Double opt in Email Introduction

Double opt-in email introductions are painful, but more useful than blind intros

A typical week for me is about 15-20 introductions to entrepreneurs and VC’s. I love that part of the job, in fact. If I could do more, with less time, I would any day, but I am getting more judicious lately.

There are 3 primary reasons why I am slowing down my “warm” introductions.

First, even though I know both the parties well enough to make the introduction, turns out many things change in 3-5 months that I am not on top of. One of my friends at a VC firm, decided to focus on B2C later stage instead of B2B. After 2 introductions, which I made to entrepreneurs, I found that out and also found out that he was “forwarding” my emails to his colleague. What I thought was “helping” was actually creating more work (useless and unnecessary) for him.

Similarly, an angel investor wanted an introduction to an entrepreneur who was looking to raise money a few months ago. Turns out by the time I made the intro, the entrepreneur had changed roles to be  the product guy, got a new CEO and also had finished raising money. Again, creating more work for him was not my goal but I ended up doing just that.

Second, in many cases the entrepreneur or the investor is not a good fit at all. Take a case this week. A very smart investor is a hugely sought after lady in my network. Not a week goes by, when I am asked to make an intro to her. I was asked this week by a good friend and entrepreneur to make an introduction to her. I like the team, so I was willing to help. Turns out, the investor had already looked at the company and decided to not engage because she has a competitive deal in the space.

Now, I had obligated her to find a way to “help” my entrepreneur friend in some way. That’s negative brownie points for me, even though I wanted to actually help them both.

Finally, there is a power dynamic in play with most situations. The “requester” of the introduction and the “recipient” are not sure in most cases who will actually benefit. Neither am I am very clear about who needs who more. In most cases, when entrepreneurs ask for an intro to an investor it is clear, but in many cases when I have a “hot” entrepreneur in my network, it is not unusual to have 3-4 investors seek my help for a warm introduction.

While making introductions is a critical part of the role that I play, it is becoming clear that the work that it generates for me is becoming onerous.

The best approach is to email the person who is the recipient of the introduction if they’d like the introduction, then wait for their response and then respond back to the requester of their response.

Double opt in Email Introduction

Double opt in Email Introduction

So one email introduction now becomes at least 3 if not more in some cases. Multiply that by 15 a week and I am spending close to an hour making introductions. There has to be a better way.

What do you suggest? I like the connecting and the introductions, but the work involved in doing this is getting to be too much.

Stair Step Growth

Problem Development Learning: Dont explain what your startup does to a “layperson”

Most entrepreneurs following the Lean Startup Methodology or the Customer development methodology will tell you that it never really works in a linear, sequential fashion, neither does it follow the prescribed set of steps.

The primary reasons are either because you end up getting some feedback or learning during the entire process that changes your perspective quickly or get distracted.

I had a chance to talk to 3 entrepreneurs last week, who had all shut down their startups. One of them got a job at Facebook, after raising money from VC’s (tier 1 VC’s at that), another has started on a new venture and the third is going back to his previous role at a large company.

All 3 of them had spent upwards of 6 months and the most was 18 months in their startup. Surprisingly, none of them mentioned “lack of ability to raise more cash” as their reason for failure.

They all mentioned the challenges of “customer development”.

Stair Step Growth

Stair Step Growth

The startup development process comprises of 5 steps – problem development, customer development, prototype development, product development and revenue development.

I am showing these in a stair step approach, which suggests a sequential method, but I fully understand it is rarely so.

Problem development is a relatively new phenomenon, and your goal is to do a good enough job, fine tuning and understanding the customer problem in detail.

What I have found that in the quest to explain “what is your story” to a layperson, most entrepreneurs end up explaining the problem their solution solves, not the customers real pain point.

The biggest challenge for you the entrepreneur is to have the problem statement nailed in as great detail as possible when explaining it to your product and development teams. Else the “high level” problem statements, which you will use with customers or investors will result in poorly thought out solutions.

