Here is reason #324238764 why 500 is unlike any other seed fund or accelerator. This is a video my partner George Kellerman created for the new incoming batch. He’s in Japan this week, doing low-key things like having dinner w/ the Prime Minister. So he made this video (full on w/ green screen). We all laughed and cried, but I think it was funniest to Team 500. George gave me a sneak preview of this video last week so I had already seen it. But I laughed so hard I cried when we played it on Monday for everyone.
I filmed this video awhile back for Technovation Challenge, a wonderful organization which encourages young girls to pursue careers in technology and entrepreneurship.
New Year, New Resolutions
Happy New Year! For those of you who missed PSY & MC Hammer performing on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve (is it still called that?), check it out here.
I haven’t had much time to think about New Year’s resolutions, but now that the holiday hubbub has quieted down, I’ve started to reflect on the past year and what I hope to accomplish in 2013.
First, a look back on 2012.
This isn’t a very long list, mainly because I’m having a hard time remembering what happened aside from a few big things - plus I don’t want to bore you with 100 bullets. So a quick snapshot:
- Came back from maternity leave @ the beginning of the year and figured out how to be a working mom. I don’t think there’s any such thing as “work/life balance” - it’s more of a “work/life juggle.”
- Completed two successful accelerator batches and took over the reins of running the 500 Accelerator program.
- Celebrated the wedding of one of my dear friends. Honored to have been a bridesmaid in such a beautiful, meticulously planned wedding.
- Welcomed one of BYT’s newest friends.
- Celebrated my mom’s 60th birthday.
- Celebrated BYT’s 1st birthday!!!
- Moved into our new house, which is always a work in progress.
- Had the HUGE honor of introducing two Star Trek stars at separate events - LeVar Burton at our MamaBear conference and George Takei at a special talk at the office. (see photos at the end of the post)
- Last but not least, had so much fun watching BYT grow from a baby into a full fledged toddler who has endless energy and endless appetite. He loves FOOD (especially Sweet Tomatoes, his favorite restaurant), riding in his push car, Nickey and Snowball, dancing to upbeat music, Pororo, cars, trains, exploring new things, meeting new people, and taking baths because he loves playing in the water. If his current personality is a strong indication of what he’ll be like when he grows up, then we hope he’ll grow up into a cheery, positive, sociable boy who’s active, athletic, and loves to learn. :) (To quote Phoebe from Friends: "Are you guys talking about the same kid?")
I have a few aspirational resolutions for 2013, and a few that are very specific goals. Here they are below. Surprisingly (or maybe not), many of them touch upon very basic necessities:
- Take at least 1 ballet class before the end of January.
- Eat a well-balanced diet.
- Get more sleep.
- Be more optimistic.
- Make 2013 the most transformative, productive, and prosperous year for 500 Startups.
- Continue to absorb the startup / investor ecosystem in Korea. (a market which I’ve been personally interested for a long time) I hope that in the Spring 2013 accelerator batch, at least 1 company will hail from Korea.
- Visit the Doughnut Plant.
- Watch more Michelle Phan.
- Blog more regularly.
- Take time to enjoy life more.
LeVar was so sweet and charming.
George was awesome.
Interestingly enough, both of these characters guest starred on one of my favorite TV shows (Big Bang Theory).
Why Startups Need Marketing
At yesterday’s Startup School, Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann talked about how the secret behind Pinterest’s growth was marketing, not engineering. In the early days at only 3,000 users, they started holding local meetups w/ Pinterest users (largely women) and engaging w/ bloggers to spread the word. Even when you hear him talk about the company, it’s clear that engineering - while important - does not call all the shots. Marketing and design have equal seats at the table.
No matter what the startup is, marketing’s mission is the same — to tell the world about the product. However, the similarities end there. How you tell your target customers about your product and why it’s valuable couldn’t be more different from company to company. This is why marketing is so often misunderstood. Ask 5 different people what marketing does and you’ll get 5 different answers. However, if you keep that core mission in mind, it’ll be much easier to set marketing goals for your company.
In order to tell the world about your product, there are many important ingredients. Marketing’s responsibilities are as follows:
- Positioning the product. Easier said than done, but it’s a critical exercise that every startup should go through. Take Foodspotting. In the early days, they ran the risk of being known as the product for “people who like to take pictures of their food.” However, they worked hard to position themselves as a “visual food discovery guide.. And that is what stuck.
- Defining the target customer. To properly position your product, you need to understand and define your target customer. Understand what makes them tick, spending time w/ them regularly, and acting as their voice. (Arguably every stakeholder in the company should be doing this, not just marketing) Products can often have more than 1 target customer segment, but usually you shouldn’t exceed 3, and there is always a pecking order. (One type of customer will ultimately be more valuable than another)
- Representing the customer voice in the product roadmap. Too often I see product decisions being made without incorporating marketing - at both small and big companies. Marketing can have an impact on key product and business decisions by representing the voice of the customer. Also, in order to properly market a product, marketing MUST understand the ins and outs of the product and how it works. To do so without that knowledge only makes your marketing weaker and less authentic.
