If you build it, they won’t come, unless…

This is Part 5 of the 5-part series: 5 lessons from 150 startup pitches.

Ask a technical founder about his startup, and he’ll proudly describe his stunning software — simple, compelling, useful, fun. Then he’ll describe his cutting-edge platform — cloud-based, scalable, distributed version control, continuous integration, one-click-deploy. Maybe you’ll even get a wobbly demo.

“Great,” I always exclaim, sharing the thrill of modern software development, “so how will people find out about this brilliant website?”

Cue sound of cicadas buzzing.
(Or “crickets chirping” but in Texas the cicadas are louder.)

Four uncomfortable seconds later, a smile breaks across the founder’s face. “Here it comes,” I think, “there is a strategy after all!”

Except the “strategy” is a tirade of drivel I’ve heard so many times I can lip-sync as the words spew out the founder’s mouth:

  • “We’re going to A/B-test AdWords campaigns until we discover our hook.”
  • “We’re going to A/B-test our landing pages until the right message appears.”
  • “We’re better than everyone else at SEO.”
  • “A friend of mine knows how to get popular on Twitter.”
  • “We’re going to get reviews on blogs.”
  • “We’re going to start with our own network and grow it from there.”
  • “We’re going to use an affiliate program so our customers sell it for us.”
  • “We’re putting a ‘Retweet’ button inside the product to encourage viral growth.”

The obvious problem is that every new startup on Earth says exactly these things. Nowadays the “strategy” above sounds the same as:

  • “We’ll have a website so people can read about us.”
  • “We’ll have an email address so people can communicate with us without picking up the phone.”

Yes, you’re going to do those things, but since millions of other people are doing that too, you’re still invisible. Visibility-fail. Anyone-gives-a-crap-fail.

OK, so what can you do to rise above the cacophony that is the Internet? Here come a few ideas; leave more and discuss in the comments!

Infection built-in, not bolt-on

WhenBusy is a bootstrapped startup that lets people schedule meetings with you in currently-available time-slots without you having to share your calendar [disclosure: I'm an advisor]. For example, here’s what the founder’s (Josh Baer) availability looks like:

whenbusy schedule

Instead of trading emails with lists of available time-slots, Josh just sends the link to this page and the other person uses the product to schedule a meeting. This is the viral step: Having trialed the tool, the stranger might use it herself, then more people find out about it, and so forth.

Note that at no point did I say “a button lets people ‘like’ this on Facebook.” I know of no companies who have “gone viral” because of buttons. Buttons are good — why not use them? — but they don’t make your product intrinsically viral like WhenBusy.

Which is OK — not all products need to be viral! But if it’s not viral you still need a killer method of finding customers, and if it is supposed to be viral it better be encoded in the DNA of the application, not bolted on as an afterthought.

Frightening honesty

Balsamiq Mockups is a ludicrously popular wire-framing tool. The software is good — don’t get me wrong — but what sets Peldi (the founder) apart isn’t prescient feature selection or bug-free releases, it’s his startling transparency. He published revenue figures even when they were still pathetic, he pledged loudly and eagerly to give away lots of free copies to non-profits, and he revealed all his (remarkably effective) marketing strategies (updated here) even though it meant competitors would learn them too.

He didn’t just have an “authentic voice,” he made public promises. That’s compelling.

He didn’t just “tell it like it is,” he gave up his marketing secrets and opened his company books. That’s newsworthy.

This isn’t merely “being human” and all that claptrap, it’s almost too much honesty, like when you ask someone how it’s going and they tell you about a weird pustule on their middle toe that’s been oozing since last Wednesday.

In a world where everyone and their brother is “joining the conversation” (oops, I use that phrase constantly!), you have to truly bare your soul if you want to compete on the transparency front. It’s not for everyone, and I’m not suggesting it ought to be, but there’s no sense in half-assing it.

Making Oprah cry

The number one mistake founders make when trying to generate press is talking about what the company does rather than telling a compelling story.

Does Twitter get press when it helps Iranians fight an illegitimate government or when it creates a new internal IT process to increase up-time? Does Apple win the hearts (yes, hearts) of millions because of their obsession with design or because of their development APIs? Does 37signals have over three million users because their software is “better” than the competition, or is it because they motivate designers and entrepreneurs through their writing and philosophy?

Without a powerful narrative, your chances of getting big press and enthusiastic users who spread the word for you approach zero as a limit.

