The one mistake most entrepreneurs make when they are at an accelerator

I have noticed that the biggest mistake most startups make when they are at an accelerator is that they focus on

“Increasing their total surface area” instead of “accelerating their business”.

This results in the “tail wagging the dog”, where the accelerator schedule, mentors and connections determine what the entrepreneur and the startup does each day. It is important to ensure that you get enough value from the accelerator program, but I would recommend entrepreneurs optimize for acceleration.

If you dont have a clear idea on what to expect from an accelerator, you should spend time with alumni of the program to understand the value their provide first.

It is almost as if after the startup got into the accelerator, the entrepreneurs believe they have a new boss – those who run the accelerator. That could not be farther from the truth.

If you get into an accelerator program, the #1, #2 and #3 thing you should be focused on is validating key assumptions, building product and customer development. Most everything else at the accelerator stage of your company is a waste of time, including attending knowledge information sessions on term sheets, understanding the “local” investor scene or going to “startup events” – unless startups are your target market.

There are 3 important things that most accelerators promise:

1. Learning from mentors, other members in your cohort and industry experts.

2. Connections to investors, potential customers and influential early users.

3. Infrastructure, office space, and a little sustenance money to get your team and product ready for seed investment.

If you look at these 3 items in isolation, there are many other entities that do a much better job individually, but a good accelerator “bundles” these items together so you can have a great experience.

Let me explain with 3 specific examples of what increasing your total surface area is versus accelerating your startup.

a) The best learning is via practice and teaching. So if you spend as little time as possible understanding the contours of the topic you want to learn, you can spend more time practicing and refining your learning. 

Instead, I find most startups attending every learning workshop including “how to sell your company” or “the legal ramifications of your series A investments”. While <10% of the startups in any cohort will really be ready for a series A, 100% of them actually “try to increase the surface area” of their learning by attending sessions that they dont need given the stage of their company.

Instead, I would spend more time accelerating the learning of specific topics from your customers – what real problems they face outside of the pain point your company addresses, etc.

b) The best connections are those that are mutually beneficial. So, if you can help your mentor or adviser learn about your business, the market or new updated techniques of engineering, marketing, sales, etc. they can help you learn more about the nuances based on their experiences. If they are unwilling to learn or are not interested, they are not the right mentor.

Increasing the total surface area is trying to network with every mentor from the accelerator and networking with every potential investor, even if they have not invested in any company in your market or domain.

Instead, accelerating your startup is focusing on specific investors by domain, check size, background, connections, and other criteria you need to help your company grow.

c) While the infrastructure is available to have meetings, get the team together and learn from other entrepreneurs in your cohort, increasing your total surface area is trying to spend every evening with other startup entrepreneurs, networking over beer or having a lot of meetings at the space with other startup influencers from the community.

Accelerating your startup, instead is spending enough time with your own team, learning about the challenges they are facing and understanding how to remove the roadblocks. Or, spending time outside the building, trying to meet potential users and customers to refine and validate your assumptions.

If the accelerator focuses you on increasing your total surface area, they are wasting your time.

The top 5 tips to making a successful customer testimonial video

With the rise of video, many entrepreneurs are looking to find a new way to bring social proof to their apps and websites.

While the overview video is the best way to introduce your company or product, and there are various types of introduction videos you could use to showcase your startup, the customer testimonial needs to do three things:

1. Give prospects confidence that there are real people using the product, who are similar to themselves.

2. Help potential customers understand if this might “work in their environment”.

3. Outline to prospects what pain points your product may help solve in their own words and using their language.

It is important to script the customer testimonial video as well, and ensure that it looks and feels very professionally done.

Here are the top 5 tips I have learned by doing customer testimonial videos:

1. Use “users” in your videos and have them explain their day in the life pain that your product solves, instead of the decision maker taking in abstract terms of how your product helps the company.

2. Have more than one person from your customer be a part of the video. Or have 2-3 different customers be part of the same video. I have found that in 2 occasions, the “customer” who I featured in my video left the company and I had to remove the video (the customer requested it, since they did not want mis-representation) which cost us much angst.

