3 Reasons Your Target Audience Doesn’t Care About Your Business

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We’ve all heard the story: An expansion-happy CEO mercilessly destroys a promising startup equipped with a steady growth trajectory and a roster of top-tier clients, all within a year of his ascension to the throne.

When you’re in charge of a company’s growth and marketing strategy, it’s tempting to chase the numbers by drastically widening your marketing reach. But if you want to grow and succeed in an industry, you can’t take a “fire hose” approach to marketing.

If your company is stuck in a growth slump (or veering off course), you might be overshooting your target audience. Here are three reasons your marketing efforts aren’t making a connection.

You’re Targeting the Masses

I recently consulted for a healthcare company that was struggling to close leads despite having a great product. After reviewing its marketing presentation, the problem practically jumped off the page: Its target customer was completely ambiguous. After we settled on a single audience, the company had a clear value proposition and marketing approach that more narrowly targeted its specific audience.

You might think you need to stretch every dollar as far as possible to get the maximum ROI on your marketing spend, but aiming for a general audience is a waste of money. It dilutes your message, your marketing, and your strategy.

Instead, focus on a highly targeted audience to create a relevant, authentic connection with potential customers, and use your marketing budget efficiently.

You’re Confusing Your Audience

I’ve sat through countless campaign presentations. All too often, I walk out of a highly technical 30-minute presentation and think, “I have no idea what this company does.”

Just because you’re familiar with the ins and outs of your product or service doesn’t mean your audience understands it. Your value proposition should never become a guessing game.

Customers, investors, and the market really only care about two things: the problem your product solves and why it’s better than any other solution out there. If you can’t answer those questions in layman’s terms, your audience will go elsewhere.

You’re Not Providing a Call to Action

You may have a narrowly targeted audience, stellar creative, and perfect messaging, but if you don’t offer actionable takeaways for your audience, you’re missing a critical engagement opportunity.

Whether you want your audience to make a purchase, learn more, or enter a contest, your instructions need to be clear. Never put out a message that doesn’t communicate a desired outcome to your potential customers.

Raise Some Eyebrows

You’ll have a better chance of connecting with your audience if you avoid these mistakes. But focusing solely on the right customers won’t generate the cutting-edge marketing that draws people in by the millions. Here are four marketing tactics you should use to elevate your message:

Nail down your medium. Don’t assume a one-size-fits-all strategy will work for your startup. You need to understand what works for your industry and what fits your goals. A fashion entrepreneur may succeed in an ancillary New York Fashion Week event and post her line to Pinterest. But a B2B startup may be better off focusing on thought leadership to land a speaking engagement. Research the best medium for conveying your message, and get your story out as quickly as possible.

Know your customers’ habits. When you know your audience’s habits, it’s easier to meet them where they are. Find out where your target customers congregate to execute perfectly. For example, I market to entrepreneurs. I know they’re on the lookout for new opportunities, and they consume information almost exclusively through their mobile devices. So I focus on capturing relevant headlines on Twitter and aligning with organizations that curate people I want to talk to. I may only have a second to get their attention, so I focus on concise, attention-grabbing tweets and speaking opportunities at popular events.

Consider your costs. Spend your hard-earned money on customers who understand your message and are more likely to use it and become product evangelists. However, cost doesn’t always mean dollars. It includes time and effort as well. The barrier to entry on social media may be low in dollars, but think about whether you have the necessary bandwidth to manage, grow, and interact with your following.

Scale your marketing. There is no definite answer for how much you should spend on marketing, but according to Bloomberg, companies should start by spending about 5 percent of their revenue on marketing and adjust as they grow.

No matter how wonderful your product is, you can’t be everything to everyone. And when you try to market it that way, it weakens your message and pushes your audience away. Concentrate your efforts on sending out the perfect message for the right audience in the best place, and your marketing dollars will work harder. Pick your most relevant segment, and let your new brand advocates do the rest for you.

Allison Conkright Engel leads global marketing and operations for the Dell Center for Entrepreneurs. Prior to Dell, Allison worked for various startups, leading their Southwest expansion efforts. She has more than 15 years of experience in media and marketing and has worked for several iconic brands. Connect with Allison on Twitter.

Contest: Free Branding Services for the “Next North American Startup”

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Are you a startup in North America? Did you blow your whole budget on R&D?

A startup without a solid brand at launch isn’t going to succeed. It’s that simple. Lucky for you, Vancouver digital branding agency Skyrocket wants to help. They’re holding the Brand Prize contest (open to North American startups only) with the winning startup receiving a $40,000 Visual Identity and Branding System.

Why are they doing it?

According to Skyrocket Creative Director Michael Parks:

“Startups spend all their resources on R&D, often neglecting their identity and brand. Of course developing a valuable product is important, but having people who want that thing is the key to making it! By creating a brand that breathes purpose – that defines the audience relationship – we can captivate a market and truly disrupt.”

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Skyrocket wants to give one worthy startup a chance they wouldn’t otherwise have, by providing full branding services for free: they want to launch that startup into the market with every possibility for success.

Are you that startup? The contest works like this:

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Applications are open (at www.thebrandprize.com) until September 15: the winning startup will be announced just 15 days later on September 30.

If you’ve got a killer product and a solid business model, then there’s only one question you’ve got to answer:

Do you have what it takes to win the Brand Prize?

About Skyrocket

Skyrocket is a digital agency specializing in user-experience design and branding. Whether they’re building a complex web app, an ecommerce website, or even a simple website, everything Skyrocket does works to express a company’s brand.

Where Failing Startups Get Lost

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Conversations in the startup community seem to be dominated by funding, features, and hacks. The ability of founders to balance the new information that’s out there with the tried and true principals of business is a critical differentiator in the success or failure of startups. Failing to prioritize the basics of running a business can doom the business, regardless of the product, the sales team, or the investment. Likewise, sufficient attention to running the business can cure a failing startup.

Partnerships

Partnerships are both a blessing and a curse. The right partner can make a startup successful. While that’s true, it is important to remember that the converse is not. Not getting a partnership is rarely the cause of a startup’s failure. When you find partnership opportunity, it’s ok to pursue it as long as you compartmentalize.

