Category Archives: Startups

Psychological triggers — five ways to think about building awareness

Much has been written about how psychology can be used to influence a customer’s behavior, and there are a huge number of theories and treatises on this subject. So I confess here to simplistically distilling my thoughts down the five ways that I use to start the conversation with companies looking to broaden awareness of their product and ramp up growth.

(Interestingly, these may not apply with the early adopter customers. Early adopters get a thrill from being the first to discover something, to try it out and share results. The earlier and the buggier the better. Early adopters want to be ‘in’ on the story before anyone else.)


Do I recognise ‘me’ in you. If you’re not speaking to a customer knowing what’s important to them, they won’t trust you. But if you’re speaking their language, and if you’re reflecting what they find difficult, confusing, and problematic (and, how you can solve that problem), then they will feel an affinity with you.

Affinity can be created right at the opening of the door. On the first place a consumer goes to find out about you (usually your website), do you reflect their most pressing problem clearly? Do you explain the solution you are offering?


When someone is familiar, it makes them feel comfortable. Figure out how to have your consumers see you regularly. For example, re-targeting brand ads, done at the right cadence, is one tactic here. Those consumers may not click those ads, but it has been shown they can offer brand lift in a longer sales cycle.


Who do your consumers trust? Who can talk about you and your product with authority. Everyone would want their brilliantly conceived new product to be blessed by Richard Branson (as if…), or gets the nod on Dragon’s Den. But let’s be more realistic here. If your B2B service, for example, appears on a Gartner Magic Quadrant, that gives your service a seal of authoritative approval that is a little more achievable.


This is something Slack has done brilliantly. How many have felt that they really had to get onto Slack, because everyone else is? Putting aside for the moment that it’s a product that really only works well if all your colleagues are on it too, it’s a perfect example of the bandwagon effect. Slack fueled the bandwagon effect with their user-onboardng process. to get people to invite their colleagues.


Finally, and this can be hard, there’s value in the scarcity effect. Some of us remember what it was like to be given the ‘golden ticket’ of a Gmail account. (Yes, it really did work like that.) More recently, it was an invitation to Ello. (Which I got, but sadly I haven’t used.) There may be aspects of a product that works for scarcity — an upgrade, new features, extra flare. Or geographical scarcity, special colours — the list goes on. If someone has it, and it’s scarce, others will want it.

Other resources

A few interesting, and I hope useful, resources that go into some detail about the psychological choices that go into the design of offers, landing pages, customer-facing messages:

Airbnb’s growth hacking story presents some insight into Airbnb’s growth hacking experiences that I didn’t know before. Interesting article that can be read here.

Airbnb, like many successful ‘out of nowhere’ startups began its life by solving a problem that the founders had themselves in 2007 — they wanted to rent out their own San Francisco apartment. They soon found out that they were not just solving their own problem, they were solving a problem that people all over the world had too — a solution that is now worth $10B.

Here are the things that stood out for me about what Airbnb did:

Continue reading Airbnb’s growth hacking story

It’s an exciting time to be a graduate… Steve Blank’s commencement speech

When I graduated college, I don’t even recall there was a commencement speech. Presumably there was. But I don’t recall a single nanosecond of it. Nothing was said to kick me into the world, all fired up and ready to change it when I got there. So, not having anything better planned and no better offers, I left London for America, and ended up in Silicon Valley in the mid 1980s, working on software for the newly launched Apple Macintosh.

Lucky me.

Steve Blank’s commencement speech to ESADE speaks to global business leaders of tomorrow, but could just as well be spoken to anyone starting out in the world today.  To those who don’t have the wherewithal, or the courage (yet) to start their own company. Or to those who are joining companies that are started by those who do have that wherewithal and courage. Or to those who are working inside the stodgy organizations of yesterday and wondering why they feel so unempowered. Or even to those who just don’t know where they are going next.

The message is the same: be an optimist. There’s opportunity absolutely everywhere.

When the taxicab or hotel business lobbyists run to the politicians to get laws passed that will save their business, you know Uber and AirBNB are onto something. It’s sad when a local bookstore closes down, but exciting when you can borrow any book at any time from your library on your Kindle, because Mr Bezos figured out something before anyone else.