3. To avoid the problem of having to remove the video completely because your “user” or customer leaves the company, shoot each segment of the video separately and ensure you will have the segments “individually produced”. That way if you have to produce the video by editing out a segment (because people leave or have new people appear) you can still do that.

4. Show your product being used by the customer in their office in your video. This ensures that people believe they are not paid actors, and instead are actually using the product for their daily business. I prefer to use 2-3 quick shots (pan and zoom) of the person in front of the computer or mobile phone clicking on certain sections of your product. When you use users in video, show their company’s logo or workspace to ensure the video is realistic.

5. Breakup your video into 5 segments – with each section being able to stand on its own. That way if you need multiple “cuts” – e.g. 30 second, 1 min, 1.5 min or 2 min you can do “stitch” them together easily.

Here are the 5 sections I recommend:

a) the pain point – preferably 3 thing they do in their day in the life, which hassles them. E.g. “It would take me 5 hours to generate the influencer list and I had to go to the search engine, then pull reports into Excel”.

b) their current solution or what they did before your product. E.g. “Our current solution was a client server product which did not allow our management team to view the reports on their mobile phone”.

c) their use of your solution – how are the using it daily, or how does it fit into their work processes. e.g. “With BuzzGain, we can put in 3-5 keywords, then understand who the right influencers are and quickly in a matter of minutes obtain the list of key outlets and publications. This helps us respond to client briefs quicker.”

d) how your product has solved the problem – the benefits they have obtained, preferably quantified in ROI terms – for example “after using BuzzGain our time spent on building reports reduced by 5 hours a week”, or “after using ABC product our sales increased by 2%”.

e) why do they like the solution OR why would they recommend your solution. E.g. “I would highly recommend BuzzGain because it helps me in my role daily and saves us time, which helps me focus on building client relationships instead of collating reports”.

Bonus tip: Ensure that you have the full title and correct spelling of your customers in your video at the bottom each time you introduce them on the video for 3-5 seconds. Most people do it only once at the beginning, but I have found, that many people do not watch video intently enough to remember to focus on the name and title. It is always better to show the name and tile of the customer at the bottom of your screen for 2-3 times during your video.

Here is a great example from GoodData of a customer testimonial video I like.

How to write the script for your #startup overview video (with examples)

Before you produce the overview video for your startup, you will need to understand what its purpose is and that will dictate the type of video you will create.

When I produced the 2 min video for BuzzGain, the first thing that surprised me the most was how quickly 2 minutes flies by.

There are 3 important things I learned during the process of creating the video, which will help you put together the outline of your video before you actually produce it. I still cringe at my first video produced and made so many mistakes (voice clarity, etc), which I wish I knew before.

1. The outline needs to be clear about the only ONE outcome you can achieve – get people to understand what your product does or to show them your demo, and ONE call to action – signup for your service, signup for a newsletter, subscribe to your blog, etc.

Most entrepreneurs forget this important item. There’s only ONE thing you can achieve. You might as well figure out what it is and focus on that alone.

2. For a 2 minute video the maximum number of sentences you can comfortably speak and have people understand is less than 40. This should force you to choose your words carefully and ensure that you dont over engineer the demo video. Dont try to cram too many ideas, concepts or topics in your overview video.

Speaking faster than normal does not count, and it makes the video difficult to watch.

3. The best way to put an outline is to follow the Say this, Show this approach. In this approach, you have a 2 column word document where you will write exactly what you will say (audio) and on the right column what will be shown (visual) on the screen.

Overview Video Script

Overview Video Script

The alternative scrip format that I followed above uses a 3 column format with the optional 3rd column to show the text on the screen to go with the visual.

