Yesterday, I participated in a live video discussion about my Lean Media book. One of the topics that came up was the relationship of the Lean Media framework to Lean Startup, a business and product framework first articulated by Eric Ries nearly ten years ago. He ended up releasing a book titled Lean Startup, and the concepts outlined in it are now widely followed by tech startups and business units at larger companies. (Eric expands on how some of these innovative concepts can be applied to larger ventures and multinational corporations in his new book The Startup Way).
In the first row, Lean Startup addresses products with defined characteristics – a light bulb or SaaS application. In certain cases there may be design elements, such as a smartphone case or pair of shoes, but at the end of the day such products also serve practical purposes, such as protecting your phone or your feet. They therefore have practical value and can be assigned a price. They can also be designed and produced in a methodical fashion, building out components and features to reach the desired specification. Lean Startup’s build-measure-learn cycle brings in customer feedback to improve development of products with defined characteristics.
Media products, on the other hand, are designed to entertain and inform. In certain cases they may have knowledge value (e.g., a subscription to the Financial Times informs business people about issues that impact their careers) but in most cases they bring no tangible value. Media is all about intangibles — the hard-to-articulate qualities of work that elicit feelings and emotions in the people who experience them. Despite media’s lack of practical value, audiences are willing to spend one of their most valuable resources — time — to consume them. They may also spend a great deal of money on media experiences.
MVP vs. Media Prototype
The MVP (minimum viable product) is perhaps the most famous element of Lean Startup. The concept has also been debated, as I discussed on this blog in 2013 (see MDP: Minimum Delightful Product) and I have heard elsewhere. Ideally, it’s a functional product that can be shown to early adopters in order to test hypotheses and get feedback, but some founders expand the definition to include incomplete models or design prototypes, and often end up showing them to people who are not early adopters, such as journalists or prospective investors. MVPs are by definition not finished products, but early customers (or observers, investors, etc.) may have a hard time seeing past the flaws.
Lean Media does not use the term MVP. We already have lots of terms for early versions of a work — draft, rough cut, demo version, etc. — but in the book I group them all under the term prototype for all media formats. While early prototypes may be simple or incomplete, I instruct creators to be sure to remove from the media prototypes what I call scaffolding before showing them to test audiences. Scaffolding could include editors’ marks, time codes, and annotations that will distract from the work.
In the third row, Lean Startup relies on empirical data and validated learning to test hypotheses. An MVP might provoke some discussions with early adopters, but in the build-measure-learn cycle you need to be measuring what you are doing so you can make an informed, data-driven decision. For instance, will customers prefer a recessed headlight in the new car, or something that’s more flush with the front of the vehicle? Have your design team whip up some graphic renderings in their CAD programs, and then show them to prospective customers and measure which one gets more votes. It’s the classic A/B test.
For media, quantitative data can deliver insights as test audiences experience a prototype, but qualitative data explains why people feel the way they do about a media work being developed. Sometimes the quantitative indicators (20 “thumbs down” vs 10 “thumbs up” after reviewing a draft manuscript of a novel) may be invalidated by the qualitative feedback (75% of thumbs down concerned minor issues relating to chapter titles and the index, as opposed to fundamental issues with the story itself).
Regardless of the type of feedback, it’s intended to inform creators about the work, rather than dictating how they must proceed. This is a big difference with Lean Startup, which practically requires founders to follow where the empirical data takes them, even if it’s far outside their original hypotheses about what customers want.
Finally, Lean Startup is not just a framework for product development, it’s a framework for startup business development. For instance, in Lean Startup, Ries describes innovation accounting as a way for the company to reach its business goals. Lean Media has no such intentions — the framework is purely about product. While a media work that resounds with audiences can be the basis for a successful media venture, I do not explicitly address how to make a media business profitable. That may very well be the focus of my next media book (working title: Niche Media). Stay tuned!
I believe there is an opportunity to build a new Lean framework that is specific to media ventures — a Lean “mod” for media, if you will. The goal of building a Lean Media Framework is to help startups and established companies build innovative products, platforms, and business models that have a higher chance of success and can contribute to new models of creation, distribution, and consumption.
