Startups, especially funded ones, are known for trying tons of flashy marketing ideas to try and draw attention to their idea or product. Whether it's sponsoring expensive parties or hiring celebrity endorsers or spending lavishly on PR, the idea seems to be to make a big splash and get in front of as many people as possible right away.
I'm not here to argue that these techniques have not worked for some people (Foursquare's SXSW unveiling was certainly a success), but a truly underrated startup marketing technique is the consistent email newsletter. I'm not just talking about email newsletter strategies for services firms, but also for social startups like Tumblr, Quora, Twitter, etc or product startups like Chubbies, Warby Parker, etc. It may not be the sexiest startup marketing tactic, but it works.
Many have called email the original social network, and that's because of its effectiveness of tying together large groups of people and how it lends itself to passing around content, and that's why it's so effective for marketing. Email remains the stickiest app of all: we're all on it, checking often, and are likely to click through on compelling content.
If you closely watch any successful social startup, they always seem to eventually start incorporating more and more email newsletters into their marketing. Twitter sends you the best tweets from your network in a given week, Tumblr sends weekly emails with the best posts from around the network, and it seems LinkedIn's online strategy is solely becoming emailing (spamming) posts from thought leaders.
As an example from my life, email is probably the only way I interact with several startups like Quora; I'm sent content every week, and if I'm intrigued, I'll click through and read it -- by using an email newsletter, Quora converts me from someone who would never use the network to someone who racks up 3-5 pageviews per week. In addition to the immediate boost of getting me there, it also keeps the network top of mind and makes me more likely to randomly check it in the future or advocate it to others. Without that newsletter, I would've forgot about Quora years ago rather than being a weekly reader, casual upvoter, and very occasional contributor.
Many startups think their startup may not be the best fit for a newsletter or they don't have the time to write one, but I'd challenge you to think through your options, and you can do it with an easy manual process of just inserting the best content into an email template. Some advice I recently gave to the founder of a website that lets you create and curate lists was to send out the most interesting lists each week to the network - for now, it didn't even need to be based on interest, just choose a nice variety. If you're a social-management tool like Buffer, blast out new features and also the most shared content. If you're a messaging app, let users know if other friends signed up this week and update them on new capabilities in the app.
You're working hard on your company each week and users are interacting with your site or product each week; leverage the work going in on both sides by incorporating it into an email. It can be once a week or once per month, but I'm sure that any frequency will drive people back to the app. The big social networks and product companies have demonstrated they value email newsletters, and it's smart for startups to start prioritizing them, too.
I recently read about Buffalo's new business plan competition to try and spur entrepreneurship in the area. It's called 43North and is offering $5 million in total prizes to businesses and a $1 million grand prize. With every municipality east of Silicon Valley undertaking "entrepreneurship initiatives," I'm usually a little skeptical, because they often seem to lack a real system in place and are just trying to capitalize on buzz; a city can launch as many Incubators as they want, but without a network of support, access to funding or mentors, and a community united behind the project, those spaces fail to really spur any true change in an area.
However, after thinking about Buffalo's initiative some more, I think it's a really good idea. And that's coming from personal experience.
My partners and I launched NMC while still in college, and the motivating factor for the company was the Carolina Challenge, a business plan competition sponsored by UNC. We were lucky enough to win that competition and take home the $12,500 prize (essentially $1 million to a college student). I think I can safely say that without the Carolina Challenge, NMC wouldn't exist; however, interestingly, I do think it would exist even if we hadn't won the competition.
That's the beauty of business plan competitions -- they dangle a carrot in front of you that encourages you to do a lot of the hard work up front. We had to spend a lot of time thinking about what we wanted to do, writing our business plan (which quickly got pitched out the window after a few months in business), validating that to judges, and making connections in the local business community as we traversed the competition. All of those things had to happen before we won or lost, and I distinctly remember all of us agreeing to act on our idea regardless of the final outcome, because of all the work we had already put in and the value we saw in it.
Someone getting cheap space at an incubator doesn't necessarily have to go through all those steps, and it makes them less likely to be fully bought in when times get tough (and they will).
And how did that investment from the community turn out? NMC is now 8 years old, employing a dozen people in the area, helping the local tax base, and contributing to the community in many ways (including fun windows). We're not Google or Facebook, but I'd say it worked out well for that relatively small investment, and we've also tried to pay it back to UNC by helping with the competition and speaking to entrepreneurship classes on campus.
There are definitely plenty of ways to spur entrepreneurship in an area and many are cheaper than $5 million, but I really respect what Buffalo is doing and it seems to be outside the box of what most communities are trying (incubators, pitch days, etc.). It wouldn't surprise me if one of the biggest successes to ultimately come out of the process is someone who doesn't win the grand prize. I'm excited to see where this goes!
And your reward for reading this whole post is getting to see what we looked like when we won that competition 8 short years ago (get a haircut, bro)...
