Your startup is a rocket ship

When you’re building a startup, the startup itself has a reputation and credibility around it. The startup has tremendous power. As the startup rocket ship takes off, the best thing you can do is to cling onto the edge of the rocket ship and get the most out of it that you can.

Help people get the most out of the startup

The most important reason I want to encourage “clinging onto the rocket ship” is because I believe it is the best way for the individual people on the team to get the most out of the lifetime of the startup.

Each person can use the rocket ship to further their own reputation

My co-founder Leo put this best when I discussed it with him:

"Everyone in the team already has a reputation internally. Through blogging, Tweeting, doing interviews or speaking, they can make this reputation an external one too."

It’s vital for everyone in the team to become comfortable putting themselves out there. We try to encourage this at Buffer by helping each other in an “improvements” section of of our daily Skype call.

Everyone has a chance for enormous personal growth

By choosing to take hold of the rocket ship and cling on for the ride, everyone in the team gives themselves a chance to grow personally much faster than they could by any other means.

"you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years" - Paul Graham

Everyone in the team has a chance to develop their core strengths further, becoming domain experts. They also have the opportunity to develop skills which aren’t their natural focus.

If things begin to work, the startup will become well-known. That’s a given. Whether you become well-known is optional. It’s completely up to you.

Examples to be inspired by

Some of the people who I’ve seen continually grab hold of the startup rocket ship are Kevin Rose with Digg, Dan Martell with Flowtown (and now Clarity), and Cindy Alvarez with KISSmetrics and other compaines. Be sure to follow them to learn from the best.

Everyone in your startup is a marketer

The other reason I encourage everyone in the team to cling onto the rocket ship is that Leo and I have found this is actually a really great way to do marketing for the startup.

The Buffer rocket ship

Everyone on the team does an awesome job of clinging on to the rocket ship.

For example, Tom's recent post was noticed by MongoDB who we’re now speaking lots with, and he’s been invited to speak at an event about how we use MongoDB.

Therefore, I try my best to encourage everyone in the team to grab hold of the rocket ship. Here’s something I said to Alyssa who has amazing knowledge, experience and insights about customer happiness which I hope she will soon start to share:

"I’d also very much encourage you to get as much as you can for yourself in terms of "reputation". I sometimes see Buffer as a rocket ship which I’m desperately clinging onto and using to catapult myself as high as possible, both in terms of personal development and in terms of opening further opportunities down the line. The higher a reputation we all have individually as well as Buffer as a whole, the easier it is to "get in" to places we need to."

Examples to be inspired by

Two compaines which have somehow managed to create a phenomenal culture of encouraging their team to “cling onto the rocket ship” are HubSpot and 37signals.

When the rocket ship is soaring and everyone is watching it, be sure to shout about the fact you’re helping to fly it. When the rocket lands back on Earth at the end of its journey and people’s memories of it start to fade, you want to have gained as much as you can and have people recognise you individually. That way, the next rocket can be bigger and more ambitious.

Are you clinging onto the rocket ship of your startup?

Photo credit: Matthew Simantov

Use the happiness advantage

Looking back to the start of Buffer, one of the things I think may have helped a lot with gaining traction fast was to involve users in the validation process and tell these people how crucial their feedback would be. There are a few different things involved, but overall the best way to describe it was to simply make them happy.

Now as we move forward in a slightly later stage of the startup where we have hundreds of thousands of users instead of just hundreds, and we’re really trying to perfect the product and drive massive growth instead of being in a validation phase, we’ve actually also switched back to a focus on making users happy.

What is the happiness advantage?

In the simplest terms, the happiness advantage I am describing is giving the users a real feeling of surprise and happiness through the product and the service provided. Mark MacLeod, the former CFO of Tungle and Shopify, described it very well in his talk on SaaS Math:

"You really need to shower your users with love. People buy technology from startups for one of two reasons. One, it’s technology that they can’t get anywhere else, or two it’s a level of service and support and love that they can’t get anywhere else. The startups that do really well and take off have showered their users with love. You send a request to support and you hear back right away. They’ve got a very active blog and they build a community. Every time an executive goes to a different city they’re having dinners for the users in that city. They’re building massive loyalty and those users are going out and becoming ambassadors and helping recruit more users."

Why use the happiness advantage?

Of course, giving this much attention to people who use your product does take extra work. It also takes a whole new mindset to genuinely appreciate every contact from users, and to cherish the conversation no matter whether they are delighted, confused or complaining. I truly believe, however, that this extra work is worth it in so many ways. Here are some of the benefits we’ve seen:

Early stage benefits

In the earliest stages, you very likely have a product you’re embarrassed about, but you’ve pushed it live anyway because you know how important it is to learn quickly whether your assumptions are correct.

