5 questions startups should consider before making their first marketing hire

“Who should my first marketing hire be?”

This is (by far) the most common question I’ve received since starting as Fuel’s CMO, and for good reason. Your first marketer will have an outsized impact on team dynamics as well as the overall strategic direction of the brand, product and company.

The reality is that anyone who excels across all marketing functions is a unicorn and nearly impossible to find.

The nature of the marketing function has expanded significantly over the past two decades. So much so that when founders ask this question, it immediately prompts multiple new ones: Should I hire a brand or growth marketer? An offline or an online marketer? A scientific or a creative marketer?

Once upon a time, the number of marketing channels was fairly limited, which meant the function itself fit into a neater, tighter box. The number of ways to reach customers has since grown exponentially, as has the scope of the marketing role. Today’s startups require at least four broad functions under the umbrella of “marketing,” each with its own array of subfunctions.

Here’s a sample of the marketing functions at a typical early-stage startup:

Brand marketing: Brand strategy, positioning, naming, messaging, visual identity, experiential, events, community.

Product marketing: UX copy, website, email marketing, customer research and segmentation, pricing.

Communications: PR and media relations, content marketing, social media, thought leadership, influencer.

Growth marketing: Direct response paid acquisition, funnel optimization, retention, lifecycle, engagement, reporting and attribution, word of mouth, referral, SEO, partnerships.


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As you can imagine, that’s a lot for one person to manage, let alone be an expert in. What’s more, the skill set and experience required to excel in growth marketing is quite different from the skill set required to succeed in brand marketing. The reality is that anyone who excels across all marketing functions is a unicorn and nearly impossible to find.

So who do you hire first?

Unless you’re lucky enough to nab that unicorn, your first hire should be a generalist who can tend to the full stack of the marketing function, learn what they don’t know, and roll up their sleeves to get things done. Someone smart, savvy and super scrappy who understands how to experiment across marketing channels until they find the right mix.

#brand-management, #brand-marketing, #column, #content-marketing, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #growth-marketing, #marketing, #product-management, #product-marketing, #startups

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Growth marketing amid the pandemic: An interview with Right Side Up’s Tyler Elliston

Growth marketers are busy today helping all sorts of startups take advantage of the market boom, but it has been a hard journey through the pandemic.

We caught up with Tyler Elliston, founder of growth marketing firm Right Side Up and occasional contributor at TechCrunch, about his experiences and what he’s seeing now.

It’s part of our new initiative to find the best growth marketers for startups based on founder recommendations. (Have a recommendation to share? Please fill out the survey here.)

Keep reading for more from Tyler about maintaining focus and resources on the right kind of growth, even when the markets are rollicking.

It’s been a while since we last spoke with you. How have the trends in growth marketing shifted between the beginning of the pandemic and now, as we begin to exit lockdowns?

Tyler Elliston: It’s been a rollercoaster! Early in the pandemic, we saw plummeting CPMs and slashed budgets. The rebound started relatively quickly over the summer of 2020 and accelerated into the fall and now 2021.

First, it was e-com companies, both those with strong pre-COVID sales online and historically brick-and-mortar brands scrambling to shift online to find much-needed sales. Then many other businesses — both new and existing — emerged with new products, value propositions and positioning to survive or even thrive in the pandemic.

Now, we continue to see very high consumer demand broadly and a corresponding eagerness amongst brands to accelerate customer acquisition, including through paid advertising. Very active investors have been a strong tailwind with respect to budgets.


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We’ve talked before about how you like your team to be treated as a partner rather than a vendor. How have they been able to accomplish this during the pandemic?

The biggest thing is that we were able to lean on our reputation for being a good strategic partner that serves our clients’ best interests. Because they know we’ll tell them when we don’t think they should keep paying us for something, they also trust us when we say something like “I know this sounds crazy right now, but you should increase your budget due to a shift in your demand curve and channel economics.”

We were proactively honest with clients about what we believed the pandemic meant for their businesses, points of view we reached through a framework we outlined on our blog. For some, that meant supporting immediate termination of our partnership for them to conserve funds. In other cases, it meant pushing them to consider leaning into their performance marketing to capitalize on the changing environment and channel economics.

During the recovery, many companies have looked to external agencies and consultants to fill a temporary staffing gap in a lower-risk way. Shifting attitudes towards external resourcing and the evolution of company processes and culture to support remote workers have helped us more quickly and fully integrate with our clients’ internal teams.

In a previous conversation, you mentioned, “We regularly tell companies, ‘You don’t need any growth marketing right now. Focus on product-market fit.’” How can startups tell that it’s the right time to come work with you?

Growth marketing is an amplification tool. It shines a bright spotlight on a product or solution, believing that if only people knew about it, they would want it and love it. The “want it” and “love it” represent product-market fit. To measure these, we look at customer reviews, referral activity leading to organic growth, retention, product engagement, and ultimately realized and expected lifetime value.

Seeing good conversion rates and attractive customer acquisition costs in small-scale channel testing suggest that not only is there a group of people that love it, but that they can be reached. These are prerequisites for sustainable growth, in my view.

If an early-stage company has limited resources, how should they prioritize their funds in regards to marketing?

First, invest in the product to make it excellent, as judged by real, paying customers. Marketing plays a role in this iterative process of traffic acquisition, funnel measurement and feedback collection; it’s just not “growth marketing.” It’s better considered to be “go-to-market marketing,” typically staffed by a product marketer or similar.

Once the product is in a good place, I typically recommend at least some investment in non-paid marketing efforts and some testing of paid advertising, most often Facebook and/or Google. It’s rare for a company to find a great scalable channel if neither of these work. They serve as bellwethers for online marketing performance, generally speaking.

The best non-paid marketing investments are highly contextual on the target customer and a company’s differentiation from the competitive landscape.

What do startups continue to get wrong?

Focusing on growth before finding product/market fit is the biggest [thing that startups continue to get wrong]. Early-stage founders are under intense pressure to grow successfully. For all but the lucky few who find incredible early customer success, finding product-market fit requires an unbelievable dose of patience. I think this is one of the reasons we see a pattern of success among founders who are solving a problem they deeply care about personally. For them, it’s first and foremost about solving the problem for themselves, not others. It’s not about money or some notion of macro success. It’s about micro success. From there, it’s an easy jump to passionately share this solution you so desperately needed.

From an advertising standpoint, many companies try to run too many channels at once and expect success too quickly, leading to false negatives. Most channels are quite nuanced at this point and require both expertise and patience to crack, for most businesses.

How do your growth marketing strategies change when working with early-stage startups as opposed to mature companies?

With very early-stage companies, our work is typically not related to growth, per se. It’s more about getting a foundation in place (ex: pixels, tech stack, initial value props, early staffing), driving traffic through new funnels to gather early data, or setting up email campaigns. Once the product is in a good place, we are often working with a founder or first marketing hire to stand up their initial paid channels and try to get them from 0 to 1. Can we spend 5k, 10k, 20k/month with a good return?

On the non-paid side, it could be executing a content strategy, launching a referral program or cultivating partnerships. Once a company is spending hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars per month profitably, we are typically helping them improve channel performance, better measure the incremental impact of their spend, break through to a new level of scale, or diversify channels (paid or non-paid).

#growth-hacking, #growth-marketers, #marketing, #product-management, #product-marketing, #startup-company, #tc

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Nexford University lands $10.8M pre-Series A to scale its flexible remote learning platform

Two profound problems face the higher education sector globally — affordability and relevance. Whether you live in Africa, Europe, or the U.S., a major reason why people don’t go to university or college or even drop out because they cannot afford tuition fees. On the other hand, relevance shows the huge gap between what traditional universities teach and what global employers actually look for. It’s not a secret that universities focus a bit too much on theory.

Over the past few years, there has been the emergence of a number of alternative credential providers trying to provide students with the necessary skills to earn and make a living. Nexford University is one of such platforms, and today, it has a closed $10.8 million pre-Series A funding round.

Dubai-based VC Global Ventures led the new round. Other investors include Future Africa’s new thematic fund (focused on education), angel investors, and family offices. Unnamed VCs from 10 countries, including the U.S., U.K., France, Dubai, Switzerland, Qatar, Nigeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, also took part.

To date, Nexford has raised $15.3 million, following the first tranche of $4.5 million in seed funding raised two years ago.

Fadl Al Tarzi launched Nexford University in 2019. The tech-enabled university is filling affordability and relevance gaps by providing access to quality and affordable education.

“That way, you get the best of both worlds,” CEO Al Tarzi said to TechCrunch. “You get practical skills that you can put to work immediately or for your future career while actively keeping a job. So the whole experience is designed as a learning as a service model.”

Nexford Unversity lets students study at their own pace. Once they apply and get admitted into either a degree program or a course program, they choose how fast or slow they want the program to be.

Nexford University

Fadl Al Tarzi (CEO, Nexford University)

The CEO says whatever students learn on the platform is directly applicable to their jobs. Currently, Nexford offers undergraduate degrees in business administration; 360° marketing; AI & automation; building a tech startup; business analytics; business in emerging markets; digital transformation; e-commerce; and product management. Its graduate degrees are business administration, advanced AI, e-commerce, hyperconnectivity, sustainability, and world business.

Nexford’s tuition structure is very different from traditional universities because it’s modelled monthly. Its accredited degrees cost between $3,000 to $4,000 paid in monthly instalments. In Nigeria, for instance, an MBA costs about $160 a month, while a bachelor degree costs $80 a month. But the catch for the monthly instalment structure means the faster a learner graduates, the less they pay.

What’s it like learning with Nexford University?

Nexford University doesn’t offer standardized and theoretical tests or assignments as most traditional universities do. Al Tarzi says the company employs what he calls a competency-based education model where students prove mastery by working on practical projects.

For instance, a student working on an accounting course will most likely need to create a P&L statement, analyze balance sheets and identify where the error is to correct it. The platform then gives the student different scenarios showing companies with different revenues and expense levels. The task? To analyse and extract certain ratios to help make sense of which company is profitable and the other unit economics involved.

Though Nexford plays in the edtech space, Al Tarzi doesn’t think the company is an edtech company. As a licensed and accredited online university, Nexford has a huge amount of automation across the organization and provides students with support from faculty and career advisors.

After offering degrees, Nexford puts on its placement hats by fixing its graduates with partner employers.

There’s a big shortage of jobs in Nigeria, and despite the high unemployment, it’s actually difficult to find extremely qualified entry-level graduates. So Nexford has carried out several partnerships where employers sponsor their employees or soon-to-be employees for upskilling and rescaling purposes.

An illustration is with Sterling Bank, a local bank in the country. Most Nigerian banks have yearly routines where they hire graduates and put them on weeks-long training programs. Sterling Bank employs any candidate it feels did great after the capital intensive (eight weeks in most cases) programs.

