer,” into the story of Americans themselves, where they come from, and what they should believe in.

It also presents a coherent moral argument: that adversity makes us stronger, and that perseverance leads to success.

Importantly, neither of the two main characters in the story (America, and Budweiser himself), are either purely good or evil. Budweiser shows hints of arrogance from the beginning, before becoming wiser, and America shows signs of openness, even after initially seeming a cruel place indeed.

The story is about these characters changing together.

Great Stories Are About Conflict

As we’ve now seen, conflict is essential to a powerful story.

Conflicts in stories boil down to need. Human beings and societies have competing needs. How those needs are addressed, and which needs win out over others, are key elements of a story.

Convincing an audience that one need is greater than another is vital. Otherwise, why should a person pay attention to your story? It involves no consequences.

This is a video I often use to talk about bad storytelling. It’s a coca-cola ad from the early 1980s, when Coke was getting its ass kicked by Pepsi’s brilliant marketing.

But what’s not to love? Sunny day, happy people, soccer for some reason, and everyone having a “Coke and a smile.”

This ad was a failure, along with much of Coca-Cola’s marketing at the time. There is zero conflict in this story. And because there is no conflict, there is no identification of any urgent need. Do I need to have a coke on a nice day? It seems these people are having fun, regardless of what they’re drinking.

Brands routinely fail to introduce real conflict into their product and brand stories. Here’s a more recent example:

 

There’s a lot wrong with this ad, but the most important problem is that the conflict it presents is false. We see trials and struggles for the hero, but we are told at the end that there is no solution. And instead we should just buy a car. It’s insulting.

Cowardly marketing and bad storytelling happen when we refuse to acknowledge that our customers are people with their own problems. They aren’t just people out in a park having a perfect day, ready to jump at the chance to buy a coke.

They won’t automatically feel better about themselves just because someone tells them it’s ok to buy a car. Even if that car is the best car ever. They have other needs as well- more important ones.

Coke actually learned that lesson. Here is a typical ad from more recent years:

Here is conflict. Suspense! Competing needs and wants. And the brand in the story is associated with wisdom, with the setting aside of personal enmities in favor of love.

That’s a great story to tell. It appeals to people as they are: always in conflict with themselves, and always unsure of what is right.

Creating and Resolving Conflict

How do you make your story real to other people? You do it by making the conflict real to them. By showing them how the conflict in your story should matter to them.

This is also where a lot of startup stories fall apart. They make the mistake of thinking that making a good argument is the same as actually persuading someone. But it is never enough to just be right. The person has to believe you’re right.

In the next post in this series, I’m going to talk about how to identify parts of your story, as a founder, as a company, or as a person, and bring out the hidden conflicts that will help you relate that story, and make it matter to other people.

ICO

ICOs: 2017’s Biggest, Most Misunderstood Trend in Tech

It seems like the tech investment market hasn’t been this excited about anything since 1999. The ICO, or “Initial Coin Offering,” is on the lips of every investor, and floats to the top of every startup discussion around fundraising and new business models.

Depending on who you ask, it’s a revolutionary shift in the investment paradigm that will help tech companies and investors alike become wildly rich, or it’s a scary bubble-creating, fraud enabling monster the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the dot-com bubble.

So what’s going on? What’s an ICO? What do you need to know about them? Why should I be wary or excited? This post will jump into the circumstances that created the phenomenon of ICOs, and try to dispel or confirm some of the most important common beliefs about them.

First, a bit of history:

First There Was Blockchain

In the distant technological past, around 2009, an idea emerged from a mysterious coder with the pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto. In a now-legendary whitepaper, he produced a theoretical model for a new kind of digital currency: what he called Bitcoin.  

Without getting too deep into the technology, the key to Nakamoto’s innovation was the idea of a distributed digital currency that relied on a network of computers to process and authenticate transactions for its users. This network would create many copies of a “blockchain ledger,” and would copy transactions written to the ledger based on consensus with the network.

The ledger would contain many “coins,” or unique pieces of code that could be “traded” from one user to another only with the use of a private key. Over time, the system itself was designed to create more coins as a reward for those who processed transactions- a process called “mining.”

In this system, transactions would be theoretically tamper-proof. The system would keep what amounts to a never-ending record of everything it does, impossible for one person to alter alone.

Though Bitcoin’s exact origins and Nakamoto himself are mysterious, what is true today is that millions of people around the world have traded bitcoins, and used them for a variety of purposes, including making payments, transferring money abroad, and in some cases, illegal activities such as extortion, money laundering, and black market sales. There is such ongoing demand for bitcoins, that they have been valued by some exchanges at up to $5000 dollars recently.

The popularity of Bitcoin has spawned many follow-ups, including and especially Ethereum, which has presented a number of technical advancements to solve limitations in the original Bitcoin technology, particularly Bitcoin’s lack of speed and extensibility.

Today, the Ethereum blockchain functions as a platform upon which applications that need a distributed blockchain can be built. The Ethereum coin called “ether,” can be “spent” as a way of leveraging the network on which it runs to accomplish new tasks in a secure way.

Blockchain and ICOs

While Bitcoin popularized shared ledgers, new platforms like Ethereum promise to put that technology to much broader use, such as in authenticating contracts, securing communications, and enabling new forms of crowdfunding. Proponents see Ethereum and similar technologies as a way to decentralize many functions of the web, and eventually the whole economy.

TechCrunch has a good introductory article on some of those ideas. I suggest you read that as well.

An ICO is one of those new uses of a shared ledger. As simply as possible, it is the process of offering a new set of coins for purchase, either for cash, or more commonly, in exchange for cryptocurrencies that the seller of the coin can then exchange for cash, or something else. The coins being sold by the company raising the IO should be tied to some external financial instrument or physical asset, such as a loan, a share of common stock, a security, or in some cases, “credit” towards the use of the products a company offers.

You may recognize this kind of transaction as essentially similar to the sale of a security or a debt. The main difference is that the sale is accomplished using a blockchain ledger, and the “coin” sits in place of a typical security instrument, such as a bond, or a note.

