Shop talk on "intricately managed miracles" and early-stage subculture edited by four professionals in the throes of growing and funding early-to-mid stage tech companies.  For bios and other goodness click here.

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The Five & Dime

Reflections on our SXSW Marketing Strategy

We've gotten some really nice feedback at Hashable re: SXSW, with some folks asking to benchmark against our strategy.

We were extremely pleased with how things went - we picked up a substantial population of new users, measurably ticked up our growth rate, and I think by most accounts broke through the noise to be one of the top stories of the conference - which is getting trickier and trickier to accomplish.

I'll say that we were totally puzzled when we first started thinking about SXSW last November as newbies trying to analyze the twin myths of Foursquare and Twitter ;). The famed 'Foursquare court' strategy in particular seemed impossibly simple. So if it's of any help to other people considering a SXSW launch or event marketing in general - here are some high-level thoughts on what we did that worked, and what we would do differently.



1. Focused on Pre-SXSW Marketing

One of our guiding principles from the outset was that there's too much noise to break thru at SXSW itself - so we should focus on creating awareness and conversion ahead of time. I think this was a critical and correct assumption.

2. Developed a Relevant Mobile Use Case

The big 4 apps this year imo were Foursquare, Instagram, Hashable, and GroupMe – social mobile apps with high utility in social settings.

You need to isolate a mobile app use case that is directly useful at the conference. We focused on the ‘Business Card Replacement’ use case on Android & iPhone and put all of our development behind that. It seems hard to believe but from an internal product debate standpoint this wasn't a foregone conclusion.

3. Evangelist Contest

The evangelist strategy - to send power users down all-expenses paid via a contest - was a great idea on many levels. Among other things it drew attention to us ahead of time as a company that was going for it at SXSW.

4. Influencer Outreach

We sat down with Robert Scoble and several other key influencers in January and early February.

Influencers talk about you, Tweet about you, blog about you, Quora about you, etc. They basically dictate the unofficial slate of contenders for SXSW. You need to go out of your way to get on their radar.

5. Single-Message Marketing Campaign

This I believe is the single most important thing we did. We crafted a specific marketing campaign around the ‘ditch your business cards’ theme to educate people on a single use case and motivate them to download our app ahead of the conference.

I think in marketing it's relatively easy to create brand awareness and extremely difficult to get people actually using your product. I was terrified that we would have everyone at SXSW talking about us, but nobody actually using us.

Our “Kick Ass & Take Names” campaign strategy was kicked off in mid-February and designed to get people 'demo'd and downloaded' before Austin. It included these components:

  • Singular messaging around ‘ditch your business cards – this is all we talked about to the press and to our users. Nothing made me more excited or proud than seeing the business card messaging get picked up and carried through again and again on point. I believe had we not narrowed the messaging, our presence at SXSW would have been hopelessly equivocal.
  • Presenting as a social leader – we tried to have enough going on that people headed to SXSW from various parts of the country might look to us for cues on what to do down there.
  • A dedicated SXSW landing page describing how to use Hashable at SXSW (videos etc) and giving full details of our parties and other doings before and at SXSW.
  • A ‘roadshow’ wherein we visited a few key target communities in person to get people demo’d and downloaded.
  • NYXSW. We thought of NYXSW as our ‘minimum viable marketing plan’ – if we could at least get NYC activated, we’d be in good shape. And we thought other companies should be thinking the same thing and that this would benefit everyone. I think NYXSW helped put us top of mind among NYC’ers and also clarified the biz card use case among many who still thought of us as a Twitter intro service. I hope it helped other NY companies do the same.
  • Hiring Rachel Sklar to help us execute on the campaign and amplify the signal. Rachel is terrific. Our ideas got better, our reach got broader, media opportunities opened up, and she just made everything more fun.

6. ‘Rolling Thunder’ Noise & PR Strategy

From January forward we created a steady stream of product and marketing announcements. We built up velocity culminating in very high communications volume about 2 weeks before SXSW started.

