Nov 11

Discovering the One Sentence Behind Your Company

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. — Galileo Galilei

An IM popped up on my screen. “Hey Michelle, want to see Heroku?”

“What’s that?”

“Watch this,” messaged my friend.

I sat at my desk at Rackspace in anticipation of…anything. A few minutes later, he sent me a URL. On the page was the following message:

“Hey Michelle. I just deployed this Sinatra app for you on Heroku. Isn’t it cool?”

My head exploded. This wasn’t just “the cloud” — this was the cloud made simple. Here Amazon made the cloud scalable, and some group of guys in a YC startup made it so easy to manage for developers, it seemed like magic voodoo or something. Scary for us in 2009, but so awesome.

I instantly went to my boss and said “We should buy this company” and received a response that will remain confidential. Heroku impressed me so much, I moved to the Bay Area to work there.

Basically, they were scary as hell…

Why was I willing to stake my reputation with my boss who bought almost all of our acquisitions to show him Heroku? It wasn’t because they worked hard. I literally had no idea what technology was under the hood at that time. It was because I saw a product that solved something no one else was solving. Heroku made it simple for developers to deploy, manage, and scale apps. Combine this billion dollar problem with a starting price of free, and Heroku was scary as hell to me.

Product messaging strategy: cracking your purpose in one sentence

Sure enough, Heroku solved this pain point after dealing with it with dozens of high profile clients. Paul Graham invested in them after seeing the same issue of Rails deployment with countless startups.

Creating a pitch deck? Working on website copy? Drafting up a blog post about a feature release? Ensure you’re doing the proper discovery work with this checklist:

  • Check your ego.
  • Talk to your paying customers. Understand their needs. Study the market of what’s out there by reading analyst reports and talking to experts. Know your customer and be honest about the size of the market you can reasonably serve*.
  • Ask yourself, “What is the problem my product/feature solves for people? How does it solve it in a way the market currently does not solve?”

  • No one, not bloggers, customers, investors, not even good employees, care what your product is. Nobody cares about your fluffy buzzwords or simply the size of the industry you are going after. Your team only matters when it comes to one thing — what problem can they solve better than anyone else for the market they serve? Why does it exist, and for whom? Understanding your company’s “reason for being” in one sentence will save you and your employees a lot of grief not only in marketing — it simplifies product, hiring, and other decisions within your company as you scale.

    *hint: this *is* scary. It means you have to say no to a lot of people and money. By defining your market clearly, you will in better position to find more people who will easily say “yes”. Hey, even Amazon started off as a bookseller…

    Resist the urge to unleash the “Ship it Squirrel”

    Sometimes, you just gotta give this little guy a break.

    So go get a haircut and grab your business cards. Go straight to people in your target market, and listen…a lot. Take time and ask questions to define their pain points. THEN practice your pitch. Practice it hundreds of times, or at least dozens of times for feature releases. Look people straight in the eyes, listen to the tone of their voice, and track if they follow up to receive your product. You can’t really serve people if you aren’t even willing to have a conversation with them. The marketing part is much simpler once you get the people part — it’s just putting the message out there at a broader scale.

    Jul 02

    The “If a Feature Falls in the Forest…” Test

    It’s not uncommon among startups to maintain a blissful ignorance or a general disdain for Sales and Marketing. With so many tools and theories about how to run a marketing org, who can blame them? It’s much easier to focus on code. No customer meetings, no complex analytics tools to evaluate.

    It’s about listening, people

    Dog-Grooming-Big-EarsI have met some salespeople that upon initial inspection, seemed as dumb as a box of rocks. Then I heard them on calls and discovered how many questions they asked each customer. I saw how intently they listened, reframed a customer’s needs, and then patiently explain how a product could meet those needs. They followed up when it made sense. And shocker, these people could close. It’s not voodoo — it’s about listening.

    It doesn’t matter how technical you are as a founder. If you can’t name your customers’ top five pain points, you could be coding features no one is using. It’s possible that customers just don’t know about these features, but it’s also possible that customers never needed them in the first place. I guarantee a good salesperson can both name pain points and tell you how savvy customers are with your product in seconds — can you?

