Building a Predicable Revenue Sales Stack – Part III

One thing I learned from W. Edwards Deming is that in all things, be hard on processes, not people. If you want sales, you must have a sales process. If you want more sales, then improve the process. In part I of this series, I suggested filling your funnel with deals through a combination of Spears, Nets, and Seeds. This is the beginning, and deserves a lot of time and attention.

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In part II of this series, I suggested that you define your sales funnel stages, the qualifying criteria assigning each deal a stage, and the process for moving deals from one stage to the next. If you execute on these two – filling the funnel with deals, and moving deals systematically towards closing – you’re on your way to success. Having done that, you’re ready for some automation.

Beware! If you haven’t got a process yet, you can’t possibly benefit from automation. Go back to parts I and II and document your funnel processes before reading on.

Sales Automation vs Salesforce Automation

Let’s use technology to improve the sales process. This means you want to get more sales with the same number of people and hours in the day. Salesforce automation often focuses on managing your salespeople and holding them accountable. This is fine for larger organizations, but in a startup, you should focus on providing tools that help your salespeople close, not managing their activities. What we’re looking for is a sales stack – a set of tools to empower people to work deals through your process to closing. Your sales stack will consist of a set of tools you use to keep track of deals, contacts, communications and next steps. The most basic would be a notebook, whiteboard, or excel spreadsheet. While these will keep you organized, they have serious limitations too numerous to list here and I urge you to move on. The most basic advance would be a collaborative version of notes, whiteboards or spreadsheets (e.g. Google Sheets), but that’s only a tiny step forward.

CRM or Customer Relationship Management software can be helpful to track deals, keep you organized and help you focus on the right deals and activities. While I recommend both Hubspot and Salesforce.com, they can be cumbersome to manage and too expensive for a startup. I’ve used ZohoCRM’s freemium version, and it’s usable, but I never fell in love. Right now I’m trying out Pipedrive, and while it’s too early for a full-on recommendation, I does look pretty interesting. One of the most interesting things about it is the free course they offer: “Predictable Revenue Pipedrive Mastery Course” here. The CRM is the principle organizing piece of technology in sales and should be mastered before layering in other tech.

Once your sales process is working and your CRM is implemented, there are a host of other sales and marketing productivity tools that you can implement to speed things up. I’m going to point to those in the next part in the series – Part IV. Before that, let’s discuss funnel metrics. How do you know if your funnel is healthy? What do you do about it if it’s not? How do you keep it healthy if it is?

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To know if you’re funnel is healthy, you need some basic metrics. How many deals are in each stage? What percentage of deals from each stage will progress to the next this week? month? quarter? What’s the average deal size? How many deals must you close to reach your sales goal each week? month? quarter? If you have these metrics, you can calculate what you must do to create and maintain a healthy funnel.

Start with the goal – how many deals do I need to close to meet my sales goal? Then look at the number of deals in the funnel stage just above closing. Do I have enough deals in that stage to reach my goal, given that only a percentage of them will ever close, and only a subset of those will close in the time period? Now systematically work your way up the funnel. Do I have enough deals at the next stage up the chain to keep the process going, and so on.

A weak funnel is predictive of a future problem with sales volume, which also predicts a future cashflow problem. If your funnel is weak at some stage, the rational CEO will cut expenses. The visionary CEO will spend more on sales and marketing to correct the funnel weakness. You can be rational and visionary by knowing exactly what to cut and what to expand. Analysis of your funnel metrics is a key discipline which can determine the life or death of a startup.

When I meet a startup CEO looking for investment, one of the first things I ask about is the sales funnel and its health. If the CEO can present a coherent sales process and a healthy funnel, I know they’re raising money for expansion. If they have no sales process or weak funnel metrics, I know to wait before investing. Why?  Because my investment dollars are either going to fund a poor CEO’s education and the losses that accrue while she’s learning, or the expenses of searching for a better CEO when the Board realizes the problem. Either way, I’m going to be better off waiting.

Analysis of funnel metrics gives the CEO the information needed to decide what to spend money on – filling the stages in the funnel that are weakest. Because the sales process takes time, funnel metrics and analysis lets us predict the future with some clarity and power.

Building a “Predictable Revenue” Sales Stack – Part II

Nothing happens until someone sells something. Building a “Predictable Revenue” sales stack is all about making the sales process repeatable and scalable. Repeatable means that you can do it over and over with regularity. A repeatable sales model is at the heart of having predictable revenue and a forecastable business. Scalable means that you can build greater and greater sales momentum as you add resources. A good sales stack has to support both repeatability and scalability. There are four steps in this process:

  1. Map out your sales pipeline (or funnel).
  2. Identify the qualifying criteria for each stage in the funnel.
  3. Establish repeatable processes for moving prospects from one stage of the funnel to the next.
  4. Identify key funnel metrics to manage and constantly look to optimize your process to improve them.

Companies that employ these steps will have better results faster than companies who don’t. This is the second in a four-part series of posts. In this post, we’ll learn about qualifying criteria.

All your Spears, Nets and Seeds put prospective deals into your funnel. But where does each deal go? In which stage of the funnel? Is it a subjective exercise, assigning a funnel phase to a deal? It shouldn’t be. Qualifying criteria are the definitions for each stage of the funnel so that we can objectively determine when a deal belongs in a certain stage.

Suspect → Prospect → Contacted → Qualified → Demo → Proposal → Closed

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The definitions, qualifying criteria, and funnel stages are up to you to decide what’s right for your company. In our example we have seven stages:

Funnel Stage         Qualifying Criteria
1. Suspect               A named company that is in the right industry
2. Prospect            (Research identified a need OR an inbound lead) AND we have at least one contact
3. Contacted          Our email or call was answered and the need is confirmed.
4. Qualified           The timing of the deal and decision process is known AND a budget exists
5. Demo                We’ve given a demo with positive feedback; customer preference is confirmed.
6. Proposal           We’ve submitted our proposal; identified the decision makers and mapped their positions
7. Closed               We’ve won the deal! Signed contract or received online payment information.

As you can see, there is a short list of objective criteria for determining into which stage each deal must fall. This is powerful, but wait, there’s more! The same list of qualifying criteria gives us a powerful process for moving deals through the funnel to closing. For example, what shall I do if I’ve just given the customer a product demo? Confirm their preference for our solution over others, of course. I need to do that to satisfy the qualifying criteria for the Demo stage. Otherwise, that deal has to stay in the Qualified stage until I do. You can see how easy it is to define a process to move a deal from Qualified to Demo Complete, for example:

  • Schedule customer demo.
  • Conduct customer demo.
  • Ask for questions and record objections.
  • Confirm customer preference for our solution.

Once these steps are done for a deal, we can move on to the proposal stage, which might have these steps:

  • Map decision makers
  • Confirm customer’s requirements
  • Establish statement of work or deliverables (quantities, timing, etc)
  • Establish pricing proposal
  • Internal review and signoff on proposal
  • Submit to customer
  • Review proposal with customer and ask for questions and record objections with each decision maker.

This example process may not be exactly right for your company or product, but you get the idea. By having a process that’s defined, you are able to establish a sales process. A process that works can be repeated, and scaled because you can train people to conduct it.

In the next post, we’ll talk about the funnel metrics and sales automation tools.

Building a “Predictable Revenue” Sales Stack – Part I

Sales is crucial. As I’ve said before, a business without sales is just a hobby. What are the key steps in building a sales stack?

