Joel Spolsky on The Web Startup Success Guide

twssg(Note: Joel Spolsky, CEO of Fog Creek Software, Joel on Software and the Joel on Software Business of Software forum and co-Founder of Stack Overflow was kind enough to write the foreward for The Web Startup Success Guide.)

Last summer, Paul Graham invited me to stop by his place in Cambridge for an intimate dinner. Just him, his wife, and the founders of three dozen extremely young startups in the Y Combinator program, a bootcamp/incubator/angel investment thingy.

“Would you be willing to speak to these founders about, I don’t know, maybe pricing?” Paul asked me.

“Sure!” I said, and he whistled loudly to get everyone to quiet down.

I didn’t really have a speech prepared. There was no PowerPoint outline I could use as a crutch.

The room was jam packed. All eyes were on me. I didn’t know what I was going to say.

I thought I’d try a gambit.

“So…” I said. “Any questions?”

Ten hands shot up.

“Go ahead,” I said, pointing to a kid in the front row who, I imagine, had just gotten his braces off the week before.

And for almost two hours straight, these poor kids asked me the most basic questions imaginable about the business of startups. Pricing. Features. Marketing. Invoicing. They had so many questions.

I gave them as good a brain dump as I could on each topic. They sat raptly and asked intelligent follow up questions.

These were smart kids, mind you: usually top Computer Science graduates and plenty of experienced programmers. But for all their coding skills, they didn’t really know the first thing about make a business successful.

Which is OK. They’ll learn. It’s not that hard. The hardest part is realizing that even though you’re making an Internet company, writing the code and getting it to work is only a small part of the effort, and not necessarily the most critical one. The business side is just as crucial.

There’s a lot you’re going to need to learn to make your startup awesome. And this book that you hold in your hands, this very book, is a splendid introduction to the topic. Heck, I’ve been running Fog Creek for nine years now; I think I know a thing or two about a thing or two, and I learned something new on every page.

Every single page.

Yes, even that page with the interview of me.

This book is a fantastic resource for anyone doing a web startup or a software startup. Bob Walsh will teach you how to make your startup successful. Buy it, read it, put it under your pillow. Then buy copies for your cofounders. And go out there and nail it with a killer startup that makes the world a better place.

Joel Spolsky
CEO, Fog Creek Software

It’s shipped! And, an interview with David Allen

It’s always fun to be able to say the words, “It’s shipped!” , especially if you don’t actually have to do the shipping. Yesterday, paper copies of The Web Startup Success Guide started arriving at customer’s doors; I got my 20 author copies in the middle of an interview for a future Startup Success Podcast episode. Also, Apress is now selling the PDF version: very handy given the number of URLs in it. (Update (7/24/09 7pm PST: Apress is working to make this PDF Kindle-ready. It’s not as of now.)

This book would not have been possible without the cooperation and help of a great many people. Today though, I’d like to point out one of my personal heroes that writing this book gave me the opportunity to interview: David Allen, creator of the Getting Things Done productivity methodology and best-selling author.

David was kind enough to give me an extensive interview on the intersection between GTD and a range of topics: building a startup, working online, using Twitter and more. It’s a long interview – 6,000+ words – so I’ve made it the GTD page of 47hats.

If you know about GTD, and you are building a startup or microISV, this is the interview you’ve been waiting for. If you’re building a startup or microISV and don’t know about GTD, you need to read this interview. Seriously.

Optimizing Search Engine Rankings with Microsites

A Guest Post by Dennis Gurock
Gurock Software Co-Founder

We here at Gurock Software recently started a SEO microsite experiment that we believe is very relevant to other MicroISVs. That’s why I would like to share the results of the experiment here on Bob’s blog and explain how it helped us improve our search engine rankings. But let’s recap the experiment for a minute. The idea was to launch a few microsites for certain topics related to our logging and tracing tool SmartInspect. The goal was to provide a useful starting point to developers new to logging tools and to get the sites ranked well for specific keywords (especially keywords we had trouble getting the SmartInspect website to rank well for). One of the questions we wanted to answer with this experiment was how important it is to have the actual keywords in the domain name. To test this, we launched the two microsites .NET logging and Java logging, hoping the keywords in the domain name would boost their search engine rankings.

