How To Stay Motivated During A Pivot

I originally wrote this as a piece for Huffington Post, which you can find here.

Startups face no shortage of uncertainty, and nothing creates more uncertainty than going through a pivot. A pivot can be a soul-wrenching, sleepless, and hair-pulling ordeal that can leave you feeling like the whole startup thing was never worth it. That is, if you let it. But if you have the right attitude, a pivot can be a period of intense personal and professional growth – a unique learning experience that can help you grow in wisdom and fortitude.

I’ve gone through a pivot before. And I’m in the middle of another. Here’s what I’ve learned that has helped me turn the experience into a positive one. Continue reading

How To Pick a Target Market For a B2B Startup (Part III – Interviews)

This post is Part III in series called “How To Pick a Target Market for a B2B Startup.” To start at the beginning, click here.

Marketing guru Regis McKenna once wrote, “marketing people should be on the road half the time–meeting customers, talking to people, building relationships, and seeing where the next product is going.” You know, actually speaking to live, flesh-and-blood human beings. Crazy.

While that much travel might not be feasible for everyone, his point was clear: understanding your market is key to successfully selling to it. As convenient as research and surveys are (which we discussed in Parts I and II) they simply cannot help you know your market really well.

That’s why interviews are the final (and most important) part of selecting a target market for your B2B startup. Continue reading

How To Pick a Target Market For a B2B Startup (Part II – Surveys)

This is Part II in a three-part series about finding your ideal target market. Click here if you’d like to start from the beginning.

In part I of this series, I showed you how to use brainstorming and a bit of research to build a short list of potential target markets for your B2B startup.

Now it’s time to narrow that list even further.

To do that, we’re going to use surveys to ask polarizing questions and find out even more about our targets. Continue reading

How To Pick A Target Market For A B2B Startup (Part I – Research)

In a B2B startup, there are two questions that you must answer before your company gets very far: what is the product, and who are you going to sell it to? In today’s post, I’m going to focus on the second question, and show you a 3-part process you can use to find the exact market niche to focus on. Continue reading

How to Choose The Right CRM For Your Startup

Choosing a CRM is a lot like dating: you need some experience to know what you’re looking for, it takes a while to find out if you’ve made the right choice, and if you decide to switch to another option, it’s generally a pain in the ass.

We recently went through the CRM selection process at my company, and we ended up with a great choice. I wanted to share the steps we went through, to hopefully save you some pain in your own journey.

Background

We originally used Hubspot as an all-in-one marketing/sales platform. We tried to use it as a CRM as well, but it’s not well suited for that. As our sales volume started to increase, and we quickly needed a better solution to help us manage leads and deal discussions. After an afternoon spent Googling every CRM search string we could think of, we soon realized that there were hundreds of choices. Far too many, in fact. Suffocating under the sheer variety of options, we decided to take a step back…

Assessing Your Needs

We took a break and tried to honestly assess what we really needed from a CRM. Just like your buddy’s girlfriend you can’t stand to be around, some CRMs will be a poor fit because they’re tailored for a different type of user. But since you can’t afford to date a dozen CRMs before you marry one, you have to figure out what you want first.

Here are a few questions that will help you find out:

  • How complex is your sales process? Perhaps you sign leads up after a phone call or two. Or maybe it’s a months-long conversation with several people. You won’t need every feature under the sun if you just need a fancy list to keep track of who needs to be called.
  • Who will be using the CRM? Is your team really tech savvy, and comfortable setting up a lot of configuration? Or will they refuse to touch something unless it has a beginner-friendly interface?
  • How many leads do you manage at once? How similar are they? If you’re selling the same thing to every lead, you probably have a fairly straightforward process. A CRM that simply helps you track progress will be fine. But if you have multiple products that have unique sales approaches, you’ll want more flexibility to customize.
  • Where do your sales take place? If you’re out in the field much, then consider CRMs that have mapping features and a strong mobile app (many CRMs don’t).
  • Do you sell via email, phone, or both? Several CRMs that offer in-app calling, call logging, dedicated telephone numbers, and other features that make it easy to manage calls. Other CRMs offer direct integration into email services such as Gmail and Outlook, which is handy if you want to easily track correspondence.
  • How long does this CRM need to last? Remember, just because you pick a CRM now doesn’t mean that you’ll use it until the end of time. Yes, it’s a pain to switch, but if you’re a startup, the software you use today isn’t what you’ll be using three years from now.
  • What other services do you use? Are there email, billing, chat, or other web-based software you use for marketing and sales? Several CRMs offer direct integrations with those platforms, making it a cinch to sync data.
  • How available is your tech team? Many CRMs can’t fully connect to other services unless you make use of their API. Have a custom website that someone wrote from scratch? You’ll need to make API calls if you want those forms on your website to update your CRM automatically. If this is a concern for you, check out Zapier, which offers direct integrations between many platforms, all without writing code.
  • How much does it cost? Don’t worry about this one for now. Most CRMs geared at startups will be within a fairly similar price range. Unless you’re on a shoestring budget, focus on finding a tool that works best for you. More expensive isn’t necessarily better.

