Today I had the opportunity to spend time with Genna Keller of the PR firm Trevellino/Keller. Genna has been active in the Atlanta tech startup community since the late 1990s and has a wealth of experience. One of the great things her firm spearheads is the Start-Up Council which provides a feedback roundtable for free to startups once a quarter. From their site:
Start-Up Council meets quarterly, in a roundtable setting with entrepreneurs to hear their business case for the next great start-up. The group offers advice and insight on business development, funding, marketing, public relations, legal, accounting, outsourcing and branding.
I recommend Atlanta entrepreneurs take a look at the Start-Up Council website and take advantage of this free service.
Today I had lunch with an entrepreneur that is an expert at online lead generation. Like him, I also believe that online lead generation is an untapped opportunity for most companies. The great thing about generating leads online is that there are several ways to do it, many of which have a strong ROI. Let’s look at a few:
- Offer something free like a white paper, product trial, or a product demo on your site and require a person’s email address for access
- Sponsor a community through banner ads, promotions, or information in email blasts and drive the clicks to landing pages with conversion forms
- Purchase leads from third-party lead generation sites (most industries have these sites)
- Buy pay-per-click ads on search engines that have relevant keywords and drive the clicks to landing pages with conversion forms
Of course, a marketing automation system is highly recommend to maximize the value of your investment. My advice to entrepreneurs and people responsible for customer acquisition: use the power of the web and try several different tactics to generate leads online.
Today I had the opportunity to have lunch with two entrepreneurs that have invented physical products, one related to adults and sleeping and the other related to kids and sleeping. The great thing about it was that both guys had the following in common:
- They invented their respective products to solve their own problems
- They operate their companies virtually, with everything outsourced
- All manufacturing is done in China, at separate factories, and stored in Pennsylvania
- Their companies are growing fast and are successful
- Both companies primarily sell over the Internet with limited retail sales
- Both companies are based in Atlanta (one in town and one in the northern suburbs)
Being a technology entrepreneur myself, with a focus on software and the web, it is easy to forget that many entrepreneurs still invent physical products. Both guys said the Internet has helped make their businesses successful and allows them to operate without any employees. My recommendation for entrepreneurs is to evaluate what problems you can solve, both online and offline — the world needs innovation.
For entrepreneurs looking to grow their business (who isn’t!), I think one of most under-appreciated marketing and lead generation tactic is to generate inbound leads through traffic from search engines. Of course, one of the biggest drivers for ranking well in search engines, along with links to your site from other sites, is to have high quality content. Web content is powerful.
Let’s look at the five Fs for web content:
- Frequent – New content should be published on a regular basis at least once a week if not several times per week. Getting into a good publishing rhythm, and sticking with it, is critical to building momentum as it takes a significant amount of time for the web traffic to build.
- Fun – Web content, especially blog content, is better served in a fun and personal manner. Too often we read corporate speak with a variety of gobblegook words — don’t do it.
- Facts – People like facts, figures, and statistic to make the content more interesting. Yes, I’m not good at this on my own blog, but do as I say and not as I do. Use hard data to make your point and provide compelling information.
- Food for Thought – Make the content interesting and memorable. Take an unusual stand or position that is likely to make someone think twice about it. Good food for thought will give people a reason to subscribe or comeback to the site.
- Fans and Followers – Look for ways to stay in touch with your fans and followers through RSS, Facebook, Twitter, and any other networks they use on a regular basis. Go to their networks, as opposed to limiting access to your own site.
Don’t just sit there — start writing content. But, remember, pace yourself and do it on a regular basis. You won’t regret it.
According to Wikipedia, faith is defined as follows: the confident belief or trust in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, concept or thing. Yup, sounds about right when describing what it takes to succeed with a startup. Of course I’m talking about innovative and not replicative entrepreneurs.
For entrepreneurs and their startups, faith is a critical element. There are so many variables acting against the success of the business including:
- market timing
You have to be a little crazy, and have a great deal of faith, to launch a startup — it is worth every minute.