Thus, an ICO could be used to facilitate many existing business activities. It could be used to enable a group of lenders to pool their money, or it could be used by a startup to sell equity in itself. An ICO can also be used by an existing company to offer a way of buying its services (the same way mobile gaming companies sell tokens, gems or other items to their players to make in-game purchases).

The advantages of employing blockchain technology in these circumstances are the same as ever: increased security, transparency, and auditability. In short, ICOs can potentially offer a better or fairer way of doing things people mostly already do.

So Why is this So Crazy Popular?

Because it’s so easy to setup, and easy to use. The wild popularity of ICOs in the past 6 months or so is largely driven by the general investor hype around cryptocurrencies. As the prevalence of shared ledgers grows, it becomes ever easier to leverage them for novel purposes like an ICO.

And that cutting-edgness can make the ICO market a bit frothy and potentially bubble prone. People who have invested in cryptocurrencies, and more importantly those who missed the huge easy gains that early Bitcoin and Ethereum investors made, now are seeking more opportunities to make returns of a similar scope. At least a part of this is mania and greed, as evidenced by the wacky valuations and amounts raised in some ICOs.

On the other hand, ICOs carry undeniably attractive advantages. They can be bought into from anywhere, by anyone, and are instantaneous- a powerful antidote to the slow and restricted nature of traditional investments and bank transactions for end-consumers. In a sense, an ICO lets individuals do what big investment banks have been able to do for decades: to be the first movers in new and exciting markets.

What an ICO is Not

Of course, that freedom and opportunity comes with its own cost.

Currently ICOs are mostly considered to be unregulated, and have thus been characterized as dangerous, risky for investors, and legally questionable by experts. Certainly those ICOs which mimic the characteristics of a classical IPO have been among the most concerning activity in the ICO market, and were the primary motivator for both the Chinese and US governments to intervene in the market recently.

An ICO can allow a company to bypass institutional investors who might normally help to diversify risk for consumers, or ensure that an investment is legally structured in a way that protects investors. In an ICO however, no central mediator such as a stock exchange or investment bank exists, and thus, in some cases, due diligence on behalf of investors is poor or non-existent.

Whatever the legal or ethical dangers, ICOs have quickly ballooned in value to what is estimated to be billions of U.S. dollars in the past year. Companies have used ICOs to raise eye-popping amounts of money, sometimes with little reliable information about where that money is going, and often with little legal protections in place for buyers.

ICOs have also been the tools of purely criminal enterprises, with a fraudster reportedly caught attempting to move $350 million of ICO investments offshore from India, after a fake ICO for a company calling itself OneCoin.

Massive speculation in cryptocurrencies has fueled plenty of fraud and abuse from bad actors looking to make easy money. And the distributed nature of a shared ledger makes it correspondingly difficult for investors to organize in response to problems. Collective shareholder action becomes difficult when many shareholders remain anonymous.

As to whether we are in a crypto bubble, as many commentators fear, it is inherently difficult to recognize a bubble when you are in it. But according to the economic historian Michael Lewis (author of The Big Short), a defining feature of the investor mania that leads to bubbles is “ an exponential increase in the volume and complexity of fraud.” And fraud today in crypto-currencies is both voluminous and increasingly complex.

Original Art by Mirek Sultz Copyright 2017, StartupYard 

Are ICOs Legal?

At least right now, they’re not illegal in most places. But the question of their legality is part of an evolving situation. They have recently been banned in China, as the government grew concerned over the disruption they were causing in the country’s traditional financial markets. In addition, the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission of the US), has also issued new guidance suggesting that ICOs that are similar to a classical IPO must register with the SEC, and adhere to existing regulations.

The ESMA (the European SEC), has yet to issue coherent regulatory guidance for European investors and companies. European regulators are typically slower to act than either the US or China.

In addition to this, while an ICO might not be illegal, it may in some cases be technically illegal to participate in it. For example, investors who are American citizens, and the companies they buy coins from, may be at risk of violating US laws including FATCA and FBAR – laws that require many financial transactions to be reported to the US Government when they involve American citizens.

In most countries, ignorance of such laws is not a defense for breaking them.

Are ICO’s Safe?

They can be. An ICO is not inherently safe as an investment. One unique risk in blockchain transactions, as opposed to traditional commerce, is that nothing is reversible. “No backsies,” meaning that you can’t appeal to anyone to recall a transaction once you make it.

And a coin alone does not guarantee shareholder rights or ownership of something. However, if the proper legal framework is used to tie coins to real assets or give their holders certain rights, then an ICO investment or a coin purchase is not fundamentally different from the purchase of any other type of security or medium of exchange.

So while an ICO is not by definition “safe,” it is not necessarily any more dangerous than any other type of transaction. And in some ways, it can be considered more secure against certain threats.

Ok, but Should I Buy Into an ICO?

According to our in-house blockchain expert, Decissio founder Dite Gashi, you should not consider investing in any debt or equity ICO unless it meets some essential criteria (many of it the same as for any traditional investment).

Here are the highlights of Decissio’s checklist:

  1. The ICO’s Focus – The focus should be on the business, and not on providing investor returns, particular fast investor returns. If it looks like a pyramid scheme, assume it is.
  2. Meeting Technical Due Diligence – either you or someone you trust has examined the technical specifications of the offering, and are satisfied that it is sound from a technical point of view.
  3. Complete Company Documentation – Just as with any investment, the company launching an ICO should be on a sound legal footing, and should be represented by qualified board-members, free of legal trouble, compliant with regulations, and have its finances in proper order. If documentation that establishes this is not provided, then the investment may not be as safe as you think.
  4. An Exit Plan – A company raising money through an equity or debt ICO should have a clear idea of how and when investors can be paid back, what triggers a liquidity event, what events or milestones call for a reorganization of the company, and so forth. This should all be provided in writing and vetted by your own legal counsel.
  5. Legal Framework – Purchase of a coin in a debt or equity swap absolutely must have legal documentation tying the coin to a real asset, or to the right to collect payment on a debt. Sufficient collateral for such a transaction should be in place, and all standard legal documentation must be provided. The blockchain technology does not replace any of this, or make any of it less necessary.

