Category: Entrepreneurship

50 Post Blog Series on Startup Marketing

In January 2015, I published Startups <3 Customers, a guide to sales and marketing for technical startup people. The goal was to give beginners a ridiculously easy way to understand the fundamentals of building a sales and marketing organization in a B2B startup.

If you’ve read that guide and kicked off sales and marketing at your startup, awesome! You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot more details to be covered, especially when it comes to the nitty gritty of actually executing successful sales and marketing.

To help break it down, I’m excited to kickoff a series of 50 blog posts that cover those nitty gritty details for marketing. Similar to Startups <3 Customers, these posts are designed for folks new to inbound marketing. They’ll help you understand more detail of the many facets of building a world class marketing organization.

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10 Startup Lessons Learned in Boston

imageAfter nearly 7 amazing years in Boston, I’m excited to share that I am moving to the west coast!

Like many who graduate from college in Boston, I stayed here for several years after school. The city is overflowing with tremendous opportunity, especially in technology and entrepreneurship.

Boston will always hold a special place in my heart: it’s where I joined my first startup as COO of influencers@ and then co-founded my first funded company, Attend.com. The last few years in Boston have been a wild ride and I learned more than I could have ever possibly imagined. Among the takeaways:

1. Making traction in B2B comes down to one thing… revenue

It’s simple, but there is no better health indicator for a startup than revenue growth. When quickly analyzing a startup’s performance, revenue (or lack of) can enable you to quickly diagnose what areas of the business are effective vs. weak. It was clear the startups I was working on had legs when we quickly booked early revenue. In other words, “revenue cures all.”

2. Building an inside sales team is a science and an art

Sales can be just as technical as engineering. It involves tremendous training, processes, expertise and resources. Establishing the right sales team organization, putting the proper infrastructure in place and understanding the right KPIs to measure sales performance is a true skill, and I gained major respect for world-class sales people.

3. Doing Inbound marketing is critical, and takes time to get right

Trying to do sales without marketing is like eating cereal without milk. The two functions are so tightly aligned, and marketing done right revolutionizes the ability for sales reps to succeed. I learned a ton about inbound marketing, setting up a content engine, and feeding marketing qualified leads (MQLs) to hungry sales teams.

4. Moving fast can reduce your risk

In early stage startups, I learned to measure performance on a weekly basis. It sounds overly intense, but in that stage, every week counts. Understanding progress indicators (from revenue to qualified sales opportunities to new product features released) can help you understand how to allocate resources. Startups rarely die from trying to move too fast. It happens, but it’s far more likely that a startup will die from moving too slow.

5. Recruiting is absurdly expensive and time consuming

There are few things more challenging for a startup leader than finding the right people to join the team. Between finding them (cold email reach outs, recruiters, LinkedIn), selling the vision, getting to an effective comp package and crafting the right role to leave them beaming with excitement, recruiting can be a full-time job.

6. When in doubt, just get it done yourself

There’s a common dogma that you should try to delegate as much as possible, and I quickly realized that while it’s a good general philosophy to hire by, it’s not always true with the reality of deadlines. Leading a startup is a mix of personally cranking through tasks to get them done, and building systems and processes that empower the people around you to get things done faster and smarter.

7. Understanding legal docs is crucial

Especially for those who are more product-driven, few things are more boring than legal. During my time in Boston, I got to dive into lots of legal documents, from vendor agreements to bylaws. There is simply no way around it: running a startup means understanding every aspect of everything you sign. No excuses. Read and ask lots of questions.

8. Never be cheap on basic office comforts

Items like snacks and water coolers and other office comforts, even in the very early stage, make a big difference for the team. The cost is so relatively low, and the impact is so high. Don’t even give it much thought – just buy whatever is going to keep your team happy, focused and productive.

9. Surround yourself with mentors that are doing the same thing at a later stage

I found that the best mentors were often the ones that were currently operating a company at a slightly later stage than whatever I was working on at the time. This gave them fresh experience and a real-time pulse on the challenges a startup leader is facing now. The power of “pay if forward” mentorship helped me through the toughest challenges.