Here is the set of steps I took to write and produce the video:

1. Writing the goal: Time taken 15 minutes to write and 3 days to refine. I had to test the goal and understand who the real audience was for the video. There were 5 things I had to be absolutely clear about:

  • Who was the right audience for this overview video? – was it the PR Associate, the PR manager, the owner of the PR firm, or the communications manager at the large company?
  • What was the goal of this video? – to tell them about our product, to give them an overview so they know what it does
  • What was the desired outcome and my call to action? Did I want to have them sign up for BuzzGain? Did I want them to subscribe to the blog – since the production of the video happened before the product was ready or did I want them to take the next step – which was to view the next video on BuzzGain’s technology and how it worked.
  • What was the desired flow? What problem did I have to surface (based on my audience)? What pain point did I have to mention? How did I have to show the solution? Did I have to show the differentiation?
  • What were the assets I had to produce to make the video happen? Besides the flow what were the screen shots, the text, the logos, etc. that I needed to have ready?

Here is the original BuzzGain_Flash_Demo_Script_v6.

You will notice, that it has the 3 column format and actual screen shots.

2. Practicing the story telling (audio) and ensuring I hit the key points before the visuals

  • Speak into a microphone and record the entire script 3-4 times before you go and produce it with the video.
  • Play that to 10 people (without the visuals) to get feedback on the script and the voice, tone, key points etc.

The key reason for this step is to ensure that your story can be told even without the visuals. That way you can use the same script when you meet folks at networking events and dont have the visuals to go with it.

3. Going to the studio to actually record the audio in production quality.

4. Putting together the screen shots or PowerPoint slides that go along with the video.

5. Producing the video by mixing the audio and visuals. During that time (2009) I had Camtasia Studio and Jing project as tools to help produce this. I loved Jing project, but migrated to Studio since I found it more feature rich. There are many other tools you can use as well.

6. Uploading the video on YouTube after refining it multiple times and producing 7 useless videos which I did not like. Today I’d use a high quality HD video hosting site like Vimeo.

7. Embedding the video on our front page of the website using YouTube embed.

How much does it cost to get an overview video done? By type of video

When creating startup overview videos, “begin with an end in mind” is more true than anything else. I have noticed by reviewing over 30 company videos from the latest YC cohort, that the length of the videos is directly proportional to the level of commitment required for the call to action. If the level of commitment requires you to sign up for a 30 min demo, the video was longer (3 min) or if it required you to sign up for the laundry service (3.5 min) versus it required you to download a free app (2 min).

The call to action (what you expect your visitors to do next) determines the length of your overview video.

While we talked about format of videos yesterday, today I want to focus on the categories of videos.

There are 5 types of videos, with different goals and slightly different calls to action.

The overview video is an introduction to the company, the demo video would like you to sign up for a free trial, the tutorial video helps you get further along on the onboarding process, while the testimonial video is social proof, requesting you to explore pricing and finally the storytelling video urges you to get on a waiting list.

Most, if not all of the videos ask you to give them something in return for watching the video – that’s typically an email address.

1. Overview: Typically this video is the first a company creates because they have “finally” nailed what they do, for who and why it matters. This type of video might involve professional cameraman, producer and multiple shots and actors at times.

Cost – $5000 and above.

2. Demo: In this type of video there are 2 formats – one that’s professionally done and one that’s done by the founders. In the professional done video, the voice over is usually an actor and the script is written by them after input from the founders.

Cost – $0 (DIY – your time is precious though) to $3000

3. Tutorial: Most tutorial videos are made by the team – either a marketing person in your company or by the founders themselves. Since many tutorials are typically made for different aspects of the product, these tend to be self made and cost much less to produce and deliver.

Cost – $500 to $3000 – depending on the amount of time to produce. Expect every minute of video to take 1 to 2 hours of production.

4. Testimonial

5. Storytelling: These  are typically the most expensive videos to make, most being professionally produced, longer format and have actors or hired artists as well. They tell a story in the day in the life of a typical user.

Cost: From $5000 to $15000 depending on the number of hired artists, production quality and required animation.

Take a look at this storytelling video as well for a professionally done example. (Sorry Embeds were not permitted).

What I learned from looking at 30 startup videos of the recent YC batch

Video is the fastest growing medium on the mobile web. Turns out even if you are a B2B company these days, the word-of-mouth affiliation you need is often easier to achieve if you have a video more than text, audio or images. Of the 114 companies in the lastest YC cohort I looked at, most had a video on their website. I focused on the ones that had done a good job of explaining their overview using video.