To be clear: we are not offering financial advice. But our opinion is that an investor should make a habit of looking for the same kinds of things in any investment they make. The way that an investment is offered doesn’t change the fundamentals of wise investing.

As the renowned VC Fred Wilson says: “Don’t be greedy.”

Should I Raise an ICO as a Startup?

In answer to this, we would pose a different question: what are the specific advantages of doing an ICO?

  1. It’s Faster: ICO might be easier to manage in the long term. Because it’s handled using a shared ledger, there’s no need to deal with many investors all trying to give you money at the same time- no problems with exchange rates, transfer fees, bank delays, and other annoyances.
  2. It’s more Scalable: Unlike a typical early-stage investment, an ICO can in theory be easily extended or replicated in the future without any changes to existing agreements. Traditional equity investing involves complex time-intensive processes to transfer shares, convert notes, gather signatures, and the rest.
  3. It’s Auditable: A nice thing about an ICO is that it can all be audited. Investors can feel more secure because a company cannot easily lie about how much money it has raised, or at what value. It’s all in the ledger.
  4. It’s Flexible: an ICO can be used by a small group of investors, just as it can a large one. This means that you can theoretically offer early investors the advantages of using a shared ledger, without sacrificing the personal touch that is so important with early stage investments. Startups rarely just need money: they usually need investors who can help them. It’s still possible to do that with an ICO.

ICOs are a Threat to Traditional Investors

It should be obvious by now that blockchain technology and ICOs are perceived as a threat by many traditional investors. And with good reason. Traditional startup investors may offer more than just money, but money is certainly a huge part of what they offer. ICOs can be a way to get around large institutional investors and deal with people on a peer-to-peer basis, meaning that traditional investors will have to compete harder for investments, and offer more to companies they invest in.

Early stage investors like StartupYard also face challenges from this technology. As it becomes easier to get capital from anywhere, startups are perhaps less likely to think of an accelerator as a starting point for their business. They may find that raising money in an ICO is easier – maybe even too easy.

Investors down the line may also find that investing through traditional institutions doesn’t give them the access to deal flow that they want, and they could be attracted to ICOs as a way of getting “closer to the action,” and giving money directly to exciting startups.

Tech Business Angels and VCs may also find that startups are not as keen to cooperate with them because of the alternatives available. That may be good for some startups, and very bad for others. Small companies that raise money too quickly often make big, costly mistakes, rather than little, cheap ones. Institutional investors don’t make you immune to that problem either, but they can enforce much needed discipline on founders who are playing with lots of funds for the first time.

What can we do about it?

As the famous line from newspaperman Horace Greeley says: “Go West, young man, go West.” In other words: we must adapt to our times. The reality is that this technology is gaining popularity because it promises something that people want: a new level of transparency and immediacy, for investors and for startups, that the old investment world can’t match.

While we have to continue to advocate for the processes that have made us successful at what we do (which have less to do with money) we also have to recognize that the modes of technology change whether we want them to or not. Our model must adapt, which is one of the reasons that StartupYard has made itself available to smaller investors through private equity placements over the past two years. We see that small investors want more access to early stage investments, so we must provide it in a way that makes sense for us, and for them.

Still, and it bears repeating: startups don’t really need money as much as they need help. Really effective startup investors provide enough money, in order to offer the level of help a startup really needs. A day may soon come when StartupYard will adopt blockchain technology in our own fundraising efforts. But when the winds of change blow, you shouldn’t be blown away by them. At the end of the day: the tech business has to be about more than money.

Mentorship

Is Mentorship Like a Game of Chess?

Today our Batch 8 startups will begin to meet with mentors, a process that will take around a month. They’ll have nearly 100 45 minute meetings with mentors from diverse industries and specialized backgrounds.

So how do we prepare startup founders for getting the most out of this crazy rush of meetings? Simple: we give them tools, and training on how to use them. Pro tip: start with David Cohen’s Mentorship Manifesto.

The First Best Tool: Positioning

The thing we focus on first with our startups is “Product Positioning,” which we’ve also written about extensively on the blog. In short, it’s the art of framing your work in a context that others will immediately understand, accept, and sympathize with. A position statement details the target customer, what their problem is, how you solve their problem, what their alternatives are (your competition), and how you’re different.

We strongly believe that starting mentorship sessions with a positioning statement is key to getting the maximum possible value out of mentors. It sets the ground rules for a conversation at the outset: helping a mentor to understand what your basic assumptions are about the world and what you’re doing, and letting them know what you’re working on, and what you know about the business you’re in.

Mentorship as Chess

Mentorship can be thought of as like a game of chess. There are two players, they are equally matched, but one must move first. Both know the rules, but neither understands the thinking or tendencies of another before the game begins. The game is limited to the pieces on the board. Slowly, by making their moves, the two players reveal to each other what is important to them. Every move has an answer, and you don’t stop until one of you is out of moves (or time is up).

Of course, mentorship isn’t a competition, but then in some ways, neither is chess. It’s an exercise in controlled, directed communication. That is what good mentorship is: a focused, stripped down form of conversation that teaches two people about each other.

In this light, mentorship can be seen as a process you can optimize and perfect. You can get better at it over time.

Here are some steps to do that:

Step 1: Setting the Board

Mentorship

Rather than sit down across a table from a mentor with nothing to say, and no plan for how the conversation should play out, the founder must “set the table,” often with a pitch, or a positioning statement.

Setting the conversational agenda is a vital step, and there are many ways of screwing it up. One of the ways founders fail at setting the agenda is by refusing to lead. Rather than come out and state what they do, and what they want to talk about, they will bite around the edges. They will delay, and distract, rather than getting to the point.

And this happens because of fear: fear of failure, or of looking stupid. That fear leads founders to try and push the focus of the conversation away from themselves. Sometimes they try to start with “literature” such as an executive summary or a pitch deck or video, as a way of easing the pressure on themselves. But this is usually a mistake, because the opening of a conversation is about “setting the board,” and bringing a mentor’s attention to the topic you want to discuss. While a pitch deck or a video might be interesting, but it’s also impersonal. It isn’t you. This would be sort of like inviting someone to play chess, and then asking them to critique your outfit. You are a living mind, not a pitch deck.

