The one thing I learned blogging everyday for 180 days

Community first, content next.

Today marks 181 days of my journey to blog every day. Over the last 6 months I have written about entrepreneurship and technology. Most articles are about 500 to 1000 words and some are fewer. During this period my “audience” has grown from 70K subscribers to nearly 100K (Still shy by about 3000 subscribers).

Mukund's Email Subscriber Base

Mukund’s Email Subscriber Base

According to my email metrics, about 19-25% of people open my emails daily. Not sure how many actually read. Besides this I have a few thousand Twitter and Facebook readers and about 1000 app subscribers.

There are many things I have learned.

First, is that writing is not at all hard. In fact, it is pretty easy. My writing routine is pretty simple. I get up, finish working out, and take exactly 21 – 32 minutes to write a new blog post from scratch. No pre-writing, no backlog of posts etc. I start with a blank slate on 95% of the days.

Second, writing makes you focus. When you have little time, like most of us do, then it makes you concentrate and get it done, prioritizing it over other things.

Third, it teaches you discipline. If you get into the habit of writing daily, then it is rewarding to see the body of content in a few months.

Fourth, quantity does not equal quality. I have written 180 posts, but most have not hit the bar in terms of get more readership over and above my usual subscriber base.

Fifth, writing is a counter productive way to spend 30 minutes to achieve you goals of building a personal brand. There are other, better, easier ways to do the same for 30 minutes a day.

The most important thing I have learned, though is that building a community, one fan / audience member, individual, reader at a time trumps generating lots of content for many people to read.

If you are considering blogging, writing, etc. I would recommend you first understand your goal

Is it to build a personal brand?

Is it to showcase thought leadership?

Is it to share your thoughts and expect nothing in return?

Is it to build a base of followers?

Regardless of your goal, I would still recommend you engage with your “community” via tweets, commenting on their post (Facebook or Twitter), connecting with a large set of people before you start writing.

What I have observed is that people who connect with their audience get away with writing really poor content, since people really like them.

If, however, you dont spend time building and engaging your audience, you should be prepared to have “killer” content each time, which is highly unlikely given that you might have to write frequently.

In fact, only 11 of my 180 posts have crossed my own threshold of over 30K readers for the post.

The number one thing you should do if you are starting or want to start building your audience base is to engage with them. Comment, reply or write to them on Twitter, their blogs, etc. Dont start writing.

Then make sure you engage and build your base of engagement with 1-2 posts each week, still keeping up your engagement.

Then you can get a schedule as rigorous as writing daily.

To build a large audience (similar to a media property such as BuzzFeed, etc.) you might need lots of content which is good, but for an individual, that’s impossible.

The same goes for your startup’s blog.

Build your community and audience first, then build an editorial calendar to hyperfocus on a specific topic and keep the schedule.

This also changes how you spend 30 minutes a day to build your personal brand. I will share that part with you tomorrow.

Here are two other posts I have written about what’s working in B2B startup blogs and how to focus on better insights not a better narrative.

How to decide which startup to join if you are considering switching jobs

I get an email or 2 every week from employees at large companies who have interviewed at a startup wondering if “startup X” is good, will do well, or “is a good bet”. Most of the time I dont know about the startup or the founders, so I tend to focus mostly on the market trends and the problem the startup is trying to solve.

Occasionally I will also get folks sharing their salary and ownership details with me (mostly junior folks) who would like some advice on how to negotiate a better salary or more stock options.

I used to be rather dismissive of the negotiators and ask them to focus on the learning and experiences, but that turns off most people I think. They wanted advice on how to negotiate better and here I was telling them what they were getting was good enough.

Instead, I decided to develop a framework to think about the opportunity and the startup role.

The first thing you want to ask yourself is why you want to work at a startup. Or leave your current job and join another startup. If you are at a big company (and have been there for a while) and have made a good salary and are looking for a “big retirement win from 3-4 years of work” at a startup that’s going to go public, then it is very hard to choose the right startup.

If you are however at a big company and looking to learn more and get a different set of experiences, you will likely have expectations that can be met.

Predicting which startups will do well is hard. In fact, over the last 10 years, given that most companies are raising a lot of money in private markets, it is harder to “get an exit” and make it big (financially speaking) in a short period of time.

Lets start with your objective.

If you are looking to make “risk free money in a short period of time” with your talent, you will get a small reward. A role that similar to your big company role and with a pay package that fairly consistent.

