Many #Startups don’t get sales or users because they don’t hustle hard enough

Startups need traction. Startup themselves are defined by their rate of growth. Speed is of the essence. It’s all the more surprising then to often find Founders or founding teams reluctant to sell. By this I mean, sell hard to their customers.

That might be selling a product, that might be simply getting someone to sign up; either way ultimately you’re trying to persuade someone to enter your engagement funnel, whether you charge them at the end of it for a product/service or not.

Startups get frustrated that they don’t get the growth they want. Yet it’s being bold enough to relentlessly push your product or service which will result in “sales” (and remember that sale could just be a sign up).

It’s surprising then when I am often able to sit down to mentor a startup or work with one of my portfolio companies and find that there’s a big list of things which haven’t even been tried – and these are often not onerous or expensive in development terms.

Give me an example?

This isn’t the blog post to provide an exhaustive list of what you can do to engage users en general, but I do want to give one example of what I mean by being relentless and hustling to get people in to your funnel, in this case specifically using a blog post as an example (the same by the way, applies to email newsletters).

I often see startup founders investing in time to write a blog post; but traffic on their blog is often low and the ROI of the time invested unmeasured. Worst still, there are seldom enough (sometimes no!) call to actions. So, what’s good practise? Well you can Google that to find exhaustive articles, but in short make sure:

  • the blog provides value to the reader
  • the blog is appropriate (and the value aligned) to the target audience of your product or service
  • that the blog is not a one-off and that you have in place a system to regularly* deliver that value as part of an ongoing persuasion campaign to on-the-fence potential customers
  • but most importantly that you provide comprehensive call to actions 

 * unlike this blog which has been woefully and sporadically updated!

Just take a look at this example from CBInsights, the tech industry data platform:

Startups publishing blog posts and even web pages often don't optimise for customer engagement and consequently rarely provide a good ROI. This example from CBInsights does.

Startups publishing blog posts and even web pages often don’t optimise for customer engagement and consequently rarely provide a good ROI. This example from CBInsights does. (ignore the blue menu bar half way down, that’s an error from screencapture)

  • items marked in pink are opportunities for readers to share
  • more importantly items in red are calls to action to funnel people into a sales process.

Why does this happen? Often because startups are under focused and under resourced. If you have minimal resources you can only do a few things well. Refocus ruthlessly, not doing ANYTHING which doesn’t move the needle on your sales or growth; then you’ll start having the time to pay attention to the detail of your sales or user engagement funnel, test, measure, interpret and iterate – and your sales/signups will go up. Simple as that.

So, still wondering why your sales (or user signup) pipeline is not working? Take a leaf out of CBInsights book and get selling, relentlessly.

 

The march of Windows Metro inspired design

A while back I wrote a blog post saying I thought the forthcoming release of Windows Phone and it’s metro interface (plus subsequent Windows 8 release) would probably trigger a change in fashion with regards digital design. This was partially demonstrated by the MySpace new design also.

Seems this prediction may have been salient, as I’ve started seeing a variety of designs popup both on software and websites which clearly owe a nod and sometimes more, to the Metro interface.

What designs have you seen which look like bastard children of the Metro UI ?

Capture

 

Note the menu design on the Port du Soleil website navigation and the new AVG anti-virus navigation.

How Social Media is Changing Customer Service

After my little experiment in social media and customer service back in May 2010, I thought I’d follow up with this fantastic infographic on the topic (below) showing how brands which don’t embrace the new communication mediums are going to be losing customers and damaging their market presence in the future.

There are some great start-ups in this space, helping companies do a better job of managing their presence – not least Conversocial, run by my good buddy @joshuamarch

Every Customer Complaint Has A Silver Lining

Sometimes mistakes can have unexpected benefits.

My first internet company turned out to be a web development company (although it was never intended that way initially, we pivoted from being a localised business portal after I failed miserably to sell enough advertising for the site).

It was comparatively early days on the web, in 1998.

A few years later after selling the business, I looked back at our client roster and realised that the top 5 most loyal clients who had been with us longest, had all experienced a major problem during the first project we executed; but because we handled the problem well they had become more loyal than clients who had never had a problem.

Good service is so hard to come by these days, that when people receive truly good, honest service, it stands out disproportionately.

There's no escape from it.

Sebastian Coe in his book The Winning Mind notes that “Human error tends to be the norm”. It seems inevitably then that you or your team will make errors and most likely on a regular basis.

View these as an opportunity. Fixing a problem well for a customer will always result in more loyalty than they originally had.

Of course not all errors can be spun easily to a positive. With a slip-up which loses a position of strength in business negotiations, or with a pilot making an error causing a fatal aeroplane crash, it would be difficult to see any sort of lining – let alone a silver one.

Thankfully in the world of day to day customer care, most errors are not life threatening. They are usually more irritating and time consuming for your customer, than anything else.

Big companies almost always deliver such appalling service that responding promptly to a problem and then over delivering with a fix (preferably including a gesture of compensation or good will) is a huge pulsing exception in the darkness of unanswered complaints, blame and denial of culpability which brands and big business routinely dish out to us, their customers.

Don’t let your company fall to this fate.

Fixing a customer problem should be approached as an attempt to garner irrational brand loyalty. In other words, use it as a step toward becoming a lovemark in the eyes of your customer.

Johan Nordstrum. Customer service visionary.

You don’t even have to believe me. Read Delivering Happiness by Tony Heish, a book of his approach to customer service at Zappos, or read my article about Johan Nordstorm – who’s chain of stores in the US proved exceptional customer service and profitability are not mutually exclusive; or my older blog post on a similar topic – why do corporates make simple mistakes?

 

Are You Building The Right Thing?

It’s a question which internet entrepreneurs perhaps don’t ask themselves often enough.

Easy to say of course, but let’s be clear that it’s entirely understandable entrepreneurs don’t ask this question enough.

To branch out on your own to go and build the worlds ‘next big thing’ whether for consumer users or a fantastic thingy-wotsit for enterprise customers, you need to not only dream but suspend your realism-gland to actually take the risk to invest your entire life into acheiving what often feels like the impossible.

However there ARE actually things you can do to de-risk your start-up and increase the likelihood of your decisions about the nature of your service and the functionality of your shiny new thing, being right, not wrong.

Getting Others To Eat Your Dogfood (before you invest $500,000 in dog cans, entrails, label design and advertising)

I’ve learned the hard way that building the wrong thing is virtually inevitable unless you actively embrace a process against doing so. Once we got lucky and got it right, another time we worked out what we should have been building but by that time when we realised the error we’d been at it a while.

In summary, without testing ASSUMPTIONS you risk having already burned through a bunch of cash and being in a weaker position to a) get more cash and b) pivot, even if you do finally work out what is wrong with your product.

Don’t feel bad, even experienced entrepreneurs make the mistake of just accepting their own ASSUMPTIONS. Just look at Color (although at least they don’t have much chance of burning through all their cash – yet – as they’re sitting on $40m). Most start-ups -especially in Europe- don’t have that luxury.

Natural Delusion

The temptation to assume a product is not getting 100,000’s of active users is to say because “it needs X functionality”. This is almost always wrong.

It analogous to when Sales people come back and say “The problem is, if it just did X we could sell it.” In my experience it is usually the sales person selling the product in the wrong way or to the wrong people.

The simplest solution to avoid this problem is that BEFORE you start building your shiny new thing is to sit down and right out all the ASSUMPTIONS you are making about your product.

Then find the quickest, dirtiest way – ANY way – to test these ASSUMPTIONS and prove them right, or not. That means even if you do it all by hand, or fake your website automation and do it manually: in other words, whatever it takes.

Imagine building a time machine. Your assumptions are:

  • People want to travel in time
  • People will pay for travelling in time
  • People won’t be so shit-scared they will never take the leap of faith to trust your technology

Three basic assumptions. The answer is to all three “yes”, right? well, perhaps; but until you have PROVEN it you really don’t know.

So you've worked out how to build a Time Machine, but will any one actually agree to try it?

The capital expenditure of building a time machine is high, the technology significant. Be much better to find a way to test if people really want to travel in time first.

Furthermore, what other features would people expect? 100% guarantee of not re-appearing with limbs in the wrong place? What risks and worries do users want removed before they will risk using the service? What should the price point be?

How could you test these assumptions?

Maybe set up a room at CERN, advertise in person at a suitable event where people have lots of money and ask them if they will book a trial visit to come and see the Time Machine.

Clearly, I’ve chosen an absurd example – but you get the idea.

Back On Earth

What did Dropbox do to test if it had demand for it’s product? While simple it is a big technological challenge to build something across as many platforms and as seemlessly as they have.

The answer is that investors were unconvinced of the size of the pain being experienced by users doing file transfer before Dropbox existed, despite the Founder having a list of 4000 people wanting a trial (i.e. existing services were NOT easy or slick, but was this a big enough pain that users in their 100,000’s would pay for a service like Dropbox? This was an assumption and there was no proof of an answer, no even quantitative evidence).

Not being able to build the service properly without lots of time and money, the Founder created a slick video, targetted at geeks, full of in jokes, to fake a demo of what his product did. 75,000 beta sign up requests later, he had a significantly larger weight with which to argue his ASSUMPTION was correct.

We’re No Longer A Start-Up (or we have a product!)

This also applies to to new functionality, a product or division from a larger company. Indeed, any enterprise large small funded or not which is trying to build something which involves unknowns.

With a healthy step back toward reality, one wonders if Richard Branson was testing ASSUMPTIONS when he started taking pre-orders at $125,000, years before Spaceship One even took off, to fly into the earths orbit. Would he have continued if no-one signed up and paid the money?

Unconvinced?

The Dropbox example comes straight from a new book called “Lean Start-up” which was launched last month at Techcrunch Disrupt. If you’ve not read it, I would recommend it 100%. Rarely does a book appear which could literally make the difference between your start-up succeeding or failing.

Eric Ries has done a brilliant job and although the initial blurb regarding the ‘nature’ of a start-up at first seems hypothetical, he soon gets down to examples of why proving ASSUMPTIONS is all important; and finally thanks to him, I have a far easier way to explain to first-time start-ups what they should be doing, before they launch into building a time machine.

Excerpt of his book here on Techcrunch; or better, just click below and order it now.

The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses

Virgin Atlantic: how one of my Lovemarks hurt me today.

Knowing I would be tight for time this morning after returning from a film premier in Harrogate, I tried to check in online last night for Virgin Atlantic VS003 to New York, but Virgin Atlantic’s website was broken.

As predicted this morning I was cutting it fine for time and tried to check-in online again; a similar problem, I couldn’t check-in. An online error.

Undeterred I ran on to the Heathrow Express, through Terminal 3 up to a Virgin Atlantic check-in terminal, to arrive right on the one-hour before departure deadline.

All the terminals were out of order.

The Human Touch

Five minutes later I was speaking to a service agent who was trying to be helpful.

Realising I was hand-luggage only she said it would probably be OK and she spent five minutes trying to get through on the phone to someone. Finally getting through, before she could even explain I was hand-luggage only, she was told the flight was closed and I wasn’t allowed through.

This was strange as it was before 9:55am. This is significant because Upper Class check-in closes 40 minutes before departure although today (courteous of a client) I am travelling cattle class; the economy check-in closes 60 minutes before departure.

It was only 9:45am (50 minutes before wheels up) so the flight could not have been closed because if it were Upper Class passengers would not be able to check-in.

The helpful desk agent apologised, looking a little perplexed.

I always try hard not to take it out on staff at the coal-face. Often these days they don’t have the authority or decision making power to help you (that by the way is another business problem I discuss here.)

So, off I go to the ticket desk to get pushed on to the later flight at 2pm (which incidentally is a nightmare for me because with only five hours in New York before flying on to Dallas, my stop over and meetings are ruined).

Show Me The Money

Andrea a pleasant South American chap says the good news is that they can put me on the next flight VS045, but at a cost of £120. I protest politely but Andrea can’t do anything.

He asks his manager. Computer says no.

I ask at least if I could have my favourite seat in economy. No. I’ll need to pay for that too.

May be at least then, Virgin Atlantic will grant me as a Silver Flying Club member ( soon to be Gold) lounge access so I can have the New York meetings I will miss somewhere quiet on Skype? No.

Err, OK. Can I pay for lounge access? No.

I keep calm despite my frustration and seek out the Virgin Atlantic floor manager, who I’m told does have the power to grant lounge access.

After politely waiting for her to finish dealing with a staff issue (a quick gossip about another staff member) I start to explain, but she cuts me off mid-explanation:

“We don’t give lounge access unless you’re Upper Class?” …her intonation is as though I’m asking the location of the holy grail. She’s all out of empathy today then and it’s only 9:45am. I pity the afternoon customers.

Practicalities

By 10.05am (the flight takes off at 10.35am) I have:

  • Queued to pay the extra charges to bump flights
  • Complained to the delightfully unhelpful floor manager
  • Gone through security
  • Am sat in Chez Gerard (another brand I have a history with) and have just ordered breakfast.

The fact I’ve done all this and the gate is yet to even close irritates me further, but thankfully Chez Gerard deliver on my brand expectations this morning: A warm polite welcome, good coffee, warm perfectly crispy croissants and soothing music.

Has this every happened before?

Those who know me will know I try and pack a lot into my life. That means sometimes I’m late. On the whole it is of course my own fault if I’m late, in so far as we are all responsible for our own decisions and planning.

Similarly it is definitely a passenger’s own responsibility to check-in by the deadline set; but it is also a brands responsibility to deliver on the service which customers rely on and arguably especially your regular customers.

  • I knew I would be short on time, so I tried to check in online. Twice. The web site was broken.
  • Then I tried at terminal 3, within the 60 minute limit, but the kiosks were broken.
  • The check-in clerk recognised the situation and asked to send me through, but was prevented by someone else.
  • The flight couldn’t have been closed, I only had hand luggage and were I Upper Class I’d have sailed through.
  • The ticket agent recognised the problem, but had to charge me anyway (he even left notes on my account to that affect)
  • The Virgin Atlantic manager was abrupt and had a naive approach to customer relations (perhaps how she got to be a manager..!)

Good customer service is about recognising a customer’s problem and empathising. That should be true whatever level of customer the person is.  Today’s $1000 customer may be tomorrow’s $1b customer.

More importantly, monetary value is not the only consideration. Some customers affect more influence regarding your brand than others, as my post here about the new economy of influence explains.

I do not expect any brand to do the impossible.

I recognise a flight has to close at some point, no matter who wants to get on board, but when rules are adhered to via blind process (or in order to make a quick buck, like Ryan Air) rather than for logic or good reason, that pisses me off.

And I’m going to tell people. Lot’s of people.

Brands become lovemarks for me because they exercise effort, common sense and actively behave as though they genuinely care about me – even though I realise it is in order to make a profit from me.

Pret (the British chain of sandwich shops) are a superb example of this. From their always polite staff, to sending a customer £70 for payment of his “time using the Pret brand”, to letting me off £3.45 for my lunch when I realised I’d left my wallet in the office (I repaid the £3.45 the next day) they always make me feel cared about. I also feel that the employees are empowered to make their own decisions and understand what the Pret brand stands for.

In the past I’ve found Virgin Atlantic to be more pragmatic than I have today. On top of this, I must have flown 15+ times with Virgin Atlantic in the last 3 years from London to San Francisco. I have a Founders Card which gives a discount (although I’ve yet to claim it) and I’ve met Richard a couple of times.

As a brand the important thing to realise is these things make my experience today all the worse not better.

Why? Because if you are dating someone for a month and they do something unpleasant, it hardly touches the sides. You can laugh about it in the pub with friends.

If you are dating someone for 10 years and you love them, then they do a similarly unpleasant thing, you can’t laugh about it. It hurts. It goes against your expectation and trust.

Loyal customers with your brand, which may be a Lovemark to them, are no different.

It’s ALL about me.

These brand ambassadors will sing your praises, but they’ll also be the first to call you out.

  • They’ll get very pissed off, very quickly.
  • They feel they should be treated differently.
  • They feel they should be treated with extra care.

“Should” is the key word here.

Actually ALL customers should be treated with extra care; but what matters here is how these people feel, not the reality.

Your job with your brand is to manage your customer’s perception of a situation without pouring petrol on the fire.

Preferably, you want to be the guy wielding the fire extinguisher and without spraying it in your customers face.

The psychology of loyal customers

I buy in to the “poor little Virgin Atlantic” versus nasty British Airways myth because I choose to, not because I necessarily believe it.

It feeds my potential pleasure of a brand I generally enjoy.

It adds to my personal identity to associate myself with e.g. Virgin Atlantic, instead of British Airways. Therefore:

When you as a brand behave poorly I feel you’re attacking not just me as a customer but me as your brand.

Your bad performance means subconsciously I feel like I’ve performed badly, because a little bit of your brand has become me.

What is this lovemark stuff again?

The simplest definition of when a brand becomes a lovemark to a customer is when they make irrational decisions to choose that brand over another.

I’ve often in true Lovemark tradition gone against logic when booking my flights. Virgin Altantic are usually more expensive and I had an unlucky run in the mid 2000’s where seemingly every flight I went on had no entertainment system working. Until my last flight, I recently had a run of crappy seat locations, whatever class I was in.

Despite this I stayed with Virgin Atlantic; but now I feel like our relationship is on the rocks; but hey, as they say, better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.

The moral of the story is that a Lovemark is a double edged sword, both for the company and customer.

Handle with care Mr Branson, and now I’m off to get my VS045 flight.