I’m told Amazon writes the press release for a product before beginning development.
I don’t know exactly how the process works, but this has been sloshing around in my head mixed in with a bunch of other tidbits. Like the trick of running ads that lead to a signup page before you build anything to see how many people are interested. Or the notion that a crowdfunding campaign validates demand before you go build it (although it requires a lot more investment).
Recently Apptentive asked me about marketing techniques for apps. The first thing that came to mind is that if you already have the app, and are just now starting to think about marketing, you’re probably hosed. Great apps, services, websites, and the like are built with the marketing in mind from day one. How will the world think about this? What’s the pitch? Why will people share? How are they going to hear about it?
Put all this together and I have a modest proposal: if you are creating a new startup, you should figure out your marketing first. Create your Kickstarter video (the nickel version, shot with dummy props on your phone and crudely edited together) first and see how many views you can get for it on Youtube. Mock up the app store page and A/B test it against screenshots of competitors using a survey. Write the press release, post it online, and see how many people would buy. Run some ads and see how they convert. Write up a blog post with the idea and see if it goes viral.
Once you find something that resonates, you have a north star. It’s not just that you’ve figured out how to market your product, it’s that you now know what’s most important about your product. What you’ve created, the thing that generated excitement – that’s what you need to bring to life. Staring at a blank screen it can be hard to know where to start – now you know. Features that excited people get written. Those that aren’t part of your pitch get cut.
I haven’t really done this before – when I figure out what I’m doing next I plan to give it a try. If you have, or if you do, please let me know how it works out!
First things first: the last of the Robot Turtles Kickstarter production run isstill available on Amazon for $34.95 plus $9.95 US shipping, with international shipping available. If you order today, Dec 19, you should get it in time for Christmas!
In early September, I launched a Kickstarter campaign for Robot Turtles – a board game that teaches programming to kids ages 3-8. It became the bestselling boardgame in Kickstarter history, and while there were a lot of moving pieces (and a lot of luck) involved in making that happen, I think the video was a big part of the project’s success.
How big? Well, it’s hard to say because Kickstarter’s analytics are limited. But 72,181 people played the video and 13,765 pledged. Assuming everyone who pledged played the video (which is bogus but will have to suffice), that’s an implied conversion rate of about 20%. Which is crazy high.
I’ll tell you the whole story of the video, but here’s the TL;DR.
1) You get to convey at most two ideas: one that you say, and one that you show.
2) It’s worth the money to hire a pro, but…
3) Let reality shine through.
On the one hand, I knew that the hook of the game was the uniqueness and incongruity of the idea: a *board* game that teaches *programming* to *preschoolers*. Teaching programming with a board game? Teaching programming to preschoolers? Both of those things sound unusual, and putting them together was could be a great conceptual hook.
On the other hand, I actually didn’t invent the game to teach my kids programming. I invented it because I thought it would be fun to play with them. I hate Candyland and much of the other random nonsense that passes for kids’ games. I wanted to create some awesome family moments and put them in a box.
This was a problem. Marketing and complexity are a bad combination.
But I decided against my own better judgment to split the difference, and this is what I did. I decided to make the talk track of the video about programming. Explain the game, how it works, and talk about sharing programming with kids.
But all the visuals were about one clear message: Happy Family. Game equals Happy Family. Over and over and over again. (My only regret was that my wife’s school schedule didn’t fit the shooting schedule, so it was mostly dan + kids – but needless to say, there would be no Robot Turtles without my amazing and supportive better half!)
One day I realized that the summer was almost over and if I didn’t launch my campaign soon, I would miss Christmas. In a bit of a panic I dashed over to my friends at Bootstrapper Studios, a video production house with several $100k+ kickstarters to its name. They dropped everything for two hours and we whiteboarded a plan.
At that point I realized I had two problems.
1) I didn’t have any pictures or video of anyone besides my kids playing the game.
2) That was because nobody besides my kids had ever played the game.
In a bit of a hazy panic I went to a Geekwire networking event that happened to be scheduled for that evening. I dashed around for about forty five minutes, begging startuppers with kids to bring their offspring to my house the next day. I worked feverishly late in to the night to build a backup prototype out of equal parts inkjet paper, spray glue, and desperation. There were now two copies of Robot Turtles in existence.