So what Nexford has done is to partner with Sterling to fund the tuition for high school leavers. When these students go through Nexford’s programs for the first year, they begin to get part-time placements at Sterling. Upon graduation, they get a job in the bank.

“That saves Sterling the training cost and our tuition fee is almost equal to the training that they provided for students. Also, students start paying back once they get placed, so it’s a win-win.”

Nexford University has learners from 70 countries, with Nigeria its biggest market yet. Nexford also has blue-chip partnerships with Microsoft, LinkedIn Learning, and IBM to provide access to tools, courses and programmes to improve the learning experience.

One of the major gains of this learning experience is how it prepares people for remote jobs. Nexford is bullish on its virtual skills grid, where people will get jobs remotely regardless of their location on the platform.

“Across Sub Saharan Africa by the year 2026, there’s gonna be a shortage of about 100 million university seats as a result of huge growth in youth population not met by growth and supply. Even if you want to build universities fast, you wouldn’t be able to meet the demand. And that spirals down to the job market. We don’t think the local economy will produce enough jobs in Nigeria, for instance. But we want to enable people to get remote jobs across the world and not necessarily have to migrate.” 

Last year, Nexford’s revenues grew by 300%. This year, the company hopes to triple the size of its enrollment from last year, the CEO said.

Nexford is big on designing students’ curriculum based on analysis of what their employer needs. Al Tarzi tells me that the company always follow the Big Data approach, asking themselves, “how do we find out what employers worldwide are looking for and keep our curriculum alive and relevant?”

“We develop proprietary technology that enables us to analyze job vacancies as well as several other data sources; use AI to understand how those data sets and build a curriculum based on those findings. So, in short, we start with the end in mind,” he answers.

The company is keen on improving its technology regardless. It wants to analyse skills more accurately and automate more functions to enhance user experience. That’s what the funding will be used for in addition to fuelling its regional expansion plans (particularly in Asia) and investing in growth and product development. Per the latter, the online university says it will be launching partner programs with more employers globally to facilitate both placement and upskilling and rescaling. 

Merging both worlds of tech and the traditional university model is no easy feat. The former is about efficiency, user-centricity, product, among others. The latter embodies rigidity and continues to lag behind fast-paced innovation. And while there’s been a boom in edtech, most startups try to circumvent the industry’s bureaucracy by launching an app or a MOOC. Nexford’s model of running a degree-granting, licensed, accredited, and regulated university is more challenging but in it lies so much opportunity.

Iyin Aboyeji, Future Africa general partner CEO, understands this. It’s one reason why the company is the first investment out of Future Africa’s soon-to-be-launched fund focused on the future of learning and why he believes the company is a game-changer for higher education in Africa.

“During the pandemic, while many universities in Nigeria were shut down due to labour disputes, Nexford was already delivering an innovative and affordable new model of online higher education designed for a skills-based economy.”  

For general partner at Global Ventures Noor Sweid, Nexford University is redressing the mismatch between the supply of talent and the demands of today’s digital economy. “We are thrilled to partner with Fadl and the Nexford team on their journey toward expanding access to universal quality higher education in emerging markets,” she said.

#africa, #artificial-intelligence, #asia, #education, #europe, #funding, #future-africa, #higher-education, #ibm, #massive-open-online-course, #microsoft, #nexford-university, #nigeria, #online-learning, #product-management, #saudi-arabia, #tc, #tech-startup, #united-states, #university

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Branch raises $50M to offer bundled auto & home insurance via an API

Branch Insurance, a startup offering bundled home and auto insurance, has raised $50 million in a Series B funding round led by Anthemis Group.

Acrew, Cherry Creek Holdings and existing backers Greycroft, HSCM Bermuda, American Family Ventures, SignalFire, SCOR P&C Ventures, Foundation Capital and Tower IV also participated in the round. With this latest financing, Columbus, Ohio-based Branch has raised $82.5 million in total funding since its 2017 inception.

With so many players in the insurtech space, it can get tough distinguishing the various offerings. Branch claims that it is unique in that it is able to provide customers with “an instant insurance offer” for bundled home and auto insurance “within seconds” using just a few pieces of information.

Co-founder and CEO Steve Lekas began his career at Allstate, where he went on to hold roles in underwriting, technology and product management. He then went on to build Esurance’s first online home insurance business.

But in the back of his mind, Lekas yearned to figure out a way to make insurance more accessible for more people. And so he teamed up with Joe Emison, and Branch was born.

“The industry is structurally flawed and it harms consumers. Complicated policies, rising costs and marketing warfare all contribute to a vicious cycle that results in overpriced insurance,” said Lekas. “We are a full-stack insurance company transforming the way people think about their home and car insurance.”

Branch, he claims, is the only insurance company that he is aware of that can bind insurance through an API, and the only one that can bundle auto and home insurance in a single transaction.

Another way Branch is unique, according to Lekas, is that it can be embedded into the buying experience. In other words, the company has partnered with companies such as Rocket Mortgage and ADT to integrate insurance at the point of sale in their products. For example, if a person is closing on a home, they have the option of purchasing Branch insurance at the same time.

Branch co-founder and CEO Steve Lekas. Photo: Robb McCormick Photography

“Every home or car policy starts with another transaction,” Lekas said. “Insurance is a product that exists only because of the other transaction. It’s never before been possible to embed in that primary purchase before.”

This distribution model means that Branch shells out less to acquire customers and thus, it claims, is able to offer premiums for a lower price than competitors.

“In just two clicks, a consumer can have home and car insurance or just home and we’ll cancel the old insurance on their closing date, and transmit all the data to their existing mortgage,” Lekas said.

Branch also offers its insurance direct-to-consumer and through agencies.

The company plans to use its new capital in part to accelerate its rollout across the U.S. so that it can sign more such partnerships where it can embed its offering. Currently, Branch has more than 30 partnerships of varying sizes, and is “adding more every week” as it launches in more states.

“It’s really hard to move quickly,” Lekas said. “The system is built to make you move slowly. Every state regulator has to approve individually and independently with their own rules.”

Lekas predicts Branch will be available in more than 80% of the U.S. before the year’s out.

Branch has seen increased momentum since its $24 million Series A in July 2020.

Specifically, the startup says it has achieved a 435% growth in its partner channel, 660% growth in active policies and a 734% increase in active premium less than one year after its last raise.

Anthemis Group Partner Ruth Foxe Blader notes that Branch marks her firm’s first investment from its new growth fund.

Blader says she has invested in insurance innovation over the past decade, and is particularly attracted to insurtech businesses that represent three things: significant technology and data science innovation; significant product innovation and significant cultural innovation.

“Branch easily ticks those boxes,” Blader told TechCrunch. “Branch’s products are both embedded and bundled, making them less expensive and more convenient to purchase, and less likely to leave customers with critical protection gaps.”

The startup, she added, effectively combines data science and technology to create “unique, automatic product bundles.”

With what it describes as a “built-for-savings” structure, Branch said it has created connected home discounts as well as programs that reward members for making referrals and practicing safe driving behaviors, for example.

Branch also has formed a nonprofit, SafetyNest, to help those who are un- or underinsured.

#allstate, #american-family-ventures, #anthemis-group, #auto-insurance, #branch, #car-insurance, #columbus, #finance, #foundation-capital, #funding, #fundings-exits, #insurance, #insurtech, #ohio, #ontology, #product-management, #recent-funding, #rocket-mortgage, #ruth-foxe-blader, #startup, #startups, #tc, #united-states, #venture-capital

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For SaaS startups, differentiation is an iterative process

Software as a service has been thriving as a sector for years, but it has gone into overdrive in the past year as businesses responded to the pandemic by speeding up the migration of important functions to the cloud. We’ve all seen the news of SaaS startups raising large funding rounds, with deal sizes and valuations steadily climbing. But as tech industry watchers know only too well, large funding rounds and valuations are not foolproof indicators of sustainable growth and longevity.

To scale sustainably, grow its customer base and mature to the point of an exit, a SaaS startup needs to stand apart from the herd at every phase of development. Failure to do so means a poor outcome for founders and investors.

As a founder who pivoted from on-premise to SaaS back in 2016, I have focused on scaling my company (most recently crossing 145,000 customers) and in the process, learned quite a bit about making a mark. Here is some advice on differentiation at the various stages in the life of a SaaS startup.

Launch and early years

Differentiation is crucial early on, because it’s one of the only ways to attract customers. Customers can help lay the groundwork for everything from your product roadmap to pricing.

The more you know about your target customers’ pain points with current solutions, the easier it will be to stand out. Take every opportunity to learn about the people you are aiming to serve, and which problems they want to solve the most. Analyst reports about specific sectors may be useful, but there is no better source of information than the people who, hopefully, will pay to use your solution.

The key to success in the SaaS space is solving real problems. Take DocuSign, for example — the company found a way to simply and elegantly solve a niche problem for users with its software. This is something that sounds easy, but in reality, it means spending hours listening to the customer and tailoring your product accordingly.

#as-a-service, #cloud, #cloud-applications, #column, #docusign, #ec-cloud-and-enterprise-infrastructure, #ec-column, #ec-enterprise-applications, #product-management, #saas, #software-as-a-service, #startup-company, #startups

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Flush with $42M, hot AI startup Faculty plans to hoover-up more PhDs… and steer clear of politics

In the wake of the news that UK-based AI startup Faculty has raised $42.5 million in a growth funding round, I teased out more from CEO and co-founder Marc Warner on what his plans are for the company.

Faculty seems to have an uncanny knack of winning UK government contracts, after helping Boris Johnson win his Vote Leave campaign and thus become Prime Minister. It’s even helping sort out the mess that Brexit has subsequently made of the fishing industry, problems with the NHS, and telling global corporates like Red Bull and Virgin Media what to suggest to their customers. Meanwhile, it continues to hoover up Ph.D. graduates at a rate of knots to work on its AI platform.

But, speaking to me over a call, Warner said the company no longer has plans to enter the political sphere again: “Never again. It’s very controversial. I don’t want to make out that I think politics is unethical. Trying to make the world better, in whatever dimension you can, is a good thing … But from our perspective, it was, you know, ‘noisy,’ and our goal as an organization is, despite current appearances to the contrary, is not to spend tonnes of time talking about this stuff. We do believe this is an important technology that should be out there and should be in a broader set of hands than just the tech giants, who are already very good at it.”

