July 24, 2013

Is it time to review your company message?

We’re all competing for attention in a world of 24/7 news cycles and information overload. In order to gain brand awareness and market share, it’s critical for your company to have a clear, compelling and impactful message.  The reality is that few companies are able to devote the time and resources needed to tell a story in a simple and attractive manner.  Executives can be indifferent to messaging summits or hiring outside resources, both of which might be needed to achieve the desired results.

So how do you know when it’s time to review the company message?  Even startups can find themselves using outdated messaging in a time when technology is evolving at light speeds.  Some obvious indicators include a rapidly shrinking sales funnel and lack of press coverage.  At the same time, thanks to an easily digestible message,  a competitor is securing high profile media coverage.

If this is the case for your company, it might be a good idea to present a preliminary analysis to executives with the recommendation that it’s time to conduct a message review.  Since this can be a sensitive subject, make sure you’ve done the necessary legwork and are prepared for push back.  But when you get the green light to proceed, consider these tips to help ensure success:images

All-In.  Since the new message will permeate throughout every department, it’s critical to require the participation of all key executives.  This will help ensure that the message is supported across the entire organization.

No Sacred Cows.  The exercise will only work if everyone takes an objective approach to determine the best message based on your target audience.  Anything less will prove fruitless.  There should be no topic that is off-limits.

Nothing Personal.  For executives involved with creating the current message, the idea of change could be a blow to their egos.  Make it clear from the start that the review has nothing to do with personalities but is necessary to achieve strategic business objectives.

Proposing and conducting a company message review can present risks; but, if done correctly, it could also position the company for long-term success.

May 13, 2013

When it comes to start-ups, there is no one size fits all answer about if or when to hire a PR agency

You can’t work in the PR business without developing a thick skin. Some folks in the media take an almost perverse pleasure in bashing the annoying habits or supposed incompetence of PR people and agencies. To be fair, as an industry, we suffer from more than our share of self-inflicted wounds. But that doesn’t mean every criticism is valid. Or even intelligent.

In a recent VentureBeat post, former journalist*, PR rep and now founder of a somewhat creepy site that helps guys stalk single women (sorry, it doesn’t deserve a link), Kevin Leu questions whether start-ups should ever work with a PR firm. Spoiler: he says “no.” Leu’s “5 Reasons You’ll Regret Hiring a PR Agency for Your Start-up – and What You Should Do Instead,” starts with a questionable premise and backs it up with sweeping generalizations unsupported by facts. Good thing he’s no longer a “journalist.” Here are just a few of the things he got wrong.

Choosing-a-PR-Agency-photoFirst, the basic premise: should start-ups hire a PR agency? The real answer, as with most things, is: “it depends.” Some start-ups do just fine getting the word out about themselves without any outside help. Some are really savvy about story-telling, building relationships with media and influencers, leveraging social media and creating content that’s both interesting and marketable. And some start-ups have the internal resources (meaning, mostly time) to put into PR. But many don’t. And if you’re one of the latter, you might need a PR firm.

But is it worth it? According to Leu, the “average” cost of retaining a PR firm is $12,000 per month with a minimum 6-month commitment. That’s a lot of cash for a series A-type start-up. Of course, he has no data to back this number up. And, of course, it’s a completely absurd figure. Do some firms charge that much? Sure, but it’s not “average.” Here at VOXUS, we successfully work with a lot of start-ups whose budgets are far more modest than that. I suspect we’re not unique. Also, in nearly two decades doing PR in Silicon Valley and the Northwest, I’ve never heard of a minimum half-year commitment. Not once.

With his bogus starting number, Leu does some questionable math to arrive at the conclusion that hiring a junior or mid-level PR person internally at somewhere between $70- $90,000 per year is a better use of money than an agency at $144,000. Wrong again. Ask anybody who’s run a business and they’ll tell you that the true cost of an employee is about 2X salary. So that one junior PR person is actually costing you $140-$180,000 year. Even if you accept Leu’s $144,000/year agency number, that doesn’t pencil out. Also, his suggestion that it’s somehow a detriment that agencies have more than one client makes little sense. First, respectable agencies don’t represent multiple, competing clients, so they won’t be pitching another client instead of you. And if they represent complementary clients, it actually helps to make them more knowledgeable about the markets their clients are in.

