19 content marketing ideas that aren’t blog posts

9 min read

I talk to a lot of teams about content marketing, a great way to get quality organic traffic at higher volumes if you put in the work and do it right.

Most of these conversations tend to start with:

“So, we’re thinking of writing this blog post… should we write about X, Y or Z?”

Or,

“How can I hire someone to write more posts?”

These aren’t the wrong questions to be asking — if you’ve determined that content marketing is an important part of your growth marketing framework.

But, they make me a little sad.

The reason is because, to me (and to your future traffic) content is blog posts, but it isn’t JUST blog posts.

Content is holistic; it’s anything we can read, watch, see, or hear.

Content is holistic; it’s anything we can read, watch, see, or hear.

But content marketing is much more specific than that. Content marketing means that it’s easily quantifiable, measurable and repeatable.

In other words, it’s not billboards.

And it’s not just blog posts either (although those are great).

Today, I’ll be sharing 19 content marketing ideas — with live examples — that aren’t blogging.

If some of these are surprising or “don’t seem like content,” then I encourage you to think about all the ways content plays a role in your lead generation and nurture. It’s everywhere, if you only look.

Finally, I always like to remind myself that content marketing is always content PLUS distribution, so I’ll also look at distribution channels and potential for each idea.

I hope these will inspire you to create some of your own.

(There’s a summary of the full list at the end, in case you’re don’t want to read / don’t care about examples).

Offline experiences as content marketing

1. Conferences you organize

Not all conferences are content marketing. Some of them are just conferences, where the organizer is primarily in the business of producing and selling the event experience.

Others, like the following, are single-organizer, where the organizer is a vendor to the event audience it brings together.

Content marketing is content + distribution.

Events are GREAT content marketing because they are full of content that’s usually recorded in video, audio, text, and on social media.

While they’re happening, they self-distribute through the “buzz” they create by leveraging attendees’ and speakers’ innate desire to simultaneously show off and feel like they’re part of something big.

After they’re over, you get a bunch of recorded content that can do your bidding across a number of different channels:

  • YouTube
  • Your own blog
  • Other blogs
  • Industry news outlets
  • Not to mention, if your content is really good, shared across people’s social channels, Slacks, emails, etc.

2. Conferences you speak at

When you speak at a conference, you are actually content marketing yourself and your business — it’s not only brand marketing.

susan su unbounce cta conference

The reason why is because you get your own little slice of all of the above, only you don’t have to deal with any of the considerable operations or logistics.

In other words, you get to swoop in, create some stuff that someone ELSE is going to record and distribute for you, and let them stack all the chairs long after you’ve dropped the mic.

Conference speaking usually breeds more conference speaking, as long as you’re decent and have spent between 20 – 40+ hours preparing for your presentation.

How to be a good conference speaker is its own hairy blog post. I suggest you observe top-rated single-track speakers like:

  • Rand Fishkin
  • Ramit Sethi
  • Oli Gardner (all content marketers, by the way)
  • as well as famous things like the Apple Keynotes

Beautiful slide design and good acting are important flash, but don’t replace substance. It’s much easier to do public-speaking when you’re not bullshitting.

3. Meetups and parties

If you’re not a big SaaS vendor ready to throw a resource-intensive conference, you can scale it down and create a meetup (with or without speaking) or just a party.

“Don’t be invited, be the organizer.” –Dave McClure

“Don’t be invited, be the organizer,” Dave once said to a group of aspiring angel investors about how they could start creating dealflow (aka, traffic) for themselves.

When I was at Inside Network, a startup that sold data and content to Facebook Platform developers back when that was still a thing, we organized a party in conjunction with f8 (Facebook Developers’ Conference) that generated lines around the block and a LOT of inbound for the core business. The main “content” we created was in the curation of the invite list, and it self-distributed because it piggy-backed off of the brand marketing, audience, and location of f8.

Audio and Video Content Marketing

4. Podcasts

It seems like more and more people are doing their own podcast, and that’s because it’s still relatively “green pasture.”

Multimedia content reaches people in different contexts, through different sense doorways, that reading just can’t touch.

Podcasts become our accompaniment to commuting, manual work, or travel. You are literally speaking into your captive audience’s ear.

Sheel Mohnot and Josh Muccio have hit over 20,000 downloads per weekly episode within a year of launching The Pitch podcast (a podcast about investing).

Downloads are a vanity metric, though. What really matters is the high quality inbound they’ve generated: 2 investments, key hires for featured guests (and portfolio companies), and a sponsorship pipeline with a waiting list.

Podcasts, like all other types of content marketing, won’t perform for you if you don’t have a goal. If your implicit goal is just to make yourself feel cool because you created some owned media, then that will be the sum outcome. If your goal is to get leads or engagement at a specific part of your funnel, then you will need to build the other pieces of that funnel to make sure you’re getting directional growth.

5. “TV shows” or video series

Ipsy is a $500 million dollar company that has built its growth strategy on what are essentially reality TV shows on YouTube.

Have you ever watched one of the many, many beauty videos on YouTube? They don’t seem like a big deal, until you watch one or two and get completely sucked in.

Screen Shot 2016-07-27 at 12.59.19 PM

This is because these are real people, talking about and demonstrating accessible products. These are TV shows because they follow the same character through the varying seasons of their lives.

They are content because they are mostly brand-agnostic storytelling, but they are also marketing because they’re backed by YouTube’s distribution firepower and because every three to four episodes there’s a clear Ipsy call to action.

To learn more about the Ipsy process, read this Forbes piece or go check out their YouTube channel.

6. Non-serial videos

Commercials and content are blending the line more and more.

SK-II is a premium beauty line that’s top in Asia, and one of its parent company’s (Proctor & Gamble) billion dollar brands.

Their “Change Destiny” series, distributed primarily on YouTube, is as much story it is commercial advertisement.

Change Destiny Tang Wei commercial

But the main factor at work here isn’t the “Mad Men” style storytelling. It’s the organization of the funnel around each video, which leads to a microsite with more content as well as conversion opportunities.    

Can videos work for non ecommerce, non beauty category? Adobe’s Marketing Cloud videos are an example of a content-advertisement hybrid for SaaS.  

Print Content Marketing

This is one of my favorite categories of all time, and I’ll explain why.

Print has higher barrier to entry, thus relatively lower volume.

Also, sometimes you get to enjoy a captive audience, as in one of the examples below. (Airline magazines)

7. Your own guide

It started out as a way to sell more tires, by getting more people on the road, by giving them more reasons to take long road trips. Pretty indirect.

