Successful Startups Solve Problems

Why are startups successful?

Is it timing? Effective marketing and sales? A user-friendly product?

It could be any one of the above but the biggest reason a startup succeeds is it solves a problem. The problem doesn’t have to be big, it just needs to be a problem that people want addressed. If a startup can be a problem-solver, it stands a better chance of resonating with consumers who have a need for it.

Now, this may strike you as an obvious statement but it’s always surprising to see startups that don’t solve problems. Instead, they offer nice-to-have products that could make life a little easier or convenient but people can live with or without them.

Many of these “non-problem” startups are features as opposed to products. They look and feel like something that could be bolted on a startup solving problems. Some of these startups could attract some attention but most of them slip into the night without so much of a sniff of the spotlight.

For entrepreneurs looking to create a startup, the most important thing to do is identifying a problem that people experience. It can be a small problem that addresses a minor irritation but that’s okay if there are enough people looking for a solution.

By focusing on a problem, an entrepreneur has a solid foundation for creating a product. Ideally, the product is accessible, intuitive and user-friendly so it’s easy for people to use and embrace it. It’s a fail and a shame when a problem-solving product fails due to bad design, UX or UI.

With the right product solving a problem, a startup can develop sales and marketing campaigns to drive awareness and revenue.

It is important to note a good product, along with solving a problem, is an important pillar for startup success. As much as you can have great sales and marketing, it doesn’t matter if the product is bad or not needed.

Bottom line: solve a problem to give yourself a shot at success.

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How Should Startups Use Social Media?

social mediaFor startups, social media can be a seductive creature, which explains why there is so much enthusiasm about how Twitter, Facebook, et al can drive brand awareness and sales.

Many startups find social media irresistible because the major services are free and popular. The problem is startups forget that social media can suck up their most valuable resources – people and time.

It means startups need to be strategic and careful about how and where they spend their time on social media, otherwise they risk spinning their wheels with little ROI.

At well, startups need to recognize social media is just one part of a marketing program.

The most important consideration is determining what social media services will do the best job of engaging and meeting the needs of a startup’s target audiences. When there are only so many bullets to shoot, you need to choose carefully.

When it comes to social media, I have a two-fold philosophy: walk before you run, and focus rather than spreading yourself too thin.

For startups, this means picking a social media service that will drive the best results, and then do a great job meeting the needs of potential and existing customers who use it.

For a B2C startup, Twitter or Facebook may be the best options. Twitter has value as a way to distribute value-added content, drive leads and do customer service. Facebook can be a good place for a startup to engage with customers, particularly for products used on a regular basis.

For B2B startups, LinkedIn and Twitter may hold the most potential. LinkedIn can be good to play in a specific market or industry, particularly the use of groups. Twitter also has good potential but I would suggest it may not be fertile as it is for B2C startups.

Aside from selecting the right social media services, it is important to have a strong idea about how much time and effort they can to invest to get the expected results.

If there are only a handful of employees, a startup may have an hour or two each day.  Using the right tools, it will still let a startup publish content, monitor activity and engage with customers.

Last but not least, a startup needs to constantly measure social media activity to see if the expected metrics are being met. If the performance is falling short, it may mean a change in tactics or exploring another social media service.

Bottom line: social media can be a valuable tool for startups. But startups need to have a plan of attack so social media doesn’t consume too many resources or not generate enough ROI to justify doing.

Here’s a rough chart about the social media services for B2C and B2B startups

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For more thoughts on startups and social media, check out Eric Basu’s column in Forbes.

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This Week in Canadian Startups (June 9, 2013)

This WeekThe newest edition of “This Week in Canadian Startups” kicks off with Waterloo’s Thalmic Labs raising $14.5-million to finance the growth of ultra-cool armband that that detects fine movement based on electrical activity.

Some of the other popular items include:

- The struggles of the Toronto Blue Jays’ Ricky Romeo, and the lessons for startups.

- The C100′s infographic of the Canadian startup landscape.

- Breather and OMSignal raising seed capital.

- Mark Suster on why startups need well-articulated strategies.

Get the newsletter delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning by subscribing. As a bonus, you’ll get my e-book featuring 118 of the leading digital marketing tools.

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About & Contact Pages: Website Workhorses

I’m working on a startup project that involves sifting through dozens of Websites. Aside from terrible messaging, one of the things that jumped out was how many Websites had poor or no About or Contact pages.

While people might suggest these pages provide little value, I would enthusiastically argue they rank among the most valuable pages on a Website. They may not be slick or glittery but About and Contact pages deliver a lot of utility and value.

What do you mean utility and value?

Here’s the thing: people are busy and they have little patience for Websites that fail to deliver the information needed to make a decision – whether it’s getting more information, buying or downloading something, contacting something, etc.

An About page thrives when it quickly and clearly tells someone what your company does, some reasons why it’s interesting and exists, and  information about when it was started and the people behind it.

It doesn’t have to more than 200 words but it still can deliver all the information needed to deliver credibility and confidence.

Too many startups drop the ball with their About pages because they either don’t have one (Big Fail) or it’s a convoluted, jumbled mix of corporate, product, vision and mission content that drops the ball on all counts.

If you’re looking for an example of a great About page, check out MailChimp, which, not surprisingly, injects a healthy dose of creativity. ( has a great one too.)

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So what about the Contact page?

If a startup manages to capture enough of someone’s attention that they want touch base with the company, a Contact page should make it a snap to, well, contact someone.

At the very least, there should be a phone number, email address and a form that lets people provide information. An address and the name/email address of an actual person would be a bonus. In other words, give people a variety of ways to contact you.

An example of a company that should embrace this approach is Montreal-based OmSignal, which just raised $1-million in venture capital. On its Website, there isn’t a Contact page (or, for that matter, an About page). And if you click on “Press” or “Say Hello”, it fires up your email client, which makes the user do the work.