In any event, Leu’s beef seems to be that you’re paying an agency for the part-time work of two junior people when you can hire one full-time, junior person for the same cost. Once again, his basic assumption is wrong. The VOXUS model ensures that every one of our clients gets consistent, in-depth senior-level attention. And by “senior,” we mean people with at least a decade or more of PR experience and know-how. That in-house junior account person Leu recommends may eventually understand your business, but won’t be providing much in the way of strategy. Nor will he or she have much bandwidth overhead for major launches or when crises erupt. That’s why agencies use teams.

As for Leu’s assertion that agencies don’t know how to tell stories, I’m not sure he’s qualified to say. (Reporting on traffic and writing about where to find girls are hardly complicated beats). But for the record, storytelling is at the center of all we do. That said, no agency (or any start-up working on their own) is going to be successful getting attention if the only thing they have to sell is an idea. Facts, data, compelling user stories, ROI numbers, etc., are all essential to getting quality coverage in top-tier media. Lots of tech start-ups are founded by people with fantastic technical skills and great vision, but lack the communications skills to make their ideas obvious to a wider audience. Again, that’s what we do at VOXUS.

Leu does make one decent point: ensure that any agency you’re considering working with has a track record of recent success representing companies that are like yours, whether it’s in the same market or a similar business challenge.

I guess one out of five isn’t bad…

*Leu’s “journalism” background consists of a few months as a traffic reporter, about a year writing puff pieces for a third-tier bi-monthly lad magazine in Florida and the last several years writing his own blog called “SiliconValleyBachelor.com.” Most recent post: a girl in a bikini holding a drink. The New York Times, it’s not…

April 5, 2013

The Perfect Elevator Pitch

You know the drill.  It happened to me just the other day as I was pitching editors for the first time to inform them about a startup that provides technology for live interactive online video.  Many of them don’t know the company or me.  Alas, one editor finally picks up the phone and asks the $64,000 question: “I haven’t had a chance to read your email, tell me what the company does?”  A bite!  I immediately launch into a diatribe regarding how retailers are using video, chat and ecommerce to engage customers and close sales online during first-ever Flash sales.  There’s a long pause on the other end.  Finally, he says, “I don’t think I cover that,” and hangs up.

elevatorPitch-e12990625803801It occurred to me that I had broken my own rule—Keep-it-Simple.  We realize the how hard it can be to create a short and compelling elevator pitch to grab attention from the media.  VOXUS is often called upon to help provide strategy and focus to make it easy to understand the value of your company and product.

The next time you’re asked the question, here are some ways to Keep-it-Simple:

Use Lay Terms.  The next time I spoke with an editor who asked me the same question, I talked about how the technology helps retailers recreate the retail store experience online.  Think QVC or HSN.  This grabbed some attention and landed a phone briefing.

Just the Facts. We operate at warp speed and suffer from information overload.  Even so, it’s our natural instinct to be thorough and cover all of the relevant points.  Unfortunately, the press just doesn’t have the time or the bandwidth to absorb it.  Do your best to summarize the main points in two or three sentences.  If you get their attention, then it’s time for additional information.

Keep Trying. Especially with startups and new editors, it can take a few versions of an email elevator pitch to determine the right combination of content and length.  If you don’t receive interest after several interactions, review and revise the pitch. The “Aha, now I get it!” moment may still be buried and hard to grasp.

The perfect elevator pitch is a long -term goal that will take time and feedback from your target audience.  Once you have one that works, you’re on the road to media success.



February 22, 2013

New Year’s resolution slipping? It’s Beeminder to the rescue!

imagesIt’s probably no surprise that 45 of every 100 Americans make a New Year’s resolution…but the depressing statistic is that only eight will see that resolution through to the end of 365 days.  That’s why the concept behind Portland startup Beeminder is so intriguing.  It offers goal setting with teeth: either meet the milestones for the goals you set, or you (literally) pay the price.  Beeminder combines the best elements of self-tracking and commitment contracts.  You keep all your data points on a Yellow Brick Road to your goal or you pay a financial penalty.  The combination is powerful, and Beeminder calls it flexible self-control.