Promoting the Sites

Before I share the actual results, let me first explain what we did to promote the sites. We needed to get at least a few inbound links to get Google & co. notice and index the new sites. Inbound links with relevant anchor texts are also important to get the sites ranked well. The first source of links came from reactions to our original posting with other blogs linking to our new sites. The next step was to include links to the microsites on some of our other websites, such as our blog and We also announced the new sites on relevant forums, newsgroups and community sites, resulting in some additional links with useful anchor texts. We also added the sites to link directories and contacted some webmasters of Java and .NET link lists to include our sites.

We have also improved and extended the content since we launched the sites. We have, for example, split the single page we started with into multiple pages and added new Java logging comparison and .NET logging comparison pages to the site. We have also been adding additional links to tools and articles to both sites from time to time to keep the content fresh and up-to-date. We plan to do this regularly, as search engines love fresh and updated content. The main goal of promoting the sites was to build a few inbound links to get the sites indexed and ranked by search engines, and it worked surprisingly well.

The Rankings

So how did it work out? At the time of writing this posting, both microsites rank (far) better than our main SmartInspect website for many keywords, including important keywords such as .NET logging and Java logging. This is especially surprising considering how many more links the SmartInspect websites has compared to the new microsites (the quality of the links to the SmartInspect website is also a lot better, with links coming from domains such as and other relevant websites). Another thing that surprised us was how quickly the new sites ranked well. Just a week after launching the sites they got to the first page of the Google results for the main keywords. Although the Java site dropped from Google’s search results a few weeks after it launched, it’s back online and is working itself up in the results again. In fact, it’s ranked #4 for Java logging at the moment, ahead of popular logging tools such as log4j. The .NET microsite ranks #1 for .NET logging as of today, 7 ranks better than the SmartInspect site itself which enjoyed years of link building and buzz.

Although we are surprised by the very good rankings that the sites received so quickly, we also believe the new sites deserve good search engine rankings, as the content is useful and relevant to developers interested in the topic.

The Results

The traffic has been steadily increasing and because of the promotions and banners that we placed on the microsites, we also receive a good chunk of that traffic on the SmartInspect website. Most of the traffic comes from search engines, but we also get visitors from links and social websites (especially StumbleUpon).

The feedback from site visitors is very positive and we receive suggestions for improvements and additional links to new tools and articles from time to time. We are also able to convert site visitors to SmartInspect customers regularly, but the exact numbers are hard to tell, as SmartInspect sales are difficult to track (the developers who find and try SmartInspect usually do not place the orders directly, their managers or purchasing departments do).

Overall the microsites are a great success for us [full size screenshot of Google ranking :)] and are an impressive testament to how important keywords in the domain name really are for Google. We already plan to launch additional microsites for SmartInspect and for our upcoming test management software TestRail.
Dennis Gurock is a director and co-founder at Gurock Software, a company specialized in software quality tools and makers of SmartInspect and test management. Dennis regularly blogs about Gurock’s products, the business of software and software quality on the Gurock Software blog and on Dennis also twitters.

The MicroISV Digest

signappnowThe MicroISV Digest for the week ending July 20th, 2009.

(If you have an announcement of interest to your fellow microISV, indies or startups, please email me at with the word digest in the subject.)