In 1900, when the Michelin Guide was created, there were only 2,500 drivers in all of France. If the company wanted to expand its tire and parts business, it would have to expand the market itself.

Michelin Guide 1900

Like a true piece of content marketing, the original Guide was all about lateral experiences and stories, with about 10% of the content being sales material for tires.

Today it’s even less, and that’s why to me, the Michelin Guide is a piece of content marketing that has crossed the line over to brand marketing.

This is because of its vectors of influence, and its measurability. It hits less than half a million direct viewers in actual circulation (and shrinking), but its brand influence continues to grow as the brand continues to make or break restaurant businesses and expand into new countries.

Yet, it’s hard to measure exactly how that ripple effect sends business back to the core brand, which is important for no-brand or emerging content marketing in today’s extremely competitive landscape of peak content.  

Like some of the big conferences mentioned earlier, the Michelin Guide is another example of content that has become its own product.

Michelin Guide product 2013

8. Your own magazine

Universities do it, airlines do it, hotels do it. This is a fit for “experience”-based businesses that want to diversify their acquisition and engagement channels, and speak to people in the nooks and crannies of their day or week where a blog post can’t reach. For example, on a long flight.

It’s measurable in terms of circulation and “traffic” footprint, and most of the content isn’t sales pages so much as demand-generating storytelling about cities and travel experiences.

The American Airlines magazine, American Way, reaches 193 million people per year, and United’s Hemisphere’s reaches 140 million.

As with conferences, this type of content marketing is also its own product, with its own production cycle, and its own separate monetization (advertisers for magazines, sponsors and ticket purchasers for conferences).

Most startups won’t be able to whip up a magazine and get David Carr as a contributor as quickly as doing some blogging, but there’s a cache to print and visuals that’s unique and defensible and possibly a good fit for product categories in lifestyle, ecomm, and experience-based businesses.

9. Your own book

I Will Teach You To Be Rich is a book that Ramit Sethi wrote about personal finance for young people that became a bestseller because he understood, and leveraged, the channels of distribution for published books.

When the book first reached bestseller status, a lot of people started asking Ramit when the next book was coming out. He would smile like the Mona Lisa and say nothing.

Most often, we think of a physical, published book as the end product. Instead, and if structured correctly as part of a much larger funnel of audience conversion, it’s a powerful instrument of content and brand marketing.

In Ramit’s case, the book was at the top of his funnel, not at its end.

It’s an influential “lead magnet” to familiarize them with the brand, build trust, and bring them to the site where Ramit markets relevant high-quality and proprietary learning products. Those products can transform a $7.51 book sale into an ARPU (average revenue per user) in the low thousands up to over ten thousand dollars (NOT including revenue from repeat purchases).   

10. Your own column

The difference between having your own column in a relevant news outlet and simply being mentioned in that news outlet represents one of the fundamental differences between PR and content marketing:

When you write your own column, you are presenting your own thoughts in your own words, and if done right, positioning yourself as a thought leader and sending interested attention back to your own property.

Additionally, you have a chance to:

  1. Make it recur
  2. Organize it around one theme (to establish your thought leadership around that theme)

Guest posting is a good start, but it shouldn’t be the end. Instead, plan out what your series of thematically related content is going to be, and make it an ongoing column instead.

Here’s one example from Arteen Arabshahi, an investor from Los Angeles whose recurring content is helping him to rank for the keywords [ Los Angeles tech startups investors ].

https://techcrunch.com/2016/02/13/how-to-expand-your-marketplace-to-la/

https://techcrunch.com/2015/10/10/what-los-angeles-is-missing/

Educational Format Content Marketing

11. Teach your own class

Educational institutions benefit when practitioners with experience in the real world come into the classroom to teach others, not from theory but from their own direct experiences.

The practitioners, of course, benefit because it’s an effective piece of brand and content marketing.

There are two really good examples of this that I can think of off the top of my head.

First, is 500’s course on angel investing with Stanford Center for Professional Development. It’s a 2-week course and is most definitely its own product (with its own marketing, its own development budget, etc).

FullSizeRender (1)

Yet, it’s also content marketing for 500 Startups fundraising.

It generates a lot of content (two weeks’ worth of recorded experience, plus a reverb effect of blog posts and articles), builds the brand, and creates more investors who may one day invest with 500.

Another example are Steve Blank’s entrepreneurship courses, which he taught at Stanford, Berkeley and Columbia, as well through Udacity and elsewhere online.

Stanford also put together one-off classes by Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, Brit Morin of Brit + Co, and Dharmesh Shah of Hubspot — all of which were captured as recordings and continue to live on (and drive brand awareness and traffic) back to their creators.

For content marketing, an offline course functions like a conference. Both are places to establish thought leadership, “get mileage” (aka record and redistribute in different formats) and measure results.

You can find more examples of education-as-content-marketing at Coursera, Udemy and CreativeLive.

12. Webinars

Webinars are a great way to convert people, especially for higher commitment products (where commitment is measured in price or involvement). This is because webinars build trust by leveraging content you create — either live on the fly or beforehand.

content marketing for startups webinar

My Content Marketing for Startups webinar is a prerecorded video I made with Camtasia. It currently has 20,240 views, and helps 500’s channel and other video content rank for keywords like [ startup growth marketing content ].

whiteboard fridays moz rand fishkin

Rand Fishkin’s Whiteboard Fridays are a weekly webinar-style video shared as a blog post. In Whiteboard Fridays, Rand explains one SEO topic in detail.

Because it’s Rand Fishkin and they’re Moz, they do a fantastic job building out the full content funnel — the video is transcribed for search engines (and normal human readers), and they even come with their own shareable custom infographics and images.

You can use webinars for:

  • Saas / b2b
  • Demos
  • How-tos
  • Q&A (ie, answering sales objections)
  • Doing live analysis or teardowns
  • Promoting special launches and events.

13. Roll out your own full online course

Steve Chou at My Wife Quit Her Job uses his 6-part email course not only as a lead magnet to boost email collection, but also as a conversion tool once you’re in email funnel.  

When I was at AppSumo, we launched a comprehensive course called the AppSumo Marketing Plan, teaching the quant-based marketing methods Noah used for the Mint launch, as a product and as marketing for the brand and for other products.

CopyBlogger has repurposed much of their content into online courses around their main keyword areas: content, traffic, design, and conversion. Here’s an example of a landing page. Sign up for their free course and study how they’ve structured the funnel.

