Thursday, October 23, 2014

How to turn customers into champions | Brant Cooper & Jeremiah Gardner


Branding is so old-school: Superbowl commercials, Maddison Avenue, platinum-plated advertising budgets. Isn't branding a waste of time for a tech startup? Isn't it the opposite of the lean startup approach? Aren't products supposed to speak for themselves?

Not if you want passionate customers, according to Brant Cooper and Jeremiah Gardner. Brant is the New York Times bestselling author of The Lean Entrepreneur and Jeremiah is an agency veteran who's built brands for startups and Fortune 500 companies. In their new book, The Lean Brand, Brant and Jeremiah lay out the new-school of branding by applying lean principles to audience building. They kindly agreed to share some how-to wisdom based on case studies with top tech companies to help you turn your customers into champions.

In the interview, we tackle critical questions like:
  • What does “brand” mean anyway?
  • Why should entrepreneurs care about branding? Don’t they have more important things to worry about?
  • What’s the biggest branding mistake that companies make?
  • How do you find and inspire passionate customers?
  • In all of your interviews and case studies for the book, what was the most counter-intuitive thing you learned?
  • What differentiates The Lean Brand approach? What makes it “lean”?
  • What tools can entrepreneurs use to optimize their brand? Can you give a specific example of a company successfully applying that tool?
  • What’s something you present in the book that few people agree with you on? Why do others disagree and why is your position true?
  • What inspired the book? What was your creative process like?
  • How are you applying the lessons from The Lean Brand to launching the book itself?
  • What have you learned as entrepreneurs that informs your work as authors and vice versa?
  • What are the best books you’ve read recently?
  • What’s the most important question I’m not asking?
Some books we mention:
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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Where to find high-quality journalism on the Internet | Jeff Campagna Interview


Jeff Campagna is an author, journalist, and co-founder of independent startup publisher Compass Cultura. His stories have appeared in The Daily Beast, Smithsonian Magazine, Vice Magazine, The Atlantic's Longreads, Narrative.ly, and many other publications. Compass Cultura is a subscription-based publisher of high-quality, in-depth stories. Everything I've read there so far has been top notch.

I came across a great story by Jeff on the future of travel publishing on Medium (which in itself is an example of the future of publishing). His perspective nailed how the Internet is changing the nature of reporting, news consumption, and journalism's business model. As an author, this is a topic that fascinates me to no end. I reached out to Jeff and he was generous enough to a share a number of insights on what's really going on behind the scenes.

Why is the internet packed with top ten lists, link bait, promotional content, and other crappy stories? Where did all the good stuff go?

I don't think it went anywhere. It's still there. It's just buried. I'm not quite sure what the origin of Internet drivel is. Maybe it's because it's easy to consume. Like candy. Like pop music. Maybe because it's just more entertaining than journalism and informative writing. Maybe it's because, as a species, we are losing our desire to learn. But, good reading is still out here. And good readers are too. And it's not a case of ridding the internet of all the drivel so that the good readers can find the good reading. It's about forging the Internet in such a way that users can find the content they want with ease, whatever that content may be.

What does the future of journalism look like? How is technology shaping that future? What is driving the shift?

This is a massive question. I may be a journalist, and also an independent publisher, but I certainly don't have the qualifications or the expertise to predict the digital outcomes of either. I hope journalism will maintain a certain standard of quality, objectivity and accuracy in an age of speed, anonymity, and openness. Technology is obviously shaping the future of journalism (and everything else for that matter). Users are reading more on their smartphones than on their desktops. This is crazy to me.

How can writers monetize stories? How is this changing? How does business model impact the quality and process of reporting?

There are many ways writers can try to monetize their stories. Patreon, Beacon Reader and Contributoria are all examples of audience-funded (and sometimes even audience-edited) publishers who are embracing the implementation of open journalism in the digital age. I think what they are doing is great. Though I'm not sure if it's the answer. As a journalist, I still tend to rely on the old system of selling a story to an editor who then packages it for the readership of his or her outlet. I guess I still believe in the old-school approach of branded curation. But not because it's the best approach. I'm not sure if anyone in the digital publishing world has really gotten it right, yet.

What is Compass Cultura up to? Who are the other top players and what are they doing?