    The “If a Feature Falls in the Forest” Test

    treefallsinforestHere’s a test that will likely scare you. Every startup should do it. Heck, every tech company should do it.

    1. Install Google Analytics across both your website and your documentation. Let this collect data for at least a few months.
    2. Find the pages in your documentation and website that mention the features that differentiate your product from other solutions on the market.
    3. Go to “Behavior” -> Site Content -> All Pages.
    4. Search for these pages across your online presence. Look at the percentage of visitors who have even seen these pages, much less actually read about these features and then purchased your product.

    Is this percentage less than two percent? Even half a percent? Think about it — have you spent thousands of hours coding features that prospective customers don’t even know about?

    Playing to an audience

    Sales and Marketing is not about shoving a message down customers’ throats. Solid sales and marketing people listen more than they speak or write. They know which features customers want and know about. Good sales and marketing people don’t dictate what a Product team does, but they can and should serve as allies. After all, why even bother building features if no one actually needs or knows about them?

    Feb 06

    The Humility Ratio — a Litmus Test for Persuasive Copy

    Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.

    — Rick Warren

    It can be easy to be tied up in thoughts of your own company, especially if you are a startup. You’ve lived, breathed, and sacrificed for this place, potentially for years. Startups are also hard. Here’s the difficult part about selling that vision though:

    Customers are fairly indifferent to how smart or noble you are, and how much you’ve sacrificed. They don’t have time for your mission. Customers are just busy, so they come to you for solutions to their problems. Your company exists to serve them.

    What a downer, right? You can pour your heart and soul into a product, and all they care about is whether or not it will save them a few bucks or time, or make them more productive or happy?


    A website is often your biggest opportunity to show that your company fulfills customers’ needs and/or desires. Does it do that? Here’s a good starting point to test:

    1.) Look at key pages of your website. Count how many times you see “we”, “our”, or “us” in the copy, in reference to your company.
    2.) Now, look at those same pages, and count how many times you see “you” or “your”.
    3.) Divide #1 by #2. We will call this “the Humility Ratio”.

    It turns out, “you” is one of the most persuasive words in the English language. People are more receptive when you address them instead of talking about yourself. That’s why successful companies that have a lot to brag about like Toyota to Apple still have solid Humility Ratios. Customers don’t care that these companies took painstaking care to ensure reliability — they care that their car or computer works when it is supposed to.

    So, what’s your company’s Humility Ratio?

    (pic borrowed from the eternally amazing Kathy Sierra)

    Aug 29

    What A Marketer Learns After a Year of Attempted Hacking

    When Rob Spectre took a position as a Developer Evangelist and eventual Head of Devevangelism at Twilio, he learned that good products don’t exactly sell themselves. In this great post about what it is like to be in marketing after being a developer, Spectre declares, “Good marketing is a product of the same inputs as good code; long hours, sweating the details, and the judicious application of experience doing it the right way.” Here, here.

    I am in a similar boat as Rob, in that a large part of my job is not natural for me. As the Product Marketing Manager at Heroku, I felt it necessary to learn some code and actually deploy an app or two. I discovered one thing very quickly.

    Programming is f#@king hard.

    Programming is hard for me because I can’t just negotiate win/wins or write something up that convinces you that you will be more awesome simply by doing my evil bidding. I have to sit for hours on end, ignore IM and all the news and people, and just…learn. Pretty hard to do when you have the attention span of a spider monkey.

    I’m no master by any stretch, but here are some tips for marketers considering learning a thing or two about programming:

    1. Find “Your Way” and Stick with It
    There are no definitive guidebooks in open source programming. There is no one way to do something. One person will tell you you need Xcode or RVM, and someone else will tell you that those are total garbage. Every guide assumes you have a different level of programming knowledge, and they all start at different points. It’s best to stick with a few mentors and guides and just follow them all the way through.