Educating people is a powerful way to persuade them, because you get to demonstrate value and authority and build trust before you go for a conversion. And it doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated.

Case in point: a lot of the courses on Udemy, paid and free, are essentially content marketing for their creators. There’s even a Udemy course on creating Udemy courses.

14. Education center

Because Schwab is primarily an investment bank, a lot of their business is in managing trades. This can be confusing for consumers, and that confusion is an enemy to engagement and upsells.

They use content marketing to engage existing brokerage customers and turn them into higher value customers who invest more and trade more — by creating a full-blown Education Center with how to videos and articles, news analysis, and data tools.

Schwab education center

Schwab also offers live workshops, another format for content aimed at increasing customer LTV.

Downloadables as Content Marketing

15. Ebook

It was an ebook that brought in a 5-figure lead for Worthix, a Batch 16 company. Ebooks continue to work for Hubspot (who have so many that they’ve created a library) even though they already have my email, as they move me further and further along their lead qualification funnel.

Ebooks have higher perceived value, and can be distributed on Amazon.

It’s not trivial to create a high quality ebook — between content, design and distribution — but it’s doable, and serves as a more evergreen reference point for your brand and authority.

It’s also a better lead magnet. You can always put an email collector on a blog post, but I can always ignore it.

If your ebook is gated by an email collector, and I really want that ebook, then not only do you incentivize the email capture (now I have an actual reason to enter it), but you also qualify me as a lead. Now you know this email belongs to someone who really wants this info.

Finally, because an ebook is usually longer form than a blog post and often presents data or some original findings, it can generate a ripple effect of press attention and additional content.

16. Downloadable PDF with higher perceived value plus you get an email capture

This is similar to an ebook but it’s shorter. It will still trigger a higher perceived value than a blog post, and will still incentivize email entry.

In B2B, downloadable PDFs can be especially useful because they lend themselves well to data presentation, branded design, and B2B customer norms.

PDFs can also be important for lead nurture after you get the email:

Dell created a PDF-driven nurture program aimed at addressing customer objections and dropoffs that resulted in a 35% higher average order value and 300% more engagement with nurture emails.

17. Downloadable spreadsheet as an engagement device

Spreadsheets are attractive because they are pure utility. Who doesn’t want something that promises them a shortcut?

A classic example of a spreadsheet-as-content-marketing is Noah Kagan’s Quant Based Marketing spreadsheet that he used to model out the Mint launch tactics. The spreadsheet has earned Noah thousands of new and high quality email signups to a list where he sometimes (gently) promotes other relevant and premium AppSumo / SumoMe products and experiences.

Image-based

18. Instagram

Does Instagram count as content marketing, or is it social media? Does it matter?

I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of Instagram here as there are whole businesses built around that. If you want to learn Instagram marketing, I recommend you check out Foundr Magazine’s Instagram guide (they also use PDFs, ebooks, and webinars in their content marketing to you…:).

I will say that Instagram is the most “content marketing” of any social media type, and is just as much content as it is social.

Your IG account won’t be successful without careful curation and creation of original content, and like other content marketing, isn’t a direct sales channel for your stuff. It is top of funnel lead gen, brand building, and engagement marketing to existing audiences.

Examples:

screenshot-www.instagram.com 2016-07-26 18-30-58

foundr magazine instagram

19. Infographics

Infographics say it all with one image, literally.

infographic of infographics

Neil Patel presents a solid summary of the method and components of a great infographic including how to pick a topic based on keyword rank and shareability, how to find the data (since infographics are usually a visual presentation of data), and how to use Dribbble to find a professional designer.

If you’re serious about it, read the above. I’ll just summarize by saying, infographics can be an effective form of content marketing that can diversify you away from text-only, and they have their pros and cons.

Pros: they addictive to look at, shareable across social channels, and can “go viral”

Cons: they are hard to make and require real design work to be effective. You can try a service like Piktochart to make your own, but it’s much better with a real designer.

Bonus: Quora, forums and public Slack groups

Forums and Slack groups are where content and community blend together. Forums are extremely unsexy, and yet they still answer a lot of people’s intent-based queries — and, as long as they’re public, they are highly indexable.

Conclusion

The key to success for any type of content marketing is not to spam.

It’s marketing, and it’s also a product. Create it painstakingly like a product the world will see (because that’s what it is), and then spend the next long while proudly distributing it.   

It took me at least 30 hours to research and create this post, and I am a fast writer. If you aren’t, or don’t like writing, or don’t have 30 hours to spend on this, then consider some of the options I’ve listed:

  1. Conferences you organize
  2. Conferences you speak at
  3. Meetups and parties
  4. Podcasts
  5. TV shows
  6. Non serial videos
  7. Your own guide
  8. Your own magazine
  9. Your own book
  10. Your own column
  11. Teach your own class
  12. Webinars
  13. Your own online course
  14. Education Center
  15. Ebook
  16. Downloadable PDF
  17. Downloadable spreadsheet
  18. Instagram
  19. Infographics

Content comes in all forms, distributes on all sorts of channels, and, once created, has the potential to become your own personal magic pasta pot for traffic and conversions.

strega nona endless magic spaghetti pot

The Hunt: How Startups WIN on Product Hunt

Product Hunt (PH) has become the de facto source for new and upcoming technology products.

Product Hunt win with Arka

If you get featured on the homepage, the next 24 hours could be glorious:

  • Thousands of site hits, a boost in customers
  • MOAR revenue
  • Massive brand awareness among target audience

Or, it could be an utter failure. You might get low conversion rates to your site, ghosted from the PH featured page and buried under your competitors.

You choose.

How to WIN at Product Hunt

I’ve helped companies like Indemand and Arka gain over 1,000 upvotes in less than 24 hours, which — with high conversion from PH to landing page — led to hundreds of new customers and thousands of revenue dollars in just a few days.

Don’t worry, it’s a repeatable process. Here’s the step-by-step recipe for how to gain traffic and conversions from Product Hunt.

#1 Gather the important information

Ok, this sounds boring, but if you want someone to post you on PH, the person should be relevant to you and you should build that relationship before making the ask.

I post about things that get me excited, as well as for 500 Startups and AngelPad companies because I’m a part of those communities.

Here’s the info you should gather and customize to fit PH.