At Compass Cultura, we are doing our best to offer people higher-quality international and travel-based journalism in an easy-to-read, advertisement-free environment. We're trying to maintain a very tight focus. People have asked us if we license our platform to other publishers (in the way The Atavist licences their platform through The Creatavist) but the truth is, we're not a start-up tech company. We just want to tell great stories. Compass Cultura uses a sub-compact philosophy. We're not the first to do so. BKLYNR is another great example of well-executed sub-compact publishing. We are simply applying new trends in digital publishing to the travel-based journalism sector.

Is there an analog for people writing fiction? What new challenges do they face? What new solutions are out there?

Fiction is a very different animal. The Internet is a perfect vehicle to bring back the phenomena of 19th century serialized fiction, but it's not really being done yet—certainly not by any mainstream authors or publishers. But I think someone should give it a go. The closet relative to sub-compact publishing in the fiction world would probably be Kindle Singles. And some mainstream authors have had success with them. But, fiction is a tough nut to crack.

At the end of the day, what does this all mean for readers? For writers?

At the end of the day, what we are all working towards is a sort of democratization of publishing. Putting the power in the hands of the reader. For the first time in history, publishers can analyze exactly how exactly their readers are interacting with their content. With the invention of the Internet, web analytics and mobile apps, the relationship between content-provider and content-consumer has shifted from being a monologue to being a dialogue. Instead of publishers pushing content to readers, readers are sort of pulling it to them. But, this tool can be used for evil. I mean, web analytics are almost entirely responsible for the horrible state of digital advertising. Clicks, clicks, clicks. Time on site. Bounce rate. These metrics could (and should) be used to improve content quality, not increase ad revenue.

Does your experience as a writer/journalist inform your role as a founder at Compass Cultura and vice versa (i.e. creative <--> business)? Have you learned anything counterintuitive so far?

My journalism background absolutely informs my role as Compass Cultura's founder and creative director. In fact, my experience in journalism was the fountainhead for the project. Though it sounds crass, we publish the kind of content on Compass Cultura that we ourselves like to read. And I do the same as a journalist. I look for, and write, the kind of stories that I enjoy reading.

What's the best story you've read recently?

Well, I may be biased but, the best piece of journalism I've read recently is, without a doubt, Francesca Borri's article on the remnants of life in Aleppo, Syria. She is a very important journalist and her way of educating readers is honest and poetic—in my opinion, the two requirements of great journalism.

What important question am I not asking?

I think an important question to ask, and not just of me but everyone, is: what kind of Internet do we want? It's our choice. Though sometimes the internet feels like such a big place, it can't possibly be controlled. But it can. Do we want an Internet where deceiving native advertising is commonplace and corporate agendas are fed to us without even knowing it? Or do we want an internet that works for us, and not them. An Internet where content is king and high-quality products are easy to find. Of course, both Internets will always exist in some correlation or another. But, to me, the Internet is a castle that you are either building up or tearing down.



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Monday, October 13, 2014

How Startups Get Customers | Justin Mares Interview


Traction is what every entrepreneur wants these days. Whether it's your revenue, acquisition funnel, or engagement numbers, every venture investor demands strong growth rates before writing a check. It's no longer enough to just build a widget and let the world come to you. The most successful new companies are approaching traction with the same seriousness as product development.

Justin Mares is the co-author of Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers (his co-author, Gabriel Weinberg is the founder/CEO of DuckDuckGo). Justin is the former Director of Revenue at Exceptional, a software company that Rackspace acquired for 8 figures in 2013. He has previously founded two startups (one acquired, one bust) and runs a growth meetup in San Francisco. You can find his writing on marketing and personal-development on his blog, justinmares.com.

Justin and Gabe interviewed Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Alexis Ohanian (reddit), Eric Ries (The Lean Startup), Noah Kagan (AppSumo), Andrew Chen, and 40+ other top tech entrepreneurs to inform the lessons they share in the book.