    Chris Pine’s Learn to Program is great because it seems geared for people who have never programmed before. It doesn’t assume you know what certain terms mean already.

    2. Get Familiar with the Tools
    I’m learning Ruby and dabble with Rails, so I use a terminal, the text editor TextMate, my local host, and of course, git and Heroku.

    Every language requires you to install different things on your machine to get set up, and Windows, Mac and Linux are all different. Java developers don’t even use the terminal generally. I’d either make sure you walk through a complete tutorial or ask a friend to help you like I did.

    3. Programming Takes Discipline
    So, you finally get your machine set up and the tools you need to program, possibly in a Frankencomputer fashion if you did not follow Step #1. You finally dig in and start learning. Yay. You get confident, so you start watching “Breaking Bad” on Netflix at night instead of mastering your new language.


    Programming has fundamental concepts that make it easy to understand, but there really is a lot to know before you can even run anything, much less deploy a functional app. If you want to learn, you just have to keep at it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to relearn the same things over and over.

    4. Google and Stack Overflow are Your Friends
    If you don’t know what a programming term means or how to do something, Google it. If you don’t understand what some of the terms mean in the answer, Google them. It seems super wasteful as an exercise, but there is no fast way to get around this and eventually it does sink in a little. Wikipedia is somewhat helpful, but intimidating because everything is explained from a computer scientists’ view.

    There are lots of newbie tips in Stack Overflow. You will get to know it.

    5. Learning to Code, Manage a Database, and Design at the Same Time is Not Possible
    Apps have interfaces and apps have databases. It’s hard to build all of the elements on your own.

    CSS is the style sheet language that gives apps, well, a style. It requires the memorization then subtle nudging of elements on a page. I downloaded this simple theme that consists of one page with some Javascript just to change the CSS. After poking around with it, I have no idea how designers deal with this stuff everyday. Very tedious.

    Data seems fun and useful to me though. Our developers set me up with Heroku Postgres Dataclips so I can poke around with SQL queries without breaking anything. O’Reilly has some decent books on SQL if you’d like to learn SQL concepts.

    6. Be Social! It’s Hard to Learn This Stuff on Your Own
    Google only goes so far, so real friends can help you get the basics down too.

    I hear about code at the lunch table every day and often ask coworkers dumb questions. This means I end up happily playing copyeditor or Analytics nerd for anyone who asks. I’ve also bribed people with cookies and wine for offering up a little help. Reciprocity and gratitude seem key here, so use your best judgment.

    Too shy or too far away from a crew of helpful developers? Rails Girls classes were helpful as well.

    <3 Developers by Understanding a Little About What They Actually Do

    For ten years, I’ve spent my energy keeping up the latest marketing tools, news, and blogs but couldn’t navigate a terminal in the slightest. I do hope to learn more about programming and encourage other marketers to do the same. When we understand how our products are built, we improve feedback loops between the problems customers have and the solutions developers choose to solve them. Everyone is happy and we go eat pie.

    Jul 16

    A Blending of Old Media and New: Why the Old Spice Campaign Worked

    When people call me a “Social Media Consultant”, it makes me cringe. Rather than focus on the medium, I’ve always preferred to focus on the audience, how a product benefits that audience, and then finding what mediums will get that message to that audience. If it’s on social networks, then that’s the medium to pursue.

    Some people thought this campaign was silly. Personally, I found it amusing, but that’s not what struck me the most about it. The Old Spice Man was both on TV and in viral videos. The company obviously spent calculated efforts using both new and old media. This gives me hope.

    I’ve often felt that new media fanatics write off old media as dead. I don’t know. As a business owner, if someone offered me a free TV commercial during “Dancing with the Stars”, I’d take it. The sheer numbers alone would drive traffic and hopefully my website could field people who might not be worth my time.

    People involved in old media describe new media as a “fad”. They see it as a lesser medium, not worthy of the time and money often reserved for old media. They don’t see that it’s leaner but more segmented, and just requires more of a sniper vs. cannon approach.