The next day I filled the house with borrowed cameras and lights. I ambitiously (ok, stupidly) decided it would be a combination playtest/video shoot, so I handed the befuddled parents a hastily-jotted instruction sheet, promised the kids a “really awesome snack” once they finished, and stood back to watch them figure it out. During the 30 minutes between visitors I rewrote rules, smoothed wrinkled cards, and chugged black coffee.
By the end of the day it was clear I was on to something. The parents and kids all seemed to love it. I hastily put the house back together before my own kids got home.
The rest of the experience was quick but measured. I shot some “practice” footage of my kids explaining the game, then an hour of them explaining it over and over again. As it turned out the practice footage (complete with road noise) was awesome and the scripted stuff was tossed. Bootstrapper came over and shot some footage of us playing together. I used Audiosocket.com to find the amazing track “Happy Ever After” by Niklas Aman and licensed it appropriately.
The worst part was the “ask”, where I implore people to back the project. I wrote it out, hated it, rewrote it 20 times. Then sat down with Bootstrapper to shoot it and realized I needed to memorize it. 20 takes later it still sucked, and the version you see near the end is the two least-bad ones stuck together. I still wince when I watch it.
They started sending cuts over and we started refining: should we use the girls waving or the boys cheering? The explanation with the blurry video or the one with the noisy audio? Can you make that cut less obvious? Is my nose really that big?
The answers all sorted themselves out and before I knew it, September had arrived and the video went up.
Robot Turtles has been an amazing ride. From a goofy idea in the shower, to some clipart, to a print on demand game for my family… to a $250,000 wild ride that doesn’t seem to be done yet! As of this writing I’ve just crossed the halfway point (12 days down, 11 to go) and wanted to catch my breath and write up some observations while my memory’s still fresh.
In the months leading up to this, I was fortunate to pick the brains of some of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns around. Most of the advice here is poorly comprehended and mutilated facsimiles of the wisdom from
…and lots of other smart people I’m forgetting and will be very embarrassed about omitting.
Here are some of the things I learned you should think about.
I made Robot Turtles for my family, but it wasn’t long after we started playing with it that I realized the idea was catchy. I tried to describe the salient points as briefly as possible, and came up with this: Read the rest of this entry »
Would you believe that I got so excited about the project that I forgot to post it to my own blog?!
I launched a game on Kickstarter called Robot Turtles. You can see the video on the right hand side of my blog, or view it here on Kickstarter. I’m humbled and amazed by the response – as of now, six days in, it’s at $188,000, or about seven times what I’d hoped to raise.
I want to get this in the hands of as many eager grownups as I can, because having played it, it’s just an amazing way to interact with kids. So if you’re thinking of something for a son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild, or kid next door – for a present, for Christmas, or just because they’re cool – I would appreciate it if you’d give it a look!
And please share the Kickstarter page on your favorite social networks – right now, more people have found it by email and social network referrals than anything else. Orders go in to the printer Sept 27 and then it goes out of print, so I hope you have time to get a copy!
And for those readers who are already backers: thank you, thank you, thank you for making this project a success!
Those of you who caught my talk at Ignite 21 already know that I’m a thoughtful coffee convert, going from 1-2 cups per week to 2-3 cups per day when I discovered that I was a fast caffeine metabolizer by having my DNA sequenced, leading me to buy a bunch of bluetooth peripherals and breathe while sleeping again. (What can I say; the talk covered a lot of ground).
I’ll post the talk in a week or two when it’s available online, but after extolling the virtues of my coffee consumption mechanism of choice over and over again, it’s time to put it on line.
For most people, coffee is a lifelong habit. Suggesting improvements is like optimizations to their shampooing technique… it’s just not really a subject of life that’s much open to change.
But I was going at it from a fresh slate. I always liked coffee, but had never mustered up the necessary commitment to get a really good addiction going. As a result, I drank it when it was around, and didn’t when it wasn’t.