Partnerships tend to monopolize a disproportionate amount of a founder’s attention without contributing to the startup’s success to justify the diversion. Partners also tend to cause feature creep (adding features that were not on the project road map). Startups need to focus their time on sales and the features that are required to get paying customers in the short term. A partner is not an investor, and should more typically be viewed as a potential customer with a very, very long sales cycle. Managing partners as a potential sale help a startup allocate time without overspending in this one area.

Infrastructure

Many technology startups fall into the infrastructure trap. Just because the founder dreams of becoming the next Twitter does not mean that the company, in its infancy, should build the infrastructure of a mature company from the outset. The aspiration to integrate with every platform on the market doesn’t mean a startup should do it today.

When a startup plans to build key components from scratch, it start with off the shelf product and grow into those custom components at a measured rate. Instead of building it’s own servers at the outset, Facebook implemented years later, when the time was right. For every startup whose infrastructure was less than perfect, there are ten-fold that overbuilt and ran out of money before they saw any traction.

Hiring

Startup news sites, pitch days, and startup contests can mislead entrepreneurs to believing that skyrocketing growth is just around the corner. Founders frequently rush to hire, but startups have limited funds and founders have limited time. New employees take both. Very few startups need an executive level software engineer to build their minimum viable product. That is not to say that startups should not hire the talent they need, but only hire the people absolutely necessary. An early stage company rarely needs a data architect or executive vice president of business development. Begin with people who can get you to the next level and share your vision whether their employees or contractors.

Side Projects (aka Distractions)

Don’t start side projects. They require time, money, and attention that a fledgling business can ill afford. You don’t need to organize a community garden to sell your rain gauge. You don’t need to create your own camera to sign customers for your photo sharing website. Yes companies, especially large ones, do it all the time, but it’s a startup killer. Instead, stick with your near term product and sales goals.

 

Michael Johnstone brings over a decade of technology and business experience to Mark Cuban Companies. He has a proven history of strategic planning, leadership, product development, and operations in both startups and mature companies. Michael is responsible for deal flow and manages internet and technology strategy for MCC portfolio companies. He previously founded Taglyn GPS Tracking, specializing in small fleet management, before selling it to a private company in 2011. Prior to Taglyn, Michael spent nine years as founder and president of eLocomotive Design, which built custom software and websites. He brings a depth of first-hand entrepreneurial knowledge and operational expertise to every transaction. Michael also serves as an advisor and mentor to multiple startups and is a mentor to accelerators including TechStars and DreamIt. Michael is passionate about helping founders turn their startup into fully functional and profitable enterprises.

How Entrepreneurship is Different in the South–And Why That’s Great

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memphissky1Entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship, right? Wrong.

Sure, no matter where you are, you have to have an idea, get some money for it, and grind it out. But what that looks like is different from region to region. Different investors and different amounts of money require different strategies from startups trying to get their businesses off the ground.

The South provides a particularly interesting case of this. There’s less capital available to startups, and what is available is pretty conservative money. As a result, startups can’t afford to spend 8 years building a user base before earning a profit. So how do companies survive and thrive in an environment with scarce resources?

It all starts with a business plan built with the knowledge that capital is scarce, and you can’t rely on million dollar seed rounds. It’s not enough to have an idea; founders must build on that to create a strong, viable plan to get profitability, not just ubiquity. Usually, this comes from iterating on a scaleable minimum viable product as quickly as possible to provide value from the start, placing the company in excellent position to capitalize on early revenue potential. Such a plan involves pivot points with opportunities to fail early and iterate in order to succeed.

We call this Southern style of entrepreneurship the Jumpstart Way. It leads to fundamentally sound businesses, and gives founders the opportunity to own more of their company if it succeeds.

ChangeHealthcare provides an excellent example of the Jumpstart Way. ChangeHealthcare, a Nashville company, provides price transparency services to consumers and employers in order to reduce healthcare costs. Castlight Health in San Francisco provides similar services.

ChangeHealthcare raised 1 million dollars to start and immediately built the first version of their product, working in close collaboration with the healthcare companies that would be its ideal users. Adjusting as they went, they were able to build a truly valuable minimum viable product from the start. This visible progress from the outset and the promise of early revenue traction was enough to convince angels to invest another 3 million in the company.

In contrast Castlight Health raised 20 million dollars in their first round and built a user base first, and a board of directors shortly after. By now, both companies have products on the market, but ChangeHealthcare is losing significantly less money on comparable levels of revenue.

This is not to disparage entrepreneurship on the West Coast; we love and admire the grit and grind it takes to get a company off the ground, no matter where it is. The South just happens to need a minimum viable product earlier, and a plan has to be in place to accelerate that as a priority. You have to take what you can get and make something great from it.

Isn’t that what entrepreneurship is about?

Chris Poole is a managing director at Jumpstart Foundry, a Nashville-based accelerator. Jumpstart Foundry is the southeast’s premier accelerator and exists to empower innovators in the South to succeed in creating products, jobs, wealth & economic growth for themselves and the region. Find out more about Jumpstart Foundry at jsf.co.

6 Ways Startups Can Beat the Tax Man

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When you’re first starting a company, there are a lot of overhead costs. You have to pick up furniture, electronics, and a whole host of other things. You’ve also got to worry about employees, whether you’re going to provide benefits, and more. Fortunately, there are a few ways that your startup can beat the tax man.

Work Opportunity Tax Credit

If you hire employees from a certain group, you can get a tax credit. This group includes individuals that receive food stamps, certain qualified veterans, and certain residents in the community. On average, about 25 percent of all new hires are eligible for one of the targeted work opportunity tax credit groups. The credit is up to $2,400 per qualified employee in the first year of employment. However, the qualified veterans program offers up to a $9,600 tax credit in the first year.

incontent3Deduct Your Furniture

Consult with your tax preparer and see if they think you should expense or depreciate your furniture. This is an important decision, since you’re going to end up getting a ton of furniture.

You shouldn’t buy furniture just to get the tax deduction, though. Only get what you need now or furniture that you’ll anticipate needing in the very new future.

Travel Costs

Did you know that you can deduct any expenses related to traveling in your car? You can deduct all parking fees, tolls that you encounter while on a business trip, and mileage. You’ll need to keep track of the mileage, as well as the start and finish mark of the odometer. Also note the business purpose for each trip. You’ll also be able to deduct repairs, insurance, and maintenance costs.