In our continuing series of interviews with startup entrepreneurs, we asked co-founder Daniel Reeves to share a few thoughts on his startup, what inspired it and how Beeminder is reaching its audiences.

Question: What was the inspiration behind Beeminder?  Was there a personal goal you were trying to achieve, but not reaching, or were you wanting to become an  entrepreneur, and this seemed like a viable company idea?  How long did it take for the germ of an idea to gel into being an actual company? Who’s been most instrumental in your success to date?

Answer: There are two origin stories for Beeminder — both true! In 2005, the year after Bethany Soule and I met, I was trying to finish my PhD thesis, arguably the most procrastination-prone activity in history. Bethany came to my rescue with all manner of crazy incentive and productivity schemes. She dubbed it the Voluntary Harassment Program. So years ago, we were already heading in the direction of Beeminder but it wasn’t until 2008 that we first built a website embodying the ideas. That’s when I started helping a friend lose weight by implementing the principles from The Hacker’s Diet via email and Mathematica. Bethany was doing similar things in Excel for herself and we joined forces and hacked together Kibotzer, the kibitzing robot. That continued as a side project for a couple years till late 2010 when we quit our day jobs to work on it full-time, which is also when we changed the name to Beeminder. It then took us another year until we publicly launched, in late 2011.

As for who’s been most instrumental in our success, top billing goes to the folks at Beeminder.  But maybe that’s like saying we’ve been most instrumental in our own success, depending on how we’re defining “we!” So aside from the Beeminder team and advisors, we’d like to give a special shout out to Jim Huston and Angela Jackson of the Portland Seed Fund. We’re also grateful for all the folks doing amazing things with the Beeminder API. We’re pretty blown away by how much awesomer Beeminder is becoming thanks to the hacker community around it.

Question: Most folks use Beeminder to help manage weight loss, but there are other useful applications.  What’s the most interesting goal that Beeminder has been used to track?  What’s a goal that Beeminder has NOT been used to help achieve, but that you think would be viable for it?  What’s the one Beeminder feature you wish more people would take note of?

Answer: There are two uncommon but, I think, quite powerful goals that are among my favorites, both of which we’ve blogged about. First is Jake Jenkins beeminding his guitar playing and fulfilling a lifelong dream that he wasn’t finding time to bring to fruition without Beeminder.  The second is Gandalf Saxe beeminding his studying — every student who procrastinates and ends up cramming for exams should be using Beeminder!

If we’re allowed to answer this in a preposterously meta way, our favorite Beeminder goal is our own User-Visible Improvements to Beeminder. We have a $1000 commitment contract on averaging one user-visible improvement to Beeminder every day. We’re going on 700 improvements now — and we tweet about them. We can honestly say that Beeminder would not have made it as a startup if it weren’t for that Beeminder goal forcing us to keep making inexorable forward progress.

As for the feature more people should take note of, it’s the Road Dial. We talk about it in excruciating detail on our blog and we think it embodies what makes Beeminder better than our biggest competitor, StickK.  The Road Dial is the ability to change the steepness of your path to your goal, your Yellow Brick Road, and makes Beeminder very flexible, but not so flexible that it defeats the point of a commitment contract.  It lets you change your mind about what you’ve committed to, but always with a one-week delay, so you can never change your mind out of laziness (unless you’re particularly forward-thinking about your laziness).

Question:  How do people find Beeminder? It would seem that social media would be a good marketing outlet, but it takes time to build receptive audiences. How are you spreading the word about Beeminder? Any successful ideas you could share for others out there on a limited marketing budget who might be developing a B2C product?

Answer:  People have been finding Beeminder via various blogs like Lifehacker, Quantified Self and LessWrong. We’re involved in these communities and have also been gradually building credibility by putting a ton of thought into our own blog. Our biggest recent marketing coup was getting featured in Southwest Airlines’ inflight magazine, Spirit. That one was almost pure luck though. The one thing we did right was to have our phone number at the bottom of our site. The journalist who wrote the feature originally wanted to write about our competitor, GymPact, but couldn’t find a phone number for them. So he called us!