Not surprisingly even CIO’s and traditional B2B buyers also prefer to view videos to reading whitepapers these days.

As a startup, if you are in the consumer space, I’d wager that you want to get your overview video faster than your “text website” which might be SEO friendly. Why?

Most of the early influencers and younger audiences are using YouTube as their search engine more than Google.

So, having reviewed 30+ videos from startups that graduated from YC last cohort, what did I learn about the types and kinds of videos you need for your startup?

I am going to assume that you are just launching your app / service or about to launch it soon. What you are trying to do in less than 2 min is give potential customers and prospects a chance to understand the problem you solve, how you solve it uniquely and how they benefit from the problem solved. I have noticed these 5 types of videos that startups have used so far.

Types of Overview Videos

Types of Overview Videos

In most cases the “goldilocks” overview is less than 2 minutes and there are 7 popular formats for these videos:

1. Product tour on mobile or web: In this type of video, there is a person “showing” the app on their mobile with some upbeat background music. In many ways it is more a demo than necessarily a overview, but it serves the purpose well to get people to understand “what the product or company does”. It was hard to figure out which of these were actually using the product live versus screen captures, but slick production was the key.

2. Live action video with professional actors: As it suggest these are much more produced and directed, and will cost your more, but they tend to show “real” product users in “real” scenarios. I think these are pretty expensive if you are bootstrapped, costing upwards of $10K in most cases, but among consumer Internet (eCommerce especially) startups they seem to be pretty popular.

3. Animated Simple video: In this type of video, there are props used with simple cutouts and voice over. In most of these videos, I found that the startups used animation to to explain abstract complex, or non-intuitive problems, largely in B2B scenarios.

4. Whiteboard explanation: Fairly common as well, is two or sometimes just one person going to the whiteboard explaining what is it the startup does. In many cases, these are fairly technical products and companies, so Open Source product companies tend to use them the most.

5. PPT based slide videos. Used when the founders are not technical, bootstrapped and have strong B2B backgrounds in sales or operations. Since they are unable to put a professional looking video, these are used by folks who dont have a shipping product yet. They are not very effective, but I think they are better than text based pages.

6. Screen capture: Typical to the #2 type, these “show” product, but the screen capture videos are less professionally done. Authentic to a fault, they tend to be quickly done, rather poorly produced, but effective to “demo” the product more than give an overview.

7. Live story with founders: Rarely used, but common in Kickstarter campaigns, these are when the founder (s) are a key part of the sales pitch.

Over the next few days I will showcase a series of posts on the use of video, the types of video and some techniques I use to produce better startup showcase videos.

How to build a wide and deep network of relationships as an entrepreneur?

Initially when you are looking to hire a person in your company, you will hire “from your network”. The challenge is to have a good network that’s diverse and varied to help you bring those critical “early believers” on board.

One of the most difficult hires for most developer / technical people is hiring that first sales person.

There are many types of sales people entrepreneurs can hire – you can make out the different types of sales people by their reviewing their resume first.

There are 3 types of sales people a startup needs initially and maybe a 4th type later when they get bigger.

Startup sales people are not responsible for revenue but for payroll, so you should hire someone with the mindset that they are doing something very important and not just “sales”.

The hustler will get you any deal and will focus on getting you in the door quickly to open opportunities.

The relationship sales person will open doors to the few, but you will need to supplement her with other technical and sales resources.

The process or consultative sales person is good when you have a clearly defined sales process you need to scale.

The account manager is great when you have to expand your footprint within your existing customers.

The four types of sales people are best segmented by the depth and breadth of their relationship building efforts.

Types of Sales People

Types of Sales People

In the chart above I have tried to segment them based on my experience of working with these kinds of sales people. I dont think it is perfect, but it gives you a framework to think.

This could be a framework you use for your personal entrepreneurial journey as well, as you build your own network.