Home Office Expenses

Sometimes you don’t need an office to run a business. If you’re using a dedicated space in your home as your home office, you can deduct it. The only catch is that the room must be used to conduct business. If you conduct business on the same couch that you lie on when you’re taking online courses for your Masters of Laws degree, you’re out of luck. You can also deduct a portion of utilities, rent, insurance, and taxes.

Loans

Did you know that you can deduct any loans you get when you’re starting your business? They can be fully deducted! If you borrow money from a relative, make sure that it conforms to IRS rules before attempting to deduct it. This certainly provides a much-needed break and should put your mind a bit more at ease when starting your business.

Advertising

Without advertising, no one will know your business exists. You can deduct the costs of advertising that cover multiple-year contracts, and the deductions must be spread out over all the contract years. This covers advertising on any form of medium, whether it be a billboard sign or a newspaper ad.

Startups take on a lot of costs, but these tax deductions can provide a bit of relief. Can you think of anything else that your startup can deduct? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Emily Green is a freelance writer with more than six years’ experience in blogging, copywriting, content, SEO, and dissertation, technical and thesis writing. She loves all things tech and and going on a jog with her dog.

The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Communicating With Investors

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Rachael Qualls

Fundraising is incredibly important, but it’s only part of the equation. To make your vision a reality, you need to sell your potential to investors and continue to prove your worth down the road. This requires consistent communication before, during, and after your initial round of funding. Below is your guide to working with capitalists after the initial funding phase to ensure that you have the tools and knowledge to land repeat investments.

The Power of the JOBS Act

The JOBS Act has transformed investor relations from a necessary evil to an incredibly powerful tool in the entrepreneur’s arsenal. Before the JOBS Act, companies couldn’t advertise the fact that they were raising money. With the elimination of that ban, they were given permission to market their worth and financial needs to investors.

In the past, the s

cales were tipped heavily in favor of investors, who took a long time to get back to entrepreneurs, do due diligence, or fund deals. The investment options were plenty, but the market lacked efficiency and effectiveness.

All that changed with the rise of crowdfunding. With the rise of online funding platforms, new prospects are accessible to more investors, and savvy funders know they have to move quickly to gain access to the hottest companies. In addition, potential investors who might have only considered the public market before can now explore the private sector from the comfort of their homes.

This increased awareness translates into more investing in private companies, potentially making it easier to raise substantial amounts of funding without having to go public. But it also means the market is flooding, forcing entrepreneurs to stand out from the swells of startups online.

Communication

The Investor Communication Checklist

Investors who provided initial funds can be a resource for more capital as your company grows, but only if you give them the information they need and provide updates on how their investment is performing. Consider these necessities:

1. Updates on company progress: Provide updates on a monthly basis to engage your investors. Giving investors dire news at the last minute is not just unprofessional; it’s bad for business. The less time they have to absorb the news, the less motivated they will be to help. In my investor updates, I always include a section titled “Things Keeping Me Up at Night” that lays out the issues that most concern me. This gets everything on the table. Frequently, investors reach out to offer assistance if they can.

2. Monthly financial reports: It’s a reality in today’s startup environment: Nearly every company will need to ask current investors for more money. If you’re upfront, investors will understand your situation and might be more willing to help. Financial reports guarantee that everyone is on the same page.

3. Changes in capitalization: If you raise more money or set up an employee stock option pool, current investors will be affected. Typically, they need to approve anything that affects changes to their shares. Again, clear and consistent communication can smooth these transitions.

4. Tax information: If your company is an LLC, you will need to provide a K-1 form to each investor to indicate his or her share of the earnings for tax purposes. Organization will be key as more and more investors are added to the company.

5. Major ownership changes: Major transactions, such as selling the company, may require the approval of all shareholders. You need to inform your investors efficiently and get signed documents, approvals, or votes from shareholders to complete negotiations.

incontent3 Building Your Reputation

Reputation is everything. You’re only as viable as your funders believe you to be, and the suggestions above will strengthen your company’s brand in the eyes of current and potential investors. Present information that is organized, accurate, and digestible.

The first thing a potential investor will do is call current investors for feedback. If those experienced investors feel uninformed about your company, they will likely convey a negative message to the newcomer. Moreover, new investors will check to see if current investors are putting up more capital for your company. If a new investor feels that older investors are abandoning ship, you have a communication problem and potentially a much more disastrous financial problem in your future.

Every communication to your investors is building a foundation for future investment. Investors saw promise in you and your ideas — it’s your responsibility to keep them educated about your goals, operations, and finances.

As it turns out, being the boss requires a lot of talking. Be proactive by connecting with your investors on a regular basis. After all, they’re the ones funding your dream.

Rachael Qualls is the founder and CEO of Venture 360, a platform that provides investors and investor groups with a great platform to manage their portfolios. Venture 360 also provides entrepreneurs the support they need to manage their relationships with investors so they can focus on running their businesses. Connect with Rachael on Twitter and Google+.

The Secret Startup Resource You’re Probably Overlooking

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The best days are not planned
For successful startup founders, it is critical to understand the distinction between unavoidable challenges and unforced mistakes. Too many startups fail as a result of the same set of predictable mistakes: poor planning, poor timing, poor understanding offinance. It is poor business intelligence. Starters who lack access to the right information or the skills to put that information to work are at a disadvantage.

rsz_incontentad2Smart startup founders look outside their own networks to bring in new skills and gain better access. For better business intelligence, the best person to add to your information network is a librarian. Whether online via chat or at your local library, she can help you navigate the library’s vast, free resources to find the information you need and avoid common, costly mistakes.

Failing to know the market

You have a fantastic idea for a product you’re sure will change lives and make a fortune. But sometimes a passion for an idea can blind you to the realities of the market. Your librarian can help you access databases and the hidden web where you can research patents and use tools such as LexisNexis, JSTOR and Standard & Poor’s to conduct the market research you need to complete before launching.

Lacking focus

Too many startups jeopardize their chances of success by attempting to be multiple things at once. The reality is that most startups struggle to master a single service or product well enough to survive. As you’re piecing together your business plan, a librarian can assist you in researching market conditions, competitors and supply chains to help you focus where you’re most likely to succeed.

Unclear understanding of financials

You don’t need to be a CPA to start a business, but you need to understand the basics of finance. This will help you later as you begin to negotiate loans and equity lines, but more crucially, basic financial literacy will help you determine what is feasible for your business.