December 14, 2012

Turn YouTube into a Marketing Asset

YouTube is practically a household name these days, but many companies still struggle to make their channels a true marketing tool versus just a place for video storage. It’s the third most popular site in the world and over the last five years, has become an interactive social site for information seekers. And, in case you’ve been living under a tree, video search rank matters more than ever today, especially since we now live in a Google Search world where SEO optimization can drive your video to relevancy. In the end, if you have a YouTube channel and are investing time in making videos, the goal is to drive leads. When done correctly, YouTube does just that and can help your business fill the funnel. So turn your YouTube channel into a marketing asset.

Here’s how:

1. Spend some time and brand your channel page accordingly. It needs to look professional. Think of it as an extension of your website.

2. Get the title right. Stop using product names and start using keywords that describe the value of the video. “How to…” is a great approach for titles and increases search rank. Using verbs will improve results.

3. Write a good description that includes keywords. Utilizing keywords will improve SEO and allow the video to rank higher in Google Search. Also, include a link so people can get more information on the site and you can drive leads. This will also contribute to the overall company website SEO.

4. Use in-video annotations and overlays to align videos with marketing promotions. You can use basic free overlays, or get more creative with paid overlays. When you show the product, have an overlay pop up that says “Enter to Win Now” and built a social marketing promo.

5. Use the Promote Your Video (PYV) feature on YouTube. This allows you to promote via Google AdWords using the same PPC budget (no additional buy needed). It offers cheaper CPC than search, has less competition, and offers metrics on total views, region, search queries, time of video watched and more.

6. Don’t waste your data. Take the information you get from PYV and add viewers to remarketing lists for future follow up. The list can even be targeted to viewers via the Google Display Network.

7. Have a variety of language videos, think about creating playlist to help with video search. YouTube’s index structure is still a bit archaic, but playlists can help separate content so it’s more easily navigated. Too complex? Think about creating a separate channel for region or support.

8. Standardize how your organization uploads video. Create a marketing template that must be filled out prior to upload. Posting consistent titles and descriptions will make the channel more cohesive and professional.

December 10, 2012

Outside Validation: Three Ways to Show You Get It

Every startup believes it is building the next best mousetrap…or it wouldn’t exist. But how do you communicate your vision or product with enough authority that others will sit up, take notice and agree with you? You use outside validation.

Every communications professional understands the value of a third-party endorsement. All of us recommend that clients obtain it. But it’s often not easy for an early stage, bootstrapped startup to figure out how to do it. So here are three ways you might be able to go about getting that all-important press release quote or product comment that will help make your value proposition even stronger:

1) Talk to an industry analyst, then ask for a quote. If your product is truly groundbreaking, an analyst will conduct a phone briefing even if you’re not a client…yet. You must be in the frame of mind for a give-and-take: you talk about your company and product, then listen to the analyst tell you how he or she can help accelerate your business through research and support. After the briefing, ask if the analyst would be willing to give you a quote for an upcoming press release or your website that, at the very least, endorses the need for your product or validates the industry problem you’re trying to solve. Please note that some industry analyst firms preclude its experts from giving quotes to anyone other than clients; however, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

2) Ask a beta user to tell you his or her experiences. Even if you can’t name the user or the company, you may be able work around it with qualifiers. For example, you might refer to Boeing as a North American-based aircraft manufacturer or to a game player as someone who has played first-person shooter games for more than ten years.

3) Talk to a partner, an advisory board member or an industry association official. While this may be more self-serving, having an advisor endorse your business concept or product (particularly if it is someone well-known in the industry) can elevate a press release or business pitch, particularly for search engine purposes.

November 2, 2012

I’ll Buy That With a Comment!

We do it literally every day at VOXUS. Launch the latest/greatest tech solution or company. Just this past week, we found ourselves in the midst of a launch that seemed to take the press by storm and captured their imagination more than ever.

