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Ask Startups: Is Employee Retention Overrated?

by Vincent Chan on Oct 30, 2009


During Startup School 2009, Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, and Tony Hsieh, chief executive of Zappos, talked about two contradicted theories on employee retention and hiring:

Facebook aims to recruit talented, entrepreneurial hackers who may not want to stay for long, while Zappos wants to hire the best people to fit its culture and try to keep them as long as possible.

Obviously, these two fast growing internet startups are highly successful. So is it possible that these very different approaches can actually achieve the same goal? Is employee retention really that important to startups?

In my opinion, Facebook’s current method can only produce strong near-term outcome. After all, technology is one of the most talent-intensive fields. If your employees think that moving out is more attractive than moving up inside the company, your corporate culture probably is not designed for a long-lasting company.

If you expect many of your best talents are going to leave the company in 3 to 4 years, will you still provide any career development planning for them? It is not only bad for the company’s effectiveness but also creates extremely expensive costs.

To reinforce the idea that employee retention is essential to create a great workplace, let’s look at one more internet company which is using Zappos’ method – Netflix.

In the famous 128-page presentation about their corporate culture, Netflix talks about something interesting related to “loyalty”:

People who have been stars for us, and hit a bad patch, get a near term pass because we think they are likely to become stars for us again. We want the same: if Netflix hits a temporary bad patch, we want people to stick with us.

And of course, this doesn’t apply to every case:

Unlimited loyalty to a shrinking firm, or to an ineffective employee, is not what we are about.

As you can tell, Netflix truly values their employees and they are trying to build a long term relationship together. Given Netflix’s successes as a fairly large company, it would seem that their strategy is working quite well. They are creating a high performance culture and attracting stunning employees.

Besides, Netflix expects their employees to seek what is best for the company, rather than best for themselves. Just like any sport teams, some players have to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the team. A coach will never ask a player to come and learn all the skills, and feel equally happy when the player wins a championship for another team after 3 or 4 years later. Great teams will try their best to keep all their best talents. I believe startups should do the same.

If an extremely talented hacker didn’t want to stay in your company for long, I would argue that if you should hire him/her in the first place. Ultimately, ability and loyalty of an employee should be equally important to every business.

What is your view on employee retention? Which way do you prefer? Facebook’s or Zappos’? And how do you view your employees? Are they long-term or short-term assets? Let us know in the comment section. Your feedback is priceless to us. Thanks.

Photo sources: Mathieu Thouvenin @Flickr, mathoov @Flickr

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Special Offers to Key Customers

by Bob Reiss on Oct 13, 2009

bootstrapping101This guest post was written by Bob Reiss (@bobsreiss), the author of Bootstrapping 101. Bob has been involved in 16 start-up companies. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Business School. His company R&R/Valdawn was named to the INC 500 list of America’s fastest growing companies three years in a row. Two of his companies have been the subjects of Harvard Business School cases. He is a frequent speaker to Entrepreneurship classes at many of the major business schools. He has written an earlier book on Entrepreneurship called Low Risk High Reward.

This is one chapter in Bootstrapping 101. For the introduction and table of contents, please click here.

Competition for customers in most industries is extremely intense. This is exacerbated if the customer is a large one and your product is not particularly unique or patent protected. Your customers are also in a high pitched battle with their competitors. This can be seen in your everyday life. Look at the competition in cars, retail stores, food stores, homes, computers, music, etc., for your dollar. This extends into the industrial sector and personal services.

Here are some non-cash ideas to help  you better compete.


If you have any type of new or unique product and no money to promote it, think of offering a key/large customer an exclusive. The exclusive can be for 30 days to a year with a performance clause for a time specified renewal. When we were in the game business, we would introduce a new game to the leading department store in each major city. We sold them on an exclusive basis for 30 to 60 days in return for their running an ad for our product at their expense. Your exclusive could be narrowed down to a particular channel. For instance, I  know of companies that gave Amazon.com an exclusive for all internet selling in return for them giving special promotional pushes for the product. Examples are running 2-day sales or pop-up ads when customers look at a related product (i.e., a wine game when a customer searches for one of their 9,000 wine books).

You could simply give an exclusive to a large retailer for buying it and putting it in all their stores: Radio Shack with 6,000 plus stores, Costco with 400+ stores, Wal-Mart with 3,000+ stores, etc. Exclusives can get you immediate orders, free ads, better position, earlier pay terms, earlier orders, etc. The result is more credibility, more cash, and brand building at no cost.