Librarians are trained to locate the highest quality, most reputable sources of information and will guide you to the correct resources for assistance.

Failure to listen to customers

Passion is the defining feature of an entrepreneur, and the force that drives success. But passion can be self-defeating if it makes you blind to the preferences of your customers.

Think of the library as a beta site or showroom. It’s a space where you can get your product in front of potential customers from an early stage and see how they react. It may turn out that once your product is in consumers’ hands it gets used in entirely different ways than you imagined. By incorporating the library into your product development process, you will always have real-world usage data to signal consumers’ preferences.

No plan

You need to map where your company will be in 6 months, a year, 2 years and sometimes even longer. Do your homework and determine what you would need to have in place to make it happen. Will it require outside investment? Leverage your library for the resources you need to put together your pitch deck. Will it require continued innovation? Use your library to access scientific and scholarly journals to stay up on the latest developments in your field.

Information is ubiquitous, but finding the right information can be frustratingly illusive. The difference to your success could be the librarians who have both the skills and the sources that could solve many of the problems you face in garnering good, fact-based information, research, statistics and data that could help you avoid many of these problems.

If you make the library a central resource in your business, and depend on the knowledge, training and skills of your librarian, you will find yourself in better control of the information you need to succeed. It’s no secret that founding a business is a difficult and allconsuming occupation, but with a librarian in your corner, you will be able to approach the challenges with a clear mind and deep well of information.

John Chrastka is founder of EveryLibrary, a library advocacy organization dedicated to preserving local library funding and ensuring access. As a former tech entrepreneur, one of John’s goals is to raise awareness of the resources libraries and librarians can provide to the tech community, for free with a library card. John can be found on Twitter at @mrchrastka. You can learn more about EveryLibrary at EveryLibrary.org.

The David and Goliath Guide to Innovation: Don’t Always Solve New Problems

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We’re always looking for that untapped holy grail of a new market. Something super niche. Something that no one else thought to go after. It’s exciting. It’s sexy.

And as entrepreneurs, we’re programmed to ask ourselves:
What new problems can I solve?

But why don’t we ask ourselves more often:
How can I solve problem X better than company Y?

We’re becoming so programmed to look for the “new”, that we’re becoming averse to solving existing problems, better.

incontentad1_rz_Maybe it’s because it’s just plain daunting to think about going up against a Goliath when you’re a David. And even if you’re incredibly confident that you’ve found a better way to do things, there are a million reasons to talk yourself out of going up against a heavy hitter. It’s intimidating.

But actually, it happens all the time. Some of the most successful companies of the last couple years didn’t come up with an idea that required a new market. They solved old problems in new ways.

Take Lyft and Uber for example—going up against the Taxi unions. Stripetaking on PayPalKISSMetrics and Mixpanel taking on Google Analytics.

What it really comes down to is finding a way to do things better (whether it’s a new problem or an old one), and knowing what and where your advantages are.


In his book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants”Malcolm Gladwell takes the stance that David, not Goliath, actually had the advantage in that battle.

“It is because of, and not despite, David’s size and unorthodox choice of weapon that he is able to slay the lumbering giant[…]most people underestimate the importance of agility and speed.”

“David’s sling is a devastating weapon[…]Then we have a big, lumbering guy weighed down with armor, who can’t see much more than a few feet in front of his face, up against a kid running at him with a devastating weapon and a rock traveling with the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun. That’s not a story of an underdog and a favorite. David has a ton of advantages in that battle, they’re just not obvious.” -Malcolm Gladwell

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So how do you take on a Goliath?

We recently interviewed Todd Garland, founder of BuySellAds (BSA). He opened up about his experience and the challenges of taking on his Goliath, and diving head first into a dinosaur of an industry: online banner advertising.

“I was pretty naive going into it. Had I known it was a David & Goliath situation, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But that’s the beauty of being naive and being able to take a fresh perspective on an industry with a ton of baggage. Just being able to go into it with a fresh set of eyes and looking at how you can break down a problem at the most simple level, and how you can help people solve their problem.” -Todd

When he entered the market in 2008, he was up against the then dominantAdBrite. It seemed like they had all the advantages: a huge existing customer base, a big team of sales people, tons of options for advertisers to place ads, tons of features, etc. But AdBrite was clunky, and they were complicated.Todd saw a better way — a need for massive simplification.

And that became the key difference for BSA. They sold ads at fixed 30 day rates. And that was the only option. They focused on making it incredibly simple for publishers to get ads up on their site, and easy for them to get paid.

“I found a better way to get advertiser money and ‘Robin Hood’ it over to the publishers.” -Todd

What it came down to is that he really understood the product that he was trying to build, and he really understood the problem that he was solving. So he was able to articulate that really well to folks who he had identified as having that same problem.

Then, he just looked for them online. And the hard work began. He emailed, he cold called, he built personal relationships anywhere and everywhere he could. He hustled.


Fast forward about 6 years and BSA has a team that spans worldwide, they’ve got an established customer base, brand, infrastructure, etc.

“It’s always going to hard for any company to launch a new thing. That’s an important lesson for folks starting out for the first time, and maybe people launching their first company to understand.

While you may think you’re up against Goliath, because they already have a customer base, and they have tech, and they have a team, and they have money and all those things, it really is much more of a level playing field than you might think.” -Todd


Listen to the full interview with Todd on The Rocketship Podcast or subscribe on iTunes to receive all of our founder interviews.

Joelle Steiniger is Co-Founder of Small HQ, currently building HookFeed, a Stripe analytics app. She’s also writing How to Build a Rocketship and co-hosting the Rocketship Podcast.

Follow her on Twitter at: @JoelleSteiniger

This post originally appeared on Medium.

When Wine Meets Tech Good Things Happen

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How do you migrate from a successful SaaS venture capitalist and longtime technology industry native, into the founder of a successful wine brand? With a unique approach, some creativity, and the right partnerships, Uproot wines has done just that. Mixing the art of growth hacking, and knowledge from the startup world, Jay and Greg are carving out their niche in the wine market.

Unlike software though, where you can adopt a lean business model, while continually improving your product, wine requires the right stuff from the start. There are no test iterations of your Reserve Cabernet.