The official press cycle began around Feb 21 and lasted about a month. We had 83 press hits during this timeframe with TechCrunch, Mashable, Forbes, CNN, AdAge, WSJ, Business Insider, AdWeek, and PCMag being some of the key formal media outlets in the SXSW mix. I'm proud to say that we did this without any external PR help.

On the user comms front, we retweeted any press hit like crazy and sent an aggressive stream of SXSW-related emails to our users in the few weeks before SXSW began.

Fred Wilson and Charlie O’Donnell also wrote awesome, pointed blog posts the week of SXSW – those helped a lot and we’re grateful to both of them.


By the time we got to the actual conference, our strategy was to have fun and just kind of be all over the place. This is what we did in Austin:

  • Flood the Zone with evangelists & our team - all in t-shirts & hashing it up
  • Stickers  - people love stickers
  • VIP party - it was small and hopefully civilized and awesome
  • “Major Rager” party with GroupMe - great brand partnership with a team and product we love; truly a rager
  • Panels - help lend gravity to your approach and access different audiences
  • Demo Events - we participated in every demo bake-off we got invited to (and also hosted a NYXSW one)
  • Sklar-events - Rachel is ubiquitous at SXSW and she pulled us into everything she did
  • Press during the event - We were so proud & psyched to be mentioned on so many 'Top 5 Apps' and 'SXSW Winners' lists - great feeling, thanks to awesome bloggers everywhere!


1.      Create an HQ for users to come connect with us. GroupMe’s grilled cheese stand was a great strategy on this front – and it’s why the Foursquare Court is so brilliant.

2.      Someone at home Tweeting all day. We left a lot of customer support questions unanswered - I hate to think of that.

3.      More T-shirts. We wish we’d had a couple thousand t-shirts to give to people. Next time!


The one last thing I want to mention – is that whatever success we had at SXSW, we had because of our awesome team (including so many of our passionate users who basically are a part of the team). I think the key ingredient to succeeding at SXSW is creative thinking - and it takes an awesome, engaged team to come up with off-the-wall strategies. In our case, ideas came from all corners, we had great camaraderie – and we let the effort and lack of sleep pull us together. I believe that sense of creativity and togetherness permeated the tone of what we were doing and created an accessible, upbeat vibe.

So hats off to the team – Jane Kim, who 100% ran point on all things sxsw and earned an honorary PhD in event production, Mike Yavo who came up with the evangelist contest and VIP party and a zillion other things, Sklar as already touted, our truly sick product & dev teams who hardly slept for two months and then represented hard in Austin, our amazing Hash-Evangelists who rocked the conference, and our interns who nailed the details. Hopefully we can tap into that same moj to capitalize on the growth and push into the next phase.

So that’s that! A few details and trade secrets kept admittedly on the downlow - but I hope still helpful. I would have killed for this post last November. See you next year Austin!







Being "Coachable" and Coaching

The other day, a very talented NYC-based entrepreneur asked me if I could grab lunch with him.  He’s the CEO of a company whose user growth is the quintessential “hockey stick” ramp.  Needless to say, I was happy to catch-up.  At lunch, it turned out he wanted to discuss some ideas he had around his business model before his board meeting the next day.  As we chatted, I remembered a 2x2 I had learned in my brief stint as a consultant:

The basic premise is that everyone goes through four stages of learning.  First, a person starts in stage 1, the “enthusiastic beginner.”  We’ve all been there….  It’s the “you don’t know what you don’t know” stage.  I remember the first term sheet I ever drafted; I thought it was a piece of cake.  It probably took me 30 minutes to complete a draft.  Then I got redline back from the Partner with whom I was working.  Clearly, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing! 

This moment of realization is when a person progresses to stage 2.  Stage 2 is the “struggling learner.”  You suck, and you realize it.  This is obviously the toughest stage.  But gradually, you push through, learn, and move to stage 3, the “cautious contributor.”   Here, you’re able to contribute, but you’re still tentative and unsure.  You’re highly competent, but you don’t realize it yet.  Some positive feedback later, and you start to realize your own competence and you become a “peak performer.”

