AuthorDarrin

Can your Grandma explain your startup?

I’ve used this seemingly simple little exercise for years now. Can you explain your startup to your Grandma in a way where she can actually understand what the hell it is that you do?

I’m using Grandma here as a proxy for any sufficiently non-technical person, so that could very well be your dad, your neighbor, or that one hippie friend of yours who swore off all technology in 2004. It doesn’t matter, all that you need for this exercise is someone whose eyes glaze over approximately 5-10 words into a technical explanation of what your startup does.

There’s a lot of talk in the startup (and investment) word about your elevator pitch. Some call it a 30 second pitch. Whatever it’s dubbed, the premise is the same: Tell me what you do in the clearest way possible, using as few words as you can. You have a few seconds. Go.

Startup founders are inherently neurotic people. They could be doing any number of safer, sane things with their career, but they’ve decided to pursue a path with an irrational rate of failure. So oftentimes when you get one talking about what their startup does, they get so fucking excited that they might never stop.

So the industry has settled on the elevator pitch: Tell me what it is you do without boring me, whooshing right past me with jargon, and without rambling. It’s a great exercise to work through because it forces you to distill down your whole grand scheme into a few sentences. To trim the fat. To give it to me straight.

What I recommend you do is to imagine your Grandma listening to you make your pitch. Grandmas, even though they love you to death, don’t give a shit about nor understand 99% of the things it is you do as a tech startup founder. But they desperately want to hear all about it so they can brag to all of their friends at their next Bridge game (Grandmas are surprisingly feisty people who love to one up each other, so fuel her fire).

Here are some examples of how the big guys could be explained easily to your Grandma:

Facebook:

“Facebook is a website you can use to share pictures and stay connected with everyone you know.”

Spotify:

“Spotify is an app that lets you listen to any song you want instantly for free without having to download it.”

AirBNB:

“AirBNB is a place for you to rent out your home when you’re not there to other people who are traveling.”

All of the above are good examples of “The Gramma Pitch”. They mean something to Grandma. Grandma can brag about you with those explanations.

Of course, some people might get really excited if you tell them that your social networking app is powered by a “sharded graph database spanning multiple data-centers with full redundancy”. And when you’re talking to people like that, tell them all about it.

Some of you might think “but my startup is highly technical and targeted at a very niche audience, there’s no reason for me to ever explain it to a laymen”. Which, technically, you’re right about.

However, I’ll use myself as an example. For the last few years I’ve had an SEO keyword research tool product. When I first started working on it, I of course told my family about it. My Grandma was especially excited, but always started every conversation with “Now tell me about your company…first, what does it do again?”

After hearing that enough, I knew I needed to craft my Grandma Pitch. So I explained it to her thusly:

“Imagine a college campus with one giant bulletin board in the middle of it, that everyone uses to find out what’s going on nearby and to find out where to go and where to buy things. Everyone is free to post to the board, but there’s a group in charge of putting it in order and giving the best spots to the best postings. The only real way to figure out how to get your posting in the best spot is to watch the board carefully over time and see how everyone else is doing it, then use those techniques yourself.

My product helps people do that for their websites on Google.”

Obviously, this is a gross generalization of SEO and anyone who understands SEO is probably laughing at that description. But that description turned the light bulb on in my Grandma’s head from that day forward. She never again asked what it is I do.

And being able to break down what you do into a pure laymen’s explanation will be extremely important if you’re ever trying to reach out to a possible investor or are networking with someone who can connect you to the right people if only they could just understand what you do.

The VAST majority of people (I’m talking like 99%) don’t really care about the details of what it is you’re doing.

At all.

And even if what you’re doing is really impressive and you are proud of it and want to tell everyone, don’t. You’ll do yourself a disservice because when a laymen asks you what it is you do, they’re not expecting an overwhelming answer. They want it simple and concise. If they’re interested in hearing more, they’ll ask you specific questions. If not, what you told them is something they can easily repeat to someone else because you said it in plain English.

So if you’re stressing out about forming the perfect elevator pitch, pick up the phone and call Grandma.

The whole point of this exercise is to get you to practice explaining the true utility and value of your startup.

No one wants to know how your startup does what it does, what they care about is how it will help make their lives better.

You don’t train to win the Super Bowl

I watch a lot of football.

It’s really the only sport I give a shit about, and it’s basically the only thing I ever watch on live television (well, streaming over the internet but…whatever). And if you watch any amount of football, you’ll invariably hear the term “Super Bowl caliber team” thrown around at some point. All that means is that someone thinks a team is capable of making it to the championship game.

But this idea of being Super Bowl caliber, I think, can serve as a good way to identify the right mindset one should have when working on a startup (or any other long running project for that matter). Now, with startups, there isn’t really a “Super Bowl” per se (excluding a big acquisition I suppose), but there are absolutely timelines and roadmaps for all products and companies that are building towards something much bigger than where they currently are.

And a lot of founders will start to base a lot of their short term actions on whatever long term notions they have stuck in their heads. They’ll think things like “well, this company that we want to acquire us in 3 years has already acquired similar companies, so clearly we’re fucked” or “god, this competitor has a team 10 times the size of ours and a bank account with a lot more commas in the balance than us, so clearly we’re fucked”.

Or they’ll have thoughts where their heads are stuck way up in the clouds, thinking about how great it will be to have 100,000 users and a ton of cash flowing in and all the notoriety that comes with being a Successful Founder.

