Startup New Year’s Resolution #2: Engage more.

As we count down the days to a shiny new 2012, here’s another New Year’s Resolution to consider for your startup:

Resolution #2: I am going to engage more with my customers.

Enterprise companies are scrambling to engage more with their perspective and actual customers on multiple social media platforms, via relevant email, and realtime conversations on their sites. What are you doing to do the same? Here’s three specific ways that play to a startup’s strengths for your consideration:

Go realtime on your site. Customer questions lead to customer sales. If I have to submit a ticket, fill in a form, beg you for an answer to a question that’s roadblocking my purchase decision, how does that work to your benefit? Questions mean they’ve giving you the increasingly valuable gift of their attention: you want to make it as easy as possible for them to engage with you when, where and how they want. Increasingly, the when and where is your startup’s site, and the how is some form of live chat.

Two such services are SnapEngage (which I use) and Olark (which I’ve heard good things about). A snippet of JavaScript, a few settings and your are ready, willing and able to answer questions, engage with customers, and be there for your market. While there are other, enterprisey/corporate services that do the same thing, they are at best stuffy and at worse imitation customer support. Let your customer talk with the real you.

I use SnapEngage at 47hats to answer any self-funded startup founder’s questions I can. Most of my MicroConsults in 2011 started that way. In 2012, I’m going I want to be a lot more consistant with this form of engagement by being constantly available here from 4pm to 6pm Monday through Friday Pacific Time. Stop by and give it a try.

Send your customers email they want. It’s pretty simple: we are all drowning in marketing/sales email and starved for relevant/useful email. Here we startups have a huge advantage over all those clueless corporate idiots who do “email blasts” of marketing spam: we actually know what we’re talking about. Software solves problems and because you started your own software company, you became (I hope!) a authority on the problems facing your customers. Help them! Help them get more out of your product or service. Help them by sharing interesting posts, stories, videos, whatever.

Mailchimp.com – with its plethora of ebooks, videos, online classes, easy website integration, and a free plan for up to 2,000 subscribers/12,000 emails/month is what you want to use. Integrate their double opt-in form (tip: use foobar, hellobar, wp-subscribers to build your subscriber list faster) with your site, pick a template and do a short, useful mailing once a month. Need content? How about a 30 second YouTube video on one nifty feature of your software and 3 really good posts relevant to your customers? Keep the marketing to a minimum, respect their time and good things will happen.

Go Social. Whether it’s Twitter and Facebook, Stack Overflow and Quora, LinkedIn and Google+, connect and engage with your current and future customers. I do not mean sell to them. I do not mean market to them. I mean engage with them, share with them, laugh with them, commensurate with them, be a person with them.

In case you missed the revolution, a significant percentage of the human race now uses social media to connect with other people. It’s time to intelligently get connected, if you haven’t already. The particulars of what is the best way for you and your startup to Go Social is a bit beyond this post; all I can recommend is resolve to show up, contribute, help other people and go very light on the marketing. It works.

 

 

A New Years’s diet resolution for your startup site.

With 2012 less than a week away, have you got your New Year’s Resolutions for your startup ready? You know, that list of things you’re going to tackle so that 2012 outshines 2011, at least as far as as your startup.

Here’s the first of a set of Startup New Year’s Resolutions I’m recommending this week, and exactly how to adopt, execute and enjoy the benefits.

Resolution #1: My startup site is going on a diet.

How long does it take to load your site? That’s too slow. Too slow for Google which factors in loading time when returning your site in a search, too slow for impatient prospective customers who will abandon your site, never to return.

Unlike human diets that miserably fail, here’s a site diet that will actually work in a couple of hours, not months:

  1. Measure your site default page right now. There’s lots of web tools to measure your site loading time: I like Pingdom’s Full Page Test, even if it’s beta (In fact, I like Pingdom, period.). This site came in at an 3.87s – “faster than 44% of all tested websites”; The Startup Success Podcast came in at a dismal 9.50s, “Slower than 85% of all tested websites”.
  2. Record that measurement. You’re in this for the long haul, so write it down. Evernote is an excellent place for it – Create a note called 2012 Load times, insert a table, and enter your baseline measurement. (Tip: take a screenshot, drag that into the note)
  3. Where is the fat? Take a little time to familiarize yourself with the results. Where is your site bogging down? Loading images? Unminified JavaScript? External API calls to things like Tweetmeme.com? Look for where you can find the biggest time savings and focus on that. For example, I changed the Tweetmeme WordPress Plugin settings so the TweetMeme badge doesn’t show on the home page and in the RSS feed. That decreased overall load time by something like 3 seconds – a significant savings.
  4. Squeeze those images! Depending on how diligent you already are about paring the fat from jpgs, pngs and gifs, this one change could do wonders for your site. In a nutshell, you want to a) use the right image types to reduce size, and b) actually reduce the size of images as part of your standard site workflow. You’ll find a list of tools under Resources that work online and off – find one or two that work for you.
  5. Improve your server’s digestion.By that I mean there’s a range of best practices that lets your server better digest your site’s components. Since every site is different, you’ll need to dig into this (See Resources below), but here’s a couple of basic recommended practices:
    • Avoid Resizing Images in HTML – it makes your server work more.
    • Maximize and improve your CSS – little things like italicizing text via CSS instead of using and em tag add up.
    • Load your CSS first and your JavaScript last and minify them.
  6. Don’t forget to put the squeeze on other key pages. Besides your index page, plan to run your main product, purchase and about pages through the load time reduction steps above. They are the ones your prospective customers are most likely to look at.
  7. Change your coding/content creation habits. After going through all the steps above, you will be hyperaware of what bloats your site. Write those lessons learned and keen insights down as a checklist for the next time you add code or content to your site. Again, Evernote is a good, accessible, free, multidevice place to store that checklist.
  8. Weigh in periodically. Controlling your or your site’s size is not a one shot deal. Close the loop and finish the task by scheduling it for the start of each new quarter in 2012 in whatever app you keep appointments for yourself. Your customers and your revenue stream will thank you.

Resources for your startup web site diet:

Measuring your site:
Pingdom’s Full Page Test is in my opinion the best of the lot.
Page Speed at Google Code is a Chrome/Firefox extension and an online service that is worth checking out.
YSlow, a Firefox (and now Chrome) extension has its supporters – see Five Ways to Speed Up Page Response Times if you decide to go this route.
Best Optimization Practices
The definitive post on this is Best Practices for Speeding Up Your Web Site at Yahoo Developer – most other posts rehash its content.
Before you read the above post, have a look at the more concise 10 Tips for Optimizing Your Website’s Speed.
Check out: The Smashing Book – Performance Optimization for Websites Be sure to click on the button for page 2 for extra tips re your server.
Image Reduction:

This will make you feel old… and that’s a good thing

Charles Holbert over at Killer Infographics shared with me one of his agency’s new graphics I found interesting, “The Ten Biggest Entrepreneurs of 2011 under 30.”

Being considerably older than 30, I have to admit my first reaction was not unbounded joy and happiness. I don’t know about you, but I tend to with each story I read about a startup getting funded, sold, etc. feel a sharp pain right around my ego.

But as I thought about it, and reread this infographic, I realized none of these entrepreneurs possess super powers, they all worked their asses off to build their startups, and there’s nothing they did that I cannot do.

I hope you come to that same realization, and act on it for 2012.

10 Biggest Entrepreneurs of 2011
From: Business MBA

Startups and Relationships: Can you have both?

Brad Feld thinks so, and he’s ready, willing and able to explain to you what has and has not worked so far in his 18 year marriage with his wife, Amy Batchelor. Pat and I interviewed Brad – noted VC, blogger, early stage investor and cofounder of TechStars – for The Startup Success Podcast (Just posted as Show 127).

If you want to build a great startup, but have no wish to fail your wife, significant other, or yourself, this is one show you should listen to.

Go back to school for your startup. Free!


Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could take a class in how to build your startup, from a world known authority, at one of the best colleges in the world, for free?

That’s exactly what you can get from Steve Blank, at Stanford University, starting in February. The Lean Launchpad, also know as Engineering 245, is an online class with free enrollment. That’s right, for the price of your email address and name, you can take from the comfort of your computer an Honest-to-God Stanford University class.

How cool is that? (look for me there, third row on the left.)

Here’s the class description:

In this class you’ll learn how to turn a great idea into a great company.