If you are seeking to learn how to be an entrepreneur and master how to start a company, you are better off joining an earlier stage startup than one that’s “sure to go public in a year or two”.

If you are looking to make more money than your current role offers and advance your career, it is best you join a later stage startup that’s looking to scale.

Startups that are less than 2 years young are the riskiest, will offer the most in stock and less in pay. Especially if they have only raised a series A.

Startups that are 2-5 years young and have done one or two rounds of institutional funding will likely offer good pay and decent benefits but limited upside in stock options.

Finally, “unicorns” which are over a billion dollars in capitalization will offer compensation that’s commensurate with your current pay and benefits and even more limited upside in terms of stock options.

If you are looking for the “perfect role” with the “most awesome pay”, that’s equivalent to your current pay and “huge upside” in stock options with guaranteed returns, that does not exist.

So, my recommendation is to decide what’s important to you – steady pay with strong benefits, but learning a new technology or being part of a new culture – then join a later stage startup.

If you decide that being a part of a fast growing startup which has some traction but still has potential to scale, where you will learn and grow with the company, is important to you, then join a venture which has been around for about 3-5 years.

Finally if you wish to learn how to start your own company after this one’s done and want to learn the fundraising elements of the startup, understand how to market and scale the business, then join a much earlier stage startup.

The #napkinStage of a company is the most fun

Over the last 15 years working with startups and entrepreneurs, I have finally figured out where I can add the most value and have the most fun as well.

I call that the “napkin stage” of the startup.

Napkin Stage Startup

Napkin Stage Startup

There are 3 most important reasons why I love the stage:

1. There are no bad ideas and no bad markets. They are all based on experiences and personal opinions. Which means I learn a lot of new things. I love learning about markets, sales growth and building scalable marketing channels, but after a while it gets to be more of the same.

2. If the idea is simple enough that you can express it on a napkin, instead of using a PowerPoint slide or need a complete prototype for someone to get it, then I get excited about the possibilities.

3. Entrepreneurs are most excited when they dont have to deal with hiring problems, marketing challenges, customer churn, etc. So, I get to work with them when there’s sunshine and roses all around. They have nothing but optimism at this stage.

There are challenges as well.

1. 90% of the ideas never “take off”. The market is too small, the customers dont need the product or the value is very limited.

2. The idea maze leads to a lot of churn, and many back of the napkin ideas really are a big waste of time.

3. Teams pivot constantly, are never settled and sometimes will change their mind to pursue a “job” if the idea is not appealing enough

I believe there are 5 most important things I bring to the table at this stage:

1. Customer development and validation. Getting early customer validation by talking to 10+ people and understanding the “real problem” excites me a lot. I have a decent enough network to ensure that I can call on 10 folks and get to understand any market in technology enough to understand if there are opportunities.

2. Market research and knowledge. Understanding, analyzing and projecting market needs is something I have enough experience with, and have done it for long that I really enjoy both the top-down and bottom’s up analysis of the markets and segmenting the customers.

3. Helping build your team, or finding a cofounder. Over the last 15 years, I have helped 19 startup founders find early (#1 or #2) employees, and about 11 founders find their cofounder. I love putting people together who I think might work well together and complement each other’s skills.

4. Build an early prototype, mockups or alpha version of the product. That’s the true use of the napkin these days anyway. I enjoy this the most. Reducing complexity and figuring out “Enough” to get by for a MVP is the most enjoyable experience in my mind.

5. Coaching the entrepreneur on structure of the company, financing landscape and whether they need to raise VC funding or make it a lifestyle business instead (which I actually have no problem with at all).

So, I am thinking about how I can help, add value and enjoy the ride with the “earliest” of early stages of a company – The Napkin Stage.

Why you should have at least 1 investor / advisor who has been an #entrepreneur on your board

I think the best thing you can do is to celebrate small milestones at your startup more frequently. They help you ride out the sine-curve of emotions (or the roller coaster journey if you prefer that analogy).

The interesting thing I learned last week from a founder of a small startup last week, was they have weekly celebrations. The reason was it forces the team to think about what they should be doing to celebrate in a few days. Every Thursday, their team would get catered lunch, and a cake, providing the opportunity for one person to be the MVP for that week.

When he was presenting this to us at the advisory board meeting last week, I thought it was pretty cool. I loved the culture they are building of celebrating smalls wins.

