Being a manager is hard. It’s an entirely different set of skills than what you learned as an individual contributor and good resources are few and far between. Most companies, especially if they’re startups, have no leadership training, so you’re often on your own. Making matters worse, you often have more bad examples of management around you than good ones.
So what’s an aspiring great manager to do? It starts with understanding the harsh truths of the role and then getting the right help.
The Harsh Truths of Being a Manager
1) Leadership is service to your team.
When you become a manager, it’s no longer about you. You are judged based on how your team performs, not how you produce. The most important thing you can do is motivate your team and focus them on their most important tasks.
This is a hard mentality to set when you are used to only having to worry about yourself. However, if you shift your mindset to that of serving your team, you’ll find it a lot easier.
Service to your team means . . .
. . . removing blockers for your team so they can get things done.
. . . listening to problems and helping address them quickly.
. . . shielding your team from distractions.
. . . accepting responsibility if something goes wrong.
. . . showering credit and praise on your team when something goes right.
There’s a special kind of satisfaction that you get when you see your team excited after conquering a major challenge that you rallied them to complete.
2) Your best people are easiest to take for granted and most devastating if they leave.
You don’t have to work for long to recognize A players. They’re hard working, always learning and produce great results in their field. As a manager it’s easy to take these stars for granted while you’re fire fighting and dealing with struggling team members. Unfortunately, taking them for granted means that you may not realize they’re unhappy until they have another job offer and it’s too late.
To retain your team, you should never take anyone for granted or go too long without talking with them. One on ones are the most powerful tool in a manager’s arsenal to avoid this grave misstep, so start them today if you haven’t already. You can also use the Management by Walking Around approach to also accomplish some of this, although the privacy of a one on one will give deeper insights.
You need to challenge your best people regularly, create opportunities for them to grow, praise them, and give them work that excites them. These things will change over time, which is why you need to regularly talk with them and not wait for them to come to you. You also need to listen carefully as they are often your front line for detecting problems early; fixing problems while they’re small helps you avoid constantly triaging major problems that consume all your time.
3) Your team members are more than just cogs in your machine.
Even at a big company, 9-to-5 job your team members are still giving you one third of their current life by working for you. If you’re part of a startup, it’s often significantly more time. Appreciate this as well as the fact that there are things that happen outside their work hours that are important to them.
Members of your team are complete human beings. They have a family, hopes, dreams, hobbies and passions. When you show you care about them as a complete person, it makes them more engaged with their work and more trusting in you. It will vary from person to person, but there is usually something personal that can lead to work “resentment” as Marissa Mayer calls it. And on the positive side, giving a small thoughtful gift based on their interests will be remembered long after an Amazon gift card or cash bonus.
When someone is extra excited, they often want to share it. When they’re upset, they may need someone to confide in or understand what they’re dealing with. We’re all human and sometimes things outside work (cancer, death in the family, bad breakups, etc) affect us no matter how hard we try. Being there for your team members and recognizing when they need some help (time off, extension on a project or just someone to listen) will pay massive dividends in retaining and motivating your team.
4) Your example sets the tone for your team.
One of the most fascinating things I have observed in my career is how a company takes on the personality of their founders and leaders. For better and worse, you’ll see nuances in how people communicate, deal with good and bad news, and react to customers, clients and team members based on the example set by leaders.
Are you excited about your mission? Are you motivated each day? Do you show patience or are you quick to judge? Are you the first one in the office each day or the first to leave? When you are a manager or leader, the spotlight is on you and everyone is watching. If you watch carefully, you will notice people picking up on your behaviors and often mirroring many of them. You will also see how even something as simple as a sigh or negative body language by you can take the wind out of the sails of an excited team member.
Self-awareness is one of the hardest, but most important, skills you can develop as a manager. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses and pay attention to how your actions impact those around you. The more your team is picking up good behaviors from you, the higher they will perform.
5) A lack of consistency and follow through kills your credibility.
When a leader says one thing and does another or is perceived as playing favorites, they lose credibility quickly. Without credibility, a team will not be inspired to follow them nor perform at a high level.
So on top of all the above challenges, you have the need to be consistent in everything you do so as not to be perceived as a hypocrite. Of course, the challenge is that with all you have going on as a manager, it’s very easy to not be consistent. You may not mean to, but when things get busy and stressful, it’s easy to be forgetful.
This is the harsh truth I struggle with the most. Even knowing so well the above lessons, reading regularly and seeking the advice of mentors, it is still very hard not to slip up and fail to follow through or be consistent. Even the best leaders I’ve spoken to have to constantly work on this one.
How are you supposed to avoid all these harsh truths without any help?
There are apps to help you ship code, track projects, analyze your customers and manage your sales process. And yet, there’s nothing to specifically help managers like you motivate, engage and support your team.
Bloated HR tools like Success Factors are not the answer and were not built with a manager in mind.
I’ve developed a system that has helped me motivate and retain team members for my startup, Greenhorn Connect, and as product manager at KISSmetrics. I’ve learned these techniques from talking to great leaders at startups and publicly traded companies, as well as reading many books on the subject. If you’d like to learn more, sign up below:
When I was fresh out of college with a internship at E Ink (maker’s of the display screen for the Amazon Kindle) I emailed the founder and then CEO, Russ Wilcox, to see if he would meet with me to give me some advice on entrepreneurship. Lucky for me, he was willing to schedule a meeting before my internship ended. You can read the full story here, but one of the best pieces of advice he gave me during our meeting was simple, yet powerful: Read 100 Books.
At the time it almost didn’t make sense and led to more questions than answers. What books? Why that many? How fast? By when?
I remember frantically writing down a bunch of book titles he started mentioning and then he stopped me and said the important thing was that they were on a diverse set of topics with different viewpoints instead of any specific books. He suggested trying to read 5-10 on categories like sales, marketing, leadership, negotiation, etc.
5 Years and 4 months after that conversation, I’ve finally hit the number and now looking back, I realize it’s one of the most important pieces of advice I ever received. I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t read as much as I have. Reading 100 books has done all the following for me:
Helped me better understand the responsibilities of coworkers (especially important as a product manager and startup founder).
Being comfortable in a conversation on just about any subject due to what I’ve read.
Rapidly improved my skills in key work responsibilities helping me accelerate my career and avoid costly mistakes.
If you’re reading this, I encourage you to also read 100 books. But realize it’s not about the number, but a routine of reading regularly that will serve you well throughout life.
Here’s my quick advice on how to make it happen and make the most of it:
1) Read what you can apply immediately.
I’ve managed to read a wide variety of books that have helped in my career and I’ve always chosen books based on what my current challenges and interests are. This has helped me apply concepts I pick up as I read a book, usually over the span of 2-4 weeks, depending on the length.
When I was moving to SF to run product at KISSmetrics, I started out with a great book on Product Management, then dove into a few books on design, before finding myself diving into sales, marketing, leadership and strategy books depending on what was happening at work and my personal life. Every time, I found great ways to build on what I read in my life around me which has helped tremendously with retention and understanding.
I read on public transportation. First it was riding the T in Boston and now MUNI around SF. I love this for so many reasons:
It gives you something to look forward to even when a bus commute might be lengthy.
A book won’t get stolen like your cell phone might be when you have it out as you play Angry Birds/check Facebook, etc.
It gives you bite size chunks of reading as most rides are 10-30 minutes…just enough for a chapter or two.
A book is a great way to get just a little bit more personal space on a crowded bus.
It’s a great warm up and cool down to your work day if you read during your commute.
If that’s not an option for you, build a routine around it in some other way. Maybe it’s 20 minutes before you go to bed, while you eat breakfast or perhaps audio books while you drive to work. It is the routine of always reading something that will carry you through that many books over the years.
4) Carry your book around with you.
Nothing sparks a conversation like someone noticing what you’re reading. Often those that notice read a lot too, which is a great way to make friends and you can get more recommendations for books from them. This also means that if a friend is running late, you always have a productive way to fill the time. I brought Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” with me to Bootstrap Live and ended up talking with Andrew Warner and the guy next to me about how much we all loved it.