I saw the opportunity, looked for examples from across the world of media, and listened to you, my audience. I then developed a framework, and tested it out on some of the media projects I am engaged in.
The book itself was developed using Lean Media principles. In addition to feedback to blog posts here and elsewhere, I had a test pod of readers who read the entire manuscript and offered generalized and specific feedback. I also sought feedback on the cover design from people on Facebook and the Kboards discussion forum — this input steered me away from what I personally thought was best, to concepts that had a broader appeal to people who create media.
The book has already received an endorsement from Automattic’s John Maeda, but over the coming months what I will really be looking for is reactions from readers — not only to validate the ideas and spread the word about Lean Media, but also to provide input to evolve the Lean Media framework further.
If you are a creator of media destined for public audiences, consider how the Lean Media framework might help. It’s easy to try on a couple of pilot projects (for instance, designing an album cover or for an online article) and then if it works, to scale it higher.
Earlier this year, I started a project to redesign the In 30 Minutes book series. There were several reasons for this, including:
The existing design, while eye-catching and effective, was beginning to look a little dated.
There were some issues around placement of template elements, such as the large clock taking up too much space to fit in a long subtitle (see the inset sample).
A desire to have a new, more modern look in preparation for expanding distribution of the series to retail and other outlets.
Every publisher knows that relaunching or redesigning a publication is a big deal. That’s true for books as well as websites, magazines, pamphlets, and other types of media that have a visual identity. Oftentimes there are restrictions or requirements associated with the redesign that require special attention, such as wanting to preserve a color scheme or design element. Think of the Apple logo, which has undergone several iterations over the past 40 years. For much of the time, the apple symbol has remained constant even while the colors and depth have changed.
For my books, the existing designer declined to take on the job — it would take a lot of effort, and as a full-time graphic designer with a well-known magazine publisher he did not have the bandwidth to devote to the project on nights and weekends.
So I tried using a design crowdsourcing service called 99designs. The idea is the customer pays a flat fee for a design template, and then designers all over the world compete by submitting bids. Here are some of my observations about choosing 99designs from last May:
The concept is not without controversy, and many experienced designers don’t participate — it goes against their beliefs about the client/designer relationship, the prize doesn’t come close to their standard rates, and there’s a real chance they may not win. But it opens some doors for younger designers, as well as designers from other countries who otherwise would have a tough time recruiting clients outside of their regions.
I liked it because it gives me the chance to see ideas from lots of different designers, and moves fast — the contest can wrap up in about a week. So I decided to give it a shot.
There were a lot of submissions and ideas from the designers participating in the contest. I eventually chose a winner … but decided not to use the design. It was good, but it was missing depth. It also did not seem so flexible for books with longer titles or subtitles.
Friends in the publishing industry were helpful in giving feedback and also recommending some professional designers. I eventually chose TLC Graphics and have been very happy with the results. You can see the new look in the design for one of the first books that will carry it, iPhone 6 & iPhone 6S In 30 Minutes:
There are other color combinations in the works as well:
The old covers are gradually being switched out. For some books, the interiors are being completely revised, including LinkedIn In 30 Minutes. I hope to have the entire process done by spring 2016.
In summary, while I am glad I tried a crowdsourced service and the price was reasonable, for the series designs a dedicated professional book designer has worked for me each time I have updated the look and feel of the books (first in 2012, and now in 2015). Besides looking better, I feel that the designs also had the necessary flexibility required for this type of series.
I am happy to discuss my experience with 99designs and working with professional designers in the comments section below.
In early January, I wrote the following email to WGBH, a well-known public broadcaster here in the Boston area. The station produces some excellent programming, but I have been mildly disappointed in a new program, Innovation Hub, that is close to my heart. Here’s the text of the email:
I would like to make a comment about the radio program Innovation Hub.
I had high expectations for this program when it launched, as there is so much innovation taking place in WGBH’s neighborhood, from the labs at local universities to the small and medium-sized startup companies concentrated in the region. There are also many established organizations trying innovative approaches to their products, services, and ways of doing business. In other words, there is no dearth of guests who can come in to talk about what they are working on or where new opportunities lie, in fields that include biotechnology, manufacturing, media, banking, architecture, and even farming and food preparation. Of course, Skype and other connection tools make it possible for innovators all over the world to take part in the program.