  • The date to post
  • Category (Tech/Games/Books/Podcasts)
  • Product name
  • Website
  • Catchy tagline (40 characters or less)
  • Blurb on why I think the product is awesome (I’ll write this as the hunter, but helpful thoughts are encouraged)
  • Special offers for the cat-loving PH community (optional)
  • Links to 1-2 recent articles (optional)
  • Platforms and tags (ex: web, developer tool, transportation)
  • Media (one for icon, one for header)
    • I highly recommended you customize your images for PH. Here’s an example from Arka:

custom image product hunt arka

  • Status (available now vs pre-launch)
  • Twitter handles of founders (to be added as PH Makers and tweeted out — Twitter promotion is 🔑 )

The above fields are from the PH hunt form and the PH product page itself. The ‘Hunt a Product’ form does change from time to time, but here’s what it looks like today.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 11.39.40 AM

#2 Use the power of social network effects

Find a strong PH influencer to post you and follow that person (in this case, me).

tristan pollock product hunt influencer

Then have your team and friends follow the hunter as well. This amplifies your post reach because all followers are notified when a product is hunted, and if they upvote/share, their followers are notified with a PH alert. And on and on.

Extra points if you have a strong collection built around your business and can get the collection creator to add you. I like to post about 500 Startups, ViceTech (experiences), Frontier Tech, Digital Nomads, and Music (and creativity) in my collections.

Collections can be picked up and promoted by PH at any time. An example is my Comedy collection that was featured on the PH email newsletter. This can give your PH post longevity, in addition to the norm of using upvotes to rank highly for specific keywords.
Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 11.45.16 AM

#3 Post at midnight, because timing is everything

This is key.

Hunting a product at midnight gives you a full 24 hours on the front page.

You also get another 24 hours on the Yesterday page that sits right below the Today featured feed on the home page. 95% of upvotes occur in the first 24 hours.

To make sure I’m in sync with the Maker when hunting the product, I ask them to:

  1. Send me an calendar invite for 11:30pm-12:30am for the day we are hunting with all hunting information included
  1. Comment on the post immediately after it is live. Here you should mention that you are the founder and here to answer questions (the more PH community engagement the better)
  1. Share with your personal and business networks. Usually if you are the top post by 9AM PST (aim for 100-150 upvotes) then you are in good shape for the rest of the day. Here’s a sample message you can send out:

Hi Friend – help us squish it on Product Hunt this morning!

To upvote [MY PRODUCT] follow these instructions:

1/ Go to the producthunt.com homepage.

2/ Find [MY PRODUCT] and upvote (note: if you are in a shared office space with others upvoting, use a different IP address by using your mobile device with Wifi turned off and you’ll get a more powerful upvote).

3/ Add a comment about why you love us, or a question about the product (the more engagement we have the more visibility we get).

4/ Share to your own networks via Twitter/Facebook/text/email (get creative with email lists, friends, family, accelerators, etc).

Much love,

YOU

#4 Focus on engagement and conversion will come

image

Arka saw a spike to their landing page that peaked 24 hours in, and lasted four days total with about 10% of traffic remaining over the next two weeks. Over 120 new customers paid for their product.

arka conversions

Indemand saw an even larger increase in traffic and customers, including:

  • Users. An increase of 7,000 unique visitors with their user base growing by 25% just through Product Hunt. About 15% of the total uniques churned.
  • Revenue. Over $150k worth of custom deals came through Product Hunt, plus an increase of MRR by $5k. This happened over the first 5 days after the hunt.

I attribute their success to these factors in order of importance:

  1. Product Hunt community. At the end of the day, the most successful products on PH fit the community, which is still majority tech oriented, and come from Hunters/Makers who participate in the community, write thoughtful comments, and have been engaging on the platform over a longer period of time. The Indemand founders fit this mold and so did their product.
  1. Hustle hard. The Arka and Indemand teams did everything possible to bring awareness to their hunt from alerting their accelerator batch network to downloading their LinkedIn contacts to handing out candy on the street. They were determined, creative and very, very persistent.
  1. Hunter-Maker collaboration. If it isn’t clear already, I spend too much time on PH. As their Hunter, I worked closely with Arka and Indemand to improve their content, share it to additional communities I have access to (e.g. accelerators, personal networks), and, of course, have competitive fun in the process.
  1. Timing. Post between 12am-2am. No excuses. Indemand pulled an all-nighter to monitor questions, comments, and fuel the hunt.

#5 A note on external factors

There are always things you can’t control.

For example, if a new product by Google is hunted the same day as your product it will draw attention away from you. Or the fact that less people are engaged on PH from Friday to Monday, so you probably want to avoid those days. Some of these factors you can plan for. Others you can’t, but if you follow the above steps, you should be able to gain healthy initial exposure, but always make sure to be respectful of the Product Hunt community rules by reading their FAQs.

Lastly, if you haven’t used PH often, it’s best to get involved, comment, ask questions, upvote products you like, and talk with other Hunters before hunting your own product. Give before you receive. It’s called cat power. 😻

product-hunt

Tristan is a Venture Partner at 500 Startups, follow him on Twitter here.

The Most Common Myths About Startup Accelerators — Busted

In most aspects of life, the gulf between expectation and reality is larger than expected, but that’s where growth comes from.

This principle also applies to startup accelerators, where founders fortunate enough to gain admission can access networks that provide mentorship, emotional support, and eventually, funding.

Tristan Pollock, a 500 Startups Venture Partner and Entrepreneur-in-Residence, is part of a team at 500 that reviews thousands of applications for each 12-week batch, which usually only admits 40 or 50 companies.

Today, we’ll reveal the most common myths founders have when they join an accelerator, and how Tristan’s own expectations evolved after joining 500.

EIR + Venture Partner Tristan Pollock
EIR + Venture Partner Tristan Pollock

What are some of the top misconceptions founders have before joining an accelerator?

A large part of it is setting expectations at the beginning. Sometimes, the people that do the best coming into the accelerator are the ones who realize that most things in life are what you make of them.

They come in and say, ‘I want to talk to this person about this specifically,’ they ask the best questions, they put the time in where it’s needed, but they don’t go to every single thing if it’s not helpful. They have good EQ, overall.

The people that struggle think we’re going to work for them, like 500’s going to be like adding more employees to the team. It’s not the case. Most founders coming into the batch are really bad at standing up and presenting. If you could see the quality of the pitches at the beginning versus what people look like at the end, it’s like night and day.

The smartest founders are interested in the more actionable things that will help their business grow.

Do people think they pitch well?

I think people come in probably with a higher level of confidence than they should.