It took me years to figure this out at Smart Bear. At first when someone asked what the Smart Bear tool suite was, I would say:

Smart Bear makes data-mining tools for version control systems.

It’s a description so esoteric that, although accurate, not even a hardcore geek would have any idea what it is, much less why it’s useful.

Years later, when it was clear that code review software became our sole focus, I got better at describing it:

You know how Word has “track changes” where you can make modifications and comments and show them to someone else? We do that for software developers, integrating with their tools instead of Word and working within their standard practices.

Better, yes, and for a while I thought I nailed it, but still no press. Eventually (thanks to helpful journalists) I realized that I was still just describing what it is rather than why anyone cares. I left it up to the reader to figure out why she should get excited.

Eventually I developed stories like the following, each tuned to a certain category of listener. Here’s the one for the journalists:

It’s always fun to tell a journalist like you that we enable software developers to review each other’s code because your reaction is always: “Wait a minute, you’re seriously telling me they don’t do this already?” The idea of editing and review is so embedded in your industry you can’t imagine life without it, and you’re right! You know better than anyone how another set of eyeballs finds important problems.

Of course two heads are better than one, but developers traditionally work in isolation, mainly because there’s a dearth of tools which help teams bridge the social gap of an ocean, integrate with incumbent tools, and are lightweight enough to still be fun and relevant.

That’s what we do: Bring the benefits of peer review to software development.

Now the reason for excitement is clear: We’re transforming how software is created, applying the age-old techniques of peer review to an industry that needs it but where it’s traditionally too hard to do. That’s a story.

It took me five years to figure out (a) I needed a story and (b) what the story was. It’s hard. But one story beats a pile of AdWords A/B tests.

Advertising → [transmogrification] → Revenue

Yeah yeah, nowadays marketing is about “relationships” and “authority” and other things which cost time but not money. It’s all I hear about anymore.

But don’t be so quick to throw out the idea of spending money to make money. Advertising isn’t dead; you can still buy eyeballs. I’m not talking about “triage” strategies like buying AdWords linking to a page of ads, I’m just pointing out that most companies on Earth don’t depend on “joining the conversation” to acquire customers.

It sounds simple: The average cost of acquiring a customer is $C (advertising, sales, support, doing demos) and the lifetime revenue you get from that customer is $R, so if C < R you have a business. C can be driven down with cheaper ads, better lead quality, a more efficient conversion rate, and straightforward trials with minimal tech support.

Of course it’s not that simple, and many business plans I’ve seen (unintentionally) omit many of the true costs of acquisition. Read this great interview with Sean Ellis at VentureHacks for a great discussion of how to seek a repeatable, profitable model where C < R, and then optimize and grow. It’s a little heavy on the “huge VC-style company” strategy for my style, but you’ll come away with a strong perspective on how to build a machine that turns advertising dollars into (a greater number of) revenue dollars.

Celebrity Championship

I already beat you to death about how celebrity endorsement can serve as an untouchable competitive advantage, and it’s also an answer to how to burst out of the dull roar of Internet marketing.

Take me. I’m no Seth Godin, but consider what I could do if I were a co-founder in a new software development tool company:

  • I have personal relationships with the CEOs and other influencers at hundreds of software development companies. During ideation, they would brainstorm. During beta-testing they would be guinea pigs. After release of v3.0 some would be ready to become paying customers.
  • I have relationships with editors of nearly all software development publications (on-line and off); I’ve already published articles with them. Some would help vet our stories, some would publish our articles.
  • I’ve bought ads in every major (and quite a few minor) software development websites, magazines, newsletters, conferences, and webinars. So when it’s time to advertise, we’ll come in with the right message for the audience and probably cut a deal.
  • If you read this blog you’re probably a software developer, so even just a few mentions here might be more powerful than $10,000 in A/B tested Google AdWords.
  • If we were trying to raise money, my previous success would not only get us the initial meetings but would be a significant bump in our chance of raising it.

While everyone else is mucking about with a new blog, blasting their LinkedIn network with pleading emails, and paying out the nose to test AdWord variants, we’re years ahead in the marketing war.

Let’s generate more ideas

Share the love in the comments section. Let’s come up with more ways to reach customers that isn’t the same as everyone else.

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  • http://www.alexblom.com Alex

    Another cheap and easy one is to begin organizing events for your markets. This trick has never failed me.