One of the Google Kirkland coffee bars (yeah, ‘one of‘) features this piece of caffeinated elegance. I became a regular, and it’s output was sublime. And holy henna, was it ever strong. 12 ounces and I was ready to go. A second cup and I was a useless, quivering blob for the bulk of the afternoon – only made that mistake once.
The wonderful nature of this thing is due to two factors. First, it turns out that you’re supposed to dilute the output of this amazing contraption 3:1 or more with water, but nobody told the barristas. (If you still work there, please don’t!) Drinking cold-brew coffee without diluting it first is AWESOME, more or less akin to putting four shots of espresso on ice in intensity (ask me how I know). Second, because cold brew has less acidity – you get more of the acid out of the beans with hot water (Wikipedia says it so it must be true) – so it’s far, far smoother than the aforementioned espresso on the rocks.
And as a bonus, you can bulk-brew it and it keeps wonderfully for more than a week.
I began low-tech. I got a giant mason jar, added 12 oz coffee and 7 cups of water, shook, and left it over night. The next morning was tasty but gritty. Filtering it to drinkability took ages: I would sieve it, pour it through a paper cone with the help of one of these, and then do it again because the first time left a weird scum. The first filtering took forever because the paper clogged up, so I had to tend it constantly, pouring more in. But it tasted pretty good.
My next effort was a Bodum Iced Coffee Maker, which has been helpfully discontinued. It’s basically a french press with a larger capacity and a cap so you can leave it in the fridge all night without putting the stink of the coffee bean your kids yogurt. I tracked one down, ordered it… and the seal had cracked. (Discontinued – probably sat in storage forever).
Not to be dissuaded, I tried a regular coffee press. Eh. Still had that scum on top, so I still had to do a pass with the filter. Not as bad, but still not coffee nirvana. Around this time I tweeted:
If you’ve spent more than a few seconds investigating cold brew coffee methods, you’ve discovered the Toddy monstrosity.
It’s uuuugly. And cheap, at only $35. The instructions looked like voodoo, involving ‘layers of coffee’. But the reviews… well, I suppose I should give it a shot, right?
…and I’m a convert.
It takes me about 5 minutes to prep enough coffee for the entire week. The liquid ichor that drips forth is as good as anything I’ve had, perhaps just shy of the BBP. It’s $35. I hide it when it’s not in use. It’s ugly, goofily designed (the handle slides off; there’s no lid), but damn it WORKS. And it works fast. And it works deliciously. It’s so good that when I want hot coffee, I zap a mug full of cold brew, because it’s better than making “fresh” with my now-defunct french press.
A quick note about beans before I wrap this up: garbage in, garbage out. I tried a dozen blends with multiple different brewing systems, and the bad ones turned in to terrible iced coffee, the good ones turned in to brown magic. Middle Fork Roasters is outrageously delicious, locally produced (if you’re in Seattle), and the best I’ve found. Any decent bean will do nicely.
So, then, here then is my recommendations: Get the cheapest solution (Toddy) or the most expensive (Hama). Do not lollygag about in the middle. Hama for looks and the last 5% of excellence; Toddy to get your joe on with a minimum of fuss.
And if you’ve got a long night ahead with little to do of consequence… then, and only then, try a second glass.
Two years ago, Google bought my startup, Sparkbuy. Ever since I’ve been leading a delightful double life as a PM on the Google Ads team and the CEO of Google Comparison Inc, a wholly owned subsidiary of Google. It’s been an amazing run – we’ve been working on bringing transparency to products like credit cards, new vehicles, and auto insurance. I’ve worked with engineers and PMs who are among the best in the business.
And all the rumors are true: Google is truly a magical place to be. Actually having healthy food available all the time, for free – both in the literal and cognitive load sense – is amazing. The people are terrific. Everyone, at every level in the organization, cares deeply about the company and it’s mission. For each person outside the organization pointing their finger and yelling at something Google’s done, there is guaranteed to be at least one Googler, standing up in a company all-hands, quietly and respectfully giving the executive team hell about the same thing.
I’ve worked at Microsoft, and I’ve worked at Realnetworks, and I have a lot of friends who’ve worked elsewhere in the tech industry. And I’d humbly submit that if you’re working at a BigCo and you haven’t at least applied to Google to check it out, your career strategy is nonoptimal. In fact, if this describes you, ping me on Twitter – I’d be happy to discuss 1:1 in a bit more detail and, if it’s the right fit, refer you in.