There are choices that you will have to make daily and hourly about product, experiences, features and direction of your product. In the absence of having a detailed set of problem statements – which constitutes the problem development step, most of these choices will be sub optimal.

Focus on problem development in conjunction with customer development for best results.

5 strategic items to consider before you get acqui-hired #napkinStage

In the last 3 years at Microsoft Ventures, 7 teams have been “acqui-hired”. 2 were from India, 5 in the US. I had a chance to be up close and see the action, the challenges, the frustration, the joy and the sigh of relief that the entrepreneurs face with these deals.

Acqui-hires fall into 2 buckets – those that save face and those that are incrementally progressive.

While many of the acqui-hires seem like a face-saving opportunity for the founders, they are pretty traumatic for the employees and almost always a poor deal for the angel investors, with exceptions.

The incrementally-progressive ones land the early employees great jobs in the new entity, provide a small return for the investors and allow the founders to get a small win under their belt.

I think about acqui-hires with the focus on the 3 main constituents – the early employees, the advisers and investors and finally the founders.

 

Acquihire Model and Strategy

Acquihire Model and Strategy

You could debate who comes first and who should be considered later, so this is only one model for thinking about this.

1. Return on Risk (ROR) for early employees. Most of your employees (if you hired great folks who were already in other great companies) have taken some form of risk to come and join your startup. Assuming that many left opportunities that were considered less risky than yours, I suspect they would expect a sufficient return on the risk taken. Most good employees, will get an offer from your acquirer, which, I think is the main reason why they are acquiring your company in the first place. The best way to give them a return on risk is to help them “true up” on their salaries they forwent.

2. Return on Time (ROT) for the first few hires. In most acqui-hires, I have seen that the acquiring company does not value the product / service that has been built, but instead likes the team. Building a new team who work well together takes time and energy, which is why they chose to acquire a team instead. A good way to help your early employees a return on their time spent (and you as well to hire, recruit and build the team) is typically via a “sign on bonus” for the entire team.

3. Return on Investment (ROI) for your early investors: If you take money, it should your responsibility to return it if you make some money. While many founders feel that angel investors fully know the risk they undertake when they invest in startups, the responsibility to return money does not go away when things dont work out. What I have found is that most founders will end up going back to being founders again and if you leave a trail of destruction or burn bridges when you do your first startup, it will get much harder to raise money for the next one. If you can help investors get as much money back or return their invested capital, then you will go a long way in terms of building credibility for your next venture.

4. Return on Equity (ROE) for advisers. Early advisers dont invest money, but typically their time. While you might feel less responsible towards them since “they did not lose money”, they did give you time, some connections, advice and mentorship, I think you should try and get some for of return for their Sweat Equity. I have seen one or two founders, taking a portion of their “earn out” to buy out the adviser shares that have been vested. You dont have to do this, but it does help.

5. Return on Opportunity (ROO) for founders. While most founders are relieved just with any exit (given that many acqui-hires were to save certain closure) I do think that founder return is important. If you do get an opportunity to get a good package of stock options and sign on bonus from your acquiring company, I’d highly recommend you negotiate for that.

I have found that in 4 of the 7 deals that happened, the acquiring company would have gladly paid an extra $100K – $250K just so the various parties involved would be “made whole”. In many cases the founders just did not ask since they were desperate to get the deal done.

My only suggestion to you as a founder is to ask if you can. If there is a good alignment with the acquiring company and they wish to keep all the employees for a longer time, they would gladly negotiate some more money to help make the deal more attractive to all parties.

The reason for the $100K to $250K number is simple. If your team is 3-5 people, the cost of hiring a team alone will be covered at those numbers. So, in most cases, it will be a win-win for the company.

#napkinStage customer service at startups is becoming the sales team

While sales people are becoming marketers at #napkinStage companies and marketers are becoming more data driven product managers, customer service managers are becoming the best sales people.

