Sep 27

Why You Should Pay Attention to TechCrunch Disrupt (Even if You Don’t Like TechCrunch)

I’ve been to quite a few cities and discussed their tech communities with them. The one thing that rings true everywhere you go is this: everyone compares themselves to the Valley. It generally comes up in the first 30 minutes or so of every conversation.

In Austin, we are constantly making the case for why people should move here and invest in startups. I’ve talked with software developers here and in San Francisco, and there is one major difference:

Business acumen.

This isn’t the case for every Austin and San Francisco startup or software developer, mind you. I just know a lot of developers who are happy consulting and/or coding away in Austin. They aren’t making fortunes, but they certainly aren’t starving.

When I talk to many developers (not all, of course) from the Valley, they are savvy to the ways of venture capital and angel investing. They know who is who, what to expect, and how to play the game. It could be because it’s just too expensive NOT to know how to play and they have companies like Google to learn from, but it does give them an advantage.

Paying attention to TechCrunch Disrupt (Sept. 27-29) won’t teach you how to create compelling Facebook fan pages, switch to Rails 3 or give you the latest tutorial on HTML5. Here’s what you WILL learn about:

  • How to actually get money for your ideas. Yes, bootstrapping is a noble idea. It’s good to bootstrap…for a period of time. After a while, don’t be surprised when your competition raises a round of funding and then creams you. Or better yet, they just steal your idea pretty much outright. Disrupt will feature both VCs and angel investors and will help you navigate the system.
  • The triumphs and pitfalls of running a company from the founders of companies like LinkedIn and Zynga.
  • What Google is up to these days.
  • What startups are going to get the next wave of hype.
  • What it’s like to be a woman in tech.

Turns out, Michael Arrington respected me for standing up to the nasty commenters on his “Women in Tech” post. He invited me to be on a the Women in Tech panel this Tuesday, which features some interesting women including Leila Chirayath Janah, the founder of an interesting non-profit called Samasource. The panel is being moderated by Sarah Lacy.

So check out TechCrunch Disrupt this week. Software solves problems, and problems exist everywhere. Viable software startups should be everywhere–in the Valley and beyond. I’ll be taking notes and so should you.

Sep 14

The Air Jordan Effect–It’s Not Just for Shoes Anymore

Product Development as MarketingPeople often focus on getting huge numbers of followers behind a product. They pour all of their efforts into getting more, often before a product is ready for release. This inevitably amounts to more confusion because your crowd will have different needs, values, and dedication to what you are doing. What does it take to create a great product?

One key person.

The example I frequently use for this is Air Jordan shoes. Michael Jordan is the tour de force that took Nike from being a running shoe company into the biggest athletic shoe company in the world. When he first graduated from North Carolina, Jordan actually had no interest in Nike and instead wanted to pursue Converse or Adidas. Neither company had any interest in Jordan, and it was actually Jordan’s agent David Falk who saw the opportunity in a potential Air Jordan shoe. Jordan was paid $2.5 million over five years, a ridiculous sum for the time.

Jordan’s shoe was black and flashy instead of the standard white. It was different, so different that the NBA actually fined Jordan for wearing them. Oh well, it added to the appeal. Air Jordans have consistently been one of the top selling basketball shoes in the world since their inception. You can find all sorts of generations of Air Jordans still available online.

Nike went after someone they considered the next superstar. It was a risky, irrational move that made them billions of dollars and secured their spot as the dominant shoe company in the world.

By targeting influencers and building products around them versus focusing on building sheer numbers, you’ll know that your product will be able to hold its own versus the competition. Why? You are focusing on the user of the product–not the product itself. Just don’t drop the ball when it comes to taking care of those who end up buying it.

Jul 20

The API is the Software Marketer’s Best Friend

I’m always amazed by how many non-techies at software companies discount an API. I worked at one company where the Marketing Director saw it more of a novelty we could show off to our customers than something we could leverage to our advantage.

What is an API, Michelle?

If you aren’t a techie, an API is an application programming interface. Essentially, depending on the level of integration, you can push and pull data from one software application to another one. For example, if you use a Twitter client, you are taking advantage of the Twitter API. The data is moving to and from your Twitter client to Twitter’s servers because it “plugs in” to Twitter.