On the investment, he said: “Fundamentally, the money is about doubling down on the UK first and then international expansion. Over the last seven years or so we have learned what it takes to do important AI, impactful AI, at scale. And we just don’t think that there’s actually much of it out there. Customers are rightly sometimes a bit skeptical, as there’s been hype around this stuff for years and years. We figured out a bunch of the real-world applications that go into making this work so that it actually delivers the value. And so, ultimately, the money is really just about being able to build out all of the pieces to do that incredibly well for our customers.”

He said Faculty would be staying firmly HQ’d in the UK to take advantage of the UK’s talent pool: “The UK is a wonderful place to do AI. It’s got brilliant universities, a very dynamic startup scene. It’s actually more diverse than San Francisco. There’s government, there’s finance, there are corporates, there’s less competition from the tech giants. There’s a bit more of a heterogeneous ecosystem. There’s no sense in which we’re thinking, ‘Right, that’s it, we’re up and out!’. We love working here, we want to make things better. We’ve put an enormous amount of effort into trying to help organizations like the government and the NHS, but also a bunch of UK corporates in trying to embrace this technology, so that’s still going to be a terrifically important part of our business.”

That said, Faculty plans to expand abroad: “We’re going to start looking further afield as well, and take all of the lessons we’ve learned to the US, and then later Europe.”

But does he think this funding round will help it get ahead of other potential rivals in the space? “We tend not to think too much in terms of rivals,” he says. “The next 20 years are going to be about building intelligence into the software that already exists. If you look at the global market cap of the software businesses out there, that’s enormous. If you start adding intelligence to that, the scale of the market is so large that it’s much more important to us that we can take this incredibly important technology and deploy it safely in ways that actually improve people’s lives. It could be making products cheaper or helping organizations make their services more efficient.”

If that’s the case then does Faculty have any kind of ethics panel overseeing its work? “We have an internal ethics panel. We have a set of principles and if we think a project might violate those principles, it gets referred to that ethics panel. It’s randomly selected from across faculty. So we’re quite careful about the projects that we work on and don’t. But to be honest, the vast majority of stuff that’s going on is very vanilla. They are just clearly ‘good for the world’ projects. The vast majority of our work is doing good work for corporate clients to help them make their businesses that bit more efficient.”

I pressed him to expand on this issue of ethics and the potential for bias. He says Faculty “builds safety in from a start. Oddly enough, the reason I first got interested in AI was reading Nick Bostrom’s work about superintelligence and the importance of AI safety. And so from the very, very first fellowship [Faculty AI researchers are called Fellows] all the way back in 2014, we’ve taught the fellows about AI safety. Over time, as soon as we were able, we started contributing to the research field. So, we’ve published papers in all of the biggest computer science conferences Neurips, ICM, ICLR, on the topic of AI safety. How to make algorithms fair, private, robust and explainable. So these are a set of problems that we care a great deal about. And, I think, are generally ‘underdone’ in the wider ecosystem. Ultimately, there shouldn’t be a separation between performance and safety. There is a bit of a tendency in other companies to say, ‘Well, you can either have performance, or you can have safety.’ But of course, we know that’s not true. The cars today are faster and safer than the Model T Ford. So it’s a sort of a false dichotomy. We’ve invested a bunch of effort in both those capabilities, so we obviously want to be able to create a wonderful performance for the task at hand, but also to ensure that the algorithms are fair, private, robust and explainable wherever required.”

That also means, he says, that AI might not always be the ‘bogeyman’ the phrase implies: “In some cases, it’s probably not a huge deal if you’re deciding whether to put a red jumper or a blue jumper at the top of your website. There are probably not huge ethical implications in that. But in other circumstances, of course, it’s critically important that the algorithms are safe and are known to be safe and are trusted by both the users and anyone else who encounters them. In a medical context, obviously, they need to be trusted by the doctors and the patients need to make sure they actually work. So we’re really at the forefront of deploying that stuff.”

Last year the Guardian reported that Faculty had won seven government contracts in 18 months. To what does he attribute this success? “Well, I mean, we lost an enormous number more! We are a tiny supplier to government. We do our best to do work that is valuable to them. We’ve worked for many many years with people at the home office,” he tells me.

“Without wanting to go into too much detail, that 18 months stretches over multiple Prime Ministers. I was appointed to the AI Council under Theresa May. Any sort of insinuations on this are just obviously nonsense. But, at least historically, most of our work was in the private sector and that continues to be critically important for us as an organization. Over the last year, we’ve tried to step up and do our bit wherever we could for the public sector. It’s facing such a big, difficult situation around COVID, and we’re very proud of the things we’ve managed to accomplish with the NHS and the impact that we had on the decisions that senior people were able to undertake.”

Returning to the issue of politics I asked him if he thought – in the wake of events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, which were both affected by AI-driven political campaigning – AI is too dangerous to be applied to that arena? He laughed: “It’s a funny old funny question… It’s a really odd way to phrase a question. AI is just a technology. Fundamentally, AI is just maths.”

I asked him if he thought the application of AI in politics had had an outsized or undue influence, on the way that political parties have operated in the last few years: “I’m afraid that is beyond my knowledge,” he says. But does Faculty have regrets about working in the political sphere?

“I think we’re just focused on our work. It’s not that we have strong feelings, either way, it’s just that from our perspective, it’s much, much more interesting to be able to do the things that we care about, which is deploying AI in the real world. It’s a bit of a boring answer! But it is truly how we feel. It’s much more about doing the things we think are important, rather than judging what everyone else is doing.”

Lastly, we touched on the data science capabilities of the UK and what the new fund-raising will allow the company to do.

He said: “We started an education program. We have roughly 10% of the UK’s PhDs in physics, maths, engineering, applying to the program. Roughly 400 or so people have been through that program and we plan to expand that further so that more and more people get the opportunity to start a career in data science. And then inside Faculty specifically, we think we’ll be able to create 400 new jobs in areas like software engineering, data science, product management. These are very exciting new possibilities for people to really become part of the technology revolution. I think there’s going to be a wonderful like new energy in Faculty, and hopefully a positive small part in increasing the UK tech ecosystem.”

Warner comes across as sincere in his thoughts about the future of AI and is clearly enthusiastic about where Faculty can take the whole field next, both philosophically and practically. Will Faculty soon be challenging that other AI leviathan, DeepMind, for access to all those Ph.D.s? There’s no doubt it will.

#articles, #artificial-intelligence, #boris-johnson, #cybernetics, #energy, #europe, #faculty, #films, #finance, #it, #nhs, #nick-bostrom, #product-management, #san-francisco, #software-engineering, #tc, #the-guardian, #theresa-may, #uk-government, #united-kingdom, #united-states, #virgin-media, #you

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Google Cloud launches Vertex AI, a new managed machine learning platform

At Google I/O today Google Cloud announced Vertex AI, a new managed machine learning platform that is meant to make it easier for developers to deploy and maintain their AI models. It’s a bit of an odd announcement at I/O, which tends to focus on mobile and web developers and doesn’t traditionally feature a lot of Google Cloud news, but the fact that Google decided to announce Vertex today goes to show how important it thinks this new service is for a wide range of developers.

The launch of Vertex is the result of quite a bit of introspection by the Google Cloud team. “Machine learning in the enterprise is in crisis, in my view,” Craig Wiley, the director of product management for Google Cloud’s AI Platform, told me. “As someone who has worked in that space for a number of years, if you look at the Harvard Business Review or analyst reviews, or what have you — every single one of them comes out saying that the vast majority of companies are either investing or are interested in investing in machine learning and are not getting value from it. That has to change. It has to change.”

Image Credits: Google

Wiley, who was also the general manager of AWS’s SageMaker AI service from 2016 to 2018 before coming to Google in 2019, noted that Google and others who were able to make machine learning work for themselves saw how it can have a transformational impact, but he also noted that the way the big clouds started offering these services was by launching dozens of services, “many of which were dead ends,” according to him (including some of Google’s own). “Ultimately, our goal with Vertex is to reduce the time to ROI for these enterprises, to make sure that they can not just build a model but get real value from the models they’re building.”

Vertex then is meant to be a very flexible platform that allows developers and data scientist across skill levels to quickly train models. Google says it takes about 80% fewer lines of code to train a model versus some of its competitors, for example, and then help them manage the entire lifecycle of these models.

Image Credits: Google

The service is also integrated with Vizier, Google’s AI optimizer that can automatically tune hyperparameters in machine learning models. This greatly reduces the time it takes to tune a model and allows engineers to run more experiments and do so faster.

Vertex also offers a “Feature Store” that helps its users serve, share and reuse the machine learning features and Vertex Experiments to help them accelerate the deployment of their models into producing with faster model selection.

Deployment is backed by a continuous monitoring service and Vertex Pipelines, a rebrand of Google Cloud’s AI Platform Pipelines that helps teams manage the workflows involved in preparing and analyzing data for the models, train them, evaluate them and deploy them to production.

To give a wide variety of developers the right entry points, the service provides three interfaces: a drag-and-drop tool, notebooks for advanced users and — and this may be a bit of a surprise — BigQuery ML, Google’s tool for using standard SQL queries to create and execute machine learning models in its BigQuery data warehouse.

We had two guiding lights while building Vertex AI: get data scientists and engineers out of the orchestration weeds, and create an industry-wide shift that would make everyone get serious about moving AI out of pilot purgatory and into full-scale production,” said Andrew Moore, vice president and general manager of Cloud AI and Industry Solutions at Google Cloud. “We are very proud of what we came up with in this platform, as it enables serious deployments for a new generation of AI that will empower data scientists and engineers to do fulfilling and creative work.”

#amazon-sagemaker, #analyst, #andrew-moore, #artificial-intelligence, #aws, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #developer, #enterprise, #google, #google-cloud-platform, #google-i-o-2021, #harvard, #machine-learning, #product-management, #tc, #technology, #web-developers, #world-wide-web

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Google Cloud Run gets committed use discounts and new security features

Cloud Run, Google Cloud’s serverless platform for containerized applications, is getting committed use discounts. Users who commit to spending a given amount on using Cloud Run for a year will get a 17% discount on the money they commit. The company offers a similar pre-commitment discount scheme for VM-based Compute Engine instances, as well as automatic ‘sustained use‘ discounts for machines that run for more than 25% of a month.

In addition, Google Cloud is also introducing a number of new security features for Cloud Run, including the ability to mount secrets from the Google Cloud Secret Manager and binary authorization to help define and enforce policies about how containers are deployed on the service. Cloud Run users can now also now use and manage their own encryption keys (by default, Cloud Run uses Google-managed keys) and a new Recommendation Hub inside of Cloud Run will now offer users recommendations for how to better protect their Cloud Run services.

Aparna Sinha, who recently became the director of product management for Google Cloud’s serverless platform, noted that these updates are part of Google Cloud’s push to build what she calls the “next generation of serverless.’