    The Old Spice campaign used both the cannon and the sniper. It drove mass awareness by using TV commercials and then engaged those masses with a clever YouTube and Twitter campaign.

    I must send props to the people at Old Spice and their agency Wieden + Kennedy for recognizing that these mediums are not mutually exclusive and can actually work best when used together, depending on the scope of your product and the demographic you are pursuing. I’ve worked in places that considered old media dead already and other places that felt new media was a novelty you set up just to say you have it. I’ve worked in places where the new media people seemed to have to compete with the old media people. At the end of the day, all people care about is that you are delivering a message that is useful in some way to them. The medium is irrelevant.

    Jul 07

    Do You Think the Fast Company “Influence Project” Actually Influenced Anything?

    Technology is cool. I love seeing marketing campaigns like Fast Company’s “Influence Project” use it creatively. What I don’t like seeing is a campaign that takes a cool idea and misses the mark in terms of understanding the fundamentals of human motivation and drive. I do not agree with Rohit Bhargava’s assessment that this is a “brilliantly conceived marketing campaign”.

    Essentially, you get a link and the more times people click on the link, the bigger your photo shows up in their influence graph. Now, the graph looks pretty cool, but let’s break down this concept for the end user (the clicker):

    1.) I click link.
    2.) I make your picture bigger for other Fast Company readers to see.


    As someone who loves using technology to make marketing campaigns more interesting, I am not quite sure what the end goal is here. Do people really think true influencers will actually value having their photo show up bigger on Fast Company? Is the Dalai Lama keen on showing you that he has more clout than you? Can you see Alan Greenspan hovering over his computer, furiously spreading his link around to ensure that Bill Clinton does not beat him on the influence graph?

    Influence is something we earn by gaining expertise and by executing on it. It’s also something we can waste if we get too carried away in our own egos. I don’t question that influential people could certainly “win” this contest, I am just not quite sure they would actually care to. It is self-promotion for self-promotion’s sake and reminds me of those weird programs where at-risk kids go door to door and practice their speaking skills for money. Couldn’t they just spend that time selling something? Raising money for charity? Anything?

    So I have to agree with Amber Naslund’s assessment. The graph is a cool idea, but I wish Fast Company appealed to my desire to be helpful rather than my desire to be known.

    *pic from

    Mar 05

    “As Many as Possible” is Not a Marketing Segment

    If you ever hire a PR firm (well, a good one), getting a story in the press feels a lot like an interrogation. Who should this story appeal to? Why should they care? Do you have evidence to back this up? It can feel a bit invasive if all you want to do is get a story out there. The best PR firms are going to interrogate you the hardest because they want to figure out how to pitch a story and to whom so as to maximize impact.

    Often we focus on coming up with the best product or the most creative story. When it comes to the audience, the answer often becomes “as many people as possible”.

    Let’s think of the logic of that. You are a person who obviously hears stories from time to time. How frequently do you hear a story that you like, your neighbor likes, your mom and dad like, and your kids like? How frequently do you watch conservative or liberal TV and go “Man, those people are crazy?” How frequently do you discover lame movies or music on iTunes or real life that someone else is totally gaga for?

    People are much more different than businesses often consider. This is why the “as many as possible” campaign fails.

    Theoretically, you should consider the end user from day one when you actually build a product. By the time you get to actually marketing it or getting PR, the “Who and Why” question becomes easy. Accept the constraints of having an audience to woo and you’ll find the numbers will soon follow.

    Feb 23

    The Sales Process for People Who Hate “Selling”

    I actually really miss selling. Sometimes marketing feels so distant from the actual product and customer itself. It shouldn’t, but it often does, particularly in larger organizations.

    I have been blessed in career to have sold to some really great customers. I don’t look at sales as something “slimy”. There is nothing more gratifying than actually meeting a need that a customer has had for a long time.