Review With Your Team

If you’ve talked through these questions together, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you need out of a CRM. Here’s what we ended up with:

Our sales process typically involves a couple of emails and a phone call or two. However, the time from initial interest to close can take anywhere from one day to one month. We need something that will make it easy to track correspondence and deal stage. Phone integration and mobile apps are must-haves.

Right now, our products have fixed pricing. The sales process is mostly educational and less focused on negotiation. With that in mind, we didn’t need anything really nuanced. Just an easy way to keep track of how many customers are interested and how many we’ve closed.

Our sales team is a smart bunch, but they don’t have a lot of time to learn a funky interface. Finding something that was intuitive is paramount. While our sales are mostly done in-office, knowing where leads are located geographically is really important, as we sell to many local businesses.

Finally, we need a service that will integrate with MailChimp and Gmail. We’ll also need to update our CRM via an API, since we’d have an custom-built website and sign-up portal for our services.

Go through this exercise and get ready to go hunting…

Narrow It Down

There are a couple options for narrowing your choices: use a service such as Capterra or G2 Crowd to filter your options, OR take the easy way by looking at the short list we came up with:

  • Close.io – great for call tracking and a simple interface
  • RelateIQ – uses algorithms to help you know where to spend your time
  • Intercom – offers a single platform for communicating over multiple channels
  • BaseCRM – solid call/email integration, great UI and mobile app
  • HighRise – extremely simple, a glorified contact manager
  • Nimble – strong social media integration
  • Pipedrive – targeted at high-value/low-volume deal flow
  • Pipeline Deals – focused on managing an intricate sales process
  • CapsuleCRM – easy to get started with

Go On A Date

Once you’ve selected three or four candidates, it’s time for a test run. Set up a trial account, import your data, and start to poke around. Before long, you’ll get a sense of how steep the learning curve is and how much customization is involved before you can really make use of it. Make sure you include any mobile apps as part of the trial process.

If you’re still having trouble making a decision, here are a few tips to help:

  • Submit a support request and see how quickly and thoroughly their team responds.
  • Check out their documentation. How many resources do they provide to help you along?
  • Ask one of their sales reps to tell you why you should choose them over another CRM you’re considering. They may point out some features you weren’t aware of. If you want to dig even deeper, ask the sales rep to tell you what the weak points of their CRM are. Every service has a few.
  • If Salesforce came up on your short list, cross it off. Unless you have a big sales team and a lead who’s already familiar with Salesforce, changes are it will be overkill. By the time you have it set up, you could already have been using a simpler CRM for months.
  • Visit the company’s blog to see how recently they’ve released new features.
  • Take a look at Zapier to see what kinds of integrations are offered. Set up a Zap and see if it works.

Make Your Choice

You won’t know whether you’ve made the perfect decision until you’ve committed to a CRM, started using it for real deals, and discovered all its warts. But you won’t be able to try them all for months. And at a startup, sometimes done is better than perfect. So make your decision, move forward, and don’t look back.

For us, we went with BaseCRM. We really liked its intuitive interface, call integration, and mobile apps. It also has a fairly good API, which means that it can grow with us for a while. Reporting tools are solid too. Yes, there are some shortcomings we found with it, but none of them are serious enough to cause us to reconsider. And their support team has been really helpful. So far, so good…

Have you gone through the process of picking a new CRM? If so, I’d love to hear your own thoughts on how to make the process more painless. 

