6 things

6 Things Our Startups Learned in 2016

As our 9 startups leave us, and begin the real journey of growing into their own companies with their own bright futures, we thought it would be valuable to look back on some of the things that many of them learned in the past 3 months. I asked our teams: “In what way has your thinking changed in the last 3 months, and why? What lesson did you learn that you couldn’t have learned any other way? Some of the answers are collected below. Here are 6 things our startups learned in 2016: 

The Customer is Not Always Right, and a Customer is not a Client

Many of our startup teams have experience in business, but many have also spent the earlier part of their careers working on technology projects as consultants, engineers, or project managers. That’s vital experience for any startup founder, but experience is a double edged sword. We as often as not encounter situations where our founders’ experience in business works against their judgement as startup founders.

As a consultant, or a project manager, one works at the behest of a client who understands what they are paying for, and why. Their needs have already been laid out in clear terms, and the solution, including the work needed to solve it, has in a sense been sold even before the work begins. Because projects have clearly established parameters for success, a project manager or consultant has something to work towards, and clear feedback on the work already done.

But it’s just different with startups. Startups typically have customers, not clients. They produce something new, and find people (customers) who understand and want the value that product provides. A client asks for something, and it is delivered. A customer doesn’t know what he or she wants yet, but can be convinced that they need what the startup provides.

Most of the time, startups are working on concepts and products that customers not only didn’t ask for, but may not even understand. Much of the early work of a startup is to figure out what a product actually is, and how that can be communicated to a potential customer. Instead of working toward a common goal, a startup has to do the work, and then convince a customer that what they’ve made is worth buying or investing in further.

Because so many founders are used to tailoring their work to the needs of a client, they can start to adopt the objections of the potential customer as their own objections. Every week, we hear some variation of the result

SY Team: “What about x feature you were working on?”

Founders: “we talked to a potential customer, and they said they didn’t want that.”

SY Team: “How did you try to convince them that it would be valuable for them?”

Founders: “We were really just listening.”

Just listening is what a consultant does in the first meeting. But a startup is pitching something new; something probably unexpected, and something that customer doesn’t yet know that they want. First meetings with customers have to sound out the idea, in order to see if it is being communicated properly. If the customer doesn’t like the idea, then it may be time to talk to others, before changing the product.

We also hear a variation of that story, where the startup adopts the ideas of its first potential clients, instead of selling its own vision:

Sy Team: “Why are you doing x feature now? Why focus on that now?”

Founders: “Because a potential customer said they wanted that.”

Sy Team: “Did they agree to buy from you if you had it?”

Founders: “Well… not yet. But we think they will.”

This is of course an ideal circumstance of a customer,  They now have an expert team developing a dream product for them, and best of all, they’re doing it for free. If the customer doesn’t like the result, they lose nothing in the exchange; while the startup has invested time and resources into something it may not be able to sell at all.

A Pilot is Not Just a Pilot

We happened to have quite a few companies in this cohort that struck deals for piloting their products with prospect customers.

That’s great progress, and it opens the door to future business. But it’s not the customer’s job to push the sale, or to evaluate the pilot by themselves. A startup that runs a pilot without specific goals and success metrics is like a car dealership that finishes test drives by dropping the customer off at home.

Maybe the customer will come back after the pilot, maybe not. But you’ve failed to do your part in the transaction if the pilot you run doesn’t have a clearly defined goal.

If possible, a startup should run a pilot that can easily become a long term business relationship. There should be a conversation before the pilot begins, that covers these questions: “What will define a successful pilot?” “Who will determining that a pilot is a success?” “What will be the next step after a successful pilot?”

Ideally, a pilot doesn’t end, it just becomes a business relationship. If a customer wants to “evaluate” a pilot after it concludes, then very convincing evidence needs to be prepared that the pilot actually worked. It should not be a question of expense for the customer, but of opportunity: the pilot should prove that an opportunity exists, and that the customer can’t afford to skip it.

Customers can readily agree to a pilot, if it costs them very little of their time or focus. They can agree to a pilot just to get out of a meeting with a startup- and we’ve seen that happen plenty of times. The startup comes back with the good news that they’ve agreed to a pilot, but when it comes to taking the steps to make that pilot customer a paying customer, no progress has really been made.

Partnerships Should Cost Something

Like the aforementioned pilot, a partnership can be an easy thing to agree to. We’ll put your logo on our website, and you put your logo on ours. That is the extent of a great number of tech company partnerships, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It is good to give customers a sense of who you are connected with in your industry.

However, a partnership in name-only is not as good as a partnership that costs both you, and the partner, something real and tangible. I’ve touched on this in the blog before, but it bears repeating here: you should partner with companies that need something real from you, and which you need something real from in return. Without a mutual interest on the table, a partnership is at best an unnecessary distraction

Play to Your Strengths as a Founder

One of the hardest things about being in an accelerator, from what I’ve observed, is that every mentor has a different view of the kind of company you should be. Often though, a mentor’s ideas about your company are as much a mirror of their own desires, as of what kind of company you should really be building.

That kind of feedback is very valuable- it gives you insight into what makes others passionate, but it can’t replace your own passion.

Founders sometimes run into what I have started to call a “passion gap,” between the passions of their advisors, and their own desires. They try to be like the mentors they admire, instead of trying to do what they really love doing. This can lead a founder to feeling frustrated and worthless, when he or she isn’t as good at what they’re trying to do, as at what they really love doing.

What we’ve learned over the last few years, is that you need to play to your strengths. You just have to do what you love- and you can’t make yourself love whatever you are doing. It can be a magical thing to see a founder find the sweet spot between what they love to do, and what makes sense from a business perspective. That balance can be very hard to find, and it may only come up after many brainstorming sessions, and a great deal of work that doesn’t go anywhere.

In one case in recent memory, a team in our program went from a pervasive sense of failure and disappointment, to make increasingly positive steps- and it all started when they took themselves off the hook for what they thought others expected of them. Once they started doing what they were actually good at, things turned around in a hurry.

How to Ask For Help

The startup life attracts a certain type of personality. You have to be a little crazy to want to start a company, with no guarantees that there is a real market for your product, or investors actually interested in funding it. We look for the type of person who is comfortable dealing with uncertainty, rejection, and oftentimes, failure.

 

Petr Vankat

We stepped down from being managers lecturing and teaching rookies in our business workshops to becoming students and listening what others had to say. Others that we by all means respected. So the chance to realize and re-discover humility or meekness was not only useful in the process of mentoring but also further down the road as this attitude helped us see things we might have not seen in our previous business, or wouldn’t have seen without Startupyard.

Petr VankatCo-Founder, Salutara

What that means, is that we attract founders who don’t take “no” for an answer. That’s a good thing generally, but it also presents problems. Knowing when one should listen to negative feedback makes the difference between a naive founder, and one who is able to adapt and thrive despite problems. Drive and independence of thought can as well lead a founder to ignore important feedback, as it can cause him or her to persevere when others would quit.

Listening well and actually getting the help you need often comes down to what questions you’re asking. To me, there are essentially 3 types of questions that founders ask most: “open” questions, “closed” questions, and “save me” questions.

An open question can be: “what type of email marketing service should we use?” That’s fairly straightforward- the founder is just asking for input and options. Nothing amiss here.

Closed questions are productive as well: “do you think this landing page is good?” While it’s a yes or no question, it starts a useful conversation.

Finally, “save me” questions are where some founders run into real problems. “How do you reach out to the press to get good PR?” Or, “what should we do to improve our sales funnel?” Worse still, would be a startup founder asking an investor: “is there any appetite for this kind of investment?”