However, when I turn on Innovation Hub every Saturday morning, I’m invariably treated to very long interviews with academics or pundits. Today, for instance, I heard the dean of a school of public health talking about research into innovation, and a doctor and a researcher talking about a minor finding in obesity and mortality data.
This is not an unusual slate of guests or discussion areas. Often I hear authors and researchers talk about innovation in terms of studies or classic examples (e.g., what Google or Facebook is doing), while at other times they discuss some surprising finding in their research that goes against prevailing attitudes or experience.
While interesting, I feel that these discussions are 20,000 feet above the trenches where actual innovation is taking place, and the interviews are so long that there are too few opportunities for the program to talk with people who are actually carrying out innovative projects, product development, or new ways of doing “x”.
There is so much innovation taking place these days in New England and around the world. I hope the program can consider devoting more time to actual innovation and the people who make it happen.
One thing I would like to note: My Innovation Hub complaint was not intended as a passive pitch for my own business. I was motivated to write it by a desire to hear from people in the trenches of innovation. There are so many interesting things taking place right in WGBH’s backyard, and it seems like it would be so easy to get a slew of interesting people from all kinds of backgrounds to talk about the work that they are doing.
At a certain point in the lives of most product-oriented ventures, founders confront a slew of growth-related issues. In this post, I am going to talk about growth in the context of startup publishing, and the challenges that my own publishing company i30 Media has faced over 18 months of growth.
A bit of backstory: i30 Media publishes how-to guides under the In 30 Minutes® imprint, as well as several fiction titles. The most recent release is Windows 8 Basics In 30 Minutes. The venture started in mid–2012 as a Lean Media experiment with just a single title written by myself and distributed on Amazon’s KDP self-publishing platform. Since then I have incorporated the venture. I30 Media has released about ten In 30 Minutes guides in various ebook formats as well as in paperback, and distributes to every major ebook platform (Kindle, iBooks, Nook) as well as growing platforms (Google Play Books, Kobo).
In the first six months of the venture, I was occupied with figuring out the publishing landscape, expanding distribution channels, cranking out early releases on my own. While I was new to book publishing, I am not new to the media industry, and applied domain knowledge from magazine/news publishing, online media, and the mobile app space.
Startup publishing: scaling production
One of the first growth lessons was being forced to give up the “one-man band” idea. That guy attracting a small crowd on the local town common with a drum pedal strapped to his foot, a tuba around his waist, a harmonica in his mouth, a xylophone in one hand and maracas in the other is technically able to mimic a real band. But he will be limited in what he can do with his instruments (e.g., the xylophone sounds better using two hands than one) and quality ultimately suffers. Actually, let’s not beat around the bush — one-man bands sound terrible. Can you imagine listening to their stomping, honking tunes on the radio, or downloading the music to play at home? People enjoy one-man bands for the spectacle, not for the music.
I was a one-man band in the first month. I did everything, from writing to setting up the websites to designing the cover image. And I wasn’t doing it for the spectacle. I did it because it was cheap and I could do everything. But I could see there was a quality gap with the competing titles available on Amazon and elsewhere. The covers looked amateurish, and I was worried about the quality of the copy. I began to look for things to outsource, and one of the first was cover design. I contacted Steve Sauer, a graphic designer I used to work with, who was happy to take on the freelance work for his consulting firm Single Fin Design. His first cover, for Dropbox In 30 Minutes, was a big success. I decided to have him do new covers for other In 30 Minutes guides going forward, starting with the Google Drive and Google Docs guide and our Excel Basics book.
I also found people to handle other tasks, including copy editing and market research. But the big growth impediment was writing. It was quickly apparent to me that I could not grow In 30 Minutes guides into a successful brand unless I found other authors. While the guides don’t take long to write (I tell prospective authors that the first draft of a 10,000–15,000 word guide typically takes 5 or 6 weeks, writing on nights and weekends) there is so much other stuff to do when it comes to growing a business — marketing, expanding sales and distribution, accounting, dealing with production issues, etc. As i30 Media grew, I knew that I would have less time to spend on writing. The only way to keep growing and strengthen the brand was to find other authors to write new titles, including topic areas in which I had no expertise.
