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

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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.

mentors engaged with founders

Dealing with Mentor WhipLash

Startups in any mentorship-based accelerator program should, obviously, meet a lot of mentors, investors, and advisors over the course of the program. Even outside of an accelerator program, early-stage startups tend to seek a lot of advice, and should try to meet with and listen to a broad range of people with different opinions.

Hard Questions

Something that we notice happening with our startups toward the end of StartupYard’s “mentor month,” is that founders start to get a bit tired of meeting with new people. This is, overall, a good sign. Frustration with mentorship means that they are starting to notice a consistent theme in the feedback they are getting, and they are probably ready to start executing on the feedback they’ve received so far.

This is why we do virtually all of our mentoring in such a compressed period of time. And It is time consuming. Every startup we’ve accelerated has given us the same feedback: “this is really taking a lot of time and energy!” It does, but if it’s used effectively, it will be worth it.

Common objections to a startup’s idea, to its plans, to its approach and view of the market, tend to become quite obvious when a founder hears them many times in quick succession. A period of organized mentoring can allow a founder to develop strategies for answering the most common objections, and it can reveal objections to which their answers aren’t good enough yet.

If you aren’t tired of mentoring, you haven’t done it enough.

The best startup mentors are not necessarily those who just give startups clear instructions on what to do next. The best mentors ask the hardest questions. “How do you know that?” “What proof do you have for this assumption?” Good, searching questions can reveal to founders how weak the foundations of their thinking can at times be. When startup founders tend to rest their hopes on these assumptions, good mentors seek to poke holes in the theory of a startup, in order to make it stronger.

As mentoring goes on, there are fewer “ahah” moments for founders, and it becomes easier for them to answer tough questions that insightful mentors bring up. They start to be better at handling common objections, and identifying objections that do really demand more work on their part. They start, in short, to grow a pretty thick skin for new feedback, and they become less questioning of themselves, and more questioning of the mentors.

I can spot founders who have had good mentors by the way they deal with my questions: they’ve heard them all before, and they have answers that make sense, and that don’t ignore the question, or attempt to change the subject. They don’t dismiss the objections: they answer them convincingly and easily.

That growing confidence is double edged of course– too much mentoring can make founders immune to hearing new ideas over time– but just as importantly, it can make them more immune to what prominent VC Fred Wilson calls “mentor whiplash.”

Mentor Whiplash

Every startup has at least a handful of these experiences in our program, and in every accelerator program in the world. Mentors often leap to radically different conclusions, and offer radically different advice to startups.

When one expert tells you that you absolutely have to do X, and another equally experienced mentor tells you that Y is absolutely, without a doubt, the way to go, and X and Y are mutually exclusive, what do you do? You may not know who to believe at this point.

The fault isn’t with the mentors. Mentoring can be difficult for both sides of the equation. I sometimes feel like my advice roles off startups like water off a duck’s back. It takes a long time, and a lot of effort, to make certain ideas stick. So I become quite forceful with my opinion. That’s a natural tendency for a mentor to have. Suggestions become commandments to be followed.

What startup founders learn over time, is that clearly two mentors with opposing views can’t both be right, but that both mentors may not necessarily be wrong. In the aggregate, over many sessions with many different people, a path will emerge. The founder’s job is to synthesize all that input into a plan that makes sense.

There will always be smart people who don’t buy your ideas, or who think you’re doing everything wrong. But if there were someone who knew exactly what you should do in all circumstances, then that person would surely be the richest person who ever lived.

Sounds Smart Vs. Is Smart

Really engaged mentors and advisors get to be fans of their chosen startups. We root for them, and we start thinking we know what’s best for them all the time.

Like being a fan of a sports team: it’s all the feeling of accomplishment, without having balls kicked at them at high speed.

It’s easy to spend 30 minutes with a startup, and give them the impression that you know your stuff. It’s much, much harder to do the work that startups do, which involves making something out of nothing. Mentors are domain experts, but not always startup founders themselves. They know their domains and they know their own jobs, but they won’t really appreciate the responsibilities of the person sitting across from them. How could they?

Sounding smart takes only experience. You can make an idea sound appealing if you know how to sell it. But being smart involves trial and error. An idea isn’t smart until it actually works, and this is largely in the execution, which can change over time. The work always ends up being worth more than the inspiration.

Keep Your Compass On You

We work hard to make sure our investor mentors aren’t seagulls (the kind who shit on an idea to make themselves feel more important, and then fly off). And we also work to make sure our mentors are focused on the needs of startups, rather than the needs of ego.

But one inherent danger, especially in a formalized mentorship setting, is that mentors never have the same motivations as startups. They can try to put themselves in the place of the founders, and sympathize with their experiences. The best mentors do this well, and continue to do it long after the first meeting.

However, mentors have things that they also believe in, and a way of seeing the world that they don’t necessarily share with a startup founder. Mentors can push a startup to think about things from their own perspective, which is fine, but they can also forget that their perspective is unique to them.

If a mentor is a VC, they may complain to a startup that they aren’t thinking big enough. If the mentor is a marketer, they may push the startup to think in terms of their own experiences.

This is all necessary input for startups, if they keep in mind that mentors speak for themselves, and about themselves, as much as they do about the startups they are counseling. A mentor has to dig into their own history, to offer startups the benefit of their experience. It is still the founder’s job to make sense of that experience for themselves.

A mentor’s experience and their opinion are separate things, which is important to remember. A mentor may have failed at what a founder is trying to do, or may have seen others fail. The founder can learn from that experience without heeding all the mentor’s advice; advice like: “don’t do it, it won’t work!”

Make A Mentorship Map

Effective mentors accelerate the growth of your ideas, but also, just as importantly, the growth of your personal network. They can give you contacts and directions to explore, and it becomes a complex undertaking to follow up on and use all the input and contacts you get.

One of the single biggest failings that early stage startups have, is that they don’t adequately follow up on the contacts offered to them by mentors. Every startup is guilty of that to a degree, which is unavoidable. Still, our most successful startups have been those who have pursued contacts relentlessly, both during and after our program.

Fred Wilson recommends that startups keep a feedback spreadsheet for input and contacts from mentors. That’s sound advice, and it’s something we require our startups to do. But I would also suggest a slightly more creative approach, that might work better for startups who are getting a lot of mentor whiplash: a mind map for feedback.

Your mindmap might look very different from this one, but here’s a possible example using MindMeister.com:

Mindmap General

You could go into much more depth, and create a mindmap for each general category, employing each one for each different type of mentor, with a mindmap for Marketing, another for Investment, one for partnerships, etc. Or you could create a mindmap for each mentor individually.

It takes a bit of time to get used to mindmapping, but it’s a good skill to have when you need to have a reliable way of processing a lot of input from many different sources. Over time, you can customize your map to show your own priorities and the frequency of certain types of feedback as well.

