Brian Ma's Blog (@zealoustiger)

Weekly insights from an Entreprenuer: To spend one year as a tiger is better than to live forever as sheep

Traffic Acquisition for engineers and non-marketers

Many engineers (including myself) have never had to think about traffic acquisition or marketing at our previous positions because it was always the thing that someone else did.  However, at a startup, especially when you’re early, you’re going to have to figure out your “traffic acquisition strategy” yourself.  For B2C startups, traffic is the one clear metric that validates whether a startup solves a big enough problem to be a viable business which is why so many people (VCs, press, etc) care so much about it. (and why you should too)

Before getting into the ‘how’, I want to first debunk a few myths about traffic acquisition:

  1. “Build it and they will come” – This is almost always never true.  No matter how great an idea or product is, if no one hears about it, no one will use it.  I’m definitely not trying to say don’t focus 100% on the product, but you really need to think through how to build the product in such a way that people will want to naturally talk about/share it or your core audience will just never grow.
  2. All it takes is Word of Mouth – This is a tricky one.  Many sites have grown to millions of users by WOM (Word of mouth) alone so this is clearly a legit strategy for traffic acquisition right?  Wrong. The thing most people forget in the startup context is at the end of the day, you’re trying to build a business that returns multiples in dollars invested for investors (if you’re funded) and so there is one really important variable that makes this strategy work or not work – the frequency of each WOM event.  I’ll write about this in detail in a future article, but the gist is, if it takes 3-6 months for someone to mention you to another person, it’s just not going to be fast enough to grow your user base to 1 million, let alone the 10’s of millions of users that you need to become a viable consumer business in time for a profitable exit.

With those myths aside, here are the ways you can get traffic.  Any great product needs to kick-ass with at least one of these strategies to take off.  I’m planning to spend the next few weeks going into detail about each one of these, but will lay an overview of the strategies first here.  In order of cost-effectiveness:

1) SEO

Usually this is the strategy that ends up working the best for early bootstrapped startups because it’s the one that’s closest to what an engineer/product person can just hack up without any ‘real’ marketing skills.  What people generally don’t realize about SEO is it’s really just a way to HARVEST demand, not generate it, so you really need to be keen about if your product is solving that need that people already have and are searching for versus a need that they didn’t know they had.  SEO has a relatively long lead time (takes a while to see the ROI), but is a renewable source of traffic that when implemented correctly can really get you good returning traffic, for not a lot of time/dollars invested.

2) Viral loops

First, don’t get viral loops mixed up with viral videos – it’s not that.  A viral loop is a very well thought out, engineered, tested and optimized process of facilitating a user of your site to invite/tell some other user about your site such that the ‘viral coefficient’ ends up being great than 1.  I’m in no way an expert on this topic, but will write a more detailed article about this phenomenon in the weeks to come.  In the meantime, the here’s the best thought leader on this topic that I know: Andrew Chen’s Blog

3) PR/Social

PR is an art.  It is also a significant time and cost investment.  There’s really two key pieces of doing great PR: 1) Understanding the press and building great relationships with them  2) Having something really interesting to say (a story angle).  Lots of engineers when they first see ‘real PR’ in action at a startup are often amazed at how impactful and complex the operation is.  Although an extremely effective strategy, compared to the first two strategies mentioned, PR is relatively more costly and not a renewable or sticky source of traffic.

I lumped Social and community building into this category as well because it is so closely tied to PR.  Social strategies like having a social presence (facebook, twitter, forums, etc) is really about building a community so that users engage with your brand and eventually come to use your site/product.  It is an extremely heavy time commitment – usually better used for building brand value rather than for building traffic.

4) Distribution

There are site’s whose main success can be attributed to some type of distribution deal.  (paypal on ebay comes to mind)  By far the longest lead time of any strategy, but probably the most worthwhile depending on the exact deal.  Obviously the amount of business development investment here is immense (many deals can fall apart overnight), so this is one of those high risk/high rewards type of strategies.

5) Buy it – SEM and paid marketing

This one is super straightforward.  As all marketers know, there are thousands of options out there when it comes to paid marketing – everything from Google Adwords, to Microsoft Adcenter, to industry specific ad networks, to… display ads, video ads, radio ads, mobile ads, preloaded apps, etc, etc.  Even though the possibilities are endless, really you’re looking for one very specific thing there.  Cost of user acquisition <= Life time value of user.  If you end up finding the marketing channel that satisfies that constraint, then you’ve got yourself a renewable traffic source that you should probably dump all your money towards.  :)  Now finding that channel is the hard part – and that’s why marketers get paid the big bucks.