The best entrepreneurs have a broad (wide) and deep network.

They use the network to hire, recruit customers and attract partners. You know these folks who can not only help you get to the 2-3 people you need to talk to quickly to validate something but also help you canvas the 20-30 folks you need to get feedback from.

Building such a network is hard and takes time. Most people have 3-5 good friends and colleagues who they hang out with often and maybe 10-20 folks they work with on and off. Others have 500+ LinkedIn connections, but wont know more than 5 of them very well.

To build a wide network you need to have the mindset to seek out new people each time you have a question or run into a challenge. That’s not normal behavior for most people.

To build a deep network you need to invest time with a few folks and really get to know them, not only by working together but also personally.

The best way I have found to build a deep network is to find projects that mutually benefit others based on common interests.

The best way to build a wide network is to find a way to help as many people as possible for any type of request.

All this takes time, which is why you have to prioritize your relationships. In the early stages of your entrepreneurial journey, depth of relationships beats breadth, so make sure that you have the 3-5 people who you can count on, and then look to build adjacent relationships to grow your network.

The top 5 things you need to do after you are hired as the first #salesperson at a #startup

This is a follow up to the post top 5 things a founder should do after hiring the first sales person at their startup. Congratulations. You have been hired as the first salesperson at a hot startup. Here are the top 5 things you need to do before, during and after coming on board.

1. Speak to as many customers as possible to understand “Why did they buy”? Ask the founders to help connect you to existing customers before you join so you can clearly understand why customers are buying. Is it because of the relationship the founder has (most likely at early stage startups), or are they solving a real pain point? Is it obvious there is a pain? Will there be budget allocated for this pain? Help the founders document the set of steps in the sales process during this phase as well.

2. Find out what your disciplined schedule will be for the first 30 to 90 days. Besides building your pipeline of business, there should be nothing else you should be working on. Whether it is researching 20 prospects, cold-emailing 20 potential targets or engaging with 20 candidate customers on LinkedIn, figure out the basic unit of activity and the way to measure it consistently.

E.g. Your basic unit of activity might be to spend 5 min researching a prospect on LinkedIn and understanding what your subject line should be to them and 5 min to craft an email that will help you send a response, followed by reviewing all the people in your suspect list from the previous day. Follow the disciple consistently.

3. Write down 10-20 A/B test headings, subject lines and messages that you will test during your pipeline development phase. You will need to test your Subject lines, the time you email prospects, the call to action, the collateral you will use to incent prospects to engage with you. The founders may already have a message they use, but dont take that at its face value. You will need to find the top 3-5 things your prospects will care about and the top 3-5 things they are willing to do as a next step or the 3-5 things they need to be educated about during the sales process. You job is to try and have enough permutations and combinations of these pain points, calls to actions and collateral till you hit the top 3 combinations.

E.g. Try the 3 top industry news items as headlines rotating and also your top 3 benefits, then the top 3 pain points or the top 3 questions on their mind as your subject lines.

4. Align on a system (Excel works just as well, if you dont like CRM systems) you will use to track your activity with your founders. Initially you will not have an immediate term wins, so in the absence of sales, activity will have to be measured as a proxy for outcomes. Whether it is # of sales calls per day or the # of demos per week or the # of responses to emails and phone calls that you will have to track, find a way to measure it, and track it diligently.

E.g. Put a simple spreadsheet with names of companies, target people, status (1st email sent, No response, Not interested, Call back in 3 months, No budget, etc.) and use a color-coded system for follow ups.

5. Network religiously to find a way to help potential partners who will help you after you help them. Many of the folks in your existing network may be able to help, and they may have an inclination to do so since you are now at a “startup”. Use the fact that you are at one to your advantage. Most people I know love helping and engaging with entrepreneurial-minded people and want to help early stage risk-takers. Even if you dont have a prospect in your network, it does not hurt to ask.

E.g. Last week, many of the participants at our customer day, at the accelerator were not prime targets for one of our companies in the Health care segment, but many had “friends” or “ex colleagues” who were now in hospitals and they were willing to help.