Many of them confirm the idea that Americans are way overconfident. You’ve seen those studies about how Americans think they’re good at math, but they’re way worse than they think they are? Like that.

Maybe they just haven’t been challenged in a public speaking setting. It’s one thing to be good in your head, but to convince other people who work in startups or investors is different.

Even people who have good experience in the past — bought a company, or sold one — might not have been challenged to be a better public speaker. Some people come in who are horrible, some are OK. Getting that confidence and boiling the pitch down to a short, simple message? That can be the difference between getting funding and not getting funding.

How much does prior experience help a founder who joins an accelerator?

Generally, people coming in with past experience have something specific that they’re looking for, like all the newest growth marketing avenues they could be using, or they want to access the 500 network because they’re not from Silicon Valley, so they’re gong to meet as many people as they can here, and take advance of the founders’ network.

People come in thinking different things about what they’re going to get out of it, usually it’s not the money, though.

 

It’s not about the money? It IS an investment vehicle.

The smartest founders are interested in the more actionable things that will help their business grow. You can throw money on a failing company, but once they come in in and take advantage of our growth expertise, the network or the founders around them, then they can get a lot more out of it.

Which of your expectations were the first to fall after you joined 500?

[laughs] That’s a good question. For me, having raised money from 500, I didn’t go through the accelerator, so it’s like a night-and-day comparison since founders are taking a small $50 to 100K check. 500 did Storefront‘s seed and series A, so I was kind of clumped in with a ton of other companies, but 500’s accelerator has a real community.

I went through AngelPad, and some of the things from that experience definitely helped, like the mentorship and the network. My biggest misconception was looking at 500 as ‘spray and pray,’ where they’re just going to do a s–t ton of companies.

People come in thinking different things about what they’re going to get out of it, usually it’s not the money, though.

Did other perceptions shift after becoming an EIR and venture partner?

When I came in, I saw that the community was so strong, along the people on the team. The culture in the office that our founders selected, making sure that people are respectful and very conscious of each other and taking care of each other?

I don’t know, there’s just something special about the culture that I never really saw from the outside.

Working in a startup can be isolating. Do founders get culture shock when they’re dropped into an immersive social environment like 500?

Most are eager and enjoy it, but for some, maybe if you’re on the technical side of the company, it can be very difficult to get work done. I know I need to focus and it can be hard to get work done in the office.

But, that’s also one of the big benefits; there’s serendipity when you can introduce a founder to someone who’s dropped in, and a lot of good things cam come of that. But yes, it can be distracting a lot of the time. You spend a lot of time with founders in each batch, and they spend a lot of time together. During a Demo Day, I saw how tight those relationships can grow, which was unexpected.

They’re not only building a network that they’ll bond with and go to with questions or hard times, but also people they can have that beer when they really need it, as well as 500 staff people who really take care of you and make sure you have an outlet. I’ve had meetings with people where they cried, or we’ll go for a run or go get beers. There’s that hard side of startups that 500 really acknowledges, so you can come to us not just for the business side, but for everything. We’re a very loving family.

Are there cases where a founder you voted against accepting into the accelerator defied expectations?

Oh, for sure. [laughs] And it’s happened the other way around, too. The accelerator is a place where you get to see real progress, so it’s really incredible to see where things go. Sometimes, you have that ‘I told you so’ moment, and sometimes, you’re thinking, ‘this is a great founder to have around, but the business is going to have a hard time succeeding.’

The best companies sometimes come out of polarization in the selection process. When one person says, ‘I hate this company,’ and another person says they love it, that creates great debates, because it causes people to have such strong opinions.

Related:

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4 Steps Every Startup Must Take To Build Culture, Compete for Talent, and Win

I talk to brilliant founders every day who are 100% focused on growing their company.

They’re solving problems and improving their business at light-speed, turning their great idea into an even better company. Unfortunately, a lot of them have the same blind spot:

They don’t understand company culture.


Having a strong culture doesn’t mean you have a beautifully designed office or that you offer your employees unlimited vacation days or catered lunches.

Culture, at its core, is the way your team works together. In other words, it’s not about the perks.

When your culture is strong, your team is deeply connected and each member takes personal ownership over their own little piece of the company. This commitment is what powers successful startups and it can be incredibly difficult to instill.

To help you along the way, I’ve broken down 4 critical steps to growing a strong company culture.

1. Grow Your Culture By Design

You need to plan your culture in advance.

As a startup, things are constantly in flux. A higher up will leave early on, a feature you thought was brilliant will tank, and as you tumble through these peaks and valleys you’ll hit upon some genius ideas and pivot your company accordingly.

It is very easy for these fluctuations to make team members feel uncertain. It’s up to you as a founder to instill certainty in them by having a strong culture in place before problems arise. Knowing how they will deal with whatever comes next—and trusting their teammates to help—makes this much less uncertain.

Think of Facebook’s now-cliche “Move fast and break things” motto. It doesn’t tell team members what they’ll be working on. Instead, as former Facebook employee Sarah Smith says, the motto told team members “to take risks and not think too much about every potential consequence knowing that if something failed, it would be okay.”

So if a developer built and launched a new feature in a few days only to find that it crashed the Facebook site, it was okay. That sort of reckless, rapid innovation was at the core of Facebook’s culture and everyone bought into it.

Planning a strong culture in advance requires you to answer several questions, including:

  • What does your decision-making process look like? Do individual team members have the power to “move fast and break things,” or do they need your approval first?
  • What is the top priority in your work? Are you customer-centric, or do you have a growth-at-all-costs mindset?
  • How does your team communicate? Slack? In person? Email? Does all communication need to be transparent and visible to the whole team?
  • What is the team’s relationship with each other? Do you have team events, or do you keep work and personal life completely separate? What about for remote workers?

Having this in place before problems arise is critical to growing a successful company.

2. Recruit What You Don’t Have—Not Just More Of The Same

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It’s easy to get tunnel vision once you have a clear picture of your company culture. You imagine your ideal employee and you begin recruiting people who fit that template perfectly.

The problem is that you have shortcomings and you need to recruit people who compensate for them. If you’re only recruiting one type of person, you are not creating a team with a diverse skill set who can cover for and complement each other.

For example, if you have a sales rep on your team and are hiring a second, recruit someone who complements your current staff. If your current sales rep has an analytical personality, try to recruit someone who is more creative.