News and Announcements

  • Milo Felipe, milObjects Software, has released SignApp Now, a simple and easy way to create online sign up sheets. (via email)
  • Rob Walling, The Micropreneur Academy, is opening its doors to new enrollments soon. The Micropreneur Academy is an online learning environment for solo software entrepreneurs. Many current members have launched or are launching their own product/web app in the first few months. I recommended the Academy in the The Web Startup Success Guide. (via email)
  • Dennis Gurock, Gurock Software, has launched their second product – TestRail – and redesigned their site. TestRail is Test Case Management Software for QA and Development Teams. (via email)
  • “TN”, Cogitek Inc., is looking for feedback on their site redesign for version 3.0 RiaTest, an automated testing tool for Adobe Flex applications. (via BOS)
  • The Web Startup Success Guide will start shipping this week from Amazon; you can get Chapter 6, Social Media and your Startup from Apress for free now. You’ll find a new excerpt on Startup Incubators over at Sramada Mitra’s blog, and two of 16 Startup Tools reviewed here.
  • In show #30 of the Startup Success Podcast Bob and Pat talk with Julien Codorniou who heads up Microsoft BizSpark about this program for startups. If your startup is less than 3 years old and makes less than $1 million a year, BizSpark gives you free development and production licensing and access for 3 years to all of Microsoft’s technology.

Relevant Blog Posts, Videos and Articles

Further (mostly relevant) Reading

Tools for Startups.

twssgOne of the great things about doing a startup now is the growing range of tools, services, meetups, associations and conferences available to you. The numbers of these resources both Online and off grow each month.

These new tools and services can shave months off the development cycle while improving your startup’s game. In Chapter 4 of my new book, The Web Startup Success Guide I cover 16 of these new tools and services, how to connect with other startups and microISVs on and offline and much more.

<shameless plug>The Web Startup Success Guide will start shipping from Amazon July 22nd. If you’re planning to get my book, please pre-order now! Other booksellers – from the big chains to the independent booksellers – look closely at these pre-order numbers when deciding how many copies to stock. Your pre-order today means this book will be on their shelves.</shameless plug>

I’d like to share with you two of 16 tools I recommend to startups:


What it is: Site analytics that really work.


Figure 4-6. CrazyEgg’s Confetti view

What it costs: From $9/month to track 10,000 visits to your site and 10 pages up to $99/month to track 250,000 visits/100 pages. The Standard ($19/month—25,000 visits on 20 pages) would seem a good fit.

Special mojo/shiny goodness: Unlike, say, Google Analytics, the beauty of CrazyEgg is that it shows you visually exactly where people are clicking on a given page, by overlaying on the page for you either a heat map or aggregated click counts or actual clicks that can each display more information. Stats are one thing—and CrazyEgg does that as well— but, at least for me, being able to see the page and to see where people are clicking makes it easier to comprehend what’s working and what’s not.

Why you should know about it: CrazyEgg is a very cool way to find out what’s working on your site and what’s not—quickly. You can invest untold hours into analyzing your server logs and you won’t get the same actionable knowledge that a single glance at a CrazyEgg-monitored page will show you.


What it is: Screenshot and video capture for Windows and Macs.


Figure 4-10. Jing

What it costs: Free, or for $14.95 a year you can acquire Pro, which handles MPEG-4, one-button YouTube upload and brand-free videos.

Special mojo/shiny goodness: Jing makes easy the capturing to video of what’s on your screen and sharing it with another developer, a customer needing support, or the world. Sometimes a minute-long video will calm a customer, explain a programming problem, or entice an investor when words simply would not get the job done. Although other tools, notably Jing’s “big brother,” Camtasia Studio, have editing capabilities you’ll need to create more formal videos, such as product screencasts, Jing—with its abilities to capture both video and what you have to say, to automatically upload it to TechSmith’s, and to stick a URL on your clipboard—is a tool you will not want to be without.

Why you should know about it: Jing adds to your problem-solving arsenal instant video screen capture with audio. That’s a powerful tool in all sorts of situations when you want to communicate with one or many other people quickly, informally, and simply. I’ve found Jing to be a far better way to provide tech support to users of my various apps than dreary multistep instructions. And it’s faster.


* Quick note: these excerpts are from my last version pre-pdf and before Apress’ crack team of proofreaders caught the last of my typos.

What’s wrong with the Business of Software Forum.