Some people start in Stage 1 and never leave.  I think this is what is meant when people say that someone is not “coachable.”  The person never lets themself have that moment of humility and self reflection when they realize their own lack of competence. 

My lunch date on the other hand was clearly a cautious contributor and well on his way to being a peak performer.  All the ideas he had around the business model were great; he just wasn’t yet completely confident in his own business model savvy.  Suffice to say, I emailed the CEO after his board meeting and asked how the meeting went.  “Great!” was the response.  Sounds like someone made it to stage 4.

I find that realizing what stage I’m in of this learning process helps me understand what I need, especially when I feel myself going from stage 1 to 2.  But you can also use the framework to help coach someone through each stage.  To do so, here are my crib notes:

Stage 1:  If you’re managing an enthusiastic beginner, assign the person specific tasks and give them direct feedback on their work outputs.  Give them positive encouragement, but don’t hold their hand too much.  Remember:  they need to realize they need help. 

Stage 2:  This stage is when your ability as a coach shines the most.  This stage is all about giving feedback and direction.  They’re open to learning so take advantage of it. Give them clear direction on how to complete the task, let them do it, then give them feedback.  Rinse, recycle, repeat.  On to stage 3.

Stage 3:  Positive encouragement and support is what this stage is all about.  They’re almost there.

Stage 4: Your reward of being a great coach:  time to delegate!

If this framework resonates, read more about it here: http://store.situational.com/products/Situational-Leader-Book.html


EarlyStager Changes The Ratio

Hey EarlyStager readers,

Come hang with us next Thursday evening when Change the Ratio presents EarlyStager Stories as part of Social Media Week. We’ll be chatting up founding stories, financing obstacles & pivots that woulda-shoulda happened with the inimitable Rachel Sklar at TechStars / Pivotal Labs

What we will not be doing is talking about what it’s like to be a woman in tech or similar gender-driven topics. Gotham Gal and the ITP folks covered that and a whole lot more in smashing fashion last weekend, so get on the #WEFestival list for 2012. 

In the meantime, we look forward to seeing you on Feb 10 and, apparently, drinking Pepsi.

Register Here.


Company Culture: It's about the Employees

Company culture is notoriously hard to define and measure but it’s critically important to the success of a business. In any company, no matter how small, the company culture is a product of the leadership and the leadership's vision for the company. In most companies, it starts with the CEO.

Office layout and design, team building, offsites, and perks like free lunch, doggie day care, etc are usually good signs of a company that cares about culture, but they may just be window dressing. Take a closer look.

What really matters: How employees are treated on an individual level

Most employees really want to enjoy what they are doing, but when you boil down why most people work it’s to earn a living. In all of this talk about culture, this fact is the key aspect is missing in many of the discussions.  If you have individuals that are happy, you can foster a happy team.  Here are some of the most important factors:

Compensation:  Not all startups have the ability to pay market, but get there and beyond as soon as you can.  Pay employees generously. Review your employee compensation as you grow and if you don’t want to pay your team market – you may have the wrong employee and it may be time to let them go.  Combine equity and cash to make all employees feel like important and valued members of the team.  Today, the market is only getting better and compensation is becoming a bigger consideration.

Career path:  Care and support all employees careers.  There may not be room for “moving up the ladder” but if you want to keep talented people, even small companies need to help create and allocate growth projects. Most people want to make a difference and feel like they are moving the business forward. As long as there are big challenges and meaty projects, great employees are generally self improving through experience, discussion and observation. It is important to acknowledge this need even If there’s not a job big enough for a particular employee at the moment.  The employee can make the decision for themselves if they think the role will grow into something bigger or if it is time to move on.

Reward system:  Who gets promoted, rewarded and who gets let go is a big indicator of culture.  Your employees know who is pulling their weight, who is a star and who should leave.  If your company doesn’t do what it is necessary to evaluate these situations objectively, this will drag down morale and hurt the overall culture.  The company needs to show what behaviors and skills it values.