When I sold Sparkbuy, I took an advance from the very nice people at O’Reilly Publishing to write a book about startup CEOs. It’s been two years and they have been very patient while I’ve finished the first draft and not much else. (Fortunately, the spectacular Matt Blumberg has written his own book on the subject which should tide you over). But it’s time to get that done. I also have another, non-software product that… well, more on that shortly when it’s ready to share.
So the fantastic folks at Google have agreed to let me take a leave of absence for a few months to scratch some of these itches.
I’m delighted to announce that I’m advising Highway One, a new SF-based incubator for hardware startups.
Why does the world need another incubator? Because hardware’s hard, and hardware’s different. And Highway One is magical.
It’s not an accelerator for hardware startups, it’s a hardware accelerator. They are all about getting your designs rolling off assembly lines, fast.
I believe in this because HW1 is a part of PCH, one of the largest and most reputable manufacturing companies in the world. They manufacture for Fortune 500 companies, and are rumored to be the only non-Chinese company manufacturing for Apple. As a startup you can’t get access to these folks’ manufacturing expertise or factories for love or money.
Except through this. If you work with HW1, you’ll not only work with PCH’s top engineering and management talent, you’ll actually travel to Shenzhen with them to go learn how to manufacture stuff, in situ, in volume, with the pros.
On top of all that, they will hook you up with a cash investment of $20k for 3%-6%.
Oh, and the best bit? Brady Forrest is going to be running the thing.
You can apply now at http://f6s.com/highway1. And if you happen to be (or can get to) Seattle this Wednesday, ping me on Twitter – there’s a private event with Brady that will give you the inside track with a few seats left.
If you’re building hardware, you really ought to be a part of this.
This article first ran as a guest post in Geekwire.
For a long time I’ve felt like I must be either the first or last entrepreneur to discover the ABC series Shark Tank. For the uninitiated, it’s pure startup voyeurism: a company stands in front of a panel of 5 plutocrats, pitches, and either gets an investment or gets laughed off the stage. It wasn’t until Jeremy Liew’s great review of the latest episode that I realized I wasn’t alone.
But watching Shark Tank, I find myself grimacing repeatedly. It’s like nobody pitching has ever read a half-decent book on negotiation. I keep seeing the same mistakes, over and over again. Here are the three worst.
By far the most embarrassing mistake any of these poor companies make is actually failing to negotiate. They show up and make their pitch. They get asked some questions. Suddenly, the sharks are piling on about what’s wrong with the deal. The entrepreneur is visibly flustered.
Suddenly, one of the sharks floats an offer. Maybe a second one joins in.
You can see the look of gratitude and relief on the entrepreneurs face. How gracious of them to offer to invest in their flawed child! How generous of them to help.
Pshaw. None of these folks are chumps or charity cases. Do you know why they trash your business before making an offer? So you’ll take the offer. It’s not one of the nicest negotiation techniques, but it’s plenty effective.
Here’s the simple rule. If someone makes you an offer, it’s because they’re interested. If they’re interested, you should negotiate. Not accept; negotiate.
Of course, there are right ways to do this and wrong ways to do this. You’ve seen plenty of entrepreneurs on the show (and in life) start grandstanding about company value, only to have the Shark shake their head and declare themself “Out”. Don’t do that. Don’t be ridiculous.
Instead, make a reasonable and polite counteroffer. “I’m really excited by the prospect of working with you. How about 20%?” Even if they appear to be tottering on the edge of leaving the deal (and remember that they have every interest in making you think they’re about to bail for maximum negotiating leverage), a polite response like that won’t hurt anything. The worst you’ll get is a “no”, and now they know that you’re not a total pushover.
And of course, if you’re a hot item – if more than one shark is interested – make them bid! Get them each to give you numbers, and don’t let them collude to drive your price down. With multiple offers, use a line like this. ”Each of you would be a huge asset here, but my goal here is one fully-committed partner and the best deal for my shareholders.”
