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.

Rescuing from obscurity…

Aging well!

Want a quick introduction to social media for your startup and getting “the media” to pay attention to it? Here’s Chapter 6 “Social Media and your Startup” from my book The Web Startup Success GuideGuide. (I rescued this sample chapter from obscurity at Apress.com).

What’s in this free chapter: Cluetrain, building social media radar, doing Twitter right , drinking from the RSS firehose with  Google Reader with PostRank, building your startup’s blog, getting big news blogger and media attention, creating a community.

And Interviews with: Andy Wibbels, Mike Gunderloy, Marshall Kirkpatrick, Rafe Needleman, Al Harberg, Les Suzukamo, Luke Armour, Ginevara Whalen, Matt Johnson, Veronica Jorden, and Maria Sipka. All good stuff, and some very good advice from people who know what they are talking about.

While the book is 2 years old, the content is current, useful, I’d like to think entertaining, exclusive, and free! Give it a read, let me know what you think.

 

A prelaunch page for your startup

Startups can survive anything except obscurity, which is why you need to start building your audience and market for your startup before you start coding your killer disruptive app. One very effective approach is creating a prelaunch page for your startup. That’s what I’ve done today for Project Y – a.k.a DeveloperMemory.com.

Your modest objectives for this page are threefold: win a tiny modicum of attention, get permission to at least announce (if not market) via email your startup to potential customers, and win a toehold for your startup in Google’s search results. It is not to list the 24 features of your app, promise the world, or (with apologies to LaunchRock) “go viral” before you have anything to show.

Here’s what that list of people willing to at least look at your startup gets you:

  • Huge morale boost as you see real people who aren’t being nice to you interested in your startup. Akin to getting date with Angelina Jolie because she’s interested in you.
  • A pool of potential private beta customers who can hammer on your product, provide testimonials or even pay for your beta product.
  • A beginning to the customer discovery process as you engage with these earliest of adopters – a process you ignore at your peril.
So how do you create a great, memorable prelaunch page quickly for next to nothing? WordPress of course! Here’s how I did it: total time, about two hours.
  1. In one of my two favorite hosting services, Bluehost.com, assigned developermemory.com to a subdirectory, installed via SimpleScripts the latest stable build of WorkPress. (5 minutes)
  2. Went on to Themeforest, went looking at landing pages, prelaunch pages: way too many choices, most too complicated for what should be a very limited experience. (30 minutes)
  3. Googled around a bit and found LaunchEffecta free WordPress theme for viral launches. Turns out it’s not just software startups that need prelaunch pages. Downloaded, installed, filled out all but the main copy. (15 minutes)
  4. Now for the image. The point of a prelaunch site is emotion. Not marketing, customer education, or self-congratulation. You want one image that grabs the visitor’s attention and connects emotionally with them – at least enough so they will provide an email.
  5. Checked out my usual image source – istockphoto.com – but then went over to Themeforest’s new sister site for images, PhotoDune – and found two shots that I think connect the visitor to my startup. (PhotoDune’s half the price of istockphoto pricing and 50% credit back for November purchases didn’t hurt.) (5 minutes – really.)
  6. Resized the image, wrote the first cut of the copy (pulling from my running file of DM marketing concepts and pitches).  (20 minutes.) Let it stew overnight so I could have a fresh look at it this morning.
  7. Tweaked the copy and its CSS this morning (h2 line-height) while writing this post, found that you do need something in the “Description text, after submit” field, and set up a new Google Analytics tracking code. (30 minutes)
Notes:
  • Biggest issue with this first version of LaunchEffect is it does not integrate with a double opt-in mailing service like Mailchimp. The developer is promising this by November 15.
  • Remember, this is all about emotion – and forging with the image an emotional connection.
So there you have it: a creditable prelaunch page for your startup in two hours. Now my problem is which of these two images works better?

Do you like Photo A or B for DeveloperMemory.com’s prelaunch page?

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Prelaunch A

Prelaunch B

 

Picking a VPS – or getting Rackspace for free!

Nice!

This post started out on my list of non-programming tasks for Project Y as “Find an inexpensive VPS.” Unless you’re creating desktop software (Why? In this day and age?) with a zero net footprint, you’re going to want at least a Virtual Private Server for your app or service to call home.