6) Buy it – Acquisition

Very rarely, you’ll come across an opportunity to acquire/merge with another business that has a complementary or competing product with a decent sized user base.  This is so rare in early startups that I’m going to delay writing about it until I get through all the other articles I want to write about, but you can imagine what needs to happen when this situation occurs – lots of due diligence to see whether the products align enough, user base sticky enough, team awesome enough, etc to get to a reasonable price for both parties involved.  It’s a very involved process that unless there’s a super clear win-win situation, I’d advocate focusing on the million other things that matter more in building your early startup.

What do you think?  Did I miss anything?  Could’ve gone into more detail about something?  Let me know in the comments below.

How do you measure success? Part 2

For those that missed it, last week I explored the question of how we think about success and the frameworks we’ve used in terms of how we measure it.  If you didn’t get a chance to read and reflect on that previously, I’d suggest going back to read it here.  It’s going to make this week’s essay make a bit more sense.

How do you measure success in life?

I ended last week posing this question again because I think it’s actually pretty important for us to have a chance to reflect on the question.  Without a doubt, our answer to this question drives everything we do and every decision we make.  How can we really live a fulfilled meaningful life without understanding or at least reflecting on this question?

This week, I’m going to propose an answer with the caveat that this is my personal answer, for me, right now.  I haven’t pondered enough yet about the multitude of answers that one may come up with for this particular question and if your answer differs from mine, I’d encourage you to leave your answer in the comment section below.

Without further ado, I think:

Success is measured by the number of lives you’ve changed.

Let me explain my word choice here a little.  There’s two important things to note:

  • I chose the word “changed” and I want to define it a bit here.  A changed life is one that you’ve touched so deeply that it’s actually changed a person’s values/beliefs – not just behavior.  This is quite subtle.  For example, Facebook and Google have significantly changed the way I find things or communicate with friends.  They’ve certainly changed my life in that it’s made me way more efficient, but those services by themselves have not “changed” my life according to this definition.
  • I purposely included the word “number of” lives.  Some people may disagree arguing that quantity should not have anything to do with it.  Although I do agree that quality (changed lives) is much more important then quantity (number of), it’s important to realize that truly great people are the ones that have believed and stood for something so strongly that their message has reached a critical mass of people.

This answer is in stark contrast to the other answers I provided in Part 1:

  • American Dream: pursuit of money and things
  • Being happy: pursuit of self happiness
  • Impact: pursuit of power

To make this idea more concrete, I’d offer the following examples as people I’d consider to have changed lives:

  • Moms or dads that positively influence their kids and infuse them with the proper values to be successful in life
  • CEOs and business leaders that sacrifice their own position or power to really serve their employees instead of vice versa
  • Average guys that when robbed of wallet at knifepoint, offered coat also (full story here)
  • Local men and women that offer their time mentoring disadvantaged kids or serving the homeless

 

As I write these examples, one thought keeps echoing in my head – Successful people are ones that care deeply about someone other then themselves.  What’s funny is that we’ve all grown up with the appropriate vocabulary already to describe this measurement of success.  And it’s contained one word.  Love.

Could it be as simple as that?  I think so.

I’ve never seen Rent and have no clue what it’s about, but I felt like this song was appropriate:

 

 

How do you measure success? Part 1

Entrepreneur or not, maybe of us have probably asked ourselves the question of what we want to do with our lives. Even if you haven’t, someone else has asked you – your parents, your significant other, your boss, etc.  It’s an important question, because the answer we come up with becomes the overriding factor in how we think, act, spend our time, and ultimately how we know if our life is (or was) “successful”.

Depending on who we are and how we were brought up, there’s generally three common answers to this.  I know I’m successful when:

  1. I’ve gotten a good education, found a good job, married a great wife/husband, have a nice car/house, made $5 million, and raised my kids to do the same.
  2. I’m happy 90% of the time
  3. I’ve made an impact

The American Dream

We’d all be lying to ourselves if #1 wasn’t at least a framework for how we think about success, but I’m hopeful that many of you reading this are well beyond thinking that that is what life is all about – so I’m not gonna comment much about this one and move straight to #2 and #3.

Being Happy

Most people in the world get over #1 because at some point in their life they realize it’s either too shallow, worldly (money can’t buy happiness), or just plain unattainable.  So they point their life compasses to just “be happy”.  There’s nothing wrong with being happy, but I’m going to argue that it’s a horrible measure of success.  Let me offer two ways to think about this one:

  1. A lot of things can bring happiness: computer games, a promotion, a vacation, picking up a great deal, drugs, sex, power, etc.  You name it.  The list goes on and on…
  2. There’s certainly been a lot of times where you weren’t happy, yet you were glad you went through it – conquering a fear, working really hard for something, confronting a relationship in order to mend it, etc.