In short, nothing. But for startups and microISVs looking for help from their peers with their web sites, it has some distinct disadvantages; disadvantages I think I can improve upon in Take an example:


As of now there are 5 responses to Ted’s post – about average – and they’re good responses. But, in my opinion, itcost more time for these BOS regulars to post their reviews that it should have, it’s hard to quantify the responses, and since Google Never Forgets, doing this sort of peer site review in public is less than optimal.

I think the approach will support is better for the requester, better for others who graciously provide help. It starts with a member creating a Review Request – pretty straightforward: your URL, the period the Review Request will be open, your message to potential reviewers. Here’s what the preview looks like as you fill in the Review Request:


Open Review Requests are default listed by the number of reviews the requester has done, so the more you participate, the higher your listing. Another member of the community can review you site in a couple of minutes via an Ajax-enabled form with 12 questions you answer just by clicking the rating:


These aren’t 12 questions at random – I believe these 12 questions get to the heart of how effectively your site is selling your software or service.

Finally, you can see the results of your Site Review – quantitatively and qualitatively:

stdsite review results

I – as does everyone else who’s gotten great feedback over the years at the Business of Software forum – really appreciate the time and effort other microISVs and startups put into providing this very valuable feedback. I hope my approach in (launching soon, visit this page if you’d like a short email when it launches) takes most of the risk, friction and frustration out of the process.

So Many Platforms, So Many Options.

twssgOne of the single most important decisions a startup’s founders can make is deciding which platform is going be their first. The era when Bill (Gates) and Steve (Jobs) defined a duopoly of two desktop platforms on which startups could build is well and truly over.

Today, SaaS, PaaS, Social, Mobile, Hybrid, Open Source CMS platforms have joined Desktop. How does a startup weigh and consider these platforms, what do they need to know about SaaS, what do industry moves like Google Android mean are the main topics of Chapter 3 of my new book, The Web Startup Success Guide seeks to explore.

<shameless plug>The Web Startup Success Guide will start shipping from Amazon July 22nd. If you’re planning to get my book, please pre-order now! Other booksellers – from the big chains to the independent booksellers – look closely at these pre-order numbers when deciding how many copies to stock. Your pre-order today means this book will be on their shelves.</shameless plug>

After beating up Google Maps yesterday, I’d like to share with you a pro-Google except:

“Loving Google App Engine”:

Dave Westwood is a cofounder of BuddyPoke (see Figure 3-3), a 3D avatar-poking app available on a variety OpenSocial networking sites * and to say he’s head over heels in love with Google App Engine is an understatement. Dave made this YouTube video (Buddypoke on Google App Engine) and bent my ear when I met him at one of Dave McCure’s Startup 2 Startup dinners (see Chapter 4).

Figure 3-3. BuddyPoke

Figure 3-3. BuddyPoke

When I asked David via e-mail about Google App Engine, here’s what he had to say.

Reasons we love App Engine:

  1. Scaling that “just works.” Many other web services provide a means to scale, but do not handle all of the scaling for you. With App Engine it just works, allowing us to concentrate on innovation and features for BuddyPoke, rather than the problems of scaling, backing up databases, etc.
  2. Scaling quickly. OpenSocial, the iPhone, Android devices, Facebook, etc., give developers access to over 800 million users around the world. These days, more so than in the past, if an app goes viral, traffic can increase by orders of magnitude beyond what you may have hoped for. On one day BuddyPoke experienced an eightfold increase in traffic, doing 260k new users in a single day. There’s simply no way we could have planned for that kind of rapid growth. With App Engine we didn’t have to.
  3. Quality and global reach of Google’s infrastructure. Ninety-five percent of BuddyPoke users live outside of the United States. Google, more than any other company, has created an infrastructure that can deliver apps to users on a global scale, with minimal latency.
  4. Pay-as-we-go model. Many social apps never take off. Many have instant overnight success and then fade away. Others have slower growth but manage to sustain a high active user count. It’s difficult to predict usage for any social apps. So the pay-as-you-go model is perfect for us.
  5. Cost-effective. We have a very good idea of what our hosting on App Engine will cost us, and it’s very fairly priced. The way I think about it is I just hired some of the most talented engineers in the world for free, and now I’m just paying them for the bandwidth and CPU usage.