Another member of the board, who was an angel investor, nodded his head, and moved on to the next item, which was a milestone he really cared about – $10K in monthly revenue, which the entrepreneur had committed to last quarter. The progress was slower, and so it was likely they were not going to hit that number in the quarter, but he was confident they would in 2 months.

I gathered later (post the board meeting) that they were unable to hire a “Growth Hacker” to their team, since they had interviewed 3 great candidates, but they all picked up offers at other companies.

I asked him what the issue with hiring was. He mentioned that the companies they lost the candidates to were smaller, earlier and were wooing the candidate with a different culture (free food, benefits, pay were all table stakes) of work from anywhere and 2 weeks paid work from a place of their choice (think Hawaii or Bulgaria or anyplace you choose).

That’s when it struck me. You will always have investors who have been through the startup experience and those that have not. Those that have not, will not understand the nuances of what it takes to actually be an entrepreneur, so they are less appreciative of the “many little things” that go towards making the big things happen.

What this entrepreneur was planning to do was to have candidates attend their final interview (if they went to that stage) on a Thursday, so they got to see the culture in action.

In this particular case, the outcome that the investor cared about was revenue. To achieve that though, the #1 thing they needed to do was to hire a good marketing person (Growth hacker) and the #2 and #3 things were to build a good pipeline of opportunities for their newly hired sales people and tweak the on-boarding experience for new customers.

Unfortunately the entrepreneur had failed to explicitly communicate this to the other investors, who were not entrepreneurs before.

If you do not have investors and advisors who are entrepreneurs, make sure that you are clear about the “little” things that need to happen to make the outcomes happen.

The Bay Area’s obsession with the “it” company syndrome for “poaching talent”

In 1995 when I reached Silicon Valley from Baltimore, HP was the company to poach talent from. Most startups and mid-sized companies during that period were keen to hire away from HP. It was known as the place that had a very refined “Management API”. Every executive and manager from HP was defined as having been through rigorous training, experiences and situations to help them navigate the complexity of running technology companies.

A few years later, the “it” company to hire from was Cisco and then Siebel was the target. Now it the “it” companies to poach talent from are Google and Facebook.

Surprisingly if you are a founder, and have an exit, you have lived through hell and back, but if you crave relevance and recognition, then you are better off being the 150th employee at an “it” company than the founder of the 150th exit.

In fact the most sought after founders are not serial entrepreneurs with a small exit, but an early to mid-stage employee at an “it” company.

That’s the Silicon Valley “meritocracy” in action. Working at “it” companies is regarded as a proxy for good pedigree. If you don’t have a Harvard or Stanford degree, but are working at an “it” company, you will be courted.

Yesterday, I had a chance to drive up to the airport with a good friend, who had a good exit (small, <$20 Million at an ad tech company in NYC). He had a very surprising observation to make. For all its “meritocracy” discussion, the only thing the valley values is pedigree. Which is not surprising. Which also means Silicon Valley is more similar to Hollywood than it is to any other place in the world.

Let’s say you are a successful entrepreneur (good, but small exit) and are looking for what’s next. You head over to the valley VC Mecca – Sand Hill road, thinking yeah, you have been successful, made money and have been thorough the grind and know how to exit and make money, so people should be interested in funding your opportunity – right?

Then you are in for a rude shock, because no one gives a damm. Most of the folks are chasing the ex-1200th employee at an “it” company, who worked on an arcane part of their advertising solution. That employee may have never actually built an entire product let alone a company, but they are “it” right now.

So, how do you break the mold? Only by showing success. It is the path that will be harder to take. It will be road with more obstacles.

You may hear stories of how an ex “it” company engineer raised $5 million on the back of a napkin over cocktails. That’s not going to happen to you.

You may hear that 2 engineers with a prototype got a series A term sheet, while you with a product and revenues, are still struggling to close your seed investors, even though you are in the valley as well.

That’s the nature of the valley, so don’t be disheartened. You too will shine and grow. Until then though, focus on building your business and keeping customers happy enough to tell others.

The rest will follow.

What’s working for B2B startup blogs and what’s not working as well? #entrepreneur #marketing

Content Marketing is being touted as the way to educate your customers and create your brand. For both startups and individuals trying to build a personal brand, content marketing is always being pushed as a means to engage with your audience.

Even though blogging has been the staple of most content marketing efforts on the small startup side for the SMB prospect, and the whitepaper as the staple for the B2B marketer in the enterprise, the rules of the game have dramatically changed for “quality” of content. The bar is much higher given the amount of content and the need to fight through the clutter and noise.