With the NCAA basketball tournament under way, and Butler pulling out the big upset over Syracuse tonight , it makes sense to talk about startups and basketball. Basketball, when compared to other sports like baseball or football, makes a great case that a team with more camaraderie and chemistry can out perform more talented teams. Let’s look at what startups can learn from the NCAA basketball tournament:
- The team with the most talent, as defined by the largest number of McDonald’s All Americans (UNC), didn’t even make the tournament, just like when a startup gets an all-star team together, and never even brings a product to market
- The success of mid-major teams this year, especially against much wealthier BCS schools, shows that schools with limited resources, much like startups, can take on the bigger challengers and win
- Finally, the NCAA tournament really demonstrates the importance of building momentum over a long season, and peaking at the right time, in a similar manner to startups seeking out the right product/market fit, and timing the market (very important!)
Basketball and startups have a good deal in common: competition, teamwork, and hard work. What have you learned from the tournament?
One of the questions I like to ask entrepreneurs is “How big do you want to make your startup” so that I can get a feel for their ambition. At this morning’s Shotput Ventures office hours at Emory, I asked the question several times and received vague, indeterminate answers, mostly centered around being large and dominating their industry. I think it is important to have a more concrete answer to this question and it should incorporate the following:
- How much do you want the company to be worth in enterprise value?
- What timeframe do you want to achieve this?
- How confident are you that you can do this?
My advice is to think through these questions and have a consistent, cohesive answer.
By now, we’ve probably all heard the eBay story that the founder started it because he wanted a way to help his girlfriend find Pez dispensers online. Well, did you know that was made up? That’s right, those PR folks were looking for a good, memorable story and delivered. Politicians do it all the time.
I do believe it is important to have a story for your startup. Why was it founded? Why are you doing what you’re doing? Here are some points to consider:
- Make it memorable
- Keep it short
- Practice it for consistency across co-founders
- Include emotion and feeling in it
What’s your startup story?
People constantly throw around the term “successful business” or “successful startup”, but I bet if you ask 10 entrepreneurs how they define success, you’ll get 10 different answers. I typically like to ask the following question: how do you define success? Here’s how I define a successful business:
- $1 million+ in annual gross margin (difference between the sales and the cost of goods)
- Sufficient redundancy and scale such that anyone in the business can go on vacation for two weeks and everything continues to run fine
- Reasonable revenue predictability (recurring revenue is best) such that sales can be predicted out on a quarterly basis with 75% confidence
- Profitable enough to make decisions on growth, lifestyle, etc
Notice that I didn’t say it had to be a technology business, or potential for 30% net margins (even though that would be nice), or 50% year-over-year growth. I think those are all nice, and important to me, but for most entrepreneurs I’ve talked to, they are looking for a level of scale, stability, predictability, and freedom (profits!).
How do you define success?
Back in late 2003, a few years after I’d started my company, I got down on myself questioning the amount of progress we’d made on the business. I had two full-time employees with a couple of interns and I just wasn’t satisfied with how fast things were growing. Revenues were increasing nicely on a percentage basis, but on an absolute basis they were still pretty meager. I didn’t know how to push the ship forward faster without outside capital, and after talking to many local angels and VCs, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to raise any money because I didn’t have a successful startup under my belt and we were competing in a crowded market.
Deep in frustration I heard the startup’s siren call: move to California and everything will be better.
In California, I’d be able to raise a ton of money, hire an army of great people, and build the next Salesforce.com. It was a standard playbook that has been implemented many times before. Mentioning California to my soon-to-be wife got her all riled up and upset as she’s pretty averse to change. I didn’t know what to do.
After thinking about it more, and continuing to plug away at my business, I began to realize I was already in the best place for me: Atlanta. Why? Here are a few reasons:
- With revenues continuing to grow, and lack of outside capital, we were able to continue bootstraping, and Atlanta is a phenomenal place to bootstrap a business due to a variety of reasons
- My friends and community (e.g. networking organizations, softball team, etc) were established and comfortable
- My family in North Florida, where I grew up, was less than five hours away
- Thinking more about the tech startup community, and potentially one day being a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond, I felt I was better suited for a small pond where I could have more of an impact
Incredibly, the startup’s siren call of California is as strong today as it’s ever been, based on comments and discussions all over social media. I’m glad I stayed in Atlanta as we were right on the cusp of explosive growth, and Atlanta proved to be a great place to build a multi-million dollar business.