The impact of my recruitment efforts is apparent when looking at the In 30 Minutes catalogue. Of the first 5 titles, four were written by me, including the Dropbox book and the Google Docs for Dummies substitute. Of titles #6 through #10, only one was written by me.
Startup publishing: scaling sales
Besides production, the other side of growth relates to sales. As mentioned earlier, I follow Lean Media principles when it comes to marketing and sales. That entails lots of experimentation with everything from advertising to sales calls to potential enterprise customers. But it’s not just about identifying opportunities, and then measuring the impact of pilot experiments. In order to expand growth, it’s also necessary to identify which opportunities not to pursue.
One area which I have stayed away from so far is bookstore distribution, based on early discussions with (mostly disinterested) bookstore managers, an evaluation of visibility and competition within B&N and Staples, and the industry standard requirement that demands 55% discountsand the right to return or destroy unsold copies. I haven’t completely written off the opportunity (in fact, I have made many titles available through the back-end ordering systems that bookstores use) but I don’t want to spend loads of time fighting to get In 30 Minutes guides in a channel that may ultimately be unprofitable.
I have also avoided ebook platforms that have too much overhead, are weak on terms, or look like they could undermine or cannibalize other sales channels. I stayed far away from Sony’s ebook platform, owing to the way it basically demanded that independent publishers beg to join. I have also been a skeptic of Scribd’s ebook subscription service.
What does the future hold for i30 Media? Certainly, more guides and more sales. In addition to the Windows 8 user guide, I have a new title about jQuery plugins in the works as well as a non-technology title (still in stealth mode). I am also planning growth of the company itself. Already I have begun thinking about hiring my first employee. The numbers aren’t aligned yet, but we could see action on this front in 2015.
In 2010, I heard a talk by angel investor and entrepreneur Howard Anderson about the emotional roller coaster that comes comes with launching a new technology venture. He explained how the highs are so high, while the lows feel really low.
For those of us in the room who had never been in the position of launching a company, it didn’t sound surprising. Of course the pressure will be intense, and incredibly risky. But how extreme could the highs and lows be?
Extremely extreme, as it turns out.
I worked in large organizations for more than a decade. A bad day at an established company might entail sharp-elbowed office politics, hurt feelings, and worry about career advancement or a raise. Worst cases involved the loss of a job. But in most situations at a large company, problems will eventually be worked out. Everyone knows the organization will endure.
Not so at a startup. Before you’re funded or generate revenue, the venture is fragile. Things move fast, there is too much to do, and the sense of responsibility is huge. Even minor problems feel big, and failure of the business can take many forms.
Conversely, the accomplishments feel huge. Hard work, a new product out the door, positive feedback from customers (or, in the case of my company, readers), and lucky breaks can really boost your spirits. When a bunch of things are working well at the same time, the feeling is spectacular.
Then the crash: reality checks, unforeseen problems, pushback, lack of alignment, and the flat-out “no” when you were hoping for a “yes.” These and other issues can really throw a wrench in the works.
There are ways out of the funk, though. Keep on executing. Work through or around the problems. Reach out to your partners or customers or mentors or anyone who might be able to help with a new approach or pivot. The wins begin to trickle back, and the cycle starts again.
A few years ago, I met an experienced startup founder at the Cambridge Innovation Center. She was very familiar with the entrepreneurial roller coaster, and offered some advice on how to handle it.
Highs and lows on the startup roller coaster
“For the highs and lows, be careful of what you do on those days,” she said. For instance, on a good day when you get a big win like recruiting a customer, call your investors and tell them about it.
She also alluded to things founders should not do on the bad days. She didn’t have enough time to explain what they were (it was at the end of a late-night meeting) but one of them I have been able to deduce from multiple sources (including Y Combinator founder Paul Graham), as well as Howard Anderson’s reminder at the end of his talk: “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” he said.
In other words, keep pressing ahead, even when the world seems to be working against you. And don’t give up.
