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Is Your Product Attention Deficit?

by Vincent Chan on Apr 20, 2010

Recently Josh Kopelman, the founder of Half.com and Managing Director of First Round Capital, argued that simply building a product that people want is not enough to guarantee success. He believes that reaching your targeted customers is the REAL challenge in this information overload era. At his first company, Infonautics, his team failed to get any meaningful traction for a fine product after marketing it for 4 years. No matter what marketing channels they used (e.g. online advertising, direct mail, print advertising, email advertising…etc), people just didn’t want to listen to their sales pitch.

In a very crowded market, it is very easy to fall into the trap of being Yet Another SaaS App or Yet Another iPhone App. So what can we do besides spamming every blog writers and potential customers to get their attention? How can we get the word out quickly and still build a brand?

Since Josh didn’t mention any possible solutions, I did a bit research and found the following tried and tested lessons from other startups.

Be Different. No, Really Different.

According to the ideas of “Purple Cow” by Seth Godin and “Zag” by Marty Neumeier, besides making a remarkable product, we also need radical differentiation. Why? Because everyone pay attention to it, talk about it and tell their friends. Just look at Susan Boyle and Lady Gaga. Are they the best singers in the world? Probably not. But they definitely catch everyone’s attention in a short period of time.

Look at LittleMissMatched, it has grown into a US$35 million business in the past 6 years, just by selling colorful, unmatched items and encouraging children to express their individuality through “creative mismatching”. Do you regret throwing so many unmatched socks away now? 🙂

Like Seth Godin said, only products at the edge are worth talking about right now. Playing it safe will just lead to failure.

Making First Impression Memorable

The lack of human touch on the Internet sometimes make people forget the importance of first impression. Ignoring this is one of the biggest mistakes a startup can make (source: 37signals).

So who are doing great in this area? Everyone knows about Wufoo, Tumblr and Vimeo. How about CD Baby? Never heard of it? Me neither…until I’ve read the story about their famous customer service emails. It’s such an unique experience and their customers love it so much. If you are a returned customer, your order confirmation email will start with, “When the neighborhood kids heard you have come back, all their faces press against the glass…”. It’s just genius! No wonder the founder was able to sell the company for US$22 million two years ago.

Unique Personality

Many startups forget they are in the story telling business. Good storytelling let your customers understand your product’s personality. So build a story that you want your customers to tell others. All of the following sites are related to photo/media sharing but each of them have their own personality:

Flickr = Social, Innovative
Smugmug = Premium, Professional, Serious
Carbonmade = Funny, Simple
deviantART = Community
Photobucket = MySpace
Picasa Web Albums = Free, Fast
Twitpic = Twitter

So what’s the personality of your product? Establishing an unique personality for your brand can make your world/market smaller. If you want your story to appeal to everyone, it will just appeal to no one at last.

37signals: Your product has a voice – and it’s talking to your customers 24 hours a day.

Build Attention into Your Product

Sometimes with a little creativity and work, your product can get the attention your company desperately needs.

For example, there are currently more than 300 time management applications being sold on the market. It’s an extremely crowd space. However, Tony Wright, CEO and founder of Rescuetime.com, a time tracking and management startup, thought of a creative way to let his startup stand out from the competition.

He built buzz for his brand by using the anonymous data collected from its user base. From the data, he can share surprising real news like:

  • The average IM user shifts to an IM window 77 times per day (avg of 11.5 times per hour or once every 5.2 minutes).
  • Average number of unique web sites visited per day is 40.
  • 26% of time was spent inside a browser.
  • 61% of time was spent on internet dependent stuff.

Media love these kinds of interesting numbers. His company and product turn out showing up in New York Times, BBC, BusinessWeek, PCWorld and other major media outlets. Eventually, RescueTime closed their Series A round of funding for $900k in September 2008. Not bad for a two and a half years old startup!

Taking FULL Advantage of Your Users (aka: word of mouth)

When it comes down to it, it is very difficult to attract continuous attention unless you do it through your own customers. If you could convince thousands of passionate users to promote your products on their blogs and social network profiles, it will be the most scalable and cost effective way to get your customer’s attention.

However, this approach has not been without its complications. It is difficult because marketing through social media is a process, not an event (source: Seth Godin). Companies are good at events (e.g. putting up a trade show booth, working on freelance projects, open a Facebook page or Twitter profile) because it’s easier to manage.

On the other hand, social media marketing is a process. So is dating, losing weight, and building a company or brand. Events are for short term attention and processes build long term results.