“We’re really excited to introduce our new vision for serverless, which I think is going to help redefine this space,” she told me. “In the past, serverless has meant a certain narrower type of compute, which is focused on functions or a very specific kind of applications, web services, etc. — and what we are talking about with redefining serverless is focusing on the power of serverless, which is the developer experience and the ease of use, but broadening it into a much more versatile platform, where many different types of applications can be run, and building in the Google way of doing DevOps and security and a lot of integrations so that you have access to everything that’s the best of cloud.”

She noted that Cloud Run saw “tremendous adoption” during the pandemic, something she attributes to the fact that businesses were looking to speed up time-to-value from their applications. IKEA, for example, which famously had a hard time moving from in-store to online sales, bet on Google Cloud’s serverless platform to bring down the refresh time of its online store and inventory management system from three hours to less than three minutes after switching to this model.

“That’s kind of the power of serverless, I think, especially looking forward, the ability to build real-time applications that have data about the context, about the inventory, about the customer and can therefore be much more reactive and responsive,” Sinha said. “This is an expectation that customers will have going forward and serverless is an excellent way to deliver that as well as be responsive to demand patterns, especially when they’re changing so much in today’s uncertain environment.”

Since the container model gives businesses a lot of flexibility in what they want to run in these containers — and how they want to develop these applications since Cloud Run is language-agnostic — Google is now seeing a lot of other enterprises move to this platform as well, both for deploying completely new applications but also to modernize some of their existing services.

For the companies that have predictable usage patterns, the committed use discounts should be an attractive option and it’s likely the more sophisticated organizations that are asking for the kinds of new security features that Google Cloud is introducing today.

“The next generation of serverless combines the best of serverless with containers to run a broad spectrum of apps, with no language, networking or regional restrictions,” Sinha writes in today’s announcement. “The next generation of serverless will help developers build the modern applications of tomorrow—applications that adapt easily to change, scale as needed, respond to the needs of their customers faster and more efficiently, all while giving developers the best developer experience.”

#aparna-sinha, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #developer, #encryption, #google, #google-cloud, #google-compute-engine, #ikea, #online-sales, #product-management, #serverless-computing, #web-services

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Autodesk acquires Upchain

Autodesk, the publicly-traded software company best known for its CAD and 3D modeling tools, today announced that it has acquired Upchain, a Toronto-based startup that offers a cloud-based product lifecycle management (PLM) service. The two companies, which didn’t disclose the acquisition price, expect the transaction to close by July 31, 2021.

Since its launch in 2015, Upchain raised about $7.4 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. The central idea behind the service was that existing lifecycle management solutions, which are meant to help businesses take new products from inception production and collaborate with their supply chain in the process, were cumbersome and geared toward large multi-national enterprises. Upchain’s focus is on small and mid-sized companies and promises to be more affordable and usable than other solutions. It’s customer base spans a wide range of industries, ranging from textiles and apparel to automotive, aerospace, industrial machines, transportation and entertainment.

“We’ve had a singular focus at Upchain to up-level cloud collaboration across the entire product lifecycle, changing the way that people work together so that everyone has access to the data they need, when they need it,” Upchain CEO and founder John Laslavic said in today’s announcement. “Autodesk shares our vision for radically simplifying how engineers and manufacturers across the entire value chain collaborate and bring a top-quality product to market faster. I look forward to seeing how Upchain and Autodesk, together, take that vision to the next level in the months and years to come.”

For Autodesk, this is the company’s 15th acquisition since 2017. Earlier this year, the company made its first $1 billion acquisition when it bought Portland, OR-based Innovyze, a 35-year-old company that focuses on modeling and lifecycle management for the water management industry. 

“Resilience and collaboration have never been more critical for manufacturers as they confront the increasing complexity of developing new products. We’re committed to addressing those needs by offering the most robust end-to-end design and manufacturing platform in the cloud,” said Andrew Anagnost, President and CEO of Autodesk. “The convergence of data and processes is transforming the industry. By integrating Upchain with our existing offerings, Autodesk customers will be able to easily move data without barriers and will be empowered to unlock and harness valuable insights that can translate to fresh ideas and business success.”

#aerospace, #andrew-anagnost, #autodesk, #business-software, #cad, #ceo, #portland, #product-lifecycle-management, #product-management, #software, #supply-chain, #tc, #toronto

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Meroxa raises $15M Series A for its real-time data platform

Meroxa, a startup that makes it easier for businesses to build the data pipelines to power both their analytics and operational workflows, today announced that it has raised a $15 million Series A funding round led by Drive Capital. Existing investors Root, Amplify and Hustle Fund also participated in this round, which together with the company’s previously undisclosed $4.2 million seed round now brings total funding in the company to $19.2 million.

The promise of Meroxa is that can use a single platform for their various data needs and won’t need a team of experts to build their infrastructure and then manage it. At its core, Meroxa provides a single Software-as-a-Service solution that connects relational databases to data warehouses and then helps businesses operationalize that data.

Image Credits: Meroxa

“The interesting thing is that we are focusing squarely on relational and NoSQL databases into data warehouse,” Meroxa co-founder and CEO DeVaris Brown told me. “Honestly, people come to us as a real-time FiveTran or real-time data warehouse sink. Because, you know, the industry has moved to this [extract, load, transform] format. But the beautiful part about us is, because we do change data capture, we get that granular data as it happens.” And businesses want this very granular data to be reflected inside of their data warehouses, Brown noted, but he also stressed that Meroxa can expose this stream of data as an API endpoint or point it to a Webhook.

The company is able to do this because its core architecture is somewhat different from other data pipeline and integration services that, at first glance, seem to offer a similar solution. Because of this, users can use the service to connect different tools to their data warehouse but also build real-time tools on top of these data streams.

Image Credits: Meroxa

“We aren’t a point-to-point solution,” Meroxa co-founder and CTO Ali Hamidi explained. “When you set up the connection, you aren’t taking data from Postgres and only putting it into Snowflake. What’s really happening is that it’s going into our intermediate stream. Once it’s in that stream, you can then start hanging off connectors and say, ‘Okay, well, I also want to peek into the stream, I want to transfer my data, I want to filter out some things, I want to put it into S3.”

Because of this, users can use the service to connect different tools to their data warehouse but also build real-time tools to utilize the real-time data stream. With this flexibility, Hamidi noted, a lot of the company’s customers start with a pretty standard use case and then quickly expand into other areas as well.

Brown and Hamidi met during their time at Heroku, where Brown was a director of product management and Hamidi a lead software engineer. But while Heroku made it very easy for developers to publish their web apps, there wasn’t anything comparable in the highly fragmented database space. The team acknowledges that there are a lot of tools that aim to solve these data problems, but few of them focus on the user experience.

Image Credits: Meroxa

“When we talk to customers now, it’s still very much an unsolved problem,” Hamidi said. “It seems kind of insane to me that this is such a common thing and there is no ‘oh, of course you use this tool because it addresses all my problems.’ And so the angle that we’re taking is that we see user experience not as a nice-to-have, it’s really an enabler, it is something that enables a software engineer or someone who isn’t a data engineer with 10 years of experience in wrangling Kafka and Postgres and all these things. […] That’s a transformative kind of change.”

It’s worth noting that Meroxa uses a lot of open-source tools but the company has also committed to open-sourcing everything in its data plane as well. “This has multiple wins for us, but one of the biggest incentives is in terms of the customer, we’re really committed to having our agenda aligned. Because if we don’t do well, we don’t serve the customer. If we do a crappy job, they can just keep all of those components and run it themselves,” Hamidi explained.

Today, Meroxa, which the team founded in early 2020, has over 24 employees (and is 100% remote). “I really think we’re building one of the most talented and most inclusive teams possible,” Brown told me. “Inclusion and diversity are very, very high on our radar. Our team is 50% black and brown. Over 40% are women. Our management team is 90% underrepresented. So not only are we building a great product, we’re building a great company, we’re building a great business.”  

#api, #business-intelligence, #cloud, #computing, #data-management, #data-warehouse, #database, #developer, #drive-capital, #enterprise, #heroku, #hustle-fund, #information-technology, #nosql, #product-management, #recent-funding, #software-engineer, #startups, #web-apps

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How and when to hire your first product manager

In the world of early-stage startups, job titles are often a formality. In reality, each employee may handle a dozen responsibilities outside their job description. The choose-your-own-adventure type of work style is part of the magic of startups and often why generalists thrive here.

However, as a company progresses and the team grows, there comes a time when a founder needs to carve out dedicated roles. Of these positions, product management might be one of the most elusive — and key — roles to fill.

Product management might be one of the most elusive — and key — roles to fill.

We spoke to startup founders and operators to get their thoughts about how and when they hired their first product manager. Some of the things we talked about were:

  •  Which traits to look for.
  •  Why it’s important to define the role before you look for your best fit.
  •  Whether your new hire needs to have a technical background.
  •  The best questions to ask in an interview.
  •  How to time your first hire and avoid overhiring.

Don’t hire for the CEO of a product

Let’s start by working backward. Product managers often graduate into a CEO role or leave a company to become a founder. Like founders, talented product managers have innate leadership skills and are able to effectively and clearly communicate. Similarly, both roles require a person who is a visionary when it comes to the product and execution.

David Blake was a product manager before he became a serial edtech founder who created Degreed, Learn In, and most recently, BookClub. He says that experience helped him launch the first prototype of Degreed and attract first clients.

“The must-have skill is the ability to put the team’s best wisdom in check and inform the product decisions with users and potential clients to inform what you are building,” he said. The person “must also be able to take the team’s mission and develop and sell that narrative to users and potential clients. That is how you blaze a new trail, balance risk, while avoiding building a ‘faster horse.”

The overlapping synergies between PMs and founders is part of the reason why the role is so confusing to define and hire for. Ken Norton, former director of product at Figma who recently left to solo advise and coach product managers, says companies can start by defining what PMs are not: The CEO of the product.

“It’s about not handing off the product responsibilities to somebody,” he said. “You want the founder and the CEO to continue to be the evangelist and visionary.” Instead, the role is more about day to day “blocking and tackling.” Norton wrote a piece more than 15 years ago about how to hire a product manager, and it’s still an essential read for anyone interested in the field.

Define the role and set your expectations

Product managers help translate all the jugglers within a startup to each other; connecting the engineer with marketing, design with business development and sales with all the above. The role at its core is hard to define, but at the same time is the necessary plumbing for any startup that wants to be high-growth and ambitious.

While a successful product manager is a strong generalist, they have to have the ability to understand and humanize technical processes. The best candidates, then, have some sort of technical experience as an engineer or otherwise.