Hiring for your weaknesses is trickier than it sounds because it requires you to be hyper-aware of your own shortcomings and blind spots. To do it well, you have to constantly audit yourself, your team, and your hiring process.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you using a diverse set of recruiting channels, or are you recruiting exclusively from similar groups? For example, are you only posting to job boards frequented by people with a certain background?
  • If you had every team member write down their biggest weakness, what would be the most common answer? Have you hired someone who is strong in that area?
  • Are there any areas you give less attention to because they don’t fit your skill-set or you find them less interesting? Have you hired someone to delegate them to?

It’s tricky to be aware of your blind spots, but it’s critical to building the right team.

3. Manage Your Cultural Carriers

There are two kinds of authority in a company. Founders, project managers, team leaders, etc. all have official authority and define your company’s culture as part of their job. On the other hand, there are always going to be unofficial cultural carriers on any team.

Some people are charismatic, some people are persuasive. Who are these people on your team?

Look around and develop your awareness of WHO the unofficial carriers are, and their effects on your team.

Let’s say you have an all-hands meeting each morning. If you and everyone in a leadership position show up on time every day, it sets the tone that punctuality is expected. However, if an unofficial cultural carrier shows up late for the meeting consistently, other people will begin to follow suit.

Sometimes managing these unofficial carriers means sitting them down and talking to them about your company culture and their role in it. You want their buy-in, because they can be a huge benefit to your culture.

When your team hits a tough obstacle, it is a huge help to have an unofficial carrier on the team who embodies your company culture and is 100% committed to pushing forward. They will drive their team to do the same.

4. Hire The Same Way You Date

Hiring someone solely because their CV qualifies them for the job is a mistake. You need to know they communicate in a way that fits your culture, that they enjoy the sort of environment you’re cultivating, and that they have a mentality about work that jives with your company.

To figure out if candidates really fit your company culture, you have to get to know them on a more personal level.

There a number of ways to do this:

  • Have them eat lunch with the company.
  • Invite them to a team social event.
  • Take a long walk with them after the interview.

Anything that puts you in a situation with them outside the context of an in-office interview is going to give you a more complete picture of how they interact and whether they’ll fit your culture.

This isn’t just about making sure your company culture stays strong. It’s also about being fair to the candidate and your team. Bringing someone on who is destined to struggle with your company’s culture sets them up for failure, and forces an unnecessary burden on your team.

Your Culture Is Your Biggest Advantage

As a startup, you have to build and keep a rockstar team to succeed. This means you’re frequently going to go head-to-head with bigger companies for the best candidates. You won’t be able to offer them the same salary or perks as a giant company. All you have to sell them on is your culture.

But this can be to your advantage. Having a strong culture means creating bonds of trust between your team members and this creates loyalty to your company. You may not be able to bribe your team members with retreats and office dogs, but you can create a culture that connects your team on a much deeper level.

To hear more from Louise, follow her on Twitter at @louise_kinglui

Should You Take the Offer? A Growth Marketers’ Framework to Climbing the Startup Career Ladder

This post comes from Alex Nucci, VP of Growth at ClutchPrep, a company that provides textbook-specific videos and tutoring in science subjects to college students. Under Alex’s guidance, ClutchPrep has tripled their MRR over the past 8 months.

8 months ago, I hit a crossroads.

About to choose my next career move, it wasn’t clear to me which option was best. They were all great, but there was definitely a better one to pick (there always is).

I created a list of things that one considers when making a decision like this. The idea was to put them all in perspective with what my long term goals were, as opposed to being lured in by what might be a short term win.

After spending some time grouping and prioritizing, I placed all of the reasons into buckets. I then used them to help me score my choices.

The way I see it, these are the most important ranking factors when choosing the path to level-up within your vocation.

The buckets are career oriented, and do not take into account a whole slew of other preferences or situations. Culture fit, health, family, location…these variables are more intimate in nature. It would be hard to give advice on them without some context.

Additionally, experience and age should also play a big role in how you choose what’s most important to you. Where you are on your career trajectory is somewhat subjective, and how you weigh each of the buckets should depend on that. Self awareness is key.

Everyone should rank them differently, depending on how career vs lifestyle vs risk-averse oriented they are.

In no particular order, the buckets are:

Mentorship 💭

Do you deeply respect the team or leaders at this company?

Working alongside the right people can greatly accelerate your career trajectory. The inverse is also true; working with the wrong ones can add years to that journey.

Pick your sources of experience and inspiration wisely — more so when building a foundation.

Assuming equally willing mindsets and difficulty levels, It’s harder to unlearn something than it is to learn it. Quitting a bad habit is more challenging than picking up a new good one.

This is probably the most undervalued bucket — at least it comes up less frequently when others say why they chose a job.

I would advise anyone under 25 to make this their top deciding factor. Pick the absolute best person or team that will hire you, and take that job regardless of anything else.

Passion 🔥

This job fulfills you, at least right now, at a personal level. Doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, this shit feels good.

Become passionate about things that line up with your skills and strengths.

Passion can represent itself in a job through one of more of these:

  • Cause
  • Industry
  • Company
  • Position

If you’re lucky enough, you’ll find something that hits on all four.

I have mixed feelings on choosing a career path based on passion. It’s hard to tell someone to not do what they’re passionate about, yet the reality is that it’s hard to line up passion with skill. It’s also likely that once you do what you’re passionate about day-in and day-out, you’ll lose interest in it…it’ll become routine and no longer fulfilling (this happened to me).

A more interesting (and less common way) of choosing based on passion, while having a successful outcome, is to become passionate about things that line up with your skills and strengths.

If people tell you that you argue too much, you might be a good lawyer 🙂

Compensation 💰

Two main versions of this:

1. Pays above average for that particular job description

2. It’s the best paying job offer you’ve gotten

Ideally, if this bucket is having considerable weight on your decision, it’s being used as a tie-breaker. A reason to pick one out of a few jobs that are very similar and fulfill you in the same ways.

Odds are, that if the job doesn’t also hit on a few more buckets that you value, you should stop considering that opportunity. When given a chance between learning or earning, choose learning and maximize that opportunity. Especially early on in your career.

There are exceptions, of course. Like taking a job that you expect to last <6 months. Or the extra money brings in some needed flexibility that allows you to plan or fund your next move.

Flexibility 🔓

By taking this job, you can work on your side project. Or take that night coding bootcamp. Or start working part-time on something that gets you closer to your ultimate goal.

Or put in time at the non-profit you’re passionate about.

Flexibility without a clearly defined ulterior motive, though, is just comfort. And comfort stagnates progress.