One of the more unique qualities of the wine industry is the huge range of individuals it attracts.

So how did a venture capitalist and a former New York office worker come together to form this brand? Greg Scheinfeld is a native of New York who left his desk job to work a harvest in 2006 and never looked back. After honing his skills at places like Joseph Phelps, Vineyard 29, and Cakebread Cellars, he moved on to start Uproot with Jay Levy. The two make for great combination, with Greg the meticulous winemaker, and Jay bringing his technical startup knowledge.

“We went all in, and knew what we wanted to do” says Jay, explaining their approach.

To stand out in the sea of wine brands, you need a strong differentiator, and that has been one of Uproot’s strengths. The wine’s labels feature unique color schemes that offer a visual match to the flavors contained within. It’s a simple, and overall subtle thing to put a wine’s flavors into a color palette, but for consumers it makes sense.

Their production is small, at just under 500 cases, and their model relies on the support of a directly connected base of consumers. Eager wine enthusiasts got first dibs on their releases, which include a Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and a new Grenache.

Establishing your customer base directly first, and then following up with limited distribution to restaurants and wine shops may seem backward to many wineries that follow the traditional three-tier model. But in building your customers one by one, and being selective about where your wine goes, you maintain much more control over the direction and growth.

I asked Jay about funding for their venture. He’s a well connected venture capitalist, with a great portfolio of companies behind him. If you had to guess, you’d think he poured a bunch into this new direction. You’d be wrong. While they have poured some into the production and necessary activities to build and sustain a wine brand, they fall more into the bootstrapped sort of approach, which can work when you take a ground-up approach with a product. By establishing a foundation of followers, fans, and customers, together with savvy content marketing and cross-lifestyle promotion online, they’ve gained a lot of exposure. The bootstrap style also helps build authenticity into their brand image.

“As a whole, we spent very little money on online marketing. We use storytelling and meeting directly with people to get the word out.”

Uproot’s primary market is milllenials, ages 28-45 who can afford and appreciate a $42 bottle of wine. Their website has a page dedicated to their values, another seemingly obvious, yet often ignored piece of many online businesses. One value in particular that I like is “customers are friends we haven’t met, yet” which is always a great way to go. They email people about once a month, and don’t get spammy with it.

They also make use of a good number of the small companies in the Zelkova portfolio, which helps them adapt to tech needs and develop a more agile approach. They use HelpScout to offer up friendly customer service, Ambassador for social referrals, and Crowdly which helps analyze their social media engagement.

This sort of approach is a dramatic contrast against the majority of other wineries out there, from the largest producers down to the smallest. In an industry rooted in agriculture, tradition, and prestige, technology has not been a strong adoption point.

“The industry is not leveraging the latest and greatest tech that it could be,” says Jay.

Specifically, he faults wineries for having antiquated consumer-facing websites. “You look at some of these websites, and it has the feel of 1996 tech. From a consumer-facing front end, it’s probably about 10 years behind.”

Another basic, yet effective way to establish that first touch point of communication with the customer happens via live chat on their website. I asked Jay about this, because it’s something that seems obvious to implement, and yet again, ignored by a good many wineries and small businesses alike. Jay says they have someone online “as much as possible” and they get about 5-10 conversations per day. Many want to simply say hello and have the chance to connect with someone behind the brand, while others want to ask a question about the wine. Having a live person can work great for a small business, plus it’s a easy way to create more connections with potential customers.

Uproot’s website and business is still in its infancy really, but has been a solid source for great wine-related content, such as the Guide to Napa, and simple but informative infographics. They engage, inform, and entertain their readers with content that has substance, although they did post the obligatory “bud break” post which every winery seems to do as part of their 4-post-per year schedule.

Going forward in 2014, they plan to expand their vision of a new kind of wine club called “The Block” and have just released their Grenache, which is a hot and heavy welcoming addition to the lineup of refreshing whites. Their wine club is free to join, and really just brings you on a level closer to the brand allowing the consumer more opportunity to join others and receive preferential treatment.

Michael Meisner lives in wine country with his fiance, where he builds ecommerce websites and consults with wineries looking to take advantage of the growing world of direct-to-consumer ecommerce. He writes about various topics surrounding digital marketing, writing, wine, and WordPress on his blog. Follow him on Twitter @mmeisner
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Flash Crystals Shoots to Change Music Distribution in 2014

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music promotion

Let’s face it: physical music promotion hasn’t changed since the 90’s. Music has evolved with cloud based music streaming, online radio, and music on the go. So why are CDs still around?

Charleson Bell, Chief Innovation Officer of Crystal Innovations, asked himself the very same question, and his answer soon became the Flash Crystal.

According to Bell and the rest of his team at Crystal Innovations Inc, the Flash Crystal is the future of media sharing. Using NFC technology, the Flash Crystal can instantly upload music, artist’s websites, business cards or media files from the Internet straight to your NFC enabled mobile device.

Pretty cool, huh?

The Flash Crystal is breaking the idea that all music should be cloud based by combining the reliability of a physical copy of media and adopting today’s newest tech. The Flash Crystal is one of the easiest way to share media content today. Unlike Bluetooth, it doesn’t require a PIN to link, and it doesn’t require an app like a QR code. Simply turn on the NFC on your mobile device, tap the back of your phone with the Crystal and you have yourself a whole album of music.

It’s that simple.

Bell spoke to me about how he came to the development of Flash Crystals when he was starting BioNanovations in December of 2012. Bell said, “Money was tight, and I was trying to sell CD’s of my own music just to get by.” He said his CD’s didn’t sell because no one buys CD’s anymore, and that’s when he met the point where desperation equaled innovation.

“I needed something that could send music straight to your phone without the hassle of a CD,” he said.

Bell is currently still the CEO of his biotech startup BioNanovations, but he works closely Ronnie Braxton and the rest of his team to bring the Flash Crystal to life.

According to ABI Research, there were 285 million NFC-capable devices in 2013. In 2014 it is estimated that more than 500 million NFC-capable phones will be in the hands of consumers worldwide. With millions losing terabytes of data using cloud-based music storage, and according to eMarketer, over 70 million people listening to their music regularly on a mobile phone in 2013, Flash Crystal has the potential to change music promotion and distribution for good.

