Monthly Archives: March 2014

How I Can Help

I receive many requests for help from entrepreneurs based on my experience and the content of this blog. While I enjoy helping, I am not always the best person to help depending on the problems you are facing. To help save both of us time, I’ve put together a list of the main ways I can help you build your company. You can find it on my website or in this post below.

This list was inspired by Leo Polovets (who has a great blog that you should read) and his “Ways I Can Help” post. If you think I can help you based on what you see here, feel free to contact me as I’d love to help.

How I can help you build your business:

1. Leadership and Team Building

Over the past 20 years as a CEO and CTO I have built teams as small as 3 and as large as 100 across multiple industries, hiring everyone from interns to senior executives. I can act as an executive coach for you and help you improve your management skills, and/or help you with any of the following:

  • Recruiting and interviewing strategies.
  • Onboarding processes and team mentorship.
  • Providing effective feedback and performance reviews.
  • Team motivation and chemistry.
  • Dealing with problem employees.

2. User Interface/User Experience Design

I have spent over 15 years building award winning user interfaces for both consumer and enterprise companies, working as both an independent designer and with some of the top design firms. I can help with:

  • Usability studies and customer surveys.
  • Wireframing and user flow designs.
  • Visual design including color palettes and font choices.
  • Design reviews and peer evaluations.

3. Marketing and Sales Strategies

I have successfully grown businesses from zero to hundreds of thousands of customers and tens of millions in revenue. I can help with:

  • Designing your launch plans and messaging.
  • Building a customer communications plan.
  • Refining your sales pitch.
  • Preparing for investor pitches.

4. Complex Algorithm Design

I have a Masters degree in computer science with a focus in Machine Learning, which I have applied to complex problems faced by real businesses. I also provide open source libraries that implement common machine learning and other complex algorithms. I can help with:

  • Complex algorithm design and evaluation.
  • Machine Learning applications, model and feature selection.
  • Complexity analysis.

5. Large Scale Software Systems Scaling

At Flurry, I built one of the largest data processing systems in the world spanning thousands of servers and multiple data centers. I can help with:

  • Capacity planning and load testing.
  • Security and compliance protection.
  • Large scale/distributed software architecture.
  • Systems design and monitoring strategies.

6. Analytics and Business Intelligence

I have helped dozens of companies across a dozen industries design their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), metrics dashboards and analytics to help improve their business. I can help with:

  • Analytics tool selection.
  • KPI selection and monitoring.
  • Metrics investigation and analysis.
  • General business analysis and intelligence.

Hire Before Its Too Late

Hiring is a lot like fighting a fire, if you wait too long to deal with it then it might have already burnt your house down. In the early days of your new company (even when it’s just you), there are always a ton of great reasons to wait on hiring. You’ve probably thought to yourself:

  • I can’t afford another salary right now.
  • There isn’t enough for another person to do.
  • I really need to do this myself to make sure it’s done right.

All of those sound like reasonable justifications for not hiring, but they are really just excuses. Hiring is intimidating, time consuming and hard to do well so you will avoid it as long as you can. At the same time, it is one of the most critical factors in your success.

To be successful, you need to be able to make the decision on who to hire and when.

The Power of Focus

A very good rule of thumb for who you need at your company in the early days is that every essential function at your company should have at least one person whose entire focus and responsibility is for that one thing.

Every essential function at your company should have at least one person whose entire focus and responsibility is for that one thing.

While the term “essential function” might seem vague, it covers anything that your company MUST do well to succeed. For example, if you are counting on your launch to have a big impact there should be someone on your team who is solely focused on the launch. If you are scaling up a complex software platform, someone should be solely focused on scaling. If you are raising funding, someone will be spending all of their time on fundraising. The person assigned to each task might be the CEO, a co-founder or an employee but it needs to be someone.

Why is it so important to have someone dedicated to that function? Can’t you just split the work among the team you have? Sure, but then you are splitting focus and accountability. If you have two top priorities you will only spend half of your time on each and hence do each half as well as you could. Having a sole priority means that someone will do a great job and be held accountable for performance with the rest of the team. If something is essential to your company’s success you cannot afford to have someone do less than their best.

Does it mean everyone only does one thing? No, but every essential function needs a dedicated person. If you have as many people as essential functions then, yes, everyone has only one thing to focus on. Perhaps that means you should hire some more people.

The list of essential functions is entirely up to you and very dependent on your business. However, it should already be reflected in the top priorities for your business that you review with your team regularly and are baked into everything that you do. If you have a top priority that does not have a dedicated person next to it, then it’s time to start hiring.

Get a Head Start

Even if you have made the decision that you need to hire to fill an essential function, you can still fall into the trap of putting it off. You will be busy in the chaos of building your business and with all of the short term urgent issues the long term benefits of hiring seem easy to put off.

However, putting off hiring is a dangerous trap. If you don’t anticipate and hire ahead of your needs then you’ll find yourself stalling out and suffering later. You can’t just snap your fingers and make employees appear after all. Consider that even if you decide to hire someone tomorrow you still need to spend the following amount of time:

  2 months searching for the right candidate
+ 2 weeks notice at their current company
+ 1 month training before they are productive
  3.5 months lead time

And that assumes they don’t take any time off between jobs. For sales people you need to assume another 2 months after training before they are productive because you can’t close deals the minute you start selling. That means that you need almost 6 months lead time before sales people will be productive after you decide you hire one.

To put it in perspective, let’s say you are an enterprise sales driven company (revenue is derived from sales people) and you have a revenue forecast that has you growing by 10x in nine months. Your hiring plan should reflect that you need to grow your sales team by an equivalent amount and account for lead time before they become productive.

Hiring Ahead Correctly (1)

In order to meet your aggressive nine month revenue growth plan, you need to start recruiting aggressively in the next three months with the goal of hiring one new hire in month 3, 2 in month 4 and 4 in month 5. This assumes equivalent production per salesperson which is a safe assumption and plenty of lead time for both recruiting and on-boarding.

If you had taken a conservative approach to hiring and only hired 1 sales person per month, you would have failed before you even started. Nine months later you would wonder why you are falling short of your plan and why it’s taking so long to ramp up your team.

This example uses sales people, but the same principle applies to engineers, marketers and every other part of your business. If you don’t think you can hire enough people to meet your plan based on the lead time to productivity, perhaps you need to revisit your goals. If you MUST reach your goals, then you better hire ahead of the goal.

Hiring is Selling

Even after deciding who to hire and giving yourself enough lead time, you will probably fall back on the final excuse: I can’t afford another person right now.

That might be true, very few new businesses can afford the salaries of their founding team and definitely can’t afford new hires. Regardless, that should not stop you. As an early stage company you can offer prospective employees things they can’t get elsewhere: large amounts of equity and the chance to be in on the ground floor of a huge company.

Many people work for start up companies for fractions of a percent ownership later in their lifetime when there is less risk. Many of those same people would jump at the chance to own a few percentage points of a new company, even if they need to work for much less salary or even minimum wage. Don’t worry about giving these people a generous equity package because they will become the leaders as your company grows, hiring and building teams of their own. You want them to feel as much ownership in your company as possible.

Also remember that as you become more successful, you will start paying better salaries. Someone who joins you early for a lot of equity and a low salary will eventually get a better salary, and still own their equity. Many people would take that trade and live off their savings for 6-12 months, especially the kinds of people you would want to hire.

In the end, hiring is hard and it’s easy to put off. However, the satisfaction you get from hiring great people to fill important needs for your business and see them contribute to its success is one of the best rewards.

You Are Your Corporate Culture

Corporate culture is an elusive thing. Everyone agrees that you need to have a great one, but no one can really define what it is and what makes a given culture “great”. You can read books about legendary corporate cultures like they have at Zappos, but the lessons you learn never seem directly applicable to your company.

How then do you build the kind of corporate culture you want?

In reality, you start defining your corporate culture the minute you start your new company. You might not even realize it, but the decisions you make (and more importantly how you make them) add up quickly into a culture. For example, do you:

  • Discuss major decisions with your team or delegate responsibility to one person?
  • Communicate status in person or through written documents (git comments count)?
  • Involve everyone in hiring decisions or just a small team?
  • Use outsourced help or not?

There are no right or wrong answers to any of the above, but as you choose you start to define your company. You make dozens, if not hundreds, of these decisions everyday in the first few months of your company and eventually they add up. As new employees join, they see the company as the sum of the decisions you have made which in turn shapes how they interact with the company and contribute to the culture. Eventually, a small decision you made early made can affect how a team of hundreds of people goes about doing their jobs.

With that in mind, you have three levers for controlling how your corporate culture evolves:

  1. The types of people you hire. When you first start you have no culture as a company, only personalities as individuals. Those personalities, and the decisions they lead you to make, will start forming the basis of habits which become process which becomes the lifeblood of your company. The best way to end up with a culture you want is to start with personalities you like and decisions that you want to stand by in the future.
  2. The decisions you makeThink about the culture you would like your company to have a few years down the road and make decisions that people at that company would make. Again, decisions become processes before you know it so be sure that any decision you make is one you would make again and again. Define a mission that can act as a guide for future employees who face decisions, like yours, that might shape corporate culture.
  3. The incentives you give your team. People will always tend to do what is in their best interest so it is important to align their incentives with not just what you want them to do but how you would like them to do it. For example, if you want a culture that values customer happiness, make sure that your sales people are not just compensated on closing the deal, but also on whether that same customer makes additional purchases in the future. With the right incentives in place you will find that the behaviors you want to encourage become part of the operating fabric of the company.

The best way to see if your corporate culture is growing the way you like is to test it on a regular basis. Challenge your team in ways that require them to lean on the culture of the company such as shuffling their responsibilities for a day. If everyone showed up tomorrow and had to do a different job than they knew, how will they communicate and how will they work together? It can tell you a lot about whether you are headed in the right direction.

Decisions become processes. Processes become habits. Habits become culture.

The good news is that if you succeed in building a healthy corporate culture it will become a virtuous cycle, as you will begin attracting the kinds of employees who want to be part of the culture you have created. Attracting more and more like-minded people will increase the strength of the culture even further, attracting even more people.

If you understand the culture you want to have and start, from the beginning, to lay a solid foundation it is likely that one day you will show up for work and have the kind of company you always wanted to build and a place where you love to work. That is one of the most fulfilling achievements of all.

Confidence vs. Arrogance

Starting companies is hard, and it is true that the world is out to get you. It is no coincidence that many of the most famous entrepreneurs and CEOs of Fortune 100 companies are borderline narcissists. In order to overcome the armies of naysayers you need a preponderance of confidence, bordering on arrogance. While everyone is telling you ‘no’, you need to continue to respond ‘yes’.

However, it is dangerous to cross that line. Arrogance can make you sloppy and lead to mistakes. You need to be confident enough to believe in yourself when no one else does, but humble enough to realize that you will only succeed if you execute flawlessly.

If you’re afraid you are near the edge, take the following quiz and find out if you are Confident or Arrogant:

1. Do you think or know that you are better than your competition?

Arrogant Answer: You think you are better than your competition because you have worked really hard, you like your product a lot more than your competition and imagine your customers must as well. This also applies if you think a great new feature you will release next week will change the market overnight.

Confident Answer: You know you are better than your competition because a majority of your customers tell you that you are, or better yet if your metrics demonstrate it. You have done a full competitive analysis and understand your strengths and weaknesses as well as expected changes in the industry over the next twelve months.

2. Do you think or know that your employees are happy?

Arrogant: You think your employees are happy because you are happy and they seem to have fun around the office. You throw office parties and have social events on a regular basis that you enjoy, so they should as well.

Confident: You know your employees are happy because you ask them regularly. You understand why they like working for your company, where they aspire to go in their careers and are doing your best to help all of them achieve their goals. You still have social events, but you ask your team what they like to do instead of just doing what you want. 

3. Do you think or know your investors are happy with your performance?

Arrogant: You think your investors are happy because your metrics are improving and you are in a hot space. You assume that since they don’t ask many questions during your board meetings that you have already answered them.

Confident: You know your investors are happy because you have asked them about their expectations for your company’s performance and how it relates to their investment strategy. You brief them about important events ahead of board meetings and meet with them individually on a regular basis to get their private feedback.

4. Do you think or know you have enough capital to reach your next milestone?

Arrogant: You think you have enough capital because your revenues are going to increase and investors will be excited at the opportunity to invest when you start fundraising in a few months. Besides, you have plenty of money in the bank.

Confident: You know you have enough capital because you understand your cash flow model and have worked out the worst case scenario. Based on your current model, even if things don’t go according to plan, you will have 9 to 12 months of runway left when you start fundraising again.

5. Do you think or know you are not burning out?

Arrogant: You think you are fine because you are not afraid of hard work, eagerly working 20 hour days and weekends for 2 years. You feel so close to breaking through that if you push just a little harder for a little longer, you will get there. You don’t think your team performs as well when you are not around, so you work even harder.

Confident: You know you are fine because you have a support network that helps you understand how you are performing and you ask them regularly. You take regular breaks to decompress and gain perspective, while trusting your team to work in your absence.

So, how did you score? Over the years, I’ve both passed and failed this test many times.

It is easy to lose yourself in the day to day chaos of building your business and in doing so cross the line. It is easier to believe you will win because you are better than to make sure you are executing well enough to win based on your merits. Self-evaluation is a critical skill to develop to make sure you maintain healthy perspective.

Stay confident.

Negotiation Made Easy

A significant amount of your time is spent selling when starting a company. Assuming you are good at selling your company/product/vision, you will often get to the point where you need to close the deal. In between the selling and signing the contract is a chasm that many inexperienced entrepreneurs struggle to cross: negotiation.

Negotiation is simply the act of agreeing on terms for a deal. If you have never done it before you may envision it like a TV show with adversarial parties sitting across a table trying to crush the other party. That is rarely the case. Most negotiations are between two parties who really want to reach a mutually beneficial deal and just need to establish the terms of the deal. That does not mean people will not try to take advantage of you, but let us assume a basic negotiation where both parties have good intentions.

The actual act of negotiation is simple. One party makes an offer and the other party either accepts the offer, makes a counter offer or ends the negotiation. This continues until the parties reach an agreement or part ways.

But how do you know what offers to make, and whether the offer you get from the other party is a good offer? To answer that you need to understand some basics of negotiation and a simple process will help.

Step 1: You Win or Lose Before You Start

It’s a general misconception that whether you get good terms for a deal is based on whether you are a good negotiator. That is almost never true. Good negotiators know that the person who gets better terms is the person who has a better BATNA.

BATNA stands for Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement and represents the worst case scenario for both parties if no agreement is reached. Whoever has the best outcome if there is no agreement has the advantage in the negotiation because they have less incentive to close the deal and can more easily walk away.

For example, let us say you are selling an apartment and someone moving to this city would like to buy it. If there are only a few apartments for sale and the buyer needs to move in the near future you have the advantage as the seller. You could choose not to sell the apartment and wait for another buyer (your BATNA) while the buyer would have to desperately find another of the few apartments for sale quickly (their BATNA). On the other hand, if there are many apartments for sale and the buyer is buying the property to rent it out then the buyer has the advantage. You might not be able to sell your apartment since there are so many for sale and the buyer can simply wait for a better deal elsewhere. In both cases, the BATNA determines which party has the power in the negotiation based on their incentive to close the deal.

The lesson here is to make sure you optimize your BATNA before even starting a negotiation. Consider some common deals you might close and how to position your BATNA for success:

  • If you are raising money, make sure you have plenty of runway (9-12 months at least) so that you are not under pressure to close quickly. Also be sure to line up as many potential investors as possible so you have your choice (and fallback).
  • If you are selling your product, always have a healthy pipeline of customers and never bet everything on selling to one particular customer. Try to avoid having one customer make up more than 50% of your revenue.
  • If you are hiring employees, start the hiring process long before you will need the person since it will take time to find the right candidate. Always interview multiple people for the position even if you think you have found the right fit, just in case you can’t close the deal.

Step 2: Get Into The Zone

While both parties have a BATNA (worst case), they also have a preference for the terms of the deal if it closes (best case). For example, if you are buying a house there is a price you would prefer to pay (practically speaking) and the seller has a price they would like you to pay. The combination of your BATNA and your preferences forms what is called the Zone Of Possible Agreement or ZOPA.

You can visualize the ZOPA as follows:


As you can see, both the buyer and the seller have a range of acceptable prices between their BATNA and their preference. The ZOPA is the overlap in these ranges, the difference between their BATNAs. Note that while this diagram uses Cost as the dimension of negotiation, it could easily be anything including the length of contract, legal terms or location.

If a deal gets closed, it will be in the ZOPA. Ideally, assuming both parties are interested in a mutually beneficial agreement, you would pick the midpoint of the ZOPA and that would be the terms of the deal. 

How then do you know where the ZOPA lies? Very few partners will tell you their BATNA, even if they have the best intentions. They have no incentive to reveal their true BATNA and if they can convince you their BATNA is higher/lower than it really is then they can convince you the ZOPA is smaller and get favorable terms.

And in that tension is where negotiation exists.

Step 3. Choose Your Strategy

When you are negotiating you know your BATNA and your preference but not for the other party. Hence, you know one end of the ZOPA but not the other end. There are a number of strategies you can employ to determine the scope of the ZOPA and/or reach a deal on favorable terms.

Here are some examples:

  1. High Initial Offer. To try and determine the BATNA of the other party, you can start with an arbitrarily high (or low) offer. Anchoring the negotiation will force the other party to start higher (or lower) than they might have otherwise and hopefully expose their BATNA quickly. This is why cars are priced so highly on the lot of a dealership, even though no one pays those prices. Dealerships want to determine your capacity to pay and motivation to buy.
  2. This or That. The initial offer does not need to be a single offer and instead could be two different offers with different kinds of terms. For example, you might make two offers of a loan where one has a high interest rate while the other has a pre-payment penalty. The other party, in indicating their preference for one of the options, will help you understand the ZOPA and guide the negotiations in a positive direction.
  3. Iteration. Since neither party knows enough about the other, you can make offers back and forth in an iterative fashion and slowly converge on a result in the middle. Each offer moves toward the other party’s previous offer by some small amount. This slow process of back and forth allows you both to understand the other party’s range and ensure you end up somewhere in the middle of the ZOPA. Most international diplomacy involves this kind of strategy since the parties disclose so little of their internal plans.
  4. Take it or Leave it. In this method, you make an offer to the other party that they can either accept or not but that will be the end (no counter offers). Since you don’t know the other party’s BATNA, you make a guess and give them an offer based on that guess. This is most common when one party knows it has the superior BATNA and can force the deal to be more favorable to them.

Whatever strategy you choose, it is important to consider the impact of the initial offer especially if you are making the initial offer. Whatever the initial offer you make, you will rarely get better terms and in almost all cases you will get worst terms. Hence, you need to make sure that your initial offer is not your BATNA or you will not be able to iterate with your partner.

For example, when negotiating your salary for a new job you should realize that when you are asked for your current salary they are asking you to make an initial offer. You should not ask for a million dollars, but you should tell them what you think you are worth and not the least amount you are willing to accept.

The best negotiators are the ones who can convince you that their BATNA is much different than it really is and in doing so get favorable terms on a friendly basis.

Step 4. Plan For The Long Term

Unlike selling your house, deals that you close when building your business will likely impact your business for the long term. You want to build a positive relationship with your customers, employees and investors that will span many deals and many years. Hence, you need to optimize for long term relationships and not just short term deal terms. This means choosing a strategy that will maximize both the terms of the deal and future deal potential.

With this in mind, it is often not a good idea to pursue aggressive strategies and hard nose negotiation where you win a given deal but decrease the likelihood of future deals. At the same time, friendly but prolonged negotiations can give partners the impression that you are hard to deal with and have a similar negative effect on future deals. Being practical and productive in negotiations will establish your reputation and open doors in the future.

For example, when hiring people for a start up company it can be a good idea to pursue the This or That strategy where you give the employee a choice between a low salary and high equity or high salary and low equity. This gives the employee a chance to show their preference and reduces the amount of negotiation necessary to reach a favorable term.

Conclusion: Negotiations Are Not Basic

While the discussion here involves a single dimension of negotiation where each party has a single BATNA, preference and ZOPA, that rarely occurs. In most negotiations there will be many different dimensions such as cost and time, each with their own ZOPA. You will need to give in on some terms to get better outcomes on other terms. Always keep track of the terms that are most important to you and never drop below your BATNA or else you may find yourself in deals that are not worth doing.

To learn more about negotiation I suggest reading Getting to YES, now included on the Reading List

Recommended Reading

While I would like to think this blog is a useful resource to learn about starting companies, there are many important topics that I will never get into great detail. I have started to assemble a Reading List that includes all of the books that I have found useful. You can find it by clicking on Reading on the menu at the top. If you have the time, I recommend any/all of them as important background on your startup journey.

Sean on Startups Recommended Reading List

Note that many of the books on the list will not appear on other start up reading lists. I find books that go deep into one topic with scientific and/or large scale studies to back them up to be the most useful learning tools. Priceless, for example, boils down decades of research into behavioral psychology to help you understand how to price your products. The fundamentals you learn there are almost universally applicable in business and not biased by my opinion or others.

If you know of other books that I should add to the list, please let me know. Enjoy!

(Note: Yes, those are affiliate links on the reading list page. Feel free to not click on them and search for yourself, but I need to pay the hosting fee for this blog somehow. There isn’t enough money in affiliate fees to motivate me to recommend something I don’t truly think is useful.)

The Difference Between Impossible and Really, Really Hard

Starting a company is very hard. You put every ounce of your energy into the new business, fighting for every new customer and struggling to make ends meet. In the midst of the chaos, it is very easy to lose track of whether you are making progress or just running in circles.

Every company runs into a wall right around their product launch, when the initial excitement of the start up wears off and the first version of their product makes contact with reality. Reality is a harsh place and even the brightest dreams never quite work the way you would expect. Success fails to come easily and you sit there wondering if your idea, which seemed brilliant a week ago, can really work at all.

At that point, many first time founders will start thinking of a pivot. The original idea isn’t working out exactly like you expected but you have another, equally brilliant idea that will be much better. This new idea has not had to survive contact with reality so it will always look more attractive. You start to think the original plan is impossible but this new path will definitely work.

But, is the original plan really impossible or is it just really, really hard?

Don’t get me wrong, pivots can be an important part of start up success as almost every successful company ends up doing something different than what they started out doing since they learn from the market. However, pivoting too early or often can actually hurt your chances of success. You should not pivot unless you are positive that it is the best thing for your company.

Here are some questions you should answer before deciding for or against a potential pivot in those early days.

Question 1: Have you followed through on your go to market plan?

It is easy to panic if you begin to test your concept in the market and things don’t go as you expect. Even if you were able to demonstrate demand with alpha customers, raise funding and recruit a team, there is no guarantee that customers will flock to you when you launch. If your launch doesn’t give you immediate benefits then you will feel panic setting in.

Making good decisions when emotions and stress are high is very difficult. That is why you laid out a plan for your go to market strategy (see Go To Market To Win) including specific milestones that you would aim for and how you would achieve them. Those milestones are important, because they give you a decision making framework that is above all of the emotions of the launch. Do not make decisions until you hit your next checkpoint to ensure that you have given it a chance to work.

Even if the early results don’t match all of your original expectations, look for promising signs and clear feedback from the market. Perhaps your pricing model is too aggressive or there are certain customer segments that are working well that you should lean into. Remember that whatever concept you might have started with, you will need to refine it as you learn from the market.

You should not continue trying to force a product that is clearly not working, but you need to be sure you have given your product a chance. Sticking to your go to market plan and avoiding panic are important parts of doing that.

Question 2: Do you have enough time for a pivot?

Pivoting your company is a lot like starting over again. While you might be able to use some of the assets you have accumulated along the way, you will be at a much earlier stage of development on the new idea than you were on the old one. You will need to start over again with your market planning, prototyping, customer development and strategizing. All of that will take time, just like it did the first time you did it.

The unfortunate truth is that when companies get the most desperate they start to favor pivoting as a solution to their problems. Often, this means they are trying to pivot when they have only months of runway left, which is not enough time to restart their go to market strategy. While it is true that your current business might not be working, if you only have a few months left then you likely don’t have enough time to make a new business work either. Be very practical about your existing runway and whether a pivot is really an option for you.

Question 3: Is your team on board?

At the end of the day, your company is made up of people. Maybe it is just you or maybe you have a team of dozens. Either way, pivoting is a traumatic event for everyone involved. You are, in essence, admitting that your previous plan which you used to recruit and motivate them, was flawed. The passion that drives early stage companies can quickly deflate.

You cannot change your team as quickly as you change your business so make sure that the team you would hire for your new idea and the team you have already are almost the same. If they are not, then you are faced with rebuilding your team at the same time you rebuild your business which is very hard.

Assuming your team is right, make sure they are on board. If you think a pivot is the right move but they are still committed to your old concept it is unlikely you can pull them along. Besides, if you can’t convince your team that it is a good idea then maybe it isn’t.

Impossible vs Really, Really Hard

All of this should make you realize that the difference between Impossible and Really, Really Hard is difficult to see when you are in the moment. Start up companies are at least really, really hard and often impossible so it is easy to confuse the two. While you don’t want to waste your time on something impossible, all the value and benefits of starting a company come when you overcome things that are really, really hard.

Whatever you choose, be sure not to waver. If you pivot and then swing back again you aren’t pivoting, you are waffling. Choose a direction and stick with it.

Go To Market To Win

There are only four kinds of events in the life of your company that are likely to get covered by the press:

  1. Acquisition
  2. New Funding
  3. Product Launch
  4. Partnership

Incidentally, those are also in the order of the likelihood of the press covering the event. These events are newsworthy because they are also the most important points of your company history.

Of the four, the one you have the most control over is the Product Launch. This is the point where your new product will be unveiled to the world and is your best chance to spread the word. A product is, of course, new only once.

Many companies will put together a launch plan, complete with a blow out launch party. Fewer will put together a comprehensive Go-To-Market strategy that includes the launch as part of the plan. While a good launch plan may make a splash, a good go-to-market strategy can position you to be successful.

So, what makes a good go-to-market strategy?