Changing Role of the SaaS Customer Service Professional

Changing Role of the SaaS Customer Service Professional

When you move from a market, sell, support model of software sales to a market, analyze and sell model of SaaS products, it becomes clear that the best things SaaS companies do is:

1. Build a good product segmented by users. (Product, Engineering)

2. Ensure that their target audience know about their products. (Marketing)

3. Educate potential customers about the product to help them “try” the product. (Sales)

4. Build conversion to paid customer within the product. (Product, Marketing)

5. Help increase engagement (more product usage) and reduce churn i.e. losing customers. (Customer Service)

The role of the customer service teams is increasingly becoming one of reducing churn, since that kills most SaaS business model’s financials.

It is so hard to acquire new customers at scale and cost, so when you have a good, paying customer the objective should be to help them use the product effectively and get the most value so they get the ROI and are extremely happy.

There are 3 important functions that belonged to sales – reducing customer churn, engaging users, and upselling, now belong to customer service.

Previously, about 10 years ago, most customer service professionals were measured by how quickly they resolved customer support calls, how few the escalations were and how long they were on the call.

These are now dramatically changed. Proactive customer outreach and predicting churn – to reach out to customers before they cancel is now the norm for most customer support teams.

Most SaaS products I know are also build an integration with other products such as #slack or other chat solutions to help customer service professionals resolve questions and support the customer within the product.

Many years ago I’d remember our customer service VP would measure and incent reps on how quickly they got customers off the phone.

No longer.

Now, the longer you keep the customer engaged and talking, the likely you are to uncover more opportunities to up sell and cross sell other products.

Customer service is more a sales function now, than a support function.

#NapingStage marketing people at startups are becoming more product managers than brand builders

Yesterday we talked about the changing nature of the sales person’s role at the #napkinStage of a startup. While many people still prefer the “closer” to the pipeline builder, I think if you have a great product that customers can try, use and then buy you dont need to “close”. Customers will “buy” or “close” themselves. Enterprise and SMB software use to be “sold” not “bought” – that’s now changed. Only if you have a poor quality product or an expensive one, do you need to “force” people to buy.

Today I am going to talk about the role of Marketing folks in the #NapkinStage of a startup. While many startups may not hire a marketing person early, I think the role of the “marketer” is being performed by someone who is responsible for “getting traction”.

10 years ago, the Marketing person at a startup was focused on building analyst relations, attending and participating at events and building a “brand”. They spent a lot of time with agencies building the right creatives, making sure they had good “brochures”, giveaways and promotional content.

Changing Role of the SaaS Marketing Professional

Changing Role of the SaaS Marketing Professional

The marketing person’s role is now more like an early stage product manager – I call them opportunity managers than product managers actually.

If you have a good product, then it sells itself in a 15 min demo (or a 3 min video). Yesterday, one of our companies (Beagel) told me about how they have a 70% conversion to paid customers in less than 30 min, so this is not a rarity.

The role if marketing manager is now focused a lot more on metrics like Customer LifeTime Value (LTV), CAC (Customer Acquisition Costs) and CTR (Click Through Rate), then results of “Brand surveys”, or “generated leads” and analyst reviews. They are becoming more data driven.

Attending events, writing whitepapers and delivering webinars is being replaced by creative copy writing – SEO, engaging on social media (Twitter, etc.).

With this change it is becoming obvious that most marketing is now focused on measurable outcomes associated with revenues, business and product than purely brand.

Surprisingly, even at larger companies (such as Microsoft), I am finding that most Marketing folks are coming to learn about these techniques of “Lean marketing” from the startups at our accelerator.

Tomorrow I will talk about the changing role of the #NapkinStage development team and how they are becoming more Customer service organizations than product engineering.

Which type of pivot is the hardest for entrepreneurs?

If you have been working on your startup for any reasonable amount of time, you will learn quickly that the market and customer assumptions you make are quite different from reality in most cases. In some situations they might be relatively benign and still others they might take a complete change of focus and direction.