In the interview, Justin and I tackle some of these questions:
  • How can entrepreneurs get new customers for their startups? How can they execute a differentiated growth strategy and find traction?
  • Why is traction so important? 
  • What is the biggest traction mistake startups make? How should they think differently? What's the biggest traction mistake Justin has ever made?
  • What was the most counter-intuitive thing they discovered in their interviews with the top 1% of tech founders?
  • What was their creative process for the book? Any interesting similarities/differences with product development?
  • If Jimmy Wales and Alexis Ohanian had a traction battle, how would the fight go down and who would win? 
  • What have you learned from being an entrepreneur that has informed your work as an author, and vice versa?
  • If authors are entrepreneurs and books are products, what should writers experiment with to generate traction for new books? What are Justin and Gabe doing to launch Traction? What have the results been so far? How can authors get new readers by using traction tactics?
During the interview we mention the following three podcasts:
  • StartUp: Alex Blumberg was a producer for This American Life on NPR before starting his own podcasting company and recording the entire process of founding a new business.
  • It's Not The Product, It's The Person: this episode of This American Life is about starting a startup, Alex is featured.
  • Serial: this is a fantastic new podcast where the host, Sarah Koenig, investigates a real life murder mystery. The plot thickens with every episode.
 Check them out and let me know what you think.


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Monday, September 22, 2014

Accelerate Your Startup | Matt Cartagena Interview


Ever thought of applying to a startup accelerator like Y Combinator or Techstars? Notable companies like AirBNB, Dropbox, and Sendgrid trace their origins back to these top programs. But to outsiders, these programs can be black boxes. What goes on in those three months behind closed doors? What should entrepreneurs know before they apply?

Matt Cartagena is the VP of Marketing for VineUp and the co-author of Accelerate: Founder Insights Into Accelerator ProgramsAccelerate is the first comprehensive guide to leading accelerators and the authors interviewed 150+ entrepreneurs who have gone through the top programs. He generously agreed to share some insider tips and illuminate the world of startup accelerators.

In the interview we cover questions including:
  • Are accelerator programs a boon or a distraction for your startup? Are they worth it?
  • What are the most valuable things that entrepreneurs take away from accelerators?
  • What are the secrets to getting accepted into the top tier programs like Techstars and Y Combinator?
  • How can you best leverage your accelerator to advance your startup?
  • What are the biggest mistakes founders make vis a vis accelerators?
  • Are accelerators replacing MBA programs as the standard for entrepreneurial training?
  • What can authors learn from entrepreneurs and vice versa?
  • How can you leverage Kickstarter, Twitter, and social media to launch a bestselling book?
  • What was it like to publish with FG Press? (FG Press also published Uncommon Stock)
  • What's on Matt's reading list?
Matt probably knows more about accelerator programs than almost anyone around and it was a pleasure tapping his brain. Check out the interview and let us know what you think!



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Thursday, August 28, 2014

I'm shaking in my little space boots

Yup. Space boots. Little ones. Perfect for shaking in.
Seriously, I'm terrified.

I mean sure, there's excitement too. And relief woven in there somewhere. Today I finished writing the rough draft of my second book, Uncommon Stock: Version 2.0. I sent the manuscript over to FG Press and a small cadre of beta readers. The story ripped itself out of me and onto the page. It's the sequel to tech startup thriller, Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0, which came out on March 5th and has been described as "John Grisham for startups."

Did it feel good to get the sequel on paper? Hell yeah. The characters continue to surprise me and the plot took twists I hadn't anticipated. Mara, James, and Mozaik are in a whole lot of trouble. Oh, and Mara's at Burning Man right now so you won't be able to reach her.

It was a fantastic rush to type the last "." But it also scared the shit out of me. Writing a second book is a whole lot different than writing a first one. I wrote 1.0 for myself. I was going to be the only one disappointed if I didn't finish it or the book never saw the light of day. But with a sufficient dose of blood, sweat, and tears, 1.0 did indeed launch.

And what a launch it was thanks to you guys. We didn't spend even $1 on marketing but you sent us to a top ten debut in our category. We have 50+ five star reviews on Amazon, earned great coverage, received shout outs by top authors and tech folks, and established special partnerships with leading organizations like TechCrunch, TechStars, Evonexus, The Startup & Tech Mixer, Startup Books, and others. More than anything else, receiving outreach from readers has been far and above the most energizing part. Messages hit my inbox from folks talking about the story and what it meant to them. Many others demand a sequel ASAP. Seriously, there's no better way to make an author's day.

And that's exactly why I'm shaking in my little space boots. What if my beta readers point out irreconcilable problems in the plot? What if my editor finds a fatal flaw in character motivation? What if fans don't like it? You know all those movies where the originals are awesome but the sequels suck? That is NOT what I want.