In most cases, this will be a temporary position or solution, and ideally matches well with the compensation bucket. Lining up both should give you the needed time and resources for your real career to take off soon enough.

Flexibility without a clearly defined ulterior motive, though, is just comfort. And comfort stagnates progress.

Security 🛡

Working for the government. Or a Fortune 500. Or an organization that’s been around for decades.

You know that you’re (relatively) set for a long time. That the health insurance is great. That you’ll do good so long as you work the system.

This position, at this company, makes you feel set and secure. You’re comfortable.

I almost fell asleep while writing about this bucket.

Stage Experience 🚀

See what it’s like to be part of the early days of a startup. Learn about corporate structure. Strap onto a rocket ship that’s about to go from 30 to 100 employees.

You might want to see if it’s what you really think it is. Or if you’re a good fit at a company this size. Maybe it’s about getting first-hand experience, so that you can learn to sell to companies at that stage.

This is somewhat similar to mentorship, in that you’re looking for learning experiences, or validation, on something that will make you better at your ultimate goal.

Industry Experience + Networking ⛓

If you already know what industry you want to be a part of, you’ll ideally take positions that help you get to know how things work. Or meet the people that shape it.

The goal of this is to come out of this with a mix of 30% what you know and 70% who you know.

Having people that trust and believe in you is great. Having those people be inside of your industry is even better.

Creative Freedom 💡

Do you want to draw the map or steer the ship?

Do you want to take the risk of creating the something new from scratch, or do you want to manage an existing process and/or execute on it to perfection?

You might be able to create, manage and execute early on. As you scale, however, it’s likely you’ll only get to focus on two of them.

No matter how much you like everything else about the job, if you can’t see yourself executing on someone else’s ideas, you won’t be happy in the long run.

Same goes with putting yourself in a position that requires a lot of creativity, when what you really want is to execute on a clear vision.

Trophy 🏆

If you’re in finance, you spent some time at Goldman. If you’re in tech, you were a double-digit hire at Airbnb. Maybe you get to work at a multi-exit entrepreneur’s newest venture.

These are hard to come by, and very few people will turn down the opportunity. Even if they just plan on sticking with them for one year, and doing a right of passage.

It’s hard for this to not pay dividends. This stepping stone will likely make every step you take after it one much easier.

Applying this way of thinking led me to a clear choice. When I finished the list, I decided to join Clutch as VP of Growth.

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At the stage I was at, I weighed mentorship, stage experience and creative freedom above all else.

A few specific reasons:

1. Join a brilliant + dedicated team.

From the outside looking in, I could tell ClutchPrep was about to hit an inflection point on all fronts — team member count, revenue, product scale, experience — and I wanted to be part of that journey.

2. Tackle a real problem (textbooks) within a broken system (college education).

Clutch had just been accepted to 500 Startups Miami Distro Dojo Batch 1, and I was looking forward to going through a Growth-specific program with the rest of the team.

3. I get to do what I love most: grow revenue.

When it comes to your career, opportunity cost should be treated as the greatest cost of all.

If you are currently searching for something new, I hope this helps you find some clarity. If you’re not searching, but after reading this realize you are not hitting on the points that matter most to you, I hope this kickstarts a new search.

My advice: Go for the long term win. When it comes to your career, opportunity cost should be treated as the greatest cost of all.

We live in a time that you can pick, or at least try, anything that you want to do. More than ever, we have the luxury of being fulfilled through passion. You owe it to yourself to give it a shot.*

When you look back at the decision you made, it should be clear that it brought you further along to your ultimate goal. Regardless of what happened, how long it lasted, or if you changed direction.

If you made the choice based on a vision of your future self, you’ll be happy with it.

Thank you Bibi, Jenny, Johnny & Marcio for reading drafts + giving feedback.

* This paragraph was a great, almost-verbatim, point made by Marcio, Clutch’s CEO, while giving feedback on a draft.

To learn more about the Distro Dojo growth accelerator program, go here.

To join 500’s newsletter of daily growth marketing tips, go here.

Special thanks to ClutchPrep for contributing this post.

Why Your Accelerator Rejected You

500 Startups Partners Marvin Liao and Elizabeth Yin are warm, friendly individuals, but they also break a lot of hearts.

As gatekeepers for 500’s San Francisco-based accelerator, Liao and Yin lead teams that review anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 applications per 12-week round.

marvinliaoheadshot
Venture Partner Marvin Liao

There’s nothing fun about raining on someone’s parade, but with only 35 to 45 slots available, there’s a lot of disappointment to go around. “We have to look through every single one, then we filter it down,” said Liao.

500 Startups EIR Elizabeth Yin
Venture Partner Elizabeth Yin

Which Applicants Are Most Likely To Hear “Yes” From 500?

“We really do take it case by case,” said Yin, though there are a few hard and fast rules. “In most cases, we look for a complete full-time team that has a product already launched, ideally with paying customers.”

“We’re a customer acquisition-focused program,” said Liao, so he’s always seeking opportunities “in some huge market that we’re all personally interested in, and where there’s availability of downstream capital.” Many applicants embody a several of these traits, “but it kind of needs to hit all of these points before we bring you in,” Liao said.

No Market, Revenue, Customers Or Live Product? Come Back Later.

Even in Silicon Valley, there’s such a thing as being in too much of a rush, Liao and Yin agreed.

“If you have an idea and haven’t done anything with it, that would probably fall under the category of too early,” she said.

In other cases, “it may be that the market’s there and founders are really awesome but they’re still very early, so they better suited for a batch downstream,” Liao added. “They don’t know who their customers are, or, after I walk out of the interview, I’ll have no idea of what they’re working on.”

Cap Tables Matter

In many cases, international startup founders are more likely “to have a cap table that’s screwed up,” said Liao. “We love you, we love the company, but the fact that you as founders own 30% of the company is going to make it hard for you to raise downstream capital, so we can’t invest, period,” he lamented. “That’s a lot more common than you’d think for international companies.”

“This is not a one-time thing. You’re not applying to college. This is a continuous process.” — Elizabeth Yin

Yin said 500’s interests are “fairly broad” and extend beyond software into verticals like fintech and ecommerce,”where you can get a lot of online customer acquisition.”

Entrepreneurs seeking to join a 500 batch should make sure they’re good with the size of the checks they’ll receive; pharma founders need not apply, as the sector is “too rich for 500,” said Yin.