If the first thing you show someone is a presentation, then more often than not, the whole conversation becomes *about* the presentation, or video, or whatever it is. Rather than engaging with ideas, a mentor reacts to things they are shown: they react to what they see, rather than what they are asked to imagine. This limits the conversation, and usually wastes time and energy.

Like in chess, getting the focus of the other player to the center of the board (and away from your side of the board), is critical to controlling the game. If you start out offering your work to a mentor for a critique, then the rest of the “game” is played on your side of the board. This is how mentoring sessions turn defensive and counterproductive.

Step 2: Following a Strategy

Mentorship

As conversations have many layers, so too does chess. There are tactics, such as using combinations of pieces or positions on the board to accomplish tasks, and there is strategy- the way you pursue your overall goals by using certain tactics instead of others. Just as in a conversation, the tactics you use are superficial: a certain combination of words or a way of speaking. Jokes are a conversational tactic. So is eye contact. But these are not strategy.

Often we confuse tactics for strategy. We talk about the superficial aspects of conversation: how to talk to people, and how to please them. But ingratiating yourself is one thing, and getting what you need from a mentor is something else.

Your strategy is more premeditated, and it requires planning. How will I win this person to my way of thinking? How will I talk to them in a way they will understand and sympathize this? We do not achieve very effective conversations by relying on charm and wit alone – those are only tactical elements. Really good mentoring only happens when the founder plans ahead, thinking carefully about what they want from the mentor, and about how they are likely to get it.

Having a good strategy means gathering intelligence about the mentor you’re talking to, having an outcome for your conversation in mind (the thing you want the mentor to give you or do for you), and understanding what it is the mentor wants from you. Why are they mentoring you? What do they stand to gain from you?

All these questions can be asked before hand, but often are not. Some founders never engage in a clear strategy, and so they simply chat with mentors, never really getting anywhere. They try to be liked, rather than to earn respect and attention. Don’t make that mistake: having a “nice” conversation, and really getting something out of a mentorship session are not the same thing.

Step 3: The Endgame

Mentorship

Chess also has an end. Or rather, it reaches a point at which there is nowhere to go. That is the nature of the game, and to some degree, it is also the nature of a productive mentorship session. Knowing when you should stop is as important as knowing how to start. But often founders begin to repeat themselves, or to delay the end of the interaction, either to try and make a good impression, or just because they don’t know how to cut themselves off.

Sometimes too, mentors like to talk. I am guilty of that as a mentor, and I rarely end a conversation myself. If the person I’m talking to is very interesting, then I don’t always want to end it. But then that is about what I want as a mentor, not about what the founder needs. Thus, I do notice when founders are unable to break away and close the discussion. If the conversation takes on an air of inevitability, then don’t drag it out. Don’t get repetitive.

By having clear goals in advance, you’ll be more able to decide when and if those goals have been achieved, at which point you can conclude the conversation, and move on to other things.

As in starting a conversation, there are tactics for ending them. For example, you can shift gears by summing up your talk, and then clarifying the next step both parties are going to take. You can also frame this as a kind of question: “So, we’ve talked about the challenges in selling my product, and you’ve given me some great advice. Now I’m going to be implementing that advice, and I’ll let you know the results about 2 weeks from now. As you mentioned, you’re going to connect me with your contact at company XYZ. Shall I email you a reminder tomorrow morning?”

Then it is only for the mentor to either add something, or agree with the summary and plan. The conversation has been effectively closed, or pushed nearer to finishing.

Know too, the signs of a mentor who is done talking to you. If they begin to summarize your meeting before you do, follow along, and either confirm what they say, or add what you need them to remember. Always agree on what happens next, even if what happens next is “I’ll see you around.” You won’t need to follow up with every mentor, but make a habit of stating what your intention is. If it is not to stay in contact, don’t tell them you will. If you plan to contact them soon, then tell them this too.

The Positioning Statement: Finding a Window Into the Mind

The Positioning Statement For Startups: A Window Into The Mind

Originally published on our blog way back in 2014, this post has been one of our most enduringly popular. According to Google Analytics, the average reader has spent over 20 minutes studying it. It is also our most popular piece on Medium. Since that time, we’ve shared this post with scores of startups, and used the methodology detailed here over and over again. This post is updated to reflect all that we’ve learned in the past 3+ years.

What is Positioning?

“Positioning” has often been described as “the organized system for finding a window in the mind.” That’s how Al Ries and Jack Trout described it in their book: Positioning, a Battle for Your Mind, a groundbreaking work from 1981.

Al Ries is often credited with coming up with the term “positioning,” and he describes it as a way of using a customer’s own experience of the world (including with other brands and products) as a way of communicating with that customer. Rather than communicate in a vacuum, companies that use effective positioning target customers who are already familiar with competing products and brands, and use that familiarity to differentiate themselves.

In the book, Ries highlights perhaps the most famous example of brand positioning in the 20th century: that of Hertz Rent-a-Car, which in 1962premiered the tagline: “At No. 2, We Try Harder.” Hertz was at the time the market runner up in rental cars, and the company used that fact to imply that they were more accountable than their competitors, because they had to be.

 

In an early case of position-focused advertising, Avis used their status as 2nd in the market to imply that they were more attentive to their customers, because they had to be.

Positioning is Everywhere

When we stop to think about positioning as a promotional tool, we begin to see that it is everywhere.

Brands use their competitors as foils for their own messaging constantly. Remember those “I’m a PC, I’m a Mac” adverts.

 

Apple portrayed PC users as unstylish and bumbling in a popular series of TV spots.

                                                          

Brands for the the past half century have often focused less on defining what their products are, and chosen rather to define what they are not. Another striking example comes from 7-up, which in the 1970’s sought to gain market share by telling customers that their clear soda was “the un-cola,” explicitly defining themselves as essentially “Not Coke.”

Whereas in the past, consumers may have seen their range of choice as: “drink Coke or don’t drink Coke,” 7-up presented a different scenario: “drink 7-up when you don’t want Coke.”