5) Write all over your books.
Despite working in technology, I still prefer physical books in my hand. I underline, I highlight and dog ear all my books. Something about it helps me with retention of what I read. Even if you prefer to read on a tablet or Kindle, be sure to take notes and challenge yourself to think about how to apply what you’re reading. It helps a lot to review books you’ve read before when you have that subject come up. It’s amazing to me how often past events line up as examples (or counter-examples) of something I’m reading. I’m always sure to take a moment to consider it and write it down in the book.
6) Always make progress.
Life doesn’t always go as hoped or planned. There are times of frustration and stagnancy both personally and professionally in all our lives. I’ve found one of the best things for me is knowing that no matter what is happening in my life I’m always learning because of what I’m reading. I can always look back and see progress there.
It has also helped that when I’ve had down times, if I read something related to it like a book on happiness or successfully navigating your 20s, I’m actually being proactive about the problem and getting advice from someone great who took the time to research and write a book about the subject. —
Remember, this is not a race. The point of reading all these books is to absorb all the ideas and skills shared in the books, not race to the end.
I’ve heard some people like to skim books and think that doing things like reading the opening and closing paragraphs of a chapter and reading headlines in the chapter is enough. They’re either reading the wrong books or missing out on some deep lessons.
As a wise man once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” It is the journey to 100 books that I both enjoyed and grew tremendously from…not the milestone of specifically 100 that matters to me; I haven’t stopped reading and won’t anytime soon.My Amazon Wishlist is longer than ever (please suggest the best books you’ve read in the comments!) and I can’t wait to learn through more great books for the rest of my life.
In January 1975, Popular Science magazine ran an article on the first consumer computer: the Altair. Ed Roberts, the founder of the company making the Altair, ran ads in the magazine for pre-orders of his device for a then-shocking $400. He needed to sell 200 to break even, but ended up selling over 2,000 instead. There were many challenges in actually delivering the device and plenty of upset customers due to delays and limited functionality, but it marked a key moment at the start of the PC revolution. A small company named Microsoft would work closely with them to run BASIC software on it and many other hobbyist computers would emerge in coming years.
Today, the chosen pre-order crowd-funding source is Kickstarter and once again early adopter backing is funding a new revolution: consumer 3D Printing.
A quick search shows there have been over 75 projects posted on Kickstarter related to 3D printing. Of those, 5 are currently active and 35 have been funded (a 50% fund rate on completed campaigns). Since the start of 2013, 38 of these projects have launched, with 17 funded and 16 failed (the other 5 are still active). Some projects have even raised millions of dollars like the Buccaneer ($1.43mn, 3,520 backers), RigidBot ($1.09mn, 1,952 backers) and the 3Doodler ($2.34mn, 26,457 backers). All 3 of those projects launched in the last 6 months.
So with all this funding, how is it affecting those that post? To find out, I spoke to a variety of companies currently crowd-funding, planning to crowd-fund and already completed both successful and failed campaigns.
The first thing that stood out for all the companies that I spoke with was how important preparation was for their projects. No matter how much time they spent to understand the work ahead, there were always surprises and new challenges. Those that hadn’t figured out the finer details of their project before launching the Kickstarter were significantly more likely to fail in funding.
The preparation also extends to marketing. Designer Todd Blatt, creator of the funded Google Glass project, GlassKap, observed, “[Many projects] think you just make a Kickstarter and people come. You can’t count on that.” I asked companies what the ratio was for backers that came organically from Kickstarter versus their own efforts and it was usually 60% their efforts. Getting ahead in their marketing meant thinking about press and forums to post to at launch and building lists in advance. DeltaPrintr, a delta-style RepRap design launching in the fall, is smartly already collecting signups on their detailed website which explains their product’s benefits and differentiators.
With so much traffic and attention given to many of the Kickstarter projects, it can also be a signal to those in the market that your company is someone they should work with. Volumental, a current campaign for browser-based 3D scanning and printing, has received numerous business opportunities because of the attention around their Kickstarter. They’ve also turned the campaign into press that extends beyond the project and helped raise the visibility of their company.
Even more impressive is how a failed campaign by 3Dagogo actually inspired them to start their business. Their May 2013 campaign to sell 250 useful 3d printing designs did not fund, but many members of the 3D community reached out to them saying they were working on an important problem. That was all the encouragement they needed and they’re now working towards a site launch.
Critics can be harsh
While Kickstarter tries to manage backer expectations on projects, there are still times when users can be difficult or even angry. In the case of DGlass3D, some potential backers were upset with the way they planned to handle their IP for their design (a hot button subject in the 3d community). After some passionate discussion, it led to DGlass3D changing their IP plans and updating their description of it on their Kickstarter page.
Meanwhile, File2Part has had a number of delays on their project enraging some backers. Co-founder Eugene Giller told me that when they launched the campaign, they had a prototype of the software working with the printer they owned. Unfortunately, there are many variations on the firmware for other printers and some companies not only change them, but sometimes make them closed to 3rd parties (most notably, MakerBot). It has put them in a endless loop playing catch up, which unfortunately not all backers empathized with:
Stories like File2Part’s is why when I spoke with DeltaPrintr, they told me they are trying to have everything in line, even suppliers and manufacturing, before they launch their campaign. They hope that Kickstarter can simply then be the platform to connect with their first customers and add the funding needed to fulfill orders with their manufacturer, without delays and drama.
Funded projects do not guarantee success
It would be great to say that every campaign that funds on Kickstarter has a fairy tale ending of delivering on time and launching to ongoing success. Unfortunately, we know that’s far from true.
Going beyond the disappointment of the end user who may receive their orders late, below their expectations or sadly, not at all, companies can face struggles as well. After the costs of making his video, marketing and adding the cost of printing the objects, 3D designer Todd Blatt found he didn’t make any money on his funded GlassKap project. He did tell me, he will likely do another project in the future based on his learnings from this one.
File2Part, who had the aforementioned firmware challenges, actually hired a consultant to help them with those issues. Unfortunately, the cost of that consultant exhausted all their funds raised which led them to take a loss overall on the project.
Understand your audience
The stories of success on Kickstarter have spread far and wide, which is why all of the people I spoke with turned to the platform for their company. However, it’s important to realize that like any website, there’s a specific audience that is generally found on Kickstarter. They are often consumers, with a bit of an early adopter and hacker edge to them. Some will back many projects, showing more allegiance to Kickstarter than any of the individual companies they back.
This proved a solid audience for GlassKap, as Todd was able to fund his project even though there are only 10,000 Google Glasses in the public now. Similarly, the consumer-friendliness of Volumental’s browser-based scanning also funded well with the Kickstarter audience.
Meanwhile, 3Dagogo’s 250 3D print designs failed to fund, as many Kickstarter backers are still waiting for their Kickstarter-backed printers and many of the hackers and hobbyists with printers already have proven to be less interested in the pre-made designs. And while File2Part did fully fund, they found many of their backers were not who they were hoping for; their goal is to build an industrial-grade 3D printer to sell and were not expecting to have so many consumer printers to support.
Kickstarter is an amazing platform for discovery and funding of great projects. Like the pre-orders of the Altair, it doesn’t always go as planned, but great things can come of it. Two 20-somethings from Harvard moved to New Mexico to write the software for the Altair. We may not have had Microsoft today if early adopters of the Altair hadn’t sent those checks to get their first consumer computers.
What new industry titans will come from crowdfunding like Kickstarter and the ecosystems they help create?
You can have the best idea in the world, but until you find someone besides yourself that wants it, it’s not really a business. To find those people, as Paul Graham wrote in a recent essay, you have to “Do Things That Don’t Scale.” The problem is, it is often unclear what those “Things” are.
Understand you’re going to have a low success rate.
There is no silver bullet for finding users for your startup, just tactics like the ones below that work to varying degrees depending on your idea and market. Even for good channels, a 10-20% response rate is normal, so don’t get discouraged.