If the % of time that we are happy is so volatile and things that don’t make us happy are good for us, then certainly optimizing for the % of time that we are happy can’t be a good measure of success right?  To take it one step further, isn’t this metric a bit… selfish?

Making an Impact

The goal of most startups is to make an impact – to reshape how people think or to change the way millions of people behave.  To make things more efficient, more effective, or just more fun.  If you think about it, it’s actually quite amazing how much our lives have changed in a very short amount of time.  When I was in second grade, to get online, you had to wait like 5 minutes for this really loud thing in your computer to use up your phone lines so no one could contact you if there was an emergency, cell phone meant the giant heavy thing that doesn’t fit in your pocket that no one has, cartoons were recorded and played on this funny thing called a VCR, and friends were the people that didn’t write on your walls.

Many of you reading this will likely have way better ‘how my life has been changed by technology’ stories than me, but my point is that a lot of people have worked really hard to make a lot of things that have really impacted our lives for the better.  But is making an impact in this way a good measure of success?

I certainly think we’re getting much closer to with this line of thinking.  Without much further prodding, we may all be happy with this being a yes, but lets consider all those millionaires who’ve “made it” and yet in their dying breath, wished for one thing – more time with loved ones.  Making time for what really mattered in life so there would be no room for regrets.

Posing the Question… again

What then is a good way to measure success?  I have a possible answer that I’ll post in Part 2 of this series, but I’d like to hear your thoughts first.  This question is important enough to deserve at least a couple minutes of our time to reflect on.  Would love to hear from you in the comments below.

Tiger Blog is back.

It’s been 2.5 years since my last post.  Founding Decide.com has been an amazing journey and I thought it was appropriate for me to return once again to Tiger Blog to continue it’s original mission: to share with, dialogue with, and inspire the next generation of aspiring entrepreneurs.  I spent the last couple of days re-reading all my posts from years ago and was extremely shocked by 1) how incredibly noob I was 2) how much I’ve grown in the past few years.

To not completely overwhelm myself, I’ve decided to commit to writing one quality post a week.  I’ve started an outline of topics I’d like to write about in the “Startup Lessons” section of this site.  Topics will include:

  • Philosophies on Life
  • Getting Started with Entrepreneurship
  • Startup Ideas and how to find/scope them
  • Working with a team
  • Raising Capital
  • Product/Market Fit
  • Traffic Acquisition and Marketing
  • Managing Yourself

If these things are interesting to you, please subscribe on the top right of this blog to get updates when new articles get published.  Also please comment in the section below if you’d like me to prioritize certain topics or articles over others or if you’d like me to write on something not already listed.

It’s going to be a fun ride.  I’m excited.

Secrets to Productivity

Life is busy, there is always more work to be done no matter who you are or what you do.  So how do you keep yourself productive and happy?  After more than a year and a half of being out on my own and having to motivate and discipline myself, I’ve realized something very important: I actually do more work than I give myself credit for.

Time flies.  I remember weeks and months when I look back and feel like I’ve accomplished nothing.  You never finish everything that you want to do – and that can get very discouraging very quickly.  Here’s my secret to combating this:  Write everything down.

time-flies-clock-10-11-2006

This is nothing more than the time-tested-teacher-approved todo list.  Here’s what I do differently.  It’s so simple anyone can do it:

  • Write down EVERYTHING – Make a list of all the things you need/want to do.  Not matter how small.  Keep this list in a place that you can reference anytime and all the time.  It doesn’t need to be complicated.  I just use iCal.  Right from the get-go you’ll feel a huge sense of freedom and security since don’t have to keep everything in your head.
  • Make a DIVIDER – This is the core of the secret.  Everyday when you wake up, look at your list.  Now choose the TWO things you really want to accomplish today, put them at the top and draw a line below them.  Don’t be greedy, two is the magic number.  It’s reasonable and achievable.  There usually are good days where you can accomplish more than those two depending on how big those things are, but if you finish two things everyday, you should feel good about yourself.
  • CELEBRATE your successes – we’re so hard on ourselves a lot of times.  Every week take just 30 seconds to look back on the list and review what you’ve done.  Now pick the item that you’re most proud of and take 30 more seconds to sit and embrace that sense of joy for having done what you set out to do.  A great side effect of this is it always helps me answer the “How was your week” question I get every time I see my friends.  Two birds with one stone – awesome.

Hope that helps some of you recapture those precious minutes.  Life is short, make sure you make something out of yours.

The soul of the lazy desires, and gets nothing,
But the desires of the diligent shall be fully satisfied.