Better Service

Contrary to popular opinion, most purchasing is not based on the lowest price. Service is a key component in many buying decisions and can take many forms: shorter turnaround in shipping than competitors, customer training on your product features and how to use or sell it, friendly and knowledgeable people manning your phones, customer friendly website, dealing with problems quickly and fairly, admitting, correcting, and paying for mistakes.

One of the key factors of our success in the watch business was our service and special offers. The business was mature, highly competitive, and a me-too industry. We entered the industry with a unique novelty approach that featured artwork on the face and a rotating disk with art as the second hand. For instance, our most successful watch was a cute cat with a rotating mouse going around the dial that the cat always just missed catching. These watches were easy for competitors to copy. However, we copyrighted each design and consistently earned money from infringers. We offered two elements that propelled our success.

  1. Special exclusive designs for a low minimum of 200 watches with no premium cost to the buyer. This was in contrast to large watch manufacturers who asked for a minimum of 10,000 watches. We accomplished our low minimum by working closely with a small Chinese factory, by using standardized parts, and by our willingness to break even on these orders. We knew the profit would come on the re-orders. Our low minimum allowed us to break into the world of Disney, selling to their retail stores, theme parks, and catalog division. All three wanted exclusive merchandise that could only be bought through them. Our small minimums allowed them to test all their ideas without paying a price for mistakes. We were rewarded with large quantity orders for the watches that tested well. We also rewarded small customers who supported our line with periodic exclusive designs. The result was loyalty and increased business.
  2. Quick turnaround. This was and is increasingly a key component for small business success and survival. It reduces your cash commitment to inventory and likewise for your customer. It also reduces risk. You need to give a lot of attention and thought on how to realize quick turnaround. We analyzed every component used in a watch and the delivery or manufacturing time of each. We discovered the bottleneck in time replenishment was the unique printed dial on each watch. Every other component was easily available and in stock from many suppliers in China. Fortunately for us, the printed dial was a very low cost component. So we took chances and built up inventories of dials on watches we projected would sell well. The dials cost $.05 each; but in our pricing, we figured it at a $ .20 cost. This gave us the cushion for discarding unused dials.

    We shipped all our watches from China to a public warehouse in Long Island without boxes, which were printed in the U.S. Air freight is a widely competitive business, particularly between UPS and FedEx. Therefore, we eventually flew watches in for $.17 each. We also discovered that the processing of shipments through customs varied greatly by which city they entered. The net result was that we could get watch reorders within two weeks of the order while our competitors’ lead time was generally two months. This was a tremendous plus for us with our customers and reduced our cash needs.

Special Terms

Cash strapped businesses with high profit margins should seriously consider additional discounts for immediate or quick payment.

Toy manufacturers usually ship most of their products in the fall. To plan production, particularly with overseas manufacturing, they need orders early in the year. So they successfully offer a special early buy discount to their customers.

Many companies offer volume discounts or rebates. They spell out the discount earned at various volume levels. These discounts can be achieved as you reach the level or can be rebated at the end of the year. This encourages your customers to place more of their business with you rather than sharing with other suppliers.

Private Label

Many products lend themselves to be made under the customer’s label rather than your brand. The disadvantage to you is you don’t build your brand, and margins are usually lower. The advantages are you don’t need to maintain back up inventory, your order lead times are better, and you should get your payments quicker.

Your entire business should always be customer oriented. Special offers are particularly effective in building your relationship with a customer and does not drain your cash.

This is one chapter in Bootstrapping 101. For the introduction and table of contents, please click here.

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Startup to IPO: Why Few Companies Make the Leap and What We Can Learn from Them (Part 4: Differentiation & Marketing)

by Vincent Chan on Oct 7, 2009


At a time that many people building safe businesses and not enough startups trying to change the world, are we, as entrepreneurs, still supposed to dream big? Should we build a company that will go public someday? Or should an exciting startup define success on a $170 million exits?

While I am happy for Aaron Patzer, the founder of Mint.com, the world has just lost the Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Scott Cook of this generation because of this acquisition. Many young entrepreneurs have to find another role models to look up to now.

Growing a company from a startup to IPO sometimes requires more than ability and knowledge. It also takes a strong will for an entrepreneur to want to build a lasting company. I am sure there are entrepreneurs somewhere building the next big things right now. And I hope this “Startup to IPO” blog post series (Part 1, 2, 3, 4) can inspire them to keep fighting for their dreams.