  1. Map out your sales pipeline (or funnel).
  2. Identify the qualifying criteria for each stage in the funnel.
  3. Establish repeatable processes for moving prospects from one stage of the funnel to the next.
  4. Identify key funnel metrics to manage and constantly look to optimize your process to improve them.

Companies that employ these three steps will have better results faster than companies who don’t. This will be the first in a four part series of posts.

Mapping your sales pipeline or funnel

The sales funnel lists the set of states that a lead or prospect goes through on the way to becoming a customer. The words funnel, pipeline, and leaky bucket are all metaphors for visualizing sales as a process of refinement from raw lead, using defined methods called qualifying to yield new paying customers. Not all leads become customers, so the funnel is wide at the top and narrows as leads are qualified.  The first step is to determine the stages your leads go through. For example:

Suspect → Prospect → Contacted → Qualified → Demo → Proposal → Closed

https://www.convertwithcontent.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/content-marketing-sales-funnel.jpg

There will be a list of leads in each stage of the funnel at any given time. The total number of deals in funnel, the average deal size, the time an average deal stays in the funnel and the number of deals that have advanced from one stage to the next since last week/month are all key funnel metrics. In addition, the % of deals in each funnel stage gives the manager an idea of the health of the overall funnel.

One of my favorite books on sales is “Predictable Revenue” by Aaron Ross, who built the sales system for Salesforce.com. Aaron differentiates leads from three different sources or activities he calls: Spears, Nets, and Seeds. Spears describes generating leads from salespeople reaching out to specific targets in a very conscious directed way. This is an expensive method per sale, but perfect for startups looking to determine the identity of their ideal customers. It’s also a great technique for companies selling high-ticket goods or services, particularly for key accounts. Nets are marketing activities that generate leads. Examples are internet advertising, content marketing, events, webinars, contests and other campaigns. Nets are great because they are scalable, but until they are informed by the results of spears, nets will often produce leads that are hard (if not impossible) to close. Lower quality leads.

Seeds are those planted by delighting your customers. Their referrals are the highest quality leads because they come from unsolicited customer referrals. Your happy customers are the best salesmen of your products or services. The problem of course is that these leads are unpredictable, take a long time to generate and really can’t be pushed. They do scale, but in their own time. A combination of all three types of leads will result in the most predictable revenue and growth, so a balanced approach is key.

In the next post, we’ll talk about the defining criteria for each stage in the funnel and defining the process for moving leads from one stage to the next.

 

Faster to Scale

I wrote the book, StartFast!, five years ago. It’s still relevant, still getting five star reviews on Amazon, but I’ve learned so much more in the last five years. StartFast! covers the process of taking a business from idea to startup. I plan to write two more books to complete the StartFast! Trilogy. Faster to Scale! will be about hacking growth, revenue and profits. The third book will be called Investor Ready! and will cover the process of deciding whether your business is venture investable and if so, how to get ready for fund raising, how to conduct a raise, get through due diligence and close. I envision a boxed-set of all three books, intended to be the “bibles” of everyone who goes through our StartFast Venture Accelerator.

I hope to write these next two books this fall and have them ready by year-end. This time, I’m going to market the books broadly. With the original StartFast!, I’ve probably given away more copies than Amazon has sold. Perhaps I’ll crowd-fund these next two and the boxed-set. There are lots of blogs about crowdfunding a book (e.g. http://tommorkes.com/the-complete-guide-to-crowdfunding-your-book/) and lots of platforms to choose from (e.g. ChipIn, EquityNet, Pledgie, Sellaband, IndieGoGo, GiveForward, FundRazr, Kickstarter, RocketHub, Fundly, GoFundMe, Microventures and Fundageek). In fact, there are hundreds of crowdfunding sites and options well described with pros and cons on crowd101. I’ll certainly apply the knowledge of experts like Jane Friedman. The purpose of crowd-funding is three-fold, to:

  1. Gather an audience who is excited about the book’s release,
  2. Provide funds needed for the completion of the book and it’s marketing,
  3. Give the self-published book additional legitimacy.

Why are these new books needed? Beginning with Faster to Scale – Hacking Growth, Revenue and Profits to Quickly Attain Business Success, there are many books about growth hacking, but none so far which give the succinct, no-nonsense, step-by-step approach of StartFast!. Faster to Scale begins by helping the reader categorizing the kind of business they are building. Then, based on the type of business, offers a step-by-step approach for creating scale in that business quickly and in a capital-efficient manner.

“Growth hacking is about running smart experiments to drive growth within your business.” says Sean Ellis, “refocusing of the relationship between product and growth, where product creates the market potential and growth fulfills that potential. Building a culture of experimentation (and being accountable for the results of those experiments) is the most crucial element when building a company focused on growth. ”  Sound advise for which Faster to Scale provides the roadmap and action plan.

Investor Ready is the third book. It succinctly and clearly lays out the steps for deciding if and how to fund your business, finding investors, building a winning pitch deck, surviving due diligence and closing. This book removes the mystery from the funding process. My intention in writing all three books is the same – to help entrepreneurs. I feel that these additional two books are sorely needed as more and more entrepreneurs look to move forward.

If you want to see the lessons at work, please schedule a visit to StartFast, or ask to meet with one of our graduates. If you think these books are a good idea and agree that I should launch a crowd-funding campaign to get them written and published, please subscribe to this blog as your “vote of confidence.”

Brexit Shmexit

The big surprise this week was Britain’s vote to exit from the European Union. Which will be the next domino to fall? How soon until total world-wide economic collapse? Stocks tumbled, the Pound tumbled and pundits joined the hue and cry with various prognostications of doom, Trump and general Sturm und Drang.

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How should startups view the fallout about Brexit? Well, to quote another German phrase, Macht Nichts. Start ups are here to challenge the status quo. Dare I say it? To disrupt (or “radically alter or destroy the structure of”) the status quo. Big moves in politics, or business, or the economy shouldn’t perturb a startup one bit.

Case in point, the Great Recession. During the financial crisis of 2008, I was helping turn around a startup called PacketExchange. Over the next three years, we raised venture capital, moved into the media and entertainment market, competed with the big telecoms, and got acquired at a positive valuation. What would we have done differently if the economy wasn’t in meltdown? I don’t know, but I really can’t imagine it would have gone much better.

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Earlier than that, some readers may be old enough to remember the Dot Bomb tech stock market crash of 2000. That year I exited my third company and cofounded a fourth. Would our valuation have been higher if we’d sold a year or two earlier? Like all hypothetical questions, it’s a moot point because we didn’t have a buyer a year or two earlier.

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Here’s my point, the news is the news. There’s always something happening in the world, the climate, the economy. As a startup founder, your job is to stay focused. Look for the new opportunity offered because of the latest meltdown, but don’t take your eye off the ball. As always, the primary things to concern yourself with are:

  • Your customers,
  • Your team,
  • Your vision.

Ignore the distractions of the 24 hour news cycle and the need to feed it new sensational stories. Stay focused and you’ll win.

Revenue Hacking

You want to change the world – make it a better place. That’s why you’re in business (I hope). You want your business to succeed. You want investors to give you a check. You want this to happen soon – at least before you run out of cash and can no longer go on as a business.

“The IRS has a word for businesses that never make money – a hobby.”

To have a real business (as opposed to a hobby), you must have some revenue. To get investor interest, you must have revenue growth. I can already hear the objections, “What about Company X? They’re worth billions and nobody knows how they make money.”

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When I was a kid, I played basketball and studied. There were kids that played basketball and never studied because, “NBA Player X makes millions and he never studied,” implying that I was a chump and they were going to be a tycoon by focusing on basketball. The exception, whether you cite early Facebook, early Google, early Twitter, or whatever, DOESN’T APPLY TO YOU. You have a better chance of funding your company by buying a lottery ticket than believing that you’re “the next Zuck.”