As a Business Management major at Trevecca Nazarene University and a Division II track athlete, Josh Durham is in a little bit of everything.  Josh loves startups from tech to healthcare and recently joined the ranks of an online coffee fundraiser called Goodbean.org from his hometown of Franklin, Tennessee.

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Should Startups Fight the SEO War?

SEO warAbout a year ago, three friends and I began the daunting journey of building our tech startup, GreenPal.

Taking the leap of faith to start was the hardest part, as often, ideas are stillborn. They require a plan with relentless execution for them to manifest into reality.

By now we are all familiar with the lean startup methodology of deploying, testing, and iterating new ideas to discover and establish a product’s problem-market fit. Once a startup has launched a product and gained early adopters’ feedback, and the founders discover they are scratching an itch, what are the smartest methods to begin distributing that product to more early adopters?

With resources scarce, does it make sense for a startup to invest your precious few dollars of seed capital on paid acquisition methods such as PPC campaigns, search retargeting, or FB marketing? Or should a startup invest resources into organic SEO? A few key points should be considered with respect to SEO marketing and your startup.

 Time and Faith are vital:

Getting your site to naturally rank well for the keywords you are targeting, known as organic SEO, will require months and years of building the necessary momentum to see tangible benefits. While there are over 200 factors to Google’s search algorithm, SEO today is still heavily weighted on what is called Domain Authority (DA) and Page Rank (PR). It takes time (3-12 months of steady work) to establish strong enough values to improve meaningfully how your site will rank. The beginning will be an exercise in faith, as there is little instant gratification to organic SEO work.

 Who is going to put in the work:

So the question is, who in your startup team will dedicate the hours to SEO, primarily the grueling work of building quality back links from authoritative sites? My experience is that a robust link building campaign will require a minimum of 20 hours per week of steady dedication, writing quality articles, and creating attractive linkable assets such as graphics, illustrations, industry reports, and videos to name a few. Then, outreach must be conducted to find webmasters and bloggers that will want to feature this content and link back to your site. All this takes time, plain and simple.

In our team we have assigned the SEO discipline to our non-technical cofounders to grind on while product development is taking place before initial launch. However, when post launch bandwidth dries up, balancing the time needed to stay the course on your SEO strategy is challenging as the job is never finished. It will takes years to build your DA to the level of established incumbents who have big marketing budgets and most likely full time experienced SEO’s on staff.

 Why not just outsource your SEO?:

It is possible to outsource the heavy lifting of your SEO strategy such as the creation of attractive linkable assets, the manual outreach, and the link-building. However, it may prove to be cost prohibitive for your cash strapped startup. There is no immediate measurable ROI on SEO efforts, so explaining that seed capital burn will be a difficult conversation with your stake holders. Additionally, the lag in time for when the money invested in SEO activities through an agency will yield actual fruit proves prohibitive for most startups. This is why most startups double down on PPC and other paid channels—such methods yield an immediate result and ROI.

 So, should a Startup even fight the SEO war:

My humble opinion is, yes, if at all possible. Once a startup has created a product that people will actually like to use, growth is all that matters. Forget growth hacking; every startup must have a comprehensive digital marketing strategy that encompasses a blend of channels. Whether paid acquisition such as AdWords, FB marketing, Search Retargeting, or natural organic methods such as SEO, content marketing, and intensifying the viral coefficient of your product, every startup has to experiment to find the proper marketing formula. While this will certainly vary from product to product, in most cases, natural SEO will be a large component to the strategy.

I recommend startups make the time to begin SEO efforts early. For two reasons: first, because it takes so long to build the momentum in natural SEO, and second, because the investment of time builds equity in your company’s DA. Once authoritative DA is established, this is an asset that will yield returns in perpetuity in the form of your homepage and landing pages ranking well for targeted keywords.

In the end, you’ll be glad you no longer have to pay Google $3 for that click.

 Bryan Clayton is a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of GreenPal.

The “Must-Attend Conference for Entrepreneurs” Everywhere Else Tennessee is headed back to Memphis this Spring. We’ve released the early adopter tickets, and they’re going fast. Don’t miss your shot by signing up here!

A Founder’s Accelerator Tale: 3 Misconceptions About Month 1

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startup acceleratorsEditor’s Note: With accelerator application season upon us, we know it can be hard to decide if accelerators are right for your company. With that in mind, we decided to give you an inside look at the workings of one of the top accelerators in the country.

With The Brandery soon taking applications for their 2014 class, I’ve been thinking back on my experience at the Cincinnati-based accelerator. Our company was lucky enough to be one of ten companies selected out of over 1,000 applicants to participate in the 2013 class.

While many Nibletz readers are familiar with the Brandery, I’m sure a large portion of startup enthusiasts have still never heard of it. Because after all – who has ever heard of an accelerator not located in SF or NYC named something other than TechStars?

The Brandery may not come from the same pedigree as the aforementioned, but it makes up for what the big guys lack in special ways. In fact CNN just named it to their top 9 hot startup accelerator list for its strength in consumer branding. With it’s proximity to Proctor & Gamble, (the same company who outpaced every other in the world with over $5 billion in ad spend in 2012) people in Cincinnati know how to market.

Every Brandery company receives $20K in exchange for 6% warrants, pro-bono work from some of the top digital and marketing agencies in the US, and a mentorship list that could compete with many of the top accelerators in the nation. The strong consumer marketing curriculum every Brandery company undergoes is built on the back of those mentors and professionals.

Often unmentioned but one of the most important facets of being in the Brandery is you find yourself being supported by the entire city of Cincinnati. People take their home very seriously in Cincinnati, and you’ll find most residents and businesses are willing to lend a hand to your cause no matter where you’re from.

Since we jammed what felt like a year’s worth of work into 3 months, I’ll try to breakdown my experience into several, digestible sections. Perhaps sensibly so, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd month of the program, with a

short conclusion on what happens to companies post “accelerating”.

So are you ready to dive in?

Month 1 at the Brandery

Let me start by mentioning a couple things upfront about my co-founders and I. None of us have technical backgrounds. In fact we had already struck out with one developer, before having to bring in a brand new CTO a week before the program began. While we had experience in business related fields, primarily accounting and consulting, we were very green in the tech world. We had almost no startup experience save for one small business we had started the year before.

Oh and did I mention our idea was B2B? Were we ideal Brandery candidates? Not exactly.