What am I talking about? The company is called Chirpify and it’s the first and only platform to buy, sell, donate and give in-stream on Twitter and Instagram. Chirpify initially launched this social commerce platform on Twitter this February. Well, last week, they expanded that footprint by enabling the same in-stream transaction technology for Twitter on get this—Instagram. How do they make the magic happen on Instagram you may ask? Take a look from last week’s press release:

Selling and fundraising with Chirpify on Instagram is easy. Sellers and fundraisers can create a listing directly from within the Instagram app. To sell within Instagram all they need to do is post a photo and set the initial comment to “#InstaSale $amount” and Chirpify will automatically create a listing that people can transact with by commenting back. Fundraisers can list requests for donations by setting the initial comment to “#InstaFund $amount.” Chirpify will post back a comment on the photo that instructs followers how to purchase.

Consumers use Chirpify to securely connect their Instagram and PayPal accounts, and once linked, comment on an Instagram post to transact with “buy” or “donate.” Chirpify then sends a secure download or receipt via email.

Coverage by the press came fast and furious with outlets like Fortune, TechCrunch and Mashable writing glowing reviews of the new service. We’re talking dozens of articles and more than a dozen interviews in just a few days!

Some VOXUS colleagues asked me, “Why so much attention.” Well that’s simple. It falls right in a sweet spot. Chirpify is something new and totally original that both consumers and businesses need, and media seem to be dying to talk about—solutions that actually enable people and businesses to transact, and not just exchange ideas on social media. It doesn’t hurt that it’s so easy to use that some people are simply calling it magic.



July 23, 2012

Crowdsourced Chirpsy bolsters Twitter feeds

While it might be easy, sharing your thoughts on Twitter can be time-consuming.  Thankfully, Seattle startup Chirpsy offers an economical way for you to have a steady stream of tweets without spending your entire day on the site.  Chirpsy is a service that leverages crowdsourcing for both the evaluation and drafting of content for microblogs.  Chirpsy can create relevant tweets to supplement personal Twitter posts, giving your feed much more depth and creating opportunities to participate in additional conversations.

As part of our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked Chirpsy founder Isaac Nichols to share some insight into his company, where it’s heading, and how to best utilize Chirpsy within an existing Twitter campaign.

Question: Tell us a little about Chirpsy. What was the inspiration behind the company’s product? Do you have partners that were particularly key to launching the company? At this stage, are you utilizing personal funding?

Answer: The inspiration for Chirpsy grew out of our frustration with trying to keep our Twitter account fresh with relevant content. At my previous startup, TurkForce, we frequently gained sales leads when we posted tweets about the latest crowdsourcing news and trends. Posting a few status updates every day seemed like it should be easy, but we quickly found that it takes a lot of time, energy, and dedication to keep it going. Given the short shelf life of the content, we wanted to keep it updated with new content every day, but with so many competing priorities running a business, posting a tweet was rarely at the top of the list. We would sadly let our Twitter account would languish for days and sometimes weeks, and I’m sure we missed out on many business opportunities as a result.

This is where the genesis of Chirpsy came from – our need to keep our social media presence updated with relevant content on an ongoing basis to attract new sales and the realization that this was a perfect scenario for a crowdsourcing solution. The around-the-clock nature and very human element of social media pairs perfectly with a 24×7 on demand crowdsourced workforce.

At that time, we didn’t have the resources to go after this business idea. Fast forward a few years – TurkForce was acquired and I had the opportunity to focus on something new – the time was right to revisit this idea. I partnered with the team at PugetWorks who loved the concept and had the resources to make it happen. After a few rough prototypes to prove the utility of the service, Chirpsy was born.

We were fortunate enough to be one of six companies chosen to present at the MIT Demo Forum event in December 2011, where we unveiled Chirpsy for the first time and launched our Beta. Later in January 2012 we officially launched our service to the world at the Emerging Media Conference in San Francisco.

Currently we are a self-funded bootstrapped business.

Question: Social media outlets such as Twitter were created to foster conversations. It seems that Chirpsy’s goal is to create tweets that link to relevant media posts and blogs – if this is correct, do you envision that customers will use your posts as supplementary or supportive tweets to their own? And if Chirpsy’s tweets are stand-alone (without additional input from a company), how do you plan to understand a company’s business well enough to act as its voice?