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But what about the Lean Startup movement? Don’t I need to do Customer Development before I can get revenue? If you’re asking that question, then we have a semantics problem.

“A ‘Customer’ is someone who pays you.”

Here are some lies you might be telling yourself and others: “We have over 1,000 customers, and 5 paying customers.” “Paying customers” is redundant and “non-paying customers” is an oxymoron. Non-paying parties may be users, but they are not customers. They might be on a free trial – then they’re prospects, not customers, not-even “trial customers” unless the trial is paid. Customers pay you for some value that you deliver. Period.

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Hacking is a methodology for optimizing something by running a set of smart experiments, learning from the data gathered and then running the next set of experiments. It is a scientific and creative process, and it’s the most effective method we have ever developed for optimizing any aspect of a business. Growth hacking is this method applied to marketing. There are billions of people that are not aware of your product. You must run a plethora of campaigns to gain their awareness. Some of these campaigns will work better than others. By comparing the data, you can develop better and better awareness campaigns.

Next you must get those aware of you to “sign up,” or “activate,” or “create an account,” which means to convince them to let you know who they are. To do this you run a lot of activation campaigns, compare them and optimize them. Next, you need to engage these newly activated users in the hope of retaining them (get them to come back, to use your service or product over and over). To do this, you run lots of retention campaigns. You hope that your retained users like your company enough to recommend it to others. You run referral campaigns to optimize referral rates. Finally, your user agrees to buy something, subscribe to something, purchase something. Now, and only if and when revenue happens, you have a customer.

Once you have a customer (even just 1 customer), you can begin customer development. By comparing the data of how that customer went through the states of awareness, acquisition, retention, referral and revenue, you can start to get a picture what works and what doesn’t. Then you can optimize your campaigns – all or them – for revenue. Until you have a customer, the best you can do is a local optimization, and that can be a trap! If all you can see is awareness and activation, you might be fooled into optimizing your campaigns to attract people who will NEVER BUY FROM YOU. That local maximum is an attractive nuisance and getting trapped there will kill your business.

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Revenue hacking is a specific case of growth hacking which focuses on the entire funnel. Once you’re focused on gaining customers and growing revenues, you may find that your campaigns change dramatically because now you’re focused on what really matters to the group of people (customers) who buy your product or service. You can interview them, survey them, group them together, build personas for the groups, and begin to really understand the profile of your company’s ideal customers. Your campaigns will be more intelligent, coming from a more holistic viewpoint, and more effective than before.

You’ll find that you can drive growth through the application of these campaigns – growth in revenue – and that you’re able to optimize revenue growth. Now (and only now) you have something of interest to investors. It starts with the first customer. It doesn’t matter how you get the first few customers as much as it matters that you have customers. Then you can begin to learn what you’ll need to do to satisfy them, and get more.

If you’re not 100% focused on getting customers, you’re hobby hacking, and talking to investors will only be a waste of your time and theirs. Want to change the world – make it a better place? Stop hobby hacking and start revenue hacking.

5 Ways to Add More Hours to the Day

From time to time we all complain of not having enough hours in the day. At StartFast, founders are challenged to do more faster, while also adding in mentor and investor meetings. They’re all wishing there were more hours in the day. Here are five practical pro-tips for adding more hours to the day so you can get more done.

  1. Time Dilation
  2. Ready, Fire, Aim!
  3. Drop 25%
  4. Delegate
  5. Sleep Mo Betta

1. Time Dilation

Einstein theorized and others proved that time is relative. When you’re waiting in the dentist’s office, time passes ever so slowly. Top athletes (and accident victims!) report that in intense moments, time slows for them. Can we develop the mental discipline of a Novak Djokovic and slow down time so we can get more done each day? Yes. Researchers reporting in the journal Conscious Cognition cite the benefits of meditation in everyday life and performance – improved attention, working memory capacity, reading comprehension and time perception. Time slows for meditators versus control groups. By focusing attention on the present moment (and the task at hand), meditators get more done in an interval of time – say an hour – and experience the hour as longer than non-meditators. Meditation practice as little as 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening can initiate this effect. Long-term, the benefits accumulate.

2. Ready, Fire, Aim!

The StartFast methodology for building a business is quite empirical. We take every idea or opinion as a hypothesis, test it, and then use feedback data from the market to decide. Rather than deliberating over what to do and spending days, weeks or months planning, refining and deliberating. We run a series of quick, easy tests to give us data to drive correct decisions. Sometimes our hypotheses are confirmed and we can move forward confidently. Other times, the data shows us a non-intuitive outcome. We haven’t wasted time following an intuition that turns out to be wrong.

3. Drop 25%

Borrowing an idea on time management from Steve Covey (who purportedly borrowed it from President Eisenhower) can save you tons of time and free up hours in each day for meaningful progress. Make a list of everything you have to do, then assign each item to one of the quadrants below.

 

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Notice that all the items in quadrant four (perhaps 25% of your to-do list), you can just drop, freeing up your schedule and reducing your anxiety.

4. Delegate

Now look at quadrant 3. Perhaps another 25% of your to-do list, you can find someone else to do, or push back on the need for doing the task in the first place. Of course you have to have someone to delegate to! So it’s of vital importance to recruit, hire, partner and inspire others to work with you. That leaves quadrant 1 and 2 items for you to resolve. I recommend that you do quadrant 1 items immediately. Touch them once. Don’t put them on your calendar, just do them one at a time until that list is empty. Then you can focus on doing or scheduling the items in quadrant two.

5. Sleep Mo Betta

There is tremendous scientific evidence that getting sufficient sleep each night makes us more productive, happier and healthier. As it turns out, the typical “startup” diet and behavior is the exact opposite of what we should be doing to promote better sleep and thus more productivity during the day.

Counter-productive “startup” behaviors – Don’t:

  • Drink Red Bull or other “energy drinks”
  • Drink diet soda or caffeinated coffee
  • Eat candy and other junk foods
  • Drink alcohol
  • Pull “all-nighters”
  • Sleep with your smartphone or other device next to the bed

Productivity-enhancing behaviors – Do:

  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of leafy greens.
  • Drink lots of water – just water. Stop at least an hour before bed.
  • Meditate in the evening before bed and in the morning upon awakening.
  • Get some physical exercise every day (not right before bed).
  • Keep your bedroom dark and leave your devices in another room.

If you apply these 5 pro-tips, you’ll find you’re getting a lot more done in less time, and you’ll have more hours in the day. I’ve been using these techniques myself for over 20 years and I keep getting more and more productive and happier each and every year. Enjoy!

 

Mentor Manifesto

The StartFast Venture Accelerator is a “mentorship-based accelerator” program. There is a lot of confusion about what mentorship is, and a lot of confusion about what an accelerator is. StartFast has built a very specific program to enable high-growth companies to make a year’s worth of progress in just 3 months. We ask each company to create SMART goals to make this real. SMART usually stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. The problems are Achievable, Realistic. To make a year’s worth of progress in 3 months, we replace these works with Aspirational and Radical. In our program, companies achieve radical improvements in the specific metrics the company aspires to achieve. That’s what we mean by a venture “accelerator.”

StartFast Day 1 Roundtable & Workshops

One of the techniques we use to create radical improvements is mentorship. It’s important to understand what mentorship is, and how it works in the StartFast program.