The Cambridge Innovation Center is a startup office space located at One Broadway, just around the corner from the Kendall Square T station and across the street from MIT Sloan. Few people in Cambridge and Boston have ever heard of CIC Cambridge, but it plays a very important role in the local startup ecosystem, as I will discuss in this post.
I spent a fair amount of time in the CIC from 2011 to 2012, and still go back on a regular basis to meet people or take part in seminars that help me run my business. I am not an insider or expert on the CIC, but as a participant in the local startup scene, I have written a CIC Cambridge review which others may find useful.
Famous CIC Cambridge alumni include Carbonite and Hubspot. But most of the hundreds of CIC startups are still in the relatively early stages of their existence. Almost all have some sort of technology focus or angle, although there are many companies that provide services (such as law firms) as well as investors with offices in the building.
Some startups are no more than a cubby and red belongings bag in the Cambridge Co-working Center (C3), the CIC’s low-cost co-working space. In 2011, C3 cost $250/month, which included random desk space, wifi, access to conference rooms and printers, free coffee and snacks, etc. I’ve heard it’s gone up. Regardless, this is an attractive option for companies with little funding or revenue. It’s not uncommon to see practically every seat in the C3 areas occupied on a typical afternoon, and the work continues there well into the morning hours.
Established companies with funding, customers and revenue have their own offices in the building. Some are quite small. I’ve been in a CIC office that is no more than a tiny, 30-foot-square room with a desk and some shelves. Others have larger spaces with lobbies and their own conference rooms.
There is a fair amount of churn at CIC Cambridge. Walking around the lower floors, it seems that there’s always someone moving in or out. That’s to be expected. Startups are inherently risky, and many of the C3 companies may not make it past the idea or early prototype stage. For those that do, they will eventually outgrow C3. Upgrading to a larger CIC office is an option, but if they grow big enough they will eventually have to find larger (or cheaper) office space elsewhere.
Events at CIC Cambridge
CIC events are worth mentioning. Venture Cafe is well-known in the local entrepreneurial community. It’s held on the 4th-floor of the CIC on a regular basis (usually on a Thursday afternoon). It’s a great place to network as well as access expertise and investors.
Besides the Venture Cafe, there are many other events held in the CIC for founders and people interested in starting their own companies. I’ve derived a ton of value from the free seminars organized by McCarter & English, a law firm that serves the startup and investment communities and has an office in the CIC. The speakers are all pros. I’ve attended talks on seed-stage funding, accounting for startups, and a great session on startup marketing featuring Bobbie Carlton, the founder of Mass Innovation Nights.
While the CIC is just part of the startup ecosystem in Cambridge, it’s an important part. We’ve found it to be an excellent place to start entrepreneurial efforts and make connections that will help sustain new enterprises. The CIC blog gives a feel for the character of the organization, activities, and some of the startups and founders that are based there. You can find out more about the CIC at its website and learn more about the history of the CIC on Xconomy.
Minimum Viable Product, or “MVP”, is a startup buzzword that is actually a powerful concept for product development. It basically means creating a product that has just enough functionality for early customers to use, and helps guide future development. It greatly shortens feedback loops and can help companies avoid investing huge amounts of resources designing more complex products or features that customers don’t want. Building an MVP is a central part of the “lean startup” approach espoused by Eric Ries and others, and is used by startups and even larger companies to build Web, mobile, PC, and enterprise software. This post is about a variation known as MDP, or Minimum Delightful Product.
I first heard about this interesting twist on MVP from startup veteran and marketing guru Adam Berrey. In a 2011 email about a consumer app my company was developing, I mentioned MVP. He noted the importance of design and user experience (UX):
“For consumer apps, I like to think about ‘minimally delightful product (MDP)’ instead of MVP. The reason for this is that in the consumer world ‘viable’ isn’t really compelling. It’s like someone in the ICU. They are alive, but not really fun to hang out with. Create a product with just enough features (lean) and the right UX to be delightful, and you’ll capture the passion of consumer users.”
Taking a prototype from MVP to MDP
Adam’s idea resonated with me — imagine taking the UX to the next level in an MDP. It might take extra time, but there would be a payoff in terms of better adoption rates for the new product, which translates to more plentiful and more accurate feedback and usage data. MDP lets people get past potential qualms about simple UX or amateur design elements, and spend more time on the products features. These experiences can help founders identify what needs to be improved or jettisoned for the next version.