Answer: We are not trying to replace the person managing your social media strategy. We never post on your behalf, but we do provide an easy to use interface that allows you to edit and queue up content for future posting.

We have initially designed Chirpsy to focus on finding and creating great content that your followers will love. It shouldn’t be a revelation that when you join the conversation on social media networks, it’s a good idea to avoid talking about yourself or your business all the time. Just like in real life, it is more socially acceptable to talk more about your industry and what others are doing. This helps you earn the trust and establish credibility with your followers. This is the type of content that we are initially focused on – tweets that link to the latest news and blog articles that your followers will enjoy and learn from. We expect this content will be used as supplementary content to other tweets you might include about internal news and announcements. This content is crafted to help organically spur new conversations with your followers.

When a company signs up for Chirpsy, they provide us their writing guidelines and existing Twitter account to use as a model for us to follow. If we send you something that isn’t up to your standards – either the content that we link to isn’t right or the message of the tweet, you can easily reject it and provide us the reason why it isn’t to you liking. This process turns into additional feedback to our crowdsourced team that helps refine the articles that are chosen along with their writing style. This process may take a few iterations to get just right, but once it is setup the writing can become remarkably in-tune with your needs. Another side benefit of our service is that you effectively receive a curated news stream for your business. Many customers have reported they love reading the content because it helps them stay on top of their industry news and trends.

Question: What’s the upcoming roadmap for Chirpsy? How do you plan to reach out to potential users? You’ve already rolled out your entry level subscription service; what’s the timeline for more comprehensive offerings?

Answer: In January we launched with our $199/month plan that provides 20 tweets a week. Based on customer feedback we recently launched two new plans: a $99/month plan that gives you a tweet a day (7 tweets a week) and a higher volume $379/month plan that gives you 40 tweets a week. Custom plans can be requested, but we expect these three plans to satisfy social media appetites of all sizes. Along with the new plans, we added the ability to integrate approved tweets into HootSuite and other Twitter clients that offer tweet-scheduling capability. We have many more improvements underway and are continually listening to our customers for ideas on how we improve our service.

As for marketing Chirpsy, we have obviously been leveraging social media. The great thing about social media is that people who manage social media accounts are a vocal community that willingly share the tools and tips that work for them. Networking and word of mouth have been our most effective customer acquisition channels so far. We have several other marketing plans we are working on for identifying and reaching out to additional customers in a cost-effective manner. We are also interested in making deals with social media firms who manage a large number of clients and want to leverage our services to help them scale.

July 19, 2012

BodSix lets social gamers hit the road

If you’re into social networks and games — and also love maps and travel — BodSix has got just the product for you. This Seattle-based startup is launching an addictive new leisure activity that combines the magic of GPS location-based services with mobile device gaming. Best of all, the app is free! As part of our continuing series of interviews with entrepreneurs, we asked BodSix CEO and co-founder Jeff Dixon to tell us a little about his company, his experience with Kickstarter as a funding source and the meaning behind the company name.

Question: Developing a location-based service is hard enough…but combining it with gaming is a new twist.  Tell us a little about BodSix, and why you think consumers are ready for a product such as Map Monsters.  Since you’re envisioning this as a free app, how will you monetize it so that BodSix can remain a viable company?  Or is your eventual strategy to license/sell it to a third party? How do you plan to promote it, through regional rollouts (since location is a factor)?

Answer: Any time a new technology, like GPS, is introduced to games, it allows for new and interesting dynamics. BodSix was founded to create fun mobile games that exploited this technology. We believe that games are inherently more interesting if they change based on where you play them.  Location-based services and games have been around for awhile, but using location is tricky. Most game developers over-rely on location, forcing players to physically move around to interact with the game. Our philosophy is to leverage location as a secondary mechanic to develop games that are fun to play from a single location, but allow the player to advance more quickly when played from multiple locations.