Back in 2011, David Cohen and Brad Feld (founders of TechStars) and Jon Bradford came up with the Mentor Manifesto. We’ve modified it slightly from the original to reflect our core values more closely.

The StartFast Mentor Manifesto

  • Expect nothing in return (mentoring is explicitly uncompensated)
  • Hold information in confidence.
  • Clearly commit to mentor or do not. Either is fine.
  • No hidden agendas. A mentor’s motivation should be to help the entrepreneur. The experience is its own reward.
  • Adopt at least one company every single year. Experience counts.
  • Listen.
  • Be responsive. Speak from your experience.
  • Be Socratic (ask leading questions), not prescriptive.
  • Guide, don’t control. Teams must make their own decisions. Guide but never tell them what to do. Understand that it’s their company, not yours.
  • Be authentic (preach that which you practice).
  • Be direct. (practice radical candor).
  • Your opinion is a hypothesis to be tested, not a fact.
  • The best mentor relationships are two-way. Be prepared to learn.
  • Admit what you don’t know.
  • Accept and communicate with other mentors that get involved.
  • Be optimistic.
  • Provide specific actionable guidance, don’t be vague.
  • Make introductions.
  • Be willing to show founders examples and how to do new things.
  • Be challenging/robust but never destructive.
  • Have empathy. Remember that startups are hard.

None of the foregoing are easy in practice. Mentors usually have so much more experience and context than founders, that it’s easy to fall into the trap of telling rather than listening and asking questions. Being a great mentor happens over time, with lots of experience and practice.

Part of our commitment as a program is to develop great mentors, and that means introducing new mentors from time to time. New mentors (like first-time founders) make a lot of the same mistakes. Here are a few of the most common rookie-mentor mistakes to be avoided:

  1. Wanting to be right at the expense of making the founders wrong. Remember the 7 VC’s that rejected AirBNB? Here’s the problem: at an early stage, the best idea’s must look like bad ideas. Great mentors put aside ego. Chances are that unless you are a digital-native yourself, your judgement and specific experiences / stories are less valuable than you think. That’s why it’s best to listen and ask questions.
  2. Trying to pin the company down too soon. High-growth startups must experiment with business models, target markets, and product positioning until they find their niche. This process is foreign and often confusing to mentors used to larger companies with established markets.
  3. Prognostication. “You guys are going to end up _____________.” A mentor who thinks she can predict the future of a startup hasn’t mentored enough of them. And yet even experienced mentors fall into this trap from time to time. Be helpful and optimistic. Ask the company to get data to back up their point of view. Your opinion of the future is just that – an opinion. If the data shows that you were right, then the founders can see that for themselves.

Following the mentor manifesto and avoiding these pitfalls can make for a great, rewarding and transformative (for both mentor and founder) experience. In the context of the StartFast program, we combine a large number of new and experienced mentors to make sure that the founders receive a cross-section of many points of view, ideas, resources and introductions.

Founders must choose among all of these inputs. The term “Mentor Whiplash” describes the effect of all these opinions on the founders. This process serves to decondition their minds, loosen their egoic hold on prejudices and narrow viewpoints, so that they can choose the path forward from a higher, more free state of awareness.

As the managers of the program, we must provide the context necessary for the founders to undergo this personal growth process at a rapid pace. Invariably, some founders are unable to fully let go and let the process take its course. They may be swayed by a charismatic (or highly negative) mentor and pivot in the direction of the last advice they heard. These premature pivots are, at best, a waste of time. At worst, such a premature pivot can kill the company. I’ve seen it happen. More importantly, the biggest opportunity lost is the development of a more mature founding team operating at a higher level of executive function. Another pitfall we see is the devolution of the team into various “cofounder issues” which is a euphemism for in-fighting / internecine battles that are the refuge of founders not ready to transform. A few teams will fall into these traps.

https://hbr.org/resources/images/article_assets/2002/09/JAN15_02_524185647.jpgFor those founders that are ready, the accelerator is a crucible in which the great leaders of new high-growth companies are forged . Those that make the transition successfully, exit the accelerator program with an expanded understanding of who they are and how they can and will change the world for the better, and the confidence to move forward without wasted time and effort. They leave armed with a methodology for decision-making based upon data and a strong sense of their abilities to lead. There is nothing I’ve experienced that quite matches that of mentoring in such a process.

StartFast 2016 Begins!

Continuing its tradition of innovation, the Madden School of Business at Le Moyne College is proud to welcome the teams of StartFast 2016!

In its fifth year of operation, StartFast Venture Accelerator is the number 1 venture accelerator in Upstate New York and one of the top 50 in the world. Over the past four summers StartFast has recruited, invested in, mentored, and helped launch twenty-four  (24) companies that have received millions of dollars in funding.  From the end of May until mid-August, mentors from around the country will work with this year’s five new StartFast companies to make them investor-ready.

This year’s StartFast Teams are:

  • AppLink – the easy way to present mobile applications to meetings and conferences.
  • Cloudguide – empowering museums and other tourist destinations to delight visitors with official smartphone tours.
  • SongCat – professional, affordable, online music and demo production.
  • Luxe Route – the online destination for the discerning shopper.
  • ParkMi – discovering available parking spaces in real time.

Dolphin Tank, on the LeMoyne College campus, is a key StartFast event.  Dean of the Madden School of Business, Jim Joseph says, “All of you have seen the television show ‘Shark Tank’.  But dolphins are not sharks.  They are smarter, more playful, more supportive and more fun.”  At 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, June 1st, the Madden Advisory Board and Le Moyne College trustees will meet this year’s five StartFast companies and offer them assistance, mentoring and more. Dean Joseph again, “We are pleased to announce that we have six (6) Lead Dolphins:

  1. Jochen Becker, CEO of Marquardt North America
  2. Mark Byrne, EVP & Treasurer of Byrne Dairy
  3. Laila Kobrossy Audi, Executive in Residence at Le Moyne College
  4. Mike Madden, Founder of Black Eagle Partners
  5. Laura Miller, General Manager of Darco Manufacturing, Inc.
  6. John Zogby, author, pollster, and Director of the Keenan Center.

For more information about Dolphin Tank or an invitation, contact the Madden School. For more information about StartFast contact Kathryn Cartini of Peacock Media.

Top 3 Reasons to Join StartFast

 

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In just a few days, StartFast will close the application process for 2016’s summer program. If you’re a founding member of a startup, here are a few reasons why you should get your application in before April 4th to be considered for selection:

Get Focused

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Imagine having 3 months to work with your team in a collaborative, fun environment that will allow you to hyper focus on what you need to get accomplished. Now, think about working toward the goal of pitching your company to a packed room full of investors, from across the US and around the world.

With that kind of motivation and dedication pushing you and your team forward, what’s possible?

Get Feedback

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StartFast boasts an extensive mentor network that spans several industries including healthcare, software, manufacturing, gaming, app development, and financial services, just to name a few. One of the reasons why StartFast is so unique is because our mentors are willing to give the necessary feedback and guidance you need to understand your market, fine tune your revenue model, and communicate with investors.

With one-on-one mentorship from super successful entrepreneurs, how much will your startup benefit?

Get Funded

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StartFast will provide your company with funding ($25,000) and enable you to tap into a vast number of financial resources. There are also opportunities to gain up to $75,000 in follow-on funds, and tap into the technical expertise of the StartFast network to help your company grow lean.

Between the financial boost and connections to hundreds of investors, how fast can your company accelerate?

Get Ready

Get ready for the opportunity to accelerate! Click here to apply. Have any questions? Ask Emily O’Neill at Emily@startfast.net.