One of the nice things about having toward the beginning of the year is that it makes it doubly significant when looking back at the last year. It puts a year in a little more perspective than just, "Oh, I need to remember to write different a different on checks."
I recently saw that Matt Mullenweg of WordPress and Automattic fame has written at least a short post on each of his birthdays for the past dozen years. That's really cool and a good idea. First, it makes you sit down, even if just briefly, and think about the past year. But more importantly, it provides a nice written history on the year that you can look back for as long as this Internet thing hangs on (definitely going to regret that joke when I look back, next year).
Even in its immediate aftermath, it's clear that 2013 and the age of 27 will be one of the most significant of my life. It's crazy to know that right away, but there's no doubt about it that even when I'm 64, I'll look back on this year as a momentous one. I could write for hours and hours on the year, but I'd rather just list the highlights and keep the memories:
Got engaged to a pretty cool girl. It only seems fitting that the first of these posts features her, and I couldn't be more excited for the coming years.
Ran a marathon. It was with said girl from #1, and it was a very difficult and rewarding experience.
Took a vacation to Costa Rica. Again, same girl tagged along. Somewhat of a trend. This was an awesome trip that we took before Sarada started her first year of graduate school. We had a great time and highly recommend the country to anyone. Check out the blog post for details.
Went on a spur of the moment hiking trip on the Tour du Mont Blanc with one of my best buddies. He was changing jobs and gave me one hell of a pep talk to come over to Europe for this hike on just 3 weeks notice. Totally worth it. One week, 3 countries, and endless great memories.
Bought a new car. Went with high-mileage and used, again. The Schossow-special, haha. We'll see how it works out, but I'm loving it so far.
Started decorating our new home. We love our condo in downtown Chapel Hill and this was the year that we started decorating it to make it ours and start slowly parting with old, hand-me-down furniture. It has been a fun process and one I've enjoyed much more than I anticipated. My bank account...not so much.
There were awesome trips, lots of friends' weddings, and plenty more in between all of these things, but I think 7 big life events is plenty for one year!
I'm really excited for the next year. I've got a bachelor party, wedding, and honeymoon, which is crazy and great. Sarada will be moving back from grad school, which will be awesome. I feel like NMC is really strongly positioned for the next year, and I'm excited to work very hard to help it continue growing. I definitely want to write more and stay tuned for updates on the year, here. Also, I've thrown up a Tumblr: http://clayschossow.tumblr.com that I'm really enjoying so far -- it's a great bridge between Twitter and this blog.
In the interview below, Jason Fried makes a new announcement about the next project from 37signals. The company plans to launch a magazine called The Distance, next year. It's unclear if it will be online or offline, but he says they have already hired a journalist to help run it. The focus of the magazine will be profiling private companies that have been around for at least 30 years. Sounds pretty cool if you enjoy reading about businesses.
As someone who just had to (and I mean had to) go through the process of finding a new car, the quote below from a Fortune interview with Marc Andreessen was really eye-opening. Andreesen (an investor in Uber) does a great job of talking through the specifics of how and why there could be mass adoption of car sharing among everyday people. It really does seem entirely possible that in the next 10-20 years, the number of cars needed will be drastically reduced as people rent them only when they need them. Thanks to Fred Wilson for pointing out the interview on his blog.
Fortune: Speaking of cars, you've talked about a shared economy where people will share cars. They won't own cars. You see a little bit of that today, but is that really the way the world's going?
Andreessen: So this is when I get really excited. This is another example of the impact of information transparency on markets. We are 90 years or so into cars. And we drive our cars around. And we own our cars. And then when we're not in our cars they sit parked. So the average car is utilized maybe two hours out of the day. It sits idle for 90% of the time. The typical occupancy rate in the U.S. is about 1.2 passengers per car ride. And so even when the car is in motion, three-quarters of the seats are unfilled.
And so you start to run this interesting kind of thought experiment, which is what if access to cars was just automatic? What if, whenever you needed a car, there it was? And what if other people who needed that same ride at that same time could just participate in that same ride? What if you could perfectly match supply and demand for transportation?
Taken a step further, what if you could bring delivery into it? Two people were going to drive between towns, and there was also a package that needed to go. Let's also put that in there so we can fill a seat with a package. Just run the thought experiment and say, "What if we could fully allocate all the cars, and then what if we could have the cars on the road all the time?"
And of course the answer is a whole bunch of things fall out of it. You'd need far fewer cars. The number of cars on the road would plummet by 75% to 90%. You'd instantly solve problems like congestion. You'd instantly solve a huge part of the emissions problem. And you'd cause a huge reduction in the need for gas. And then you'd have this interesting other side effect where you wouldn't need parking lots, at least not anywhere near the extent that you do now. And so you could turn a lot of parking lots into parks.