These are “save me” questions because they aren’t really questions, they are cries for help. The founder is really asking: “what should I be working on?” “What should I do right now?” These questions first fail to instill any confidence, and second, don’t elicit very useful responses. The response will depend almost entirely on the mood of the mentor, and put all the work on their side of the table.

A far better question is an open or closed one, which essentially asks: “Am I doing the right thing?” “Am I missing something?” A mentor or advisor is far better equipped to react rather than to dictate. And when a founder puts the work in ahead of time, shows their thinking, and asks questions that shed light on that thinking, they are much more likely to get substantive and useful feedback.

It’s Not About Dreams, It’s About Vision

Pavel Konecny

“It is not about dreams. It is all about a vision. And StartupYard helped us to find a path, how we can make our vision a reality. So we just need to roll up our sleeves and get busy. There’s a lot of work to do. “

Pavel KonecnyCo-Founder of Neuron Soundware

One of our founders told me this week that for them, the realization that the work of a startup is about vision, instead of dreams, was a core part of their experience at StartupYard.

I had never thought about it that way, but I think he was on to something. A lot of founders have dreams, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But dreams don’t necessarily come with a coherent plan for dealing with the reality of any given situation. You may dream of big valuations and great achievements, but without a clear vision for how you will achieve them, they’re just dreams.

Vision, on the other hand, is about having a concrete, realistic set of objectives, and a way of achieving them that makes sense, is aggressive, and can be clearly communicated to investors, advisors, and partners. While we look for startups that have big dreams, we end up pushing them to pursue a clear vision.

user persona

User Persona: Getting Started

A user persona can be a powerful analytical tool, if it’s done thoughtfully. But it’s something we regularly struggle to persuade startup founders to do with any enthusiasm.

That’s not surprising, really. Building a user persona can seem like voodoo, if you don’t appreciate the point of doing them. Or, it can feel like a kind of homework- something you have check off the list in order to get on with the really good stuff, which is building your product into something you can be proud of. But fear not- it’s neither voodoo nor homework. It can be fun, and more importantly, it’s extremely helpful in making you a better team, and a smarter company.

What is a User Persona?

Barra05_163.jpg IMGP0360.JPG Vatersay, Barra, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, UK

Definitions vary, but here’s the one that I think is most useful for early-stage startups: a persona is essentially a description of your ideal customer. It includes general and detailed information about that user’s motivations, their goals, their situation in life, and the type of person they are.

Some user personas are written as a kind of narrative, including fanciful details to make the person feel more real. Others are utilitarian, like a government file or a social media profile.

While many templates and types of personas exist, the most important point is that they provide your team a target for their sales, marketing, UX, and design goals. Your user personas, particularly for startups, serve as a kind of ur-user; a face, name, and personality you keep in mind when you are working towards releasing a product.

Whatever format makes that most accessible and useful is ok to use, but we will also talk more about format later on.

What a User Persona is Based On

In a startup without any customers, or even without a finished product, it’s not always clear how to get started with a user persona. Who are your ideal customers? Since you don’t have any yet, it’s hard to say.

Should your personas be based on real people? Yes, and no. For a lot of startups, a “best guess” is necessary to get you started. This is often called a “proto-persona,” and it deals more with the basic needs and goals of a user, than with the specific ux expectations that user might have.

If you’re very familiar with the market segment you’re targeting, you can use that experience to construct a composite of the type of user who will buy or use your product. This is usually easier if the product is for professionals or a specific user-segment, because it will likely be based on some existing industry experience.

Say, for example, you’re building a Saas product for professional translators. You probably know a bit about that industry, and the types of people who need your solution. A composite of people you already know can serve as a jumping off point for your user-persona.

Again, the idea is to composite an “ideal” candidate user. This is the person who will be your best customer, and will gladly buy from you. They are the perfect fit for your product. Though most customers won’t fit that mold exactly, a persona should help you steer your efforts towards the people who will want to use (and pay to use) your product most.

You can also find relatively cheap ways of doing market research, such as conducting broad social media campaigns, or a survey, and analyzing the users who fill out the survey, or convert on your landing pages, or who like the posts on your Facebook page.

You are Not your User

These educated guesses can give you an overall view of who is responding most to your product, but keep in mind, the composition of that group will be dependent on the communication of the campaign as well.

Many startups start out thinking that their typical users are basically analogues of themselves. This is most common in startups where the founders might actually be very similar to their eventual customers, because the startup is based on a specific hobby, or interest. It can lead you to many false conclusions about who your ideal customer really is. Many male startup founders, for example, undervalue the appeal of their products to women, and so ignore evidence that women are interested in their products.

Jakob Nielsen, the influential usability expert, puts it this way in Growing A Business Website:

“One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that ‘you are not the user.’ If you work on a development project, you’re atypical by definition. Design to optimize the user experience for outsiders, not insiders.”

The lesson extends beyond usability, to marketing, feature design, and many other areas. A very compelling reason for building a user persona is to challenge your assumptions against future evidence, including user testing and user feedback.

If you find, after some period of time, that your user persona isn’t lining up very well with the reality of your sales results, then it might be time to adjust the persona. You may find that the early adopters from that unexpected segment reveal an untapped demand among users like them, who are not early adopters.

If you don’t have a user persona to work with, then you don’t have anything to challenge your assumptions with. New user behavior is just noise without clear context. Why are certain types of users attracted to your product? How can you get more of those types of users? It will be difficult to figure out where to start.

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What a User Persona Looks Like

You’ll find many examples of user personas online, and many twists on the basic pattern. You don’t have to stick with any one of those. There are no rules. But your format should compliment your goals in creating a persona. What will this persona help you to do? Will it be used to shape your marketing message? Will it dictate what features you plan? Will it influence the design?

Hopefully, you have a range of goals you need to accomplish, and the user persona is a kind of benchmark. You can refer back to him or her (they can have a name and everything), and ask yourself and your team: “Is John really interested in this feature?” or “will Jackie really respond to that kind of email?” In time, you can add real observations of your users to flesh out this fictional person. Your team can become familiar with them and their issues and goals.

A format I really like, for its clarity and ease of use, is this one, from fakecrow.com (a service for creating user personas):

 

user persona

You can find more examples at FakeCrow

The persona is laid out less like a story than a file on an existing person. The kind of thing you might see in a spy movie. It also allows you and your team to see a big picture representation of a person from many angles: what they do for work, what their personal life is like, what kind of technology they use, and what kind of personality they have. Each data point can be a discussion topic, and a test of your own thinking about the product.

Most startups should challenge them to create at least 3 different personas, and test them in the real world, either through marketing, or in person testing of people who match the profile as closely as possible.

Keep in mind, your goal at the beginning is not to find out what is most typical or most common, but which type of user is ideal for you. Usually, that’s the person most ready and able to buy your product. This early testing of your user persona can reveal whether or not the persona you are targeting is in fact ideal.

Don’t Chase the Rabbit

As in all things, moderation is important here too. Your user persona is never perfect, and never complete. The goal of this process is not to nail down the perfect user, and then lock that into your team’s mindset for all time. Circumstances, economics, and technology change at a rapid pace. What was important to a lot of people 10 years ago, is now much less important. You have to keep your user persona updated and in line with reality, so don’t get too deep into this analytical process before getting into real-life contact with real users.

That said, devote some time as early as you can to creating multiple personas, and let that process influence how you approach the market from the beginning. It’s ok to be wrong- in fact, it’s necessary to be wrong at least some of the time. If you don’t make any mistakes, it’s probably because you aren’t taking any risks, and in startups, a certain amount of risk is advisable on the path to a truly disruptive and effective new product.

 

homepage

Is Your HomePage Really Your Business?