Why Does This Matter to Marketers?

Being able to plug into an application means you can add to its functionality and it can add to yours. So if you have a customer relationship management system like Salesforce for managing contacts and you want to integrate with an email marketing software, your developers can build an integration that will push and pull data from one to the other.

As a marketer, you are opening your audience to that other product and you are opening yourself up to their clients. This concept is often called “reciprocal marketing“. It costs you a developer’s time, the time and money it takes to send a newsletter, as well as a possible press release.

Why Does This Totally Rock for the Customer?
Having an API means you can keep your software’s interface clean and easy to use. It can focus on what it is supposed to do well. Then, you can integrate with products that make up for what you lack. The more you integrate with, the more flexible solution you can offer your customer.

A big pet peeve of mine in software is called “feature creep”, which is indeed as frightening as it sounds. Rather than integrating with other products, a software company will add on and add on until it is damned near impossible to figure out. It’s expensive and will leave your customer feeling stupid and frustrated because they can’t make your software do what it supposed to do. Your customer isn’t necessarily stupid–your software architect might just be a big jerk for not taking the user experience into account.

To me, software developers that build rather than integrate are like those dads who refuse to hire people to work on their houses. They are crappy at plumbing and crappy at landscaping and crappy electricians, but dammit! They did it themselves. So what if house visitors have to poke the doorbell six times and yell “rosebud” just to tell you they are at the door?

If you are in software marketing or business development, get familiar with products your customers could use and then consider an integration. It’s a lot cheaper than other forms of marketing and can offer tremendous value to customers.

Jun 15

Web Developers Can’t Sell. Sorry.

I used to work at Dell selling computers to the consumer market. This is the trenches of selling. I could tell you about how your flat panel monitor would reduce eyestrain and cut down power usage and why a Centrino processor would make your computer run cooler and therefore extend the battery life. I dealt with hardcore geeks and some of the least technically savvy people on earth. Needless to say, it was a learning experience.

I’ve also sold ecommerce software to mom and pops and to the likes of the Barack Obama campaign and Crutchfield. That means I’ve had to explain what CSS is to a total newbie, but I’ve also had to explain the exact PCI settings in place for a hosting environment.

I’ve seen too many websites created by web developers and designers who have never had to explain a product to someone. If you are a developer explaining to a developer, that’s one thing. However, too many products on the web are actually consumer products that never seem to escape the echo chamber of the web geek, and that is a shame.

As someone who has been on the phone and answered the questions your website doesn’t seem to answer, here are my tips:
1.) Lead with benefits, not with features. Whether you are developing software or selling it on your website, your focus should be “What problem does my product solve?” Most people don’t come to you looking for specific features. They come to you with a problem. If you lead with features, you are forcing your audience to think in your framework, i.e. software, vs. their framework, i.e. um, fix my stupid problem. It’s like telling someone a car has Fortera TripleTred tires instead of saying “These tires are safer in the rain.” Most people aren’t familiar with that tire so it means nothing to them and you are probable making them feel stupid if you assume they should.
2.) Know your audience. Your app is going to make you rich and famous. You are going to be playing craps in Vegas and drive a fancy car, right? That’s why EVERYONE must buy it. Guess what? Software is really competitive. If you don’t pick a niche and really dominate that niche, your online message AND your app will be a muddled piece of crap.
3.) Don’t get too dumbed down. What is your app and what makes it exceptional? The hardest part to a website is the one-liner, but if you can answer it effectively, you’ll convert a lot more.
4.) Have a brand your employees and customers can be proud to recommend. Yes, this means spending money on an actual designer and forgoing ridiculous stock images of people around a computer. Seriously. Stop it. Even though your app should speak for itself, they rarely do. It’s amazing how many crappy apps have customers because of good branding, and how many good apps have no customers because of crappy branding.
5.) Um, listen. People ask you questions about your software. Guess what? Put the answers on the website. The more frequently a question is asked, the more prominent the answer should be on the site. The better your site is, the less time you can spend on the phone explaining your software to them. Take that extra time to go on vacation. Yay.