But here’s the thing. Football teams don’t start the season by training for winning the Super Bowl. Because they know that there are 19 other games they have to win before they even have a chance to prove themselves in the Big Show. They know that they have 10+ teams they need to plan for and play against, week by week, who all use unique strategies with unique players who pose unique threats.

So a good team, with a good coach, focuses on winning in Week 1. Then Week 2. Then Week 3. And so on. And a good team with a good coach knows that if you lose in Week 1 and Week 2, you’re not dead in the water. You still have a chance. But you don’t fix your situation by completely changing your entire team’s long term plans.

You focus on Week 3 instead.

And this idea of focusing on what’s right in front of you is something that I think is lost on many a founder. I’ve found myself sucked into this trap before quite a few times. You get so consumed with thinking about the longer term “big picture” and the grandiose thoughts of where you’ll be next year once you land that killer round of funding and get all those users that you forget to think about things like “how am I going to get my first 100 users?” or “how am I going to convince any investors that my idea and my team are worth a damn?”

There’s a characteristic that all Super Bowl winning teams share: they’ve won enough games along the way to even get a shot at playing in the game. They didn’t make it to the Super Bowl by thinking about how fucking cool it will be to have 100 million people watching them, they got there by training hard week by week, month by month, and grinding through all of the smaller obstacles along the way.

Now, a long term roadmap is obviously a very important thing to have for any startup. You need to know where you’re going. But any experienced founder will know that each successive month into your roadmap you look at, the more ambiguous things may become and the more flexible you’ll need to be. And no matter what awesome plans you have in your roadmap 6 months/12 months/24 months down the line, you still have this week staring you square in the face with its own challenges and obstacles to overcome.

The best founders are ones who can balance their long term plans with their short term challenges and keep everything in alignment while still being flexible enough to deal with the curveballs that might be thrown at them.

Something I Found Today…

I’m not sure where this came from (if someone knows, please tell me and I’ll attribute appropriately) but it resonated with me immensely:

There is no way around confronting yourself, your unconscious, your fears, your doubts. I myself haven’t found any magical way around this. We each have to confront ourselves. We cannot simply practice a spiritual technique like meditation or prayer, have some deep experience, and expect it to totally transform us. The experience, regardless of how profound, simply cannot erase all the false influences on your consciousness.

If we thoroughly investigate the matter for ourselves, we see that we have to confront ourselves in very powerful and deep ways. Those persons who have arrived at the balanced maturity of humanity have done so in the form of renunciation, discipline, friction with teacher and community, pursuit of practical tasks, following lessons given to them by their teachers, and in so many other ways that the various teachings have developed. In this work we do it through inquiry into our everyday experience.

Becoming a mature human being doesn’t happen easily or instantly. Although there is grace and there is blessing, it is only to help you confront and deal with your situation. Grace won’t do the whole thing for you. It will give you more confidence, more trust, but you will still have to deal with yourself. The help of the school, the teaching, and the teacher are small things compared to what you need to do yourself. This is part of the educational process of the inner path. The path requires the clarification and the transparency of all that determines your experience and perception of yourself and of the world.

Whatever questions you have, whatever you do not understand about yourself, you have to pursue. If you have any dissatisfaction, any discontentment, you need to pursue it. Teachings and teachers provide help, guidance, and orientation so that you don’t spend too much time dealing with the wrong issues. The teacher saves you time, energy, and effort. But the teacher can’t do it for you. The teacher gives you guidelines to help you do the practice and to help you deal with yourself.

Where I’ve Been

Without going into any specific personal details, I’ve been wrestling with some less than fun stuff over the last half year or so (really, it’s been for about 4-5 years now, but it’s been a bit more acute in recent months). As anyone who has had trouble with mood disorders can attest, when the demons decide to rear their ugly heads, life and its obligations tend to fall by the wayside.

Now I am in no way blaming the world for my problems; I have made some personal choices in the previous years that are still haunting me and need to be finalized as soon as possible because they’re wearing me very thin at this point. The professional repercussions of all of this is that I’ve essentially been forced into a sabbatical for the last few months of work. If you’re a friend, or a customer, this is a fact that is quickly apparent: ain’t nothin’ be done lately.

When faced with such obstacles, one is often compelled to ask for some sort of pill or magical solution that will just make things “go back to normal.” There are a lot of things off the mark with that desire, with the foremost being that there is no way to “go back” in life…life is a one way path where every decision you’ve made and action you’ve taken up until this very moment has dictated exactly where you are. Some of the reason you are who you are is because of uncontrollable external factors, of course. But ultimately, lamenting or regretting or yearning for the past is an exercise in futility; no matter how strongly you desire to “go back”, you’re here and here to stay.

Knowing that, when it comes to feeling better in life, you have to realize that the decision will require real work. You have to force yourself to evaluate your actions and thoughts and force yourself to mold your instinctual reactions to the world around you in order to actively push yourself to where you want to be. dark-ocean-up-net-126246This might seem obvious to some. But to others, especially those who have faced depression for any length of time, it’s not as obvious as it may seem. The depressed individual is compelled to inaction, facing the world is never as attractive as just rolling over and closing your eyes. Stephen Fry, famous British doer of everything, describes the lows of depression as having to face a “futureless future”, a sight as terrifying as staring into the blackness of the deepest part of the ocean and contemplating the sheer emptiness of it all. It’s not a feeling of sadness or pain necessarily, but more a feeling of horrifying loneliness.