I've planned Uncommon Stock to be a trilogy from the beginning. My dearest hope is that each episode gets better and better. It takes time and effort to develop craft as a writer and I want to pour more and more of myself into the story. We're planning for a December 3rd launch date for Uncommon Stock: Version 2.0 and I'm going to be working my ass off between now and then to make the book the best it can possibly be. You deserve nothing less.

In the meantime, I could use your help. Good books find new readers exclusively through word-of-mouth. All our success so far has been 100% due to you guys. Every recommendation you make over happy hour, every review you write, every time you gift the book to someone, they all make a huge difference. Then a little lightbulb appeared over my head. If readers are my ambassadors to the world, why not ask them for ideas?

Many of you have blogs, newsletters, podcasts, companies, press outlets, social media followings, forums, audiences, book clubs, and other communities which you maintain or participate in. These are great avenues for getting the word out about a new book. No platform is too humble or grand. So if you have any ideas or suggestions or just want to help with the launch, email me (elpeper [at] gmail [dot] com) with answers to the questions below:
  1. What's your name?
  2. What community do you have in mind (blog, magazine, mailing list, event, etc.)?
  3. What's your relationship to that community?
  4. How would you like to help?
Thank you for all your ongoing support. You guys are the best and I'm one lucky writer.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Alternative Ways To Work In The 21st Century

Just another day at the office...
Work just isn't what it used to be. The days of cubicle farms, standard career ladders, and pension plans are over. Instead, competition for top talent rivals the NFL Draft, freelancers write code from Thai beaches, and recent graduates tremble at the roller-coaster prospects of modern employment. How can we thrive in the face of so much uncertainty?

This is a topic that's very close to my heart. As an author, I spend a lot of time wrestling with my next story at home and on walks (the sequel to tech startup thriller Uncommon Stock). As an adviser to entrepreneurs and investors, I'm usually found in a decked out conference room or mircro-roaster coffee shop. I'm allergic to structure. In fact, I've worked independently since university and doing so has exposed me to some of the top business leaders, creators, artists, companies, and venture investors out there. Plus, if my productivity starts to nose-dive, I go on a run at 11AM.

But I'm not special at all. In fact, there's a whole new generation of professionals who are turning Corporate America on its (well-groomed) head. They are redefining what work means, tackling big problems, and achieving desk-defying success. And those hoping to doff the suit-and-tie before the next TPS report might want to pay attention.

Eric Schweikardt is the CEO of Modular Robotics. Not only did he start a robotics company after finishing architecture school, he established manufacturing in Boulder, CO with better economics and outcomes that in China. Modular Robotics' Culture is designed to be as fun as their products. They've turned operational tasks into games and you have to be careful in their office or you'll trip over a golden retriever.

Jessica Semaan is the CEO of The Passion Co. She is following her dream of helping others achieve theirs. She is building a business around helping people transition from corporate to creative and her programs are based on concrete outcomes, not cute slogans. Her cohorts could supply a few dozen additional examples for this post.

Cammy Houser was a Co-founder of Given Goods. She switched out of the well-trodden strategy consulting path to start a philanthropic online marketplace that touches people around the world and is a proud member of the Techstars mafia.

Ryan Orbuch is a Founder at Basil and the Designer of Finish (Apple Design Award 2013). By designing the #1 bestselling productivity app on the App Store when he was 16, he's living proof that the 21st Century definition of "work" is changing fast. He's been featured in The New York Times, TEDxTEEN, SXSW, and he graduated in June from Boulder High School.

The list could go on. Matthew Inman and Hugh MacLeod are reimagining what being an artist means by striking out on their own. Hugh Howey and James Altucher are doing the same for authors. Jodi Ettenberg quit her job as a corporate lawyer to travel the world and is now a top blogger. Michelle Miller left JP Morgan to develop and produce The UnderwritingAttorneys, designers, programmers, copywriters, and professional service providers of all kinds are going freelance. Tim Ferriss and Dan Pink are changing our notions of work with books like The 4-Hour Workweek and Drive that examine the science of motivation and the mechanics of millennial career ambition. Project-based, autonomous, purpose-driven collaboration is becoming the norm.

Businesses are embracing Results-Only Work Environments, unlimited vacation policies, and remote working. Companies that don't are finding it harder and harder to attract and retain talent. People like Dilbert but they don't want to work at his office if they can avoid it. More and more folks are seeking and finding lucrative alternatives and doing remarkable things. You can too. At the end of the day, life is a Results-Only Work Environment.