The first month of the Brandery is really about getting to the misconceptions as fast as possible. This likely holds true for any accelerator (YC, Tech Stars, et al.)

Misconception #1: Move as “fast as possible.”

You need to accept the reality you will not always be moving as fast possible. Many times too much speed will be detrimental to your cause. One of the founders told me months afterward he thought our company came in as a huge underdog. Fact is, we knew it. So we tried to make hurried decisions, hop in other team members’ work, and force our CTO to code as fast as possible.

The result? A train wreck.

The relationship with our developer was becoming more awkward by the day and we were making each other furious by constantly stepping on one another’s toes.

My advice for this misconception is find the right dynamic for you and your team. Find out where your strengths lie and divvy up tasks and responsibilities accordingly. Only step on the gas when you’re sure you’ve made the right decision, otherwise you’re destined to tailspin.

Misconception #2: Listen to all the advice you receive.

This is absolutely one of the hardest things to do in an accelerator because you’re getting an opinion every minute. During times when you’re taking a break, you’re probably giving a few of your own.

You must take every piece of advice with a grain of salt. Trying to action every piece of advice or feedback will certainly make your head spin and almost assuredly result in the quick death of your company.

My advice here is to realize that everyone has solved the challenge of starting their own company in a different way. There are a million ways to solve a problem you just have to choose your favorite way. I’ll never forget the days we had back-to-back speakers who shared a totally opposing message. One experienced entrepreneur had a successful exit with his first startup and told us to not raise VC money. “Focus on revenue, and bootstrap until you can’t bootstrap anymore.”

The next day’s speaker, founder of a widely used internet tool, told us, “You’ll never stop raising money.”

So uh – which is it? The fact is, you’ll have to figure it out for yourself. Hear everything, listen and internalize about 20% of that, and ALWAYS make your own decisions based on what you believe to be the best information at hand.

sqrl

Misconception #3: Focus on building the product

The answer to this will largely depend on how much work you’ve done on your idea before entering said accelerator. But for the vast majority of us, we were primarily in the idea stage and only had minimal prototypes at hand.

My take here is to focus on your customers first, then focus on building the product.

Grab a copy of Running Lean and read about the right way to do customer problem and subsequently, solution interviews. Future-self will thank you. A good product comes from great feedback and when in doubt, traction trumps a full prototype. This is especially true in the case of non-dev founders. Don’t waste your developer’s time on stuff you may not even know is necessary. His/her time is more important than yours, so treat it like gold.

I get asked all the time how to start a company or raise VC funding without knowing how to code. Honestly, obtain customers and the rest will fall into place. We found 100 accounting firms to signup for our product with only a keynote presentation and without a single line of code. So read up on UX/UI and download the Keynotopia plug-in for Keynote.

Need some more advice? My good friend and fellow Brandery alum, Nick Cromydas recently wrote a nice post on this same topic.

Month 1: The Good Stuff

Now that some of those items are out of the way, let’s talk about some things that went well the first month of The Brandery.

The Brandery curriculum is front-loaded with amazing advice given by some of the top consumer marketing professionals in the world on almost a daily basis. In fact there are so many presentations that after a while they almost blend together. Despite this I’d encourage others to listen closely and be rigorous in your note-taking. You’ll never know when you need to go back for that one special nugget of advice.

With its strong cast of mentors from all over the US, it’s advisable to take advantage early on. Chat with them, ask questions, and overall don’t be afraid to ask anyone involved with the Brandery for something. The worst that can happen is they’ll say no. A word you hear very little of from all Brandery co-founders, mentors, and business people in Cincinnati.

Brand-in-a-day is an event that occurs within the first month of the program as well. Each company is paired with a marketing agency in Cincinnati ranging from uber small to some of the largest in the world. The day is intended to allow each company to work with seasoned marketing professionals in order to come up with a foundational marketing strategy. This could mean a name or logo change, a brand manifesto, or in our case, a complete overhaul and slight change in product vision.

It’s up to each company to take advantage of the opportunity and work with these agencies for the duration of the program. While some companies received only a few thousand dollars worth of pro-bono work, I’d guess others received work valued at almost 10x that. That value can prove to be huge for early-stage companies and something that definitely sets the Brandery apart from other accelerators.

Next I’d mention the city of Cincinnati as a whole. The Brandery is located in a beautiful historic building in the middle of Over-The-Rhine (OTR), one of the largest historic neighborhoods in the country. OTR has gone through some well documented changes in the last 10 years, making it a very cool, and culturally stimulating place to live and work. Given it is Cincinnati’s unofficial startup hub, there are a ton of cool companies close by (e.g. Choremonster and Roadtrippers.)

Because the Brandery’s location is Cincinnati, it’s affordable for poor startup founders to live a reasonable lifestyle. I’ve read enough horror stories about living in SF & NYC. They’re great cities for binge drinking and potential investor meetings, but I’d have to wait for a Series A to live there.

With founders in this past class coming from cities like LA, SF, NYC, Chicago, and Vancouver, I think you’d find all of them thoroughly enjoyed what Cincinnati and specifically OTR had to offer. Each of us were embraced by the city as a whole and that is something we’re all thankful for.

Now that I’ve given you the lowdown on the first month at the Brandery, you’ll have to wait until next post to find out if our team survived, if our developer revolted, and what are the best bars to visit while in OTR?

Stay tuned for part 2.

Craig Baldwin is a former accountant turned startup founder. He’s currently the CMO of Cincinnati-based startup Sqrl. Craig’s also a BBQ enthusiast, writer, and purveyor of delicious vintage cocktails. 

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Greetabl Makes Greeting Cards Fun–One Box at a Time

greetabl_family_r02

Most people send others cards or gifts for special occasions, birthdays, etc. Some people also use the adage of ‘thinking outside the box’ from time to time.

 One guy, Joe Fischer, thought outside the box and made a card that turned into a box. This box could, you guessed it, also hold small gifts or presents. In other words, he did it all, and he called it Greetabl.

The story begins as Fischer’s traveling back and forth between England and India for work. Upon taking some time off to recover from a shoulder surgery, he begins alternating between sitting around watching TV and sitting around trying to sleep upright in a reclining chair, at which point he realizes that he “just had so much time.” So he began tinkering.

“A couple good friends of mine were getting married at the time. I usually just wrote a handwritten card and sent them a check.”