There are many things against you, but the great thing is that you aren’t flooded with support emails and you don’t have many users. Therefore you can be in touch with all of your users individually, and you can not only learn a massive amount from them about the next steps for the product, but you can have a profound impact on them and make them true ambassadors of your product and brand. They can be your best friends.

What’s even better is that these first few users crave this involvement and know that the product won’t be perfect. As Leo has put it, the first users are a different breed, and you want to know them.

Later stage benefits

As Buffer has grown, we’ve tried many different things to try and continue to improve the rate of our growth. After trying many different things, we’ve eventually come back to using the happiness advantage as our key driver of growth. Marketing directly can’t compare to simply having users who love to tell others about the product. With this approach, we have a multiplication effect.

One of our biggest inspirations for a lot of the ways we approach things is Evernote. I believe they use the happiness advantage to great effect. Here’s how they describe their approach:

"The job of getting someone whos never heard of Evernote to use it for the first time is the job of our existing users. The job of our marketing department is to help our existing users do that job." - Phil Libin, Evernote

How we are doing it at Buffer

In the last few weeks at Buffer, we’ve been working hard on making use of the happiness advantage even at a larger scale now. We get over 100 emails per day, but we’re determined to answer them all swiftly and not only that but solve their problems and make improvements to the product as a result of the conversations we have.

For the last few weeks, we’ve worked hard at this new focus. Leo and Alyssa especially have done a fantastic job. We’ve now managed to achieve 50% of emails being answered within 1 hour, and 77% within 6 hours:

(The chart above is from the Reports feature inside Help Scout. It’s an awesome product and we certainly couldn’t do as good email support without them)

We are also starting to receive a lot of very positive Tweets about the experience from users, such as this great Tweet from Marci:

When I had an issue w/ @bufferapp 2day the co-founder personally helped me solve it!Great support. @tweetdeck…still waiting!

Marci Liroff (@marciliroff) June 7, 2012

It’s Tweets like this which confirm in my mind what Mark MacLeod says about users becoming ambassadors.

On Thursday, Leo, Alyssa and I had a great brainstorm about changes we can make this week to move this to 60% within 1 hour and 90% within 6 hours. We’ve made some adjustments to when we will do support emails and even to our sleeping habits to achieve this. I’m very excited about the impact we can have with this.

It involves the product too

In this article, I’ve tried to stay very focused on how interactions with users can provide massive benefits, and how focusing on making people happy can turn them into ambassadors. One thing that’s definitely important to mention alongside this discussion is that I definitely believe the quality of the product plays a key role too.

Not only is it important to have a great product that people are eager to share with others, it is also vital that when people have interactions with you and you tell them that you’re working on improving something, they need to see those improvements happen. This is what inspires confidence and creates long-lasting loyalty.

For this reason, at Buffer, we have just two focuses: making users happy (wowing them) and building an awesome product (with an aha moment). To ensure these two things are bound together, we all have input into the product development, and we all do support at some point every week.

Are you using the happiness advantage? I’d love to hear from you!

Photo credit: Chapendra

Why you should start marketing early

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about when the right time is to start marketing a startup. In my previous startup, we were hesitant to attempt to get press early. We were always waiting until our product was ‘ready’. I think this is probably quite a common thought process.

With the aim to dispel some of the fears and highlight benefits of marketing early, I want to share some of my reflections on early stage marketing based on what I’m doing with my current startup, Buffer.

Why we hesitate to market at an early stage

As with anything, it is easy to think about reasons not to start marketing a startup.

We think the product isn’t ready for marketing

At an early stage, you know for sure that things such as your signup funnel and onboarding process can be improved a lot. On top of that natural fact, with the lean startup movement so widespread now we’re all encouraged to release our products even earlier. It is easy to think that marketing should come when our product is perfect, but I believe we put ourselves at a disadvantage by waiting.

We think we only get one chance

I think a very valid fear when starting to consider marketing a startup is that you only get one chance with people you reach. The idea that someone will make their final decision based on their first impression is very believable. We’ve found out this is far from the case.

We think we’ll ‘run out’ of people

I’ve found with Buffer that sometimes we reach a kind of plateaux with our rate of signups, and whilst the real solution is to try new ways to market our idea, or to try taking our existing methods to new levels, it is quite easy to feel like we’ve hit some kind of saturation point and won’t be able to reach more people. As you’ll find out below, we now know we’ll never reach a point where we can’t sign up more people.

Why we should market even when it feels too early

I’ve realised over time, that even whilst releasing our products earlier, we should still aim to market our startup very early. I believe that what feels like “too early” is in fact a great time to start marketing. Most people have probably delayed much longer than they should.

The best way to improve the product is to have usage

Matt Mullenweg, the Founder of Wordpress, put it better than I ever will:

Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something youve created until its out there. That means every moment youre working on something without it being in the public its actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.