A few years back one of the most popular phrases any startup would say is “We’ve solved scalability!” Quite frankly it’s a problem we don’t want to have to solve. We’re two guys with a background in 3D. The last thing we want to learn is how to scale. We’re in the business of making social apps. We’re happy to let Google take care of the scaling for us.

Google has been incredibly helpful in making sure we had enough App Engine quota to grow while App Engine was still in preview. And I’ve met many engineers from the Google OpenSocial and App Engine teams at local meetups, hackathons, etc. Google is really reaching out to developers even more so than in the past, with new developer relations groups, opening up their code labs, etc. They’re trying to make themselves accessible for support and help developers succeed. For example, we just had a “weekend apps” hackathon at Google two weekends ago. Google hosted the event and had some hands-on expertise from the OpenSocial and App Engine teams. So we did receive firsthand support, but I think that support is also available to anyone that asks.

I asked Dave my standard “Any advice for startups?” question: I think my response is much like any other startup before us,” Dave replied. “Just never give up. We released a product in 2007 and it was a failure. We learned from our mistakes, adapted, and tried again. Most entrepreneurs that have succeeded have looked failure in the eye at least once. Learn from it.”
* If you have no idea what an avatar-poking Open Social network app is, see the later section “Social Networks as Platforms.”
** One other quick note: these excerpts are from my last version pre-pdf and before Apress’ crack team of proofreaders caught the last of my typos. If you know a clean way of moving pdf to html on a Mac, please let me know!

Google Maps – the $10k gotcha.

Update (January 11, 2012) – Google Maps API Free changed slightly in April 2011 in two ways: “You can require users to log in to your Maps API Implementation if you do not require users to pay a fee.” and “You can charge a fee for your Maps API Implementation if it is an Android application downloadable to mobile devices from the Android Market.” API License section 9.1.3 Examples (a) (b). However, if you charge for your web app, Google still requires a Google Maps API for Business license. Contact them for pricing.

Here’s an excellent, very detailed multi-link post by Sebastian Delmont on how his company was able to forge an alternative using Open Source cartography tools which has advanced light years since this post was written. Dan says, “I think that someone at Google got their pricing wrong by an order of magnitude.” – I agree.

If you’re developing an commercial online app or subscription-based service using Google Maps, there’s a major gotcha you need to consider in the current Terms of Service. It’s a $10,000 gotcha. I discovered this gotcha last week when coding one of the last chunks of (a.k.a. Project X: a training/productivity community for startups and microISVs – launching soon).

In, one of the features I want to make available to the community is a decent listing of StartupToDo events, online events and actual events such as conferences, meetups, coding weekends and the like. For this last feature, what better way to display the global nature of all the startup/microISV-related things happening with increasing frequency than Google Maps? - Events – Events

But there’s a gotcha.

“The Maps API is a free service, available for any web site that is free to consumers,” and clicking the terms of use link will spell this out in no uncertain terms:

9. License Requirements. Google’s licenses above are subject to your adherence to the following requirements:

9.1 Free, Public Accessibility to Your Maps API Implementation. Your Maps API Implementation must be generally accessible to users without charge. You may require users to log in to your Maps API Implementation if you do not require users to pay a fee. Unless you have entered into a separate written agreement with Google or obtained Google’s written permission, your Maps API Implementation must not:

(a) require a fee-based subscription or other fee-based restricted access; or
(b) operate only behind a firewall or only on an internal network (except during the development and testing phase).

If you want to charge people in some way to use your web app (as I will be), you need Google Apps API Premier. What do you get in Premier?