If you're interested in learning more, I'll be interviewing Eric, Jessica, Cammy, and Ryan at the upcoming Startup & Tech Mixer on August 8th in San Francisco. I'll have some books on hand to sign too. It fills up fast and once the tickets are gone, they're gone. So register here today.




Friday, July 25, 2014

I do

I used to not believe in marriage. It always seemed to be a silly institution established by out-of-date religious organizations and later co-opted by secular governments. Why would a piece of legal paperwork affect the kind of relationship you have with your partner? It certainly increases your risk profile for that relationship ever going south but outside of that, what's the point? Taxes, perhaps? In the US, it can simplify filing with the IRS. It all seemed hopelessly banal, a far cry from champagne and kisses.

But then 2014 came along. We have seven friends getting married this year (i.e. seven couples, fourteen people). That's a LOT of weddings. On top of that, we got married. Twice.

Wedding #1
Our first wedding was up in the hills east of Oakland in a gorgeous redwood grove. We wanted to highlight just the things we really care about. Two longtime family friends played live music as the guests filtered into the park. My mum and aunt who works at a nursery literally walked around Berkeley and Oakland and illicitly snipped flowers and greenery from people's yards for decorations (ninja bouquets!). A fantastic hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint from sketchy East Oakland catered with the best damn tacos ever along with favorites like guac and horchata. Our dear friend officiated the ceremony, another friend's dog was the ring-bearer, and the rest of the afternoon was packed with lawn darts, Suzie Sticks, beer pong, and kubb. Guests signed Jenga pieces instead of a guestbook. On the whole, a fabulous day the park.

Wedding #2
But like more and more couples now a days, our families span continents. My dad's Dutch, my mum's Canadian, and my extended family is scattershot all over the place. Drea's from Colombia and most of her family lives in Cali. So, of course, we wanted to do a second wedding in South America. It ended up just as fantastic and completely different. Everyone gathered on beautiful Lake Calima up in the mountains outside of Cali in Southern Colombia. Another family friend officiated the brief ceremony (I had to brush up my español). Then we dined on an exquisite array of Colombian delicacies, danced the night away to a live salsa band, planted a tree, watched Colombia decimate Uruguay in the World Cup and then jumped in the pool fully clothed to celebrate the win.

From there we took off on our Colombian honeymoon. We started by exploring the coffee growing region and Nevados National Park with our immediate families and ten friends who had flown in from overseas. Then Drea and I took off to the northern coast of Colombia where we spent a sweltering four days trekking out to The Lost City in the middle of the rainforest in the remote Sierra Nevada mountain range. From there, we stayed at a beautiful little boutique hotel and hiked through Tayrona National Park, a series of spectacular connected Caribbean beaches. Then we were off to San Gil, north of Bogota, where we rafted unbelievable Class V rapids, downhill mountain biked the Andes, walked the historic Camino Real, and paraglided the gargantuan Chicamocha Canyon. Packed with adventure, just how we like it.

During the 7 hour delay on our the flight back to California, we finally had some time to reflect. The entire experience had really changed and shaped us. We had gone into it casually. We would often say, "it'll be super low key, just a fun party." It did turn out to be a fun party. It also turned out to be low key. It didn't turn out to be "just."It was truly humbling to look out at the people that had assembled for both occasions and see so many friends and loved ones standing witness to the event. Both our friend-officiants touched our hearts with what they had prepared and making our vows before the group etched them into our souls. Wedding days number one and two have already firmly established themselves on our running list of Best Days Ever. Seeing the hoops that everyone jumped through and the lengths they travelled to attend will inspire us forever.

At the end of the day, marriage isn't an institution. Or at least, that's not the important part. Marriage is a community. It's all the people who make it their business to empower the promise you make to each other. We stood at the center of a little village and the villagers are going to travel with us for the rest of our lives. I used to not believe in marriage. But now, I do.

Nothing says honeymoon like downhill mountain biking.
I'd like to dedicate this post to my beautiful wife and best friend Drea. She's brilliant, gorgeous, and her giggle is dangerously contagious. She's packed with Colombian-grade passion and her love means the world to me. Oh, and if you're a foodie, her blog is awesome.