Know what you want
You’re going to come in with something clean and simple, like “$50,000 for 10% of the company”. They’re going to counter (because unlike the contestants, the Sharks always negotiate) with something like “$100,000 for 8% and a 5% royalty”.
When this happens, people get this funny look on their face, like Mr. Wonderful just sprouted wings and started handing out gumdrops. There’s no excuse for that. The Sharks have a limited array of tricks up their sleeve, and you should have considered all of them before setting foot in that room. Here’s the exhaustive list (please comment if I’ve missed one):
Stake size: The most obvious. They’ll offer the same money in exchange for more of the company. This is easy to plan for by deciding ahead of time on the worst case dilution you would accept.
Controlling interest: If the ownership is 50%, then no major decisions can happen without both you and the Sharks agreeing. If it’s 51%, then they can fire you the next day and liquidate the company if they think that’s a good idea. And don’t fool yourself – if things are going sideways, they probably will. Decide what you can live with. If it’s 51%, remember the words of Mr. Wonderful: “I can fix you, but you probably wouldn’t like how I would do it.”
Number of Sharks: Most entrepreneurs get giddy over multiple investors (or, as they’re known in the startup parlance, “party rounds“). Truth is, if you have more than one or two Sharks in the deal, you’re getting a lousy deal. First, because each of them has a comparatively small stake, and therefore a small incentive to help. Second, because if you’re in a bind, each of them reasonably expect one of the others to help out (the Bystander Effect). Third, because the alternative to being in the same deal is offering competing deals – since that didn’t happen, you almost certainly took it in the shorts on valuation. There’s only one situation where multiple sharks in the offer is good: when they are getting a 50% or greater interest. That’s because while one person with 51% runs the company, two people who split the round are each just 25.5% owners. If I was giving up 51% of my company, I’d want that stake split between as many Sharks as I could get – since my vote, plus any one of theirs, would constitute a majority.
A royalty: You should know ahead of time what kind of royalty your business can support, and realize that a never-ending royalty seriously limits the long-term viability of your company by permanently lowering your margins. And realize that once a shark gets their money back, they have a much smaller incentive to see you succeed – people are more motivated by fear of loss than opportunity for gain.
Help: Some of the sharks have specific assets that may be useful. Mark’s got stadiums and movie theaters, Damon’s got retail distribution, and so on. Many of the deals are done because the entrepreneurs want access to those networks. Do your homework before you get on so you know what help you can realistically expect from who.
Contingencies: This is the one that kills me. If they say “I will invest contingent on X”, that’s the same as saying “I won’t invest, but might change my mind if you do X”. A typical structure is that they will invest contingent on a valuable introduction to Their Friend Abe going well. Well, real investors introduce their companies to Abe, and also Belinda, and Charlie, and Dolores, and a whole alphabet of partners because they’re committed. Contingencies are just shopping around, saying “I’ll see what my friend thinks”. Avoid offers with contingencies if you have any other options.
Don’t ever leave the room
“I’ll offer 25%.”
“I’ll offer 20%!”
“I’ll do it for just 18%!!!!… wait, could you leave the room for a minute?”
Pop quiz: when you return, your options will be:
a) 25%, 20%, and 18% because they just wanted some private time to talk about how much they liked you
b) 15%, 13%, and 11% because they’ve been negotiating against each other while you were gone
c) Just 18%, because the other two dropped out
d) 30%, but good news! We’ll all be investing together to help you.
Don’t let Sharks collude. There’s a reason the federal government outlaws business collusion: it drives the prices in the wrong direction. If the Sharks try any of the “please step out for a moment” shenanigans, just let them know you’re on to their tricks. Explain that you want one committed partner who doesn’t need to seek the approval of others, and if you walk out the doors you’re not coming back. They only do the “step outside” when they really want a deal, so all the leverage here is in your court.
Of course, the most egregious error here is people who actually volunteer to leave the room. Don’t call your spouse. Don’t call your mentor. Don’t call Steve Wozniak. And for heavens’ sake, don’t go outside to talk to your cofounder who’s standing right there. Do your homework up front, know where everyone’s bottom line is, and trust your cofounder to implement the strategy you discussed without going outside and whinging about it first. Then make the deal, or walk out with your head held high.