StartupYard FastLanes 2 Startups in Sofia, Bulgaria

This week, StartupYard director Cedric Maloux and I spent two days in Sofia, Bulgaria. This was stop number 2 on our 6 city tour of Central Europe for StartupYard FastLane, which kicked off in Prague this month. We visited Kosovo last week, and we have now FastLaned 11 companies so far. This was my second visit to the Bulgarian capital this year, and as before, I was not disappointed by the local startup scene.

From our FastLane event at Vivacom Art Hall, an exhibition and startup space which has been built in the former headquarters of Bulgarian Telekom, the former state telecom company, we selected two teams to join the StartupYard FastLane. These teams will now skip the first 2 steps of the StartupYard selection process, and they’ll have a much better chance of being among the startups that reach the final interviews with StartupYard.

StartupYard has never taken a team from Bulgaria, so we were somewhat unclear on what to expect from startups in Sofia. Chris Georgiev (@chrisGeorgiev), of Imagga and StartupBG, who organized the event and helped attract the startups we chose told us that local startups were “a little spoiled,” due to fairly good access to local programs like incubators and grants for startups.

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Still, we were very impressed with the startups that pitched us, and we noted how friendly and open the attitude of the crowd was. About 60 local startupers and entrepreneurs showed up to hear the pitches.

What Pitching is Really About

During this tour, and throughout the 2 cohorts we’ve done, we’ve noticed a pattern that helps us identify really interesting founders.

First of all, the idea that the founder is pitching really doesn’t matter much, when it comes to which founders stand out. Of course we want to hear pitches that are about tech products, but beyond that, there is no keyword or area that is more likely to make a startup interesting.

Sometimes you hear that a space, like security, is “hot,” and there are a lot of companies being funded, but really, it’s just that there are a lot of problems in that space to solve, and so there are a lot of pitches about products in that space. Some are good, many are not.

So if it’s not the idea that is most interesting, what is it? For us, it’s about the founder’s ability to communicate his or her solution to a real problem. If a founder can do that in a way that makes the solution seem obvious, even inevitable, then that is a very interesting founder indeed.

But we don’t expect founders to be born with those skills. We only expect them to be able to learn them, and grasp their importance.

That’s why during our tour, we are meeting with as many of the teams as possible before the pitching events, to give them individual training on pitching, and to watch how they react to our input. The founders who can implement simple feedback into their pitches, and improve dramatically over the course of a single day, are the types of founders we want to work with.

The results are pretty surprising. In Sofia, for example, one founder, the rare business oriented founder with a lot of experience in marketing and communications, at first approached the pitch training with some obvious confidence. He knew sales, so this was going to be easy. But as we worked through his position statement (the core of the pitch) it became clear that his sales skills weren’t translating to pitching as he expected.

What impressed us about that founder, and the reason we FastLaned his startup, was that he took that experience, and built on it, delivering a far better pitch than he had started with. What is often surprising is that after only a few hours of work, founders who were hopeless at explaining their ideas to others can become so much better at it. We might not end up taking that startup for any number of reasons, but the reason won’t be because we don’t understand his idea.

At every one of these events so far, people who have attended pitch training with us have told us how much it helped them to really understand how to communicate their ideas. Imagine what 3 months of acceleration can do.

After all, as founders, this would be their daily job in a successful company. It’s more than an exercise- it’s what they will have to do in order for the company to grow. Talking to investors, hiring new people, and signing new clients, is all about making them believe in what you’re doing. That’s all about pitching. So we look for founders that can embrace pitching, because it will be central to everything they do going forward.

This also confirms a suspicion we had last year, that we had rejected many applications that might have been very good startups indeed, simply because they weren’t yet able to relate the ideas in a clear and persuasive way. That shows that a tour like this one is probably more important than we even suspected.

This reaffirms how important pitching events can really be. We can’t tell, from a written application, if a founder has the ability to grow in this way. Some really don’t. Others surprise even themselves.

The most interesting founders, in my view, are the ones who can grasp the underlying importance of the exercise- which is to define, in as simple and complete a way as possible, what their company will do to benefit the world. It’s not about the ideas being presented, but the ability of the founders to communicate to people they don’t know; to bring themselves to the level of their audience, rather than to find an audience that is already at their level.

Moreover, developing a killer pitch is an exercise in self-examination. Do you really believe in this solution? Is your approach really as simple and as beneficial as you’re claiming? Or is it difficult to talk about because it’s not as easy as it should be? In the process of developing their pitch, founders have to address those questions over and over. Ultimately, if you can’t find some way of selling your ideas, maybe they aren’t good enough to sell yet.

A founder who is humble and self-aware, and also confident enough to address these problems head on, and solve them, is an ideal candidate for StartupYard. The idea can and will change, but the person doesn’t change as much. If they aren’t flexible and self-aware when they start, there isn’t much we can do to make them more flexible and self-aware at the end of the process. We can foster good habits, but it’s much harder to kill bad ones.

More than anything, I see the failures that we have had at StartupYard have been connected with this. The idea was good enough, but the founder wasn’t flexible enough to adapt it, and make it really great. On the flip side, our biggest successes in the last few years have been from founders who could accept change, and were not afraid to question themselves.

We talk about “passion,” quite a lot. Passion is essential. But passion doesn’t mean blind belief. It means commitment, and ultimately, the willingness to do what is necessary to succeed. Often, when we hear: “I will do whatever it takes,” what that really means is: “I will do whatever it takes, except changing my mind.” But that last part- the willingness to adapt, is really the only thing that accounts. It’s the only thing that separates most entrepreneurs from the great ones.

The opportunity to really see what passion means to these founders, on an individual basis, has made this tour worth our while so far.

Amit Paunikar: On Product Management, and Owning Failure

I caught up with popular StartupYard mentor Amit Paunikar this week, to talk about the subject of his appearance at WebExpo, where he will talk about one of his passions, Product Management.

Paunikar has been a pioneer and evangelist in the area of product management, working with Google, Yahoo, and MarketShare. He has been a software engineer, a startup founder, and a StartupYard mentor, and is currently a product manager for Skype in Prague. He will speak at WebExpo, in Prague on the weekend of September 19th.

Q: Hi Amit, you’ve had a storied career, working for Google, Yahoo!, MarketShare, and co-founding your own company, MediaStudio. Can you tell us about your career journey?

Paunikar is a native of Mumbai, lived in the US for many years, and relocated to Prague 3 years ago.

An American educated in Mumbai and Los Angeles, Paunikar founded MediaStudio, and has worked for Google, Yahoo! and now Skype. He has lived in Prague for 3 years.

I grew up in Mumbai, where I did my undergraduate education in Computer Science. After a short stint in Citicorp, I moved to Los Angeles for my Masters in computer science. I spent 15 years in California after that, working at big and small companies including stints at Google and Yahoo! before taking the entrepreneurial path and starting my own company.

Early in my career, I switched from Software engineering to Product Management, which defined and shaped my career journey immensely.

Tell us more about your transition from engineering to product management. Why did you do it?