Google Maps API Premier returns fast, relevant results to your customers – even on the busiest of websites. You benefit from your customers’ familiarity with Google Maps, plus the worldwide scalability and high interactivity of the mapping API. Google Maps API Premier includes everything you love about Google Maps, plus:

* Greater capacity for service requests such as geocoding
* The ability to provide secure maps over https
* Business-friendly terms and conditions
* Support and service options
* Control over advertisements within the maps

So naturally, there must be “free until you’re successful” safe harbor for startups, like there is for Google App Engine? Nope. The quote I got back promptly from Google was $10,000. A year. And yes, we mean you. The person I was emailing back was polite and put me in contact with their manager:

I appreciate your note. There are several issues behind why the model for Maps is different than for App Engine but I do appreciate your viewpoint. We are actively looking at ways to address this but unfortunately do not have an immediate term solution beyond using the free Google Maps API (which I understand is not allowable with a non publicly accessible site).

Now don’t get me wrong: Google has a perfect right to charge for it’s API and I can certainly understand why it would presumably charge sites like (except Zillow is now using Microsoft Bing Maps – last I looked I could have sworn it was using Google Maps…). But it makes sense for Google to help aspiring startups and microISVs get started: the Google App Engine managers get this.

It’s free to get started.
Every Google App Engine application will have enough CPU, bandwidth, and storage to serve around 5 million monthly pageviews for free. You can purchase additional resources at competitive prices when you need them and you’ll pay only for what you use.

I hope other startups contact Google: hearing from the community will help them do the Right Thing.

In the meantime, to comply with Google Maps API, this Events page (and one other) “must be generally accessible to users without charge”: not a great state of affairs for what is going to be a subscription service, but ok for now (while you’ll be able to hit this page without logging in, I -think- you won’t be able to get into the rest of the app. Please private email me at right now if you find this isn’t the case – I will be most appreciative.)

Meanwhile, back to coding…

The MicroISV Digest

DeveniusThe MicroISV Digest for the week ending July 13th, 2009.

(If you have an announcement of interest to your fellow microISV, indies or startups, please email me at with the word digest in the subject.)

News and Announcements

  • Chris Randall, Co-Founder of Devenius, Inc., has released a new version of Service Broker Assistant. This is an add-in to SQL Server Management Studio that removes the need for scripting of T-SQL to perform asynchronous messaging with SQL Server. (via email)
  • Jennifer Gazin, LaunchSquad, reached out on behalf of Cliqset – a social identity platform/API that basically has all of the features that a typical social networking platform has, but, in contrast, is completely open to any developer use the social information across their (the developers’) applications and services. (I don’t normally print PR’s, but this looked interesting.) (via email)
  • Tom Richards, Planium, is looking for feedback on a new site we’ve launched for our product Business Financial Planner – business and financial planning & analysis software for SMB’s. (via email)
  • James Standen, nModal Solutions Inc, has released Datamartist V1.0 – An easy to use, visual tool that makes data transformation simple and powerful. (via BOS)
  • The Web Startup Success Guide will start shipping next week from Amazon; you can get Chapter 6, Social Media and your Startup from Apress for free now. You’ll also find a three part excerpt from the book over at Sramada Mitra’s blog – an in-depth interview with Aaron Patzer, CEO of (Part1, Part2) and an interview with Rebecca Lynn, a principal at Morgenthaler Ventures, on what VCs want.

Relevant Blog Posts, Videos and Articles

  • Joshua Guedalia, Two Tribes, has authored two interesting posts – the first on how they successfully performed A/B testing on download forms and in the second we talk more about the general approach to messaging and site content to promote conversions to trial downloads.
  • Some very sage advice: Ten unconventional wisdoms for funding startups.

Further (mostly relevant) Reading

  • A really useful site I found last week: Aardvark. This service lets you ask questions of its growing social network and get really good answers quickly. Last week I asked ‘Vark about subscription services for Ruby on Rails online apps and tools to mass unfollow spammers on Twitter and got excellent answers within hours. Highly recommended.

Social Media and your Startup.

How do you get press attention for your startup? How do you get any attention for your startup? Those are the two main questions Chapter 6 of my new book, The Web Startup Success Guide answers and you can get that chapter right now from Apress.