MDP can also result in better word-of-mouth loops, both online and off. I once heard Mint founder Aaron Patzer talk about the launch of the personal finance tracking website, and how paying attention early on to UX and design elements like fonts, the number of screens and even the name of the service led to viral growth as users told their friends about the service. Marc Hedlund, the CEO of Mint competitor Wesabe, acknowledged that this factor contributed to Mint’s success … and Wesabe’s eventual demise:
“Mint focused on making the user do almost no work at all, by automatically editing and categorizing their data, reducing the number of fields in their signup form, and giving them immediate gratification as soon as they possibly could; we completely sucked at all of that. … It was far easier to have a good experience on Mint, and that good experience came far more quickly.”
Naturally, getting to “delightful” may be a challenge. Design and UX choices can be complicated. They can also be very subjective — what appeals to one group of users may not work with others.
MDP examples: Bikes to books
For my old company, we employed MDP in early versions of our product, which was a classified app. People loved it. It looked better in the app store, which resulted in more downloads. The app also had engagement rates that were well above the norm — something like 20% of users were still using the app a month or two after downloading it, and average session times were several minutes long.
I also used the MDP concept for my second startup, In 30 Minutes guides. While I employed an “MVP” to test the idea (a Dropbox book in ebook and paperback formats) I quickly swapped out my amateur cover for a professionally designed cover, which resulted in more sales and a brand identity that I am still using today.
Update: Adam Berrey, the marketing expert who coined the phrase “Minimum Delightful Product”, has since written his own blog post elaborating on the MDP concept.
The experimentation continues. Last week, I launched a new marketing and sales experiment for LinkedIn In 30 Minutes, a LinkedIn book for newbies. It involves bulk sales of the paperback to a special audience segment: Career services offices of colleges and universities in the United States.
My hypothesis: Staff at career services offices of colleges and universities directly serve an audience we are already targeting: People who need to know how to improve LinkedIn profiles in preparation for a job search. Students and recent grads may not have much professional experience to begin with, or in the case of graduate students, they may have career gaps because they have been out of the workforce for several years. They want to present themselves in the best possible light to potential employers and LinkedIn recruiters, and having a rock-solid LinkedIn profile is critical. These are the types of readers we want for LinkedIn In 30 Minutes!
But the problem is: They may not know about the guide, or may not be looking for this type of guide. How can we reach them?
The bulk order pitch to career services offices
I decided to reach out to a few career services offices at universities, ranging from smaller schools such as Suffolk University in Boston to larger schools such as the University of Texas system. I found the contact information of some schools on the Web, and crafted a simple email pitch. Here are the elements:
I am the publisher, and we have a new book. Here is a PDF sample to download for your personal review
I would be happy to mail you a paperback copy. Just say the word.
Here are some specific lessons that will help your students use LinkedIn
Find out more on the book website
We can also arrange for bulk orders
I was most interested in the response rate for the paperback book. If they asked for one, I figured that would indicate a strong interest for a bulk purchase. So, I set up some bulk purchase options for LinkedIn In 30 Minutes. Of the 5% who responded with a request for the paperback, I mailed them a copy with a cover letter outlining the bulk prices. So far, no one has indicated they want to purchase a bulk order, but I will follow up with a call next week (Update: three bulk sales so far!). I’m really interested in finding out whether the guide meets their needs, and if so, what sort of bulk purchase terms would be most suitable — for instance, payment by credit card or invoice, the size of the bulk order, etc.
Company blogs often get a bad rap, and for good reason. They can come across as awkward and unnatural as the cross-functional teams that oversee their existence (“Susan, check with marketing and legal before putting that up on the blog, m’kay?”). A few firms simply reprint press releases on their “blogs”. Others severely restrict the topics that staff can blog about, or deliberately hobble discussions with the outside world (including with their customers) by turning off comments.