My first job as a product manager was with a company that made a hardware/software product, a networking gateway, that allowed users to access public wifi and wired networks.I was a curious engineer, but a lot of my questions were of the following type: “why are we doing this and not that?”, “why are we approaching this market and not that?”, “who is our target customers, what are their core needs?”  

Since I didn’t know a good way to get these answers, I would be quite vocal during company-wide meetings. After one such meeting,  the CEO of the company called me in, and said: “you have a lot of questions about things that go beyond engineering. Why do you need this information and whose job should it be give you that information?”

I told him that having this information would help engineering design the correct solution, get their “why’s” answered and instill a sense of ownership and accomplishment. I didn’t have a good answer of whose primary job it should be fill this gap, but when he offered me to step in and fill the role. So I filled that hole that existed for me as an engineer- someone who could from the connection between customers, sales, BD and engineering. Soon that role morphed into product management as we know it.

What originally drew you to the Czech Republic, and what makes you stay here?

It a combination of serendipity and need. At Mediastudio, we built a web-based video post-production platform with complex tools that dealt with image processing, waveform analysis and rotoscoping. We found most of these highly skilled engineers in Ukraine and Bulgaria. It made sense for me to move close to my engineering team. Also, my wife, who I met in California, actually grew up in Prague. So it was a 2 for 1 that I could not pass on.

Since moving to Prague, I have immersed myself into the startup ecosystem as well as have had a chance to interact with small and big companies. Prague and CEE has great engineering talent, but generally lack the product management function. This is an interesting challenge to solve and contribute to. In addition, Prague is a wonderful place to live!

As a popular mentor at StartupYard, you’ve long been an advocate for the idea of Product Management. Why is this such an important topic for Czech startups?

 

Product Management is an important discipline. While Product Management is one of the pillars of most companies, big and small, in Silicon Valley, it is sorely missing here in Czech Republic and in CEE in general.

In his seminal article, Marc Andreesson says the most important thing for a startup and companies is product/market fit. Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market. Creating a product that can satisfy a market requires companies to thoroughly know its customers. The primary job of a Product Manager is to be the customer advocate within the company.

Without a customer advocate, even the most brilliant engineers and companies end up creating products that no one wants to use, or worse, end up becoming engineering shops that provide their expertise to others. For a startup ecosystem to excel, just having amazing engineers is not enough. We need a good combination of functions that make a company successful, we need amazing designers, marketers, business dev, sales and good product manager. I feel product management is severely underrepresented in Prague and CEE in general.
What would you say makes a product manager different from a project manager, a UX/UI designer, or any other position?

Product management is an interesting discipline. It is very critical function, yet you cannot learn it in schools, nor are any Product Management degrees are offered in mainstream universities. Most of the product managers I know have learned it on the job. They come from various backgrounds. I have seen designers and project managers transition and become great product managers.

I like to think of product managers as people who take the ultimate responsibility for the failure of the product. This might seem to be a pessimistic view, but there is a lot of depth involved in thinking about it this way. As a PM you take responsibility of everything. You don’t have the liberty of just thinking about what to build, why to build, how to build, how will it look like, etc. you have to think about all the questions above and more.

As a Project manager or a UX designer, you can limit yourself to just a couple of these questions.

If the product fails because there’s no market, or because the technology doesn’t work, or because the product/market fit does not exist, or the design is bad, then that is the product manager’s fault. You’re not in charge of sales and technology, or design, but it is your job to make sure that the people who are doing these have everything they need to get their job done right.

What kind of a person is best for that sort of position?

Good PMs excel in empathy, know how to keep an eye on the larger picture and just into details as needed. As a PM you have to be able to make sure everyone knows what to do, but not necessarily know to do it.

I can’t sit with a designer and tell her how to design something. But I have to be clear to her about what we are designing, who we are designing it for and what functions it should provide.

PMs have to be comfortable with unknowns and uncertainty. They need to have the drive to make sense of seemingly unrelated things and have a good grasp of multiple faculties. PMs should be the “tip of the spear” that heads into chaos and leaves a cone of understanding and calm behind them.

How has the position of product manager evolved since your time with Google?

A lot has changed in the past few years. Startups and smaller companies have a lot more tools available now that were once reserved for the biggest companies. With cheap cloud computing platforms, the cost of building products has come down significantly. A lot more processing power is available and so is the ability to create and analyze lots of data.

All this changes how product managers act. They can now market worldwide, launch fast, collect and analyze vast amounts of data, make data driven decisions and course correct. Product Managers also have lot of tools and resources available at their disposal. A growing list of well respected VCs, product managers, authors and bloggers are writing a great deal about Product Management.

Defining roles and areas of responsibility for a growing team is one of their most challenging early tasks for a startup. What are some of the mistakes you most often see in this process, and how would you correct those mistakes?

It depends on what kind of a startup it is. An enterprise startup will have a different composition as compared to a consumer startup. The key is to have a core set of people who have varied experiences. If you are an experienced founder that you have a leg up compared to someone who has never started a company. In any case, it is important to seek counsel, have strong advisors in the area and learn from existing companies in the area.

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen is that companies close themselves in, start developing the product based on a hypothesis and keep at it. They never go out and seek validation from customers and users. No matter how small the startup, it is important to have a line of communication to your customers. Another mistake is to now have engineering and process discipline. Startups have to be designed from the ground up to be scalable. Scalability as an afterthought can be very expensive.

So every startup needs

  1. A customer advocate function – these includes responsibilities like understanding the market and customer needs, establishing a sales channel and continuous business development
  2. A technical advocate function – this includes responsibilities like engineering discipline and technical excellence

Do you think that organizational structures and awareness of new working methods have improved in the worldwide tech ecosystem since you started as a product manager?

Yes definitely. As a I said before, I started before MySpace and Friendster, before Napster and Skype and definitely before AWS (Amazon Web Services). It’s now easier than ever to start a company. If you wanted to start a company back then to do something meaningful, you had to start with thinking of physical storage location for your specialized servers. Now there are cloud service available for not only computing, storage but all kinds of functions like monitoring, email, authentication, etc.

There is freedom to try out a bunch of stuff and fail quickly. Startups are making bigger and bigger bets. Backed by technology companies like Uber and AirBnB are disrupting centuries old industries, companies like Cloudera is venturing into and disrupting space reserved for the likes of IBM and Oracle.

This is the cloud era, but 15 years ago most of this would have been unfeasible. Companies just didn’t have the elements necessary for such broad missions. And because of that, people are changing as well. Nothing seems impossible, today a 20 year old out of school can think about disrupting really well established industries and get funded to do it.

9 Ways to Make Pitching Easier On Yourself

For some who join us at StartupYard, pitching before an audience of 300 is as natural as brushing their teeth. Some people do have a knack for public speaking that can’t exactly be explained. Others have to work at it. This post is for those people- the majority of us, to whom pitching and selling our ideas in front of a bunch of people feels about as unnatural as reciting Shakespeare.