Is Your Homepage really your business?

The homepage is in the DNA of startups. A lot of people think of tech companies as websites, even when they have little do with each other. That’s as it has been since the “dot com” boom of the 90s, when adding “.com” to a company name was enough to boost its stock price.

These days, a good looking homepage and landing pages are essential for establishing any company’s basic credentials. But the tools for creating such a page in only a few hours are now readily available, and very cheap. For the most part, a dedicated web designer isn’t even needed to make a smart homepage that is sufficient for most early stage startups.

Aside from that, many very successful startups rely very little on their websites to generate business, because they have to find their customers on other platforms, like social media, or through partnerships.

Tunnel Vision

Sometimes though, startups get bogged down in the process of strategizing and devising their messaging, with much of the focus being on how the homepage looks, what the copy says, and how it can be optimized for maximum selling potential. Part of this comes from a phenomenon I’ve talked about before: “over-mentoring,” which is where startups get trapped in a vicious cycle of requesting more and more feedback, and stop being able to make decisions quickly.

And a lot of that over-mentoring happens with the homepage, because it is the first thing that most mentors see from the startup. The conversation often revolves around it, and the messaging it contains, instead of the core problems the startup is really facing in their business (which may or may not have to do with optimizing their homepage).

I’m even more guilty of this than most mentors, because I’m a copywriter, and I love analyzing and optimizing web pages. But the truth is that 9 times out of 10, a simple formula will work just fine: a headline, a sub-header, and a call to action. The classical “triangle” shape that millions of simple homepages use.

homepage triangle

To fight over-thinking, I’ve been finding myself challenging teams to live with an imperfect website. I’ll ask them, “why are you focusing so much of your energy on this? Is that justified by the kind of traffic you are hoping to generate with it?” In some cases, the answer is yes. But often, it’s not clear the founders have given that much thought.

The homepage can be a vital step for onboarding customers. But that’s less and less true today, and many of our startups will never need elaborate pages at all in order to do business. They’ll need brilliant apps, or intelligent and well designed processes, but the homepage won’t create loyal customers- the product/service will do that.

A “Perfect” Homepage is a Moving Target

“A perfect homepage is a moving target. Don’t outsmart yourself.”

Lots of engineers treat their homepages as if they need to “get it right,” on the first try. But that’s putting themselves at a big disadvantage from the outset. Homepages, just like products, are pretty much never right at the beginning. Only experimenting, testing, tweaking, and retesting will yield something that you can be sure is living up to its full potential.  It’s far better to be responsive to how people react, and to what kinds of visitors you attract, than to try and game out an elaborate homepage strategy from day one.

A common mistake is to mix up the “promise” of a startup with the promise of a homepage, although the short term goals of both are often not aligned, particularly at the beginning. This might mean that the messaging veers too close to the “mission statement” of the company, like “make the world a better place,” instead of the immediate goal of the page, which might be to get people interested in an upcoming release.


PRO TIP: Use tools like HotJar.com to better understand how visitors react and interact with your homepage.

It’s natural to want the homepage to look as you want the company to look, making it appear more professional and more established than the company truly is. But “fake it till you make it,” is a dicey proposition when it comes to winning the trust of customers and investors. It’s easy to fail at looking like a bigger deal than you are, and there’s little real benefit outside of ego from trying to.

And while startups are over thinking the design tactics, they’re underthinking basic strategy with a homepage. What is the promise of the homepage? If it is designed to attract leads, then it needs to offer users a very easy and seamless way of getting in contact. If it is meant to generate customers, then it needs to show them a simple and persuasive argument for buying the product, along with an easy way to do so.

These elements cannot be perfected in the lab- they have to be worked on over time, meaning that the work is never really finished. What’s more, these goals will shift over time as the product, customer set, and offering changes. It’s easy to get burned out on the first version of a homepage, and then leave it that way for far too long. For some startups, a homepage becomes like a bad marriage that they’re unwilling to end because of all the work that went into it.

Don’t Outsmart Yourself

I’ll keep demanding that startups build practical, usable, clean, and attractive homepages. It’s really important to devise and employ strong emotional use cases, and communicate them. But don’t make your homepage a blocker for you getting down to the real business, which isn’t just selling to your customers, but serving them something they really want.

If you’re struggling with your messaging, then take yourself off the hook. Create a minimal homepage, and focus on interacting with your customers. Over time, you can optimize to make sure you aren’t scaring anyone away, or missing any big opportunities. But don’t try and use your homepage to define your whole business- your customers shouldn’t be interested in that, and neither should you.

partnerships

Build Real Partnerships as a Startup

Building real partnerships with the right companies is something we emphasize in the StartupYard program. But what is a “real partnership” are all about? Many startups aren’t too sure.

Partnerships and “Partnerships”

A startup in our 2016 cohort approached me this week, with a simple-sounding problem. Could they prioritize a meeting over StartupYard mentoring sessions, if the person couldn’t meet at a time when mentors weren’t here?

Yes, they could if it is was really important. But what was the meeting about?

The meeting was about a potential “partnership,” with the CEO of a company that provided a key piece of technology that this startup was going to need. This was not a huge company, which is why the founders got a meeting with the CEO. But it wasn’t a startup either.

What did they want to get out of the meeting?

“Well, we’re hoping that he will be willing to let us use it for free or for a discount.”

And why would he do that?

“Because we’re a startup.”

Partnerships in Name Only

In a way, startups have become trained to expect this kind of thing from bigger companies. They assume that companies are willing to sponsor them just because they’re a startup, and they’re not always wrong. Many of StartupYard’s partners do give an amazing value in services to startups for free.

But those are our partners. While we have real, and thriving partnerships with some of these companies, this is not because we get free stuff. It’s because our organizations share complementary goals. In this case, it’s getting early access to the best startups in Central Europe, and helping them grow (us as investors, our partners as future providers of a paid service).

But this level of partnership, which looks more like sponsorship than a real relationship between equals, is probably not what many smaller corporates and other startups have in mind when they agree to meet a startup.

Based in Mutual Interest

It’s very easy to agree to partnerships that don’t require a lot of work or follow through. So it’s tempting to do this whenever possible. Many partnerships boil down to two companies putting their logos on each other’s websites.

This happens because in the course of exploring a partnership, one or both of these companies comes to realize that they don’t share a real mutual interest.

This is why it’s so important to pursue partnerships in the same way you pursue your sales goals. Partnerships are a part of your sales strategy.

Partners should have the same sorts of customers you have, but not be directly competing with your offering. Ideally, your partnerships should make the offering of both companies stronger, so that a customer who uses one, gets even more value from using the other.

At the core, a business partnership is about both sides developing their indirect sales channels, sharing, and better serving your mutual clients. It is a force multiplier for sales, because in a true partnership, much of the sales activities that the two companies undertake support the sales funnels of both companies.

This finds its most pure form in online affiliate partnerships, which is essentially an “automated partnership.” But that is only one form of partnership. You can base your partnership on sharing know-how and technology, but ultimately a partnership that lasts is one that makes the two companies interdependent, and stronger as a result, and that means both companies having a stake in the same pool of clients.

What A Company Needs to Be a Good Partner

Again, agreeing to a partnership is relatively easy in theory. It doesn’t take all that much. But in order to be a good partner, a company needs to have a team (or at least one person), dedicated to building and maintaining partnerships.

SendGrid, a StartupYard partner, is a great example of this. Instead of sponsoring accelerators and events directly, they have a dedicated innovation team that travels around the world, meeting with and advising startups and accelerators on issues involving transactional and marketing email infrastructure.