At the #napkinStage of the company, pivots are a lot easier to execute than at the later stages. Since the immediate impact is largely the time and effort spent on the idea, it tends to be easier to acknowledge, explain or work on.

In watching 14 entrepreneurs over the last 6 months, I have seen 5 companies pivot.

Types of Pivots

Types of Pivots

The hardest is the Market pivot – focusing on a completely different market than the one they focused on before – going from IoT startup to a data SaaS company. This type of pivot will take 18 or more months to execute. Learning about a new market is hard. Building relationships and understanding nuances of the landscape is even harder. It might seem easy since when you research on the Internet, but many markets are fairly opaque, till you spend more time learning about them.

The second hardest is the Customer type pivot – a company went from selling to consumers to selling to SMB with the same product. Changing the customer type or target customer is equally difficult. The hardest part is knowing and understanding the influence and decision making landscape if you are in B2B or to find the immediate value for the consumer if you are B2C.

The third hardest is the Customer problem pivot – one of the startups, realized, after talking to their target users that the problem more pressing was a different one and hence changed their product. If you already know your customer, but find out that the “latent” problem you perceived was different from the top 3 problems for your customer, then it is relatively less difficult to change course and pivot to the new problem. While communication with the internal team is still a challenge, these pivots tend to be able to execute faster.

The less harder pivot is the Business model pivot – a company went from charging on a SaaS monthly subscription model to a commission model on sales. By no means am I suggesting that a Business model pivot is easy. Having seen 2 companies of 14, just in the last 6 months, I think of all the other pivots, these are easier to execute and will likely take less time.

The first part of your problem is spotting the trend lines that help you understand when to pivot. The second (and likely more hard) part of your pivot is communicating – to your employees and founders, your customers, to potential and existing investors and to others who were involved – mentors, advisers, etc.

The first step to disciplined experimentation is to capture all possible ideas

When you have a great startup culture and hire awesome people at your startup, you will attract a talent pool that has tons of ideas all the time. Many of those ideas may not be relevant to your startup, but I firmly believe that it is not only the product managers, engineers or marketing folks that can have ideas that have an impact on your startup.

If you create an environment that encourages active listening, experimentation and risk taking, you will have a good mix of innovation all around at your startup.

One of the most effective ways to encourage is the impromptu “Lets just chat” weekly sessions that I see at many new startups. These are not larger company-wide all hands sessions, but smaller sessions usually hosted by a very junior, but engaged individual at your startup.

Most times they are held with 5-7 people at your kitchen or during lunch or casual drinks in the evening. The ideal size of the team is less than 10 is what I have found.

Ideas pop into people’s heads at all times. I tend to get most of my ideas when I run. Many people get them when they are stressed, others during vacation, and still others in the shower.

Ideas require a stimulant, and while I have not read the research yet, I believe one of the key ways to stimulate ideas is to exercise or rest your mind.

Capturing these ideas to whoever it occurs is possibly the best start you can have. Many people use idea management software like User Voice or Brain Storm.

I think more people are starting to use Slack for idea capture at their startup. I have seen it with 3 different startups and it is starting to become a thing.

Slack for Ideas

Slack for Ideas

The challenges with Slack are that idea rating, idea management, voting, tracking deployments are pretty challenging.

I would highly recommend you use the one app / messaging platform that EVERYONE in the company uses (possibly email, and if you have Gmail, then use plugins to manage emails to ideas) and put them into a single place.

The best way to review the ones that will have impact is to understand the value of that idea in the context of your key milestones. Some of them will impact your milestones immediately, others will improve aspects of your stated goals. Still others may do neither.

The most important framework I have used is to understand the effort and impact.

Impact versus Effort Matrix

Impact versus Effort Matrix

I think putting the ideas generated into the matrix and focusing on the ones with most impact and low effort (has to be delegated) tends to give you the ability to have good value.