Reviews:  Closely linked to reward system is reviews.  Employees should know where they stand and whether its informal or written, reviews should be done at a minimum annually.  Reviews are just another way values and culture can be reinforced throughout the company.  It’s about creating the best team that learns from each other.

Respect of downtime:

Generally there is not a lot of downtime when you work at a startup, but when there is some.

Vacation – Vacation policies make sense when there are necessary reasons for people to be in an office everyday.   But the reality today is you probably get emails at all hours of the night and have a steady flow during the weekend.  No one asks for vacation credit for being on their iPhone while sitting on the beach over a long weekend.  In a startup, few people would even think of taking more than a few weeks in total over the year.  My vote:  No vacation policy, particularly for the early stages.

Work Hours – Nothing kills morale faster than someone who has been working round the clock and on weekends who gets reprimanded for coming into the office 20 minutes late.  That same employee will think twice before opening their email on the weekends or double checking a project at 2:00am.   The idea is that people will get their work done in a timely fashion, sometime during the week.

Trust – The bottom line is the best companies trust their employees. If you don’t trust your employees, replace them.  If you do trust them, give them autonomy.  Trust from the company will also foster trust and cooperation between employees.

There are many, many more areas that contribute to culture including, following your own mission statement, facilitating effective communication, limiting process and procedures, use of spot bonuses and rewards and how you welcome and let go employees.   And…last but most importantly overall respect.

It is about building an all-star team, not a family (which is more than likely dysfunctional).



Silicon Alley Chamber of Commerce?

There continues to be lots of discussion internal to our community and with local political figures re: how to fan the flames that are raging in Silicon Alley right now.

Fred Wilson wrote an awesome post yesterday isolating 2 critical catalysts for NYC: 1) engineering talent, and 2) pervasive high speed internet access so that cheap neighborhoods can be put to use as start-up districts. Over Twitter these got awesomely coined as 'Hires & Wires,' and the post was possibly a response to an email Charlie O'Donnell sent earlier this week re: how best to use an audience with a local politician.

There needs to be a focal point for these discussions, ideas & efforts. Is it a naive idea to put together a Silicon Alley Chamber of Commerce, with the mission of focusing our community thinking around key challenges and advertising us to key external demographics?

- Would be set up as a non-profit

- Funded by VC's, law firms, recruiting firms, and a 'business association' membership fee from funded start-ups pro-rated by level of funding.

- Also potentially supported by job posting revenues and advertising

- 1-2 full-time, dedicated staff to run it

- A Board of Directors and an extensive Advisory panel

The programs would align to Hires & Wires or whatever key needs arise out of quarterly planning meetings. For example, the Hires program could include:

  • Creating an aggressive awareness/presence on key engineering campuses across US and possibly internationally - including coordinated recruitment drives akin to what the banks and consulting companies do at campuses. Institute a recruiting week for CS seniors.
  • Running a Silicon Alley job board (free or maybe Yoga-to-the-People-style donations) - I still contend part of the hiring problem here is that the start-up scene seems completely amorphous to engineers and other talent looking to join it. It's very hard to grock the universe of options.
  • Coordinating an Alley-wide summer internship program.
  • Running point with local universities to help integrate their programs into the start-up ecosystem and even to help support their recruitment efforts into key high schools. I've seen first-hand the power of the Stanford-Silion Valley integration - they are one in the same.
  • Definitive list of investors, meetups, events, dev groups (like hackny), incubators etc.
  • Possibly even a classifieds section for office space, equipment, services, whatever...

Charlie's initiative NextNY is an awesome community-based effort - with 3.000+ members and a lot of activity at the ground level. 

But to make a major leap forward on broad needs like Hires & Wires - I believe that will only happen through a concerted effort that is funded and staffed and supported by the top people and groups in the community - with a high degree of visibility.

Has anything like this already been attempted, or are their analogs in other industries?