This is the result of a skewed perspective that comes along with mood disorders. When you’re depressed, your perspective shrinks and only the immediate is visible. You can’t even begin to see past your immediate, painful surroundings. Enter anxiety, dread, and hopelessness.

Now, my way of dealing with this is a mixture of private lamentation and public masquerading. Few would guess upon talking to me that I am internally struggling, which is by design. The question I hate the most in life is “Are you ok?” because I can’t even begin to answer that question properly at this point. If only it were as simply as saying I lost my job or my dog just died or the like.

So I keep up this facade of feeling fine and wait until I can be by myself at night, oftentimes with drink in hand, staring off at the ceiling and wondering how I got myself here. I know these actions won’t get me on a path of recovery but they do get me to the next day, and when your perspective is shallow, that’s enough to keep you going.

Perspective, Perspective, Perspective

The proper way to combat this is to practice molding your perspective to allow for more upbeat and positive thinking. Sounds simple, but the problem arises when you consider that when you’re depressed, you’re unlikely to fucking do anything at all, much less actively focus on your pain and modifying it. It’s nearly a Catch-22. But you ultimately have to pick a starting point or else you’ll forever be stuck in the rut that your mind has created for you.

So, all that being said, I’m now sitting in a coffee shop about 1oo yards from the beach, with enough sun on me to force me to squint to see the screen of my laptop, drinking some pretty good Sumatran coffee, and forcing myself to be surrounded by life. After a year and a half of working alone from home, I’ve started to forget what life looks like. I’m jealous of those who work near a water cooler at this point. So my first step in trying to turn around this tormented life of mine at the moment is to just inject myself back into Real Life and see what happens.

I’ve also decided that I’m going to start pouring myself out via this blog a bit. A few people have asked me to starting writing again (which means the world to me, really) and I have a lot to say about a lot of stuff, and at this point, I have nothing to lose by being as transparent as possible with all of this because who knows what the future will bring at this point. And I plan on getting a bit more personal with some of the things I’ll be writing about moving forward because again, fuck it, nothing to lose.

As for work stuff, what am I going to try and accomplish you might be wondering? Well, here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. I’ve got this startup that just turned 2 years old now. She basically runs herself at this point but my god is there a lot left on the table by my inaction. I plan on actually getting back to work on this.
  2. I have the makings of a book coming together. I started writing some more detailed essays based on my 12 rules for building a profitable startup a while back and do plan on getting back to this at some point soon. The prospect of pounding out a book is a tad bit overwhelming so I’m going to try and attack it in small bites at first, but I think the concept behind it has legs and can become a good resource for some.
  3. I want to really push myself to learn and internalize a javascript framework, most likely Backbone.js and something like Marionette on top of it. I have a few app ideas that could be really neat if built in a very interactive, single page app fashion and considering how popular JS frameworks have become over the last few years, I think it’s a good professional move all around.

So that’s it folks, that’s about where I’m at right now. Sometimes the ticking of the clock gets a bit irritating but overall I’m still in one piece for the most part and am ready to actually pull myself out of this rut.

Hope you’re all doing well.

I Am A Terrible Golfer

Honestly, I really shouldn’t even call myself a golfer. I’m a man who happens to find himself on a golf course a few times a year. Despite casually playing the game my whole life, even easy courses still kick my ass.

I would have given up golf completely a long time ago if it weren’t for the fact that I get to be with friends and I turn my phone off for a few hours and drink beer in the sun. Those are all great things, so I keep playing.

So I suck at golf, but I still know enough about the game to understand the lingo, choose the right club for the right shot, and dress the part. If you saw me grab my golf bag and walk from my car to the first tee, you’d probably think I knew what I was doing.

But the moment that club head hits the ball for the first time, my secret will be out: I fucking suck at golf.

You might be thinking “So? Most people really suck at golf. This is not something unique to you, get over it”. I get that, but this is all a metaphor, so just relax and give me a few paragraphs.

I AM capable of hitting a golf ball really well…it just doesn’t happen naturally. I have a decent LOOKING swing (I don’t look like someone who has never touched a golf club before), but if I just trust my body’s natural golf swing, I will hit an atrocious shot. For me to actually hit a golf ball well, I have to consciously focus on each step in the process.

  1. I have to align my stance with the direction I want the ball to go
  2. I have to align the ball correctly with my stance
  3. I have to make sure my backswing goes straight back rather than wrap around my body
  4. I have to make sure my swing isn’t inside out or outside in
  5. I have to consciously focus on touching my chin to my right shoulder after my swing to keep my head down

Usually, if I do all of those things, I hit a pretty good shot. I’m not giving Tiger a run for his money by any means, but I’m not embarrassed to tee off in front of the club house. Honestly, playing golf is really just me trying really hard not to embarrass myself in public.

This is analogous to so many processes and activities in the rest of my life that I figured it was something I’d like to explore here. I find that even though I have ambitious ideas and goals, when left to my own devices (and with my mind free to do what it wants) I tend to drift towards inactivity, pondering, and procrastination. I get frustrated quickly by this, and soon I’m trapped in a vicious cycle where I am not naturally working on what I want to work on, and that is leading to frustration which is making it even harder to actually get back on task.