While there may be good reasons why Omsignal doesn’t have About or Contact pages, it does leave the company a bit of a mystery or somewhat inaccessible.

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If Omsignal is looking for a company that does Contact right, it’s Freshbooks, which gives you all kinds of options.

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Another approach, which breaks some of my rules but still works, is Wunderlist. What I like is how each need is personalized.

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What do you think? Who does About or Contact pages right?

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Five Lessons the Blue Jays’ Ricky Romero Can Teach Startups

One of the most curious stories within professional sports these days is Ricky Romero’s fall from ace pitcher to a player on the verge of washing out of professional basement after being dropped from the 40-man roster recently.

In his last start with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, Romero gave up eight runs on five hits and three walks while recording just two outs. This is a stark performance from someone who won 15 games in 2011 and finished in the top-10 in Cy Young voting.

For startups, there are five important lessons to be learned from the rise and fall of Ricky Romero.

1. Success can take time and patience. After being selected in the first-round of the 2005 draft, Romero struggled in the minor leagues. It wasn’t until 2009 that Romeo made the Toronto Blue Jays. Romero had the pedigree and talent but, for whatever reason, it look longer than expected for it to translate into major league success.

Lesson: Many startups have products offering lots of value but can’t seem to get much traction, while rivals have no trouble attracting users and revenue. One of the keys is having faith and confidence in your product. By working hard and staying motivated, success is possible down the road.

2. Success should be savoured and enjoyed. It’s tough to make the major leagues. You need to be the best of the best, and there are thousands of players trying to take your job. Only a few players have job security, while most players only get to spend a few years at the game’s highest level.

Lesson: Only a very small number of startups are successful to the point where they become viable businesses, let alone high-profile success stories that are acquired for billions of dollars. For startups that do attract enough users and/or revenue to become a business as opposed to a project, it’s reason for daily celebration and cause to enjoy the moment.

3. Carpe diem (aka seize the day). For Romero, two successful years were enough for him to get a five-year, $30.1-million contract in 2010. At the time, it appeared to be a great deal for the Blue Jays but now it looks like Romero made the right decision by signing a long-term deal when the opportunity came along.

Lesson: For startups that do have success, a takeover offer has to be something worth considering given the competitive landscape and the fickleness of users. One day, you’re king of the world, the next day you’re forgotten because someone new and shiny has come along. If someone offers you a whack of dough, it might be a good idea to take it.

4. Don’t rest on your laurels. Romero’s demise may be due to many reasons. Perhaps he forgot the things that made him successful or maybe he started to enjoy the good life too much. Between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, something changed for Romero, and he’s never been the same.

Lesson: For startups, success can be fleeting. Don’t take your business or customers for granted. Never forget hungrier and better companies are battling for business and your customers. Even if your startup is humming along, you need to maintain a sense of healthy paranoia to prevent yourself from letting your guard down.

5. Never give up or, at least, never give up without a fight. Romero may appear to be finished but baseball is a funny game. As fast as you can lose it, the magic can reappear. At some point, Romero was among the best in the game but somehow lost his way. With new mechanics or a mental refresh, it’s not impossible for Romero is make his way back to the big leagues.

Lesson: Even when times get tough, startup needs to stay optimistic and realistic. They need to understand the market can behave in strange ways but you need to keep going to live for another day. Just when you think there is no light at the tunnel, a big customer could come walking in the door.

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Design and UX: A One-Two Punch for Startups

one two punchIn my last post, I looked at the importance of product to a startup’s success. A good product give it a shot at building a business. A bad product is, well, just bad.

For startups with a product that addresses a problem or makes life more efficient, productive, profitable, et al, one of the crucial elements is having the one-two punch of  user-friendly design and an easy, intuitive user experience.

Good design and UX makes a startup’s product accessible to users. It drives people down the sales funnel, delivers a delightful experience and encourages people to share their discovery. It seems so straightforward but many startups drop the ball on both counts.

So what is good design it’s a subjective topic?

To me, it is a clean and simple look and feel. Accompanied by well-articulated messaging, it is a snap for people to understand what a startup does, why they would be interested and, as important, how they would begin to get into the product.

Weaved within beautiful design is the user experience that makes it easy for a customer to embrace a product without doing much work.

Great UX makes things easy to do. It provides a Website with flow, making each step along the way (be it registration, downloading, e-commerce), a no-brainer. It makes people do things without them thinking they are doing any work.

So how do startups discover good design and UX?

In a recent blog post, Braden Kowitz, a partner with Google Ventures, talked about how startups can improve the design and UX process by creating “stories” around how someone would use a Website.

He said startups should uses whiteboards to create multi-part stories that show the different steps and decisions a user would make when trying to complete a specific task. The strength of this approach, he said, it does the following:

1. It simulates the user experience

2. Team spot problems earlier

3. It clarifies design goals up-front.

When you think about it, every startup should be creating user “stories” to improve its design and UX. By creating the actual scenarios a customer would experience, it is easier to meet their needs and goals. 

The big challenge many startups encounter with design and UX is they don’t take a customer-centric view of the world. Instead, they are focused on telling potential customers what they offer rather than what a potential customers wants to know or do.

It is a slightly different look through the lens but it makes a dramatic difference.

By thinking about how customers behave and what they want to achieve, a startup can quickly and easily improve its design and UX. Of course, it helps to do testing to validate approaches and ideas but starting with what the customer wants is a great way to do better work faster.

Links: For more good insight into Website design, check out this blog post by John Siebert on the “Art of Designing User Driven Websites”.

Note: While I’m not a design or UX person, I consider both to be integral parts of startup marketing because they play an essential role in engaging consumers.

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