So who do you pick? The heuristic for this looks something like this:

  1. Ask your startup friends who they host with.
  2. Check out what others have to say at Quora and Stack Exchange/Stack Overflow.
  3. Run Google searches like “Best VPS hosting 2011“, “Top 10 VPS hosting 2011“. (There’s a great deal of SEO spin and fake “comparisons” awaiting the gullible. Any hosting company you’ve never heard of that is the #1 choice for no less than 3 comparison pages is not someone you should trust.)
  4. Look through the results of #2, #3 (skeptically!), and look closely at your startup friends’ hosting companies.
  5. Wish you could afford Rackspace, but hey, you are funding this on the side and they’re expensive.

I IM’ed Rackspace, just on the off chance they had some really low end deal that I could afford. They did: Free.

Rackspace for Startups provides qualifying startups with free hosting/other services to the tune of at least $1,000 a month for at least 6 months. That’s a lot of cloud hosting, file storage, and more. A lot.

It turns out that the Rackspace for Startups initiative is being run by Rob La Gesse, Chief Disruption Officer (yep, that’s his title), who I met and connected with a few years back. He’s Robert Scoble’s manager at Rackspace. After I applied (and before I got in), I Interviewed Rob on why Rackspace was giving it away to startups:

Q: Why is Rackspace giving away to startups free cloud hosting? I thought you guys wanted paying customers!

A: We targeted startups for several reasons – they are much more likely to adopt cloud computing, for example.  They also have a huge potential for growth.  We give the service away so these companies try our cloud.  We are confident that once they do – and once they experience our Fanatical Support, that they will choose to stay with Rackspace as their business grows.

Q: Does everybody going through one of your listed startup incubators get this offer?

A: Yes.

Q:  If you’re a self-funded startup, how do you qualify?

A:  Classified :) Actually – right now almost everyone is qualifying.  [ I can vouch for that :)] We have turned down a few people that were basically just doing a blog.  The program is aimed at companies writing applications.

Q: How many startups (self-funded or incubated) are in the program? How much room is there in the program?

A:  This really is classified.  We have a huge number of companies in the program and plenty of room for more, but we won;t be sharing those numbers for competitive reasons.

Q:  What’s the turnaround time between applying at http://www.rackspacestartups.com/ and getting notified if you’re in?

A:  Usually less than a week – unless we get backed up for some reason (the flu is hitting hard here right now, which slows us down a bit – for example).

Q: For purposes of this program what’s a “self-funded startup”? A guy and his cat? Just the cat? Microsoft BizSpark’s definition of a company making less than $1m revenue a year, younger than 3 years?

A: If that cat can fill out the form and code, we will support it! We don’t have a rigid definition.  Generally someone that has not been accepted to an incubator and has not taken angel/VC funding.

Q: When do you kick people out of the program? A year, 2 years?

A: Our relationships with the incubators vary – and so does the duration of the offer. Minimum duration is six months though.

Q: Do even tiny little startups get the full Fanatical Support treatment (not to mention 4,000 sendmail slots a month) or are they all locked away on a 10 year old Dell server Rackspace tech use to test video games on?

A: Trust me – we use only the latest technology for our gaming servers! And yes, even the tiniest startups get the Rackspace and Sendmail love :)

Q: What exactly do they get? What if they need 4 server instances (dev, test, production, TechChrunch)?

A: They get a dollar amount of hosting/month.  99 % of the companies in the program do not utilize the full extent of the offer.

Long story short, I got into the Rackspace Startup Program (if I got in, you can too.). Only other requirement worth mentioning when you sign their offer letter is your startup will need to have a “powered by Rackspace” logo on the main landing page of your primary site. Or put another way, your tiny little startup gets to put the logo of one of the most respected IT businesses around on its home page.

Two takeaways here:

In case you scanned this post, if you are pre-server infrastructure (or are tired of your crappy VPS’s lame support), go over to the Rackspace for Startups program and apply. You’ll get an answer in a week.

What could you do building a customer base, getting attention and building your numbers if for the first 6 months – maybe longer – you have zero server costs? What if you can afford to have a million customers before you started changing?

Give it a listen today!

The Business of Software Conference starting today in Boston is live streaming, beginning at 9am Eastern. If you want to hear and watch some of the sharpest minds in the software business, get yourself registered on this page and start partaking.