However, if I attach a framework to my todo list for the day, the chance of successfully completing my list increases significantly. If instead of just sitting down and saying “I’m going to build X today”, I make a detailed, concise list of tasks and then start systematically working through the list and tracking my progress, I not only feel better, but I also accomplish so much more than I would have if I just freestyled my day.

I can’t stop laughing at this picture

I think it’s natural to assume that our “muscle memory” (whether in a physical activity such as golf or mental activities such as programming) can lead the way and we can just naturally accomplish what we know we need to do. While it might feel good to fly by the seat of your pants and revel in how great you can naturally do things, you’ll end up falling short. By carefully walking yourself the tasks you want to complete, and being mindful of each step at that very moment, you can take control of your success and deliver the results you dreamed of.

And while it might seem that a lot of brilliant entrepreneurs (or anyone successful for that matter) just kick ass at everything they do, the reality is that most people in life need not only a framework to follow in order to complete their todo list, but also a conscious effort needs to be constantly applied to what they’re doing.

From the outside looking in, these successful determined people make it seem like everything just naturally happens for them and they don’t have to develop processes and frameworks to ensure success and productivity. But we’re all human, and even successful people need to employ systems in order to remain productive.

Just because a guy has a really nice golf shot doesn’t mean he isn’t consciously thinking about each step he’s taking to make that shot.

I would imagine this is a problem that startup founders run into somewhat frequently, as you receive a lot of freedom when you embark on a startup full time. You don’t have anyone scheduling your day, and oftentimes you don’t even have an office to go to (if you work from home), so it’s easy to just kind of gently flow through your day rather than adopt a rigid schedule and institute a self-discipline plan that will keep you on task.

With this type of free form day, it’s easy to write out a list of higher level todo items which will quickly lead to anxiety because you haven’t broken them down into bite sized chunks that can be mindfully approached one by one. If you find yourself making a list and then not doing any of it and just procrastinating instead, this is probably why. You’re overwhelming yourself because you aren’t creating digestible tasks.

Break down all of your tasks into the smallest useful size possible. You might end up with 10x as many items on your todo list, but you’re going to feel a hell of a lot better when reading your list than if it just said “Paint the Mona Lisa” on it.

But if you take the time to slow down and walk yourself through each step of your golf swing, or your todo list, or any other multi-step process, you should be able to remain focused and productive. Eventually, as you keep carefully walking through each step, you’ll slowly start developing some muscle memory, meaning you’ll need to dedicate less and less energy to getting your work done.

Hey White Hats, Automation Is A Good Thing…Stop Whining

NOTE: I’m absolutely not advocating automated link building or blogger outreach or anything related to such practices in this post. While I’ve done these things in the past (and quite honestly, they work really well…if done correctly), that’s not the point of this post. I’m focusing on automated data collection for SEO purposes only.

Let’s get started.

Just because spamming is automated doesn’t mean that automation is spamming.

Why am I yelling? Because I am annoyed.

I learned SEO from affiliate marketers, so my viewpoint on SEO processes is biased towards automation compared to most of the mainstream guys. In internet marketing, most SEOs don’t bat an eyelash at automation; it speeds up your processes, giving you more free time to do more work that will ideally make you more money.

Now, automation can take many forms, ranging from automated Twitter feed and Google Alerts monitoring to aggressive black hat link spam. Somewhere in between falls ideas like automated data collection (such as what we do at serpIQ or what every single rank tracker in the world does) and crowdsourcing (such as what Kevin suggests in his blog post about collecting blogger contact information using Mechanical Turk).

SEO is a fairly contentious field when it comes to deciding what is OK to do and what is just spammy spam spam, so there is a good amount of FUD floating out there unfortunately. The FUD is created and spread by people who don’t actually understand the techniques they’re criticizing, and that’s not fun for anyone.

The reason I decided to write this post was specifically because of a response I saw on Inbound.org to my friend Kevin’s blog post. I’ll keep the response anonymous in this post.

First, let’s look at Kevin’s strategy

  1. Gather a list of blogs you’re interested in reaching out to. You can use sites like Alexa or Technorati to find high quality, popular blogs for this step
  2. Create a job at Mechanical Turk and ask the Turkers to collect all of the contact information they can find for each of the blogs in your list
  3. Go do real work instead of mindlessly copying and pasting data into spreadsheets

Simple, efficient, extremely smart.

Now for the response:

“”High quality blogger outreach”? No way. You get what you pay for. It’s more like the good old “submit to 1000 search engines” kind of SEO automation.”

It took me a few minutes to recover from my head exploding, but once I gathered myself I decided to address this very naive White Hat FUD here. This trend bothers me so much that I’ve decided to yell my response with very large, bold text:

There Is No Value In Manually Collecting Any Data That Can Be Automated

I see so many SEO guides floating around that advocate manually collecting all kinds of information, from contact information to broken links, and they almost always consist of digging around the internet for the information and copying and pasting…and copying and pasting…and copying and pasting. This is creating an entire generation of SEOs who have no idea what good automation is and causes the FUD train to keep chugging along.

Here’s the problem with these manual data collection methods: Once you know what the data means and where the data comes from, you gain no benefit from manually collecting it in the future.

Let’s write that one more time for good measure:

Once you know what the data means and where the data comes from, you gain no benefit from manually collecting it in the future.