In this last post, we will look at how these four elite companies (Vistaprint, Rackspace, OpenTable, Salesforce.com) differentiate and market themselves when they just got started.

Pursue Customers that Competitors Hate

In the printing industry, companies usually hate to work with small business customers because of the low printing volume and low profit margin. They rather go after big companies which spend large amounts of money on printing. Yet VistaPrint had a different strategy. Their founder, Robert Keane, once said:

Our experience gave us confidence that there was a market with micro businesses. Other companies did not want to pursue them. Everyone else thought it was a horrible market. We happened to be in the right spot at the right time.

In order to achieve this goal, they have developed technology to automate desktop publishing and manufacturing so that they can sell products at low quantities and superior prices. However, there were another problem. Another reason their competitors hated the micro businesses market was because these customers are not easy to get to. VistaPrint solved the problem through direct marketing but in an unusual way. They gave their products away for free to generate buzz. According to Robert,

That became a runaway success. At the time, full-color business cards were selling online for $85 and $200-$300 at traditional printers. We gave them away free with a $5 shipping and handling fee. That offer was so successful in getting people to try us that it became an acquisition engine that drove our business. Our business model got to scale very quickly.

This free sample offer also built up the credibility of the company. So the customers will buy other things when they come back for the second time.

Do your company and competitors ignore a portion of potential customers now? In fact, even President Obama targeted a tribe (young people, minorities and the poor) that were usually ignored by traditional candidates during his presidential campaign. If you want to be successful in a crowded market, you have to be creative and do something very different from your competitors. Love the customers your competitors hate. They may just be the ones who help your company grow to the next level.

Must-Have Business

During tough times, if your company was a must-have business for your customers, I am sure your company will do pretty well. OpenTable happens to be that kind of business. Like AdWords and regular affiliate programs, OpenTable’s customers only have to pay for results providing an extraordinary lead-generation marketing tools for restaurants. Like one of their customers said:

OpenTable.com has given us new ways to understand who our guests are, and what they want. Their system is helping us utilize the Internet to communicate more easily with consumers, and makes it easier to cater to the desires of our regulars…52% of the reservations that OpenTable.com delivers to us are first-time visitors to the restaurant, which means that OpenTable.com is bringing us significant numbers of new customers, as well as giving our regulars an easy and efficient way to visit us.”

Their system revolutionized the way that restaurants are managed and marketed, and add depth to the way that they welcome and communicate with their guests. OpenTable allows their customers to see who is eating at the restaurant at any given moment. So the restaurants can treat some guests like regulars. Oftentimes, their reservation system is indispensable to the diner, too. Like a restaurant owner said:

Next to the name of one regular, who has a habit of bringing in women he is not married to, is an instruction to make sure the man’s wife has not booked a separate table for the same day…Of another, who takes many of his first dates to Town Hall, the instructions read, “Do not treat like a regular!”

The bottom line: is your product a pain killer (got to have it) or a Vitamin (nice to have)? If you could create values to your customers during downturn, your company will be in a great position to continue to outpace the competition after the bad times.

Specialize in Just One Thing

When asked the key to success for Rackspace to become the fastest-growing managed hosting company, Pat Condon, the cofounder, believes their customers have chosen Rackspace because of their sharp focus.

We specialize in just one thing – managed hosting. We’re focused exclusively on managed hosting with Fanatical Support, and as a result we’re very good at it. Think about it this way: If you needed to have brain surgery, what kind of doctor would you choose? A general practitioner or a brain surgeon? I’d know I’d choose a brain surgeon – a brain specialist.

Moreover, combining this focus with their Fanatical Support, they have created a brand with tremendous value. Whenever potential customers hear about Rackspace, they will have a positive impression of the company. In fact, 60% of their new business comes from referral showing their existing customers are fully satisfied with their services.

For Rackspace, some of their most effective marketing actually came from serving their customers fanatically every day. It’s no surprise that their customer turnover rate is one of the lowest in their industry. Their customers not only stay with Rackspace but also purchase more from them as well. According to Pat,

Our customer base grows organically every month, month-over-month. What this means is that even if we didn’t sell anything to new customers, our existing customer base would keep purchasing additional servers from us. This has caused the Rackspace business to grow at a fairly rapid pace and it is something of which we’re extremely proud.