Here’s the speaker schedule, with my personal favorites/recommendations in bold
(All times are Eastern):

Monday, October 24th

  • 9:00 AM – 10:30 AM Clayton Christensen – How to Create New Growth Businesses in a Risk-Minimizing Environment
  • 10:45 AM – 11:45 AM Jason Cohen – Naked Business: How I made more money through honesty than through typical business behavior.)
  • 11:45 AM – 12:45 PM Alex Osterwalder - Building Competitive Advantage through Business Model Thinking
  • 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM Dharmesh Shah – Insights And Musings On The Business of Software
  • 4:45 PM – 5:45 PM Jeff Lawson
  • 5:45 PM – 6:15 PM Tobias Lütke - How to make sure your business is on the right side of history through code and culture.

Tuesday, October 25th

  • 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Patrick McKenzie – Engineering Your Marketing Outcomes
  • 10:15 AM – 11:15 AM Laura Fitton
  • 11:15 AM – 12:15 PM Josh Linkner - Unleashing Creativity
  • 1:30 PM – 2:30 PM Rory Sutherland - Praxeology: Lessons from a lost science
  • 2:30 PM – 3:15 PM Lightning Talks Five finalists present 15 slides in 30 seconds each. That’s 7 minutes 30 seconds, then sit down.
  • Corey Reid, Freshbooks
  • Karl Treier, Prospect Stream
  • Patrick Foley, Microsoft
  • Justin Goeres, JKI
  • Tyler Rooney, 4ormat
  • 3:45 PM – 4:45 PM Michael McDerment – CEO and Co-Founder of Freshbooks.
  • 4:45 PM – 5:45 PM Peldi & John Nese – An Interview with John Nese

Wednesday, October 26th

  • 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Paul Kenny - The art of asking!
  • 10:15 AM – 11:15 AM David Cancel
  • 11:15 AM – 12:15 PM Alexis Ohanian

Give me what I want

Okay! There’s countless small and large projects that need to be accomplished on the road to a successful self-funded startup; don’t be shy asking for what you’d like to see here. 

Starting today, you’ll find the Y Project has its own page, and you can vote which post you want to see me research and write next:

Which of these posts would you like to see me research and write?

View Results

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Interested in something else? Comment here or on the Y Project page.

Finding a great startup domain name

There’s thousands of advice posts on picking a domain name; In this post I’ll try to filter down to the few most important ideas, take a quick look at how the interaction between name and market focus work, and share 6 online tools that I found useful in my hunt for Project Y’s URL.

The basics

Let’s start with the obvious traits of a good URL:

  • The shorter the better,
  • Catchy,
  • Easy to spell and pronounce,
  • Be .com if at all possible,
  • Not give some other company cause to sue your startup for trademark infringement,
  • Perfect for your startup now and until it’s larger than Google.

(That last bullet is not going to happen, especially if you fixate on finding the perfect domain name instead of accepting the reality that you’re looking for a good enough solution based on a reasonable amount of time – say 2 hours – spent on this.)

Discoverable or Brandable?

All that is fine, but it’s not enough. Here’s an question from a Smashing Mag post that cuts to the heart of the matter: Discoverable or Brandable? Are you looking for a domain name that has something to do with what your startup will be selling, or are you looking for a word – real or not – that you can build a brand around?

There is no one right answer to this, but I think if you’re building a self-funded startup, a discoverable domain name, a URL that contains or connects to the problem domain you are addressing makes the most sense.

First, your Prime Enemy as self-funded startup is obscurity: literally every decision you make needs to gravitate towards increasing your Internet exposure, reach and discoverability. Second, building a brand takes time, money, and more money. That’s not in the realm of the doable for you if you’re self funding.

If you take a look at some of the best known brand names in tech – Microsoft, Google and Twitter jump to mind – these names connect with the core ideas (software for micro versus minicomputers, a whole lot of something, and incessant, background communication) – they were discoverable long before they became brandable.

So how do you make a startup “discoverable” via just a short character string? Here’s two words that help: metaphor and portmanteau.

  • A good metaphor packs a lot of information, context and emotion into a small useful package. For example, when you see a job posting for a rockstar programmer, they’re not talking about your musical ability, they’re telegraphing they want someone who stands out from the crowd.
  • A portmanteau is a freshly minted term that combines two objects or ideas, for example smog, wikipedia and spork.