There’s simply no point. You might feel like you’re doing a lot of work because you’re toiling over your laptop, filling in cell after cell with blogger Twitter handles, but the reality is:

  1. You’re not getting better at your job. No matter how many times you paste a Twitter handle into a spreadsheet, you won’t ever become a better SEO. You might improve your ability to press CMD + V, but who gives a damn.
  2. You’re wasting precious time. Whether you work on your own campaigns or do client work, you’re simply wasting your time doing manual labor that can be automated. If I ever hired an SEO and they told me they spent 6 hours manually compiling a list of 100 bloggers to contact, I would fire them on the spot. The data is out there, don’t be a dummy and collect it efficiently.
  3. Google is an automated system. They crawl the internet in a fully automated fashion, normalizing, indexing, and ranking information. You should be doing the same, otherwise you’re trying to breach a castle wall with a hammer.

If you’re ever faced with a task that is both normalized and repeatable, you should be looking for ways to automate it. Now, a lot of automation tasks require a decent amount of coding skill, I realize this. However, with the emergence of such tools as Zapier and IFTTT, in addition to software like uBot, you can develop quite an impressive set of automated tools that can be used for monitoring and data collection, with very little technical skills necessary.

Automation saves you time.

Automation makes you money.

I see so many White Hat SEOs dismissing anything even remotely resembling automation, and quite frankly, it’s an irresponsible thing for them to be doing. Automation is why we have Google in the first place, otherwise we’d still be clicking manually collected links in the Yahoo Directory. By spouting off about how some technique is spam when it isn’t, you’re hurting the SEO community at large.

And because of this, I am going to personally call out anyone who makes such claims. That’s right, I’m coming for you if you decide to unfairly dismiss a useful technique as spam. Disinformation helps no one, and we need to get it under control in the SEO world or else the opinion of SEO will just keep getting more negative.

There are a lot of completely appropriate ways to automate your job. Look for them and use them as much as possible, otherwise you’re just being inefficient.

 

Never Mention Another Product When Describing Your Own

Side Note: I’m not exaggerating when I say that this exact scenario above actually happened to Sarah and I a few months ago. It was incredibly awkward.

The Scenario

So you’ve spent months researching, planning, coding, and testing your web app…only to describe it to other people as the “Facebook for Teachers” or the “Craigslist for Athletes”.

The Problem

Your product is YOURS. Describing your product by comparing to other products or companies, even if they aren’t direct competitors, causes a shift of focus from your product to both your product and the company you mentioned.

If someone is giving you an opportunity to tell them about your product, whether by asking for your elevator pitch in person or visiting your landing page and skimming down the screen, you absolutely need to pitch it perfectly and concisely. Given the fact that a pitch garners very short attention spans anyways, you can’t risk mentioning other products or companies in your pitch for fear of shifting your listener’s focus away from your product to an established product.

You might be thinking, “But comparing my product to an existing product makes it easy for people to understand what it is!”

This isn’t a good excuse.

The products you’re comparing to don’t use your product in their own descriptions. Facebook isn’t a “Myspace but better”, it is a site where you can keep in touch with friends. Craigslist isn’t an “Amazon for local purchases”, it is a site where you can list things to be bought or sold really easily online.

Additionally, if you can’t properly describe your product without having to mention some other product you don’t own, you have bigger positioning and marketing issues to deal with. ALL products can be described without having to reference any other specific products or companies.

The Psychology Behind This

The underlying psychological problem you’re creating here is people have trouble focusing on more than one subject at a time. By bringing up another product, you’re introducing another concrete thing that they now have to hold in their minds, which means you have less of their attention than when you started. And When you’re trying to pitch someone a product in the interest of landing them as a new customer, you can’t afford to lose any of their attention.

Here’s another way this can blow up in your face: What if they haven’t heard of your example product?

Sure, everyone’s heard of Facebook and Craigslist, but what if you’re talking to a florist and you describe yourself as the “Basecamp for Florists”…and she just stares at you blankly, making it obvious that she has no idea what Basecamp is. Now you’ve introduced another subject for her to focus on, and she doesn’t even know what it actually is! I can’t think of a better way to shoot yourself in the foot.

The Solution

So, how do you properly modify your pitch to be entirely focused on your own product? Let’s take the Basecamp for Florists example. You could describe it to a prospective customer as “An online system to manage your floral arrangement orders that also allows dead simple communication with your clients by putting all messages and notes in a single location.”

See? That describes exactly what your product does, and it keeps the focus entirely on your product. Any question your prospective customer could ask you will be focused on your product – there will be no split of focus between your product and an example you’re referencing.

This gives you a lot of advantages when pitching to prospective customers:

  1. They won’t be asking “Oh, well, does it have to-do list templates like Basecamp?”
  2. They won’t be asking why your pricing is different than Basecamp.
  3. Most importantly, they won’t start thinking about Basecamp and realizing that they can probably just get by with what Basecamp has to offer and just ignore your product.

In addition to the risk of losing your listener’s focus, you can also possibly get yourself into a spot where you need to justify why your product is actually a better option than the well established example you used in your pitch. You NEVER want to be in a position where you need to justify your product’s pricing or features (or lack thereof) in comparison to some other product, because you’ve now given the upper hand to that other option.

What you want is to justify your product’s value in and of itself. That way, you can position yourself as the premium option and can justify higher prices because there isn’t an alternative to compare to at the time of the pitch.

Why isn’t there an alternative?

Because you never introduced one in the first place.