What we’ve found with Buffer is that by treating the marketing more as a way to trigger conversations than a “broadcast” channel, marketing has been by far the best way to hone our pitch and improve the product too. We had to experiment a lot with our pitch and we had many things to fix in the product, It was much easier to improve quickly due to the fact my co-founder Leo was writing several articles per week about Buffer for a variety of blogs.

People don’t always sign up the first time they hear about your product

Once we started to succeed in getting Buffer featured in quite a number of blogs, we found through the conversations in the comments many people had already come across Buffer. What was happening was that whilst some people would sign up the first time they heard about Buffer, others would wait until they had heard about Buffer a few times.

I now think that quite a large number of people don’t sign up to services the first time they hear about them. For that reason, we should aim to be getting our products mentioned widely and frequently. People have a kind of tipping point where they decide “now I’ll give it a go”. You have to work to get there.

You won’t ‘run out’ of people

I recently realised we will never reach a point where we can’t sign up more people to Buffer. Since we are currently primarily a tool for Twitter users, you just have to consider how fast Twitter is growing to realise we will never have the saturation problem.

To illustrate this further, take a look at the following chart which shows Evernote’s signups stats six months ago:

Six months ago Evernote were signing up around 2000 new users every hour. They’ve also recently announced that it has gone from six million registered users at the time of this chart to over ten million registered users today. I predict Evernote could be signing up around 100,000 new users per day. You only get that kind of growth by continually working at your marketing.

I now believe that when building a startup as much focus should be put on marketing and customer development as on product development.

Are you marketing your startup yet? If you’re not, why are you delaying it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: John Wardell

Treat it as finished

One of the most important differences for me personally in how I’ve run my current startup compared to the last one I founded has been how I treat the product at each stage of the process. With ideas such as the Lean Startup, there is a huge amount of pressure for us to ship very early, and rightly so - the sooner we can validate our assumptions and gain more understanding about how our users react to our product the better. However, quotes such as the following can make us feel like we should believe our product is “unfinished”:

"If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, youve launched too late." - Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn

"Build half a product, not a half-ass product" - from Getting Real by 37signals

The problem with “unfinished”

As much as I love the quotes and believe there is a huge amount of truth in both of them, I feel like these ideas can make us focus on having an “unfinished” product for a long time. The issue I see is that there is no mention of when we should stop being embarrassed by our product, or when we should treat it as a “whole product”.

The problem is that if we have in our minds that our product is “unfinished”, it will directly affect how we communicate our product to potential users or customers as well as press. I’ve realised over time that this can have a huge impact on the initial traction you build, and this is a vital aspect of an early stage startup.

Why might we be afraid of treating it as finished?

If you’ve tried to get a startup off the ground or have tried to follow some of the lean startup principles I am sure you will be able to relate to some of my experiences. When you’re just getting started, you have a big vision which has only partly been translated into product, and even the product you have probably has bugs here and there which you know about. Maybe you’re measuring Dave McClure’s Startup Metrics for Pirates and see there is a strong indication that your retention could be much higher. Perhaps you know people are slipping through your activation funnel. You probably haven’t built in any form of referral into your product. Things could be so much better.

If you let these thoughts take over too much, it will show in the way you talk about your product to people. As soon as that happens I believe you’re putting yourself at a big disadvantage. I did this with the startup I founded previously. We kept telling ourselves “we don’t want to get the big traffic now, because we won’t retain the users we gain” or “if we get users now, we don’t have our referral options in place so the traffic spike will just fall straight away”.

By waiting to have a better product before you tell anyone or try and get any press you’re severely impacting the traction you could build.

Why we should always treat our products as finished

I’ve taken a different approach with my latest startup. Even in the first week it launched I treated it as a finished product. Whilst it didn’t do much and there were a few bugs, I was very happy with it and wanted people to try the product. I even had a way for people to pay for it from day 1. I’ve realised over time that there are many benefits to taking this approach.

If you can shift your thinking and genuinely believe your product is fantastic at every stage, you’ll immediately see the benefits. You will naturally be better at driving that essential early traction. For example, there really is no limit to the amount of blogs you can reach out to. Tap into the long tail of blogs and you have an endless number of places you can try to get your product into. Even the features of your startup in small blogs will build up layer upon layer of traffic to your startup. Believe me, you won’t run out of blogs.

I’m not saying we should deny that our product needs to improve, or that we should not build any additional useful features. The sooner you can get a steady stream of traffic to your startup, the easier it is to continually improve things and get fast feedback on the changes you make. However, we should be communicating in a way which implies that the product is ready for real use and solves a problem well in its current state.

Do you believe your product is finished? If not, do you think you’d benefit from shifting your mindset? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Photo credit: kkirugi