These technology innovations are changing the rules of businesses that have for decades enjoyed market dominance. And there are many more begging for change. Because as consumers, we are becoming more demanding, and we won’t settle for the status quo any more. And we’re not afraid of change.

I asked someone yesterday “when was the last time you browsed live TV channels?” His response? “Probably about five years ago.” Same for me — apart from occasional, miserable experiments with “I’m bored, what’s on?…” that last maybe 10 minutes before the TV goes off and Amazon or Netflix goes on. Because live TV pisses me off.  The absolute unadulterated rubbish, interspersed by absolutely ghastly advertisements, on 500 channels that I don’t want to ever see. Ever. Ever. No love lost for me there.

The last time I went into the AT&T store to sort out my complicated mobile phone bill for a family of five, I came out thinking that I was being shafted at every turn. Every possible dime was being squeezed out of me for things I don’t think I need or know about. No love lost for me there either.

After both experiences, I know that the moment I can switch to a new, disruptive technology to replace my TV and my mobile phone, I will. Cable, AT&T and Comcast? You’re next.

It’s a truly exciting time to be a newly minted graduate.

Lucky you.

Should you start a business with a friend? Or a family member?

This is a tough one, and one I’ve felt personally. Multiple times.  Both as an observer. And as a startup founder. Today’s Pando “Startups anonymous” tells a sad story. 

But here’s the problem: in the Valley, friends are co-workers. Co-workers are friends. We meet after work. We talk about work. All the time. Work is our passion. It consumes us. And we gravitate towards partners and friends who feel the same way. It’s what makes the Valley so incredibly powerful. Many of today’s tech startups get kicked off in Dorm Rooms. Don’t tell me those startup founders aren’t friends.

It’s often simply unrealistic to do it any other way.

It’s hard to start a company with someone you don’t know well, and trust. Those who qualify are usually your friends/partners/family.  So either you go it alone, or you do it with a friend, life partner, and/or family member. Or sometimes someone who is all three!

So given that reality, what is a startup founder to do?

Bring in a great team as quickly as possible. Get a great board of advisors who are mature, experienced, and not close friends, family members or life partners. Of anyone. Share the responsibility beyond the friend/partner/family member. Find time to keep the relationship solid outside work. Openly discuss difficulties the moment they appear. Be honest. Be human. Be kind. It can be done.

Vision, mission, mantra and more

 “It is awfully important to know what is, and what is not, your business.” —Gertrude Stein

One of the most important guiding principles in building a cohesive corporate plan is to align every member of the team behind the company’s vision and mission, and give everyone the tools to tell the story.

The exercise of building a vision and mission statement is not a waste of time, but can be done in a way that wastes time. It needs to be a lively, energetic, and fun process that’s well managed and respects people’s time.

Everyone should watch Guy Kawasaki’s excellent instructions how on how to build a “Mantra.”

Watch the “Golden Circle” TED talk by Simon Sinek — isn’t the center the vision of the company? I think so. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. People buy from you because they believe what you believe. Mr Sinek says we have to communicate from the inside out.

Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action

Here’s a worksheet I’ve developed that guides discussions.

What is a vision statement?

  • Defines high level goals, and answers the question “Why are you here?”
  • States what you envision for your business, and shows you where you want to go

What is a mission statement?

  • The concise statement of the business strategy from a customer’s perspective
  • States the present, leading to the future (vision) and answers: “What do we do?” “How do we do it” and, “For whom do we do it?”
  • The mission statement may change, but it should always tie back to the ’s vision

Where do people “find” a company’s vision and mission?

They’re typically on the “About” page, if at all. Not every makes them easily apparent. A vision/mission is not a tagline. It’s also unlikely to appear word-for-word on the Home page. It should provide a prism through which view the strategy for your business and make decisions for our roadmap. It should advise you what to do as well as NOT do!

Example vision and mission statements

Apple Vision: “Apple is committed to bringing the best personal computing experience to students, educators, creative professionals and consumers around the world through its innovative hardware, software and Internet offerings.”

Apple Mission: “Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.”

Facebook Vision: To make the world more open and connected.

How do you know if you’ve got it right?