Even companies which “get” digital media sometimes can’t do it right. Google’s official blog posts tend to come across as milquetoast missives that have gone through multiple layers of editing and approval, and commenting is frequently disabled. Microsoft is usually more open to blogging by staff, especially when it comes to reaching out to its development partners or customers of specific product lines, but a lot of its messaging is still communicated via press release and the news media. Apple doesn’t even bother with blogs.
But the examples above refer to corporate blogs, or blogs written by employees who work for large companies. In this post, I’d like to talk about startup blogs and small company blogs, as well as a big problem that afflicts a growing number of startup blogs.
Startup blogs vs. corporate blogs
Before I get to the problem, it’s important to understand a few things about startup blogs. They are different animals than their corporate cousins. Although startup blogs are sometimes written by a marketing director, they are frequently handled by the CEO or co-founders, or by a rotating cast of bloggers on staff. The blogging for In 30 Minutes guides is handled by yours truly, as well as the authors of Online Content Marketing In 30 Minutes and our new LinkedIn book. Posts vary in terms of length and target audience, but you can get an idea of the blogging style by looking at these posts about Google Docs new documents and Google Drive shortcuts.
Further, I generally find startup blogs to be far more informative than big company blogs. While corporate blogs will sometimes switch to show-and-tell mode with videos or step-by-step instructions, more often than not the big boys like to keep the explanations short and send prospective customers to support sites, product pages, and lead generation forms.
For readers, this makes a big difference. Startup blogs tend to have an authentic voice. They will often address market concerns in a direct way or give advice/share knowledge to attract and help new customers. There aren’t layers of editors and approvals to get something published.
Sometimes the voice on a startup blog can be brutally honest. Check out this post by Kinvey CEO Sravish Sridhar in which he gives a frank discussion of whether or not to talk about the competition. He lists his competitors — something that corporate bloggers almost never do — and further uses the opportunity to sell to potential customers of the Kinvey Backend-As-A-Service offering for mobile and tablet developers.
But startup blogs can be done poorly, too. A few years ago, as I was conducting research on startup accelerator programs, I noticed a big problem with certain startup blogs from the companies that had gone through various accelerator programs in the past: The blogs were abandoned. They hadn’t been updated in months, and in some cases, a year or more. I dug a little deeper, and found that there were various causes:
The startup is so swamped that no one has time to blog
The person who handled blogging left
The company doesn’t appreciate the value of the blog (even though people may still be visiting from Google)
The startup failed
To anyone who has founded or worked for a startup, the first reason is very understandable. If you’re getting by on just four hours of sleep per night taking care of the business, blogging usually ends up on the back burner until you can find the time to do it. The typical pattern is to see spurts of activity (especially early in the life of the blog) and then long periods of inaction.
I suspect that the second and third reasons are often accompanied by a feeling that someone will eventually get around to updating the blog, so for the time being just leave it dangling.
The fourth reason may seem strange, until you consider that startups have a high chance of failure. If the hosting is still paid for and the CMS is on autopilot, the old posts will continue to face the world, like the facade of an abandoned business.
The problem with abandoned startup blogs
Regardless of the reason, leaving an untended or derelict blog is a major mistake. An abandoned blog not only looks bad. It can actually call the credibility of the company into question, if the firm is still in business. It tells customers and users that the startup doesn’t care about keeping them up to date, can’t handle the workload, or maybe is distracted by something else, such as consulting, school, or another company. If it’s been more than a year since the last update, prospective customers or users may even wonder if the company is still in operation. Any doubt about the status of the company will of course result in a lower conversion rate, lost sales, or a wasted chance for building partnerships or prestige. In addition, because older content has more prominence, users and prospective customers may be left unaware of the company’s current products, features, pricing, or vision.
What are the solutions to this problem? I have suggestions tailored to the following scenarios:
Consider a company which is still in operation and understands the importance of blogging as a way to connect with customers and serve as an inbound marketing channel (among other uses). But there simply aren’t enough resources to devote to blogging. In this case, the most important thing to do is let people know what’s going on and point them to resources that can help them. Create a short post apologizing to readers and explaining that the blog won’t be updated as you work on the beta/feature X/migration/whatever.