Life is Shark Tank
I love this show because it’s the only reality TV I’ve ever seen that feels real. I’ve had friends sell companies for the original offering price. I’ve stared stupidly at an angel investor, finding myself totally thrown by the suggestion that we add a board member. And I’ve knowingly pitched a room full of angel investors, where the actual printed agenda calls for me to walk out and sit quietly in the hallway where they collude on price.
If you haven’t had the pleasure, pull up a comfy chair and watch a few episodes. Just remember when you watch Shark Tank: your role models aren’t the entrepreneurs. They’re the Sharks.
Dream of striking Kickstarter gold, but lack inspiration? I’m here to help. Don’t forget to hook me up with a few freebies when you get your assembly lines rolling.
Lightweight, distinctive looking, with a built in holder for a standard pen. Bonus points for features like:
Water resistant paper
A cover that can be personalized (laser blasted, embossed, available in different colors)
Pages that can be customized (ruled, patent notebook, page numbers, or a mix)
Cheap enough I can order a dozen of them
Some sort of variety pack that clocks in at <$50 that would make a nice gift
Lots of notebooks out there, but it’s cool to have something different from the pack for a product that you carry with you all the time. And what are notebooks for, if not expressing yourself?
Tablet-Powered Laser Show
Closed loop galvos and ILDA format playback from a microSD card. Translation: draw pretty pictures on your phone/tablet/computer, and it will draw them on the wall. Bonus features:
Single color version under $100
Maybe a cheap version with open-loop scanners for beam patterns and lissajous patterns
Companion, open-source apps to let you animate – either design a show, or draw on a tablet and have the show display your drawing in realtime
External, standard battery connector so you can run it for hours on a cheap hobby LiPo
There are a few outfits out of China starting to play in this space, but I’m pretty sure their software is going to be hopeless. It’s an area where some Kickstarter innovation could really transform a project.
Combination Airboat, Car, Snowmobile, and Airplane
Someone on RC Groups invented a completely amazing combination airboat, car, snowmobile, and airplane. Air Hogs did a very respectable toy version called the Storm Launcher (now discontinued) that was a blast to drive and terrifying to fly. Then they basically disappeared. I have one. I built another one. They’re amazing. Most fun RC gadget I’ve ever played with. And they’d make for a great Kickstarter video. Bonus features:
Gyro stabilization (because it now costs less than $20, and these things are buggers in the air without a little help)
Two motors, so you can steer with differential thrust – more effective than rudders for turns when it’s driving on land
Waterproof container for the electronics
Ridiculously overpowered for driving on the grass, taking off from still water, carrying cameras, etc
Watch this horribly transcoded commercial for the original Storm Launcher and I bet you’d be backing this bad boy at the $99 level.
Fashionable button up shirts that you can wash
Kickstarter’s got some sweet looking shirts. But none of them include care instructions. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that they’re not machine wash- and dry-able.
All the department stores carry these 50/50 cotton/rayon shirts that are basically unwrinkleable. The fabric’s kind of chinzy, but you can bang them through the washer/dryer cycle over and over again, wad them up in your suitcase, and they still work. There’s probably nicer versions of these fabrics.
I see no shortage of fine Kickstarter apparel humanely plucked from organic plants and mammals of all sorts, but I want something that I can put in the dryer after my children regurgitate hummus on it. That still looks good (after I get the hummus out). Bonus features:
Super duper custom fit
Buckets of color options
I got nothing else on this one. It’s a shirt.
Please, hook me up, Kickstarter. I’ll buy the 5-pack.
A way to replace all my keys with one sleek thingamabob
Thanks to Elan Lee for pointing out Keyport, who did exactly the thing I described below. I will be acquiring one shortly.
I have a bunch of keys, on a keyring. This is absolutely unacceptable.
How about something that replicates the business part of the keys – the bit with the bumps on it – and lets them slide safely in to a sleek, common head unit? You could use a service like Shloosl (not a typo) to fabricate the keys so you don’t need to part with the originals to make the production work.
Imagine something like the picture on the right, but with all of your key bumpybits inside instead of just one. You might be out of luck with your fancypants car keys, but your door, mailbox, and whatnot? Put them all away tidily!