#developer, #early-stage, #ec-how-to, #hiring, #product, #product-management, #startups, #tc

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Why your organization needs product principles

At Slack, every one of our processes and features has been designed with the primary goal of making Slack a workplace tool that feels human. We see ourselves as our users’ hosts, and we want them to feel comfortable and happy every time they’re in Slack. Our product isn’t just built for work — it’s built for people doing work, and everything we create is meant to forward our mission of making work life simpler, more pleasant and more productive.

Our job is to understand what people want, and then translate that value through thoughtfully designed, well-functioning products and features.

Against the backdrop of an unprecedented shift to remote work, we’ve seen an influx of people turning to Slack to make the transition to a digital-first workplace. Building thoughtful, intuitive products that add value, delight and human-centric experiences into peoples’ working lives has never been more important.

Product principles are essential guidelines that help teams evaluate work across functions.

To ensure we’re meeting our customers where they’re at, we created a set of guiding “product principles” that inform everything we build, and which serve as the foundation for our entire product decision-making process.

There’s business value in improving an organization’s processes, and we’ve been able to provide better experiences for our customers by enacting ever-evolving product principles and using them to evaluate our products and features. Any company can benefit from having product principles — it’s all about how you develop and deploy them across your organization.

First, what are product principles?

Product principles are essential guidelines that help teams evaluate work across functions, as well as up and down the decision-making chain, by ensuring all work ladders up to the organization’s ultimate goals. Better alignment, in turn, leads to better and faster product decisions.

Product principles should always evolve to keep up with the changing ways you work and what your customers need. At Slack, we currently have five principles that guide us:

  1. Don’t make me think.
  2. Be a great host.
  3. Prototype the path.
  4. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
  5. Make bigger, bolder bets.

By implementing these principles into all we build across teams — design, legal, marketing and more — they provide a shared framework for decision-making that keeps us aligned and therefore able to make better decisions, faster.

The idea of having principles themselves isn’t a new concept, but the creation process behind building and promoting these principles is often overlooked or underdeveloped.

Start with your product philosophy

Before building the principles themselves, it’s important to first establish your product philosophy, which will inform how your organization will ultimately view and abide by its principles.

At Slack, we embrace an approach we call “getting to the next hill.” While there is a long-term product strategy, we don’t spend a lot of time debating exactly where we’ll be in one or two years from now. Instead, we focus on more immediate, incremental moves to improve our customers’ working lives.

We’ve found that because Slack is used in so many different ways by so many different companies, it’s better to learn from how our customers use our features than from endlessly debating aspirational future ideas.

#column, #developer, #ec-column, #ec-how-to, #product-management, #product-manager, #slack, #startups, #tc

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In freemium marketing, product analytics are the difference between conversion and confusion

The freemium marketing approach has become commonplace among B2C and B2B software providers alike. Considering that most see fewer than 5% of free users move to paid plans, even a slight improvement in conversion can translate to significant revenue gains. The (multi) million-dollar question is, how do they do it?

The answer lies in product analytics, which offer teams the ability to ask and answer any number of questions about the customer journey on an ad-hoc basis. Combined with a commitment to testing, measurement and iteration, this puts data in the driver’s seat and helps teams make better decisions about what’s in the free tier and what’s behind the paywall. Successful enterprises make this evaluation an ongoing exercise.

Often, the truth of product analytics is that actionable insights come from just a fraction of the data and it can take time to understand what’s happening.

Sweat the small stuff

A freemium business model is simply a set of interconnected funnels. From leads all the way through to engagement, conversion and retention, understanding each step and making even small optimizations at any stage will have down-funnel implications. Start by using product analytics to understand the nuances of what’s working and what isn’t, and then double down on the former.

For example, identify specific personas that perform well and perform poorly. While your overall conversion average may be 5%, there can be segments converting at 10% or 1%. Understanding the difference can shine a light on where to focus. That’s where the right analytics can lead to significant results. But if you don’t understand what, why and how to improve, you’re left with guesswork. And that’s not a modern way of operating.

There’s a misconception that volume of data equals value of data. Let’s say you want to jump-start your funnel by buying pay-per-click traffic. You see a high volume of activity, with numbers going up at the beginning of your funnel and a sales team busy with calls. However, you come to learn the increased traffic, which looked so promising at the outset, results in very few users converting to paid plans.

Now, this is a story as old as PPC, but in the small percentage that do convert, there’s a lot to learn about where to focus your efforts — which product features keep users hooked and which ones go unused. Often, the truth of product analytics is that actionable insights come from just a fraction of the data and it can take time to understand what’s happening. Getting users on board the free plan is just the first step in conversion. The testing and iteration continue from there.

The dropped and the languished

Within the free tier, users may languish — satisfied with whatever features they can access. If your funnel is full of languishing users, you’ve at least solved the adoption problem, so why are they stuck? Without a testing and tracking approach, you’ll struggle to understand your users and how they respond, by segment, to changes.

#column, #customer-experience, #digital-marketing, #ec-enterprise-applications, #ec-how-to, #product-management, #saas, #startups, #tc

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What investors need to know about research and inspiration in the COVID-19 era

Companies become industry leaders because of sparks: Ideas that lead to innovation, which shakes up a category. Apple changed the world when it realized that people wanted a PC in their pocket and it had to feel and look good.

Research makes sparks possible. In the modern economy, “eureka” moments are rare, and product-market fit like the iPhone, PayPal, and so many others are the outcome of sparks of innovation, yes — but more importantly, rigorous research. People still have great ideas in the shower, but most of the time, big advances happen after countless hours of market research, A-B testing and the like.

As one might expect, the pandemic has forced research online. The companies that figure out remote research will find success and profitability more quickly than those who are still struggling to. Remote research will remain the rule even as the worst of the pandemic mercifully ends, as our lives will still be upended for months or even years. For those investing in tech companies, newly honed remote research capabilities are a critical yet undervalued asset and a stealth indicator of company health.

The companies that figure out remote research will find success and profitability more quickly than those who are still struggling to.

The pandemic has been a major challenge for good corporate research. Most researchers — myself included — historically relied on in-real-life, face-to-face conversations with current and potential customers. Now that 2021 is underway, the onus is on organizations to explain how they’ve figured out the remote research problem. They’ve had 10 months to do so, and if they haven’t, they better have a plan for how they’re going to fix it.

Investors, executives and teams from the bottom-up must see — and demand — that companies get research right. Billions of dollars ride on it. No one wants to be Quibi, where good consumer research would have made all the difference.

There are ways to recreate effective research techniques digitally. Leaders should ask what tools researchers are using; what hacks they’ve developed to serve their needs in new and different ways. Are researchers using collaboration tools to draw out ideas and get to know people better? For example, I ask for photo collages of a person’s home life to help understand a person’s context. The next question should be how the research team is using these tools. Are they just giving a presentation, or are they using these tools in an open-ended fashion to spur dynamic conversation? I often use a digital whiteboard to provide a personal touch with real-time drawing and diagramming, which can be fun and even silly. It helps people let their guard down.

Next, leaders need to make sure the company is incorporating research into the design process, regardless of the collaboration difficulties the pandemic has imposed. Researchers and the design team need to answer questions like:

  • Is research just a box to check? Or are designers and developers constantly referring to it?
  • Is the research team properly elevated, ideally reporting into the chief product officer and sharing insights frequently with the executive team to provide a sharper sense of consumer desires?
  • Are researchers given the freedom to learn more about the hacks that consumers are implementing in today’s unusual reality?
  • Are designers and developers using the research as a jumping-off point, and do they have permission to design and create in new ways?

In all cases, research should be a core dimension of good product decisions, of sound digital product design and development. If it isn’t, organizations should make changes in 2021.

There is quantitative data to back up this statement. According to InVision’s industry research, only 10% of 2,300 teams surveyed deploy the most design-mature research practices, which increase speed-to-market, revenue and valuation. Only 7% say they rely on customer reviews and co-create products alongside their customers (important research practices).

Put more starkly, it’s likely the companies that are getting investment are not using research in the best possible way. Fewer than 10% of thousands of teams surveyed elevate design research. That means fewer than 10% of organizations are able to meet today’s remote research challenges easily, adapt to new realities quickly and succeed in this extreme time of change. In the throes of a pandemic, that is a problem.

Even after COVID, companies that thrive — or even simply survive — will be design-mature and digital-first. They will derive more of their revenue, interact with customers and gain new research insights digitally. In such an economy, technical and engineering prowess are critical, but all the technical ability in the world is worthless without understanding what consumers want a company to create. It is worthless without feedback. It is worthless without insight that leads to innovation.

It is worthless without a mature design process that uses research to validate, understand and turn the spark of an idea into reality.

#collaboration-tools, #column, #covid-19, #market-research, #product-design, #product-management, #research, #startups, #tc, #venture-capital

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How and when to build marketing teams at deep tech companies

Deep tech startups develop cutting-edge innovations with the power to truly revolutionize society. The founding team members at these companies often come from deeply technical backgrounds, which powers rapid product progress but can create bottlenecks on the go-to-market side.

In this post, I outline the answers to four key questions around marketing at early-stage deep tech companies that are post-revenue:

  • What marketing teams at deep tech companies do.
  • When to hire the marketing team.
  • Whether the marketing team needs industry experience.
  • How to source and evaluate talent for the marketing team.

From this post, deep tech startups can formulate their marketing hiring strategy and attract and cultivate top talent to drive their go-to-market plan. Without business execution, even the most groundbreaking innovations do not achieve their intended impact.

What do marketing teams at deep tech companies do?

To set the context, I share below the typical projects of deep tech marketing teams, which look different from marketing in other industries given the greater product focus and complexity, regulatory oversight and longer time to market.

Go-to-market

Marketers leverage the strength of the IP to establish collaborations with large companies, such as pharma companies and institutions, such as the government, universities or hospitals. To this end, marketers develop creative ways to gather lists of, and information on, key contacts at these potential partners. They also build sales collateral, such as demo videos, pitch decks and one-pagers, to more effectively reach and build long-term relationships with these prospects.

More broadly, marketers also develop the go-to-market strategy beyond partnerships. To this end, marketers conduct in-depth market research on business models, monetization strategies and reimbursement channels.

Communications

Marketers create original content to establish the company as a thought leader, build the company’s brand credibility through social media and apply for awards and honors to validate the potential of the company’s solution.

Forecasting

Marketers work with finance and product teams to formulate projections as the company moves into the clinical phase.

When should deep tech companies hire marketers?

The CEO and other members of the founding team take on marketing work in the formation stage to better understand and empathize with the needs, capabilities and opportunities in the department before bringing someone on full time.

Once the product shows signs of repeatable revenue, a marketing lead is needed. Specifically, this is ahead of a large Series A round, after a small Series A round or when a commercial partner has expressed interest in larger, long-term contracts. Instead of the typical chief marketing officer or chief revenue officer title, deep tech startups call this person a chief commercial officer or chief partnerships officer.