The vision is:

  • Aligned with your inner instincts and beliefs in what you are trying to achieve
  • Easy for employees and partners to understand and rally around — unambiguous
  • Goes beyond the immediate future — think 5–10 years!
  • Fundamentally inspiring, memorable and hopeful, but nonetheless realistic

The mission is:

  • Clear enough to help direct daily strategic and tactical decisions
  • Shows who your stakeholders are, our responsibility towards those stakeholders, and the business you’re in

The public statement making it understandable to everyone

When someone asks “What does your company do?” the answer should be understandable, with more detail providing more clarity. Be able to answer:

  • What do we do?
  • How do we do it?
  • Who do we do it for?

Guess the company — can you tell who these companies are? (Answers at the end)

Company A

  • Vision — To become the worldwide leader in retailing
  • Mission — To help people save money so they can live better

Company B

  • Vision — To design and create in this decade the new global network, processes, and service platforms that maximize automation allowing for a reallocation of human resources to more complex and productive work
  • Mission — To exploit technical innovations for the benefit of ??? and its customers by implementing next-generation technologies and network advancements in ???’s services and operations

Company C

  • Vision — Advance technology that touches peoples lives
  • Mission — To enable people and businesses to communicate with each other

Company D

  • Vision — To allow people to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them
  • Mission — ? mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.


A – Walmart

B – AT&T

C – Verizon

D – Facebook

A Kickass Personal Mantra

Sir Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group

“To have fun in [my] journey through life and learn from [my] mistakes.”

Startup postmortems — they’re all the rage right now

I have been involved in many startups. The same problems come up time and again. But it seems that teams often just want to go out and learn lessons the hard way, just because they believe that’s the only way to learn.

Here are a couple of recent postmortems that are worth reading, with a summary of key learnings. As I find more, I’m going to add them…

Flud — social newsreader (just for the record, what a depressing name! Flud sounds like Dud. But that’s apparently not why they failed. Or so they say. However, the name does offer opportunities for cheap cracks in headlines… Flud’s a Dud comes to mind. But I digress.)

Here’s what the co-founder Bobby Ghoshal says he learned in this Techcrunch article:

  • Don’t chase the press; let them come to you.
    In Flud’s case, press caused numbers of users that Ghoshal the product wasn’t ready for.My take: this is true for a consumer product that needs huge numbers; less true for a B2B product which may look for smaller, higher quality numbers. A better way to grow numbers in a less spiky manner — word of mouth.The important thing to remember here is timing: do not, under any circumstances, start seeking press approval until you are ready to take it. PR is not for the faint-hearted. It can go spectacularly wrong.  Timing is everything.
  • Don’t worry about competitors if you truly believe your vision is superior, stay calm.
    Ghosal warns that competitors get inside your head and freak you out.My take: but don’t let that allow you not to look and learn; figure out what you can learn from competitors and then add your own spin. Take their best ideas, and leapfrog them.
  • Test, test, and test again.My take: what can I say? I can’t count the number of times I ask “what’s the test plan here, guys?” and I’m met with the answer “the programmer has tested it.”

    Don’t forget this: programmer/developers/engineers should never, ever be on the front lines to test their own code. They are the worst people do be asked to do that. Don’t miss the step of quality testing! Bugs stick to me like burs on a dog. Probably because I do things that the engineers never think of.

  • Stress test. Load test.My take: again, never miss this step. A stress/load test is a special form of testing, so get an expert. If you don’t know how to do it, find someone who does and get them to help — even if it’s an afternoon’s chalk talk. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
  • Know your customers and what they want.My take: but careful not to let your customers design your product. Guy Kawasaki wisely advised me once, years and years ago, “if you let customers design your product, we’d never have got Macintosh from DOS.” I know you’ll probably not old enough to remember what that means, but it’s true.

    Your customers can guide you, inspire you, help your vision … but you need to know where you’re going next. Your customers tell you your next two or three features; they aren’t there to give you even your 6-month vision, let alone your 1-year or 2-year vision.

  • Growth or engagement? Growth wins.My take: this is true; you need to to focus on bringing in the users.

    However, if every user visits once and never comes back, that’s a lousy user. Your product has to be basically useful and sticky, and has to have hooks of some sort that encourage users to come back again.