Every company they meet with gets at least a year’s worth of service with SendGrid for free, which is an enormous value for startups. And for StartupYard, it’s of great value to have a skilled and knowledgeable mentor team visit and do a workshop with our startups too. That builds the value of the accelerator and gives our startups a greater chance of success down the road. Meanwhile, SendGrid gets access to potential clients who could be worth thousands of Euros a month in a few short years. Win, Win, WIn.

Companies that have strong partnership programs also know what to look for from startups, which isn’t always just another client. They may be interested in sharing data, or even investing in certain kinds of companies.

A good partnership manager bridges a gap between sales and marketing, and has the pull necessary to bring your company to the attention of executives, even as a prelude to an acquisition, or sharing clients. They aren’t incentivized the way a salesperson is, so they’re more flexible about what they’re willing to bring to the table- it’s not about the bottom line for that person, which frees them up to explore other ways of seeking mutual benefit.

Preparing For a Partnership

One of the key mistakes that startups make when they approach partners, aside from the “gimme gimme” attitude described above, is by trying to “sell” them. A partner isn’t necessarily a customer, and you can’t approach them in the same way. You have to sell them on the mutual benefit of working together, and on your ability to do that; not on your ability to sell your product to their clients.

A good partner in indirect sales offers a few things. One is added value for shared clients, and another is defense against competitors. If you can make a partner’s offering to its clients stronger than its competitors, and if your partners (and competitors) know this, they will be willing to work hard to keep you as a partner, rather than see you support someone else’s sales pipeline.

So when you meet with partners, you need to ask questions. What do your customers need that you can’t provide? Why do customers choose competitors over you? What would make more of your clients stay with you? These can all open up opportunities for you to partner with that company, and those opportunities will be based on what that company needs, not only on what you need from them.

mentors engaged with founders

How Smart Startups Keep Mentors Engaged

The smartest startups keep mentors engaged as much as possible. With our next cohort set to kick off their 3-month stay with us next week, we’d like to share some tips on how to do just that.

Why You Need Engaged Mentors

It should hopefully come as no surprise to our startups that they will be getting advice from some of the very best business minds in Central Europe, and around the world. But that advice is only so valuable. A startup team’s ability to execute on every piece of advice they receive, particularly during an accelerator program, is limited. A person only has so much bandwidth, and the scheduling demands that the program imposes, leaves little time for reflection.

A typical comment we get from founders, around the end of the mentoring period, is “I keep hearing the same thing… I just want to fix it now!”

That’s ok. Part of the value of the mentoring period, in the first month of the program, is “shock and awe.” It is a trial by fire for a startup’s ideas, and for their ability to communicate those ideas clearly. It’s meant to shake them up, and wear down their bad habits, eliminating any lazy or wishful thinking.

To some extent, startups do 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.

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 don’t tell them. And the mentors, not knowing whether they’ve been listened to, don’t press the issue either.

And so 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.

How to Keep Mentors Engaged

This isn’t terribly complicated stuff. Many startupers 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. Alas, it doesn’t work that way at all. Our mentors, along with investors and partners, usually appreciate “hustle,” or the appearance that startups are making a special effort to maintain contact, and further relationships.

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

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 weekly 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 week. 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 allstar 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.

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.

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 keeping track of what is important, and gives them a reliable and repeatable overview of what you’re experiencing in any given week.

Don’t Be Alone

We find this mentor email to be such an important practice, that we will be recommending its use to all of our startups going forward. Ales Teska agrees, and told me that the email had already led to some big wins for TeskaLabs. Not bad for 10 minutes of work a week.

But more importantly, whether you regularly update mentors or not, don’t waste the opportunity that StartupYard provides in making connections. If a mentor doesn’t reach out to you, reach out to them. If you can’t think of anything to say to them, just find something to ask them. The key is: talk to them, and don’t let them fall out of your orbit. The mentors and advisors you have interested in you, the greater your chances that a breakthrough will come when you need it most.

The “We” Problem

As we  welcome our 2016 startups this week, I get to do one of the scarier and more rewarding parts of my job at StartupYard, and that’s helping these companies define themselves, their products, and their customers.

When startups are getting ready to launch, they tend to be very focused on “what type of company” they want to be. That’s normal, and healthy. And it feeds into their ideas about what their “brand” should be, and how they should express that.

And here is where many startups stumble at the beginning. They don’t fully appreciate who their messaging is really for (clue: it isn’t for them), and what it’s really supposed to accomplish.

Where Brands Come From

The word “brand,” comes from the 19th century American practice of burning a rancher’s insignia in the hide of a cow, or other livestock, before moving the livestock to a marketplace. This was done to discourage theft from the ranch, or during the drive season. The word comes from the Norse brandr, which means “to burn.”

The practice of maker’s marks and watermarks goes back thousands of years, all the way to at least the invention of currency in ancient Sumer. In all cases, the practice originated from a need to protect against fraud. A maker, manufacturer, or publisher had to find ways of making sure that customers knew the difference between their products, and fakes.

As the industrial revolution peaked at the end of the 19th century, it became common for manufacturers to “brand” all their products, usually on the packaging, to distinguish them from forgers or look-alike products, which were increasingly common, and threatened profits. It was then that the concept of a “trademark,” and the exclusive right to use a specific brand were introduced into the legal system.

In essence then, brands proliferated as a means of consumer protection. And in fact, that has not fundamentally changed. Brands are still, at the core, about helping people to make safe, fair buying decisions, and protecting them from fraud and danger.

Brands Are About Trust

It wasn’t long of course, before entrepreneurs realized that consumers recognized quality products by brand. And so they began to focus on the way their brands looked, and felt, to customers.

Manufacturers also rightly recognized that a trusted brand could convince people to buy new things from the same manufacturer. If you trust a company to make your radio, you’ll probably trust them to make your television as well. Sprawling conglomerations like General Electric and Samsung were compiled, based largely on this new realization.

Brands have become synonymous with design, with philosophy and politics, and with class, race and economic status. Today, people make statements with their brand choices. This can lead startups to forget that the chief aim of having a brand is not just building recognition, or fitting into a particular culture. It is about maintaining a level of trust with customers, that will follow them from one product to the next, or one year to the next.

The “We” Problem

Today, of course, we’re all very well aware of the effect that brands have on our thinking and behavior. We’re probably too aware of it. We’re told now that everything is a brand, and that every person can be a brand. This can get us off-track when it comes to communicating clearly with customers.

I recently worked with a startup that wanted to launch a new product, under a completely new brand. They needed help putting together their messaging, and writing copy for their homepage and other marketing materials.

At this point, when a company has a good product, knows its customers well, and wants to dive into the business of growth, is often where they stumble on what I began calling the “‘we’ problem.”

Simply, most of the copy they had written, and most of the messaging they were focusing on, was about them. To them, they were expressing the qualities of their brand. They were smart, they were hard working, they were trustworthy, they were friendly. So why shouldn’t customers want to buy from them?

Well, because customers buy solutions to their own problems. They don’t buy the work of your team, or the relationship you have with the product. Those things can be a plus, but they’re secondary to a buying decision.

The central questions you have to answer are these: Does the product do what I need? Am I the target audience for this?

If the problem is that you're thirsty, then Coke has you covered in this classic poster.

If the problem is that you’re thirsty, then Coke has you covered in this classic poster.

People make their initial decisions based on that criteria, not on whether you communicate your attitude or your culture clearly.

Whenever I’m looking at copy for a homepage, I do a little experiment: I do a word search for the words “we,” and “us.” Then I compare that to words like “you,” and “our customers.” If you say “we” more than you say “you,” then you may have a messaging problem.