Don’t Overestimate the Role of Talent

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Certain people are naturally good speakers. But most great speakers have to work at it. The chances are that if you hear someone who’s great at public speaking, that ability is the result of many years of practice.

On the flip side, many people with genuine talent are unwilling to put the work in, and really use their talents to full effect. I don’t worry about the worst speakers we have at StartupYard- I worry about the talented ones. Those are the ones most likely to slack when it comes to preparing their pitches and really putting in the work. They are used to coasting on their natural abilities, and they often under-prepare for the overwhelming experience of pitching to a big audience.

When the real talents put in the work, we have magical moments. But more often, the best pitches come from the entrepreneurs who thought they couldn’t even do the pitch.

Be the Biggest, Loudest Person in the Room

This also has to do with natural inclination, but also experience. As a result of meeting so many people in the technology field, I’ve come to be able to spot certain things about people that I couldn’t before. For example, Jan Mayer, Founder and CEO of 2015’s TrendLucid, is a lecturer at Masaryk University. When we first met, and when he pitched StartupYard at our final selection rounds last year, I asked him if he was a teacher.

“How did you know that?” he asked, surprised. It was his ability to project his voice, as I like to say, to about 130% of the available space, and to appear larger than the space he occupied. If you watch teachers teaching, they command attention by speaking in a voice which is slightly louder than it needs to be, and addressed to what seems to be a group which is slightly larger than the actual group they are speaking to.

This “4/3s” voice allows the teacher to command the attention of the audience (often unruly teenagers), in a way that a normal speaking voice could not. By giving the appearance of size and energy that is slightly larger than the room, the teacher makes the audience feel as if they are smaller than they truly are.

So be big. Be bigger than the room.

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Don’t Pitch or Present. Explain and Share

There is a positive example that you can take from Steve Jobs, and more recently Jony Ive or Tim Cook. The best “pitches,” are really not a sales pitch, but a narrative of events, trends, and technologies that explains why a product is the way it is, and why that makes sense.

In best pitches I hear, the emphasis is not on the fact that something can be done cheaper, or that money can be saved or earned- nor do they lay heavy emphasis on the size of the market (a classic rookie mistake is claiming you’re in a “Gazillion Dollar Industry,” as if that means something).

Pitches that tell me a company will be hugely profitable are at best eye-rollers. If you’re a startup, then that’s not a claim anybody should put much faith in. And anyway, the most important thing is the reason your new idea or business model is revolutionary, not exactly how much money it’s going to make. Those predictions will be useless in 6 months. So focus on what you can control, which is the execution of your vision.

Instead, the best pitches tell a story, which is something we work on at StartupYard quite intensively. The story is shared, and the processes involved are explained. If you approach your pitch with this perspective in mind, then you can relieve yourself of much of the burden that many entrepreneurs place on themselves of “selling,” with something much more organic- something that they do every day with employees, friends and family.

Investors and partners want to see that you can clearly explain and share your vision, so make your pitch about that- not about your ability to sell. This is in many ways easier, because it demands that you stick to your strengths, rather than

Remember, then Talk. Not the Other Way Around

When we’re engaged in normal conversation, sometimes we start a sentence without really being sure where it’s going to end.

Here’s a fascinating exercise- record yourself talking about something casually, and then write it down exactly as you spoke it aloud. What you’ll find, typically, is that it makes almost no sense at all. It will be full of runon sentences that lead nowhere, and ad-hoc phrases that only make grammatical sense if you cross your eyes.

Nobody talks the way they write. But often, founders doing their first pitch will write it, expecting themselves to be able to say it out loud. Well, your mouth and your brain are not accustomed to actually speaking the language that we recognize in writing. That’s just not the way people talk.

Find Your “Beats”

When working with our startups, I constantly harp on the idea of “beats,” in their pitches. A beat is a moment of particular emphasis. It is a phrase or a word, or a particular idea that is central to your narrative. It needs to be remembered.

Great pitches have a clear sequence of important points, or beats, which are memorable. For an example of this, it’s useful to look at someone like Tim Cook, revealing the Apple Watch (go to exactly 1:00:00 in the video.

Cook organizes his beats in a very simple pattern. When he needs to emphasize a point, he says it as a slide appears with the same words and an image behind him. Simple, and elegant. If you’ll notice, he only uses words on the screen when he is making a specific, memorable point. At no other time are there any words on screen.

A common mistake for founders is to make their “big point,” or “ahah moment,” a part of a slide that is so complex and full of information, that the audience is busy looking at it instead of listening to what is said. Your “beats,” have to be moments where nothing else gets the attention but one simple idea.

So Nice, You Said it Twice

I’ve talked in previous posts about repeating the name of your company during your pitch (by the way, repeat the name of your company in your pitch). But this piece of advice is simpler. If something is really important in your pitch, don’t be afraid to repeat it.

Repetition is a powerful way to emphasize what is being said. A very powerful way.

You see? People frequently repeat things when they’re speaking, but they rarely do so in writing- which can make a pitch feel pretty stilted when you haven’t rehearsed it enough.  

Your Slides Are the Plan, Not the Pitch

Our Managing Director Cedric Maloux repeats this same piece of advice to every startup we accelerate: “Your slides are cues, not content.” When we write our presentations, the tendency is to try and accomplish communication with slides that can’t be done verbally. That’s a mistake, because it leads founders most often to try and pack slides with too much information.

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Here’s a good general principle: if you can’t say it 10 words, it’s too much information for a slide. Your slides should be nothing more than a framework for what you want to say. Nobody wants to go to a pitch and spend their time reading your slides. They want to hear from you.

German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke famously wrote: “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” As I’ve pointed out, one of the downsides of planning a pitch, is that what you end up with is a plan. Whether that’s a plan of exactly what you’ll say, or exactly what you’ll show the audience, that plan is not what is going to happen.

As I often tell my startups, the trick is not to say what you want, but to avoid saying what you don’t want. So be clear, be precise, and don’t over-write your pitch. Organize it into simple chunks.

Use Real Numbers

When I say “real numbers,” I’m going a bit beyond the “big numbers on the screen,” sense of the word “real.” I see plenty of pitches that are full of impressive numbers that, when you actually consider them, don’t say anything about the startup that’s actually pitching.

Worse, I often see pitches that include the numbers of competitors- as if the startup is just going to magically carve out a slice of the pie in their industry just because they showed up at the table. It doesn’t work that way, and investors know that. Even worse than that, I have heard pitches that included the valuation of companies in the same market. Now we’re in La La Land for sure.

Do Vocal Exercises

It’s silly. It’s embarrassing. It really, really works. For the past 2 years, StartupYard has engaged coaches leading up to Demo Day to work on voice training. The impact, over and over, has been startling- and not just for those founders who began as novices in public speaking.

Your voice is like anything else- an instrument of coordination that you use to do certain things. We are all accustomed to talking. But like the difference between walking a kilometer, and doing a pole vault, the body is not accustomed to the feats of energy and strength that we do not practice long and hard.