The Real Goal

The real goal is to grow your brand to the point where other people mention your product to describe their OWN product. If you can become a reference point, you’ve generally hit critical mass and are on the minds of all of your competitors. This is a good thing. Strive for it.

The Really Easy SEO Link Building Strategy For Startups

The idea of actively building links is generally ostracized and off putting in the startup world. This is unfortunate, as link building is a very easy thing to do and it can pay dividends far beyond the amount of effort put into the process. Since literally every Startup can benefit from SEO and more traffic, it is imperative that all Startups have some sort of strategy in place.

As my product is in the SEO space, I figured I would share a link building method that’s safe, effective, and easy to do…even for someone who has never done SEO in their life.

Let’s Get Started

First, a 17 word SEO primer: SEO is a popularity contest, and you need a lot of votes from influential people to win.

I KNOW THERE’S MORE TO IT.

In that primer, votes = links from other sites to yours and winning = ranking high in the search engines.

But that’s enough for us to get started, so please don’t raise objections to this summary. Let’s just roll with it.

So how do you rack up those votes, you ask? You can:

  1. Cross your fingers and pray
  2. Write some really good content, tell people about it, then do #1
  3. Spam the ever living crap out of the internet
  4. Actively participate in discussions across the internet, slowly increasing your brand awareness and reach

Again, I KNOW THERE’S MORE TO IT. Spare me.

For startups with founders who aren’t very well versed in SEO, I recommend a combination of #2 and #4. I’m not going to cover #2 here because, well, I don’t want to. I’m going to talk about #4.

You’re probably asking, “So, how do I actively participate in discussion across the internet and slowly increase my brand awareness and reach?” Well, I recommend the following.

The Really Easy Link Building SEO Strategy For Startups

Step 1) Brainstorm Some Keywords

There are lots and lots of ways to gather lists of keywords, from just scribbling down a list on paper to using fully automated tools (like serpIQ! </shameless-plug>). The method I’m going to recommend here is simple enough that anyone can do it in 5 minutes.

  1. Obviously, write down your product name and any variations thereof.
  2. Write down a few short phrases that define your product well enough so that if someone typed it into Google, it’d be reasonable for your product to show up in the results. Let’s take Basecamp as an example. Some keywords that we could describe Basecamp with include: “project management”, “small business project management”, “simple project management”. This really isn’t rocket science, it’s pretty easy to come up with these. Focus on simple, straight forward keywords.
  3. Be specific, but not verbose. “simple project management web app for small businesses with fashion conscious founders” is not a good keyword.
  4. Write down some keywords related to the problem your product solves. Again with Basecamp: “project management for remote teams”, “how to use milestones”, “shared todo lists”. These can be a little bit more verbose.
  5. Write down as many competitor related keywords you can think of, including both brand and product names. “Asana”, “Active Collab”, “Planscope”

Step 2) Find Related Keywords For Each Keyword In Your List Using Google

Go to google and search for each of those keywords you wrote down. Scroll down to the bottom of each results page, and more often than not you’ll see a related keywords list. These are keywords Google has decided are very relevant to what you searched for. PAY ATTENTION TO THOSE. Grab all of those keywords and add them to your list as well.

At this point, you should have a few dozen keywords in your list. Read through it and throw away any keywords that are obviously not good.

Step 3) Generate RSS Feeds From Google Blog Search Results For Every Keyword

For whatever reason, people don’t talk about this much, but here’s a neat little trick. Every time you search for a keyword in Google Blog Search, you can generate an RSS feed at the bottom of the page to subscribe to that keyword. Then, whenever anything new shows up in their index, that will also show up in your RSS reader. Automated keyword mention monitoring? Yes please.

First, search in Google Blog Search for your keyword:

Then scroll down and click the rss feed link at the bottom of the page:

Grab all of these links for all of your keywords and put them into a spreadsheet list or just a text file for now.

Step 4) Add Keyword Feeds To Google Reader

(Note: You can use any feed reader, I’m just using Google’s for this example).

Go down your list of keyword feeds and subscribe to each one. After you add your first one, click the arrow next to it and select “New Folder” and make a folder named “Keyword Feeds”. As you add all of the rest of your feeds, add each one to this same folder.

Step 5) Put On Your Blog Commenting Game Face

You should now have a bunch of blog posts in your feed reader that you can visit and comment on. What you’ll want to do here is visit the posts that seem interesting or relevant, ACTUALLY READ THE BLOG POST, then leave a legitimate, insightful comment. Don’t just say thanks, don’t just pimp your product out. Contribute to the discussion.

Bloggers love comments. Especially on their brand new posts (which is why this method is so powerful). If you leave a good comment on a post, that blogger is going to love you forever. So do a good job here. Also, you don’t have to agree with the blogger necessarily. If you want to nicely object to what they wrote, that’s a great strategy too.

Another little trick is to reply to someone else’s comment. Play Devil’s Advocate or just enter the discussion from their comment instead of directly off the post. Just be natural.

Once you’ve left a comment on the post, you’re going to want to copy the url of that post and save it to a new spreadsheet or text document. You’re doing this because:

  1. Most blogs have comment moderation on
  2. You need to check and see when your post gets unmoderated

Finally, grab the rss feed of this blog you just commented on and subscribe to it in Google Reader. Put it in a folder named “Commented” like in the above screenshot.