    In an ideal world, a great product sells itself. This mentality will hurt you though. Why? Because your competitor may have a product that isn’t good, but has an aggressive sales staff that closes every deal it gets its hands on. For those of you who would like to learn a process to compete against people like these, I’ve broken down my sales process for you:

    1.) Break the ice first. I’ve found breaking the ice varies from region to region. Southern women tend to take the longest, while those in the Bay Area and Northeast want to get straight to the point. If you launch too quickly into your pitch, your intentions to sell are too obvious and you may be wasting everyone’s time anyway.

    2.) Ask questions. This is the most underrated aspect of selling. Ask about problems and pain points that may pertain to your product. Ask budget and time frame. Ask if they are looking at competitors and why. The more information you get, the more specialized you can be when actually solving a problem (which theoretically your product should do).

    3.) Create a solution. Depending on what you sell, this could or could not be complicated. A tip? When you get to this step, you should be able to say, “Because you said you wanted something that __________, I’m recommending ________.” Or you could use “Product X solves (insert customer problem here) by doing ____________. Show how your product solves problems versus merely pushing a solution on someone.

    4.) Clarify that your solution actually does indeed solve a problem. Does your customer still have concerns at this point? Are they satisfied with your solution? If not, return to step #2.

    5.) Ask for the business. Remember that time frame is key for this. If your customer told you they aren’t looking to buy for a few weeks, you can “always be closing” by asking for a follow up appointment instead of a sale.

    I hope this helps. I get really bummed when I see great products floundering because “they aren’t ready yet” or because “they don’t have the time to sell”.

    If you have any questions, just ask. I’m happy to help.

    Dec 31

    The Marketing Weapon of Choice for 2010: Listening

    Hugh MacLeod’s delivery is a little more um, to the point than mine would be. Some people need the message spelled out in black and white.

    When a company first starts using social media, it’s like watching someone’s dad play with his first video camera. They seem to share everything in an attempt to “engage” just to show some results. That’s not a judgment, mind you. Everyone has to start somewhere and it’s just counterproductive to be mean about it.

    The most powerful thing you can use social media for is listening. “Engaging” your audience without fully understanding who they are and how they relate to you is not engaging at all–it is as irritating as the ad that won’t stop blinking on the blog you are reading.

    It is easier than you think to make people to want and need your product. Use tools like Tweetdeck, Google Alerts, RSS, Radian6, Community Insights or ScoutLabs and listen. Track terms in your industry, follow the players who are thought leaders in your space. Understand the current issues occurring in your industry. Create a product that goes above and beyond to solve these issues while not creating lots of other issues. Then show people your product. You can use an ad, a social media guru, whatever. The medium isn’t nearly as important as the message, which is “We are solving these issues you have.”

    Listening and then acting upon what people need is far more powerful than any “engaging” you can do. I predict the companies that do it best will win out in 2010.

    Dec 04

    Be Bobby Fisher Instead of the One Hit Wonder in Your Marketing Campaigns

    marketing chess movesMarketing is like a chess game. You need to set things up first before you can get your big wins.

    That’s why I genuinely don’t focus on numbers until numbers are needed. I focus on what the late and great Elvis would say, “Taking Care of Business.”

    The question we as marketers should not always be “What can I do to get more customers or traffic?” This is an instant gratification response. It feels great to log into Analytics and see that spike, but it isn’t necessarily going to last. The question should be “What messaging should we put across to make our company more sustainable and therefore profitable in the future?”

    Think about it: if I put out one message that gets me 500 customers, great. That’s 500 customers I didn’t have before. BUT, if I put out a message that gets me the passionate lead architect or designer I needed to make my product great, that person has the potential of getting me thousands if not millions of customers with a fraction of the work. My message in a small, obscure community could get me one big investor who helps save my company. Who cares if only five people saw one particular message?

    Each marketing message shouldn’t be about bringing in masses. It can be used to bring in employees, investors, partners, company cheerleaders who essentially do the selling for you, or press fanboys. You’re just communicating. As in chess, a big bold move too soon can make you vulnerable to attack from your enemy. Setting up the pieces first means you are in a better position to let numbers drive themselves.