The primary changes are thanks to the mobile phone and the reducing attention span that most folks have.

The things that I think are not going to work anymore:

1. 0-1000 word blog posts. Most folks dont have the time to read a lot of text. On the phone text is being swiped faster than photos.

2. Infographics – most infographics are pretty useless and the bar for what constitutes a good infographic is great analysis and visualization, not just a bunch of numbers.

3. Anything blog post hthat’s not topical, since the shelf life of any blog post is now heading to minutes, not hours. If your blog post is something you are looking to create a book (for personal branding) out of your blog post, you might want to rethink that strategy. Books are being read solely by older audiences now and video trumps reading thanks to shorter attention spans.

What works then to draw an audience and help build a brand?

1 Content Marketing that works

Content Marketing that works

1. Blog posts that are data rich, visually attractive or long form – CB Insights, Crew and Buffer are proving that there’s still a place for great content in the traditional blog post. If you are into writing long form (1500+ words, choose to host and publish on medium instead of your own domain).

2. Video: Short, 3-5 min produced how to videos, interviews are still working well.

3. Podcasts: This has taken off more than most people anticipated. If you are starting a new company, I’d recommend you to go podcasting instead of text based blogs.

4. Slideshare presentations: Visually attractive, with high quality images, and tons of data in a simple PowerPoint slide is still drawing a lot of attention.

5. Great images and photos that can be shared on Instagram or Pinterest (even if you are a B2B company).

6. Real time video streaming – Periscope and Meerkat are two platforms you should consider.

7. Blog posts with very little text, but a lot of animated gifs: Thanks to BuzzFeed, these are extremely popular if your target audience is younger workers just joining the workforce.

It is not that I dont think you are great, but I am not confident about my ability to pick winners consistently

I had a very interesting conversation with an entrepreneur yesterday who I was keen to invest in. He had soft circled $250K of his $750K seed round. I have been a big champion of him and really respect his determination, thoughtfulness and diligence.

I committed to $50K and was going through the details of the investment with him, but letting him know that even if it took him a while to raise the remainder of the funds, I would ear-mark the $50K for his venture.

He then asked me “You know and influence a lot of other investors as well, can you please convince them to join the round”. I said that I can introduce him to investors who have invested in the past with me, but they will have to make their own decision.

I was not going to lean in on them to invest.

He mentioned that I “leaned in” on another VC to invest in a portfolio company, which is what he heard from the other entrepreneur, who I had worked with.

He was correct. I did lean in. So, the signal I sent him (although that was not my intent) was that I was not as committed to his venture as I was to other the one where I leaned in.

First, I dont have as much influence as entrepreneurs give me credit for. That’s just the truth. They may attribute the fact that I am at Microsoft Ventures as a signal that the corporation thinks this is a good investment, which is absolutely untrue.

Second, I believe there’s a HUGE difference between an angel investor (who I dont like to lean in on) versus a institutional investor (who I will lean in from time to time).

Most angel investors invest by reputation, connections and referrals. VC’s will judge an entrepreneur and their opportunity on its own merit, do their required due diligence and will likely pass EVEN if there was a strong referral from a person they trust.

Referral’s get you in the door with an institutional investors, whereas with an angel investor it will usually get you a deal.

Most angels I know have “day jobs” or “other interests” with angel investing being their side project, activity or means of giving back. That does not mean they don’t want a return on their investment, it just means they don’t do as much diligence as an angel group or an institutional investor would.

Knowing that, I believe the biggest challenge is the confidence in my ability to pick winners all the time. I am investing as an individual investor because I believe in the entrepreneur. I don’t know if that entrepreneur, problem set, idea or market is right for the other angel investors I know and invest with.

Well, I do know that to a certain extent, but with angel investors, the relationship I have would be personal as well as professional. With VC’s it is rarely (exceptions exist) personal.

So, when I meet the other angel investors over dinner, with their family, I don’t like having uncomfortable conversations about “the investment that went south”. Many of them are great folks, but not mature enough as an investor to realize many of these angel deals (in fact 70-80% of them) will return in loss of their investment.

Many of the angel investors I invest with are not in the “early seed market” for the long haul and have not seen ups, downs, sideways deals, etc. So, end up investing in 1 or 2 companies, solely because of referrals and recommendations.

I don’t think I have confidence in every deal I do to end up returning my money or generate a great return.

That does not still mean I dont believe in the entrepreneur when I invest in them.

This is truly one of those cases, when its not you, its me.