Want a good role model? Take a look at Kogi BBQ which are two little korean food trucks serving tacos throughout Los Angeles. They drive around the city all day long and tweet their locations. So if you want to try their tasty food, you have to follow their twitter account. And then you will get a message like this:

LUNCH RUUUN! 12-3PM: *ROJA@Brentwood (Lot Behind Bldg, 12301 Wilshire Blvd); *VERDE@Market Lofts (645 W. 9th)

Brilliant!!! This new food truck is such a big hit that they even get praise from the famous venture capitalist, Fred Wilson. They not only have a twitter account but also a blog, Flickr account and Facebook Page. Most importantly, they are all ACTIVELY managed by this little company.

This is what social media is all about. It’s not about the medium or tool. It’s the conversation you generated with potential customers inside those media. Result: people often need to wait more than an hour for one of their tacos 🙂

Social media marketing can be both powerful and free for getting attention but you just have to earn it.

As you can tell, there is no one solution or one path that can guarantee your customers’ attention. Yet finding a way to continuously gain attention is a critical job that a startup needs to do to succeed.

Without attention, no one will know about how cool your product is. If it doesn’t connect with users, why bother building it in the first place?

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7 Ways to Get Great Referrals

by Bob Reiss on Feb 6, 2010

This guest post was written by Bob Reiss (@bobsreiss), the author of Bootstrapping 101. Reiss is an Army veteran and graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Business School. He has been involved in 16 startups and is a three-time INC 500 winner. He has been the subject of two Harvard case studies and is a frequent speaker at University Entrepreneurial classes.

This article is based on the contents of the book Bootstrapping 101.

The most effective advertising a company can get is more difficult to achieve but much more effective and lasting than traditional media advertising. It is word of mouth advertising and it’s earned rather than purchased. It is your customers’ opinion of your product, which can fluctuate from very vocal with praise to very vocal with derision.

Word of mouth is available to start-ups as well as large corporations. It can be achieved with minimal cash outlays by just doing things right. Word of mouth can be earned quickly or over a long period of time, depending on the product or service you are selling, and sometimes it’s instantaneous. After people view a new movie, they talk about what they’ve just seen. It could be “What a great picture” or “That was a stiff.” Descriptive word spreads quickly, and new viewers of that movie result if those who saw and liked it tell their friends.

On the other hand, word of mouth can take a long time to develop for some products; you’ll probably put a few thousand miles on a car before recommending it to others, or that new diet might not budge your scale for several weeks before finally proving all the work was worth it.

Here are seven factors to consider for creating good word of mouth for your company and its products:

  1. Quality: From your first day of business, all company employees must be aware of the importance of maintaining quality, and systems must be put in place to monitor it. Any products or components outsourced must be rigorously inspected to see that your standards are met.

  2. Service: Regardless of whether your product is a high or low service one, customers’ problems must be addressed and solved with a minimum of effort on the customer’s part and in a timely fashion.

  3. Instructions: Many products need to be assembled or explained. The instructions accompanying the product must be clear and concise. Many companies fail miserably in this area and devote little time and effort to it. Poor instructions can turn off consumers to all your future products and create bad word of mouth. Even if your product doesn’t require assembly, customers will appreciate a thorough explanation of its uses and functions.

  4. Communications: All contact with your customers and their inquiries must be courteous and knowledgeable. This starts with the telephone. Have a human answer your phones, not a computer like most large companies do. This simple move will start you on the path to good word of mouth with your customers.

    Your receptionist, who I call “The Director of First Impressions,” is a more important hire than most employers acknowledge. You want an upbeat, intelligent, pleasant person in that slot.

    Don’t forget that managers’ interactions with employees, suppliers and stakeholders affects the word of mouth of your product and brand, also.

  5. Value: The value of the products you deliver to your customers is paramount if you want them to return and spread the good word about you. The value must meet or exceed their expectations. A good maxim to make sure all employees understand is under promise and over deliver.

  6. High integrity: You want all your stakeholders and customers to trust you. This trust must be earned continuously. It takes time to develop, but can be lost in an instant. Customer and client complaints must be addressed and solved quickly. Problems cannot be ducked, delayed, or shifted. Mistakes should be admitted and corrected. People want to do business with and work for trustworthy companies.

  7. Be a good citizen: There is no doubt that a company’s prime responsibility is to make money. So do not be embarrassed to earn a profit. However, I believe the company has a responsibility to take actions to enhance the quality of life of its community and employees. This good citizen appellation should not be just empty promises for show. If your intentions are pure, it is also good for your business, your family, and your sleep.