In presenting consumers with a new choice: either drink Coke or drink 7-up, the brand found a window into consumers’ minds. It suggested that there were many people who would prefer an alternative to Coke that was not available.

By framing 7-up as an alternative to a popular drink, the brand convinced retailers and consumers alike to buy 7-up along with Coke, in order to fill the demand implied by the advert. In 7-up’s ideal scenario, customers would not stop buying Coke, but would buy 7-up in addition to Coke.

In the 1970s, 7-Up promoted the idea of a citrus-flavored soda as an “un-cola,” to break down consumer expectations that carbonated sodas are dark in color.

The product itself also emphasized its differences from traditional sodas. It was not caffeinated, it was sour, and it mixed well with the more popular alcoholic drinks of the time, including gin and vodka, which were gaining market share in the 1970s. “7 and 7″ was a popular drink choice by 1970, a mix of Seagram’s 7 Crown Gin, and 7-up.

The brand thus further differentiated itself from Coke, which had traditionally focused its brand on taste and tradition, using the tagline “It’s the Real Thing.” Whereas Coke was a conservative choice, enjoyed by families and older generations, 7-up was a young brand- enjoyed at night in bars and in cocktails, rather than on sunny afternoons at baseball stadiums or at restaurants.

Thanks to these ads, 7-up rose in the 1970s to 3rd place among sodas, only losing its market share with the rise of diet sodas in the 1980s and 90s, and the decline in popularity of mixed drinks in favor of bottled drinks and beer.

What a Product Positioning Statement Looks Like

Here we’ll focus on a sub-discipline of positioning as a whole: Product Positioning. It’s the same general philosophy, but with its own specific methodology.

When a startup team joins StartupYard, one of the first things we ask them to do is to sit down and write our a “positioning statement.” The format is deceptively simple, and it looks like this:

Product Positioning Statement:

(Our Product) is for (target customers):

Who (have the following problem):

Our product is a (describe the product or solution):

That provides (cite the breakthrough capability):

Unlike (reference competition):

Our product/solution (describe the key point of competitive differentiation):

Why A Positioning Statement Is Important

The positioning statement contains the core elements not only of a product, but also of its marketing and sales strategy. And while most of our teams have worked primarily on ways of describing their ideas, a positioning statement does more than this: it also justifies the notion of that idea becoming a business.

It’s important for a startup to have the concepts of saleability and market differentiation baked into the essence of the product. Writing a positioning statement, like writing a SWOT analysis, can reveal basic strengths and weaknesses in a product while it is still in the “idea” phase.

A Starting Point

Even more importantly, a positioning statement can serve as the basis for validation of a product. If you can’t describe what your company does in this compact format, it’s possible that you aren’t sure yet what your company actually does. You may be sure of what you are doing on a technical level, but what that means in business terms might not yet be clear.

The positioning statement is a conversation starter, particularly with early mentors and core team members, to facilitate early discussions about core strategy, and how the team sees itself in the bigger picture, what market it is really addressing, and what its real competition is in that market.

And a positioning statement, well-executed, can be transformed virtually complete into the core marketing message for a product, once it is developed. Take this copy from Nest’s webpage:

“Our mission is to keep people comfortable in their homes while helping them save energy, and with the next-generation Nest Learning Thermostat, we’re able to spread that comfort and savings to even more homes — and to help higher-efficiency systems perform the way they were meant to.”

Here are all the elements of a positioning statement. If the Nest founders filled in our form, it would look something like this:

Our Product is

For: Upper-middle class and wealthy people

Who: Own homes and spend a lot of money on energy costs and heating/cooling systems

Our product is a: Smart Thermostat and related products

That provides: Savings and increased comfort by improving efficiency of existing systems.

Unlike: manufacturer provided systems

Our product/solution: Learns and intelligently adapts to the inhabitants to increase comfort at all times, while saving money

A Positioning Statement Tells the Truth

The above “translation” of the Nest positioning statement doesn’t say exactly what their marketing copy says of course. They don’t mention wealthy clientele for one thing. But at $130 for a smoke detector, and $250 for a thermostat, that is surely the market they are targeting.

Their products are priced high enough to be clearly exclusive, but low enough not to seem extravagant or make a money-wise customer feel foolish for purchasing. And anyway, that messaging is not only found in the price, but in mention of “homeowners,” and of “higher-efficiency systems.” These subtle cues indicate to customers that the product is made for people who value performance, and are willing to pay to get it.

Features ≠ Differentiation

Notice too that none of the positioning statement deals with the exact features of the product. It’s all about the outcomes the product promises.

This is key: their competitive differentiation is not on a feature-by-feature basis, but holistic. They frame their competition as not only out of date, but barely worth mentioning at all. They indicate that their competitors (the providers of the systems), are not even in the same business as they are, and that therefore competing products are not even worth comparing in a more granular way.

These are all elements of Nest’s marketing that are informed by the market segment they have chosen to address, from the quality of the products, to the design, to the sales language and the pricing. And so the marketing message that says: “this product is for you,” when speaking to its target client, is backed up by a product that is built with that person in mind. The mission is clear: this is not a product for anyone, but for someone very specific, so that when the customer comes across the product and thinks about buying it, he or she can immediately see that it is made for them.

Who, Not What

There’s a reason the positioning statement starts with “who.” Over the years, we’ve consistently observed that the first thing most startup founders do is try to talk about the product before talking about the customer.

But here’s why that’s a mistake, and why the positioning statement doesn’t do that: understanding the target market is the first hurdle in actually validating a new product. Features are a distant second consideration to clearly enumerating who the customer is, and what their problem is.

A laundry list of features doesn’t really address the problem of “who” the product is for, but only “what” it is for. And that “what” that a feature describes doesn’t necessarily give any indication of what problem is being solved. Startups that are dealing with complex technologies can easily skip over the core user benefits of the technology, in favor of describing the technology itself.

Common is the startup that pitches “a revolutionary new method of transforming leavened wheat products into crispy squares by employing concentrated on-demand heat conduction derived from electrical coil technology,” instead of pitching: “toast whenever you need it,” or even “a less boring version of bread.”