Free-to-play with in-app purchase is the ONLY viable business model for mobile application development, especially for a title that doesn’t yet have brand awareness. Free-to-play apps generate significantly more downloads and awareness, drivers that are so crucial in establishing a foothold in the market. Free-to-play also is more profitable because it doesn’t cap what players will spend in a game. As evidence, reference the top paid download on the iOS charts and see its position on the top grossing charts. As I’m writing this, the top paid download, Amazing Alex, is only number 13 on the top grossing chart.

iTunes only allows us to control application distribution at the country level. After we complete play testing, we plan to release the game in the U.S. as well as other markets on a country-by-country basis.

Jeff Dixon

Question: We’re curious about your experience with Kickstarter (which we love, by the way).  Although you did not reach your goal and were not funded, you did, in fact, get more than 200 people to pledge over $200,000.  Do you think you set your goal too high?  What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking at Kickstarter as a way to launch their dreams?  Will you try Kickstarter again in the future?

Answer: With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that we set our goal too high. Of course, the money would have been nice. That said, there are a lot of non-insignificant hidden costs associated with Kickstarter, ranging from video production, to PR, to team distraction, as well as administrative overhead during the campaign and reward management post-campaign. Raising less than our target would have made the cost of administration (plus the direct cost of rewards) close to a break-even proposition.

I think a lot of game companies under-estimate these hidden costs and raise too little cash. In the end, they find themselves losing 4-6 weeks of traction with few residual funds with which to actually develop the project. Of course, you don’t hear much about this, since people typically focus on the projects that raise multiples of their goal.

Despite not reaching our goal, I remain bullish on Kickstarter and other crowd funding options. If nothing else, it forces you to focus your narrative, to create a compelling video, to establish an early fan base, and to flex your PR and marketing muscles. We don’t have immediate plans to relaunch our campaign for our current project, but I would definitely consider it with future projects.

Question: Naming a company is often critical to its success.  How did you come up with the name for BodSix?  Did an available URL play any role in your decision process?  Did you have a brainstorming session to create the name, or was it a brain flash?  What could you tell other entrepreneurs to consider when naming their companies?

Answer: We are more focused on branding individual game titles than the name of our company. We’re on a tight budget, so we narrowed down (and expanded) a list of potential game titles by asking friends and family. Next, we sent a very brief questionnaire to folks in our game’s target demographic. The targeting tools offered by Facebook ads helped us reach casual game players to the exclusion of non-gamers.

Developing the BodSix name was a less rigorous process. It’s an anagram of the first three letters of my co-founder and my last names. :)

July 9, 2012

eNotes takes the work out of homework

“Who was Dr. Francis E. Townsend?” If you don’t know the answer, you’re not alone…questions like this one are posed to Seattle-based eNotes experts from students across the country as part of their homework routine.  Thousands of students and teachers use this comprehensive online educational resource daily to read a book synopsis, develop a study guide, ask a question or just to read and chat about an interesting topic.  And if you’re one of today’s parents challenged by the complex subjects your children are tackling in school, it’s time to rejoice — you now have a resource at your fingertips for science, math, literature and more.

(Side note: Dr. Townsend was a vocal critic of the New Deal and was instrumental in the formation of Social Security as we know it today.)

As part of our continuing series of interviews with technology company entrepreneurs, we asked Brad Satoris, president of eNotes, to tell us a little more about his company, how it came to challenge Cliffs Notes as a homework resource for students everywhere, what problems he encountered early on and where he’s taking eNotes in the future.

Question: Tell us a little about eNotes.  What was your “aha!” moment that spurred you on to form the company?  Did you hit any stumbling blocks early on?  What advice could you give that would help other entrepreneurs avoid the same problems?

Answer: eNotes actually began as a website called AllShakespeare.com back in 1999. At the time, the other co-founder and I had just graduated from college and the web was starting to gain a lot of momentum. We started looking at lists published by some search engines of most commonly searched terms, and the ones at the top were things that didn’t really interest us, such as Britney Spears and Pokemon. But “Shakespeare” was always in the Top 50. Both of us were big fans of Shakespeare, and given the vast amount of information available about him, we thought a study site for Shakespeare could be something useful for students, teachers, and fans of the author. We hired a PhD candidate at the Shakespeare Institute (University of Birmingham), who wrote commentary to 10 of Shakespeare’s most popular works, and we put these alongside the texts of the plays. We decided early on that we would give away a certain amount of content for free but require a subscription for access to the complete commentaries.  The first day we went online we received a few orders, and a few more the next day — it was clear this was a viable business.