We now know that startups are not smaller versions of large companies. Large companies execute known business models. They use big company tools – business plans, income statements, revenue models, etc. to help organized their execution. In contrast startups search for a business model. And all the big company tools are irrelevant in the early days of a startup. This class is not about how to write a business plan. It’s not an exercise on how smart you are in a classroom, or how well you use the research library. The end result is not a PowerPoint slide deck for a VC presentation. Instead you will be getting your hands dirty as you encounter the chaos and uncertainty of how a startup actually works.

You’ll learn how to use a business model canvas to brainstorm each part of a company and customer development to get out of the classroom to see whether anyone other than you would want/use your product. Finally, you’ll see how agile development can help you rapidly iterate your product to build something customers will use and buy. Each week will be a new adventure as you test each part of your business model.

And who is Steve Blank, you have to ask?

The Instructor:

Steve Blank is a serial entrepreneur and has been a founder or early employee at 8 startups, including 4 resulting in successful IPOs. For the past 7 years he’s been teaching entrepreneurship to Stanford Engineering students. He’s been awarded a Stanford Undergraduate teaching award, and the San Jose mercury news has called him one of the 10 influencers in Silicon Valley.

Already know everything there is to know about building a successful startup (Ha!)? Well, how about a couple of other classes? Technology Entrepreneurship or Software Engineering for Software as a Service? Same deal: free, online, world-class instructors and information.

(A note re the sign up pages above – the html/css coding is kind of funky, at least on OS X Chrome and Safari. After you enter your name, hit tab, then do your email address, then tab to get to the sign up button.)

What’s the most important question about your startup?

Go take a look right now at your site: What’s the first thing that catches your eye?

If it’s your logo, the start of a video, testimonials about your app – you have a problem.

If it’s the outdated look of your site, a sense too much is crammed into too small a space or that you’ve not updated your product in 6 months – you really have a problem.

The first thing that should get your visitor’s attention is your answer to their most important question: “Why should I care about this?”

If the first thing that gets their attention on your site doesn’t answer the question, nothing else matters. Not your site. Not your product.

The screenshot above is an example of how to do this right: Gauges has a very attractive site, but what starts the ball rolling is they answer the right question right off. And they do it in a way that:

  • Speaks to their customers – not to just anyone.
  • Focuses on what their product does for their customers.
  • Explains at a high level how their product delivers what their customers care about.

The pitch, hook, headline is your answer to why you are worth one more precious second of your visitor’s time. How well does your site answer that question?

(If you think your site nails it – comment your URL. If it doesn’t, email me and I’ll try to make a quick suggestion. If you need more than a quick suggestion, let’s talk.)

Using Evernote to manage your Startup

Whether it’s the latest set of Heroku commands or alternative revenue models for your startup, you need one place to store all the vital bits, ideas, and decisions. I recommend Evernote. While there are lots of alternatives (Wikis, Circus Ponies Notebook, plain text files, etc), Evernote gives you a set of nice features (versioning, formatting, device ubiquity, robust search) that no other single app has.

Here’s a list of what I have in my Evernote notebooks on DeveloperMemory:

  • Definition of the unmet need,
  • Various audio notes made while driving, in the bathroom, waiting for the dentist and elsewhere.
  • Dozens of posts culled from my RSS reader (Mr. Reader on my iPad), my desktop browser (Chrome), and email,
  • A list of major definitional decisions and their implications. For example, DeveloperMemory is not a flashcard application and won’t be marketed as such. DeveloperMemory’s primary market is experience developers striving to master the never-ending list of programming languages, frameworks, open source projects and tools relevant to their professional skills,
  • Various stabs at a domain name,
  • All my tech info (Rackspace for Startups info, Heroku notes, WordPress plugins in use now and for the future),
  • Ideas for the product,
  • Pricing model alternatives – pros and cons,
  • Dozens of pages of research from various sites on learning and memory,
  • Various versions of how I explain what DeveloperMemory will be,
  • Pdfs from dozens of cheat sheets I plan to turn into sets in DM (the paid version gives you very good pdf searching),
  • Screen shots of startups I think did a very good job of presenting their products.
I expect to be adding a score or two more notes including:
  • AdWord keywords, adds, and notes,
  • A page for each of the web services I am or will be using to administer, market, or otherwise help DeveloperMemory.
  • The rough and final drafts of each newsletter, mailing, blog post, and tweet,
  • A page for each DevMem member I end up having an extended conversation with,
  • A page for each specific marketing initiative – what it was, how it worked out.
Bottom line, If you don’t presently use Evernote, start a free account today, import in all those bits of digital information you have floating about, and bring some much-needed order to all the whirling bits of relevant information you are fighting to coalesce into a business.
If you are using Evernote, what do you store in it about your startup?