Since you’re building a startup, you should be in the business of creating something new. Think about what widely recognized ideas/associations/keywords orbit your solution and its problem, and how you might be able to combine one of those words with the emotional payload of your product.

Domain naming tools

Here’s an assortment of sites you’ll want to open in your browser when you sit down to find your startup’s domain:

  • Domainr - If the perfect .com URL is already owned, what about some top level domain varient like Del.icio.us or bobwal.sh? Domainr makes it easy to find these kinds of URLs, but the easy way out now means a business lifetime of having to explain just how to spell your domain.
  • Domize – While sites abound that will let you perform a quick URL check, I think Domize performs this service without irradiating your eyeballs with dozens of ads. Its ajax-enabled results list is fast and useful, letting you cover more possiblities.
  • Domainsbot – Is a shotgun approach, quickly generating hundreds of variations.
  • Looking for another word that might be less domainized? Check out both VisuWords and VisualThesaurus to help you.
  • My favorite domain-finding tool is the Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary Online – enter a word, like say peg, and see what it actually is – a very handy way (see below) of finding physically related objects that may be less used in domain names, but still on target.

Welcome to the Jason Test!

So how do you test a domain Name? Jason Cohen, serial startup founder and founder of WPEngine.com, has a bit of wisdom that makes testing domain names easy:

What can I tell about your startup just from its domain name?

My twist on this: For your target market, what does that domain name say about your startup? I don’t care what high school students, people studying a language, or premeds trying to swot all that terminology (although I might one day); I want to know working developers and the like think of the domain name.

Asking 5 people “what do you think such-and-such.com does?” is a great way of gauging just how discoverable your name is. Five is what I consider a quick measurement – the more the better. Asking 20 people who are members of your target market what they think your domain name means is a great start down the customer discovery path.

Put it to the test Bob!

Originally, I was thinking Y would be a more general tool than just for developers who need to commit to long term memory massive amounts of knowledge. Repeatedly, I struck out finding a domain name. Interestingly enough, when I decided to narrow this app to a specific market (another post for another day), it got considerably easier to find a good domain name.

Given my working definition of Project Y as a solution for (“online folk who need a streamlined way to get info from the web into their own personal long term memory“) what’s a good URL? Y is about memory and “online folk” primarily developers: bingo! Say hello to DeveloperMemory.com.

As I researched this article, and I was playing around with the various URL tools, I came up with an alternative – membench.com. Specifically, I was checking the Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary Online for the word peg, realized that a peg is both a term often used in memory systems and “a detachable part inserted into one of the openings on the work surface to clamp an object between its jaws.” While memorypeg.com is taken, it led me to memorybench.com (also taken) and then membench.com and memworkbench.com.

Memworkbench.com is good, but it’s too broad for the app I’m doing. (If I were a funded startup bent on revolutionizing the memory capacity of humanity for a small monthly fee, it would definitely work. Go for it if you’re so inclined.)

Wrap it up

Here’s what I’d suggest as a working heuristic for finding your startup’s name in the Internet heavens:

  1. Obey the basic rules of good URL naming,
  2. Isolate the key concepts/markets/associations relevant to your app,
  3. Use fast online tools to check for availability and variations of those concepts and to dig deeper into those concepts looking for more market relevant variations.
  4. Apply the Jason Test: What does your domain name mean to your target market?
  5. Repeat until you have a winner – but don’t waste time trying to find the perfect domain name.

I field tested DeveloperMemory.com with a 5 friends via IM and liked the results. Now it’s your turn:

What do you think developermemory.com is about? Please add your comment!

Remember the future with FollowUpThen.com

(A while back I’d planned to launch a new productivity site, ProductivityToDo.com, but it makes more sense to fold that effort into 47Hats. So, here’s the first of a series of posts on tools and services for improved online productivity. Note the .pdf download at the end of the post! :))

The more people you interact with in, the harder it is to remember to follow up with them. Enter FollowUpThen.com (FUT) – an elegant alternative to missed deadlines, dropped conversations, and things in general falling through the cracks.
Here’s a few examples of what this free service can do for you, starting right now:

  • You email a friend, coworker, your boss a question. More times than not, if they don’t reply you won’t remember. Instead, you BCC 3days@followupthen.com and three days later you get a reminder from FUT with a copy of your email.
  • Your girlfriend, boyfriend or just a friend has an important event coming up in a few months. Usually you’d shortchange them and you because you either forget it entirely, or don’t prepare to do it right. With FUT, you slap together and an email with info on the event – say your anniversary – a couple of to do’s (get flowers, gift) and email that to mar12@followupthen.com. Come March 12th, you get that email back – just when you need it.
  • You’re working on a project and have nailed down who is supposed to do what. You’ve got what you have to do neatly tucked away in your GTD system, but do they? In the recap email you send CC fridays@followupthen.com and all recepients will get a reminder email every friday until you turn this off. Don’t like the generic look of that reminder? Spend $24 for the year to upgrade and add your logo, custom colors and custom explanation, and remind via SMS.

FUT is elegant – for the price of adding an email address, you get back a clear reminder exactly when you need it. No more wasting time emailing back and forth “Have you looked at x,y and z yet?” “no I haven’t can you send me that email again?”
I’ve been using FUT for two months now to:

  • Make sure to send my girlfriend’s weekly timesheet in on Sundays at 4pm.
  • Remember to evaluate that awesome new online tool I just signed up for before the free trial expires (25d@followupthen.com).
  • Remind me when a book by an author I like is set to go on sale at Amazon so I can don’t waste my time checking again.
  • Send low value emails I need to respond to my least productive time of the week (everyFriday3pm@followupthen.com).

To start using the FollowUpThen.com, just email 2minutes@followupthen.com.

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Starting something new… Project Y.

One of the weirder things I do is tackle multiple problems with one solution. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but it tends to make life… interesting.

So here are the problems I’m out to solve:

  • I’m looking for a big fat hook I can hang great content on here, that you’re going to want to read and remark on. I can write about a lot of things, but it’s more fun, useful and interesting when they tie together into something bigger.
  • I need to get back into developing. While I love to write and am pretty good at it, there was a reason I got out of reporting – I want to build things, not just talk about them. Having done zero coding for nearly a year, I need to build up my programmer muscles, and get back up to speed with what’s going on in the Rails community these days (short answer: a lot! 3.1, CoffeeScript, Saas, jQuery…!). And there’s the not small motivation that developing in Rails pays well, but you need to be able to show you can do the job as it’s defined today, not a year ago. (digression: Railcasts has just added premium ‘casts – sign. up. now.)
  • I’m writing this book, WordPress for Startups, and while I like where it’s going, I want to include in it a real startup’s site that I can mercilessly critique. Volunteers for public beatings are not abundant.
  • I’ve been doing way more reading/talking this past year about the humanity-wide social media party in progress than actually participating. It’s time to go back in and enjoy the party, and that means bringing something to share.
  • Getting older is a drag, and the box I in my head where I store all that programming knowledge needs a good clean out and refurbishing. As easy as it is to Google everything (Stack Overflow everything), I want a better way of learning how to proficiently and fluently code. Have looked all over the interwebs and while there are flashcard/memorization dorky web apps for students, there’s nothing I’ve found suits aging online entrepreneur developers who need to learn 2.5+ programming languages fast. Sounds like an unmet need to me!
So, here’s my solution: Build a useful web app for online folk who need a streamlined way to get info from the web into their own personal long term memory. Detail here what I learn about what works and doesn’t work – circa late 2011 – as I tackle all those not the actual coding issues that every self-funded startup founder has to grapple with. Rinse, lather, repeat.
First up – Picking a URL.

Missing Steve, Reason #1: the “Internal Error Occurred” debacle.

I miss Steve. I miss him a lot. Especially after spending the past 4 hours trapped in the “Internal Error Occurred” debacle (reported herehere, and even here, and anywhere else Apple-centric on the web), unsuccessfully upgrading my iPad and iPhone to iOS5.

For my snickering Windows friends (I’m thinking of you, Pat!), today’s waste of what could have been a productive day began by being the good early adopter and pounding away at the iTunes upgrade button since 5am, then receiving the anointed Best New Thing about 10am, waiting about an hour for the inescapable backup, install, and then after all that, install fails with a bullshit “internal error occurred.” Again and again and again.

(* Image above is what you get if you try the “let’s restore not upgrade” solution. At least it’s honest. Stupidly lame, but honest.)

Contrast the “Internal Error Occurred” debacle to the Lion OS upgrade of July 20th – which was the most uneventful OS upgrade, ever, a month before Steve stepped down.