Social Media – Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest – have reshaped what it takes for startups (and microISVs) to win attention, connect with customers, and succeed. In this chapter I cover:

  • Setting up your Social Media Basic Radar.
  • How to build a successful blog as your home base in the Social world.
  • How to use Twitter to connect with your market.

As important as Social Media is to startups, getting trade and mainstream media attention matters. So how do you get coverage? I asked that question and more of Mike Gunderloy (formerly lead writer at Web Worker Daily), Marshall Kirkpatrick (Lead Writer, ReadWriteWeb), Rafe Needleman (Editor, CNET Webware), Al Harberg (President, DP Directory) and Leslie Suzukamo, (St. Paul Pioneer Press technology reporter). The answers were candid and enlightening.

<shameless plug>The Web Startup Success Guide will start shipping from Amazon July 22nd. If you’re planning to get my book, please pre-order now! Other booksellers – from the big chains to the independent booksellers – look closely at these pre-order numbers when deciding how many copies to stock. Your pre-order today means this book will be on their shelves.</shameless plug>

So what does the rise of Social Media mean for startups and microISVs? A new hat to add: the role of Chief Community Officer. When you add blogging + Twitter + Facebook + + traditional/online media relations you get something new: the person responsible for creating, nurturing and growing the Online Community that is part and parcel of your startup’s offering. In this chapter, I talk to three Community Managers who describe what it takes to do the job right, and I talk to Maria Sipka, one of the foremost experts on online community building.

To wrap up this first excerpt post and give you a quick taste of what this 60-page free chapter is about, here’s my interview with Rafe Needleman on what he looks for when writing up startups:


Rafe’s both a writer and the managing editor of Webware: setting the tone, managing about a dozen CNET and freelance bloggers, and deciding what gets covered.

Bob: What would be your dream day, as far as the startups that you would see and how they came to you? In other words, what should a startup be doing that’s smart, rather than some of the less intelligent approaches that you’ve seen?

Rafe: Well, you know it’s the product that matters. When I hear about a new product ahead of anybody else in a way that makes me sit up and take notice, that’s good. I love hearing from people who are passionate about a product, and that’s generally a founder or CEO of a company. That’s ideal.

Bob: Is it better if they talk to you directly? What about the various PR firms that are out there that get into the mix?

Rafe: I think PR has a lot of value. There are some PR people who I really do like to hear from. But, like I said, when I get a personal pitch from somebody who’s actually built a product and wants to talk to me about it, that means more to me than getting what I know is probably a pitch that’s going out to 100 people or more at the same time.

Bob: Should these CEOs of startups introduce themselves before they have something really to say? Or should they just knock on your door when they’re ready?

Rafe: Well, ready is a relative term. I like talking to companies at all stages, and the earlier the better. If we’re going to be reviewing a product, then of course the product should be something that’s in a reviewable state and something that’s close to availability. But when is the right time to talk to me depends on the company, the technology, what they’re trying to do, and what I’m trying to write about.

Bob: What sort of things do you like to hear about? Is there any particular type of startups that will really get your attention?

Rafe: Well, if I knew that, I would be building it myself.

Bob: [laughs]

Rafe: I’m always looking to have my eyes opened.

Bob: So it’s sort of the new and novel and different effect that matters? Is it harder to generate much excitement over yet another CRM system?

Rafe: Fair to say, yeah. Difficult, but there is innovation in every category. It’s possible to knock my socks off with a CRM. It’s also quite likely that there is a product that you might think that I would find tedious. Then three people who are unaware of each other are announcing similar things at the same time, and boom! I’ve got a trend. Now it’s interesting.

Bob: Where do you find new things to write about? Besides the people coming to you, where do you go look for them?

Rafe: I have a pretty extensive collection of contacts, entrepreneurs, investors, and funders. You’d be surprised how many readers reach out to me saying that they’ve seen something. I scour a lot of sources, a lot of feeds, and a lot of aggregation sites. I go to events and parties. This stuff comes in all the time from everywhere.

Bob: Do you find that Twitter is a useful way for people to contact you? Or is that not a good way to try to pitch you on a story idea?