For additional support in the formation stage, companies bring on MBA interns and work with their investors. Prior to the Series A, platform teams at deep tech venture-capital funds are hands-on in helping with marketing through actually doing marketing projects for their portfolio companies, ideating on long-term marketing strategy with the founders through regular feedback sessions and connecting founders with vetted marketing contractors or agencies.

For companies that require FDA approval, commercial advisors, consultants and board members fully take on the partnership strategy work (which represents the bulk of the marketing needs) prior to the Series A round. Similarly, external consultants, such as marketing agencies, can take over major projects like launch strategy. External consultants can then join the team should their performance be strong.

For drug-development companies, the marketing leader is most crucial when the company enters the clinical phase and prepares for trials, regardless of funding stage.

Do marketing hires need industry experience?

Of course, it is ideal to hire someone with experience selling into the space and someone who is comfortable with the complex supply chains and long sales cycles. However, if the choice is between someone with functional expertise but no industry expertise and someone with industry experience but limited or no functional expertise, it is better to hire the former candidate and leverage the rest of the team for domain expertise. Deep tech is a niche area, so the other team members can support the marketer in developing industry expertise.

#deep-tech, #ec-entrepreneurship, #ec-marketing, #growth-marketing, #labor, #marketing, #product-management, #product-marketing, #startups, #tc

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Google grants $3 million to the CNCF to help it run the Kubernetes infrastructure

Back in 2018, Google announced that it would provide $9 million in Google Cloud Platform credits — divided over three years — to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) to help it run the development and distribution infrastructure for the Kubernetes project. Previously, Google owned and managed those resources for the community. Today, the two organizations announced that Google is adding on to this grant with another $3 million annual donation to the CNCF to “help ensure the long-term health, quality and stability of Kubernetes and its ecosystem.”

As Google notes, the funds will go to the testing and infrastructure of the Kubernetes project, which currently sees over 2,300 monthly pull requests that trigger about 400,000 integration test runs, all of which use about 300,000 core hours on GCP.

“I’m really happy that we’re able to continue to make this investment,” Aparna Sinha, a director of product management at Google and the chairperson of the CNCF governing board, told me. “We know that it is extremely important for the long-term health, quality and stability of Kubernetes and its ecosystem and we’re delighted to be partnering with the Cloud Native Computing Foundation on an ongoing basis. At the end of the day, the real goal of this is to make sure that developers can develop freely and that Kubernetes, which is of course so important to everyone, continues to be an excellent, solid, stable standard for doing that.”

Sinha also noted that Google contributes a lot of code to the project, with 128,000 code contributions in the last twelve months alone. But on top of these technical contributions, the team is also making in-kind contributions through community engagement and mentoring, for example, in addition to the kind of financial contributions the company is announcing today.

“The Kubernetes project has been growing so fast — the releases are just one after the other,” said Priyanka Sharma, the General Manager of the CNCF. “And there are big changes, all of this has to run somewhere. […] This specific contribution of the $3 million, that’s where that comes in. So the Kubernetes project can be stress-free, [knowing] they have enough credits to actually run for a full year. And that security is critical because you don’t want Kubernetes to be wondering where will this run next month. This gives the developers and the contributors to the project the confidence to focus on feature sets, to build better, to make Kubernetes ever-evolving.”

It’s worth noting that while both Google and the CNCF are putting their best foot forward here, there have been some questions around Google’s management around the Istio service mesh project, which was incubated by Google and IBM a few years ago. At some point in 2017, there was a proposal to bring it under the CNCF umbrella, but that never happened. This year, Istio became one of the founding projects of Open Usage Commons, though that group is mostly concerned with trademarks, not with project governance. And while all of this may seem like a lot of inside baseball — and it is — but it had some members of the open-source community question Google’s commitment to organizations like the CNCF.

“Google contributes to a lot of open-source projects. […] There’s a lot of them, many are with open-source foundations under the Linux Foundation, many of them are otherwise,” Sinha said when I asked her about this. “There’s nothing new, or anything to report about anything else. In particular, this discussion — and our focus very much with the CNCF here is on Kubernetes, which I think — out of everything that we do — is by far the biggest contribution or biggest amount of time and biggest amount of commitment relative to anything else.”

#aparna-sinha, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #cloud-native-computing-foundation, #cloud-native-computing, #cncf, #computing, #developer, #free-software, #google, #google-cloud-platform, #kubernetes, #priyanka-sharma, #product-management, #tc, #web-services

0

Google Pay gets a major redesign with a new emphasis on personal finance

Google is launching a major redesign of its Google Pay app on both Android and iOS today. Like similar phone-based contactless payment services, Google Pay — or Android Pay as it was known then — started out as a basic replacement for your credit card. Over time, the company added a few more features on top of that but the overall focus never really changed. After about five years in the market, Google Pay now has about 150 million users in 30 countries. With today’s update and redesign, Google is keeping all the core features intact but also taking the service in a new direction with a strong emphasis on helping you manage your personal finances (and maybe get a deal here and there as well).

Google is also partnering with 11 banks to launch a new kind of bank account in 2021. Called Plex, these mobile-first bank accounts will have no monthly fees, overdraft charges or minimum balances. The banks will own the accounts but the Google Pay app will be the main conduit for managing these accounts. The launch partners for this are Citi and Stanford Federal Credit Union.

Image Credits: Google

“What we’re doing in this new Google Pay app, think of it is combining three things into one,” Google director of product management Josh Woodward said as he walked me through a demo of the new app. “The three things are three tabs in the app. One is the ability to pay friends and businesses really fast. The second is to explore offers and rewards, so you can save money at shops. And the third is getting insights about your spending so you can stay on top of your money.”

Paying friends and businesses was obviously always at the core of Google Pay — but the emphasis here has shifted a bit. “You’ll notice that everything in the product is built around your relationships,” Caesar Sengupta, Google’s lead for Payments and Next Billion Users, told me. “It’s not about long lists of transactions or weird numbers. All your engagements pivot around people, groups, and businesses.”

It’s maybe no surprise then that the feature that’s now front and center in the app is P2P payments. You can also still pay and request money through the app as usual, but as part of this overhaul, Google is now making it easier to split restaurant bills with friends, for example, or your rent and utilities with your roommates — and to see who already paid and who is still delinquent. Woodward tells me that Google built this feature after its user research showed that splitting bills remains a major pain point for its users.

In this same view, you can also find a list of companies you have recently transacted with — either by using the Google Pay tap-and-pay feature or because you’ve linked your credit card or bank account with the service. From there, you can see all of your recent transactions with those companies.

Image Credits: Google

Maybe the most important new feature Google is enabling with this update is indeed the ability to connect your bank accounts and credit cards to Google Pay so that it can pull in information about your spending. It’s basically Mint-light inside the Google Pay app. This is what enables the company to offer a lot of the other new features in the app. Google says it is working with “a few different aggregators” to enable this feature, though it didn’t go into details about who its partners are. It’s worth stressing that this, like all of the new features here, is off by default and opt-in.

Image Credits: Google

The basic idea here is similar to that of other personal finance aggregators. At its most basic, it lets you see how much money you spent and how much you still have. But Google is also using its smarts to show you some interesting insights into your spending habits. On Monday, it’ll show you how much you spent on the weekend, for example.

“Think of these almost as like stories in a way,” Woodward said. “You can swipe through them so you can see your large transactions. You can see how much you spent this week compared to a typical week. You can look at how much money you’ve sent to friends and which friends and where you’ve spent money in the month of November, for example.”

This also then enables you to easily search for a given transaction using Google’s search capabilities. Since this is Google, that search should work pretty well and in a demo, the team showed me how a search for ‘Turkish’ brought up a transaction at a kebab restaurant, for example, even though it didn’t have ‘Turkish’ in its name. If you regularly take photos of your receipts, you can also now search through these from Google Pay and drill down to specific things you bought — as well as receipts and bills you receive in your Gmail inbox.

Also new inside of Google Pay is the ability to see and virtually clip coupons that are then linked to your credit card, so you don’t need to do anything else beyond using that linked credit card to get extra cashback on a given transaction, for example. If you opt in, these offers can also be personalized.

Image Credits: Google

The team also worked with the Google Lens team to now let you scan products and QR codes to look for potential discounts.

As for the core payments function, Google is also enabling a new capability that will let you use contactless payments at 30,000 gas stations now (often with a discount). The partners for this are Shell, ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, 76 and Conoco.

In addition, you’ll also soon be able to pay for parking in over 400 cities inside the app. Not every city is Portland, after all, and has a Parking Kitty. The first cities to get this feature are Austin, Boston, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., with others to follow soon.

It’s one thing to let Google handle your credit card transaction but it’s another to give it all of this — often highly personal — data. As the team emphasized throughout my conversation with them, Google Pay will not sell your data to third parties or even the rest of Google for ad targeting, for example. All of the personalized features are also off by default and the team is doing something new here by letting you turn them on for a three-month trial period. After those three months, you can then decide to keep them on or off.

In the end, whether you want to use the optional features and have Google store all of this data is probably a personal choice and not everybody will be comfortable with it. The rest of the core Google Pay features aren’t changing, after all, so you can still make your NFC payments at the supermarket with your phone just like before.

#android, #apps, #artificial-intelligence, #austin, #bank, #boston, #citi, #computing, #exxonmobil, #google, #google-pay, #minneapolis, #mobile-payments, #online-payments, #p2p, #portland, #product-management, #shell, #tc, #up, #washington, #washington-d-c

0

5 UX design research mistakes you can stop making today

A recent article in Entrepreneur magazine listed “inadequate testing” as the top reason why startups fail. Inadequate testing essentially means inadequate or sub-par user research that leads to poor UX design which, not surprisingly, usually ends in failure. While working with startups and tech companies, I have also seen how even when people know how important user research is, they may not necessarily know how to conduct it in optimal ways.

Let’s look, then, at some of the biggest UX research mistakes companies make and what I wish I had known when I first started.

Conduct UX research early and throughout product development

When considering any potential product or service, it’s best to get certain questions answered as soon as possible. Is it actually going to be something useful and feasible for the target users and their organizations? Are your initial; assumptions correct? Ideas that seem good at first may not seem so great after research, and many commonly criticized failures were likely results of insufficient research. This is why it’s vital to begin user research early before product development has even begun.

While it is important to conduct foundational research early on, you also want to make sure to conduct evaluative research by continuously testing your product as you build or upgrade it. One of the reasons why Google products product like Gmail or YouTube are relatively easy to use for most people is that Google has teams continuously testing their products, making sure that their users know where to find what they’re looking for.