(This article first appeared at www.entrepreneur.com – 2/4/10)

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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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10+ Sites to Help you Manage beyond Web 2.0

by Vincent Chan on Jul 23, 2009


Just read an excellent article on McKinsey Quarterly called, “Managing beyond Web 2.0” by Donna Hoffman from the University of California, Riverside.

According to Donna, today’s customers have become both producers and consumers of their own content and services. People are more interested in reading other consumers’ experiences than the advertising messages promoted by your marketers.

While many giant corporations choose to ignore this phenomenon, smaller companies should learn how to take advantage of it. It is true that these Web 2.0 “conversations” are full of noise and difficult to track. Yet if you can become good at managing and monitoring these new consumers’ online behavior, it will be your new competitive advantage.

In order to do that, Professor Hoffman suggested companies to use the LEAD (listen, experiment, apply, develop) model, a management strategy developed by the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing for Web 2.0 and beyond.

Let’s look at what online applications can better prepare your companies to utilize this effective model.

Listen (Monitor)

Consider the tweet below as an example:


If a Sprint customer service representative saw this message and helped this customer to solve his problem, this could be a strong boost to their PR. Consequently, monitoring and analyzing customers’ conversation can be a early-warning system for your company.

If you choose to ignore customers’ opinions these days, it is not unusual to see negative comments about your company all over Twitter, YouTube, Blog posts, and even mainstream media.

This reminds me the latest saga between TechCrunch and Twitter. I wonder how much the TechCrunch’s brand was hurt by this unfortunate event.

To avoid this happen to your company, below are some useful tools for monitoring social media:

1) Viralheat (link)

Position: Affordable social media measurement product
Platforms: Nearly 30 video sites, the web and Twitter
Features: Real-time stream of topic mentions between blogs and websites. Delivering analytics that help you optimize your company’s outreach and engagement on social media platforms. Daily email alerts…etc.
Clients: Include Coca-Cola, Tivo, U.S. State Department, Weber Shandwick, Nokia, Hilton Hotels, HP, and Microsoft.
Cost: Starting at $9.99 per month

2) Peashoot (link)

Position: Quick & easy way to manage social media campaigns. Clean and simple user interface.
Platforms: Twitter only
Features: Audience Builder automatically follows people on Twitter who are relevant to you or your company. Measure ROI – tracking how much of your website’s sales are generated from you posting links on Twitter. Set & track campaign’s goals. URL Shortening. Real-time Click Map. Google Analytics Integration…etc.
Clients: Include Tokyo Art Beat and 24seven.
Cost: Starting at $17 per month

3) Scout Labs (link)

Position: Designed for Agencies. Finding signals in the noise of social media to help teams build better products and stronger customer relationships.
Platforms: Blogs, forums, social networks, image-sharing sites, video-sharing sites and Twitter
Features: Persistent searches for your monitored keywords. A collaborative space for you and your extended team (unlimted users). Monitor important Tweets, blogs, photos and videos all in one place. Sentiment analysis – assessing the tone of a post. Get support from a live human via email or phone…etc.
Clients: Include Netflix, razorfish, Zippo, loopt, StubHub, eBay, AKQA…etc
Cost: Starting at $99 per month

4) Other Alternatives

For larger corporations, you can consider Omniture and Buddy Media as well. If you only want to find out what people are saying on Facebook only, try Facebook Lexicon. Looking for a simple & free monitoring service in the beginning? Google Alerts would be your best choice.


After getting all this information, you have to run some tests to find out the meaning behind it. Since there are not any best practices in the market yet, the only way to do this is through good old-fashioned “trial and error“. However, Professor Hoffman also reminded us that:

Unless you have Web 2.0 experts on your team, stick with small experiments, since big ones can fail badly.

The goal of experiment is to engage with your newly empowered customers. If you see a blog about your company, make friend with the blogger. When someone talks about your brand on Twitter, follow that user letting him/her know that your company is on Twitter, too. If you think your targeted audience is on Facebook, go make a Facebook Page to start the conversation with your fans.