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For those without extensive practice and training, public speaking is surprisingly exhausting. It takes an unexpected amount of strength to use your voice to address more than a handful of people, and adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster and consume more oxygen, meaning you need to breath more deeply and quickly. This all causes a person to expend more energy, to sweat, to be out of breath, and to feel exhausted, even after only a few minutes.

Bonus: Don’t Forget to Smile

This isn’t part of my 9 tips, but it’s important. Smile! And you’ll get smiles back. That’s reassuring, and will make you feel better about what you’re doing.

Vit Horky of Brand Embassy: “Making People Happy”

One of StartupYard’s earliest success stories, Brand Embassy is an innovative, rapidly growing company, tackling “social customer care,” and customer relationship management.

Using this plug-and-play cloud solution, large and small companies can communicate directly with their customers via popular social media channels, like Facebook and Twitter- channels that are increasingly favored by customers looking for the convenience of chatting via social media, and looking to avoid playing email and phone tag with slow and unresponsive customer care teams.

I recently spoke with Vit Horky, Brand Embassy’s co-founder and CEO, about the history of Brand Embassy, what the company is doing today, and what their future plans look like.

How did you and Damian Brhel, the other co-founder, start working together?

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It’s a funny story that starts off in Bageterie Boulevard on Vodickova [in the center of Prague] more than 10 years ago. I was looking to hire a developer for Inspiro Solutions, a Prague-based digital marketing agency I founded in 2004, and I didn’t even have an office to hold interviews. Even though Damian was only 14 at the time I didn’t let his age overshadow the interest I had in his CV. We met, we hit it off and decided to work together on a project. One project led to another and eventually led to Damian being appointed as Technical Director of Inspiro Solutions. He was a far superior developer than the rest even though he was outranked professionally and in terms of age.

Founders Vit and Damian. Photo by Libor Fojtik

Founders Vit and Damian. Photo by Libor Fojtik

I guess it’s also worth noting I was only 17 at the time. So a teenager managing an even younger teenager!

What are your professional backgrounds?

I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship. When I was 12 years old at summer camp, and a temporary vegetarian, I would take the steak that was part of the canteen lunch and re-sell it to kids who wanted more. I guess that’s where it all began!

By the time I was 17 I founded my first company, Inspiro Solutions, which has since become one of the leading social media agencies in Central Europe. I diversified my company portfolio by launching Inspiro Creative, a software distribution company that became a Gold Partner of AVG Technologies and has served over 10,000 customers since that time.

After several years on the agency side of things, I was fed up working on other people’s projects. I wanted to build something that served a real purpose, that had meaning. It’s that desire to do more than just marketing campaigns that really pushed us to launch Brand Embassy in 2011.

As for Damian, he’s a bit a Mark Zuckerberg :laughs:. He didn’t go to university because he simply didn’t have time – he was already pursuing his dreams. Damian is self taught and has been doing development projects by himself since his early teens.

The agency world was heavily focused on the domestic market, and project driven. Damian wanted something that was more product driven with a global scale that could actually have a positive impact on the way people communicate. Both on the same page, we made a successful exit to focus on the launch of Brand Embassy.  

When Brand Embassy first applied to Startupyard, how did you envision the product and future of the company?

We went to Startupyard with a product that was a combination of software and people. Brand Embassy 1.0 was split between the software and the actual service – rather than focusing on selling the power of the technology, we bundled this with providing actual customer service for brands that didn’t know how to manage social customer service.

9 out of 10 contact center agents are only trained to receive or place phone calls, while 68% of customers prefer to use channels other than phone. With this in mind, Brand Embassy kept a part of their “agency” background, if you will, to help assist brands that simply didn’t know what do with social customer care – from both a technological and staffing perspective.

Then and now, the vision remains “making people happy.” Better customer service as an industry standard means better service for you, me, your mother, your brother, your friends and your colleagues. Delivering happiness through better customer service, via our technology, is still our vision.

How, specifically, did those plans change during and following the accelerator?

During the period Brand Embassy was with Startupyard, the mentors we connected with pushed Brand Embassy to focus on product and scalability. They taught us to look further down the road and think about how we could eliminate the “service” or “human” part of our offering and focus on the technology.

The networking opportunities that we had, from conferences in London to introductions to some of our first clients in our home market, were irreplaceable.

How did Brand Embassy gain its first large investment?

We closed a $1 million seed round investment in February 2014 from two venture capital funds, Rockaway Capital and Spread Capital.

While the investors saw the connection and potential between social media and customer service, I learned that they were more interested in investing in people they believed in rather than the business. They viewed social media marketing software as direct competition to overcome. When in reality, the solutions and reason to invest – from a client’s side – in various technologies is very different. Brand Embassy is first and foremost built for customer service, not marketing – while the opposite can be said for “social media marketing” solutions.

Now, our investors have become convinced by both the capabilities of myself and Damian, as well as the product itself.  

Here’s a look at our growth to prove that point:

Revenue:

  • 300% YOY revenue growth for 3 consecutive years

Global expansion

  • 2013 client portfolio: 80% domestic / 20% foreign
  • 2014 client portfolio: 80% foreign / 20% domestic

Telco Market

  • late 2011: first telco client (Telefonica O2 CZ)
  • By 2012: all mobile operators in the Czech Republic
  • By 2014: global market leader in social customer service software for telco


Company Growth:

  • 2012: 5 employees
  • late 2014: 15 employees
  • mid 2015: 30 (doubled)
  • 2016: still hiring!

Can you share a few case studies and testimonials about Brand Embassy?

Sure! A recent case study showed that O2, one of the Czech Republic’s largest Telco operators,  reduced response time by 70% and increased customer satisfaction by 90% using Brand Embassy. O2 fundamentally improved their “guru” concept with Brand Embassy which put customer service and knowledgeable agents at the forefront for their marketing campaign. They were able to change their brand reputation and position themselves as a responsive company that actually listens to their customers.  

Dusan Simonovic, Social Media Specialist at O2, CZ said: “Brand Embassy connects all our social channels into one space with efficient team collaboration and good workflow for providing fast answers. Flexibility with customization is also a great benefit”

We also received this glowing testimonial from Phil Wilson, Social Media Communication Manager at Vodafone UK: “We’ve seen a major change in the way our customers want to communicate with us. They demand more than just marketing on social media, they want customer service. We believe it’s our job to deliver that exceptional service. That’s why we’ve invested in customer service technology from Brand Embassy, and together we’re well on our way to achieving our goals.”

Brand Embassy was also named a top rated enterprise social media management software by TrustRadius.

Has hiring been a major challenge? How has BE gone about hiring new people?

Yes, it’s been a challenge, but we are progressing.

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We doubled the number of employees in the last 6 months and are still actively hiring. We have a brilliantly diverse workforce across commercial, product and marketing and operations.

Our team of 30, all in Prague, now cover 8 countries including USA, Morocco, Uzbekistan and The Philippines. We’re like a mini United Nations here!   