A deal I could not resist…

Well, I’ve been trying hard to resist the avalanche of Black Friday deals today, but I fell for one, and you should too:

$17 instead of $120? Grab it!

The megatrend is towards realtime web data and for good reason: the whole point of having a site is engagement. By the way, had to straighten out a few issues due to expired trial account, but thanks to James at GoSquared I’m all set.

James was able to work the problem with me live (there’s that realtime meme again!) using oLark. While I prefer snapengage.com, it’s vastly more satisfying a tech support experience being able to interactively get a problem handled than going the whole submit a ticket and wait routine.

The Innovator’s Secret Weapon

By Jarie Bolander
Founder, EnduranceLeader.com

Thomas Edison was famous for saying:

Invention is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration.

What he should have said was:

Invention comes through practice.

Just like the endurance athlete, innovators need to practice.

Practice takes many forms. From the thought experiment, to the mockup all the way to beta, it’s all practice for the big event – shipping a product.

Innovative Deep Practice

I’m a big fan of The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. If you have not read it yet, you should. In The Talent Code, Mr. Coyle explains how we improve our skills through deep practice. Deep practice is a state where we break down new skills into manageable chucks and throughly master each component. It’s a place where we struggle, do it wrong, adjust and in the end master it.

The best innovators use deep practice to break down problems into manageable pieces, grind away on solving them, make mistakes and then move on.

Practicing More Deeply

Too often, innovators of all kinds want the “Home Run.” They want their idea, invention or process to work right away. This seldom, if ever, happens.

Instead, the consistent innovator uses deep practice to always make progress – even when experiments go wrong.

Listed below are some of the techniques that innovators can use to practice more deeply and innovate consistently:

  • Explore outside your comfort zone: Push yourself a little to see what might inspire you.
  • Thin innovation slices: Always look at big problems in thin slices. That way, you can achieve small, incremental wins.
  • Enlist others: Nothing beats collaborating with other smart people. Find some and get going.
  • Create mockups: Models and mockups are great ways to touch and feel something – even in software. The guy that designed the first PDA build one out of wood to see how it felt in his hand.
  • Make prototypes: The next level from mockup is prototype where the gadget actually does something. Like a mockup, prototypes give you a lot of insights into what works and what does not.
  • Ship a Beta: Building something and shipping it feels great. It also gives you a tremendous amount of feedback so that you can innovate even more.
  • Admire Art: Art provides great inspiration. Admiring art can inspire all sorts of innovative threads that might lead to other ideas.
  • Build pieces: Take those innovation slices above and build the pieces. This will allow you to make incremental progress towards the bigger goals.

Practice, Stumble, Fail & Practice Some More

Innovation is a game of doing. You can’t just think your way to invention or innovation – you have to get in the lab, write code, build a prototype or ship that beta.

Part of practicing innovation is failing. Well, not exactly failing. Let’s just say that most of the time, your grand idea doesn’t make it past the bit bucket and you need to be fine with that. Here’s why.

Innovation is about pushing the envelope of understanding. Way out there on the frontier, there is no one to guide you. You are alone in the vast wilderness that is the cutting edge.

That can be a little scary since all that time you spend wandering may not produce anything of “real” value that others can see, touch or taste.

Besides practice, the innovator needs some basic tools and techniques to make the innovation journey a little more predicable and comfortable. Some of my favorites include:

  • Keep an idea journal: An idea journal is an invaluable tool to find trends and cluster ideas. Just reading through a journal can give you all sorts of inspiration.
  • Have a hobby: Hobbies are great to spark creativity and innovation. I once had a friend who created an entire remote control toy business because he was sick and tired of not having enough frequencies to use.
  • Be well read: Reading a wide variety of topics and styles creates opportunities for cross over innovation. Great ideas will come from looking at a problem from a different perspective.
  • Take long walks: Wander, stroll, skip or run. Anything to get you out of a building and thinking. Many of my best ideas come when I’m working out.
  • Volunteer: Volunteering is not only tremendously rewarding but a great place for inspiration. You would be amazed at how much you can help an organization and yourself by just giving a few hours a week.
  • Help others innovate: Get out there and help someone else create. This is just like the recruiting others above and it’s for the same reason – the more brains, the better the idea flow.