Kip: Good Instincts + Data = Win

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Rachel Law, co-founder and CEO of Kip, has some encouraging words for entrepreneurs, as well as some tales of caution.

Rachel and fellow founder and current CTO Alyx Baldwin graduated from StartFast Venture Accelerator in 2014, back when they were known as Interface Foundry. The company was initially devoted to creating data bubbles based on the location of users, allowing information for shopping and other activities to be readily available at the touch of a button.

Today, rebranded as Kip, the company uses an AI chatbot that helps collect and coordinate group orders for team shopping. Just recently, Kip joined forces with Slack to enable fast and easy purchases for teams.

 

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Through their evolution as a company, Rachel and her team have overcome challenges and learned how to be resourceful. Below, Rachel shares her advice for startups:

Trust your instincts, but back them up with data.

Rachel and Alyx had a feeling that their platform needed to evolve. The team wanted to change direction with Kip’s core functionality, transforming it from a search tool to a chatbot — but their instincts were met with resistance from developers and mentors.

“People were unsure about the chatbot concept and wondered why we’d do it. They thought it was too old of an idea, like something from 1999,” Rachel said. “But you have to trust that you’re the one working on the product, and you have to be the person who knows your customers best – not your advisors, not your investors, not your friends.”

Forging ahead in a new direction, Rachel felt they were heading where “the future was hidden.” They gained a great deal of traction with their new chatbot, which justified the new model to them and proved their instincts to be correct.

While the co-founders’ devotion to following their new direction was met with success, Rachel was adamant that intuition needs be backed up by data.

“You have to do the research and make sure your instincts aren’t lying to you, otherwise it’s a very costly mistake,” she added.

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Be as cheap as possible, but not so cheap you hurt the company.

Rachel joked about Kip’s promise of  “lots of coffee and chocolate” to teammates on their website, and discussed the importance of providing employment perks while still being reasonable. As a young startup, there’s increased pressure to make the most out of limited resources – and employees.

“Hiring people is the most expensive thing you can do and will greatly affect your burn rate. Be slow to hire, but not too slow,” Rachel cautioned. “And hire well, as these people will affect the entire morale of the company.”

Rachel added that the CEO of a startup needs to remain the sales and business development lead, rather than hiring an employee to fill that role. She said that the“CEO’s main job is to bring in sales, and work together with CTO” to build the company.

To lower operating costs, Rachel said she believes in the power of bargaining. “When someone gives you a price, negotiate,” she encouraged.

However, there are a few critical areas where Rachel doesn’t believe in cutting corners.

“You never save money by being cheap to people. You can negotiate and bargain for things like office supplies and finding a cheaper work space and cutting down on perks like free pizza and beer, but you should pay employees fairly,” she said. “Negotiate for a good deal, but pay for things that matter. Your employees really matter. So don’t be cheap with them.”

After recounting a story about an issue Kip ran into early in the game, Rachel recommended that having a good lawyer is also worth the price, and signals that your company is credible.

“Get a good lawyer that is consistent,” she said. “One that you can truly trust, who can handle your needs, and is on your side. It’s worth it.”

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With the successful launch on Slack behind them, the Kip team is looking forward to expanding their service to office schedulers, managers, and operations personnel to embrace the easy bulk transactions the platform allows.

Looking back on their StartFast days, Rachel admits that she didn’t realize how much work it would be. “The startup world was really all new to us,” she said. “What we learned from StartFast was how to communicate, have a vision, and understand our metrics.”

Ready to accelerate your company? Find out more here. 

Mentors, Markets, and (Team)Mates: Electronic Gaming Federation’s StartFast Lessons

 

A self-described nerd turned entrepreneur, Tyler Schrodt took his intense passion for gaming and founded a growing business.  His company, Electronic Gaming Federation (EGF), aims to combine the “best aspects of the NCAA and ESPN to bring eSports programs to colleges around the world.”

As a 2015 graduate of StartFast Venture Accelerator, Tyler along with his company’s core team, Rockie Hunter, Andrew Cutter, and Josh Roberts, went from slowly gaining traction to accelerating in a new market space. Below, he shares some of the lessons he learned from the program, and a few words of wisdom for budding entrepreneurs.

Mentors

Tyler described his concept of mentorship to be “abstract” before he found his mentors through StartFast. Having successfully launched and sold a company previously, he was aware that having a mentor support network would be beneficial.

“We [Tyler and his previous business partner] knew we were supposed to have people to lean on when we were struggling,” he said. “But we were young and unconnected, and didn’t know how to reach out.”

Once Tyler and his EGF team joined StartFast, he explained that he started off with a long list of questions which allowed them to sift through the nuts and bolts of the company.  “We learned how to present ourselves and communicate the value add of our business,” he said. “That’s what helped us launch into this really cool network.”

Though the number of mentors available to coach entrepreneurs in the esports space is extremely small, the team found several through StartFast that they continue to work with, including Brian Corrigan of Odd Networks, and Steve Raines and Steve Kiernan of VCAMP.

Tyler added, “You may not get the exact answer from your mentors, but you’re led through a process that will help you find it.”

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Markets

The deep connections Tyler and his team made at StartFast allowed them to hyper focus on their desired markets and potential revenue streams.

Tyler had originally anticipated targeting their service to college students, who would then pay the company directly, but realized after a few weeks into the program that they actually needed to set their sights on college administrators.

“We had this broad spectrum of ideas when we started, and there were so many possibilities for us to explore,” Tyler said. “After we joined StartFast though, we understood what our true path was.”

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(Team)Mates

Noting that he doesn’t pretend he can do it all himself, Tyler described his core team dynamics as being extremely important for success.

“Remember to give enough time to focus on culture of company,” he replied, when asked what advice he’d give to budding entrepreneurs. “Business is built on people, and it’s sometimes easy to forget that when you have a million things you need do.”

After the team gained a better understanding of their market and potential revenues streams post-accelerator, EGF began employing their business model this past December. They’re set to close their first contracts this spring, and are looking forward to expanding in the US and beyond.

Want to accelerate your startup? Find out here.

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Tips for Exceeding Your Crowdfunding Goal

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Smartypans, a smart cooking pan that measures calories, recently raised over $30,000 on an IndieGoGo campaign.

A year ago, the brother and sister team who founded the company, Prachi and Rahul Baxi, were attending SXSW to demonstrate their technology. While their pan had been chosen as one of the top 8 technologies of 2015 for the interactive session of the festival, they worried that their product was merely a project.

“We had a very raw prototype, and were putting censors in and testing basic functionalities,” said Prachi, “but we didn’t feel we had the right one.” It was also during SXSW that Prachi and Rahul met StartFast Venture Accelerator‘s managing partners Nasir Ali and Chuck Stormon, and found out how the program could help them.

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Once the team joined StartFast that summer, they were able to craft a better prototype, drive marketing efforts through mentorship, and find funding sources. Equipped with a sleekly designed pan, and a solid marketing strategy following the accelerator, Prachi and Rahul launched a crowdfunding campaign.

Below are a few of their tips for how they exceeded their goal:

1. Find the Right Platform for Early Adopters. IndieGoGo wasn’t initially the go-to platform for Prachi and Rahul. “When we were going through StartFast, our goal was to get on Kickstarter,” Prachi said. “But the timing wasn’t right, and we really wanted to figure out where our potential customers were.”

After doing extensive research, the team came to the conclusion that IndieGoGo was the right platform for a few reasons. “IndieGoGO hosts a lot of smart devices and appliances with very active buyers, so we realized that’s where our early adopters would be,” Rahul shared. “We also discovered that they have a partnership with Target and Brookstone, which allowed for a clear pathway for us to get our product on shelves.”