Don’t worry about scaling! None of the ideas below are really scalable when taken literally. However, like Paul Graham said in his essay: don’t worry about scaling right now. Just do whatever it takes to find people and the scalable methods will emerge later. If you have a cofounder worried about scaling early, have them read the Paul Graham essay.
Remember your manners and personalize. You’re likely asking people to talk to you when you have nothing but an idea and maybe a prototype of some sort. Be respectful in communicating with them. Also realize that no one likes a form note, so the more you personalize it and make it feel like they’re special, the better chance you have of a response. Elizabeth Yin of Launchbit has an awesome slideshare with advice on reaching out to customers effectively.
Don’t get banned.
If you abuse any of the tactics below, many of the sites and groups will ban or block you. Pay attention to restrictions to how often you can do certain things (like Meetup.com allows you to message 12 users per day). Realize the more times you break a terms of service, the more likely you are to get noticed and banned. On the flip side, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Just don’t be egregious.
A special thanks to these people that helped edit & provide ideas for this post:
95 Ways to Find Your First Customers for Customer Development and Sales
1) Use Linkedin Answers: Look for people asking questions around your problem and market or ask your own.
2) JoinLinkedin Groups: Join Linkedin Groups for your target market. Engage in discussions there, reach out to people that post relevant ideas or questions, or post looking for help.
3) UseSearch + InMail: If you know the kind of person you want to talk to, try searching for them (like VP Marketing at companies between 25-200 employees) and using InMail to message them.
4) Check your existing connections: People change careers a lot more than you may expect. You may have also lost touch with an old classmate that is now in just the right market. Either way, your existing connects are very likely to respond and you’ll have access to their email address, which is better than their LinkedIn inbox.
5) Ask your connections for intros: It’s quite possible the perfect people to talk to aren’t already a connection, but they may be one degree away. Don’t be afraid to ask connections you have a good relationship with for an intro.
6) Post to the Linkedin Social Network: Linkedin now has status updates you can post. It’s a lot less active than other networks, but it can’t hurt to see if anyone notices.
7) Run Linkedin Ads: Linkedin is the network for professionals and their careers. If your startup idea has them as the target customer (say marketers or executives), then an alternative to the high maintenance of Linkedin Groups can be to run ads. Linkedin also has a partner network for a lot of business content sites which can further the reach. There’s a great guide on KISSmetrics for Linkedin Ads here.
8) Look up your friends: For most people, their closest people in their life now and in the past are on Facebook. If you haven’t already exhausted your existing network on Linkedin, definitely look to see if any of your friends are in the market and worth talking to.
9) Ask your friends: There’s also a lot of random people you met in college and other times. You never know who knows who so you have to ask. I just got introduced to another person in tech through someone I was in a beirut league with in college.
10) Look for Fan Pages: There’s fan pages for just about anything you can think of. People that run those pages in your market are great people to talk to both as potential customers and to see if they’ll post something on your behalf on their page. Friends who have leveraged this have found it cheaper than Facebook ads, even when they pay the Fan Page owner. Just click the “message” button on the fan page.
11) RunTargeted Facebook Ads: If you think you really know your audience demographics, then running a small set of Facebook ads to a landing page, can be a great way to garner interest.
12) Try the new Graph Search: I haven’t had a lot of success using it, but it’s worth searching for things related to your market to see if anything else turns up, especially now that you can message people you aren’t friends with. In particular, Facebook has a great geographic filtering ability you won’t find on Twitter or otherwise.
Twitter: (My personal favorite)
13) Ask your followers: If you have any kind of follower base at all, you should definitely tweet about who you want to talk to. If you don’t have a big follower base, ask the people with bigger followings you’re friends with to ReTweet you. As you develop your idea, you may want to tweet different requests, which may be seen by different people since no one sees every tweet of their followers.
14) Ask your followers for referrals: It’s not just about who you know. The bigger benefit is who your network knows so be sure to not just ask people you follow or follow you if they’re a fit, but ask others for referrals.
16) Ask Twitter Accounts to tweet on your behalf: Just like you can ask Fan Pages on Facebook to talk about you, you can reach out to Twitter accounts in your target market to see if they’ll tweet something for you or ReTweet you. If it makes sense for your business, you can also ask some celebrities via tools like BuySellAds and Sponsored Tweets.
17) Search for relevant Hashtags: Hashtags are a big part of Twitter for many markets. For example, in the analytics market, there’s #Measure. Find accounts using the hashtag and reach out to them and join the conversations happening. Find relevant hashtags by asking others or checking out sites like Hashtags.org
18) Join a Twitter Chat: Many groups have regular chats that can be found based on the group’s hashtag they use. A great example is the Community Manager chat, #cmgrchat. This is a great way to ask questions and engage your target audience if they’re holding Twitter chats.
19) Search Twitter for People Talking about your Problem: Remember that time you were really annoyed at a company? What did you probably do? You tweeted about it. Try searching different ways for people talking about frustrations and you’re bound to find people happy to talk because they’re excited someone is going to make things better. I’ve successfully used this to talk to people about, of all things, email migration.
20) Email relevant friends/contacts: There’s a right way and wrong way to do this. Yes, you can spam all your contacts in one big dump asking for help. What will yield a better result is if you invest the time to be more targeted in who you reach out to. Close friends and family won’t mind and those actually related to your target industry.
21) Start a personal newsletter: I’ve known some people to start a personal newsletter to have their contacts *opt into* that then regularly updates them on your startup journey and can ask for specific help then repeatedly in the newsletter. This works great for getting mentors and early supporters engage in a small ask (just opt in) and later help more as you have different needs.
22) Use Rapportive to find emails & cold email: Somehow you may have stumbled upon someone you’d *love* to talk to, but you don’t know them. You can use tools like Rapportive to guess the email address and send them a personal note asking to speak with them about what you’re working on. You can find more advice on this tactic here and here.
23) Make your GChat status a call for help/intros: This may seem simple and passive, but you’d be surprised who reads your GChat statuses. Adding a note of what you’re looking for and leave it up for a few days and you might just get a few people to help you out. This works for other chat tools as well, of course.
24) Make your signature a call for help/intros: Just like your GChat status is a long tail way to get people’s attention, you can use your email signature the same way. Below your name in your signature is the perfect place to let people know. Don’t forget to update your mobile app’s signature as well as your computer’s.
25) Join & Attend Meetups in your category: Meetup has become an amazing hub of groups around just about any topic you can think of. Whether you’re making an app for LARPers or a hardware startup, there’s a meetup group likely in your area you should join to meet and talk with group members in your target market.
26) Ask organizers to message the group: Organizers have unique privileges to send messages to their groups. You don’t get what you don’t ask for, so don’t be afraid to reach out to group organizers to talk to them (they may be a great target user) and see if they’ll message the group. They often make no money in running their groups, so you can think of them like the Facebook Fan Page owners previously mentioned.
27) Ask the organizer to allow you to address the audience at a Meetup: Potentially even better than getting into everyone’s cluttered inbox is the opportunity to address the whole group at one of their events. This allows people most interested to immediately approach you. This can be a great consolation ask if they don’t want to message their whole group since this requires no work on their part.
28) Mention in your Meetup profile what you’re looking for: Like the GChat status, this is a passive move that alone won’t get you everyone to talk to, but you’d be surprised how often people read the profiles of other new members in a group. Be sure to include your desired contact method if you want Meetup members to reach out to you.
29) Message users on Meetup.com: Not every member of a Meetup group attends every event and if there’s no upcoming meetups or it’s a group outside your area, you can still reach users by sending them individual messages. Per a great write up by Melissa Tsang, Meetup has a limit of 12 messages per day, which is still enough to get some quality responses as she writes in detail about.
30) Create a Meetup group: Just because a group doesn’t exist, does not mean there would not be interest. Countless people have launched successful businesses based on the idea of organizing a high value group. Just remember that if you do this, not only will you build trust and relationships with all the attendees, you’ll be the organizer who can send all those messages, decide who addresses the audience, etc.
31) Write a blog post about the problem you’re solving: If you feel you know some of the key problems that users are facing in your target market, write about it! If it resonates with them, they will share, upvote, tweet, etc it and some will even sign up as long as you remember to have a call to action to sign up at the end. You can see an example here, where 1,000 reads turned into 10 sign ups and a look at some famous companies that started with a blog here.
32) Post your blog to discussion sites in appropriate categories: Sites like Reddit and HackerNews are awesome to access established audiences for your market. Before posting, do your homework so you actually post it somewhere it’s welcome; a baker would not be well served to post their baking innovation on HackerNews, but a marketing startup would do very well posting to Inbound.org. By posting it to these sites you’ll significantly increase the reach of #31 and might also get some interesting commenters there you can reach out to like this example from Vero.
33) Update your About Page for what you’re looking for: Just like #23 and #28, it is always beneficial to list what your looking for on your About page. The most engaged people on your blog are likely to click to your about page to see who you are and if they see this, they can help even if they don’t read your specific blog post about your idea.
34) Make a page on your blog just about your market: Depending on your blogging platform, this could be easy or hard, but it can never hurt to organize your information in a way that people can easily navigate it. If you’re writing a whole series of items or have already created a lot of related content, this can be a great way to assert your expertise and act as a honeypot to draw in interested potential customers.
35) Start a blog just to talk about your industry: Don’t already have a blog or don’t want to talk about your startup on your existing blog? Then start a new one. It helps to have more content than just one post, so if you go this route, try to have a few posts you can post over a few weeks. If you know your startup’s domain, you can make this the start of your company’s blog. Especially for blogs like this, try to get users to either sign up for an email list or to explicitly sign up for customer interviews.
36) Reach out to other bloggers for interviews: Chances are, there are other people writing about the market and potentially even the problem you’re interested in solving. These people are generally very knowledgable on the market and so they make great customer interview candidates and can also shed a light on more places to look for people in your market.
37) Ask other bloggers to run an ad for you: Many bloggers, like those fan page owners, don’t make a lot of money, so they may be willing to run an ad for you for very cheap or mention you in a relevant post just because they’re nice or like you.
38) Ask other bloggers to write about you: Going beyond an ad (which may be seen on multiple posts) you can see if a blogger is willing to write a whole post about you. If you’ve already interviewed them and they’re excited about your idea, this may be an easier ask than you think (and thus do it for free).
39) Ask to write a guest blog post: If your own blog has no audience, the best thing you can do is get a post you’d write on your market/problem on a blog that does have your desired audience. Bloggers love having more content to share, so if it’s a good post, they’re very likely to be willing to publish it. Look for guidelines and advice on guest blogging on sites you want to write for like on KISSmetrics’s blog.
41) Reach out to commenters: If you see passionate comments on someone else’s blog, follow the link and the profile/name from the comment to find out who they are and reach out to them. People usually will include a link back to their own blog, About.me profile or Twitter account from such a comment. This will give you a more direct, personal way to reach them, and avoid writing a bunch of comments, which the blog owner may then mark as spam and never be seen.
42) Reach out to people that ask relevant questions: If you can see who asked a good question related to the problem you’re solving, reach out to them using any methods the site allows to see if they’ll do an interview.
43) Answer questions about your problem/market: If you’re already knowledgable on your market, don’t be afraid to jump in and answer open questions. The people that ask can become great people to talk to and are more likely to be responsive if you already helped them with your answer. Don’t be afraid to drop a mention of what you’re working on right in the answers. Thomas Schranz at Blossom.io has done a great job of doing this in a helpful, non-spammy way.
44) Reach out to great answers: If you see someone who has given some great answers, they are likely very knowledgeable in your market and the problem you’re solving. Reach out to them to do an interview. Obviously, you’ll want to be careful it’s not a competitor. ;)
45) Ask questions to see who answers: There’s no reason not to join the conversation by asking questions as well. Reach out to the authors of any answers you find satisfactory or interesting. The best part of asking your own questions is that virtually every Q&A site will send you alerts when your question gets answered so you can easily keep track of them even if you ask a few.
46) Put Calls to Action in your Profile and Answer Subheadings: Sites like Quora allow you to put whatever subheading you want below an answer, so don’t be afraid to mention something about your startup there. Also, like the other sections, always put in your profile what you’re up to so anyone that checks you out (even for answers you may have written in other areas) can find you and potentially reach out.
47) Approach people in native environments: Would your target customer be found in a coffee shop, grocery store or mall? Then go there and try talking to people. Like anything this is a skill. This can come off as harassing or creepy (and the store may ask you to leave) or it can work great. The founders of Sincerely have been know to walk over to a nearby mall and offer strangers money and app credits so they can see how a user uses their app.
48) Look for people unhappy with a service: Are you trying to make a real world activity (like finding a locksmith or a good mechanic) better? Then looking for disappointed people near that service may be just the unhappy customers you could delight with your service. After taking a bad cab ride, you’d be the perfect person to explain all the reasons you’d likely prefer to take an Uber next time.
49) Go to conferences for your target audience: Just about every industry has a few conferences related to it. Established businesses get booths, thought leaders speak and many deals get done. You should be there too as you’ll never find such a concentration of people in your industry. Take advantage of attendee lists to figure out who you want to meet with. Offer to volunteer or just ask for a discount ticket because you’re a startup and you’ll be surprised what you may get.
50) Go to trade organization events: Depending on the business you’re in there may be regularly “Chamber of Commerce” style events where your target customers may be. This would work especially well if you’re targeting people who own brick and mortar stores or provide contract services.
51) Go to places you know they’ll congregate: Have an idea for people that own boats? Then going to your local marina is a *great* place to find boaters to talk to. Golfers might just be at the golf course or driving range, frequent fliers at an airport and teachers at a school. Timing is obviously everything, so be cognizant of when someone looks like they’re approachable and have time to kill versus trying to hurry somewhere else.
52) Ask people on long train rides or airplanes: I’m always amazed by the kinds of people I meet when riding Amtrak or flying. Sometimes serendipity can work in crazy ways, so don’t be afraid to tell random people you meet what you’re working on. They might just be helpful or someone nearby will overhear and jump in.
Your existing user base (even if small)
53) Offer a user Referral Program: You need a great product before you should be trying to aggressively hack your growth, but that shouldn’t stop you from offering an incentive to your existing users to help you get more users. They likely know where to find more of them (their social graph, emailing friends, etc) so a little incentive will get them to help you out. There’s a great Quora thread on the subject here.
54) Ask your users via email: Especially in the early days, you should regularly talk to your users and be updating your whole user base regularly. As part of those updates for new features, major bug fixes and outreach, don’t be afraid to ask them for referrals to more users or people to talk to.
55) Always ask your users when you talk: Whether you’re doing a customer development interview, usability testing or just talking to a user about a support case, remember that you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Ask them both if they know anyone specific who might also be interested in your startup as well as places they generally find other people. The latter may turn out to be a meetup, a Twitter chat or something else that is very target rich for you, but you would never have known.
56) Look for relevant postings: Does your startup idea do anything that is relevant to one of the many Craigslist categories? Quite a few companies have had great success building a massive business off just 1 category (see below). Try reaching out to posters to talk to them and later you can potentially scale this. AirBnb is the most famous recent example, which Andrew Chen highlights well here.
57) Make your own post: Just like you can respond to posters, you can also make your own posting in the appropriate category and filter the ensuing responses to find the right people to talk to. A friend working on a startup recently used this to success by making a basic post and then sending all respondents a qualifying survey to make sure they were a match. A small cash incentive in the posting will generally drive a solid response rate.
Forums, Micro Networks & Communities on the web
58) Join in the conversations on the sites: Just about any community exists on the web today. Many of them are in places you would have no idea exists until you dig in. If you can’t find them initially, ask some of the early users you meet using some of the other tactics listed in this post. Once there, look around for people already talking about your problem you’re solving and join that conversation to learn more. You can also post new discussions specifically on your target subject to see who is interested.
59) Message individual users of interest: If you see someone talking a lot about the problems or opportunities you’re working on, see if you can send a private message to them on the forum or at worst just reply to one of their comments asking to speak with them. Anyone sufficiently passionate will be excited to share their thoughts.
60) Reach out to moderators: If this is truly a community site (and not another company’s forums) then the moderators are often the most passionate people of all. Reach out to them as great people to talk to and learn from. As a moderator, they’ll be spending as much time as anyone following all the conversations there so they could provide valuable insight beyond their own experiences. If it is a company’s forum, then tread a bit more carefully depending on if your idea is competitive or complimentary.
61) Ask Moderators to post on your behalf or run an ad: Many forums on the web are run with very little revenue and more as a passion project. Therefore, much like some of the previously mentioned Fan Pages, etc, they may be open to posting on your behalf or running an ad for a very small fee. They’ll know the ins and outs of the site, which will give you a better chance of reaching the maximum audience.
Google Adwords & other ad networks
62) Run Adwords with a landing page: An efficient (though at times costly) way to build an early user list is to run a quick, targeted Adwords campaign linking to a sign up landing page. You can learn how to set that up here. There’s also good advice on evaluating the success or failure of such a campaign here and here. Realize that paying to get a bunch of people on a list doesn’t validate much on its own. It’s then using that list to reach out to users and talk to them and ask them to pay for something that does.
63) Run ads on lesser known networks: Google may have the largest audience, but not the cheapest or best targeted. Consider your market and think about if other ad networks would work better. There’s everything to consider from Yahoo and Bing to mobile ad networks or blogger ad networks. You can find a list of alternatives here.
64) Have your SEO basics in order: What’s better than the perfect Adwords campaign? Showing up organically for searches on your problem. Great SEO takes time, but you can make sure to have the basics right from day 1 so that you can at least get a trickle of interested users to your blog or site. There are a lot of great tips on the KISSmetrics blog including this great SEO Guide for Beginners.
65) Talk to newsletter owners: Just like passionate people often run forums simply for the love of it, others will run newsletters. If you already subscribe to them, don’t be afraid to just reply to the newsletter and ask for a few minutes to talk to them. Most people are excited to hear from people who read their work!
66) Buy Ads using a newsletter ad tool: There’s a great newsletter ad network called Launchbit. It can be a great help in both finding out what newsletters exist in a category and allowing you to quickly set up an ad campaign across multiple such newsletters.
67) Ask for mentions in a newsletter: In addition to talking to newsletter owners as potential early adopters, you can also ask them for exposure. Many newsletters have no formal advertising system like Launchbit, so often you can just go direct to them to ask for a mention for little or no cost. The more excited they are for what you’re doing, the less likely it will cost you anything.
68) Start your own industry newsletter: If you don’t find any newsletters in your category or are think there’s room for another one, then don’t be afraid to start your own! It will take time to build up an audience, but it’s a great way to put to work all those signups you’ve been driving to your landing page. Often times, it’s easier to first get people on a newsletter and then later convert them to a paying customer.
69) Reach out to complimentary startups: No matter your industry or idea, there will be others in the market you compliment. At KISSmetrics, there were many other SaaS tools we were happy to integrate with and swap customer/mailing lists. In most cases, our analytics was something their users needed and many of our customers could use a support tool, call tracking metrics or track a MailChimp email campaign. The best case for success with this method is to target companies of similar size (ie- mailing lists and user bases are of similar size) as that assures an equally mutually beneficial relationship.
70) Ask to guest post on their blog: Just like there are industry blogs run by volunteers and people just generally passionate about the space, there are also companies with prominent blogs. One of the biggest challenges they often have is having enough content. Reach out to someone on the marketing team or any contact info you see on the blog and propose topics that allow you to naturally link to what you’re doing.
71) Find their users and reach out to them directly: If you think your idea would be helpful to that company’s audience, look for people actively engaging and discussing the company on all the platforms I’ve been writing about throughout this post. While it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, remember again to use tact so as to not be spammy or offend the company.
72) Watch what they do: As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Chances are your competition has figured out at least a couple of spots where your customers exist and you can enter the conversation there as well. In more modern terms, if something they do works, then consider Jobs’s favorite quote, “Great artists steal.” Like their Facebook page, and follow the company and key employees on Twitter for some inspiration based on what they link to.
73) Look for social mentions: Especially if you’re trying to disrupt a large incumbent, there’s likely many people talking about your competition. Look for especially people complaining about the product or experience. These are perfect people to reach out to learn from and hopefully convert to giving you a try. This also works for other startups you’re competing with.
74) Use research tools: Tools like MixRank, which shows the ads a site has been running, and Spyfu, which shows you the expected ad spend and keywords purchased for competition. If you’re looking for inspiration on the kinds of ads to try, those tools will help you get there.
Data Research Tools
75) Use Datanyze: This tool will tell you what apps any of the top 1,000,000+ websites are using as well as what they’ve recently quit. It’s transformed more than one sales team I know and provides priceless information on the state of just about any web SaaS market. Their free demo can help you understand market share, while the pricey version has alerts for specific tools and lets you see what any site is currently using.
76) Leverage tools that tell you contact info for key roles: If you know the persona of your target customer, then a list like Hoover’s or Jigsaw can help you find some of those types of users at especially bigger companies. Note that this lists they have aren’t 100% accurate, nor are they cheap. Try to hustle access via a friend or advisor.
Your College, University or School
77) Ask your professors: Many professors live vicariously through their students, and are happy to help out current students as well as alumni. If you had a professor that you had a particularly strong relationship with that is relevant to your startup, definitely reconnect with them. Also realize that many professors will talk to alumni who they never taught. Most professors have industry contacts they can help you with introductions as well as be a great channel to their students as potential customers or hires whether via emailing them or letting you address the class.
78) Leverage your alumni network: Whether it’s old clubs you belonged to, a fraternity or sorority or simply the alumni group for the city you’re in, you’d be amazed what people may be doing after school regardless of major or study habits. Don’t be afraid to both reach out to old classmates and club members as well as reach out to the clubs themselves for help from current members. Every student group I was in loved to hear from alumni.
79) Use your alumni directory: Many schools have searchable alumni directories that can allow you to track down contacts at some of the most powerful positions in the world. The shared experience of going to the same school is often all you need to mention to get someone who normally would be unreachable to suddenly be accessible to you for a meeting, mentorship or the right introduction.
80) Reach out to student groups: Even if you weren’t a member of the group, student groups are usually excited to hear from alumni. If any student group fits as a target customer for your startup, you should reach out to them. Playing the alumni card often gets you a great response and can often lead to offers to help you in many ways. They can email their list, let you address the group at a meeting or assist in recruiting help.
Leveraging the Physical World
81) Post an offer in public places: Bulletin boards still physically exist in many places and people still put up physical signs for all kinds of things. The stereotype are things like meetings and guitar lessons, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get attention being creative. If you know there are places your target audience will go to or pass by, consider posting something to get their attention. If you’re doing a Concierge MVP for your idea, this is a great way to start.
82) Use handouts, fliers or mailers: If hanging something up and hoping people will read it and respond doesn’t work for you, consider a more 1 to 1 communication through handouts you can give out or mail. One person I met that had a parking ticket app would carry fliers with him and put their flier under the wiper of a car that already had a parking ticket on it as well. It had a massive conversion rate. Get creative!
83) Buy someone’s service: So you want to start a business serving artists, or maybe housecleaners or some other service? Try buying their service and take a few minutes before or after their service to talk to them. If they care about customer service, they’ll be happy to discuss their problems with you. A friend of mine started his mobile invoicing startup based on the problems his cleaning lady had tracking payments.
Kickstarter & other funding sites
84) Look for products getting funded in your industry: Funding sites are booming which means all kinds of companies and ideas are getting funded. Others in your industry can be incredible sources of knowledge not just on how to run a campaign, but what they’ve learned from interacting with their new customers.
85) Ask complimentary funded projects for help: A fellow crowd-funded project that has finished their funding will be very busy trying to deliver their product to their supporters, but they might just be willing to send a message, tweet or post on your behalf. If their funding is still open, you may be able to swap promotion to your audience and theirs. Remember: You don’t get what you don’t ask for!
86) Reach out to users that backed the project: Every Kickstarter has a tab for Backers which includes their profiles, which you can click to see what else they’ve backed. While they have no messaging system (Indiegogo does), with their full names on Kickstarter, you can likely Google or search Twitter or Linkedin for them and message them there.
87) Put your idea on a funding site: If you feel you’ve validated your idea enough, then running your own crowd-funding campaign is a great way to validate interest for your idea. There is tons of information on the web about making the most of a campaign, just search on Google or Quora.
88) Talk to Youtube Channel owners: Youtube is filled with creators making content on all kinds of markets. If you go to Youtube’s channel search, you can search for your category and see who has channels and how many subscribers they reach. Just like you can talk to bloggers as experts in a market, you can learn a lot by interviewing channel owners.
89) Ask channel owners for promotion: If your idea resonates with the channel owner, there’s a good chance you can get them to talk about you on one of their episodes or maybe even have you as a guest. They may charge you a fee, but if it’s your exact target audience, it might just be worth it.
90) Start your own channel: If you think video is a great medium to communicate with your audience then creating a channel to connect with them may be a great option. Just like starting your own Meetup group, it can initially be hard, but once you’ve built an audience it will have a great, long-term payoff.
91) Run ads on Youtube: Youtube leverages Google’s ad powers to run targeted ads. You only pay for the ads people fully watch (not skip) so if video seems a powerful way to communicate with your audience, it’s worth experimenting. Remember, Dropbox started with nothing but a video and got over 75,000 signups (although they did not run it as a video ad).
Your own Product:
92) Put your name on it: If any part of your product can be seen by a non-customer, make sure your name is on it. This is easy, free marketing that your customers can provide for you simply in using your product. KISSinsights (now Qualaroo) had incredible growth without doing any paid advertising because of a simple link in each of their pop up surveys.
93) Make sharing an option for more access: If your product has metered usage, then you will always have customers who are uncomfortable moving up to a new, costlier tier. MixPanel has a free 50,000 events plan that can become a free 175,000 plan if you put their logo on your homepage.I’ve seen countless startups with that logo in their footer for just this reason, so don’t think your users won’t do it until you try.
95) Run ads in your side project apps: A number of my friends have built apps as side projects that end up having a few thousand users that never really monetized or amounted to anything. As a free user base you can always insert your own ads into your app. I met one of the founders at QBix that built the Groups App for the iPhone (helping you organize your contacts) and they used this tactic to drive people to their other apps. You can also send them to mobile landing pages to avoid building anything.
Woah…that was a lot. Thank you for making it to the end.
I hope a few of these have inspired you and point you in the right direction to find those difficult first few users. While some of them are paid options, I hope you see how many alternatives there are to paid acquisition on Day 1.
Spend five minutes on any social media site and you’ll see hundreds of articles shared and discussed. In our world of infinite knowledge at our fingertips, the challenge now becomes Quality, not Quantity. As you read any article, book, answer or social media post, it’s important to take the time to digest what you consume. Did you just waste ten minutes or was it worth the read? What did you learn? Do you really get it?
In our fervor to join the conversation or “catch up” on those thousands of articles you’ve saved in RSS, Pocket, Instapaper, or otherwise, we often miss the point.
We are all Hypocrites.
Too often we read something, share it and talk about it, but fail to retain its meaning. Maybe you retweeted something about taking care of employees, but then you failed to show interest and compassion for an employee that came into work visibly upset. Maybe you just shared an article about the importance of open communication, but then disregarded comments from someone who tried to bring up a problem with you. Regardless of what it is, you’re wasting your time with all your reading if you don’t use it to drive action.
“Most people spend nearly all their energy trying not to change. This is what the philosopher William James meant when he wrote the mind’s main function was to be a fortress for protecting your ego from reality. When the mind has to accommodate a new fact, James argued, it doesn’t settle on the change to its model of reality that is most likely to reflect reality. It protects the fortress, calculating the smallest possible modification to its bulwarks that can account for the new fact.
As I read and observe my daily life, I try to look for opportunities to apply all the great things I’m reading and everyone is sharing. And when I write or give others advice, I challenge myself to make those things not just aspirational or what I do at my best, but what I apply day in and day out. It’s not easy, and I don’t always succeed at this, but it has helped make me and those I interact with a little better every day.
This is my personal mantra. Anything I invest my time in is focused on how I can make things better in a lasting way. This has carried me far both personally and professionally.
I think one thing that always holds people back is the belief that others should have it “just as hard as I had it.” Adversity is good for everyone, but life is too short to make everyone learn only on their own. I’ve always loved this quote that captures this idea well:
“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” – Otto von Bismarck
I believe any time you can help people hack a system and level up faster, everyone wins; it means someone can become more productive, faster and devote their energy to taking on new, yet-to-be-conquered challenges. It doesn’t take long for the gains to then become exponential from multiple people in a group buying into this idea.
A few quick examples of how I’ve done it and benefitted greatly:
When I found it difficult to navigate the Boston startup community, I started Greenhorn Connect to be the guide I wish I had. It also turned out to be my living resume of what I could do to build a useful product, market it and jump-started my career in internet tech.
I mentor a number of people in the tech communities of SF and Boston. When I do, I focus on helping people avoid rookie mistakes. In turn, these people have leveled up in their careers much faster and are now often teaching me as much as I teach them.
Do you follow a similar mantra? How do you approach your life and those around you?
One of the best rated restaurants in the world serves no cocktails, no appetizers and only has 9 seats. It has no menu and only serves a variety of sushi as laid out by its 85 years old master chef and his team. Jiro Ono, who has been honing the craft of sushi for over 75 years, is the master chef featured in the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which tells the story of him and his restaurant (#ProTip: it’s free on Amazon Prime Instant).
It is truly amazing and inspiring to hear his story of dedication, attention to detail and passion to work with the best; whether it be his source of rice, the fisherman he buys from or the 10 years of training for his apprentices, Jiro strives for perfection. During the documentary, a Japanese food critic revealed what he felt separates Jiro and other great chefs:
They take their work very seriously and consistently perform at the highest level.
They aspire to improve their skills.
Cleanliness. If the restaurant doesn’t feel clean, the food isn’t going to taste good.
Impatience. They are better leaders than collaborators. They’re stubborn and insist on having it their way.
When I look at the food critic’s list of qualities, I realize that those are the same qualities that can apply to any craftsman. Entrepreneurs that put a high value on design, like most notably Steve Jobs, seem to fit that list as well.
So even if you want to commit to reading books to make yourself a better entrepreneur, what are you to do?
Over the last 3 years, I’ve read over 60 books on a variety of subjects to try to better my own entrepreneur knowledge base (see the sidebar on the right for the full list). Every book came from at least one recommendation from a friend, a tweet from an expert or a blog post explaining why it’s great. Because of this, very few of the books I’ve read would fit in the “waste of time” category most of those 3 million or so books on Amazon fit into. A lot of my friends have asked for what I think are the essential books I’d recommend, so here’s that list.
Why You Should Read This: There is no book more successful people I know have read than this one.
Being a leader is not easy. No matter how natural a great leader makes it look, it takes a lot of work to learn how to build relationships and inspire others on a regular basis. How to Win Friends and Influence People will teach you what you need to succeed.
Most importantly, the book is specific, it’s actionable and filled with solid example stories to help emphasize the rules. I’ve re-read this book at least 5 times and every time I learn something I could improve.
Why You Should Read This: This book explains all those strange feelings you have that make you want to throw away a cushy life, a nice salary and the life you’re “supposed to follow” and live the uncertainty of the startup life.
It won’t teach you how to incorporate your business or market your product. It will teach you how to make sense the of the journey you’ll go on if you follow your heart.
Why You Should Read This: The journey in building a startup is far from glamorous. As many have written before, over night successes are usually years of pain in the making.
Founders at Work captures this essence with stories of entrepreneurs anyone in the web and mobile startup space will recognize. It’s a great primer to understand how dark some of the dark days can get in a startup and how the best persevered.