1. Plan for the Future

A good go-to-market strategy will start well before the launch and end at the first milestone after your launch. An example of the Go-to-market timeline for a company is below:


In this diagram the grey boxes are company milestones and the green circles are activities to help reach those milestones. The phases of the Go-To-Market timeline are broken down into three parts:

  • Pre-launch. Leading up to the launch, these are activities designed to help make the launch a success. The Alpha test is a small number of potential customers who help you refine your product. The Beta test is a larger number of potential customers who help you refine your business model. Coming out of the pre-launch phase you should feel confident in your product, first time experience and marketing strategy.
  • Launch. This is when your product is available to the general public. You will kick off your marketing strategy (see Marketing for Engineers) and hopefully get press coverage. You should have a party to celebrate this milestone with your team, but don’t count on your party to help your business.
  • Post-Launch. After the launch, you are now operating your business. At the least you want to maintain whatever momentum was provided by your launch, but ideally you begin growing and operating your business. This is where measuring your LTV and CAC become critical (see The Most Important Equation for Your Business).

By mapping out your full go-to-market timeline you will be able to think of the launch as a part of your strategy, not an end in itself.

2. Use the Launch to your Advantage

Since the launch is only part of your strategy, it is important that it helps you achieve your goals and is not a goal itself. Depending on the milestone you are trying to achieve, your launch may take on different forms:

  • Customer Growth. If your goal is customer growth, you want to reach as many potential customers as possible and let them know your product exists (raising awareness). This will vary depending on your business but remember that very few customers will read industry press (unless they are in your industry). Getting covered in TechCrunch might make you feel great but if you are offering a new service to kindergarden teachers you will not find many customers that way.
  • Fundraising. If your goal is to raise more funding, then your launch should expose you to as many potential investors as possible. This can mean speaking at conferences, participating in launch competitions or being covered in industry press (this is where TechCrunch can help). However, fundraising is rarely a goal on its own so don’t lose this opportunity to grow your customers as well.
  • Recruiting. If your goal is recruiting, you should try to reach as many potential employees as possible and make it clear why your company is a great place to work. This usually means talking about what and how you do things in detail. For example, you might open source software, publish design plans and give tours of your production facilities. Industry press can help here as well.

You might have more than one of these as goals and if so, your launch will have many different dimensions. The more you try to achieve with your launch, the longer you will need to prepare so begin the planning early.

To ensure that you can measure success after the launch, be sure to set some quantitative goals for the launch. How many customers do you want to have one week after launch? How many articles do you want written? How many inbound job requests? Having numeric goals makes it much easier for you to prioritize and measure success later.

Whatever your goal, make sure your launch helps move you towards it. You only get to launch once and it is a powerful weapon so get the most out of it.

3. Have booster rockets ready

Many companies execute well in the Pre-launch phase, execute their launch well but fail to plan for the post-launch. When that happens the business will stall and the company will scramble trying to regain its momentum.

To avoid that, you should have your booster rockets ready before you launch. Booster rockets are activities and plans that will help you continue to grow after your launch.

Examples of common booster rockets are:

  • Paid Marketing Campaigns. These are part of your marketing strategy already and will allow you to continue to acquire customers even after the free marketing from the press coverage of your launch ends.
  • Partnerships. Partnerships with other companies can open up new customer acquisition channels and help validate your business.
  • Product Updates. Improvements to your product, including new features, keep the product fresh and attract new customers. For example, mobile applications may plan out updates every few weeks after the launch so that the app continuously improves (and increase the chances that users tell their friends).

Just like your launch is not a goal, you should not fire all of your booster rockets at the same time. Ideally you can pace them out so that they fuel sustainable and ongoing growth instead of a single spike.

Getting To Market is Hard

It might seem like this is more effort than most companies put into their launch strategy. You read about companies launching every day who seem to just open up their product to the world and sit back as customers flock to them. If that were the case then many more start up companies would survive.

Most of the successful start up companies you read about today have struggled during the go-to-market phase including AirBnB, Dropbox and even WhatsApp. When you struggle, you will be in good company.

If struggling is part of the journey, then the best thing you can do is plan ahead to give yourself every advantage possible. Your go-to-market strategy can’t guarantee success but it can help you increase the chances of success.

Besides, if you’re going to play why not play to win?