After attending an event hosted by IndieGoGo, they became connected with the company’s team, and the pre-launch planning was kicked into high gear.

2. Build a Killer Pre-Launch Email List. The team knew that smart devices need a lot of marketing to get attention, and that marketing agencies were expensive and wouldn’t necessarily yield the results they needed.

Prachi and Rahul decided to take a different approach. They didn’t ask people for their email addresses, yet built an email list of more than 6,000 interested leads. So, how did they do it?

“We were presenting at dozens of events,” said Prachi. “And by not asking for emails, but showing our product, people who visited our site signed up because they were truly interested in what we had to offer.”

Prachi and Rahul estimated that they attended nearly 2-3 events per week, in addition to larger events like Consumer Electronic Shows and the Smart Kitchen Summit.

3. Command the Attention of Your Audience. Armed with a solid pre-launch list, the team turned their attention to how they would communicate effectively with their newly created audience. “We learned that just having an email list wasn’t enough. We had to put a lot of effort into making sure that our sign-ups actually opened our emails,” Rahul said.

With that knowledge, Rahul built an email template to ensure that their audience was paying attention, and that the emails weren’t getting filtered as spam or a just another marketing promotional. The personal connection with their early adopters led to higher conversion rates, and overall, a more successful campaign.

4. Expect the Unexpected. While the email list they had built produced great results, they couldn’t have predicted that they’d lose traction due to a technical issue that was out of their hands. The campaign was steadily gaining backers when the payment processing system for the campaign stopped working.

 “We lost a lot of backers because of the payment issue, so we started attending more events to find new users,” said Prachi. Their commitment to keep pushing forward to promote the campaign is what led to their success. The team encouraged that once a campaign is live, to not let it run itself, but to keep promoting, networking, and finding backers.

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In just a year’s time, SmartyPans went from promoting a raw prototype, to launching a crowd pleasing smart pan that continues to capture media attention. Now that the campaign has ended, the team is working on building partnerships with stores, and shipping orders to their early adopters.

To learn more about SmartyPans, visit www.smartypans.io  For more information on accelerating your company, visit www.startfast.net

 

A startup’s 10-point guide to using lawfirms

I met with my attorney, David Holstein, managing partner of Bousquet Holstein PLLC, yesterday. The meeting reminded my how important it is to have a good business lawyer, particularly as a startup. Bousquet Holstein offers StartFast portfolio companies mentorship sessions (pro bono advice) during the program, as well as a fixed-price menu of discounted legal services. This is a godsend for the cash-strapped startup relative to the normal lawfirm’s legal fee-per-hour regardless of outcome. David is a great attorney and has added immeasurable value over the years as I’ve started, funded, built and exited my various ventures. In reflecting on how well this relationship has worked over the years, I put together these 10 points which will let you, as a startup cofounder, get the most out of your relationship with your attorney.

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  1. Don’t wait. Get a good startup attorney before you create a mess. That means, before you agree to a structure with your cofounders. Starting a company without a good cofounders’ agreement can lead to some really frustrating times. Check this out. Generally messes just grow with time. It’s always easier to avoid a mess in the first place than to try to clean one up later.
  2. Selecting an attorney. Have an initial meeting with your prospective attorney. Ask questions and be specific. What background does the attorney have in the subject area of your startup? Do they specialize in business transactions? What is their relevant startup experience? As you discuss your startup, does the attorney lean in to learn more (indicating sincere interest), or fold his/her arms or check the time? How comfortable do you feel in their presence? Do you feel like adding them to your team?  Here, here, and here are some more good points to consider and questions to ask.
  3. Learn the basics yourself. Not to do it yourself, but rather so that you’re not asking the attorney to give you a tutorial. Is your startup making hundreds of dollars per hour for your time? Probably not yet. Well then read a book! If you’re getting started, read StartFast! If you’re raising money, read Venture Deals. Save yourself the embarrassment and expense of walking into your attorney’s office unprepared. Do your homework, have your specific questions ready and know what you’re asking the attorney to do for you.
  4. Billing. Most attorneys operate on the “billable hour” system. Clients sign an Engagement Letter, authorizing the attorney to charge clients hundreds of dollars per hour regardless of the outcome of the work.  Startup-friendly law firms offer a variety of payment options including capped, deferred, discounted and fixed fees. Some may be interested in taking a small equity stake in their clients in lieu of cash some or all of the legal bills. These firms hope that the startup will use them for lucrative venture financing deals or a merger, acquisition, intellectual property transaction, litigation, or IPO. Startup law is like venture capital – the rare wins pay for majority of clients that don’t pay off. Do they offer a fixed price menu for common transactions? Be clear up front on what you will and will not pay for, how much, and when you’ll pay. Most of these are open to some negotiation.
  5. Use published documents. There are several law firms that have open-sourced the documents that startups need for most basic legal transactions. Sites like TechStars, Y-CombinatorSeriesSeed.com, Cooley GO, WHLaunch, Founders’ Workbench, Start-Up Forms Library and others enable entrepreneurs to incorporate, secure early-stage financing, hire employees and compensate them with stock options. StartupCompanyLawyer.com answers many frequently asked questions. Use these resources to educate yourself, and then work with your attorney with the templates as a starting point.
  6. Don’t get hung up on big names. I’ve known several founders who did most of their own legal work because their lawfirm charged $700 per hour. They chose a big name firm because of the prestige (perhaps the ego-trip) of being represented by a firm on one of the startup short-lists. Is their legal work any better than a smaller firm? Are they providing introductions to clients, investors, or are they just your lawyer? Wouldn’t you be better off spending that money on getting more customers?
  7. I am a human. There are startups in the space that try to replace the attorney entirely.  Shake is a mobile platform for simple legal agreements like freelance consulting contracts. Clerky provides forms for incorporations, convertible notes and employee agreements and such. Docracy crowd-sources legal documents,while Rocket Lawyer provides documents with instructions plus the option to consult remotely with an attorney. I recommend using these sites much like other sources of published documents, as education and a starting point. There’s still no replacement for a live human lawyer who understands your business and has your back. Don’t be the legal equivalent of a patient who tells his doctor what he learned on the internet about the treatment needed.
  8. Deal Maker. Make your attorney a deal-maker, not a deal breaker. Attorneys get a bad rap. They’re always getting blamed for making a transaction take longer than it should. In reality, many times the root cause of the delay is that the clients get the lawyers working on a deal before they have a meeting of the minds on the terms. Consult your attorney to help you come to a deal with the other party – before you start papering over the transaction with documents. A non-binding Term Sheet can be useful to communicate what you intend with the other party. This in turn becomes the architecture for the legal contracts culminating the deal.
  9. Avoid Litigation. Many disagreements can be predicted. Attorneys are great resources at structuring agreements so that there is a way out without litigation (one party suing the other). Lawsuits cost time and money in quantities most startups can’t afford. A lawsuit will stall your financing, and is a common cause of death in startups. Avoidance of future regret – a great reason to work with a qualified attorney on every deal – especially with cofounders, investors, partners, and contractors.
  10. Specialists. You need a good business lawyer with startup experience. There are also times you’ll need specialists, like intellectual property lawyers, labor lawyers, litigators, and subject matter expert attorneys as well. If you’re a drone, medical device, or bitcoin company, you’ll need a lawyer with knowledge of the evolving regulations in your field. If you need venture capital introductions, you’ll need a firm that does a lot of venture deals. In you’re doing a merger, you may need a lawyer that does a lot of M&A. Don’t expect your generalist attorney to be the expert in every specialty. They should be able to refer you and promise not to double-bill hours looking over the other attorney’s work.