Historically, we were focusing on hard skills and number of years of professional experience. We found that those people didn’t necessarily have the cultural fit or drive we were looking for. We had to part ways with some very talented people because of this disconnect.

We learned the hard way that it’s more important to find people who are a great company culture fit than those who have x years of experience with x,y,z skills. We want to be happy with them and we want them to be happy with us.

Brand Embassy has a unique brand story. How did that develop?

There are two reasons why we have the “Bee Story.” First, it’s because we don’t want to be another boring software company. The Bee Story helps us add some coolness and fun to our messaging and branding. It also helps us stand out in the crowd, as more than just a software company. We are a breath of fresh air in an otherwise pretty stuffy market.

In addition, the Bee Story helps us explain the benefits of integrated customer care in a very intuitive way. We found that we needed a strong analogy to help describe the importance that efficiency and a clean process have in digital customer service. Bees are fascinating creatures that work in an intelligent hive. That’s just what Brand Embassy aims to be. Our approach, then, is analogous with a natural one that is inherently easy to understand, when you think about it.  

What are the significant challenges of selling your solution to small and medium sized businesses?

A challenge we faced in recent years was the inability to service our smaller clients and offer a solution that fit their needs and budget. They wanted us and we wanted them, but we simply didn’t have the resources to work with them and enterprise clients were prioritized.

Only a few weeks ago, we launched our online sales channel (self-service) and we already have plenty of SME clients starting with Brand Embassy every week.

They are all small business and agencies from around the world.

We see big potential in small e-shops and small business owners who must effectively manage their impatient digital customers too. Especially for e-shops whose customers are 100% accustomed to doing things online. They shop online, they want customer service online.


Along with the introduction of our online sales channel, we are introducing a package for these SME’s that starts at $39 / user / month.

Which competitors do you see as vying for the same core audience as Brand Embassy, and why is BE a better choice for your core customers?

There are many solutions that claim to provide social customer service, however, they usually fall into one of two categories. They’re either legacy solutions that have added social as an add-on, but they are difficult to use because handling a public inquiry on social media is something completely different from receiving a phone call.

Or, they are marketing-first solutions designed for running campaigns and building online communities, but can’t handle high conversation volumes and are generally managed by people who have many other responsibilities outside of customer service.

We fill the gap, offering solutions that are built for social and customer service specifically, handling high volumes and making social customer service smart and enjoyable both for the customers and agents.

For Brand Embassy, it’s not only about social media customer service. It’s about unifying the entire customer service experience across all digital channels.

We’ve increasingly seen that non-loyal Zendesk clients from Central Europe are coming over to Brand Embassy. They’ve been using Zendesk out of necessity, but it’s too complicated and it’s not built for social media – social is just an add on to a more traditional help desk solution. It lacks efficiency – everything other than email is a plugin. Brand Embassy has these digital channels built into the core of our platform.

6 Entrepreneurs’ Blogs We Keep Coming Back To

We read a lot at StartupYard. In fact, if you were to visit our offices at the co-working space Node5 (and here we are defining offices in the loosest sense possible, as we don’t even have chairs that swivel), you’d likely find Cedric or me reading something or other.

When the accelerator program is running, we’re usually too busy to do more than browse headlines, or steal a moment to tweet something, but when our startups aren’t here, we’re busy reading. Occasionally, one of us might remove his headphones and say: “hey, did you see this thing about…” at which the other will interrupt to say that of course he had.

Given how much is available, it can be difficult to tell what’s really worth reading. With blogs especially, so much of the attraction is not in what content or news is covered, but rather in the personal appeal of the author- the way the person thinks, as much as what they say. Reading a strong personality can be a brilliant way of resetting and challenging your own thinking. Could I be more like this person? What would this person say about my situation? These are helpful thoughts to have as an entrepreneur and a startuper.

We read more than just these blogs, but one of our rules in narrowing this list down was to provide a list of bloggers who are dependable, experienced, post fairly regularly, and are not as interested in news as in deep thinking about technology, business, and the future. In short, these bloggers write out of a passion for their subjects, and not a need for attention.

So here then is our list of 6 entrepreneurs’ blogs that we come back to week after week: 

@AndrewChen

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Andrew Chen is probably most famous as a blogger, but his blog, which features nearly 700 essays, many with original research on the topics of mobile products, user growth, and retention, is one of a kind. It’s probably the best blog I read on a regular basis, and certainly the most quotable. If there’s an issue that one of our startups is encountering when it comes to marketing, there’s probably a relevant post on @AndrewChen.

Chen has a habit of creating and defining very sticky and useful terms, which he self-references within his essays. Over time, as you read his work, you become familiar with the way he thinks, and can follow his logic from one topic to the next, gaining context with each click. This also allows you to get lost in his little universe of ideas- which is not a bad place to spend some of your time.

It’s hard to pin down a few favorites when it comes to Chen’s blog, but I’ll name a few essays I refer to often:

Why Are We So Bad at Predicting Startup Success?

Anyone Can Start A Groupon: And Other Startup Myths

After the Techcrunch bump: Life in the “Trough of Sorrow”

The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs

Minimum Desirable Product

Paul Graham

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You probably know the name. But do you read his essays? Paul Graham is the infamous founder of Y-Combinator, who had his first high-profile success with the sale of his web-store creator ViaWeb to Yahoo! (later to become Yahoo! Store) for 455,000 shares of Yahoo! stock.

Graham is now best known for his work with Y-Combinator, and for his writing, which includes 3 books, and a handful of essays every year, any one of which would make the common blogger jealous for their popularity and influence.

Over the years, Graham has honed his blogging craft over time to reflect his work. These days, his essays usually hover around a central thesis which he elaborates on from personal experience. Unlike Chen, Graham focuses less on data, and more on ways of thinking and behaving which he believes to be ethical, fair, and workable for his readers.

His advice is mostly practical and day-to-day, rather than technical or proscriptive. Rather than lists of “dos and don’ts,” he presents simple maxims like “mean people fail,” and “The Island Test,” which prompt the reader to consider a few basic principles of doing business or leading one’s life, and reflect on whether those principles matter to them.

Again, almost every single one of Graham’s essays have been influential in some way, so it’s hard to pick favorites, however, here is a list of some really good ones:

Why Nerds are Unpopular

How to Start a Startup

What You Can’t Say

Before Startups

Unicorn Free

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Written by Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman, founders of Freckle, a service that allows you to track your billable work, individually or as part of a group, such as a digital agency, and bill clients using the same system, Unicorn Free is a little bit of everything. Mostly, it’s a practical look at the real-life problems associated with running a small startup that has become a moderately successful business.

Unicorn Free calls itself a guide to Bootstrapping- running a startup without outside funding, but in practice it covers a big range of topics, from product development, to marketing, to copywriting. There’s a little something for everyone, and Hoy and Hillman both have an infectious energy and enthusiasm that makes them easy to read. Often, what they write is not as much practical as it is motivational. They constantly exhort their readers to recalibrate their expectations, and question their ways of doing things.