Rafe: No. I don’t like Twitter as a way to try to contact me for a pitch. I don’t think it’s very effective for that. I like to control my incoming information through e-mail, just because it’s easier to file, keep track of, and respond to. However, I find Twitter extremely valuable as a way to reach out to people en masse. I monitor Twitter all the time. When there’s an interesting trend or something that’s very timely, I set up a filter in Twitter — a search field — and I watch to see what’s happening there. So I find Twitter extremely valuable.

I do get a lot of tips from it, and I do get a lot of feedback from it, from readers and things. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to pitch someone. Well, it’s not appropriate to pitch me on Twitter. Other people do like it. I don’t.

Bob: How about Facebook?

Rafe: Well, you know I’m not very active on Facebook, except through Twitter. My Twitter feed goes into Facebook, and I see a lot of replies to it on Facebook. But I’m not particularly active on Facebook. People do, occasionally, pitch me on Facebook, which is a really bad idea. I don’t like being pitched on Facebook, because it’s not in my e-mail system.

Bob: These are good things to know. A while back, you put together a blog, and actually it continues to this day, Pro PR Tips []. Why do you do this?

Rafe: [laughs] Because it’s fun. Honestly, I like what I do, and I find it sometimes amusing, the bonehead moves that PR people make in trying to get their story out. I don’t think that PR people are evil. I don’t think they’re stupid. But every now and then, somebody makes an interesting blunder. I thought it would be both funny and educational to chronicle it as it went. I’m going to do more with Pro PR Tips in the future, because I think it’s a good way to get the word out and for everybody to learn.

Bob: You’ve been in the journalism business now for a long time. Has what PR firms done changed that much in the last few years? Or is it pretty much what they’ve been doing all along?

Rafe: The fundamentals of public relations and of any kind of communications have not changed, which is this: The best way to communicate with somebody is to know them and to tell them something that is personally relevant to them, either because it’s something that they find personally interesting or because it’s related to the work that they do. Everybody does different work. So the blanket pitch is generally pretty ineffective, except when it’s not. Except when you’re Google or Microsoft, and you have a story that you want to tell to everybody at the same time.

The tools and the technologies have made a big difference, as witnessed by your questions when you were asking me about people trying to reach me on Twitter or Facebook.

The ways to get a hold of people, the number of people who are trying to get a hold of people, and the number of people who are there to be got hold of have all increased dramatically. There is a lot of noise, and there’s a lot of information flying around.

The fundamentals are the direct connection. When Joe, the entrepreneur, says, “Hey, I’ve got this incredible, cool new product, new web service that will automatically make your food taste better at restaurants,” I’m going to pay attention. He sends it to me, and he says, “I know that you like eating, let me show this to you before anybody else,” I’m going to notice. That has not changed.

Bob: So that really comes under the heading of PR firms that know what interests journalists.

Rafe: Yeah. I think there’s a big value in PR. I think that some companies overuse it and use PR as their mouthpieces. I don’t always think that’s wise. Sometimes it is, but in many cases it’s not. Most companies trying to get noticed could use professional PR counsel. That doesn’t mean that they should give the PR company the microphone and have them speak on their behalf. The demo and the pitch are always more effective coming from the person who built the product, the person who started the company, or the person who’s passionate about it.

How that person gets in touch with people, how he crafts his message, and who he talks to, that is advice that a PR person can give them. But, it doesn’t mean that the PR person has to be front and center in the communications, in the dialogue.

Bob: So you see more of the value PR people as advisors rather than mouthpieces.

Rafe: Yes, although I’m talking about in an ideal world. I realize that it isn’t.

Bob: OK, any advice to startups?

Rafe: Yeah. My best advice for startups is to build a good product and don’t fall back on PR to make a sucky product good. If the product is good, then you need good PR to support it. If the product is not good, no amount of PR is going to make it succeed. The journalists will find out. The bloggers will find out. People will find out, and the product will die. If the product is good, you want it to get out to as many people as possible.