I hope that helps. Have a happy holiday and a brilliant New Year!

Operational Perfection – the 3rd Differentiator

Investors want to know what makes your business different. “What’s your ‘secret sauce’?” The reason is simple. Companies that can differentiate their offerings can create sustainable competitive advantage, and that gives them a larger share of any market and more profits than companies with “me too” services or products. There are three dimensions of differentiation: 1) technology/innovation; 2) customer intimacy; and 3) operational excellence. Today I’d like to focus on number 3.

I recently had a consumer experience with Untuckit.com, a startup founded in 2011 to make button-down shirts designed to be worn untucked. Since I’ve been rockin’ the venture-capital-chic untucked oxford shirt for a few years, this seemed like genius to me. http://rack.3.mshcdn.com/media/ZgkyMDEyLzEyLzA0Lzk3LzEwcGVvcGxlZGlzLmJrVS5qcGcKcAl0aHVtYgk5NTB4NTM0IwplCWpwZw/d810e145/3da/10-people-distracted-by-untucked-shirts-at-apple-event-76bf07617b.jpg

Here’s what went right (and wrong) with my customer experience:

  • Their ad found me online ++
  • Their page is well organized and I found what I wanted easily +++
  • The ordering process was painless +++
  • The product I ordered arrived on time +++
  • But…it didn’t fit —
  • They had a time limit on returns and initially only offered me store credit —
  • When I complained, I didn’t hear back or get my return label ——
  • When I complained again after a week, I promptly got a return label and a refund +++
  • They followed up and told me that they’d have my size in the future+++

That’s a lot of things they got right! This is pretty good performance and in any other century, would have been good enough. But today, as consumers, we’ve been trained by the likes of Amazon.com to expect not just Operational Excellence, but rather Operational Perfection. As entrepreneurs, why is operational perfection necessary? Let’s use the Untuckit example as an illustration.

Why is this important? First, when you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of delivering a product to a customer, only to have it returned and refunded, your company loses twice as much as if you’d never made the sale in the first place. Second, in today’s climate, consumer backlash (negative comments, posts and tweets) is rampant. It’s no longer true that “any publicity is good publicity”. A bad subreddit or tweet can really hurt your businesses conversion rates. But most importantly, to build your brand and momentum, you need as many rabidly loyal fans as you can get. Operational perfection is a reason for people recommend you to their friends and colleagues.

How can we achieve operational perfection? Each company is different, but in the case of my experience with Untuckit, we can break it down. I hope you can apply these lessons to your business.

  1. the product didn’t meet the customer’s expectation (in this case, the shirt didn’t fit). Untuckit already knew they had a problem in this area. Their website says, “Please note that our shirts do run on the smaller side so if you are right on the border please buy one size up. Please note these are standard sleeve lengths. Dress shirts sleeve lengths do not translate to casual shirt sleeve lengths. As an example if you wear a 32/33 dress shirt sleeve length then a medium will fit you. If any questions or confusion please email us.” Confused, yes. If you’ve got a paragraph like this anywhere in your ordering process, what do you think it will do to your conversion rates? I shouldn’t have to email you to get unconfused! This text gives me three options, none of them pretty for the business: 1) order the product (as I did) and return it at your cost; or 2) go shop somewhere I’m not confused (what the majority of people will do because the confused mind says, “No”; or 3) don’t order the product and either email you or don’t. None of these has a great outcome, except for the statistically random sample of people for whom the product happens to fit. I don’t know what percentage that is, but I know for certain that a few of hours making this part of order process less confusing will make the company’s metrics improve. There are lots of ways to make sure a shirt is going to fit if you give me enough information/images/examples (e.g. here or here).
  2. a time limit on returns and initially offering only store credit. Well, of course there has to be a returns policy, but if you immediately offer my choice of store credit or a refund (or just refund me immediately), you run the risk of surprising me in a good way. Delight the customer! Every startup needs a core of rabid fans.  If you delight customers, you’ll gather rabid fans much more quickly than if you don’t. On the other hand, if you get a return request, that means that you’ve got the customer’s money and from their point of view, you didn’t satisfy the purchase contract. So from their point of view, every second you try to hold on to their money, you’re a thief! I know that’s extreme, but I use it to illustrate the point.
  3. Neither the return label nor the answer to my second request for a refund arrived promptly. When I complained about it a week later, I got an immediate response, with a lame, “maybe it went in your Spam folder” added on. Well who’s fault is it? Must be mine, I guess. Nope. It’s always the vendor’s fault, as long as other online merchants are going to assume that the customer’s always right. How about a little follow-up? Check out Amazon’s return process. Oh…my…god…it’s perfection.

All in all, Untuckit did more things right than wrong. They’ve lost (for now anyway) the opportunity to make me a rabid fan, but they still have an opportunity to win my business in the future. Any they avoided a flaming tweet-storm! Think about how customers feel when dealing with your brand online. There are probably a lot of things you can do to improve. Take the time to do user studies and ask your customers for feedback. At the very least, find out what your Net Promoter Score is and figure out how to improve it. As you fumble towards operational perfection, you’ll earn the love of customers and your numbers will begin to take off.  That’s what investors will notice.

StartFast’s 9 Tips to Build Strong Investor Relationships with a Stellar Weekly Email

Entering StartupAn essential part of entrepreneurship is integrity, especially with your investors. Keep your investors up-to-date with your company by sending them weekly summaries of your business progress. StartFast Managing Director Chuck Stormon recently related the following tips in a seminar at the The Syracuse Tech Garden.

1) Include any requests at the top of the email. You don’t get what you don’t ask for, so if you need help fixing a problem, it’s completely acceptable to ask your investors for advice or suggestions.

2) Be consistent. Send your weekly email on the same day each week. Also, use the same heading for each email.

3) Your email is for only your investors. It likely contains confidential information that would be inappropriate to discuss with others.

4) BCC the recipients. You are not starting a chat forum, you’re sending a confidential email to multiple recipients, and their identities are confidential, too.

5) Mention three best highlights of the week. These can be positive sales results, new developments, improved service, etc.

6) Mention three lowlights of the week. This may be uncomfortable, but it maintains transparency with your investors. If there was a problem you solved, also mention that it was fixed. If the problem is unresolved, be honest about that.

7) Know what to keep to yourself. What things should you not be transparent with your investors about? Anything personal, like martial strife or emotional instability. Your investors are not your therapists.

8) Include metrics from the past week. Focus on a measurable metric. For most businesses, there’s one metric that really matters, and that’s the one you’re spending most of your time driving. Report that to your investors.  

9) Remind everyone that the email is confidential. You may think you don’t need to remind your investors of this every week, but it’s important for your recipients to see it in writing.

Remember, weekly emails are a great way to keep your investors in the loop. While the purpose of the email is primarily to keep in touch with your investors, it’s OK to include prospective investors and advisors as well. In addition to keeping these important players appraised, these emails help keep you accountable to your responsibilities and goals.

Comedians’ Best Advice for Entrepreneurial Success

Comedians are famous for entertaining us, but many times they are often the ones to offer the deepest insights about life. Clever and creative, these entertainers have many excellent observations about effort, failure, and success.

Jim Gaffigan“I love sleep. I need sleep. We all do, of course. There are those people that don’t need sleep. I think they’re called ‘successful.” Jim Gaffigan

Obviously, everyone needs sleep, but the ability to work late into the night is very important when you are starting a new company.