10. Developing technical and non-technical skills is a winning combination

Often, the most valuable people in startups understand the basics of both technical and non-technical skills. Being involved in a technology startup, everyone should understand the core of how software works. Simultaneously, in a sales-driven environment, everyone technical should understand the core of how sales works.

On a more personal note, I am going to miss my friends and mentors in Boston… it’s truly a special place and I can’t express enough gratitude to everyone in the entrepreneurship community there who helped me along the way.

It’s a new chapter: I’m thrilled to be in San Francisco and can’t wait to learn as much as I can. If you’re reading this and you’re  in the Bay Area, shoot me an email – I would love to meet you!

Value of Learning to Code

imageAnyone in sales knows the importance of a good CRM. If we don’t log all of our interactions with a lead, we’ll have absolutely no recollection of where we left off in the conversation. At Attendware, we use Pipedrive and meticulously track everything that we do. Recently, I realized that I have many other conversations, meetings and interactions with people outside of sales, and sometimes struggle with the same challenge of remembering key points and keeping action items organized.

I decided that I wanted a version of Pipedrive for non-sales interactions. Whenever I meet with a mentor, have a call with a potential teammate, etc, I wanted to be able to log it. Basically, I wanted a personal CRM. So I took to Google and began scouring the web for an existing product. It seemed like the best solution out there is Highrise by 37 Signals, which may be a good tool, but is also far more cumbersome than what I needed.

After feeling a bit discouraged from my failed search, I suddenly realized – “This would be a pretty simple app… I could just build it myself. I bet I could finish the whole thing in a day.” I started outlining the app and discovered it would indeed be quite simple: just a database table of contacts and a table of interactions. I’d need to be able to add new contacts, log meetings or phone calls, add notes and a date… nothing that a little PHP and MySQL can’t handle. I used the cliché Twitter Bootstrap front end framework and cranked through the code Saturday night and Sunday morning. By lunch on Sunday – ContactCRM existed! 

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I am by no means a professional back-end developer. I have no formal training and learn as I go by reading tutorials and searching for examples on Google. However, in just a day, I was able to create this tool that solves a legitimate problem and provides real value for myself. Just like being able to fix your own sink or build your own patio, knowing how to code can become a household skill that is no longer reserved for career programmers. Imagine the possibilities as many people pick up the skills to build their own software for personal use. It might even be how some of the future’s great companies get started.

Creating an Empire

imageNow that Attendware has $1M in funding, it’s time to build a team create an empire in Boston. We are officially hiring 2 teammates: a Full Stack Software Engineer and a Sales & Marketing Specialist. I’ve watched amazing entrepreneurs like Ryan Durkin build world-class teams in Boston for venture funded startups. Drew and I are excited to take the plunge and make Attendware the absolute best team in the city. 

When people ask why they should join us on this journey, I’d break it down to a couple of reasons:

1. We have a tremendous market opportunity.

We closed our funding early and quickly because of how much traction Attendware has received early on. It seems like everyone we talk to – in many different markets – wants a piece of the action. We have barely scratched the surface… this is just the beginning.

2. We are backed by the best investors and advisors in Boston.

.406 Ventures wins. Period. Their track record speaks for itself – they only invest in companies that they are confident can be homerun successes. On top of that, Maria Cirino is one of the finest mentors that one could ask for in Boston.

3. Everything is up for grabs – especially culture.

We are building everything from the ground up. Our first employees will have a huge impact on our company culture as it evolves. So far, our culture focuses around openness, speed and quick iteration to demonstrate tangible results. Plus lots of food to fuel us. And occasional trips to the beach to get ice cream in between shipping iterations of product.

4. We are relentless and don’t stop until we win.

We are a team that works hard – extremely hard. When it comes to teammates, we are immensely picky and go to great lengths to surround ourselves with only the best, hardest working people that have what it takes to grow a product from startup to big success. 

So, if you or someone you know can help take Attendware to the next level and come on board with us, please shoot me an email, I’d love to chat!

Mighty Mentor

“If you can make this print a name tag, MassChallenge would pay to use it for our 1,400 person awards dinner in October” said Cory Bolotsky on a cool fall night this past September. I had recently debuted Sign in App (now Attendware) to the NU Entrepreneurs Club to track attendance and get real-time data on how members are engaging with the organization. At the time, the prototype had nothing to do with name tags. “Here, I even drew up how the admin panel could work if we tracked attendance like this” Cory jumped in and pulled up two mock ups in Photoshop on his laptop. I respond, “Cory this is amazing, thank you so much for putting it together. I don’t really know how to make it print a name tag, but I’ll give it a shot.”

Cory saw the potential in the early version of Attendware and pushed me to grow it. Where I initially saw a side project, Cory saw a business. It was his encouragement and support that took Attendware to our first paying customer. Over the past few years, Cory and I have become great mentors to each other. He joined the NU Entrepreneurs Club as a freshman and got involved in the Husky Startup Challenge (I was the Director at the time). The following year, Cory took over my role as Director when I went on to lead the organization as President. Then I recruited him to join the Student Fellowship at .406 Ventures, where time and again he has demonstrated leadership.

Entrepreneurs need people like Cory to get them across hurdles. People like Cory are an entrepreneur’s cheering section, sounding board and sometimes even become early customers or investors. Cory is a great mentor because he provides tangible feedback and ideas (with mockups!) and is willing to eat his own dog food (use the product for himself and be a real test case). I’m honored to have Cory as a key part of the Attendware story and I know we’ll go on to make him proud.

We’re Venture Funded Entrepreneurs!

Last September, I wanted to learn to code and help the Northeastern University Entrepreneurs Club. So, I built the initial prototype for Sign In App, a software application that easily tracked attendance at club meetings. Now 9 months later, that prototype became my next company, Attendware, and I’m thrilled to announce that we just closed Series A funding of $1M from .406 Ventures.

Together with Drew D’Agostino and soon to be many others, we are building the future of event and member data technology. Attendware is the fastest growing event check in and auto name tag printing software, creating a superior guest experience and saving hours of preparation time for event organizers within higher education, non-profits and trade organizations. We’re proud to be based in Boston and count many local organizations and schools among our first customers.

In the short few months that I’ve been a part of Attendware, there’s already been a tremendous amount of learning. Some of the key lessons so far:

1. Great things can happen by accident

Attendware started as a simple side project for the purpose of learning and having something fun to build. It wasn’t until Cory Bolotsky proposed using Attendware for MassChallenge that it became apparent that the product solves problems for many people, not just the Entrepreneurs Club. It was his encouragement and ideas that helped take Attendware to where it is today.

2. Great things can happen at home

Northeastern University was a perfect launching pad for Attendware. We’ve received outstanding support and mentorship from senior leaders at the university and have leveraged Northeastern to test new ideas and quickly iterate on the product. It was Jack Moynihan and Jack McCorkle in Northeastern’s Alumni Relations office that became our first paying enterprise customer.

3. Great things can happen when you have strong relationships

I’ve gotten to know the partners at .406 Ventures as mentors since sophomore year of college. Over the past several years, I’ve developed a strong relationship with them, and that relationship contributes to their belief in our success and their excitement in investing in first-time funded entrepreneurs.

4. Great things can happen when you’re surrounded by world-class people

Drew D’Agostino and I go back a while… from collaborating at the Entrepreneurs Club to living together for 2 years during college. We compliment each other in technical and business abilities, and have way too much fun working together. I’ve also quickly realized how important one’s real friends, like Matt Bilotti, are when going through the challenge of launching a company and raising money. Additionally, many of our customers and advisors, like Leila Eid and Mike Perry, have become strong supporters and friends.

5. Great things can happen when you take risks

When Jack first asked us for a contract and price to use Attendware at Northeastern, we were pretty scared (especially because we didn’t have a contract nor did we have any clue how to make one). Taking Attendware from project to business has been a stressful and thrilling journey so far, and we’re still at the ground floor. When Drew and I debated on whether to move forward with selling to Northeastern, we said, “Amazing things will only happen if we take risks and try this. All of the successful entrepreneurs didn’t get that way by taking the easy road.” So far, it has proven to be a good choice.

6. Great things can happen when you persist

Everything about launching Attendware has been far more challenging than I imagined it would be. I remember nearly 1.5 years ago the pressure of getting a big enough room for the Entrepreneurs Club’s 150 weekly attendees. Now the pressure is on to close real enterprise sales, manage $1M of investor money and build a high growth technology company. Our relentless persistence in solving problems and iterating have been key to push through.

Being the CEO of a venture backed company is a new and exciting chapter. I’m grateful to everyone that has helped along the way and am so excited for what I’m going to learn from close mentors like Maria Cirino. Here we go…

Being Empowered

image“A few years back, I had the opportunity to get involved with a startup. It was going to be a pay cut but we’d own a big portion of the company. It was risky and my wife and I decided to go for it. Well, that company turned out to be Staples.”

I could feel my heart skip a beat as I listened to Northeastern University’s Board of Trustees Chairman, Henry Nasella, tell this story. Henry eventually became the President and COO of Staples after graduating from Northeastern in 1977. His story is incredible: it epitomizes the risks, rewards and excitement of going out on your own in a startup.

The narrative was fitting for the night. Last Thursday evening, Northeastern kicked off Empower, our most ambitious campaign for the university yet, where we will raise $1 Billion by 2017. The evening was nothing short of mind blowing. Northeastern’s wildly talented Office of Events transformed our Marino Recreation Center into a barely recognizable venue, complete with fog machines, a 30 foot statue and a bar made of solid ice. As President Aoun stood at a podium, multi-colored lights shining from all angles, everyone in the room could feel chills when he explained Empower.

The name has a deep meaning. Northeastern is an institution and community of empowerment, where titans like Henry Nasella set the stage for future generations of entrepreneurs to create their own success. Northeastern is the powerhouse that it is because our alumni entrepreneurs use their success to empower others. This fully clicked for me later in the evening when Northeastern’s VP of Alumni Relations, Jack Moynihan, shared a simple piece of advice: “Greg, never forget where you came from.” Students and young entrepreneurs at Northeastern are empowered precisely because our alumni, like Nasella, never forget where they came from.

It’s an immensely powerful message, and it makes me proud to be husky. It makes me proud and hungry to follow in the footsteps of entrepreneurs like Henry Nasella. It makes me proud that Northeastern empowered us to get there.

The Great Idea Misconception

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“All we need is a great idea!”

This is the starting point for most entrepreneurs, and it is quite misleading. A common belief amongst many of us entrepreneurs is that great startups come because the founders woke up one morning with a brilliant idea. The truth is, few companies were born from a single brilliant idea, and you definitely do not need to have a brilliant idea to be a founder.

Instead, great products and ventures come from listening to a customer with a pain point, and crafting a solution that solves that customer’s problem. Instead of starting with an idea, or even a problem, what if we start by picking a target customer? 

As an example, suppose we want to create a new product for teachers. We are not teachers and we have no clue what teachers want. So we could consider going through a process like this:

1. Go out and talk to teachers

Cold call them, meet with them, and flat out ask them “what causes you frustrations right now?” Many entrepreneurs skip this step, or wait a long time to do it. This should be #1. They will tell us exactly what problems they are willing to pay us to solve.

2. Discover problems

As we talk to more teachers, we’ll quickly uncover a slew of challenges that they have in their jobs. As entrepreneurs, it is our role to be creative and pinpoint which problems should be solved first.

3. Quickly build solutions

From here, we can build a simple prototype solution and test it with teachers. Let them try it and see if they are willing to buy it. If not, we’ll go back and build something else. This concept is the core of lean startup, a key discipline in building successful products.

4. Woo! We have an entrepreneurial venture and new product

Instead of racking our brains trying to come up with the next brilliant idea, we started with a customer we wanted to serve and learned about their problems. They gave us the ideas, and we used our entrepreneurial creativity and drive to build solutions. 

So, when you are thinking about what to do next, instead think about who you want to do it for, and they will guide you towards the right problems and solutions.

A Matter of Attitude

“Is the pizza here yet?!?” I sputtered at the new girl as I ran in and out of 150 Dodge Hall at Northeastern University, preparing for another packed room at the Entrepreneurs Club in the winter of 2012. It was Eileen Han’s first club meeting, and she had emailed me several times before to confirm her attendance. It was obvious that she was nervous; as an international student from Korea, Eileen rarely went to big events with mostly American students, always shy about her beginner English skills. It wasn’t until Eileen sent me the most appreciative follow up email I had ever received, that I even began to comprehend how her attitude enabled her to be so special.

Eileen began to send more emails to members of the Entrepreneurs Club’s leadership team, and before we knew it, everyone knew her name. She would post status after status on her Facebook page, recapping her genuine excitement and gratitude for becoming a part of our community at Northeastern. Truth be told, I had never seen anything quite like it: someone so incredibly excited about EVERYTHING, so visibly thankful for each opportunity she earned – Eileen quickly went from a stranger to a centerpiece in our group. By the end of the year, she was the only member invited to our management team’s BBQ and she received an award for her contributions.

After I graduated and took the helm as COO of influencers@, I knew I wanted the continued privilege of working with Eileen. Thanks to recruiting efforts from Matt Bilotti, Eileen joined our team there as an intern last fall. Similar to the Entrepreneurs Club, she started doing simple things like data entry. She was hungry for more, and quickly took on our accounting, bookkeeping, payroll and bank reconciliation responsibilities. She learned fast and just like at the Entrepreneurs Club, went from stranger to expert overnight. Eileen became known as the “rock” of our team – she would bake a cake when we were struggling with a tough week, and always be there with well articulated words of encouragement, which she called an #Eileenism. Once again, I had never experienced an attitude quite like hers.

Eileen’s success so far can be summed up with one word: attitude. Eileen always, and I mean ALWAYS, has the most optimistic, encouraging, positive attitude. When I am depressed, she is upbeat. She’ll pick you up when you fall and carry you to the finish line. It is that attitude that will enable her to succeed beyond most people’s wildest dreams. Similar to Orit Gadiesh, Eileen’s persistence, genuine positive attitude and caring for others will propel her to the top. Make no mistake – that great attitude will be coupled with a tremendous amount of hard work, staying up after everyone else is asleep to study more english. We can all learn an important lesson from Eileen: if you have the right attitude, you can start with nothing, knowing nobody, and quickly take yourself to a position of importance, where you are respected and valued by all. I’m excited to see all of the great things she does in the future, and I’m proud to call her a friend.

When Cool Doesn’t Cut It

I’ve pitched a lot of crappy start-up ideas. Ideas for products that people didn’t want and were unwilling to pay for. Here’s the problem: the people I pitched to didn’t tell me that my ideas sucked.

Especially in the world of student start-ups, people (myself included) have a natural fear of giving negative feedback. We want to be nice and never hurt someone’s feelings. As a result, when someone pitches us a crappy idea, we might respond with “Cool!” or “Sounds pretty neat” instead of saying what we actually think: “That makes no sense, why would you build that?”

As entrepreneurs, we need people to tell us that what we are building makes no sense. Those that tell us it is “cool” and “neat” are doing us a big disservice by sparing our feelings but letting us continue down a potentially wrong path. We need people to challenge our ideas and make us answer tough questions. That is precisely how we learn and get better.

Here is a good rule of thumb: if you ask someone for feedback, see if they do one of these things:

A) Buy your product (if they are in the target market as a customer)

B) Use your product (if they are in the target market as a user)

C) Introduce you to one of their friends that is in the target market

If the person doesn’t do any of those things, your product doesn’t appeal to them. It doesn’t solve problems or add value to them, and they will not buy or use it. Figure out why and pivot.

I challenge you and myself that next time we hear an idea that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t solve a problem / add value to us, tell the truth. Give the entrepreneur genuine feedback that they can use to iterate and eventually build something we will buy.