Now, Get Out There And Innovate

The best kept secret about innovation is to practice and start doing something. Anything that can get your mind working and creating will benefit you. It might take time to build the next Twitter or Foursquare but you will never get there without practicing innovation everyday. Even if you stumble and fail, you are still making progress, and progress is how innovation comes to life.

===
Jarie Bolander is an engineering by training, entrepreneur by nature and leader by endurance. His new site, EnduranceLeader.com combines two of this passions – leadership and endurance athletics. Jarie is also a moderator at Answers.OnStartups.

Your startup needs a pre-launch signup landing page

[After last week’s post on A prelaunch page for your startup, Josh Ledgard of KickoffLabs reached out to point out his alternative. Here’s more info from Josh.]

by Josh Ledgard
Co-founder, KickoffLabs

You need to start marketing your next great idea today.  Technology is easy, but marketing is hard. You need a head start and hard work because…

1. You aren’t famous

Yup, if you were the co-founder of Facebook buzz will build itself. (See Quora) But you didn’t invent Facebook and no one cares what your building.

2. Your idea sucks

No one has the heart to tell you that in person. You have to prove otherwise.  If you put up a landing page and can’t get anyone but your mom to ‘pay’ you with their email address… you need to go back to the drawing board. If you can quickly test and build an audience you may be onto something. Prove it.

3. You don’t know how to sell your idea
You don’t know what that pitch is yet.  The pitch needs to be ready for the tech launch. You use code to test your software and a landing page helps you test your pitch. Improving signup conversion rates will improve paid customer conversion rates at launch.

 

4. Your idea has already been ‘stolen’

A lot of people worry that sharing their idea early will lead to theft.  Sorry. It’s already been stolen.  Good ideas are not unique. Secrecy is irrelevant. Pitch, execution, and customer experience are the things you can claim uniqueness on. Transparency helps refine those things.

5. You can’t do it yourself

Creating a signup landing page before you launch isn’t just about getting customers. It’s about finding partners.  Engage signups to find testers, partners, & complimentary ideas you never would have received if you held onto everything.

6. You aren’t rich… yet :)

Do you have $20k to blow on generated traffic? Probably not. You need a head start. You need customers to find other customers for you.  You need your idea to get passed around for free… relatively speaking.

7. Your SEO won’t build itself

Slimy consultants have tarnished the term.  But it’s proven true that if you bring your URL up with the product launch you are starting with 0 SEO. It takes 2-3 months for search engines to start really sending you traffic.  Get a placeholder up so you don’t start at zero.  You don’t want to generate all the traffic yourself. You can’t. See #1.

8. You have no motivation

If your idea doesn’t suck and actual people start signing up and talking about what your building…it’s extremely motivating.  Way more motivating than sitting in that dimly lit cubicle.  A little social pressure can go a long way towards making your dream a reality.

9. You don’t know anything about your customers

They aren’t who you think they are.  When they start signing up on your landing page you can start learning, quizzing, asking, and engaging with them. What you end up building will be different than you envisioned… but it will sell better.

10. Buzz doesn’t happen… you build it.

You can’t just expect customers to start talking about your idea and signing up. You have to encourage them. Customers respond better to direct requests if you want them to share something cool. You can make a gimmick that’s not sleazy.

If you liked this post check out KickoffLabs. We’ll help you find customers with a viral landing page in less than 60 seconds! Are you more of a do it yourself person? Build your own site and use our viral API.  Our simple goal is to help every business find at least 5 more paying customers every month.

Like any good idea there are alternatives to the KickoffLabs service. Some are even cheaper. We differentiate ourselves by being simpler, supporting you better, and creating a customer referral platform that goes well beyond the landing page to include analytics, auto-responders, newsletters, and an API you can use well after you launch.