Step 6) Monitor Your Comments

Periodically load up the list of urls you’ve saved of posts you’ve commented on previously. Go to a site like urlopener.com and open them up in your browser in batches of 10 or so. A trick here is to use a different browser (or incognito mode) than the one you commented in; reason being, most blog platforms will drop a cookie on you, so you’ll see your comment even if it’s in moderation.

Go through each url one by one and see which ones have been approved. When a comment has been approved:

  1. Remove it from your list of urls in this spreadsheet
  2. Move the feed in your feed reader from the “Commented” folder to an “Approved Comments” folder.
  3. Do a little jig

Step 7) Rinse And Repeat

This strategy only takes about 15-30 minutes a day and can have a very nice positive impact on your bottom line over time both in traffic and (hopefully) conversions from that traffic. There’s no excuse not to do this. So long as you have a good amount of keyword feeds in your reader, you should be able to post 5-10 comments a day very easily.

The Inner Workings Of This Strategy

So there are a few reasons why this is a good strategy to follow for beginner SEOs and Startups.

  1. It’s safe. Don’t listen to people who say building links is Black Hat. It’s perfectly ok to manually comment to your heart’s content. You won’t get slapped by Google for this.
  2. Once you’ve gotten approved on a blog, you usually won’t get moderated any more. That doesn’t mean you should then just start shamelessly promoting your product or spamming every single post on that blog, it just means that you can comment on that blog in the future without having to go back and check to see if your comment got approved. Easy links at that point.
  3. Repeat commenters on blogs makes bloggers happy, which means they will take notice of you and possibly write about you or just mention your product in their own lives.
  4. Comments can send traffic too. Yes, links are good. But the traffic you get can also be great.
  5. The benefits compound over time. The nature of Google and Page Rank and link sources is that they generally get stronger as they age. Getting a comment on a post on the day it’s published means that one day that comment might evolve into a very strong link as that blog post grows in strength itself.

So that’s it. You can get this strategy up and running in under and hour, and act on it every day in about 30 minutes a day. This is very much worth your time and every single Startup out there should be doing this.

“Growth Hacking” is BS…It’s All Just Marketing

I found myself having to explain to someone on Hacker News earlier today the difference between the trendy job title “growth hacker” and plain ol’ Marketer. My contention was that a Growth Hacker is simply a Marketer.

You might be thinking, who cares? Well, I guess I do. And everyone who uses the title Growth Hacker instead of Marketer does, as well.

The internet startup world is typically drowning in buzz words at any given time. As of 2012, some the big ones are Lean Startup, Cloud Deployment, Growth Hacker, and a few others. Typically, they’re fancy phrases attached to not so fancy ideas (In order: talking to your customers early and often, hosting as a service, and marketing with data) and honestly, they’re just plain tiring and unnecessary 99% of the time.

So, why is the title “Growth Hacker” a bunch of BS?

Because it’s just a way for marketing averse startups to hire marketers without having to publicly say they’re hiring marketers.

The Hacker News startup world notoriously scoffs at anything to do with Marketing (just feels dirty), SEO (SPAMMERS!), or user tracking and conversion optimization (omgmyprivacy). So when these companies all of a sudden start realizing they need to actually, ya know, make some money, they also realize they need to bring in some people who specialize in growing customer bases: Marketers.

But since marketing is taboo, startuppers just came up with a new name, “Growth Hacker” and ran with that rather than just facing the fact that a Growth Hacker IS a Marketer.

Let’s grab a definition of “Growth Hacker” from Andrew Chen:

Growth hackers are a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of “How do I get customers for my product?” and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph. On top of this, they layer the discipline of direct marketing, with its emphasis on quantitative measurement, scenario modeling via spreadsheets, and a lot of database queries. If a startup is pre-product/market fit, growth hackers can make sure virality is embedded at the core of a product. After product/market fit, they can help run up the score on what’s already working.

I’ll give you a second to digest the buzzwords and fluffiness of this definition before we continue.

Good? Alright, let’s go.

The internet is a fantastic landscape for marketers. Why? Because you can track your efforts extremely quickly and extremely accurately. Gone are the days of timing a Radio ad correctly and crossing your fingers. We can now look at our usage data for our products, refine our offering and marketing message to cater well to our customer base, and then split test various ideas programmatically and let the data speak for itself. This isn’t hacking, this isn’t magic…it’s just plain ol’ Marketing at a much more advanced and accurate level.

NOT ALL MARKETERS LOOK LIKE THIS DUDE

I have to assume that most people’s idea of what a Marketer is is cribbed from some hybrid of Mad Men and Vince the Shamwow guy. Slimey and fluffy and not really worth the money or effort. And from this assumption emerges a need for a new title that wipes away all of the cruft and ickiness of “Marketing” and instead makes it cool and hip and developer friendly by calling it “Growth Hacking”.

The example tossed at me for why a Growth Hacker is not a Marketer was this (I have no interest in starting a flame war so I won’t mention names):

“This is not inbound marketing but building product that, at its core, is focused on growth. LinkedIn, Zynga, Quora, Twitter, and Facebook all have growth teams.

Do you know Dropbox’s brilliant referral strategy? That was the brainchild of Sean Ellis (growth hacker), Ivan Kirigin (growth hacker), and Dropbox leadership.”

To which I replied:

“The goal of a marketer is to grow a customer base. That’s what these growth hackers are doing, they’re just doing it in a more technically advanced way via data confirmation and split testing.