Why You Should Read This: Want to stop guessing and start actually figuring out what your customers/users actually want? Want to not waste your time, money, energy and life on a startup no one cares about? There’s tons of blog posts, books and other content out there on Lean Startups, but nothing distills it down to its core concepts and action items like Patrick & Brant’s book does.
This book will get you 80% of the way there on understanding and taking action on Lean Startup methodology and you can read this book in an afternoon. It’s such an easy and important read, you should have everyone in any role at your startup read it in my opinion.
Why You Should Read This: You can only get people to do things they want to do. If you force them to do it, they won’t do great work and will quit the first chance they get. Chip and Dan explain how you can inspire your team and get them to accomplish major goals even when things look bleak.
They introduce the concept of the Elephant and the Rider which is an invaluable metaphor for the human pysche in both your employees and your own life.
Why You Should Read This: “Every age thinks it’s the modern age, but this one really is.” Dating back to the days of Western Union telegrams in the late 1800s, The Master Switch discusses what happens when a new technology emerges and disrupts the status quo. Without fail, it always involves the existing players fighting to hold back the technology until they’re crushed.
You may think that all of this has only happened more recently in the age of computers, but this is a battle that has repeated itself for generations. In particular, you’ll find that Twitter is surprisingly similar to AT&T when Alexander Graham Belle built his early empire. Instead of APIs and shutting down developers though, AT&T literally cut phone lines and physically attacked rival, small phone companies. This book will help put into perspective what happens during these cycles of disruption.
Why You Should Read This: Not that long ago, our world was driven by a purely tribal culture. Lives were simple and our evolutionary habits were driven towards survival. Today, those same instincts still exist, but they’re in a foreign world where many actually do us a disservice at worst or at least make us less predictable than you’d expect.
You should understand your customer better than they understand themselves. This book will help you understand people in ways you wouldn’t expect. You can’t put a price on the insights it can give you as you position your product and design it effectively.
Why You Should Read This: Many of my design friends have recommended this as the seminal book on design. Upon reading it, I can see why. The book focuses on explaining what great design really means with a lot of great examples with images.
Everyone today is focused on simplicity, but the real word that matters is intuitive. Norman asserts that the functionality of a product should be obvious based on the design of the product. While all of his examples are physical items like stoves and door handles, it’s easy to see how it should impact the layout of your site. After reading this book, you will never look at doors the same way again.
Why You Should Read This: Ever have a discussion devolve into a shouting match? Ever have a debate where you realized you and your opponent were actually in agreement? Do you wish you could get someone to open up to you, but they’re being icey cold? Crucial Conversations does exactly what the title suggests: it teaches you how to handle the tough, important conversations.
As entrepreneurs, we’re confronted with difficult conversations every step of the way from investors to cofounders, partners to employees. Then you go home and have to try to maintain a relationship with a spouse, significant other or roommate. This is a skillset you can’t afford not to have…unless you love stress, tension and resentment towards you.
Why You Should Read This: Making a great culture at your company is one of the hardest things to do at your startup, especially as it grows. Even harder is finding a decent book that actually helps you build that culture.
Tribal Leadership will help you understand how every person is doing in your company and how to raise their game to become a greater contributor and part of a truly great team.
When I joined KISSmetrics, I strongly encouraged Hiten, our CEO to read it and he loved it so much he got copies for the entire team and had us spend significant time discussing it. Since then, the whole company has had discussions on the stages we’ve all been in and we can see the impact positive actions have had.
Why You Should Read This: There is a language every human speaks that most people not only cannot understand, but they don’t even realize they’re speaking: body language.
Being able to read body language is huge for any entrepreneur as it gives them a leg up on negotiations, reading their employees for warning signs (or positive signs) and better detecting when something is shady. This book is written by an ex-FBI agent who did this for a living and it does not disappoint.
I cannot put a price on what I learned from this book as I’ve seen it show when a CEO has lost their staff, when coworkers aren’t buying into something I’m sharing and reading when a person is truly interested in me and my ideas. Don’t spend another day missing both the obvious and subtle signals people are sending you. Most are involuntary, which means they’ll be more truthful than the words coming out of their mouths.
I believe these books will give you a well-rounded view of the skills you need as an entrepreneur and in their category, they’re the best.
Whether you’re building a volunteer organization, a high growth business or a profitable side project, there is likely going to come a day when you no longer will be able to (or want to) run it. Building something that outlasts your direct efforts is a real accomplishment, but few talk about how to actually do it.
As I just moved to San Francisco, I’ve gone through the process of succession for my role in Boston running Greenhorn Connect, a site that aggregates everything going on in the Boston startup scene. (You obviously can’t run the day to day of such a site from another city.)
I’ve been fortunate enough to find someone great, Paul Hlatky, to take over and even managed to get my awesome team on board with the idea. This was no mistake. I was fortunate to have been able to solicit advice from some of Boston’s best leaders. I’d like to share what I learned from them and in the process of handling this succession.
How to Handle Succession Planning for Your Organization
1) Start planning before you need a successor.
In October 2011, I talked with my team at our monthly Greenhorn Team meeting about the idea of me not always running the day to day of Greenhorn Connect. After 2 full years, it seemed like it would make sense for someone new to give Greenhorn Connect a fresh injection of energy and vision. At the same time, I was trying to launch a company, so I realized that a founder of a growing business would not have the time for a side project like GHC.
From that meeting forward, I started quietly keeping an eye out for a successor and thinking about what it would take to hand off the business. This led me to ask myself a few key questions:
What are the core benefits to the job I can sell someone on?
What is the archetype for the person & skills needed for this role?
What role would I expect to have after the transition?
What don’t I know about succession planning that I should learn about?
At the outset, I had few answers, but it gave me a framework to get started on the process before I needed my successor. It also helped me understand what questions to ask others when I had the opportunity to learn how they’d approach the challenges I felt were coming.
2) Be proactive and seek out your sucessor.
Once I realized the kind of person I was looking for was going to be a hungry student new to our ecosystem and hungry to help others that were new to the ecosystem, I needed to find some leads. By narrowing the definition of who I was looking for I was able to concentrate my search to a few student leaders starting to emerge in the community. Since I didn’t want succession to be done in the spotlight, I had to seek them out directly and somewhat discretely.
Paul, then a senior at BU, had attended our massive conference the unconference and wrote a passionate blog post about connecting students. It came across my Twitter stream one night and I followed up with him by commenting and then meeting up with him for coffee.
3) Try before you buy.
Successions that fail don’t end well for anyone. Just ask John Sculley (aka- Jobs’s disastrous first successor). To save embarrassment for you and your potential successor, the best thing you can do is try before you buy. This means working with them and spending a lot of time with them to make sure you feel comfortable with them taking over.
For Paul and I, this trial ended up turning into a jointly organized Startup Career Fair. Pulling off a major event like this (500+ students and over 30 companies) requires a great deal of coordination and help. Paul showed incredibly skill as he recruited dozens of students to help, negotiated huge discounts from our venue and otherwise showed great business instincts. Even before the fair occurred I knew I had the right person, so I made the pitch.
4) Sell the Dream.
No matter how ugly, everyone loves their own baby. But if you’re handing it off to someone else, you have to convince them to love your baby, too. Once you’re certain you’ve found the right person, you need to grab a pair of rose colored glasses and sell the dream of why this person should want to take over for you.
While I knew Paul was a great young hustler, I didn’t know everything about his motivations yet, so when I made the pitch, I laid out all the benefits I knew Greenhorn Connect could provide its leader. I focused on what I knew motivated me to do it as well as some of the things that were cool, ancillary benefits of the role.
If you’re stuck on what to say, just think about how Willy Wonka made it impossible for Charlie to pass on the opportunity to run the chocolate factory…and reveals much of his succession plans:
(Quite possibly the best “Sell the Dream” ever. Skip to 2:29 in the video)
5) Focus on values and key success factors.