- Developing the company’s brand. The key to branding is identifying your core values/attributes and building a compelling narrative. Brands are powerful because of the emotional connection. How will your brand make your customers feel? It starts with the founders. Leah Busque built TaskRabbit after one snowy night in 2008 wishing there was a way to have someone else go out and buy dog food. Aihui Ong has an amazing personal story behind her company LoveWithFood which she shares openly on the website. Brian Wang and Richard Talens were inspired to start Fitocracy after their own personal transformations. Their narratives have been core to their brands, and it has served them well. The beauty of marketing in this day and age is that, like building a company, it’s much easier and cost-efficient. So invest time into blogging, tweeting, Facebook pages, videos, external messaging (website copy, email marketing, basically anything your product touches).
- Acquiring customers. Marketing should build the customer acquisition strategy (define key marketing channels), execute on them, track results, and constantly be testing and iterating. Think of it like a stove with pots and pans on each burner. You have to keep an eye on each one, turn down the heat when something’s overflowing, and turn up the heat when something’s not cooking fast enough. Marketing channels can be either organic to the product (ex. changing the colors and copy of your sign-up button), or external (ex. SEM/PPC, SEO, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc). Note that all of this is closely integrated with all bullets mentioned above. For example, blogging is part of building your company’s voice. However, it may also be an effective acquisition tool and you’ll need to figure out how to track users coming in via your blogging.
- Keeping customers happy. Call it customer retention or customer engagement - there is huge opportunity in marketing to your installed base. Get them to do more stuff, adopt more features, buy more, etc. Specific tactics may take the form of regular email communication, incentives to invite new customers (referral program), events and meetups, etc. Customer support also plays a huge role in customer happiness.
Should marketing be your first hire?
Yes, or if not your first hire, then bring someone on as early as possible. Many founders first hire engineers before they hire marketing because they think they need more hands on deck in building the product. The other reason is also that they themselves are engineers and don’t know what to look for in a marketing hire. I’d challenge any founder to think closely about how marketing fits into their company. Twilio hired Danielle Morrill as their first employee (and she was marketing). By not treating marketing like a second class citizen, that was one of the best decisions they ever made.
What if you don’t have the budget to hire a marketing person, and it’s just you and your co-founder who have zero marketing background/experience?
As a founder, you’re already wearing many different hats. You’re not just writing code, but you’re also raising money from investors, talking to reporters, taking out the trash, doing partnerships, and so on. Be scrappy and figure it out. Seek out mentors who can help guide your marketing strategy, and talk to other founders. If you’ve raised money, hopefully you’ve raised from good investors who are willing to help you. Tap into them and their networks.
Still don’t think you need a marketing person? Joe Kraus put it best. If you don’t think you need it, then you haven’t seen greatness.
500 Startups Batch 5: Behind The Scenes
The 5th installment of the 500 Startups Accelerator program kicked off a couple weeks ago. Since then, a lot has already happened - kickoff festivities, 1:1 metrics reviews with each company, and a field trip to visit Google’s HQ.
Blogging is like exercise. It’s critical to focus on building a strong brand that customers connect with, and a strong culture, even when it’s just the founders, and generating content (e.g. a blog) is key. Going through the 500 Accelerator is such a huge investment for these companies, especially for those who traveled halfway across the world to be here. Several companies have vowed to document their experience @ 500 on their company or personal blogs (some have already done so).
In the same spirit, I will do the same - publish weekly posts on what goes into running the 500 Accelerator program. Lessons learned, observations, my own humble advice on making an accelerator program successful and having a significant (positive) impact on the ‘bottom line’ for each company - more customers, revenue, growth, capital.
Each company coming into the accelerator program has a set of goals and milestones they plan to achieve by the end of the program. They often revolve around growth, revenue, hiring, and fundraising. In the same vein, I’d like to share a few high level goals for ourselves:
- Enable companies to hit or exceed their milestones by giving strong mentorship, resources, 1:1 time, etc.
- Improve our own intelligence of each company to make more data-driven, informed decisions for follow-on investments.
- Deepen engagement w/ 500 Mentors - actively communicate ways to participate, invite them to accelerator events and more.
- Improve Demo Days to have maximum (positive) impact for the companies.
One last thing to note - this was the first accelerator batch where we utilized an open application process. While the majority of the companies came through referrals, we decided to experiment with an open application process using AngelList’s platform to fill the remaining spots in the program. We were blown away by the number of applications - and strong ones, at that. It was definitely an experiment, and we learned a lot from it. We brought in a few strong companies that I am certain we would never have found otherwise.
We’ll be announcing this batch in a couple weeks. Stay tuned to meet them all.