Dave Chappelle“I’m cool with failing so long as I know that there are people around me that love me unconditionally.” Dave Chapelle

 

Having close friends and family is crucial when beginning the daunting adventure of founding a company.

Tina Fey“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.” Tina Fey

 

When starting a business, there will be moments when you have to make important decisions quickly.

Amy Schumer“The moments that make life worth living are when things are at their worst and you find a way to laugh.” Amy Schumer

Laughter, even during difficult times, can give the entrepreneur enough morale to push through to the end.

Richard Pryor“You work your butt off and somebody says you can’t have your record played because it offends them. Tyrants are made of such stuff.” Richard Pryor

Disappointment is a large part of the enterpriser’s life. The key to success is prevailing even through the hard parts.

Amy Poehler“Great people do things before they’re ready. They do things before they know they can do it.” Amy Poehler

When starting a company, you will be tempted to wait until you have a perfect product. The reality is, your product will never be perfect, although you can be sure you won’t improve if you don’t start selling.

Louis CK“The only road to good shows is bad ones. Just go start having a bad time, and if you don’t give up, you will get better.” Louis CK

Don’t expect to be perfect when you set out on your journey to founding a company. Trying will always make mistakes at first, but you’ll never succeed if you don’t try.

About the author: W King Iceberg is a StartFast associate, an author, and humor writer. 

 

The Makers are Thriving in Syracuse

The Maker Movement is helping StartFast grow. Our startups have been working tirelessly throughout the summer and the resident design and prototyping lab, the Le Moyne Maker Zone (LMZ), has been lending a helping hand, incorporating 3D printing into their prototyping and design processes. Some of the work done by the LMZ includes assistance in the prototyping process helping with maintenance and upgrading of HoverStat’s first drone. The maker space also came in handy when SmartyPans needed to 3D-print a couple of designs for their R&D.

CAD for HoverStat at StartFast

The LMZ also offers technical advice and consulting for StartFast, as well as crash courses in Computer-Aided-Design (CAD).

Beyond Le Moyne, Syracuse is home to several other maker spaces, including the Syracuse SALT makerspace, tailored to the artistic community. The SALT space in Downtown Syracuse is a haven for artists creating various technologies and materials that are normally not thought to go hand-in-hand with the arts. Syracuse University also has a maker space that will celebrate its first birthday this fall.

maker space, syracuseBeyond LMZ, Syracuse is a hub for other great technical services as well. Businesses like CADimensions have ample resources and technical skill to help with anything related to 3D printing, the maker missions seen at Le Moyne, Syracuse University, and the SALT Space are living testaments to the incredible ingenuity that lay dormant in the minds of so many that have yet to feel the spark of creativity and intrigue. Syracuse is building traction towards becoming one of the next great tech hubs in the nation. Stop by for a tour!

For tips and advice on how to start up your own maker space, contact the LMZ: makers@lemoyne.edu

 

 

 

Growth Hacking through Peer-to-Peer Advertising

tree bulbAs the focus on gaining traction continues in the second third of our program, Managing Director Chuck Stormon led another workshop on growth hacking, this time with a focus on how to encourage your users to advertise your product to their friends. As a refresher, growth hacking is the art of rapidly finding new users and, like any art, requires creativity, effort, and a little luck.

Personal Touch
The first way to expand your user base is by directly working with the people who already use your product. Who better to spread the word about your product than the people who already love it? Engage your most dedicated users on a personal level: Invite them to a Google hangout, take them out for coffee or tea, or perhaps host a happy hour so all your innovator-promoters can discuss your product, give you valuable feedback, and be encouraged to spread the word to their friends. Since you have customers, you should demonstrate customer appreciation.

Crowdfunding
Another way to acquire users is to make use of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. This is an excellent way to gain visibility, and can bring money from unlikely places. Consider the example of GraFighters. Eric Cleckner and Dave Chenell, of the Syracuse Student Sandbox, developed a website where people could sketch a cartoon character and then match it in virtual battles against other fighting doodles. While they initially failed to reach their crowdfunding goal, they did catch the attention of a venture capital firm that invested the amount they needed in their idea. Even though their crowdfunding campaign failed, it grabbed the attention of a different source of funding. The lesson here? The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Email Campaigns
Anyone with an email account has been a target of an email campaign at one point or another. This type of advertising consists of a mass email sent to hundreds or thousands of potential customers. Chuck shared a campaign he ran for his company RushTera. A service called Zoho Campaigns allowed RushTera to to email 643 film festival attendees, of which 256 opened, sixteen clicked, and one accepted. Even though this was only one out of 643, this email chain accomplished exactly what it was intended to: acquire another customer.

innovation

Exclusivity
Email campaigns and crowdfunding promotion can be improved by fostering an air of exclusivity for your product. By awarding a t-shirt or other swag to anyone who refers a certain amount of friends, you create an exciting challenge that attracts people with a competitive spirit. You can even offer a discount to both the customer who refers the product, and the person whom they referred it to.

An excellent example of a company which makes use of exclusivity in promotions is Fandalism, a social media site for musicians. The way it attracts users is very unique: In order to sign up, you need to post to a musician friend’s Facebook page complimenting their skills. Thus, even before someone signs up they are already spreading the product among their friends, and these requirements to join help add to an air of exclusivity around the product. This can be a risky approach, but certainly creates a viral loop.

No Silver Bullet
There is no one best way to get users, because every product and service appeals to a different set of customers. While some users will want to share your product with all of their friends, many will never refer anyone at all. Since having customers is essential to turning a great idea into an awesome business, don’t be afraid to try as many methods as you need to attract your next wave of users.

 

 

Images mattwalker69 and jarmoluk 

7 Must-Know Tips for Starting Any Company

Grant Kirkwood

Serial entrepreneur Grant Kirkwood has been founding and working on startups since 1997. Currently founder and CTO of Unitas Global, he has a love for new innovations, currently trying out a watch whose faceplate transforms into a bluetooth earpiece. “Both features suck equally,” he quipped. As a StartFast mentor, Grant flew from Los Angeles to visit the accelerator in person to meet with the companies and share his entrepreneurial journey.

Grant launched his first company in college thinking, like many entrepreneurs his age, that startups were a one-way ticket to private jets and free caviar. However, through the various ups and downs of the four different companies he’s founded, he learned what really makes a company successful, offering seven pearls of wisdom to us:

  1. Sales forgives all sins. When a startup is selling, making money, and building the customer base, it can survive many mistakes. If not…
  2. People are your most valuable asset. So hire them carefully and treat them well.
  3. If a prospective employee is just ‘good enough,’ don’t hire them. Unless they are ‘definitely a yes!’, they are a ‘no.’
  4. Fire quickly. No employer ever wished, ‘Gee, I wish I had waited longer to fire that person.’
  5. If you are not learning and growing, you are dying.
  6. Be direct and transparent with your investors, even when you don’t have good news for them. Investors expect setbacks, so respect them by being honest with them, and don’t dance around difficult conversations.
  7. Don’t spend money needlessly. It should go without saying, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that because you have money, you should spend it. The paradox is needing to spend money to grow. Knowing when to be frugal and when to go for it are marks of a great CEO.

Grant also suggested three books that he has found to be particularly helpful: “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz, “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey Moore, and “Good to Great” by Jim Collins.

It’s because of the dedication of mentors such as Grant Kirkwood that StartFast companies can grow so quickly. We’re very grateful to Grant and the advice he and other mentors have shared with us.

Here are some bonus tips from Grant:

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