When you choose a successor, you have to realize they are not you. You can’t expect them to do everything as you have done it before. Instead, you need to focus on instilling the core values of the role and what matters most to the success of the business or organization. These values and key success factors will act as guide posts for your organization’s new leader to make their own decisions by.
In the case of Greenhorn Connect, I shared a large Google Doc with Paul filled with insights to what I felt had made the site a success to date and things I felt were our core strengths and weaknesses. I also shared with him many of the processes and productivity hacks I had used to run the site, but I tried to emphasize that he was welcome to come up with new strategies and tactics as long as they didn’t compromise our core values.
With what I’ve seen in Paul’s first 3 months running GHC, I can see that he learned the values and is now bringing some of his own style and ideas to the table, making Greenhorn Connect better than it was before.
5) Put them out in front.
Now that you’ve got your successor excited about the role and are instilling your values in them, it’s time to shine the spotlight on them. When I asked Tim Rowe for advice on succession he had a lot to say about this in particular. He told me:
Give Paul the spotlight. Make it all about him. When you’re out there, let him be the one up on stage. Meanwhile, you should be in the background telling everyone, “isn’t he great?” Keep pushing him and promoting him from behind the scenes until one day you aren’t back stage and everyone simply knows he’s in charge now.
There’s a lot of pride and ego you have to swallow to do this, but in order to avoid casting a tall shadow on them, you need to let them shine while you’re still around. It creates an intermediate step where you and your sucessor are together, rather than an instant switch from you to them that would be jarring.
6) Get out of the way.
Of all the steps, this is by far the hardest. You’re handing off your baby you watched grow and develop and now you have to trust someone else to continue caring for it. If you don’t get out of the way, you’ll end up meddling in their work, preventing them from succeeding.
To truly be a successor, they have to be able to put their stamp on it. This only comes with the independence of full control. As Michael Skok told me:
It doesn’t matter if they succeed or fail; either way if you do it right, they’ll be to blame for it, not you.
In some ways it feels heartless; when you’re handing it off, you want to feel like you have some lasting value you can provide. However, the best thing you can do is tell them you’re there if they need you, but otherwise absent.
I’m still working at this last step. Since I stayed on as CFO at Greenhorn Connect, I still have some duties with the business. These duties are a blessing and a curse; I still get to see how GHC is doing, but it also then tempts me to interject in Paul’s work to make observations and suggestions.
Luckily, Paul is very gracious about them and he’s also strong enough to stick to his guns and do what he thinks is best. I think I’m getting better at this last step of late, but I still catch myself at times trying to prevent Paul from making his own mistakes. I have to let him make his own mistakes or he won’t learn.
Succession is hard. But to ensure good things continue beyond the lifespan of its creator, it’s an important step in the lifecycle of every organization. I hope these tips will help you keep your great organization living on.
Whether on the subway, at home with family for the holidays or talking with friends, I often hear the same thing:
“It’s so hard to find a job right now…”
“I applied to 100 jobs on Monster.com and heard nothing!”
“I applied to every job I could find and I couldn’t even get a phone interview!”
In the last 4 years, during a recession that crushed our generation in the employment market (over 17% unemployment for Gen Y) I have landed three different, awesome jobs. What makes it particularly interesting are the following facts:
Each job I applied for was a reach based on my existing skills.
Each job was the only job I applied for at the time.
Each company ended up giving me a different job than I initially applied for, but that was an even better fit than what I started out going after.
No matter how hard you focus on getting a job, there are still only 24 hours a day. I have the same constraints as you. The problem is, when you apply for 100 jobs, you’re spreading your energy across 100 companies, while when I apply for one job, I’m focusing all of my energy on one company. That concentrated energy gets you noticed and gets you the job. How is this possible? In simplest terms, it’s all about focus.
Let’s look closer. I’m sharing all my secrets for getting the perfect job:
Step 1: Choosing the right company.
There are thousands of companies out there and especially as our economy finally recovers, many of them are hiring. For those of you who applied to 100 jobs, you know this is true. What really matters though is picking one company that you really want to work for.
It’s up to you to decide what matters most to you. Is it location? Company size? The market they work in? You want to choose the two or three most important things and use that to filter the companies you see that are hiring. Then you should dig into the company closer and see who gets you excited. Every company has an “About” page full of information about who they are. Keep searching until one of them stands out for you. If you’re going to put a ton of effort into pursuing one job, then you should make sure it’s a job you really want.
Step 2: Plan your attack.
Applying for a job is a lot more than writing a cover letter and submitting a resume. If you are going all in on one job, you need to do some serious prep.
Start by tearing apart their website. Then Google them. Learn everything you can about them. Pretend you have to give a major presentation for a class about them. Next, research the people you may be working with; if you’re a designer, look up other designers at the company, if you’re in HR or marketing, look at those departments specifically.
Step 3: Fire the first shot.
As you do your research on the company, see if you know anyone who works there or if you have a close friend/mentor/family member who knows someone there. If they do, ask for their help in getting an introduction into the company. Ideally, you want it to be someone in the department you’re applying to (if the company is big enough to have departments), but work with whatever you have.
Completing this step means getting an intro to someone in the right department. The real trick to succeeding in an interview is getting past the mess of general applications. An intro directly to the person hiring is how the pros get it done; they end up at the top of the proverbial resume stack…unlike the “spray and pray” kids from Monster.com that never get past the inbox.
Step 4: Follow up with value.
Now that you’ve submitted a great resume and cover letter tailored to the company and target job along with that intro to someone in your target department, it’s time to take your game to another level. You’re now going to create content to add value to your (hopefully) future employer.
The goal with the content you create is to show competence in the job you hope to do for them and also show an understanding of their company and their present challenges. If you’re a designer, perhaps it’s feedback on the design of some of their site or a proposed new design for something they have. If you’re a developer, you could make a small app with their API and include feedback on how they could make the API better.
If you’re on the business side, try submitting feedback on their product from a user perspective or even gather some insights from their market that would be valuable to your target supervisor.
Another great trick I’ve used is to literally tell them what I’d do if I had the job. I once submitted a 7 page document full of ideas of how a startup could engage its community and build buzz. It made for great conversation fodder in the interview and made me stand out against candidates who had more impressive work experience than I did. Startups love do-ers and this showed I was someone who got things done and had my own initiative.
Step 5: Double down and be persistent.
The great thing about submitting all this content to your target employer is that when you’re following up to find out where you are in the interview process, you’re not just bugging them, you’re sending them something of value. Each time you follow up in the process, try to have something of value to give them along with the ping. It will keep you on their radar and impress them with your persistence.
Do you have time to follow up with potential employers when you submit 100 resumes? Obviously not, which is why your new tactic of following up and adding value will stand out so much.
Step 6: Crush the interview and close.
With all the goodwill you’ve built up by getting a good introduction to someone on the team you want to join and submitting valuable content to them, you’re extremely likely to get brought in for a full interview. When you do, your goal is to show you’re as good in person as you are in all the electronic interactions you’ve now had.
When you come to the interview, come ready for everything. Find out everyone you’re interviewing with and research all of them like you already did the company you want to work for. Have something interesting to talk to each person about that shows you did your homework on them. Refresh yourself on all the research you’ve already done and be prepared to talk about and build upon the ideas you submitted in the content you’ve produced.
The great thing about all this effort is that on top of impressing everyone at the company, you should have a very clear idea of what the company is like and be ready to contribute in a big way from day one.
Step 7: What if I don’t get the job?!?
So there is is always the chance that despite all your efforts, you won’t get the job, it’s rare, but it does happen. What’s great is that very often when someone puts in this kind of effort a person hiring will do one of two things:
1) Try to find another job for you so the company can still hire you.
2) Refer you to someone in their network that could hire you.
I have personally experienced scenario 1) twice in my career and have friends who have ended up very happy in roles that came from referrals in scenario 2).
If all else fails, brush your shoulders off and move on to the next job. This much hustle is guaranteed to pay off sooner rather than later.
How would you recommend standing out in the job applicant crowd? Have you found a job and have advice to offer? Tell us in the comments!