To achieve greater customer awareness and brand engagement, you should create your company’s own social channels to foster communication between you and the users. Below are a few site helping you to do so:

1) WordPress (link)

Why: Creating a company’s blog has become the most basic and essential way to communicate with your customers nowadays and WordPress is the best blogging tool.
Benefits: Highest quality. Huge community around this product. Large amount of widgets and add-ons. Integrated stats system. The world’s best comment and trackback spam technology.
Clients: CNN’s Political Ticker; Dow Jones’ All Things D; Time Inc’s The Page; People Magazine’s Style Watch; and many more.
Cost: Free

2) Ning (link)

Why: Fast and easy way to create your own social network, a 100% company-controlled community.
Benefits: Allow you to create features such as photos, videos, chat, discussions, and groups; Customized visual design and themes…etc.
Clients: CNN’s Political Ticker; Dow Jones’ All Things D; Time Inc’s The Page; People Magazine’s Style Watch; and many more.
Cost: Free (not include Premium Support)

3) UserVoice (link)

Why: Capturing feedback and ideas across your whole customer base with ease. Help you turn customer feedback into action.
Benefits: Seamless integration with your brand experience, with the popular “feedback” button on the side and single sign-on system. Analytic tools. Private forum…etc.
Clients: MySpace, Sitepoint, Sun Microsystems, zynga, cafepress…etc.
Cost: Starting at $19 per month with Free basic account.

4) Widgetbox (link)

Why: Turn your content into widgets. Help you reach new users across the web.
Benefits: Support for rich media. Feed-based content makes it easy for your users to stay up to date. Simple to build. Work on multiple platforms…etc.
Clients: Perez Hilton, PopSugar, CNN, Dunkin Donuts…etc.
Cost: Starting at $3.99 per month with Free basic account.

5) Other Alternatives

If your company is selling physical products, make sure you have listed your products on social-shopping sites, such as Polyvore, Kaboodle, Stylehive, StyleFeeder and ThisNext. These are good places to find out users’ comments about your products as well. Looking for more users’ feedback? Try blippr.


After you have learned the users’ online behavior, you need to optimize your web site and content so that they can be shared on every social media sites. Also, you need to have analytical tools to track the results of your experiments.

You may want to try some of the following tools:

1) ShareThis (link)

Why: Simply click the ShareThis button for instant sharing on every social media sites.
Benefits: Work on multiple platforms. Strong reporting and analytics. Find out what people are sharing and how. Learn more about your traffic and where your content is going…etc.
Cost: Free

2) Google Website Optimizer (link)

Why: Test and optimize site content and design. Quickly and easily increase revenue and ROI.
Benefits: A/B split & multivariable testing. Intuitive graphical reporting interface. Required minimal IT support, giving you greater control, flexibility, and speed. Increase your site effectiveness and visitor satisfaction…etc.
Cost: Free

3) Mixpanel (link)

Why: Improve company by tracking how users engage with your website in real-time
Benefits: Real-time analytics, Funnel analytics, Visitor retention, Custom event tracking, API to get data out…etc.
Cost: Volume pricing with Free low volume account.

4) Other Alternatives

If your content is good and relevant to the users, you should submit your content to social news sites, such as Digg, Stumble Upon, Reddit, and Mixx. If you want a simple shorten URL tracking tool, try Su.pr and Bit.ly.


Today’s web strategy is much more than a simple company’s web site. There are so many tools helping you to integrate social media into your marketing campaign. Google paid ads may be good for ROI; however, they can’t create greater brand engagement.

Advertising was a one-way communication. In Web 2.0 era, advertising should be interactive marketing programs generating conversation with customers.

If you don’t have social media experts in your team, it is hard to create this kind of marketing campaign yourself. Below companies may be able to help you:

1) Buddy Media – App-vertisements (link)

Why: Develop cross-platform, engaging and viral social application to promote your brand.
Benefits: Drive unprecedented loyalty and exposure of your brand…etc.
Clients: FedEx, InStyle, HBO, Busch, intel, SeaWorld…etc.

2) Medialets (link)

Why: Specialized in mobile ads. Take advantage of the iPhone’s accelerometer to add motion to advertising.
Benefits: Bring together voice, interactivity, video, and text in your ads. Typical iPhone users are social influencers apt to share experiences with peers. They are highly engaged trendsetters as well.
Clients: Levi’s Dockers…etc.

3) Other Successful Examples

Hang in there Jack – brilliant social media marketing campaign using Twitter, TV, Facebook, Blog, YouTube, Widgets…etc. In addition, viral videos, such as Evian Roller Babies, could be very effective, too 🙂


Like Professor Hoffman said:

Bottom line: by focusing on the fundamental aspects of the consumers’ online behavior— not just current best practices—companies will be better prepared when Web 2.0+ morphs into Web 3.0 and beyond.

If you want to learn more about latest management strategies on the web, I strongly encourage you to follow Professor Hoffman and @MckQuarterly on Twitter.

Photo source: caffeina @Flickr

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