We acquired the eNotes.com domain in 2003, and now cover more than 30,000 works of literature.  The money we paid to our Shakespeare writer represented the only out-of-pocket investment we ever made in the company; we’ve bootstrapped ever since.

When I think of stumbling blocks we experienced early on, they mostly focus on early hires.  Hiring people is the most difficult thing you will do. We were lucky to have some great employees in the early days of the company who did amazing work for us, but we’ve also seen complacency develop with some positions.  You will need specialized talent in almost any business you start, but don’t ever think you can’t replace an employee — no matter how specialized the skill set.  One of the worst situations that can develop at a start-up is an employee who thinks he or she isn’t replaceable.

My advice to other entrepreneurs is to obsess over the quality of your product or service. If you have a great product or service, the other things that a successful business requires will fall into place more easily.  For example, we did very little marketing early on, but our site rose in the search engines because we had great content and a user-friendly site.  We focused squarely on the website, and didn’t worry or think too much about marketing or other things we felt were peripheral to our business.  All businesses are unique, of course, and what is peripheral to your particular business is something you have to decide.

The other advice I would give, and something I regret not following too well, is to step away from your business every chance you get. Life is too short to spend in front of a computer all day. Get outside, take a walk, take a vacation. No matter how important you think your business is, it’s not that important.

Question: We understand the site’s functions that offer book synopses, etc., but how does eNotes differ from Ask.com when it comes to individual questions?  And if your audience is primarily students, does your web traffic suffer during the summer months?  How do you compensate for this?  What’s been your most successful way to reach students as potential users?

Answer: When we decided to do a Question and Answer service we wanted to differentiate it from all the others by making sure we were creating high-quality content. To that end we were prepared to pay for answers from individuals that we vetted and approved.  A lot of the software behind our Q&A is designed to handle compensating experts for their answers and to constantly evaluate their work.  In order to become an “eNotes editor” and get paid for your answers, you need to fill out an application on our website, and provide three answers before we review and approve your application. As a result of this process, we have hundreds of teachers and other highly educated individuals answering questions from students and other teachers.  This makes us a little different in that you would be hard-pressed to find any substandard answers. Our goal with the Q&A is to build a unique, high-quality reference work.

Another goal of the Q&A is to provide a space for student and teachers to communicate. We allow students to become “fans” of an editor, and to direct their questions to particular editors if they wish.  They can also message editors through our messaging system.  The education space on the internet is still very much in its infancy; we think the winners will be those services that facilitate real-time or near real-time interaction between educators and learners. We see the Q&A as a small step in that direction.

Summer is definitely slower than the rest of the year for us; that’s just the nature of a seasonal business like ours. Having said that, plenty of students go to summer school, and summer is also a time for us to step back and roadmap our projects and goals for the coming school year.  Also, our site is somewhat unique in that roughly 20% of our audience is teachers.  Teachers are our best customers — they stay with us longer and many of them teach summer school.

In terms of reaching students, we’ve been online for more than eight years now, and a lot of students have heard of eNotes. We do some amount of marketing and outreach through social media, and we’ve also been fortunate so far to do well in the natural results of the major search engines.

Question: How do you recruit your experts?  What screening processes are in place to ensure that the answers provided on eNotes are accurate?

Answer: We run ads in various places, and we also solicit from our own user base. We have a fairly large library of lesson plans, and our study guides contain higher level content, such as published criticism, that attracts teachers to our site. We want these teachers to work for eNotes. For us, the ideal customer is a teacher who subscribes to our site, and then later becomes an editor.  This creates a kind of virtuous circle where teachers use eNotes and then contribute their talent and skills for the benefit of the next group of users.

The suite of software that runs our Q&A also has a concept of a “super editor” or “managing editor.”  These are the very best of our editors that we move into a more full-time position, where they review other editors answers for accuracy and quality.  They also identify the best answers and give bonuses to the authors, and also promote these answers so they become more visible to our user base.