Startup Lessons from A Game of Thrones – Part 1: Tyrion Lannister and Getting Shit Done

George R.R. Martin’s novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, (or for you viewers at home, A Game of Thrones) is chock full of interesting characters and situations. So much so, that I felt compelled to write a few posts about the lessons that startups can draw from them.

Let’s start with Tyrion Lanninster, aka The Imp. Caution… spoiler ahead. Tyrion’s never had a lot going for him. A misshapen dwarf who’s been all but disowned by his family, Tyrion’s rarely enjoyed the respect of others.  While Tyrion’s immediate family is made up of avarice-driven, power-hungry, and cunning individuals who’ve jockeyed themselves into dominant positions in society, Tyrion spends his days drinking and whoring out of sight.

Tyrion in his element

That changes though, though, when the circumstances of war install Tyrion as Hand of the King. Tyrion is just as surprised as anyone at obtaining the second most powerful position in the kingdom, and he uses the opportunity to earn the respect he’s never had. The task isn’t easy, though: the king himself is Tyrion’s own nephew Joffrey, an immature and cruel boy who despises Tyrion even though he’s the very man he should rely on to help him run the kingdom.

But before long, Tyrion learns how to manipulate Joffrey through a combination of intimidation (“I’ll geld you, I swear it…” he threatens Joffrey once) and distraction (giving Joffrey a fancy crossbow to show off). While short of stature, he’s not short on wit. In the ensuing months, Tyrion finds himself running the affairs of the kingdom while the king is preoccupied playing with his toys.

This is exactly where Tyion needs to be some time later, when the city of King’s Landing is about to be attacked by rivals. While Joffrey should be the one making war plans, he’s too busy having his fiancé beaten and generally being a prick to make meaningful preparations. And as much as Tyrion hates Joffrey, he hates the idea of having the city sacked and his family thrown out of power even more. With the prospect of a loss looming on the horizon, Tyrion switches to full-on “Get Shit Done” mode…

He orders every blacksmith in the city forge a massive chain that will cut invading ships in two. He cajoles the ancient order of pyromancers make 10,000 jars of a hugely volatile substance called wildfire – enough to blow up the entire city of they’re not careful. He burns down the shanties surrounding the city walls to keep them from being used by the enemy as ladders. He has catapults built and sends men out to harass the enemy, all without the knowledge or consent of his incompetent nephew. Though untrained as a soldier, Tyrion even leads a band of soldiers to defend the city gates, while men with twice his size and experience flee to safety.

Wildfire: the napalm of Game of Thrones

It’s not not to be impressed by The Imp. He had the gall to deal the ineffectual and narcissistic King (and technically his boss) enough blows to keep him out of the way. He had the foresight to initiate some defensive tactics that others overlooked. And he had the guts to rush into battle despite his physical disadvantages. Without him, King’s Landing may have in fact been overtaken. Doesn’t he sound like someone you’d want on your side?

Thankfully most of us don’t have the disadvantages Tyrion had to deal with: a unsavory physical appearance, a family that’s rejected you you, and a 13-year-old egotistical and insecure boss. Now think of the challenges you’re dealing with at your own startup. Do any of them seem nearly as bad? No?… So what’s keeping you from being like Tyrion and Getting Shit Done?

Can the Bible teach us how to build great startup teams?

“Individuals don’t build great companies, teams do,” is a popular saying in the startup community, thanks to Mark Suster. Indeed, of all factors contributing to startup’s success: product/market fit, sufficient funding, competitive barriers, and so on – none are relevant without a good team in place.

But how do you know when you have a good team? The challenge with team building is that there are quantitative ways of assessing its health. You know when you need to raise money by looking at your balance sheet. You know that you’re on track for a product/market fit when customers start giving you money. But how do you know that your team has the right composition?

There’s a useful concept that comes from an unlikely source: the Christian church. I promise that this post won’t be about converting you to one religion or another, but keep an open mind. In his book, “Building a Discipling Culture“, author Mike Breen developed a concept called the Fivefold Ministries. The idea stems from the five core roles that are outlined Ephesians 4:11-16 – apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher:

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ… 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

The concept here is pretty straightforward: each person has been given their own set of talents and abilities. Only by “unifying” these talents together can a group of people establish change. In the case of the Ephesians, it meant building a young church in the face of adversity. In the case of a startup, it means creating a new company in the face of risk and competition.