Startupyard.com, for example, contains 9 mentions of “we,” but 40 mentions of “you.” Also, several of the “we” mentions are directly followed by “you.” In addition, none of the “we” mentions are descriptive. They are active: “we’re looking for,” and “we try to.”

Most of the copy is concerned with either what kind of startup should join the accelerator, or what a startup will get by joining. These are the only two core criteria that matter in a decision to apply. “Does it do what I want?” And, “is it for me?”

Although it isn’t a rule that you can’t talk about yourself, you have to remain aware that to a prospect customer, how you see yourself is not that important. How you see them, how you value them, and what problems you will help them solve, are important.

Solve Problems, Make Emotional Use Cases

This is why we spend the first several weeks at StartupYard closely focused on one thing: the problem that the startup is solving for customers.

We work on positioning statements, which lead with who the customer is, and the problem being solved, and that is what initial conversations with mentors are all about. This helps the teams to stop talking about themselves, and start talking about their customers.

This also helps our startups to focus on emotional use cases. What frustrates customers? What aggravates them? What scares them? What brings them happiness? Saying “we have state of the art encryption,” is an unemotional argument.  But saying: “Our state of the art encryption will protect you against hackers,” is a powerful motivator.

Original-Apple-iPod

When Apple released the first edition of the iPod, it was famously “1000 songs in your pocket,” not “the next generation MP3 player, that can hold up to 4 GB.” This focus on the emotional use case: the feeling a customer gets from the promise of the product, is what makes Apple a powerhouse brand. It’s never about how smart they are, it’s about the experience you will get.

If you think your brand is about you, then you’re likely to focus on use cases that aren’t emotional for users, like efficiency, or price, or sophistication. In effect, you’re likely to make a feature argument, instead of a real value proposition.

It’s important to keep in mind what we talked about in the beginning. The primary purpose of a brand is to serve customers; to protect them from fraud and danger, by establishing a clear sign of quality. Only then can you leverage a brand to be something symbolic.

And that sign of quality can’t be forged. It has to be earned by solving customer’s problems- by offering them something they can clearly understand and want, and by delivering exactly what you’re offering.

The StartupYard Startup Reading List

If you follow us on Twitter, you probably know that StartupYard is constantly sharing great content with our followers. Internally, we also keep a “reading list” of  items we think our startups should read before, during, or after the program. This is the StartupYard Startup Reading List.

With a new acceleration round beginning next week, we thought we’d share the list we’ve compiled. It’s organized into Collections, Launch, Sales and Conversions, Retention, Growth, Marketing, and Free Stuff.

Under each item is a short extract from the link. If an extract wasn’t available, we added a short summary. Enjoy!

-The StartupYard Team

Collections:

http://startupstash.com/

40 categories of curated tools and tips for Startups. A must have.

http://marketingstack.io/

28 categories of curated Marketing advice and tips. A must have.

Launch

Quick and Dirty Guide to Launching your Startup in 2015

There are plenty of blogs out there that talk about paid advertising, social media, offline distribution, content marketing, SEO, SEM, e-mail marketing and so on. But I will be focusing on actionable items you can do to get your first 1,000 users in a weekend’s time and with less than $500 of investment.

16 Startup Metrics

We have the privilege of meeting with thousands of entrepreneurs every year, and in the course of those discussions are presented with all kinds of numbers, measures, and metrics that illustrate the promise and health of a particular company. Sometimes, however, the metrics may not be the best gauge of what’s actually happening in the business, or people may use different definitions of the same metric in a way that makes it hard to understand the health of the business.

The apps that help you bootstrap | Highfive

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a business idea today, and have that business up and running tomorrow? With today’s apps it’s totally doable.

Sales And Conversions

Complete SAAS Guide to Calculating and Optimizing Lifetime Value

Getting new customers is good. Keeping a customer and getting them to continue paying is better.

Conversion Optimization Psychology

Why are contrasting buttons effective? Why should you use 1st person CTA wording?Why (and when) are trust symbols effective?

Conversion Rate Optimization: Startup Growth Lessons

Some call it – *cough* – growth hacking. Others call it optimization. But what we’re all talking about, really, is crazy smart, innovative, results-driven, product-focused marketing that has an outsized impact on your company’s growth and bottom line.

Retention

Hooked Retention

How GrowthHackers(.com) Uses “The Hook Model” to Foster Incredibly High Member Retention

Why You Need Cohorts to Improve Your Retention

You need to dig deeper into your app using a method called cohort analysis. That’s how you’ll identify how well your users are being retained and the primary factors that will drive growth for your app. Here’s how the most experienced and analytical product people like Siqi go beyond your standard cohort analysis to do it.

Growth is Good, but Retention is Forever: 500 Startups VIDEO

A video from 500 Startups on Retention, and why it is eventually more important than growth.

Growth

The Ultimate GrowthHacking SourceBook

30,000 words of modern-day growth hacking strategies for the discerning SaaS growth hacker.

SaaS Metrics 2.0 – A Guide to Measuring and Improving what Matters

This article is a comprehensive and detailed look at the key metrics that are needed to understand and optimize a SaaS business. It is a completely updated rewrite of an older post.  

43 lessons growing from $0 to $1+ million in revenue, twice

I realized the other day that we’ve grown from $0 to $1 million with two separate products (HelloSign and HelloFax). This happened a long time ago, but I was recently reflecting on the lessons.

Growth Hacking:  VIDEO, Neil Patel

Pierre Lechelle: Growth Hacking Strategy

When thinking about Growth, most people think about CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) on the ToFu (Top of the Funnel). They don’t really understand what is the power of Growth.

How segment models growth for two sided marketplaces

Frameworks help us organize and understand the world, and data helps us stay focused and monitor progress. So, it’s no surprise we use them both to help us project future growth and figure out how to hit our lofty goals.

Build a Growth Machine Like Andy Johns

Andy Johns has had the good sense to ride not one, but FOUR rocket ships. He has been a key member of the growth team at…

13 Growth Hacking Techniques You Can Apply Right Now

Growth hacking is the idea that an entrepreneur can take a clever non-traditional approach to increase the growth rate and adoption of his or her product by ‘hacking’ something together specifically for growth purposes. Most startups find themselves facing the same problem: they build a product that no one ends up using. Say you have…

Video: 10 Habits of High-Growth Startups by Sean Ellis – GrowthHackers

Sean’s talk at the DEMO Traction Conference.

The Ultimate List of B2B Growth Hacks

Marketing

How We Addressed our Main Content Marketing Pain by Outsourcing to Freelancers

Today I’d like to share with you one of the biggest marketing struggles we experienced at Ivalua, the previous company I worked for and where I handled Marketing for over 2 years: content creation – and how we overcame it leveraging freelance writers.

Why You Need to Create a Content Marketing Strategy
The most popular digital marketing mantra in recent years has been “Content is King”, and while the mantra itself may be a touch overused, it is by no means inaccurate. Now more than ever it’s incredibly important to create a content marketing strategy and make it your your own unique content marketing strategy if you hope to drive traffic and boost brand awareness from online channels.

Persuasive Writing Techniques
Design, SEO, and advertising can only get you so far. If you want to accelerate sales online, you need persuasive copy. According to Harvard Business professor Gerald Zaltman, 95% of our purchase decision occurs in the subconscious mind. Most marketers ignore how our brains work and fight against human psychology.

SEO Tools

153 succint reviews of SEO tools, by Brian Dean

Paddle: App Marketing Ebook

Paddle’s guide to app marketing explores the techniques developers can adopt to drive more downloads and grow their apps.

The science behind killer landing pages

A great list of the essential elements of a landing page, and why certain types of things work for conversion.