    By events I don’t mean product launches but free conferences, meetups, camps etc.

    • http://www.forouzani.com Forouzani

      The problem is that this can be expensive – both in terms of money and time. Although it may be effective, it’s a (very?) slow customer acquisition strategy.

    • http://www.bandsonabudget.com Bret

      This is probably one of the most important things you can do – we run meetups, art shows, and have live bands at our office/storefront/coworking space and the amount of attention/press we’ve garnered you can’t buy anywhere else. it helps that we have a retail space to do this vs. other online businesses but you can extend this idea to throw a event/party at a local bar or restaurant – believe it or not, if you take an off-peak time, not only will they give you the space, often times you can also get a piece of the bar or at the very least marketing materials.

  • http://www.ppcsoft.com/blog/ Atle Iversen

    If I *do* come up with a new way to reach customers that others’ don’t know about (which, historically speaking, is *very* unlikely ;-) ), I’ll use it myself first, and *then* I’ll share it with everybody else :-)

    Your blog is too popular, so any “unique” idea that is shared here will be the same as everyone else tomorrow ….

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Doesn’t have to be unique, just useful!

      I’m not sure much of what I say is unique in any serious sense. If it helps, it’s good.

      • http://www.ppcsoft.com/blog/ Atle Iversen

        True – and it does :-) !

    • http://demandoj.tk LaPingvino

      That’s good. If it’s unique, nobody wants it ;).

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  • http://refynr.com Aaron Longnion

    Another one is what I’m doing now – commented on a blog related to your industry and trying to add something useful.

    Also, instead of being frighteningly honest, you can just be yourself, but *amped up a level or two*; perhaps super-funny, -creative, -rude, -nerdy, -compassionate, etc. I need to define that better for myself and see if there’s any measurable effect.

    – Aaron Longnion

  • http://www.loopycode.com Edan Maor

    Your thoughts on giving a story really reminded me of Simon Sinek’s TED talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”: http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html

    He talks about the idea of “starting with why”, i.e. not explaining “what” your product does or “how” it does it, but rather first “why” you’re building this product.

    • http://tumbledesign.com Nicky Hajal

      Wow, this was a brilliant talk, thanks for sharing it!

      Reminds me of one of my favorite Saint-Exupery quotes:

      “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people and give orders. Teach them to yearn for the vast and endless seas.”

  • http://www.tacticalinfosys.com Alex Kilpatrick

    Great post, Jason! I’m a technical co-founder and I think you hit the nail dead-on with how technical co-founders talk. I realized I am (unconsciously) looking for geek cred when I talk about our product. I want people to be impressed with my technical accomplishments when no one, outside of other developers, cares how it works. They just want to know what it does and why they care.

    Years ago I used to do pitches to the military for research funding. The way we would always start those out was with a scenario. You would paint a picture of how cool warfighting would be if your research was funded and successful. “Sgt Jones pulls out his PDA that shows every IED within 500 yards…” It was all blatantly made up and often ridiculous, but no one cared. They wanted to see your vision for where you wanted to go. It is a powerful technique that would work for startups as well.

    Here is another marketing idea that has worked for us. If you are going to a conference in your industry, volunteer to give a talk on some technical topic that will be of interest to that community. You have to work hard to make sure it doesn’t come across as a commercial, but just the fact that you are speaking on a topic will give you credibility and drive people to find out more. Even if you don’t sell your product at all in the talk.

  • http://11strategies.com Peter Knight

    This was a great article – got a lot out of it. It reminds me of Mark Bagnacca’s “so what matrix”, which is a very helpful process for developing a story. It’s amazing what difference it makes to ask the right questions about one’s own business/products/services.

  • http://stronico.com Steve French

    My current idea is to offer free content in the more general field of whatever it is your product does.

    For example, my startup maps social networks so you never forget anyone again, and I am soon launching a content site about positive psychology, focus, memory and mind hacks. The site consists of book recommendations, videos, notes, book reviews,and field experiments I’ve gleaned, gathered or tried on myself in the past few years as a result of my current obsession with mind hacks.

    That site will be marketed by very narrow, long tail SEO (more possible with something like “sleep debt + aerobic exercise + nutrition + oxytocin”) as well as interview for the luminaries in the field.

  • http://fogcreek.com Michael Pryor

    RE: celebrity endorsements…

    My business partner was at a CEO conference the other day and after he came back he sent out an email to the company that started with “I spoke to [famous company CEO] last night who was very excited about [our product]…” and proceeded to give all the reasons why. I tried to convince my business partner to tell the world about the comment, instead of just our company, but he felt icky about it because people try to do the same thing to him all of the time (and he doesn’t like it).

    In other words, a famous person made a personal and honest comment about how awesome our product was, but my partner asking him if we could “syndicate” his message would have made my partner feel crummy (because he’s been in that position before).

    Thoughts?

    • http://www.bidsketch.com Ruben

      This is interesting. I’m not sure that I have much insight here other than a couple of questions and thoughts.

      Although he doesn’t like it when he’s asked, does he agree to let them syndicate the message? Does he *ever* like when people ask this of him? (Meaning, does the type of relationship he has with the person make a difference?) Does it degrade the relationship in his eyes?

      Personally, I wouldn’t think twice about asking to use a comment as a testimonial. Maybe it’s because I’m a relatively unknown bootstrapper and I’m constantly looking for anything that can help me help me show social proof. Also, if the person was genuine about the comment, I don’t understand why they would feel bad about it. I certainly wouldn’t feel bad about it if the tables were turned.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      As crappy as this answer is about to be, surely it depends on the context. I have a fantastic endorsement for WPEngine from a very famous name, but he isn’t the sort of person who would appreciate it being said, and because I know that, I also know not to be silly and ask permission.

      On the other hand, I’ve had famous (enough) folks encourage me to use their name for promotion. Seth for example is well known for someone who will almost automatically give you a book-jacket recommendation because he sees it as promoting his own status as an expert to be quoted.

      Hopefully these specific examples will make up for a wishy-washy answer. :-)

      • http://www.linxcorp.com Steve Eunpu

        Although Seth Godin does appear on many book jackets often, don’t assume it’s automatic on his part. He is very selective! I know after multiple personal requests for several titles from expert authors. After reading all of Seth’s books and following his blog, he does not need to promote his status as an expert… he already is the real deal.

        • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

          Without name-dropping, let’s just say that my example is based on truth, not assumption.

  • http://paul.rosania.org Paul Rosania

    If you can afford it, and your market type permits it, I think engaging customers in person is tried and true. You get immediate reactions to your message, and can continue conversations in ways that you can’t always accomplish easily online.

    At CollegeJobConnect, we are spending some time this fall doing a campus tour, just like we did when we were applying to schools. We’re walking around campus with branded sweatshirts on, handing out flyers and evangelizing our service to students as they hop between classes. It’s been successful so far, and cheaper than we expected!

    As a tech entrepreneur I often catch myself looking for the elegant technical solution to problems like marketing, but we’re finding the old fashioned approach to be powerful.

  • http://www.adamconrad.net Adam Conrad

    Hey Jason,

    I’ve known about Balsalmiq for a while, but I only JUST got around to reading how truly transparent and giving Peldi is. I mean seriously, I aspire to do business the way he does it, and not simply for the sake of great marketing. Thanks for sharing!

    -Adam

  • http://www.submitten.com Henry

    This is a timely post for me as I’ve recently been reflecting on our marketing approaches for a product that we’re trying test on the market.

    You’re so right about story telling. The product that we’d developed was based around a problem that we faced. It was only through tuning my pitch that I realised the story was more interesting and effective than the feature list of the product itself.

    I’d also say that it’s important to find the right partnerships that you need to reach your target market. This was one of the critical missing pieces to our original marketing strategy.

  • http://www.lifestylebusinesspodcast.com Ian

    Great post Jason!

    Be relentless. Keep banging on the doors of the people that can help you until your fists bleed. Persistence almost always pays off.
    Consider time. The more you are at the plate the more likely you are to hit a home run. There are a lot more opportunities to sell the longer you are in business.
    Share Kool-Aid. Build a product that everyone around you believes in. If your team is selling the best, their confidence will spread to your customers.
    Have vision. See yourself where you want to be in the market. Take steps everyday to get yourself in place.
    Be accessible. Make sure your customers can contact you at anytime. Having a phone number is essential.

    • Adam Hazell

      Sorry Ian, but this sounds like something I could read in almost every book in the self-help section at Borders. You’re drowning us in platitudes.

  • http://thomasalwyndavis.com Thomas Davis

    Super in depth most and worries me now that a lot of competitors realize what they are doing wrong.

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  • http://www.zetify.com Jeff

    Calvin + Hobbes is the best.

  • http://hackingon.net Liam McLennan

    I think your Balsamiq example is flawed. There are dozens of failed companies who were just as transparent as Peldi. As a marketing strategy “frightening transparency” is not much better than “we’re better than everyone else at SEO”. Personally, I think the Balsamiq is successful because it is awesome. People tell their friends.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      No one of these techniques guarantees success. Failure at most of them certainly doesn’t cause failure.

      Balsamiq was actually NOT awesome at the beginning — full of bugs and lacking features — so I’m not sure your analysis is right either….

      Rather, I’m hoping only to expand your notion of marketing away from the commonest ideas and to try something at least a little more interesting, more different.

      • narrventure

        Jason, I have to support Liam here.

        Balsamiq catches on because it gives a subtlety – that thing missing most of the time in computer-land.

        Balsmiq creates wireframes that have an architect’s drawing feeling about them. Which encourages open thinking. It also avoids looking like the last framework-demo-blogpost.

        For this we could overlook any number of teething problems.

        I really think it doesn’t have to do with open-ness, though that helps continue the relaxing senses.

  • http://unicornfree.com Amy

    Content marketing. Or, in other words, find The Bigger Thing that your product serves and reach that audience by teaching them things that make sense. Or give them fun and easy goodies, like printable work sheets or manifestos, etc., that relate back to what they do and why they should care about your product.

    Case in point: I’ve got 150 people on a mailing list for Freckle (http://letsfreckle.com) because they liked the “hipster PDA time tracker” I made and give away for free, with a couple inspirational quotes and our logo. We also got a lot of signups from http://timebemoney.com ‘s piratey time tracking advice. (It’s not about how to use Freckle — it’s about how to get the most out of your time. Arr.) And the Summer Series of blog posts about freelancing do’s and don’ts have started getting us subscribers and attention.

    I’ve also just paid for ads – mostly on banner networks that target our audiences. The return from freebies and teaching is way better, every time.

    This is a freaky thing in the startup/tech product world (aside from bigco’s and their white papers/seminars), and it in fact comes straight from the IM world. But it works on everybody, everywhere.

    • Daniel Dotsenko

      Stunningly engaging elevator pitch in the middle paragraph. Gave me shivers seeing how skillfully the placement of advertised properties was incorporated into the “narrative.” Narrative is full of “feelings” and you can’t help but relate and try to investigate the sites.

      This post is a perfect example of well-crafted plugging of your product – free, effective. It’s exactly an example of what Jason was asking about.

  • http://concretemulticore.wordpress.com/ Doug

    How about trade shows. I know, I saw the headline “trade shows are dead”.
    If you want to meet the press, they are there. Especially if your industry is not already twittered to distraction. There are people out there that still like to meet face to face and talk.
    The big players are always there, it is a great place to talk to their sales guys. They always talk more than listen, and that is information on your biggest competitors.

    Search for marketing article with the headline “Blah is dead, why you should never blah.” If you can find a slightly different slant, go ahead and do blah.

  • Karl

    I’m a web developer by trade now, but I spent more than a few years in the telecom industry when de-regulation was running rampant and the internet boom was in full swing.

    The one huge mistake I continually see start-ups make is trying to make it with a web presence only. Sure, social media, SEO, SEM and other means are all the rage, but you should never turn your nose up at traditional marketing and forgo some of the best tried and true methods to get your message out the to the masses.

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  • http://www.PeterRisman.com Peter Risman

    Right on, Bear. The secret to successful marketing is knowing the customer’s (or prospect’s) mantra: WIIFM – What’s In It For Me?

    As you accurately nailed, it’s not about technology, features, or performance – it’s about the *benefits* that the product delivers. In most cases, customers/prospects don’t care about you, your brand, or your product – they just want to know What’s In It For Me?

    Smart marketers focus on answering that question – and only that question.

  • http://www.mor.ph/blogs Alain Yap

    They won’t come or a few would but then you just have to persevere in seeking them out – online and offline, a daily grind that includes visiting other relevant blogs 20 or more times as creating and looking at your own content. At the same time, you continue to figure out how to relate and narrate the product and services stories that are unique to your company and not just spew PR – reprints.

  • http://premium.wpmudev.org James Farmer

    Nice post!

    A couple from us (Incsub/WPMU DEV & Edublogs):

    Create the sites you would like to advertise on

    We were struggling to find good places to advertise (or community members who liked us ;) in the WordPress world and so we decided to start a place to advertise on ourselves, cue http://wpmu.org – which now has over 5k uniques p/day and only one advertiser, us :)

    Own the awards

    I started http://edublogawards.com over 5 years ago… needless to say managing the edublogs awards hasn’t hurt the success of the edublog hosting site we run: http://edublogs.org

    We’re now doing the same, kinda, with the Edublogs directory: http://edublogs.org/community/ (over 1000 manually submitted blogs in a couple of months, a minority of which are hosted by us, all of whom are talking about us)

    Do your support in public

    You can check out all of our support at WPMU DEV for free, in public, all 50k+ posts:

    http://premium.wpmudev.org

    Which has become almost our number one referrer – and a great example of how helpful we are at the same time.

    Hope that helps a few peeps :)

    Cheers, James

  • http://www.netpaths.net/blog @Netpaths

    It’s no coincidence that every major successful blog is founded by a good storyteller. People didn’t read Techcrunch for the information, they wanted to hear Arringtons’ politically incorrect website reviews.

  • http://www.deepshiftlabs.com/dev_blog/?lang=en-us Igor

    This post (I am subscribed by email) lead me to a strange thought that every time I get it there are already 35 comments I need to read if I want to leave a comment. Nobody wants to repeat a message somebody said a few hours(days) ago and look stupid. Further brain activity lead to two conclusions:

    1. First commentator saves time as no need to read anything but post and has a bigger choice of topics overlooked by author to comment or start discussion

    2. Last commentator reads all comments (need more time) and has to come up with something nobody thought to leave a comment.

    BTW Finishing ‘Crush It!’ by http://garyvaynerchuk.com/ it is a good complimentary reading for this post

    :)

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Fun point. Of course the more contraversial posts demonstrate that most people leave comments without reading the other comments, or indeed even reading the whole post. :-)

  • http://www.elaunch.com.au Michael

    What a great post. I just recently realized that even though I am quite good web developer with many ideas, it all means nothing if noone knows about it.
    Getting clients is the most important skill for anyone hoping for success. I must say that I suck at it badly. Lucky I still have full time job.

    I would say that trying hard and long enough choosing any of marketing strategies should work. I am trying to split my time into marketing and operations. I do struggle since creating websites is easy but marketing and promoting is hard. So I must fight with myself not to fiddle with websites which is quite fun but to look for some business opportunities.

  • http://reinventions.tumblr.com Catarina

    Very nice article! I really think you’ve nailed some interesting points.

    You really made me think back about Kawasaky’s “underlying magic” – this really gives you the compeling story. As you’ve said, it’s not easy. I’ve been working in a software start-up company for 2 years now, and I really feel we don’t have our compelling story.

    Another important issue you’ve raised is the problem of product lifecycle and adoption curves. Marketing tactics and techniques are completelly different according to the different product lifecycle stages, and its adoption curve. It still amazes me how people even think of advertisement (and, mostly Google Adwords as the holy grail) for products that are geeky, techie and even disruptive!

    For last, I feel your last advice is the best: build and nurture a community of evangelists – people that understand your product from the early conception, that are willing to build it with you, that think that there’s a part of them in that – those are the most valuable of your users!

  • http://ankjain.com Ankur Jain

    Great post Jason! You raised very good points.

    Btw, what are the ways for WhenBusy to acquire 100k customers in a short amount of time (say 6 months) without trying the conventional ways of marketing like AdWords campaign? If WhenBusy rely on the product to go viral in the initial stages, the growth rate will be very limited.

    Thanks.

  • http://pfoley.com Patrick Foley

    How about becoming an expert yourself or creating software in a field where you are already considered an expert? That’s what Joel did with joelonsoftware.com helping to propel fogcreek – be your own celebrity. Joel started out considered an expert – Peldi turned himself into one. If you are successful at building a startup anyway, writing/speaking about it appears to magnify that success (you, Dharmesh, etc.).

    Not everyone can do it and most of those who can will have to restrict it to a really tiny niche: Writing scheduling software for musicians? Write with authority on “GTD for musicians.” Writing software for bowling leagues? Write articles that any league can publish on their newsletters …

    Just a thought.

  • http://pikiquiz.com David

    I would just add that the *fundamental* requirement is that the product be useful or engaging. At least at the beginning, it doesn’t need to be perfect, or fully-featured, but enough to allow people to get excited and imagine where it could go.

    I always tell people it’s hard but not impossible to get lots of people to visit your site once, but it’s several orders of magnitude harder to get them to return of their own volition.

    Hence all the techniques you mention are extremely useful for getting the first unique visit, but the sine-qua-non of repeat visits is having the bare bones of a genuinely engaging product.

  • http://www.add-ins.com Bob Flanagan

    Very nice post, and great comments. I’ve been selling time saving software for Microsoft Excel users since the mid 90’s. The issue has always been how to get to customers who are not looking. You can’t. But, you can get to customers who are looking. The key I found is that the customers are looking for different things and one must provide those things. So, instead of having one product, I have close to 70 products. The user may come for one need, but find others. And, they know the site is a potential solution so they come back. Part of the work is inventing new products. And sometimes, I just do slight modifications and name the product different. That alone can generate sales. One single product is not enough to live off of. But many…..

  • http://www.whatclinic.com/ Philip Boyle

    Two methods we’ve tried that have worked for us are:

    1. Share your failures as well as your successes. We blog about a lot of the SEO or conversion optimisation changes we make to our website, and what effect these changes have. Sometimes there’s a good outcome, sometimes not so good, but sharing the knowledge with real data to back it up (and to be openly critiqued) gets a lot of attention from others and often results in inbound links.

    2. Provide something for free that would be hard to make. We list health clinics by their location, so we went about making maps that show where they all are and we provide these maps for free to any website that wants to embed them. This is particularly useful to local community websites. In return we get our name out there and inbound links to the site from a diverse set of sites.

    • http://pfoley.com Patrick Foley

      Both good ideas …

      … the second one made me think that it could also be useful to make it easy for other startups to build on your success. For example, if you make your money on some sort of web content, make it easy for somebody else to monetize the iPhone app version of it. When they succeed, you succeed. http://microsoft.com/dallas is in fact very cool for this.

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  • http://theRotater.com/wp Chris Melton

    This article gave me some great ideas on how we (2 industrial mechanics) can take our product rehab / sports medicine device) to the next level. How about random coupons included that purchasers can give away for free Rotaters?

    Thanks!!!

  • http://austintechgeeks.com Ricardo

    1- Finding a niche is always a good idea since you can be selective of your clients and focus in a smaller subset instead of trying to get the attention of the world.

    2- Exclusivity, give your customers the sense that they are part of a exclusive group because they are using your product or service, make them heroes, they’ll be anxious to tell everyone about your product/service (your product/service has to be good of course!).

    Finally, I want to exercise the idea of celebrity championship… how do we (unknown souls in the startup world) get someone like you to talk about our blog, or product, or service? assuming our stuff is good enough ;)

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      Well I really meant someone fully involved, or at least a continuous advisor. A mention from me (or someone more connected) would be a tiny one-time bump, but not a huge advantage.

      But to answer, one way would be to write an awesome guest post!

      • http://austintechgeeks.com Ricardo

        Yes, I already experienced the one time bump, it lasted almost a week when Gary Vaynerchuck twitted about a talk he did in Austin and added a link to my blog which had a link to this event :)

    • http://pfoley.com Patrick Foley

      One of my mentors (Uncle Dan: http://www.bankrate.com/coinfo/staff.asp) once told me to think of people you want to work with that you wouldn’t think would want to work with you and FIGURE OUT how to make them want to work with you … so I like the line of thinking you’re on, but I (or rather my uncle) would put it back on you – think about what said celebrity wants/needs/would get from the relationship and try to make it happen for them. (the “What’s In It For Me” principle)

      • http://austintechgeeks.com Ricardo

        @Patrick I see your point but I disagree. When (not IF) I have the experience and successes for my help and mentorship to be worthy to someone, I wouldn’t be expecting anything in exchange.

        Having the ability to help and teach someone what you know so they can also become successful, that in itself, will be by far more rewarding than expecting them to give me something I want/need from them – IMO. Thanks for the comment.

        • http://pfoley.com Patrick Foley

          That’s a wonderful point of view, @Ricardo, and one I aspire to myself … I would greatly prefer to work with people who were thinking beyond a “quid pro quo” mentality, and I strive to think that way myself.

          I might be splitting hairs a bit, but I once asked one of my mentors what I could do for him, what he wanted from me. He said he wanted my friendship (in the sincere way – yes, I got choked up … I get choked up just thinking about that answer). Did he want anything tangible from me?

          It’s worthwhile for me to think that it’s not a one-way relationship. From my perspective, I can never repay his wisdom and guidance (and financial support). He doesn’t want me to … but he does want something from me, even if it’s something as simple as being his friend.

  • http://www.AVSmartz.com Steve Scott

    It always boils down to TIME and MONEY

    Considering you are a smart bear and it took you 5 years to figure out how to tell your story “in a compelling way, enough to grow business or attract investors” means it could take the average bear even longer. That is a reality pill most entrepreneurs have trouble swallowing, particularly in today’s environment of microwave mentalities.

    One key to success appears to be to forget the story and provide a product/service that “tells its’ own story” by addressing WIIFM (what’s in it for me) so that others will tell your story for you, as you mentioned helpful journalists ultimately did for you and Josh Baer has built-in to the design of his product.

    Would you say there are no shortcuts and that entrepreneurs need to plan on investing 5 years and the cost of revising their product 3-4 times before they can hope to be successful at attracting investors?

    Short of getting someone like you on the team… Is there anything else you can share that reduces the time and money it takes the average bear to get to the place where he has a product that drives a compelling story and fuels exponential growth?

    Based on your success – it’s a five-year haul.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      No way does it take 5 years.

      It only took me 5 years because I didn’t know I needed to do it. I didn’t know it was valuable. I luckily stumbled into it eventually.

      Knowing that you want to do that, you can compress the time like crazy.

      Same with customer development. At Smart Bear I didn’t do that properly so it took 2 years to find a fit. At WPEngine I did it in 1 month (I’ll detail how in a future post) because I did it on purpose.

      • http://www.AVSmartz.com Steve Scott

        Thanks Jason, that’s what I wanted to hear but didn’t want to be presumptuous. I could really use some guidance on the “How-to”

        I’m considering burning a big wad of cash (big for me) to buy help to “do it on purpose.” Any chance you’d consider helping in some capacity. Advise, invest? I think I’m just down the road from you and I know we can execute with proper guidance. Just want to increase our chances.

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  • http://www.dubai-information-site.com Sunil from The Extra Money Blog

    industry specific meetings / organizations are a great way. i have spread the word about each one of my niche content websites in their respective trade gatherings. the success has been tremendous and exponentially more than any other marketing method. nothing indeed beats human interaction….tried and tested as already mentioned

  • John

    I’m sure the guys at whenbusy already know this… but Google Calendar already has all of their functionality, and has for a while (although they have not been very good at marketing it). It will be interesting to see if your marketing strategy can overcome the fact that you’ve already got a competitor with a more detailed and full featured (and working!) product.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason

      That’s just not true — have you ever tried to integrate an Apple iCal feed into Google Calendar? I have — and do — but it requires for-money 3rd-party software.

      But I could make your argument better — there are other competitors to WhenBusy which do have all of its functionality and more! It’s just not Google Calendar.

      • John

        Great to hear that you have thought of this! However…

        I beg to differ. I have integrated Apple iCal into Google Calendar (for FREE) Here’s a link to how http://www.google.com/support/calendar/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=99358#ical. I’m not sure if I know what the term “feed” means that you use, but when I put something on my Apple iCal, it synchronizes across my google calendars, my iPhone, and to my coworker’s google calendars (where it shows only that I am busy during that time). And vice versa. The whole process is “pushed” meaning it takes seconds (or less) to show up in all three places.

        Here’s another link showing WhenBusy’s key selling point for google’s calendar. http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=60765

        I agree that WhenBusy has an interesting (and imminently “useable”) interface. AND, I don’t claim to know your real competitors. But as a user of an already functional calendar… you should probably consider Google one of your direct competitors (even if it seems unintentional). At the very least, I’ve tried both interfaces, and I see no driving reason to switch.

  • http://understanding.uservoice.com Evan Hamilton

    Fantastic. I think the best advice here is about the story you tell. So many companies have fantastic products and terrible stories – if you can figure out what the compelling, understandable, and pithy way to describe their company is, you’re much more likely to see success.

  • http://www.ace-dental.com John Hasson

    And you know what they…. creating a little controversy never hurts.

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