But it wasn’t fun. It was cardboard, paper, and ink, a combination that, almost regardless of how you configure it, was essentially the same each and every time.

The aha moments came twice: the first with the concept and the second with the design.

“It’s a lot more fun to get a gift than just getting an envelope.” And so he created a prototype for his first Greetabl cube. Folded up and stamped, he sent it to his mother. That prototype soon arrived in his mom’s mailbox, complete with a note from the mailwoman simply saying, “Too cute! :)”

And that was it. Paired with reactions from friends and family and the postal worker’s praises, Fischer knew he had to go for it.

“If this ugly thing could garner that kind of a reaction from someone who took time out of their work day, what if it was really well designed, adorable-looking, and it came from somebody you love? What kind of impact could that have on that relationship?”

So he created more prototypes, most of which would make it quite difficult for the sender to actually write their message on the eventual card-turned-cube. But then the design struck.

“It was one of those times when I was basically just driving down the road and thought, ‘What if I did it like that?’ And I had to run home and try it. But it worked!”

The rest was history. If you haven’t seen Greetabls on shelves near you yet, keep an eye out. “Gifts are just more fun,” he says.

And I would agree. Be sure to visit greetabl.com to get your own Greetabl and break the monotony of sending cards you know end up being thrown in the recycling bin, and follow @greetabl on Twitter!

 Tyler Sondag is a startup connoisseur with a hand in anything and everything you could imagine. Hailing from the ever-developing Northwest Mississippi, an alum of Saint Louis University and currently a transplant to St. Louis, Missouri, one of his main missions in life is to get and keep young people engaged in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Follow him on Twitter: @MrSondag.

The “Must-Attend Conference for Entrepreneurs” Everywhere Else Tennessee is headed back to Memphis this Spring. We’ve released the early adopter tickets, and they’re going fast. Don’t miss your shot by signing up here!

5 Long-Term Sales Killers to Avoid in Your Startup

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We’ve all been there. Rather than spend the extra two hours on a Friday night to log your sales data for the week, you head home for some much-needed relaxation. It’s not going to affect your startup that much…right?

Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. But make no mistake: This line of thinking can catch up with you — quickly.

Starting and building a business demands all your time and energy. Sometimes, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything on your agenda, which is why everyone involved in launching your startup needs to wear several hats.

Sure, it can be exhausting, and you might be tempted to cut corners on sales to ease the burden on you and your team. But relying on shortcuts or postponing sales goals can have crippling effects on the long-term growth of your business.

Instead of taking an easier route, work to avoid these common startup pitfalls:

 1. Outdated Sales Practices

Social media and marketing automation tools are no longer luxuries — even for the most local of local businesses. It’s essential to keep up with current sales methods and understand how technology can affect these practices.

Many CEOs don’t adopt an inbound-focused “sales 2.0” methodology quickly enough, and they almost immediately fall behind as competitors benefit from these rapidly expanding new channels.

As social networking and marketing automation continue to develop, non-interruptive marketing and sales practices will become the norm. Leaders who don’t take a “sales 2.0” approach will find themselves with inefficient processes that likely won’t deliver a strong ROI, and competitors that take advantage of these sales channels and marketing tools will leave these lagging companies in the dust.

 2. Inefficient Databases

Successful sales practices are based on accurate information. Many CEOs simply don’t understand how valuable a fresh and enhanced database is to the process.

For example, they might continue to dump money into an outbound dialing resource without realizing that the logged information is bad or outdated. If 50 percent of your database information is obsolete, then 50 percent of your calls aren’t connecting.

How can any company achieve a positive ROI by using a half-populated database with dead-end leads? Without budgeting for an updated database at regular intervals, you’re likely losing sales and opportunities to engage your current customers.

 3. Limited Training

In most startups, managers must oversee daily operations and contact efforts, and sales teams are often left with no supervision. Soon, the quality and quantity of opportunities diminish, and growth grinds to a halt.

Even if initial employee training is spectacular, every salesperson can benefit from regular, continuous training. Learning new sales techniques (and developing existing ones) is an ongoing process, and your sales team must stay relevant with new strategies and technology to sell effectively.

 4. Lackluster Follow-Ups

Unfortunately, many leaders also don’t understand the value of following up with clients on a regular basis. Nurturing a customer relationship requires steady contact.

Set follow-up appointments after each meeting to build trust and maintain contact. This can also help expand your service. What new strategies, products, or technology can you offer? Is all your contact information current and applicable? Include a summary of your previous communication and an agenda for the upcoming meeting. These seemingly small details can make every follow-up more effective.

 5. Poor Data Management

Another common shortcut that can kill a business is disorganized data management. CEOs who don’t make their team update opportunities and make notes in the CRM are left with a slew of context-free metrics, none of which will benefit your bottom line.

Making reliable predictions becomes impossible when accurate record-keeping starts to slide.

Managers should not just assume databases are being updated; they should spot-check that sales reps are making notes on a regular basis. This is another pertinent detail that can get overlooked when managers are overloaded.

 Startup Sales Strategies for Long-Term Success

The common problems noted above reflect the time, budgetary, and personnel constraints most startups face. The following strategies can help alleviate these issues from the outset:

Create a consistent written plan of action, and develop timely checklists based on that plan.

  • Envision and record how your short-term goals (daily, weekly, quarterly) support your long-term growth. Defined goals posted in your workspace help your employees see how the day’s tasks fit into the big picture.
  •  Review your business practices monthly or quarterly to analyze areas that need improvement. Communicate these areas to your entire team, and ask for suggestions on appropriate strategies.
  •  Maintain your focus. This sounds easy, but if you had a rough quarter and start scrambling to “diversify” to seek immediate revenue, you are sacrificing your vision and continuity.

Startups, by nature, are often stretched thin on personnel and resources, but cutting corners on the sales side weakens your daily operations, client relationships, and future opportunities.

While you might find yourself able to get by with little organization or strategy, these short-term savings can be detrimental to your future success.

John McLellan John McLellan is the Chief Revenue Officer of EBQuickstart, the ultimate source for outsourced sales solutions. EBQ is a sales and marketing firm that helps companies outsource lead generation, sales, marketing, data, and customer service. John can be reached on Twitter or directly at john.mclellan@ebquickstart.com.

 

 

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