ViperChill’s Private Niche Project

A fascinating, if amoral, view of online marketing and networking building

What Startups Need to Know About Content Marketing

With content marketing, you can educate and engage potential clients while differentiating your company and positioning it as an industry leader.

The definitive guide to lead generation Facebook ads

In marketing, lead generation is the generation of consumer interest or inquiry into products or services of a business. For the purpose of this article, lead generation refers to the generation of consumer interest. A list of qualified leads is a priceless asset for your company. It’s cheap to build and works great for every kind of business, including “boring” B2B companies.

CopyWriting Tips

  • Which words do you choose?
  • How do you frame the offer?
  • How can you sell without appearing sleazy?

5 Smart Ways To Use Retargeting To Drive Leads In B2B Marketing

Creative ways to use retargeting ads to improve lead generation. Learn how B2B marketers target site visitors based on funnel stage, industry and email contact information.

How to Win Trust from Google and Rank Well

If your website isn’t trusted by Google, you’re basically consigned to the lowly, deep dark depths of search results pages ten and onwards.

A simple SEO guide in 2015 (Infographic)

Is SEO really a harder game to play as KunoCreative’s Dan Stasiewski put it in this excellent SEO guide infographic?

Investment

A map and List of Investors in Europe

TechStars created a map and list of 300+ investors who routinely invest in Seed, Series A or Series B rounds raised by European startups. All in all, it totals about €15 billion worth of funds.

Amy Guttman: Don’t write business plans: Advice for startups from one of silicon valley’s top seed investors

1. Don’t write business plans; instead build prototypes & test them with customers.

2. Don’t create five-year revenue projections; create 12-month expense projections.

3. Do create marketing plans, but focus on unit economics and metrics/analytics of:

a. what customers cost to acquire,

b. what products cost to build/deliver,

c. how much customers generate in revenue and when

4. Test and iterate on your assumptions — turn your business plan into a business metrics dashboard of KPIs, and continue to measure and improve every week.

5. Don’t run out of cash. Check your monthly burn rate, cash in the bank; figure out your remaining runway and try not to get below six months of cash.

The Guide to Finding an Angel Investment

This guide is indispensable for all wanna-be Business Angels and those entrepreneurs seeking Angel Investment! It contains best practices and practical tips culled from Busi- ness Angels around the world. It is a must-ready, easy-to-read, and great-read for all those private investors interested in playing a major role in the early-stage investment eco- system and those entrepreneurs interested in attracting Business Angel Investment.”

– Candace Johnson, President, EBAN (Europe)

Horror Story: How to Build a Unicorn From Scratch and Walk

A cautionary tale about keeping your priorities in order as a startup founder. Great read!

Social Media

15 New Social Media Templates to Save You Even More Time

Our best list of social media templates for scheduling, organizing, analyzing, and sharing better and faster than ever before.

80 Twitter Tools for Almost Everything

Twitter is chaos, but in the midst of this beautiful mess is a ton of data that if you can understand


What You Need to Know About Open Graph Meta Tags for Total Facebook and Twitter Mastery

Marketers create a lot of content. Yes, content is king, but a king is powerless without followers. So, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you want to reach a broader audience with your awesome new post?


Facebook Data Study Insights

The Facebook pages that are doing wonderfully well with likes, shares, and comments on their posts have so much to teach about new tactics and worthwhile strategies. Our friends at BuzzSumo analyzed 500 million (!) of these Facebook posts, and we’ve learned some amazing takeaways that you can implement on your page today.

Free Stuff

The Design Freebies List
Free Stock photos

A collection of sites that offer with-attribution, or free to use images for your startup. Always check the terms on individual sites before using an image!

https://blog.bufferapp.com/free-image-sources-list

https://www.pexels.com/

Meta-Search for GNU Public and Free Stock Images

6 Tips For Finalists at StartupYard

This week, StartupYard will welcome about 20 finalists for up to 10 positions in our 2016 cohort. They’ll spend a full day meeting with the StartupYard team, and a select group of mentors and investors from the StartupYard community.

This isn’t a competition, and it isn’t a job interview. We aren’t typical investors, and we aren’t employers either. We have a special relationship with all of our startups, and we have to make decisions quickly, but carefully.

So what are we looking for in our final finalists? Ultimately, we are looking for the smartest investments for StartupYard. That means teams that not only impress us with their vision and ambition, but that also offer us an opportunity to make as big as an impact as possible, so that their successes will be our successes too.

Today, we’ll share a few pieces of advice that we’ve come up with over the last few years, on how to navigate this process for the best result:

1. It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Know.”

fry

As we wrote about yesterday, being a credible leader doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers. If you do have all the answers, there’s a fair chance that some of your answers may not be the best ones possible.

Better that you should be able to say “I don’t know,” when faced with something you haven’t had the time or resources to address yet. Part of being a high growth company is not being able to predict every little thing you’ll have to do along the way. You can show you’re prepared, but you will never be able to convincingly show that you’ve figured out every step. If you had, you wouldn’t be talking to us anyway.

2. Acknowledge Challenges You Face

On a few occasions (thankfully never at StartupYard), I have had the displeasure of witnessing really poor mentoring and feedback on startup pitches.

The worst, and most useless kind of feedback goes like this:

“Well, I worked with a company that tried that, and it didn’t work. So, I don’t know. You’ve got a lot of challenges ahead.”

Duh. This can hardly be called feedback. But sadly, as a startuper, you’re going to hear it a lot.

There are going to be inherent challenges in your near and long term future. That’s a given. But it’s important to recognize, especially when talking to an investor or a mentor, the difference between useless feedback like that, and more serious questions:

“What are you going to do about x competitor?” Or, “Why would people would pay for this?”

A lot of founders get so used to being bludgeoned by stupid feedback, that they start to ignore legitimate concerns instead of acknowledging them. They’ll give bogus answers like “we are smarter than the competition,” rather than talking specifically about how they’re going to challenge a competitor. Or they’ll say: “we are going to work really hard to sell this,” instead of really answering the question, which is not about how hard they’ll work, but about what strategy they will use, and what opportunity they see in the market.

The fact that you have challenges ahead shouldn’t be news to anyone. But how you face those challenges says everything about how you’ll fare against them. You won’t overcome these challenges because of who you are, or how much you want to. You’ll overcome them by thinking about them, so start doing that first.

If you can show you understand what the challenges are, you will have a much easier time convincing us you can solve them.

3. Demonstrate Ambition

Arrogance is certainly a problem for many entrepreneurs, but it can be just as easy to make humility into a vice.

What we’ve found over the years, particularly with startups in Central Europe, is that they can be surprisingly shy about sharing their long-term, “big vision” ideas, because they are afraid that they will appear either stupid, or foolishly ambitious.

It’s not fun to listen to someone who can’t stop talking about their big vision and focus on the details, but it’s important that we do understand what your ambitions really are. What kind of company do you ultimately want to have? What position do you want to be in, in 5 years? It’s really ok for these ambitions to seem somewhat unrealistic. Again, if they were realistic at this moment, you wouldn’t need our help at all.

So don’t think we’ll laugh at you for wanting to be a worldwide leader- if that’s what you really want.

4 Talk Yourself Up

We just got done saying that you shouldn’t be shy about your ambition. You also shouldn’t be shy about your accomplishments.

Last year, as we were working on the Demo Day pitch for one of our startups, the founder was having trouble with what he wanted to say about the team. He couldn’t come up with a convincing argument for why they were the right people to solve a complicated problem on the market.

As it turned out, and as the founder had never shared with us previously, he just happened to have previously worked for companies who needed to calculate orbits and fuel usage for satellites in Earth orbit- he helped those satellites in the sky.

So, in other words, he was a rocket scientist.

And he was someone who was having trouble articulating why it was that he was qualified to take on complicated problems.

I don’t think many reasonable people would think he was being arrogant for mentioning that qualification to investors. But I’ve been consistently surprised by startup founders who do fail to mention important details about themselves and their qualifications.

That’s admirable, that these people choose let their work speak for itself, but if you’ve earned a little bit of respect for what you’ve done in the past, by all means, use it!

5. Ask Questions

This process is not just about us picking favorites. It’s also about you deciding what’s best for your company, and your own future. We don’t know what you don’t know, and since we assume we’re dealing with pretty smart people , we don’t always tell you everything you might want to know.

So ask us. And judge us on our answers. That’s only fair. Our reputation has to be built on our transparency and honesty with startups. If we don’t have that, we don’t have much.

6. Don’t Sell: We Aren’t your Customers

salesman-431

This advice goes back what we said yesterday about “trying too hard.” You have to acknowledge challenges, and talk yourself up, but if you aren’t careful, doing all those things at once can put you right into “salesman mode.”

Pretty soon you’re “acknowledging challenges,” before they’re even brought up, and talking yourself up when you don’t really need to. Your ability to sell is important, but we aren’t your customers.

The unvarnished truth, or at least something closer to the unvarnished truth, is important to investors in making the right decisions- not just for them, but also for you. As I often tell startups: you can sell anybody something they don’t need or want, but only once. After that, you’ll never be able to sell to them again. But if you find the right “customer,” or the right investor, you can develop a lasting relationship.

So don’t treat us like a customer. We aren’t buying anything.

5 Questions To Ask Before Sending Any Marketing Email

Recently, one of our startups got a big boost of incoming users. I asked the founder, “what did you do to take advantage of the situation?” “We increased promotion in our channels,” came the reply.

Alright. Well, as we discussed recently, there is a big difference between user acquisition, and user retention. If you suddenly find yourself with a big group of new users on your hands, you have to be focused on retaining them. Andrew Chen pegs the most vital period for activating and retaining users at just 7 days from app install, for mobile apps.

Chen is right when he says that customer lifecycle emails are not the end-all for customer retention or activation. But they can play an important supporting role, particularly if your product has anything like a learning curve involved- that is, if it takes users some time to understand how they can really use it.

Customer retention can be aided even within the first visit, if the onboarding process establishes behaviors and patterns that can be activated again later on. You can show users what life will be like with your product, and get them to “buy in,” by doing a few things right away.

But once you have established a relationship with a user through the product, you will probably want to make use of some smartly timed email marketing to further activate and convert that new user.

After talking with the founder, and sharing some typical email activation and conversion strategies that I have picked up over the years (which I think I will write about more in another post), I thought it might be a good opportunity to pose some important questions that startups should ask themselves before sending any marketing email.

No matter what kind of email you’re sending, these questions can force you to examine the purpose, the content, the goal, and the timing of any marketing email. They are as follows:

1. What Is the Goal?

Before hitting send, ask yourself what you hope to get out of this email. Do it not just in the sense of what your ideal reaction to the email is, like “I want the user to know about a specific feature we have,” but in terms of what the campaign as a whole is meant to do.

Make sure that the email has a goal that is trackable. “Informing our users about a new feature,” is not an easily trackable goal. But it is trackable if, for example, you give those users a way to show they know about the new features, or if you track user behavior before and after the email is sent and read.

This should lead to a few more questions: do I have a success benchmark for this email? Open rate? CTR? Conversions? Hits on a landing page? Engagement with the product? Do I have an easy way for the users to react to this email? Is there a clear CTA (more on that later)?

Try as much as possible to tie the email to some real data points, and to have some expectations for what it will accomplish. If you meet those goals, you can use the experience to replicate the good results. If you don’t, you can look for specific problems, or ask someone else for their input on where it all went wrong.

2. What is your Claim?

Every marketing email -in fact every email- has a basic “claim,” and often more than one. A claim is a statement of fact, or values, which you hope will be received by the person who receives the email. A claim doesn’t have to be said in words, but it has to be felt. It has to come out of reading the email, that this is the reason you are communicating with the user.

Try and spot the claims in this fictional marketing email:

Dear Lloyd,

It’s that time of year again! The leaves are turning, and the snows are inbound! And here at XYZ Inc, we’ve been working on an exciting new way to keep you warm during the coldest months.

Check it out here. Get a special discount of 25% if you purchase before Nov. 30th!

Bye!

XYZ Inc Team

Wow, well I’m definitely intrigued here. So what’s the claim? I can spot a few candidates:

1. You need this product for the winter.

2. We are a cool innovative company.

3. Our products are affordable.

All that was accomplished without directly saying any of those things. But these are very clearly communicated claims.

The claim can be many things. It can be something really simple, like “we care about you.” Or it can be “this new feature will make your experience better,” or “we understand you and your problems.” It can be very direct: “you have 6 days left before your plan expires.” It doesn’t ask users to do anything- that’s for later. Instead, it is simply the broader message of the email.

Try, as an exercise with yourself, to put your claim into clear and specific words, in your own thinking, before you send the email. Ask someone else to review the claim, and tell you what they think it is.

When we are writing community emails to mentors, teams and our community, StartupYard Director Cedric Maloux and I often start with that question: “What are we claiming here?” Then we make a bullet point list of claims we could be making, and we choose the one that is most clear and true to us. Then we make sure that our communication centers around that claim in some way.

So, what is your claim? Force yourself to answer that question clearly.

3. Where is the CTA?

The CTA, or Call To Action, is the thing you will ask your user to do, once they have seen your claim. There is a clear CTA in virtually every email I write- even personal emails. Marketing tricks are, after all, just systems for thinking about normal means of communication.

A CTA is usually directly tied to the goal of the email. What do you want the user to do now? Do you give them a foolproof way of doing it?

I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but it’s difficult to imagine an effective marketing email that doesn’t contain some kind of CTA. A CTA doesn’t strictly have to be a button or a link either. You can have a CTA that doesn’t even lead to your product or site (although the results of such a CTA are harder to track).

A common mistake is for a CTA to be too vague, or to be too complicated. “Please share this on Facebook.” Ok, but where’s the share button? Where’s a link to let me do that?

And another common mistake is to not inform the user of what will happen when the CTA is followed. This is a common reason why people don’t follow CTAs- because they don’t really understand what is being asked of them. Emails come in, and because the author was concentrated on getting the CTA out there, it appears at the top, possibly with several exclamation points:


“Dear User,

Click here right now it’s amazing!!!

Not only is this a pretty good way of getting yourself caught in a spam filter, it also just doesn’t really work. People want to know what they’re really being asked to do before they decide to do it.

You need to set up a CTA with some context, and possibly follow it with some reassurance:


“Dear User,

You may be interested to know that we just added a really cool feature we think you’ll like!

Click here to check it out. It’s a way of sciencing your tech using tech science. Cool right? “

Very cool. I’ll check that out, because I know what I’m being asked to look at.

4. What Time Are you Sending this?

This is as much about understanding your own users, as following any specific rules. Will your users get your email at work or at home? How old are they? How late do they stay up? How early do they rise? What time of day are they likely to follow the CTA you send?

Anyone who’s ever received pornography and viagra spam emails knows that they come at night, because that’s when spammers think you’re just loose enough to give them a look. Well, they do that because it probably works.

So take a look at your user’s behaviors, engagement times with your product, and the data you’ve gathered in the past in order to time your emails to maximum effect. Don’t be afraid to experiment! There’s no rule about this. It’s whatever works.