Let’s look closer at these five roles and see how they apply to startups:

Apostles – Thought leaders and visionaries, apostles are those who break new ground and challenge others’ view of the world. In the New Testament, the Twelve Apostles were those Jesus chose to establish Christianity. Tasked with developing a new religion in the face of very real persecution, the apostles of the early Christian church faced tremendous adversity in their task. Can you guess what the corollary in startups is? It’s the CEO and early founders: those who attempt to forge a new idea into a viable company. While company founders don’t have to face the risk of death in their pursuits (let’s hope!) their role requires a bold attitude and the ability to keep moving forward in the face of skeptics and competitors. While any startup requires it’s share of apostles, this role isn’t sufficient to get a company off the ground, as we’ll see in a moment.

On track to disrupt at least a couple industries, Elon Musk is a classic Apostle.

Evangelists – Evangelists make it their purpose to tell others about their beliefs and vision. They don’t necessarily set the vision (that’s up to the apostles), but they diffuse it, multiplying the reach of the apostles. Like apostles, though, evangelists also have to face doubters. They must possess the ability to win others over through intellect, empathy, charisma, and persistence. Evangelists in the early Christian church were responsible for converting others to Christianity. Their counterparts in startups are the salesmen, corporate developers, and marketers, who “convert” new relationships into partners, customers, and investors.

One of the early tech evangelists, Guy Kawasaki.

Prophets – This may seem like a stretch for startups, but not when you look deeper at the meaning of the word. It’s Greek root prophetes simply means “inspired preacher or teacher”.  In the Biblical context, prophets were inspired by God and cast a vision of what they believed would happen in the future. Relying on perception, intuition, and feeling, prophets are not unlike artists, who challenge our view of the world with their artwork. In the startup sense, prophets can take the form of consultants and advisors, often in the form of futurists. These visionaries look at how industry, technology, culture, politics, and other macro forces are interacting, and they predict what the world will look like in the coming years. While not as focused on implementation as other roles, prophets play an important part in helping startups challenge existing ways of thinking.

H.G. Wells told us much about what the future may look like.

Pastor – Pastors are simply those who care for others. They guard, protect, and nurture those in their custody. In the early Christian church, pastors were responsible for caring for young Christian communities that needed steady guidance and encouragement. In a startup, the needs of the young team are not much different. Faced with uncertainty about the future and lacking the cohesiveness that comes from working with others for a long period of time, startup teams need to be nurtured. A startup “pastor” may take the form of a special employee who has the rare talent of bonding people together, or in a more formal role, such as a human resources lead. In any role, pastors are crucial to developing and reinforcing a healthy company culture.

One of today’s leaders in developing a great company culture, Tony Hsieh.

Teachers – anyone who has a desire to know the truth and impart it to others can considered a teacher. Early Christians needed teachers to convey the lessons of Jesus and explain how they could be lived out in daily life. While we tend to think of teachers today as those formally employed as such, teachers in a startup can take many forms. It’s an engineer who helps his team understand a new technology. It’s the manager who makes sure his team understands the priorities of the company. It’s the analyst who looks closely at the way her company’s product is being used and provides insight into opportunities for improvement. And it’s the designer who helps his company adopt a common visual language in its products.

Leene Gade is awesome – head race engineer for Audi and the first female in that role to win the Le Mans 24 Hours, she knows how to teach her mechanics a thing or two.

As you’ve read this post, you’ve probably thought of a few people on your team who fit into these roles. Take a few minutes and review everyone who’s a part of your startup. Do you have strong players in each? Is everyone in a role that’s suited to their talents? What areas is your team lacking in talent?

Now consider what a team with solid players in each role would look like. You’d have a rich blend of people who can lead the formation of the company and set its vision (apostles), gain customers and advocates (evangelists), understand the future of your industry and your company’s role in it (prophets), keep employees empowered and happy (pastors), and ensure that the team is working on the right things and has the knowledge to execute (teachers). A pretty strong crew indeed.