Some of Unicorn Free’s better known posts:

Why you should do a tiny product first

How do you create a product people want to buy?

Don’t Fave This Post: How to REALLY Launch in 2014

Why Blacksmiths are Better at Startups than You

NirandFar

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Nir Eyal, the author and creator of NirandFar, calls his subject “behavioral design.” His essays usually center around aspects of UX/Ui, economics, human behavior, and neuroscience. He wrote a popular book companion called Hooked, which promoted the popular “hook model,” for user behavior, and which has been lauded by Andrew Chen, among many others. Eyal also writes for TechCrunch, Forbes, and Psychology Today, among others.

Many of Eyal’s posts center around user acquisition, retention, and what he called “behavioral economics,” or the study of what people are willing to do with technology, and what they’re not willing to do. But they’re a little more “newsy” than similar pieces by Andrew Chen and others, offering more background reading, and often less of an insider view on the subjects they cover.

NirandFar is frequently just fascination to read. Here are a few examples of great articles that will get you thinking in a new way:

The Limits of Loyalty

People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently

Your Fitness App is Making You Fat

Habits Are The New Viral: Why Startups Must Be Behavior Experts

ViperChill

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ViperChill is a little different from the other blogs we usually read. Glen, ViperChill’s author and creator, has a biography that reads a bit like a get rich quick scheme. He claims to have started making “thousands per month,” at the age of 17 offering online marketing services. His posts are sometimes rambling, disjointed, or lacking in context for the casual reader.

More importantly, a lot of the activities that ViperChill advocates to its readers are, well, not always tasteful. There is much info on building link networks, building websites to cash in on consumer interest in specific subjects, and generally scheming about ways to make money online without really contributing anything terribly unique or new.

If you’ve rolled your eyes at the unavoidable noise of SEO driven websites that appear high in search returns, but read like they were written by a sleep deprived university student who was skimming a Wikipedia article, then you’ve probably run into something that ViperChill, or somebody a lot like him, has created or funded. While his more recent work has hedged towards calling an end to the SEO madness of the past, his work often reads as somewhat nihilistic in its view of the internet as a money machine, rather than something slightly more humanistic.  

Still, ViperChill offers some fascinatingly geeky looks at hardcore online marketing techniques and strategies that few marketers have time to think about. In the weird hidden world of SEO aficionados and affiliate marketers, ViperChill is a strong presence.

While most of our readers are not looking, as ViperChill advocates, to become totally immersed in the world of link-building, SEO, and affiliate marketing, ViperChill presents an insider’s perspective on that business- one many of us have to dabble in to draw attention to our real world projects. If you think you’re being clever with your Facebook pages, your adwords, and your homepage SEO, he’s being downright devious.

Some of ViperChill’s more fascinating pieces:

How to Build a Billion Dollar SEO Empire

How 3 Guys Made Over $10,000,000 Last Year Without a Single Backlink

Why Google Pushed Me to Build a (Bigger) Link Network

BothSides of the Table

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Mark Suster has sold two companies to SaleForce.com, and has since become a VC and prolific blogger. Much of the advice he offers on his blog is focused on relationships between investors and startups. Having been on “both sides of the table,” Suster offers a great deal of advice from his own experiences, particularly for startup founders who don’t know much, and are naive, about finance and investment.

Suster’s hallmark is explaining complex and dry topics in really human terms; breaking down the complex nuances of investment rounds, seed funds, A-rounds, and convertible notes into more practical exercises in figuring out what an entrepreneur wants, and whether that is aligned with what investors might want, and if not, how to pick an investor with similar priorities. You can learn more from one of Suster’s posts about any flavor of startup investment, and how it really works in practice, rather than just in theory, than you can from reading a handful of articles elsewhere.

The blog also contains some great advice in sales and marketing, but the real gold is in Suster’s practical experience with investments and the enormous amount of time he’s spent working on both sides of the table. It’s a must read if you’re thinking about raising money.

Some great advice from BothSides:

VC Seagulls

Finding and Investor Who is in Love with You

What I Would Look for in a VC, Knowing What I Know Now

StartupYard’s 3rd Unconference: Remote Year, Work/Home Balance, and Blogging

Wednesday night, at Node5, StartupYard hosted our 3rd “Unconference.”

Unconferencing is an alternative take on a conference in which the participants help shape the talks and sessions offered.

An Unconference differs from a traditional conference or set of workshops, chiefly in that none of its content is planned or scheduled ahead of time. Instead, the content of workshops is decided spontaneously, by whomever is in attendance, and is interested in contributing.

 

The whole process looks a bit like this:

1. Introduce the format to attendees.

2. Attendees write down a workshop topic they would like to host or to attend on sticky notes.

3. Participants vote on the topics to be included in a series of time slots, with multiple workshops running simultaneously. The total number depends on the space and the number of attendees.

4. The moderator proposes a schedule of the events, striking a balance between topics, and not putting the most popular workshops in competition.

5. Attendees suggest changes, and the conference kicks off, with the topic owners either presenting themselves without preparation, or asking for others to present on the topic they’ve proposed- in some cases, workshops become idea-sharing and brainstorming meetings.

Remote Year

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This unconference was presented in cooperation with Remote Year, an interesting organization from the US. Remote Year collects a group of people who work independently or remotely, and offers them a once in a lifetime chance: to work in a different city, every month, for an entire year.

The object is to get to know their fellow travelers (people from around the world, not just the US), and experience life in a huge range of cities around the world, while continuing to work remotely. The organization plans and organizes all travel, accommodations, and workspaces for the workers, as well as occasional events, such as our Unconference.

The group we met, about a third of Remote Year’s 75 current members, were engaged and interesting. I’d love to hear more of their feedback about how Remote Year works for them, but they’re just at the start of their journey. They’ll soon be moving on to Slovenia, then to Croatia, Turkey, and later to Asia and South America, visiting Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Argentina, Chile and Peru.

Remote Year doesn’t seem cheap, at $24,000 for the full year (paid twice a month), however, considering that this is probably competitive with rents in many American cities, and it represents travel and accommodation expenses, it might not be as expensive as it seems.

Topics

There were a wide range of topics, including “video games as a business,” and “monetization of mobile apps: subscription vs. one-time payments.” But as I often do, I gravitated to soft skills topics, so these are the sessions I’ll talk about here.

Session 1: Understanding Neuroscience for Sales and Pitching

Cedric Maloux, StartupYard’s Managing Director, has given this presentation a few times, and it is always interesting. He based his talk on two books: Pitch Anything, by Oren Klaff, and Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini.

He talks about the concept of human evolution being related to “three brains:” the “reptilian brain,” the “middle brain” and the “thinking” or intellectual brain. One brain has been built “on top” of the other through the course of human evolution.

The important insight here is that while we think of ourselves as intellectual beings who make rational decisions, we in fact base many of our actions and thoughts on more primal, less rational instincts. The reptilian brain assesses the world according to the most basic terms of survival, more crudely put: “can I eat it, can it eat me, or can I have sex with it?”