Novelty of Twitter: Relationships, social capital, and eavesdropping

It wasn’t so a year ago, but now, with Twitter’s 300%+ growth per month and endorsements by celebrities like Shaq, Oprah, Ellen, and Aston Kutcher, it’s clear that Twitter has become mainstream and important enough to warrant some serious thought.  So what’s so novel about Twitter?

A quick google search on Twitter will find you countless articles on why twitter is effective – ease of use, marketing value, follow/fan structure, real time, recommendations, etc.  Even the big brands – Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, etc are taking a good look at how to leverage and capitalize on what Twitter has built – better recommendation systems?  better real time search?  better marketing presences?  The possibilities are endless.

I won’t regurgitate what any of those articles have said – they’re all good, but I’m going to argue that the most compelling thing about twitter is not real-time, not recommendations, or anything stated previously, but something much much more basic – Relationships and social capital.

twitter-logo

Think about it.  Ever since we were in grade school, we’ve had an innate understanding of a couple things: 1) You need to make friends to play with at recess.  2) You make friends and get to know your friends by the stupid things they say or do  3) If you catch your friends or anyone saying something incredibly stupid, you can use it for many useful things – conversation starters, jokes, or even blackmail.

This is social capital at work.  The more you know about your friend’s likes, dislikes, quirks, pet peeves etc, the more you’re in a position to capitalize on that knowledge.  This is nothing new.  We’ve had the means to learn about our friends before through f2f conversations, IM, status messages, facebook, etc.  What twitter has allowed us to do is expand and scale that beyond the imaginable.  We can now not only talk to our friends, but also listen to our friend’s thoughts (things they may not say to us f2f) as well as expand beyond our friends to people or even brands that we may admire or find intriguing.  This is eavesdropping at it’s best.

Knowing everything there is to know about someone gives you power.  This power is social capital.  And twitter has made this both convenient and painless.  That is the novelty of Twitter.

The Power of Faces

The web has always been social, from the days of its first invention to relay information to today, but what’s really powered the social web isn’t quicker and more convenient tools like IM, Facebook, and Tweets, but faces.  Faces, seemingly trivial, are the fuel to explosive user engagement – why?  Because you only get faces (users only upload their pics) when they genuinely trust your site and when other people see that they’re on a site that other people trust, they also put up their pictures.  It’s a network effect at it’s best.

Take a really simple example.  Look at my news feed on facebook:

Picture 10

Now compare that to my feed on LinkedIn:

LinkedIn Feed

Dramatic difference isn’t it?

Face to face communication has always been the bread and butter of human interactions and with online social media becoming what it is today, it’s coming one step closer to imitating the ‘real world’.  Will technology ever replace f2f communication?  Most likely yes.  Who knows what kind of magic we can invent a decade from now… holograms anyone?  :)

Business People, you don’t need them…

… until you launch.

(Disclaimer: All of this advice is from my personal experience running Eggsprout and probably won’t apply as much to larger VC funded companies)

Pre Launch
If you’re a software startup, which I’m guessing most of you are, you know that before you have a live product what really matters is… getting a live product.  Nothing else matters.  Don’t hire marketing people (you have nothing to market).  Don’t hire business developers (you have no business).  Don’t hire PR managers (you have no news), accountants, lawyers, customer reps, etc.  You get the point.  There may be occasional times when you need to do some legal stuff, some marketing stuff, or other business type things, but it’s so little, you should do it yourself.  You’ll learn something.

Post Launch
This is where it gets interesting – after you have a live product, you can’t go without business people for several reasons:  1) You’ll get feedback from customers  2) Businesses will reach out to you for partnerships  3) You’ll realize you’ve got a lot of things wrong.

#1 and #2 are pretty self-explanatory.  People will now start to talk to you and find you interesting.  You need someone with their head in the space and some business savvy to talk back.  #3 is a little bit less obvious – and I’ve only learned it through living it.  You probably got a lot of things right with your launch, but once you start talking to other people and hear their needs, you’ll realize you’ve done a lot wrong.  And by wrong, I mean, you’ve prioritized something that’s not so useful, or deprioritized something someone really needs, or missed or didn’t see an opportunity.  You’ll have a lot of ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ moments.  Every startup goes through the same things.

handshake

Eggsprout
After we launched Eggsprout, I’ve done no coding and no project management.  Our team has reshifted our responsibilities to allow me more time to be the ‘business person’ – do biz dev, sales, marketing, customer support, investor relations, public relations, etc.  And boy is it important.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve come back with new insight into our customers or opportunities and refocused or reprioritized things for the team.

So for all you techies out there who believe business people are pretty much useless (I used to be one of them) – make sure you have someone or can hire someone that can pick up that role after you have a product.  You don’t want to run a startup that’s isolated from the world and wonder to yourself why your traffic isn’t picking up.  Biz people are important.  :)