People Buy Outcomes, Not Features

Customers ultimately buy solutions to their problems, not technical specifications. And those problems are not always the same as the ones that the feature list actually addresses.

Consider this, when thinking about buying a car, what are the first things you’re likely to check?

Probably it isn’t technical specifications. Most people will answer one of two ways: they will check either prices, or reviews.

That indicates that the customer is very aware of what their problem is. They need a car, and they need it at a certain price, or at a certain minimum level of comfort and safety, or both. Car companies rarely list their prices up front on their websites precisely because they know that this is what customers are looking for, and so they are able to ask for customer information in exchange for information on their pricing.

Cars rely heavily on marketing to differentiate themselves, but the marketing is typically not focused on what the cars actually do. And that’s because cars all pretty much do the same things. So the problem being solved for the customer is not “I need a car,” but “I need a car that fits my personality/lifestyle/class/status and/or specific needs.”

Look carefully at a car commercial, and you’ll be assaulted with subtle and unsubtle cues about price, lifestyle, class, education, and culture, but not much about fuel injection, or anti-lock brakes, or all-wheel drive. These things may get a mention, but the whole object is to present the car as being a great value, in consideration of all that it offers for the price being asked.

 

Lincoln’s famously ponderous commercials for town cars are definitely not focused on features.

The goal of a typical car commercial is to convince a customer that they are buying the status and the culture that is associated with the car; that their decision is not motivated by price, even when it usually is.

That is how powerful positioning is. By showing a very clear understanding of who their customers are, car companies can turn a price-motivated decision into a statement about who the customer is, and about their place in society as a whole.

The Position and the Pitch

The main difference between a positioning statement and a full blown pitch is that the positioning statement says in plain words, what is really true about who your product is for, and what you believe its market fit to be.

This will help you to stay away from visions of (and talk about) your product changing the world, even if it doesn’t really have the capacity or the capability to be a real world changing idea. Not all products have to be for everyone, and many of the best products aren’t.

It will also keep you honest and focused; force you to make clear the needs of the market you are targeting, and force you to live in their shoes instead of your own.

mentors engaged with founders

How Smart Startups Keep Mentors Engaged

A version of this post originally appeared on the StartupYard blog in January 2016. As a new group of Startups joins us in the next few weeks for StartupYard Batch 8, we thought we’d dive back into a very important topic for them: How do the smartest startups engage their mentors?

But first: why do some of even the most successful startup founders continue to seek mentorship?

Mentorship is Core to Running a Startup

Founders have to balance mentorship with the day-to-day responsibilities of their companies. But sometimes founders approach mentorship as a kind of “detour” from their normal operations- something they can get through before “getting back to work.”

This is the wrong approach. Having worked with scores of startups myself, as a mentor, investor, and at StartupYard, I can comfortably say that those who engage with mentors most, get the most productive work done. Those who engage least, are generally the most likely to waste precious time. 

How can that be? Well, simply put, the first line of defense against the dumbest, most avoidable mistakes, are mentors who have made those mistakes themselves. I’ve seen this happen: a startup decides they’re going to try a certain thing, and it’s going to take X amount of work (often a lot of work). They mention it to a mentor, who forcefully advises that they not do it. The mentor tried it themselves, and failed.

Now this startup has 2 options: proceed knowing how and why the mentor failed, or change direction to avoid the same problems. Either way, an hour-long discussion with a mentor will probably have saved time and money, simply by raising awareness. I have seen 20 minute conversations with mentors save literally months of pain and struggle for startup founders.

Recently, one of our founders reached out to a handful of mentors for information on an investor who was very close to signing on as an Angel. The reaction was swift, and saved the founder from making a very serious mistake. The investor turned out to have a bad reputation, and was a huge risk. As a result, mentors scrambled to suggest alternatives and offer help securing the funds elsewhere. That is what engaged mentors can do for startups.

Engaged Mentors Defeat Wishful Thinking

There’s a tendency, particularly among startups that haven’t had enough challenging interactions with outsiders, to paper-over issues that the founders prefer not to think about. Often there “just isn’t enough data,” to prove or disprove the founders’ theories about the market.

We like to focus on things we can control, and things we have a hard time working out appear to be outside of that sphere, so we are more likely to ignore them, or hand-wave their importance away.

Founders sometimes long to go back into “builder mode,” and focus solely on executing all the advice they’ve been given. And they do usually still have a lot of building to do. But one common mistake -something we see every single year- is that startups will treat mentors as the source of individual ideas or advice, but not as a wellspring of continuing support and continual challenges.

The truth is that a great mentor will continually put a brake on your worst habits as a company. They will be a steadfast advocate of a certain point of view- hopefully one that differs from your own, and makes you better at answering tough questions. But you have to bring them in.

Treat Your Mentors like Precious Resources

I can’t say how many times great mentors, who have had big impacts on the teams they have worked with, have come to me asking for updates about those teams. These mentors would probably be flattered to hear what an effect they’ve had on their favorite startups, but the startups often won’t tell them. And the mentors, not knowing whether they’ve been listened to, don’t press the issue either.

Mentors need care and feeding. They need love. Like in any relationship, this requires effort on both sides.

But time and again, mentors who are ready to offer support, further contacts, and more, are simply left with the impression that the startup isn’t doing anything, much less anything they recommended or hoped the startup would try.

Mentors who aren’t engaged with a startup’s activities won’t mention them to colleagues and friends. They won’t brag about progress they don’t know about, and they won’t think of the startup the next time they meet someone who would be an interesting contact for the founders.

This isn’t terribly complicated stuff. Many founders fear at first that “spamming” or “networking,” is the act of the desperate and the unloved. If their ideas are brilliant and their products genius, then surely success will simply find them. Or so the thinking goes.

Alas, that’s a powerful Silicon Valley myth. And believe me: it doesn’t apply to you. Engaging mentors is just like engaging customers: even if you’re Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, you still need to be challenged and questioned. You still need support.

As always, there are a few simple best practices to follow.