5. Who are you sending this to?

Just as important as what, and when, is who. A really common problem with startups that are growing their marketing efforts via email is that they don’t pay enough attention to grouping and categorizing their users, and sending emails that are likely to have the highest impact for those user groups.

For example, do you ever wonder why so many online services ask for your birthday, despite the fact that there is no conceivable reason why they should need to know it?

Recently i was suggesting to one of our startups that they try a “Birthday Campaign,” which is an old favorite of email marketers, and it goes like this: On the user’s birthday, you send the user a limited time discount offer to upgrade/extend/buy your product, but only within the next 24-72 hours (the details depend on what your goal is, and how long it should take a person to make a buying decision).

It turned out the founder I was talking to was not collecting birthdays in his onboarding process. Too bad! He should start doing that, and see if he can do something with it.

But that’s not the only way to go about it. Companies collect birthday info because they know that people spend more on or around their birthdays and, crucially, they ask people for things they want. Parents give kids money on their birthdays, as do grandparents, and spouses drop hints to each other about what they might like.

And there are lots of personal details that can be taken into account. Should your Christmas campaign really include customers in Israel? Should your back to school discount reach users in their 30s? Should your valentine’s day campaign go to single people? You don’t have to collect an extensive survey on your users in order to learn at least a few things about them, but those valuable bits that you do know can make the difference between a successful campaign, and a flop.

Knowing Your Numbers

Startups are all about numbers. Churn, burn, runway, ROI, CPC, ARPU, CAC, LTV, DAU, MAU, and so on.

There are a lot of metrics and KPIs that startup founders are expected to have at the tip of their tongue, every time they talk about their startups. But there’s a good reason. These numbers are meant to give you an unbiased view of your business. If you don’t know what they are at this exact second, well, don’t panic!

Here we won’t so much cover which numbers are most important. Each team, and each member of a team, should have their own metrics to watch. This post is going to be about how to keep and use your numbers in as productive and non-misleading a way as possible.

Focusing on the Right Numbers

Startups can easily fall into the habit of deceiving themselves, and inevitably others, with their own data, by only focusing on the data that sounds positive, and on positive ways of presenting it.

Startup founders will tend to hone in on the metrics that they know are improving over time, and ones that sound impressive without much thought or context. For example, I’ve seen startups ignore monthly active user numbers, but constantly talk about the number of their downloads in the app store or on Google play.

And no surprise- the cumulative number of downloads never goes down, so it always paints a sunny picture- even if that picture doesn’t mean anything. Savvy investors know this very well, and they’ll see through it in an instant.

So beware of vanity metrics: number of downloads, visits to your website, number of followers, number of likes, etc. These numbers rarely if ever go down, and they don’t give any useful information about present conditions. Much better are numbers that can change quickly.

First Things First

You have to focus on numbers that you can actually improve, and you should focus on improving one KPI at a time. Overall, there are really only a few indicators that matter most in the life of a young startup, and they are linked: user acquisition, user retention, and conversion.

If you don’t have a handle on these numbers, then fiddling with other metrics will make far less of a difference over time.

Acquisition -> Retention -> Conversion

When a VC or angel investor asks for your “traction,” while they might be interested in several data points, these are three numbers they’re definitely interested in first. How many users find your product (acquisition), how long do your users stay with your product (retention), and how many of the total users are willing to pay for it (conversion)?

Why in that order? First, the sales funnel starts with user acquisition. You need users in order to begin thinking about retention and conversion.

You can’t optimize your sales funnel without having some users in it already, so while acquisition comes first, it can’t be the first focus. Early user acquisition doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be organic and relatively low cost. You shouldn’t invest lots of money in a non-optimized sales funnel anyway.

Early users are often early adopters, or those who can reach in your own network. But over time, you will be looking for a wider market, and you may have to spend more at some points to get users.

Once you have users, you have to focus first on what you *can* optimize, which is your user retention. How many people leave your product after the first month? If they stay a month, how much longer are they likely to stay? Your retention rate has a huge impact on your ability to grow your userbase, and eventually revenue. 

User retention, more than conversion, is key to building an audience for your products that really lasts, and knowing these numbers in intricate detail is vital in making your case to investors. If user retention is very low, then the work of acquiring new users will not only never get easier, it will continually get more expensive.

Why? Because if you want to scale and grow your revenue, you’ll have to continually spend more and more to acquire new users, all while fresh users become rarer. Investors want to see the opposite trend: as your userbase grows, user acquisition, on average, should get cheaper and easier.

Keeping more of the users you acquire will, over time, provide a larger population of users to convert to paid products, or cross-sell to other products, or any other of a hundred monetization strategies.
Plus, with a higher population of users, you can find ways of driving down acquisition costs, and can achieve more positive word of mouth, better search ranking, more visibility on social media, and many other advantages.

Once you have optimized user retention, and you are keeping as many of your incoming users as you can, you can start working on both ends of your sales funnel, bring more users in, and converting more of them to paid products, like subscriptions.

But focusing on converting users, when your retention numbers are low, will yield few results, and over time, those results will diminish without strong retention numbers.

For a lot more on this kind of problem, you can check out AARRR by Dave McClure, which is an insightful and hilarious collection of tips on what metrics to look at, how to track them, and how to think about them in a startup.

Here is the core AARRR acronym he uses:

startup-metrics-for-pirates-aarrr-startonomics-sf-2008-7-728

Staying On Top of Things

I encourage startups to build a small “dashboard” of their basic metrics using Google sheets or charts, and keep it constantly updated. Over time, new metrics can be plugged in as they become a point of focus. An early stage startup might worry about user retention, whereas later on, the user engagement figures might be more important. It’s important to put an emphasis on the numbers you can actively improve, and to contextualize your work based on the numbers.

Don’t start tracking things only *after* you’ve made a change. Start tracking it before the change occurs. Progressions are far more important than numbers without any context: what was that number last month, compared to this month? How has it changed? What is the growth curve? Is it static? Is it dynamic? Those are things investors will want to know, and things you need to know to be sure that what you’re doing is having any effect at all.

And by keeping all your KPIs in one place, you can get a reasonable overview of the business whenever you need it, or whenever someone asks you a question about any particular KPI.

In the hierarchy of bad answers to investor questions “I don’t know,” is not the worst. You can’t know everything all at once. But once you give that answer more than once, consider making it a part of your overview from then on. There’s nothing more frustrating for an investor or a mentor than to ask a startup about the same metric over and over, and have the answer always be the same. If they’re asking, it’s probably important information for you too.

Giving Your Work Meaning

Focusing on how numbers change over time can affect the way you work. It can make you aware of weaknesses, and it can alert you to hidden strengths.

For example, a startup at StartupYard was planning to completely re-work the onboarding process for their mobile app. They planned to introduce a mandatory trial period for the product, and were trying to improve the conversion rate to their paid product.

So I asked the founders: “What have been the current conversion rates over the last few months?” Silence. Then, “well, they will be different once we introduce the new onboarding, so we’ll track the improvement from then.”

These are smart guys, definitely. But they were so focused on building the thing that was going to convert more users, that they didn’t even bother to check whether it actually would accomplish that goal.

But once they took a look at the data, they were able to see a clear, measurable improvement in the numbers they were targeting. When this startup’s team did start focusing on the conversion numbers, they used that focus to steadily improve their conversion rate over a longer period. Last we spoke to them, the conversion rate (and therefore revenue) was significantly higher than they had originally hoped- and that owed to how much focused work they had put into improving that metric.

I believe that if they hadn’t been focused on the conversion metric, they would have implemented those changes and moved on to something else. If their conversion rate had improved then, it would have been no better than a coincidence. But their focus on the numbers motivated them to keep improving over time.