Rackspace has proven that the most effective marketing strategy sometimes just doesn’t cost you that much. How do your customers feel about your company? Do they have a positive impression of your business now? Do they recommend your services to others? If you want to find out these answers, creating a customer development survey probably can help you get started.

Strong Relationship with the Media

Salesforce.com, on the other hand, uses a totally different approach in marketing. They do marketing on the cheap through public relations and creating buzz. The company has a reputation of being able to work the media very well, especially for the founder, Marc Benioff. He is very outspoken and not afraid to take on their giant competitors like Microsoft, SAP and Oracle. He once said:

Relationships with the media are really important. The media has a more important voice today than it has ever had. We don’t advertise. We only have one marketing vehicle, which is editorial, and our ability to get our message out and communicate it effectively.

Besides disparaging large competitors as dinosaurs, 20th century fossils and monopolists, Salesforce.com is very good at guerrilla marketing as well. They once hired actors to stage mock protest rallies outside a competitor’s conferences, which brought tremendous attention to their company. The reason of doing that? Like Marc said:

In both good times and bad, people are always eager to hear about challenges to the status quo.

After all, does your company have a position in the market? Are you trying to be all things to all people? Find the customers who share your vision and stop blindly follow your competitors in the industry.


After this post series, we have heard consistently that their leaders have defined success on a very big scale. And it seems they are all using similar but actually different approaches to achieve their success. So stop looking for the silver bullet now. There are million ways to scale your business rapidly. Find your dream and fight for it till the end (hopefully).

I would like to end this series with a quote by another highly successfully entrepreneur, Glenn Kelman, the founder of Plumtree and Redfin:

If first-timers don’t create public companies, nobody will.

Telling young entrepreneurs that they’re not ready to be a Jedi yet, just because they’re young” is simply wrong. Fight on to victory!

Photo source: nickwheeleroz @Flickr

Part 1: Leadership & Vision
Part 2: Obstacles
Part 3: Growth
Part 4: Differentiation & Marketing

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Orchestrating the Obvious: Scaling your Business via Metaphors

by Vincent Chan on Oct 2, 2009

The Mind Reader“, Steve McCallion from Ziba Design, recently wrote a series of great posts about Consumer Experience on Fast Company Magazine.

Steve argues that entrepreneurs are always looking for a silver bullet or killer app but forget that orchestration can also create significant value to their customers. According to Steve:

In an orchestration it’s the collection of things that create value, not necessarily the things themselves. It’s not the individual notes in the song, but the collection of those notes. When creating meaningful experiences, it is often this orchestration that is the primary source of value creation.

By innovating the user experience using a “metaphor”, a collection of products and services together can help your business win in a competitive market. Steve believes:

A metaphor creates value by transferring associations from a previous experience to a new one. It functions as shorthand to help people understand the offering and what it means in their lives.

So how can you use “metaphor” as the silver bullet or competitive advantage for your company?

Steve gaves us some good examples in the offline world. These companies redefined their respective categories by leveraging the power of metaphor to create a meaningful experience for their customers.

Business Metaphor
Apple Retail Store A Learning Center
Whole Foods An Outdoor Bazaar
REI An Outdoor Industry Expo

A lot of the products selling in these companies are obvious and shared by other competitors (may be except for Apple). However, orchestrating the obvious around a metaphor helped them become winners in their industries.

Can we do the same on the web? I think so. Below are a few examples of online businesses which understand the power of metaphor.

Business Metaphor
Etsy A Friendly Neighborhood Store
Foodzie A Farmers’ Market
ModCloth A Thrift Store
Polyvore A Scrapbook

Do you know any other web businesses using the power of metaphor? Let me know in the comment area. Thanks!

I find this idea very similar to the concept of “Those little ladders in your head” in the classic marketing book – “Positioning” by Al Ries and Jack Trout.

The authors believe our mind will reject new idea that is new and different. It accepts only that new information which matches its prior knowledge or experience. To put it another way, if your product is truly new, you should look into the mind of the potential customers to see what mental images already exist and then select one you can tie your product/company into. Using a metaphor is a good way to do so.

Did you pay too much attention to find a silver bullet or create a killer app for your company? Have you make your business meaningful to your potential customers using the power of metaphor? Never ignore the obvious.

Photo source: steve xavier @Flickr

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