1. A Mentor Newsletter

Two of StartupYard’s best Alumni, Gjirafa and TeskaLabs, provide regular “Mentor Update” newsletters. These letters can follow a few different formats, but the important things are these: be consistent in format, and update regularly. Ales Teska, TeskaLab’s founder, sends a monthly update to all mentors and advisors.

In the email, he has 4 major sections. Here they are with explanations of the purpose of each:

Introduction

Here you give a personal account of how things are going. You can mention personal news, or news about the team, offices, team activities, and other minutiae. This is a good place to tell small stories that may be interesting to your mentors, and will help them to feel they know you better. Did a member of the team become a parent? Tell it here. Did you travel to Dubai on business? Give a quick account of the trip.

Ask

This is one section which I love about Ales’s emails. I always scroll down to the “ask” section, and read it right away. Here, Ales comes up with a new request for his mentors every single time. It can be something simple like: “we really need a good coffee provider for the office,” to something bigger, like “we are looking for an all-star security-focused salesman with 10 years experience.”

Whatever it is, he engages his mentors to answer the questions they know, by replying directly to the email. This way, he can gauge who is reading the emails, and he can very quickly get great answers to important questions or requests.

Audience engagement happens on many levels. Not everything engages every mentor all the time, and that’s important to keep in mind. A simple question can start an important conversation. You don’t know what a mentor has to offer you until you find the right way to ask for their help.

Wins

Here, Ales usually shares any good news he has about the company. This section is invaluable, because it reminds mentors that the company is moving forward, and making gains. A win can be anything positive. You can say that a win was hiring a great new developer, or finally getting the perfect offices. Or it can be an investment or a new client contact. These show mentors that you are working hard, and that you are making progress and experiencing some form of traction.

You’d be surprised how many mentors simply assume that a startup that isn’t talking about any successes, must have already failed. StartupLand in can be like Hollywood that way: if you haven’t seen someone’s name on the billboards lately, it means they’ve washed out.

The fact might be that you’re quietly doing great business, but see what happens when someone asks about you to a mentor who hasn’t heard anything in 6 months. “Those guys? I don’t know… I guess they aren’t doing much, I haven’t heard from them in a while.” There’s no good reason for that conversation to happen that way.

KPIs

Here Ales shares a consistent set of Key Performance Indicators. In his case, it is about the company’s sales pipeline, but for other companies, it might be slightly different items, such as “time on site,” or “number of daily logins,” or “mentions in media.” Whatever KPIs are most important to your growth as a company, these should be shared proactively with your mentors.

If the news isn’t positive, then explain why. You can also have a little fun with this, and include silly KPIs like: “pizza consumed,” or “bugs found.” This exercise shows mentors that you are moving forward, and gives them a reliable and repeatable overview of what you’re experiencing in any given week.

I heard one mentor complaining not long ago about these types of emails. “The KPIs don’t change that much, it’s always the same thing.” But he was thinking about the startup in question. The fact that the KPIs hadn’t changed might be a bad sign to the mentor, but probably the absence of any contact would be worse. At least in this case, the mentor might care enough to reach out and ask what’s going on.

2. Care and Watering

Mentors aren’t mushrooms. They don’t do well in the dark. Once you’ve identified your most engaged mentors, you need to put in as much effort in growing your relationship as you expect to get back from them.

How can you grow a relationship with a mentor? Start by identifying what the mentor wishes to accomplish in their career, in their life, or in their work with you. Do they want to move up the career path? Do they want to do something good for the human race? Do they just want to feel needed or important?

A person’s motivations for mentorship can work to your advantage. Try and help them achieve their goals, so that they can help you achieve yours.

Does a mentor want his or her boss’s job? Feed them information that will help them get ahead of colleagues and stand out. Mention them in your PR, or on your blog to enhance their visibility.

Does the mentor want to be a humanitarian? Show them the positive effects they’ve had by sending them a letter, or inviting them to a dinner.

Does the founder yearn to be needed? Include his/her name in your newsletter and highlight their importance to your startup. These things are all easy to do, and can be the difference between a mentor choosing to help you, and finding other things to do with their busy schedules.

4 Ways to Never Fail a StartupYard Interview

The 17th century French poet Boileau famously said: Ce que l’on conçoit bien s’énonce clairement, Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément. Or: “An idea well conceived presents itself clearly, and words to express it come readily.”

Or to put it bluntly: An idea isn’t any good unless it can be explained to someone else. If there were one piece of advice I could drill into the head of every brilliant startup founder I’ve met in my career, it would probably be just that.

But since we have some time, I’m going to go deeper. Here is:

How to Never Fail at A StartupYard Interview 

StartupYard will begin interviews for Batch 8 next week, and in the meantime, we thought we would share with them (and you), 4 key strategies that any startup can use in an interview with us, or any investor, that will help them never to fail.

Now, this advice is not going to win you an investment 100% of the time.

Investments are complicated, and they involve the needs and priorities of multiple parties. A perfect meeting might not produce an investment for a million valid reasons. But I can guarantee that if you follow this advice well, you will not fail to give your best possible impression to an investor.

Follow this advice, and you will not fail for stupid reasons.

1. Answer Questions As They are Asked

Simple and yet incredibly difficult for many people. Answer a question as it is asked, not as you would like it to be asked.

Did someone ask you a question to which you can say Yes or No? Then say Yes, or No. Then explain your answer. If you’ve never interviewed someone, I can let you in on a secret: it is very obvious when someone does not want to answer your question.

It is also very annoying.

And this produces the world’s most frustrating non-answers to simple questions. The below example is not fiction:

    • Are you making any revenue?
    • Well, we only launched about 6 months ago, and we have been focusing on making partnerships with relevant partners who are going to help us scale to our target market, and define the right sales strategy while getting early feedback from customers.
    • But are you making any revenue now?
    • Currently we are in beta and we are talking with a few clients who are ready to become paying customers once the features they need are fully implemented.
    • Are. You. Making. Any. Revenue?
    • No.
    • Thank you.

We don’t ask trick questions. What would be the point? And yet this behavior is widespread among startup founders. It is a learned behavior that must be slowly and painfully unlearned.

We want to know about what we’re asking about. So don’t try to give us the “right” answer. Just give us the real answer. What do you think is worse, us hearing that you aren’t making any revenue, or us leaving the meeting thinking you’re not even capable of answering simple questions?

And the real answer can contain the same information. Just in a slightly different format:

  • Are you making any revenue?
  • No. But we have a few customers who want to pay us as soon as we have the right features implemented. We only launched 6 months ago, and we’ve been focusing on partnerships.
  • Ok, who are these customers, and what features do they want?

Now we’re getting somewhere. And it was so easy! Now we can move to more important questions. This is a real conversation.

If the purpose of an interview is to exchange information and to assess a relationship, we would much rather spend our time doing that, than trying to decode cryptic phrases and hints.

So answer the question.

2. Win the Argument: Lose the Interview

It might be in school where people learn that an impressive, intelligent answer to a question is necessarily the longest and the most complicated one. It might also be in school where we learn that the one who speaks last has won the argument. We probably learn that from watching our teachers. But are these really good lessons?

Among the worst qualities we observe in some founders is the need to triumph, rather than to persuade. But winning an argument is different from convincing someone you may be right, or that you at least know what you’re talking about. Winning is not the goal here.

Trust your interviewers to see you as a human being, and they will like you for it. Treat them as human beings, and they will love you. But make the interview into some sort of contest for control of the subject matter and the upper ground, and they will end up wanting to get rid of you.

So communicate. Don’t argue.

What’s the best answer to a question you don’t know how to answer? Try: “I don’t know.”

You might be surprised how much investors will respect a founder who is not afraid to admit they don’t know everything. In a room full of smart people, there are always going to be things you don’t know that others do.

When answering a question, watch the interviewers, and if they seem ready to speak or unsure what you’re saying, ask them: “is this answering your question?”

So much of what we do at StartupYard involves unlearning and deconstructing the behaviors and impulses that stop founders from being great communicators and effective leaders. Most of that boils down to their motivations in any given situation. What do you want to accomplish here? Do you want to win, or do you want to be understood?

So start with this simple goal in mind: you want the investors to know you. You want to get to know them. If in the course of an interview, you can achieve this basic understanding, on a human level, then you will have succeeded.

3. Look Like You Belong Here: Because You Do

My father wore a suit and tie to work for 30 years. When I got a bit older and started working, I told him I’d never wear a suit and tie to work.

What he said sort of took me by surprise. He said: “we dress according to social customs, not just to show respect for others, but also to show self-respect. We dress to show that we feel we belong.”

I still don’t wear a suit to work, because I work with startups, and nobody does. But still, I notice when a person is poorly or inappropriately dressed for any given situation.

And that can swing both ways: a guy in an immaculate 3-piece suit who wants to talk about his startup is as out of place as the guy in the bathrobe with sleep in his eyes. Neither belong in that situation. Failure to dress like you belong can show that you don’t respect the social customs of your surroundings, but also that you don’t see yourself as belonging to them.

So think just a bit about how you look. Do you look like a startup founder? If you’re not sure, you may need to think more about this. Not too much. But a little.

4. Plan Ahead: Most Questions are Obvious

Here are three things any startup investor should ask you about:

  1. What is the problem you’re solving?
  2. What is the solution?
  3. Who are your customers?

If you can’t answer these three questions clearly, and succinctly, then perhaps you don’t know the answers well enough yet.

And when you sit down to answer these questions, try and imagine an investor hearing this for the first time. What is that person likely to ask you?

  • The problem we are solving is that X can’t Y when Z
  • Why does X want to Y when Z?
  • They just do…

Oops. Do you know why your problem is actually a problem? It might surprise you how frequently founders aren’t all that sure that the problem they’re solving is even a real problem at all.

Because “answering the question,” as in literally stating the problem, is not really answering the question. The object of the question is to get a useful answer: Why is it a problem? When is it a problem? How is it a problem? What is the result of the problem?

So be ready for a follow up. It will come.

Remember, a good investor, especially at an early stage, should be evaluating your ability to think clearly, as much as the idea you are describing to them. They can hate the idea, but be impressed with the clarity of your thinking. That happens to me all the time.

We have invested in companies whose ideas we didn’t fully agree with, because they showed they could think well and be receptive. That’s more valuable than an idea you love, and a founder who can’t answer simple questions about it. In assessing which of those two founders is likely to be a success, the one who can answer questions is the one we pick every time.

StartupYard is a GAN Accelerator. What Does that Get You?

You probably know that StartupYard is the oldest and leading Seed Accelerator for technology startups in Central Europe. What you might not know is that StartupYard is also a member of the exclusive GAN: The Global Accelerator Network.

GAN: The Global Accelerator Network

GAN is an invitation-only network of the leading technology accelerators in the world, including TechStars (all campuses), NUMA, StartupBootCamp, and MuckerLab.

GAN is more than just a network: it offers a package of perks and free services to member accelerators and their startups, that vastly reduce the early-stage costs of starting up. In the past, our startups have used GAN perks to do everything from cloud hosting, to email management, and much more. If you can think of it, there is probably a GAN perk that covers it. And all those services, our startups get for free.

What StartupYard Members Get from Gan

$34M in Perks – In the last year, GAN startups received $34M in free or reduced cost services they needed to get off the ground successfully. But more than just free credits, partners like Sendgrid offer credits as well as guidance for any GAN company in setting up and establishing an impact email strategy

$400K invested – GAN Ventures, the investment arm of GAN, provides seed stage funding and has made investments in four GAN alumni companies so far this year.

20+ Corporate Partners – GAN founders have exclusive opportunities to connect with large enterprises for business development opportunities.

Access to global locations – No matter where your startup is based, if you need a place to work or take meetings, the GAN Exchange gives you access to GAN program offices around the world.

Mentorship from the best minds in the industry – Mentors are a key part of a startup founder’s success. GAN startups benefit from more than 13,000 mentors throughout the GAN community.

A community of entrepreneurs – No matter where you or your company are based, you’re surrounded by a community of more than 5,000 startups who have launched their business in a GAN accelerator.