Don’t do all of the user research yourself

One of the mistakes I see many startups and entrepreneurs make (and that I myself made early on) is doing all of the UX research themselves. In some ways, books like Lean Startup” have bolstered this tendency by stressing the need to “get out of the building” and get to know your users. In itself this isn’t a bad idea—it’s good to know who your users are and to build empathy for their experiences. Likewise, this isn’t to say that you should not do any research yourselves.

However, you also want to be sure to complement that by having professional, third party UX researchers do research for you as well. When you are heavily invested in your research, as you invariably would be if it is your own product, it is difficult to conduct it in an unbiased way. And when your research participants know that you are asking them about your own project, they are not likely to provide you with good signal that can actually help you improve your product.

#column, #customer-experience, #developer, #entrepreneurship, #market-research, #product-management, #startups, #tc, #user-interfaces, #user-research, #ux

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Indianapolis-based Malomo raises $2.8 million to turn order tracking into a branded customer experience

Yaw Aning, named Malomo, the service he launched for small businesses to turn their order-tracking services into branded customer experiences, as a tribute to his mother, who was a small business owner herself.

“Malomo” means flowers in Swahili and it was the name of Aning’s mother’s small soap making business which she built over the years — even as she was battling the cancer to which she would eventually succumb.

The small Indianapolis startup has just raised $2.8 million to expand its services providing a new marketing channel for the Shopify retailers of the world who can always use more ways to reach new customers, Aning said.

The financing came from the San Francisco-based firm, Base 10, and New York’s Harlem Capital, along with commitments from previous investors Hyde Park and High Alpha.

Aning came to entrepreneurship as an Orr Fellow, an Indiana program that takes ten graduates and places them in high growth companies. While Aning worked in corporate finance, he was always interested in the startup world and started is first company, Pocket Tales, an online reading game for children.

That business was followed by a Sticks and Leaves, a web design agency that gave Aning his first view into the opportunity that order tracking presented as a space for a better customer experience.

Along with co-founder Anthony Smith, Aning built a service that connects with a single click to the Shopify platform and creates custom, branded tracking pages for each brand. “It’s a landing page for a brand. They use it like they would use any marketing asset,” Aning said. “The strategy is to build up integrations to the other tools merchants use to create rich experiences leveraging those tools.”

 

#brand, #business, #co-founder, #corporate-finance, #customer-experience, #indiana, #indianapolis, #marketing, #pocket-tales, #product-management, #san-francisco, #shopify, #tc

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Imran Khan’s Verishop adds “Verified Shops”, a way for up-and-coming brands to set up shop in its “digital mall”

Verishop, the Los Angeles online retailer founded by former Snap executive Imran Khan, launched a little over a year ago to change the way people shopped online. Now the company is launching a new initiative called “Verified Shops” which looks to change the way that up-and-coming retail brands can sell their wares. 

As direct-to-consumer and upstart brands look for new ways to sell, they’re increasingly turning to online partners to grow their businesses. Chiefly, the concern is that some retailers have been overrun with counterfeit products or unauthorized sellers that undercut pricing and dilute the brand’s value with knock-off products, the company observed.

So Khan set out to change the selling experience for these new companies that want to have a better way to communicate with their potential customers… a way to really tell their story online.

“We started with the big brands,” Khan said. “[Now] we’re launching ‘Verified Shop’ where any DTC brands can sell on our platform. They have to get through an approval process and verify that you’re a real direct to consumer brand you can  sell on the platform.”

That pitch appealed to retailers like David Manshoory, the founder of the popular cosmetics brand, Alleyoop.

“Right now we don’t work with any other ecommerce retailers,” said Manshoory. “Verishop was the first online only retail partners, because they’ve got a really large audience of customers that are in our demographic.”

The year-old cosmetics brand went with Verishop because the number of retailers and types of sellers on the platform “seemed very curated”, according to Manshoory. “There are brands in there that we recognized and respected.”

The revenue share program that Verishop has created for the newer, smaller consumer brands that join the platform is also straightforward, Manshoory said. Brands in the Verified Shops channel only pay when they make a sale  and it’s just 10 percent to 15 percent, depending on the category, according to the company. 

“Because they’re not buying inventory upfront they take a lower cut… which was a reason why i was attracted to it,” said the cosmetics company founder. “We can get started right off the bat once the integration is up… we have full control over our store.”

Verishop also managed to win over other online direct-to-consumer darlings like Greats (which was recenty acquired by Steve Madden), Dagne Dover, Athletic Propulsion Labs, Judy, and The Ridge.

“Ecommerce still starts in 1990,” said Khan of the traditional shopping experience. “It’s a search-based experience that’s phenomenal if you know what you’re looking for.” However, as brands proliferate and consumers look to identify with particular brands and brand stories more closely, the question becomes how to find those new companies that are selling the types of products that resonate with particular shoppers.

It’s the question that Verishop has set out to solve and the company is hoping that Verified Shops can be the onramp for the newest consumer brands to reach a millennial audience. Think of it as an online mall where a curated shopping ecosystem exists for each brand to develop its own digital storefront and tell its own story.

“Right now we sell fashion and home and beauty, but longterm why can’t you buy a car?” Khan asked. “It’s this virtual mall or virtual shopping strip that you can walk through and discover and learn and hang out. We let the brands tell the story and let the consumers discover the stories.”

Unlike other attempts to create a front end digital storefront experience for brands, Khan said that Verishop is differentiated by its focus on a backend ecommerce infrastructure and logistics capabilities that other virtual malls can’t match.

Brands can apply to appear on Verishop and once they’re selected as verified shops they’ll have the chance to tap into a customer base that’s mostly comprised of Gen Z and millennial shoppers.

#articles, #athletic-propulsion-labs, #brand, #counterfeit, #crime, #e-commerce, #executive, #graphic-design, #imran-khan, #los-angeles, #marketing, #online-retailer, #online-shopping, #pricing, #product-management, #steve-madden, #tc

0

The Shed is a startup out of Virginia trying to revive the rental-for-everything business

Reducing consumption by expanding the notion of the rental economy and giving people access to tools and equipment has been something of a startup holy grail for some time.

It’s a model that’s worked famously well for fashion and accessories (just ask investors in Rent the Runway), but has had not had the same resonance for white label goods.

The Shed, out of Richmond, Va., hopes to change that.

Launched by Karen Rodgers O’Neil, a longtime marketing executive, and Daniel Perrone, a serial entrepreneur and technology executive whose previous company, BroadMap, was acquired by Apple; The Shed hopes to take the rental model that Home Depot has turned into a billion dollar business line and take it to the masses.

Unlike Home Depot, The Shed touts its presence in eight categories. Stanley Black & Decker is a marquee early partner and the company’s executives said that others have come on board.

“We don’t buy product,” said Perrone. “We take delivery of all the products and rent them out in the local marketplaces where we do business.”

The only thing the manufacturer provides is the products and some servicing starter kit so that The Shed and its employees can manage and maintain the product.

The Shed founders Karen Rodgers O’Neil and Daniel Perrone. Image Credit: The Shed

Since its launch in April the company has expanded beyond its Richmond, Va. home base to Denver — and will be looking to expand further into Portland, Austin, and San Jose, according to Perrone.

Among the features that the company intends to roll out as it expands is a dynamic pricing capability that will enable manufacturers to wring the most out of their goods when they’re in high demand.

Rodgers O’Neil came up with the concept back in 2012 when she was working as a marketing executive for General Electric out of Boston.  Perrone met Rodgers O’Neil at a networking event in Boston and became convinced that her notion of offering more rental options to encourage a more circular economy and reduce consumption was something that could resonate with consumers.

To be sure, The Shed isn’t the first company to attempt to bring the rental business to a broader array of consumer products in an effort to cut down on consumption. The Los Angeles-based startup Joymode was attempting to do much the same thing. That company sold to an early stage investment firm out of New York.

Joymode’s chief executive, Joe Fernandez spoke about the difficulty of running the business. “Part of the thesis was that by making things available for rental, people would want to do more stuff,” said Fernandez, but what happened was that consumers needed additional reasons to use the company’s service, and there weren’t enough events to drive demand.

By contrast, The Shed isn’t owning any of the inventory, just acting as a broker and managing inventory between local retailers and manufacturers who want to take advantage of the company’s service.

In addition to Stanley Black & Decker, companies like Primus camping equipment have placed their products on The Shed along with Mobility Plus, which added wheelchairs and mobility scooters; and Replacements, the largest china dealer in the country, which is offering a “Party in a Box” for dinner, cocktail or tea parties.

To date, the company has raised $1.75 million from investors and entrepreneurs from the Richmond, Va. area. Now, with 60 manufacturers on board and another 15 to 18 vendors signing up monthly, the company is looking to expand even further.

“I joined with Karen because I saw that this would be a game changer in the rental space,” said Perrone. There are a number of retailers in specific verticals that still don’t transact online, so The Shed becomes their avenue to reach the market, he said.

#apple, #articles, #austin, #boston, #brand, #broadmap, #broker, #business, #consumer-products, #denver, #general-electric, #graphic-design, #home-depot, #joe-fernandez, #joymode, #los-angeles, #marketing, #new-york, #portland, #product-management, #richmond, #san-jose, #tc, #virginia

0

What can growth marketers learn from lean product development?

Old-school approaches to marketing were often described as “spray and pray.” Marketers would launch a massive campaign in as many places as possible and hope that something worked.

More customers would show up, so it would appear that something had in fact worked.

But nobody could be sure exactly what that something was.

When we can’t predict what will have an impact, we need campaigns that cover all the bases, and those campaigns are consequently huge. They take a long time to create, are expensive to launch and come chock full of risk.

If a spray-and-pray campaign is a total failure (and we don’t have to go far to find examples of those), it’s quite possible an entire year’s worth of marketing budget has just been wasted.

Instead, marketers need to take a page from lean product development and begin creating Minimum Viable Campaigns (MVCs). Rather than wait until a massive multichannel launch is perfect, we can incrementally release a series of smaller, targeted, data-driven campaigns.

Over time these MVCs coalesce to look and act much like a Big Bang-style campaign from the spray-and-pray days, but they’ve done so in a much more data-driven and less risky way.

What exactly is an MVC?

Just as with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), it can be easy to misunderstand the real definition of an MVC. It’s not something thrown together with no regard for brand standards or strategic goals, and it’s not a blind guess.

Instead, a good MVC represents the smallest amount of well-designed work that could still achieve some of the campaign’s goals. Before we have any chance of figuring out what that looks like, we need to know the ultimate goal of the bigger campaign or initiative. If we don’t know this, we can’t possibly measure the effectiveness of the MVC.

#column, #entrepreneurship, #growth-marketing, #lean-startups, #marketing, #product-management, #product-marketing, #social-media, #startups, #tc, #verified-experts

0

Red Antler’s Emily Heyward explains how to get people obsessed with your brand

If you’re currently building a startup, you know what product you want to build. But do you know if people are actually going to notice you? That’s the question I asked of Red Antler co-founder Emily Heyward during our virtual TechCrunch Early Stage event.

In case you’re not familiar with Red Antler, Heyward’s branding company has worked with some of the most iconic startups of the past decade, such as Casper, Allbirds, Brandless and Prose. She knows her topic so well that she just wrote a book on branding called “Obsessed.”

Let me break down the key takeaways of her presentation and responses to questions from our virtual audience — we’ve embedded a video below with our entire conversation.

Branding matters — anybody can launch a startup

It has never been easier to launch a startup. If it’s a software company, your infrastructure will be managed by a cloud hosting company. If you’re selling consumer goods, you can find manufacturing partners more easily than ever before.

“There are fewer traditional gatekeepers standing in your way. You don’t need to be able to afford a national TV campaign to get people to notice you and to hear about you. It’s a lot easier to get it out there and start selling directly to people,” Heyward said.

The result is that there are many companies competing in the same space, launching around the same time. Casper isn’t the only online mattress company anymore for instance. Brand obsession can set you apart from the rest of the crowd.

#airbnb, #brand-marketing, #casper, #emily-heyward, #graphic-design, #growth-marketing, #product-management, #red-antler, #startups, #tc

0

Founders can raise funding before launching a product

It’s possible to raise VC funding even if you haven’t built a real product, according to Charles Hudson, founder and managing partner at seed-stage firm Precursor Ventures. It’s just very, very difficult.

I interviewed Hudson during TechCrunch Early Stage, our virtual event for startup founders. He gave a short talk titled “How to sell an idea when you don’t have a product,” then answered questions from me and from attendees watching at home.

Hudson said Precursor invests in about 25 startups every year and that a majority are pre-launch and pre-traction. So when he’s considering startups where there “isn’t any evidence or traction,” he and other investors are basically considering two things: How well the founder knows the industry, and how well the investors know the founder.

Of course, if you’ve already had success and you know everyone on Sand Hill Road, it might not be that hard to get that first check. But what about everyone else?

Below, I’ve quoted some highlights from Hudson’s thoughts about how to raise money pre-product. You can also watch the full presentation/conversation at the end of this post.

‘You need to have a unique and durable insight that will still be true in 12 to 18 months’

You need to have a unique and durable insight that will still be true in 12 to 18 months … The unique part is important because you still haven’t launched your product yet. And so whatever it is that you’re doing, if it’s not unique, if it’s a really obvious insight, you’ll probably have 10 or 12 competitors that are launched in the market by the time you get your product out.

#charles-hudson, #entrepreneur, #entrepreneurship, #extra-crunch, #fundraising, #marketing, #precursor-ventures, #product-management, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-early-stage, #venture-capital, #zenefits

0

Building your startup’s customer advisory board

A customer advisory board (CAB) can be an invaluable resource for startups, but many founders struggle with putting together the right group of advisors and how to incentivize them. At our TechCrunch Early Stage event, Saam Motamedi, a general partner at Greylock Partners, talked about how he thinks about putting together the right CAB.

“We encourage all of our early-stage companies to put this in place,” Motamedi said. The goal here is to speed up the process to get to product/market fit since your CAB will provide you with regular feedback.

“The idea here is [that] you have this feedback loop from customers back to your product where you build, you go get feedback, you iterate — and the tighter this feedback loop is, the faster you’ll get to product-market fit. And you want to do things structurally to make this feedback loop tighter, starting with a CAB.”

Motamedi said a CAB should consist of about three to six customers. These should be “luminaries or forward thinkers” in the market you are serving. “You add them to the CAB — you might give them small advisory grants — and they become stakeholders and give you feedback as you work through the early stages of product development.”

Image Credits: Greylock Partners

As for the people who you put on the CAB, Motamedi suggests first setting the right expectations for the board.

“There are three components. Number one, the most valuable thing you can get from these customer advisors is their time. So the first piece is you want them to commit to a monthly cadence, that could be 60 minutes, it could be 90 minutes, where you’re going to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to come to the meeting, I’m going to bring two of my teammates, we’re going to show you the latest product demo, and you’re going to drill us with feedback. We’re going to do that once a month.’  […] And then piece two is this notion of customer days, you could do quarterly, you could also do twice a year.

“The idea is you want to bring the customers together. Because if you and I are both CIOs at Fortune 500 companies and we independently react to a product, that’s one thing, but if we sit in a room together, we all look at the product together, there’s going to be interesting data amongst us as customers and the founder is going to learn a lot from that.[…] And I think the third piece is just an expectation that as the company progresses and product maturity increases, that folks on the CAB are going to be advocates and evangelists for the company with their customer networks.”

Motamedi recommends outlining those expectations in a short document.

#entrepreneurship, #events, #extra-crunch, #greylock-partners, #growth-and-monetization, #growth-marketing, #marketing, #product-development, #product-management, #saam-motamedi, #startups, #tc, #techcrunch-early-stage, #verified-experts

0

Email is broken and Hey’s Jason Fried is here to fix it

Email is a critical tool in modern-day communications, so it’s natural that many entrepreneurs have tried to overhaul it over the years.

In the last decade, email client Mailbox came and went, Slack launched to try to give people an alternative to email and Superhuman emerged to help people more easily reach the promised land of Inbox Zero.

The latest startup to tackle email is project management software maker Basecamp, which launched Hey last month. Within its first 11 days of release, Hey received 125,000 signups, Basecamp founder and CEO Jason Fried tells TechCrunch. Those initial days also included some drama with the Apple App Store, but that’s not what this story is about. Instead, it’s about Hey’s approach, why Fried felt the need to try to rebuild email from the ground up and how he approaches product development.

“The last time people were really excited about email, really, in a broad scale was 16 years ago when Gmail came out in 2004,” Fried says. “I remember it feeling different in a lot of ways. It was really fast, they had archiving, which was a new concept at the time. It worked differently than what I was coming from, which was Yahoo Mail, which was sort of stuck in the past. And I think that’s where Gmail is today — stuck in the past and we’re trying to bring out something brand new with new thinking and new philosophies and a new point of view.”

At its core, Hey is about giving people control over their email and minimizing clutter so users can hear from the people who matter most, Fried says. But control comes at a price: Hey costs $99 per year, with additional fees for three- and two-character email addresses (two-character email addresses are $999 per year and three-character addresses are $349 per year).

“We got a taste of our own medicine because it was not cheap to buy hey.com,” Fried says. “So anything that short in the domain world just costs more. It’s like beachfront property almost, because it’s scarce — more desirable. So given that we have a three-letter domain, two- and three-letter email addresses are just going to cost more. There’s fewer of them and they’re more desirable.”

Hey’s current iteration is targeted toward individual users, but by the end of the year, the plan is to launch a formal enterprise version with collaborative features like shared messages and inboxes. In this unified Imbox (not a typo), people will be able to specify that they don’t want to see work email past a certain time or on weekends.

“A lot of email is collaborative in nature,” Fried says. “People end up forwarding emails around to show someone to get their take. We think that’s totally broken and really antiquated. So we have some stuff built into Hey for work, which lets people share threads with one another in a very different way and be able to have backchannel conversations about threads without having to have those conversations in another product or somewhere that is separate from the actual thread itself.”

There’s much more to this conversation, like how Hey landed on its hypothesis, why control is so important, how email shouldn’t feel like work and more. Below are Fried’s insights.

#basecamp, #developer, #email, #extra-crunch, #hey, #jason-fried, #market-analysis, #product-management, #productivity, #startups, #tc, #work

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Long-term profitability is the only growth metric that matters

Your company’s one metric that matters (OMTM) shouldn’t be return on investment (ROI), return on ad spend (ROAS), net promoter score (NPS), brand affinity or one of the other sophisticated-sounding acronyms marketers use to gauge success.

Your company’s one metric that matters should be long-term profitability.

Put another way, your business should be singularly focused on how much money it can return to its owners, investors and shareholders. Sounds obvious, right?

You’d be surprised: A majority of Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley startup marketing budgets aren’t optimized for long-term profitability.

Instead, budgets are often optimized for secondary or upper-funnel metrics. Besides tracking ROI, ROAS, NPS and brand affinity, many marketers monitor key performance indicators (KPI) like net revenue, customer acquisition cost (CAC), cost per thousand (CPM) and brand recall — none of which directly correlate with long-term profitability.

In fact, many brands’ marketing departments frequently omit the word “profit” all together from the line items and KPIs in their monthly performance reports.

A good way to think about the futility of the KPI status quo is the following fictional scenario, which reflects the marketing and advertising playbooks of a shockingly large segment of American businesses: Main Street Shoes spends $100 on a Facebook ad campaign to promote a new line of sneakers to Jack and Andrew. As a result of the retailer’s Facebook ad campaign, Jack and Andrew each spend $100 to buy new sneakers.

#advertising, #column, #customer-lifetime-value, #extra-crunch, #growth-and-monetization, #growth-marketing, #ltv, #marketing, #product-management, #retail, #startups, #verified-experts

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In uncertain times, jump start your SEO

As a result of the current economic volatility many startups and even established companies are proceeding with caution on paid marketing that is typically lower in the purchase funnel. Sales and funnel and buying behavior has changed and it is hard to have confidence in advertising models that used to work at the beginning of the year.

Therefore, this is an ideal time to develop or ramp up organic search engine optimization efforts. If you have not yet invested in SEO, these are the seven steps you can take immediately to get started.

1. Get your search data house in order

Tools to help you organize your search data include Google Search Console. These tools are geared toward helping you get the best type of search data possible by search traffic and performance for your website, as well as identifying issues that you can fix to improve your Google Search results.

Although there are beneficial tools available that show visibility, which helps you see who ranks on what, those work primarily for tracking competitors. To understand your own visibility as well as the keywords and pages that drive organic traffic to your site, Google Search Console delivers that data.

2. Conduct a technical SEO audit

The goal of a technical SEO audit is to find specific SEO issues that keep your website from ranking. These SEO issues could include things like a missing no-index tag, too many H1 tags, low value pages, 404 errors and duplicate content.

There are many SEO audit tools available that can help you catch these issues. With Google’s ongoing algorithm updates, a technical SEO audit can help ensure your website is optimized for these changes.

#column, #digital-marketing, #extra-crunch, #growth-and-monetization, #growth-marketing, #marketing, #product-management, #search-engine, #search-engine-optimization, #seo, #verified-experts, #web-analytics

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