Referral strategies have been around for decades, the Dropbox guys didn’t hack anything they just applied an old principle to a new technology.

Growth hacker and marketer are synonymous titles.”

The two guys mentioned as “growth hackers” in the comment above just so happened to be coders who implemented a very effective referral system for Dropbox.

Am I saying what they did wasn’t amazing?

Absolutely not.

Was it a brilliant example of growth hacking?

Absolutely not.

It was just a referral incentive system implemented in a very smooth and simple way, something used in marketing since its inception because it’s highly effective. And we can tell if it’s highly effective instantly nowadays with the technology that now exists for tracking and testing.

Marketing has traditionally been a discipline that constantly requires one to think outside the box and come up with new ways to introduce new products to existing markets or to build new markets for existing products. It’s not black magic nor is it hacking at all. Just because you use cohorts and automated funnel analysis and multivariate testing and referral schemes doesn’t mean you’re no longer a Marketer and all of a sudden a Growth Hacker…you’re just a really good Marketer.

So please, Startup world, drop the fluffy BS “Growth Hacker” title and focus on growing your companies rather than coming up with cool new job titles.

EDIT (08/28/2012)

I have to admit, I had two motivations for writing this post:

  1. I wanted to point out how ridiculous the pretentious title of Growth Hacker is
  2. I wanted to see how successful (in terms of traffic) an incendiary post would be

Well, I think I did a decent job of #1, and #2 as well, seeing as how this post got about 4500 unique visitors in about 3 hours yesterday.

Really what I’m trying to say here is that “Growth Hacker” is a smug, pretentious title to use. You should feel embarrassed introducing yourself as a Growth Hacker, because after you explain what the hell a Growth Hacker is to the person you’re speaking with, they will respond with “oh, so you’re really good at marketing?”

It’s the same as all the BS ninja and pirate titles for coders. Would you ever introduce yourself to someone as a “Ruby on Rails Rockstar”? Good god no. And if you did for some reason, after explaining what a rockstar coder is, the person will just respond with “oh, so you’re really good at programming?”

The startup world is constantly trying to separate itself from the traditional business world with new job titles and business techniques. It’s all just a waste of time, there’s no need for the separation.

How To Reach Your Hosting Bandwidth Limit By Front Paging Hacker News

Last week I wrote a blog post that got way more exposure than I ever expected it to. It was a post that I had been brainstorming for a while and I finally sat down on Thursday night and actually banged it all out rather than just incrementally adding to my Evernote outline like I normally do.

Now before I even begin to go into the story of the post and the subsequent traffic it has received, I want to start by thanking everyone for reading, commenting, and sending over such kind feedback. It was really a great experience overall for me to see the response from you all.

The Traffic! Look At All The Traffic!

So I would imagine most of you are interested in what kind of traffic being in the top 5 of Hacker News can actually send to your site on a relatively normal day. Below are some screenshots of the traffic over those days, along with the referrer and social breakdowns:

Now here are the referrer stats for that same time frame along with bounce rate and all that jazz:

Pretty neat eh? Lot’s and lots of traffic, more than this blog has gotten all year combined I think. Sweet.

Also seems that I picked up another 60 or so RSS subscribers and roughly the same amount of twitter followers. Very cool.

A Journey Down Fail Blvd

I woke up Saturday morning to many reports of my blog hitting a Bandwidth Limit, effectively taking it down for most of the weekend. I reached out to my host’s 24/7 support line and didn’t get a response until late Sunday (I don’t think they know what 24/7 actually means). That was frustrating as I probably missed out on a whole extra day of traffic, but oh well.

On Sunday I was able to move this site over a fresh Linode running behind nginx and using W3 Total Cache. You can probably already tell it is much snappier. I still need to tweak my nginx settings to make sure the site won’t buckle under heavy load again, but since everything is cached, it’s pretty rock solid now. I might even hook things up to CloudFlare soon as well for that extra security blanket.

Lesson to be learned from my mistake:

So What’s Next?

Well, I have a few plans:

  • A few of you asked if I could expand on some of the rules in my last post, to which I responded “absolutely!”. Now I should probably actually do that. In speaking with some friends, the idea of expanding each rule into its own few thousand word post could be a really nice way to fully capture what I’m going for with each idea, as well as provide a means of giving both good and bad examples of each rule.
  • Even cooler is that if I can expand each rule into its own post, I could compile them all and clean them up into a single eBook that I would just give away here for free (I might sell a printed version I guess, mainly to cover the costs of printing and to say that I’ve officially printed a damn book). We’ll see, that will take some time to fully see through, but would be a fun project.
  • I have plans to write out a Manifesto of my own personal beliefs when it comes to life and business that will extend far beyond these 12 Rules I wrote out. I have that fully outlined out, I just need to start cranking out some content. I’m hoping to start writing and publishing a post every other day from now on throughout the summer, so we’ll see how that goes.
  • I have a few other random blog post ideas that go along with startup mentality and strategy that I think will be good to share here as well.
  • Finally, I’ve been thinking about trying to contact and interview fellow startup founders and posting the interviews in a similar fashion to how UsesThis.com does their posts (a site which I am obsessed with)

So those are my ideas for the time being. I’m always open for suggestions, so send them over. You’ll probably also notice the snazzy new WordPress theme, gotta love ThemeForest 🙂

Happy 4th of July to all my American friends.

© 2017 Layered Thoughts

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE