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.


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?


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

When Design Goes Backwards (or Why Don’t Teapots Pour Properly?)

When I was a less seasoned but more youthful entrepreneur, a good friend of mine and I used to joke about having a future consultancy which would specialise in advising companies on improving – what today I would describe as – the product experience.

Our consultancy was to be called “No, Not Like That!” (well either that or some expensive sounding agency name akin to Saachi and Saachi ).

My friend James was quite successful in his late teens, buying a new BMW every year as the new model came out, replacing the old. Within days of cruising around in his shiny new automobile we just couldn’t understand some of the design decisions BMW had made which clearly made this new motor car a worse product than the last.

It seemed to us that charging BMW $10,000 per hour to fix their product before it shipped would be small fry compared to the improvement  our genius deliver in user experience and thus customer satisfaction.

James in one of his BMWs, pretending to type on my old Toshiba laptop. Not sure what this photo was all about really; although it was taken with one of the first ever digital cameras with some stunning top resolution like 480 pixels.

These blaring errors are not of course with just cars but are everywhere, but never having given the time or discipline to formally study usability, anthropology, HCI (or any of the other very worthy academic courses or disciplines in this area which teach one to think through, articulate and justify rationally why things should be created as they) I never felt appropriately predisposed to start such an agency.

For a few years now I’ve wondered if that was an entirely wrong conclusion.

Products are used every day by people without these qualifications. As a consumer and user if I can see it’s wrong, illogical or difficult to use, may be it simply is. Furthermore, how was it not spotted by the very designers who penned the product?

Do you understand this sign?

Poor design is everywhere. This brand new sign which I had the misfortune to need while at Barcelona airport en route to Mobile World Congress was helping no-one. Neither of those things were in either of those directions. How can you look at this sign and think it’s clear, especially if your expertise is sign design?

No! Not Like That!

Companies continue every day to produce new products which beggar belief in their poor design. One wonders sometimes if people do it intentionally; some perverse enjoyment being taken on making people’s lives miserable.

Even basic household objects are afflicted. Poor teapot design is a particular pet hate of mine.

A tea pot has to just ONE bloody job and that is to pour tea. Yet how many tea pots simply don’t pour properly? They fail at the very first, indeed only thing they were designed to do or need to excel in.

Interesting tea pot design, but does it pour?

An additional trick is when the handle material is chosen so that it’s actually too hot even to pick up the tea pot to pour the tea. Why chose a material which is excellent at conducting heat when you know someone needs to pick it up? Some saucepans suffer from this affliction too.

I don’t need a degree to realise this is tragically poor design (no pun intended). It is entirely beyond my comprehension how you put a tea pot to market which guarantees to spill tea everywhere on every use.

You might argue that I should not be surprised that no great design process nor testing goes into a the average tea pot. I disagree; but instead lets move on then to companies who really should know better.

Microsoft 3000 mouse turned off automatically when you slotted the USB stick back into the base. Sensible.

The last mouse I bought was actually superb. The Microsoft Wireless 3000 had a clever clip in USB adapter, which stored it nicely AND turned off the mouse automatically (without the USB plugged into the Laptop, you can use the mouse of course). Great neat piece of design. Sadly, someone nabbed, or I mislaid my beloved mouse.

Off to Amazon .com I trot to buy another. To my surprise Microsoft has a new shinier better model. Naturally I buy this new model.

New design; tiny USB slots into mouse, doesn't turn it off. There's a separate off switch. Bad design IMHO.

Bad idea. The new model does away with this extremely useful feature and replaces it with a) an off switch for the mouse and b) a tiny USB stick which might both easily be lost and pop out of the mouse housing. Leave it in the laptop? It still ticks out too far to be practical to do so and anyway you then risk it falling out.

No! Not Like That!  

This change in the new mouse design is clearly a step backwards. Brooding on my reaction I realised that much of my response is driven by expectation.

So much in life is management of expectation and companies large and small frequently over promise and under deliver when the reverse should so obviously be the goal.

Designers, engineers, human beings of the world: let us unite in our attempt to not make things worse, let’s make things better!

How do you do it?

Simple: Use your own bloody products more.  If you’re “improving” a previous model, make damn sure you’ve lived with that previous product day in and day out before you start doing what you think is best to make it better. Then, just maybe the next tea pot I pick up will pour a cup of tea without ruining my mother’s doylies.

STOPPRESS: Great list of terrible designs of things here on Quora:

Qik Mobile App Install: A Example of Best Practise

I rarely feel compelled to write a blog post because an install process for a web or mobile app is so good, but Qik has triggered just that compulsion. Qik allows you to easily record or live stream video from your mobile phone. The list of supported phones is growing fast; and you can expect the rate of engagement to explode once the iPhone 3GS is cleared for takeoff with Qik (currently you have to jail break your phone to get it working).

The point of this post though was to highlight the process they use to install onto your phone. In brief, you have the choice of being sent an SMS (supporting multiple countries), downloading it and then installing it via your PC (or “side loading” as the industry calls it), or visiting a WAP site (a mobile website) to download from a link.

However, the important bit comes once the install process starts on the phone. I click to receive the SMS, received it immediately; I think clicked the link in the SMS, it started downloading to my phone, but crucially, updated the page automatically to tick the box that install had begun, it then confirmed when install/download had completed and then when I had fired up the app.

Qik have an excellent mobile app install process from their website, closing the loop between PC and mobile & ensuring users complete the install there and then

Qik have an excellent mobile app install process from their website, closing the loop between PC and mobile & ensuring users complete the install there and then

This might seem simple but it is VERY rare this process is used; normally the site just sends you an SMS and you go on your merry way.  Closing this loop, provided you can guarantee speedy delivery of the SMS, encourages if not subtly forces the user to install the app there and then and to log in – making them feel comfortable and hand-held in the process to confirm that things are happening as they should.

A clever and slick way to help users get your mobile app onto a users handset.  When we have resource to make improvements to the Rummble website, my start-up which takes the vast majority of my attentions these days, we’ll be following this user experience as its one of the best I’ve seen yet. Well done Qik!

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