You may also want to direct customers to resources where they can find answers (such as a support forum or customer service). Consider pointing them to alternative communications channels — such as a Twitter feed (much easier to update) or some other social networking resource that is regularly updated and/or monitored. Another trick: Start video blogging, either with a Web cam or smartphone camera. It takes less than ten minutes to create a clip, upload it/record directly to YouTube, and then embed the clip on your blog (or refer people to your YouTube channel). It’s not as fast as Twitter and may require some prep to make your office look presentable, but it’s much more efficient than blogging.
Startup blogs as part of a communications strategy
Longer term, you’ll need to figure out how blogging fits into your company’s communication and content strategies. Some companies with actual budgets bring in consultants to help them talk through these issues, or go out and get a hired gun to handle regular posts. Whatever you end up doing, don’t put off these discussions or plans for too long. It’s important for serving your customers and users, and attracting new customers/users. Schedule some time to talk about this internally or with advisors.
If the company is still in operation and doesn’t think blogging is important or necessary, my first suggestion is to reconsider. Talk with people who do it, start Googling around, or find someone who knows what they’re talking about. If blogging is still not a good fit for your startup, I see two paths:
If the blog has lots of posts or useful content, do not kill the blog. The content may still be useful to users, some customers and prospective customers, and may still be indexed by Google, which gives your site important visibility to prospective users and customers. Do this instead: Write a final post saying that the blog is being archived at the same location, and current news and information can be found at (other linked resource). But do remove the blog from site navigation, even though the URL stays the same. This will result in less traffic to the blog, but in my opinion it’s better to lose a little traffic than to send people to a resource that hasn’t been updated for months or years.
What if the blog has only a few posts? A typical scenario is the startup launched the blog because everyone else did it. After a handful of posts, there was no enthusiasm and the blog was abandoned. In this case, I would consider removing the posts and the navigation links, but only after someone has evaluated how the site has been indexed by Google and linked to by external sites. If you have just five posts, but one of them gets hundreds of referrals per month through links from Hacker News and Google, I would archive it at the same URL per the instructions above.
Lastly, if the company is dead and you’ve got a derelict site on your hands that for whatever reason you do not want to turn off, be courteous to the people who stumble upon the blog. Don’t let them believe that you are still in operation, and might still help them with whatever problem they have. Assuming you have already told your paying customers what happened, post a message or redirect that lets prospective customers, stragglers and other users know what happened and perhaps how you can be reached. Notifo’s final post from September 2011 (sorry, link no longer available) is a good example, and goes one step further by recommending some alternative services:
Hi Notifo users,
This is Chad, founder of Notifo.
I am reaching out today to announce some sad news. Over the past 20 months, Notifo has tried to be the best notification platform for multiple endpoints including iPhone, Android, Growl, Email, and a few more. Notifo has been my full-time job during this time.
However, Notifo never gained enough traction with publishers or consumers to make enough revenue to pay the bills and sustain it as a company. As such, I have had to seek full-time employment elsewhere in order to pay my own living expenses. What does this mean for you and Notifo? Practically, it means that I will no longer be working on Notifo. For now, Notifo will continue to run as-is with no further plans for development but will probably be shut down as a result. I will try to keep it alive as long as possible, but please know that it could go away at any moment. I will do my best to provide at least 30 days notice before Notifo is officially shut down.
While Notifo will continue to run in the interim, I encourage you to find alternative methods to accomplish your notification needs. Some alternatives include:
Boxcar for iPhone/iPad
Prowl for iPhone/iPad
SMS with Twilio
I want to thank all of you for using Notifo. I’m deeply sorry about this result. There may be a few more posts regarding this situation. Please feel free to email me at [chad at notifo dot com] with any questions you may have.
Thanks for all your support,
One last thing I would like to make clear: Untended blogs aren’t just a startup problem. I see established companies making the same mistakes. But established companies tend to have staff resources and budgets that makes it far easier to handle updates. And in almost all cases, they should know better than to let a product or company blog gather dust.
I realize that other startup bloggers and consultants with expertise in content strategy may have different ideas about how to deal with some of the problems I have described above. Feel free to add your opinion in the comments at the bottom of this page.
Image: C3, Cambridge Innovation Center. Photo by Ian Lamont.