Advertisers have long known that fear, aggression, and reproduction are the most powerful drivers of human action. But that insight shouldn’t be limited to advertising. So Cedric talks about how to appeal to the “reptilian” brain in all of us: by evoking these same feelings, either with images in presentations, certain words, or ideas that appeal to our basic survival instincts.

At the same time, Cedric highlights the “power of because.” Also long known to marketers, psychologists, and salespeople, research dating back to the 1970s shows that by supplying reasons for our need to do something, or for our need for others to do something, we can influence them to go along with us at a very high rate.

The classic experimental proof involves a woman asking to cut in line at a copy machine, but there have been variations that included people asking for seats on metro cars, and other situations. Research shows that when you ask to cut in line at a copy machine, even giving a bogus reason like “I have 5 pages,” you only stand a 60% chance or so of getting what you want. However, when you state the reason more clearly, using “because,” you can reach a 94% rate of assent from subjects. If you ask: “can I cut in line because I’m in a rush?” you’re over 50% more likely to be allowed to do so.

Interestingly, the increase in acceptance also applies even if no new information is added. So, for example, if the “I have 5 pages,” is reworded to “because I have 5 pages,” the results are the same as when giving a valid reason.

These experiments also showed that the power of because extended even to unreasonable requests, although its power diminishes as the request becomes more unreasonable. While a person with 5 pages could get up to 94% acceptance, a person with 20 pages might get only 42%, but that would still be almost double the amount that they could get without a “because.”

Work/Home Balance

Cedric Maloux introduces the concept and organizes the conference.

Cedric Maloux introduces the concept and organizes the conference.

A topic of interest to me as a newly minted dad who annoys his co-workers with pictures of his kid, this was more of a discussion group. The StartupYard team, along with the Node5 team and a few members of Remote Year got together to discuss the issue of balancing life and work, or, for some, the concept of there being a difference between life and work.

This session focused on two things: the problem of balance and priorities, and the issue of extraversion vs. introversion.

We first discussed the “four burners theory,” a concept popularized the American writer David Sedaris, which poses the problem as one of priorities. A balanced life has 4 burners, as on a stove. One is for family, one for friends, another for health, and the fourth for work. It being difficult or impossible to cook on four burners simultaneously, a successful person will usually choose to remove one. For example, a person who values their work and family, must then choose to abandon either their health, or their friends.

It stands to reason that a successful career, a solid family, and a healthy lifestyle doesn’t allow someone to keep up friendships, which involve nights out, hobbies, and other time consuming activities. At the same time, a person may choose to have a great career, and time to go to the gym and eat healthy, but must then choose between spending time with their friends, or going out on dates in the hope of finding a mate.

Again, a person may choose to have a family, have friends, and be healthy, but must then spend less time focusing on a career and making money.

Moreover, the theory goes that a person who wishes to be *really* successful, must only use two burners. You can be very healthy and have a great career, you can be an amazing friend and parent, or you can have a great family and an ambitious career, but you can’t perform at the top of your game in three areas at once.

While we all shift our priorities over time, I found some truth in this framework. I have sacrificed mostly friendships as I have transitioned to my interest in my family. My wife has stayed out of the workforce to raise our son, but has been able to maintain friendships and a healthy lifestyle. As some in the discussion pointed out, these changes are cyclical, and they need not be permanent. Roles can switch, and the needs of families change over time, as kids grow up and look after themselves.

We also discussed the concept of the “outgoing extrovert.” While Petra of Node5 described herself as an extrovert because of her ability to talk to groups and be outgoing, she also described her need to be alone with her own thoughts. It was pointed out that she might not be extroverted, but rather outgoing. Cedric too, pointed out that his public speaking ability and his career working with so many people was in fact a defense that he has built up because of his introversion, and not because he is extroverted.

On the other hand, members of the discussion who really are extroverts talked about how difficult it is for them to pass up spending time with their friends, while the extroverts couldn’t easily sympathize with the dilemma that the extroverts face; they would almost always rather be on their own. For the extroverts, not being among their friends was a draining experience, rather than a relaxation.

These are the sort of layered and spontaneous discussions that a really good Unconference can generate: when’s the last time you talked about your emotional needs at a business conference?

Blogging and Writer’s Block, and “Brand Building”

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Time to become famous.

Finally, I participated in a discussion about blogging. Something I’ve come to think a lot about in the past few years.

As many of the attendees were about to spend the next year traveling the world, many were thinking of writing “travel blogs.” The problem, it seems, is that many didn’t have a sense of the value of that kind of blogging. Why do it? Who is it for? How to start?

In writing, we often talk about “writer’s block.” While many people think of this as an issue of not knowing what to write, it’s actually more complicated. “Writer’s block,” is the dreaded feeling that writers have when they are unable, or don’t know how, to start writing, even when they know what they would like to write about.

A blank page spreads out before the writer like a barren desert, and the enormity of having to fill it with good ideas is frightening. This stops many people from writing, blogging, or doing many other creative activities.

I suffer this existential fear all the time, particularly when my writing is not work related. But writers can learn tricks to overcome the problem.

My trick, which works better for me in blogging that it does in longer works, is to always keep the problem in mind when I write. Just as we work with our startups to focus on the problem they are solving for their customers, and the unique value they are providing to overcome customer pain, I approach writing this blog in the same way.

What problem can I solve for our readers, by writing about something? It can be a basic problem, such as our readers not knowing about something they should know about. Or it can be more complex, such as the piece we posted earlier this week about StartupYard’s deeply held values, and how they differ from what people might expect. The problem then would be that people see something a certain way, and the writer doesn’t. So the writer must express his or her view, and persuade or at least inform people of their opinions and views.

If you aren’t writing to address a problem, or a lack of something, then you aren’t writing for anyone. If you aren’t writing for anyone, then why are you writing? Of what value is what you write?

While members of the discussion talked about having a blog in order to “build a personal brand” (an already overhyped concept on its own), the problem remains. A brand is built around values, and you have to have values (and thus opinions), in order for your brand to have any meaning.

We are all aware of this subliminally, if not intellectually.

Think of a few famous brands, and you will be able to define their values fairly clearly. McDonald’s? Family, “Americanization,” entrepreneurialism, convenience, and comfort. You may see other positive or negative connotations in the McDonald’s brand, but you’ll recognize that the brand communicates those concepts consistently. Apple? Cutting edge design, ease of use, and high-end mass consumerism. Whether you hate or love Apple, you can recognize that these are its core values, whether they are successful or not.

In “building a brand,” a blogger, just like a corporation, has to establish what the brand is intended to convey. Otherwise, readers will be less than charitable with their own interpretations. And the best way to convey your values is to talk about them passionately- to argue for them, and to make the discussion about them, rather than about yourself, your needs, or your idea of what your “brand” is all about.

If you can do that consistently, as I hope this nearly 2500 word blog post (written in less than 2 hours) will show, writer’s block may be the least of your problems as a blogger.