Entrepreneurs who don’t follow the guidelines or submit incomplete applications aren’t even considered, and liars need not apply.

“We had someone say in their application that they’re doing $5 million in revenue,” recalled Liao, “and then we interviewed them and found out that they hadn’t even launched yet. That interview ended pretty quickly, he said. “We haven’t had to kick anyone out yet, knock on wood. you try to catch that stuff during the interview process.”

“We should not be picking people based on personality because great entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes.” — Elizabeth Yin

Results Are More Important Than A Startup Founder’s Personality

If Yin and Liao question an entrepreneur’s values or business acumen, they’re unlikely to move forward, Yin said, citing an example of a team with a high burn rate. “If they hadn’t raised that much money and it seems like the money they had wasn’t going towards anything useful, we thought these people were too spendthrift and the money’s not going to go towards growth.”

That was a subjective judgment, Yin acknowledged, but it was came from key metrics, not a personal vibe. “That part is where subjective, unconscious biases can start to creep in, and I am very leery of that,” she said.

“When everybody says, ‘I really love this founder because he or she is a hustler,’ I push people to dive into what specifically does that mean,” Yin said. “Do you like a person’s personality because they’re outgoing and charming and friendly? Or, is it that they have actually exhibited concrete results?”

“We should not be picking people based on personality because great entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes,” said Yin.

Liao concurred. “Do we think that they’re smart? do we think that they’re coachable? Do we think that we can be helpful?” He’s not looking for polished presenters. “They learn that due to people on my team like Andrea Barrica, who are very good pitch coaches and storytellers with an ability to say to founders, ‘here’s what really matters.'”

When Yin encounters serious introverts who have great products and no sales skills, she advises them “to really make the concerted effort to sell more, or bring somebody else on board.”

Even among the founders who are accepted, “about half just don’t do well in the interview,” admitted Liao.

“We value persistence.” — Marvin Liao

500 Startups’ Transparent Rejection Process Encourages Founders To Reapply

As a former entrepreneur, Yin said she always grew annoyed when investors would pass on her pitch without offering any feedback or rationale. “If you try to push them further, they’ll say, ‘it’s not a good fit or something vague like that,'” she said.

Instead, Yin said she strives to be as open as possible with founders who weren’t accepted into the batch of their choice. “Any company who asks us specifically why we’re passing, we’ll be very up front about that,” she said. “This is something that I strongly believe in.”

“A rejection from us is not a rejection forever.” — Elizabeth Yin

“A rejection from us is not a rejection forever. We recognize that entrepreneurs are constantly learning and people will make lots of mistakes,” said Yin, who said a handful of the companies in each batch were initially rejected. “Even if we don’t agree and see eye to eye, it doesn’t mean that we’ll never aligned later on.”

“This is not a one-time thing,” she said. “You’re not applying to college. This is a continuous process.”

Liao said founders who aren’t accepted should ask 500 for feedback and advised them to stay in touch. “As you’re getting traction and making progress, keep us updated,” he said. “We value persistence. And, don’t take it personally. We’re fairly selective.”

 

The Best Startup Pitches Are Empathic, Not Egotistic

For entrepreneurs to pitch effectively, they must first free themselves of attachment — the root of all suffering.

Which makes 500 Startups Venture Partner, Entrepreneur-in-Residence and pitch coach Andrea Barrica a spiritual guru.

andreabarrica

“I force people to constrain and use the smallest amount of time to explain what’s most interesting about their company,” she explains. It’s rewarding, but like any effective conditioning process, no pain, no gain.

The 120 Second Investor Pitch

Now coaching her fourth batch of founders for 500 Startups, Barrica has continually shaved the amount of time they have to present at Demo Day. Instead of 3.5 minutes, each team now has only 120 seconds to make its case.

Investors are more excited and engaged, Barrica said, and founders have gained a deeper understanding of the value they’re offering.

“I was working with a technical founder who said, ‘I need at least 10 minutes to explain my technology, it’s too complex,'” Barrica recalled. “I told him what Einstein said: ‘if you can’t explain it to me in a minute, you don’t understand it well enough.'”

That upset them “a little bit,” she admits, chuckling. “But by the end of the session, they really understood that what they were doing wasn’t that hard from a market standpoint.”

Googling the right investor deck templates and talking your way through for ten minutes is easy, said Barrica. “Why? Because you don’t have to choose what’s important or exciting,” she explained. “You just put everything in and people pick what they like. It doesn’t take any skill to do that type of presentation.”

“What you need is for the investor to know is that this a great market, and you can do that in 30 seconds.”

“What you need is for the investor to know is that this a great market, and you can do that in 30 seconds.”

Part of Barrica’s value to founders lies in her outsider’s perspective. “People don’t really know what they’re doing, they don’t know what they’re building, or why it’s awesome or differentiated,” she said.

Too many founders start with a sales mindset, building pitches around customer value and delight.

A memorable startup pitch is “an exercise in empathy and storytelling,” not salesmanship, said Barrica.

[In a monotone]…this is my market, this my product, this is the problem.” I’m not about that. I’m about, let’s tell a story.”

Differentiate Your Startup Pitch, Or Don’t Bother

One of the exercises Barrica uses to give founders a better perspective on their own companies is to ask how they’d explain it to “an outsider, like their grandmother or a 10-year-old niece.”

During a 12-week batch, Barrica meets weekly with founders. Each receives highly tailored advice, but all are encouraged to find ways to differentiate their pitch, even from each other.

“People sign up for a pitch session with me and they sit down ready to pitch, but typically, I don’t let them,” said Barrica. “Instead, I’ll ask, what are the three reasons why someone shouldn’t invest in your company?

Most founders reply with negative feedback they’ve already received, such as problems with their team or product.

“Once that’s in their head, you find that they don’t start with the same words the next time,” she said, because they’ve started to anticipate their audience’s needs and wants.

“Once you get people in that mindset, they typically don’t do the super-boring, generic precut pitches I get when I don’t prompt founders with anything,” said Barrica. “So many people don’t understand why they’re going to win. They can’t connect the dots very well.”

She advised adding a single metric to a tagline, or taking the time to identify traction benchmarks that are sector- and product-specific.

“Whose lunch do you eat when you succeed? That’s what most people can’t tell me when they come in,” said Barrica. “If you’re successful, what happens in five years?”

For pre-launch companies, relating current strategy to future outcomes can go a long way toward building credibility with investors, she added. “Be able to talk intelligently about what in your industry will be interesting to investors or customers.

“Whose lunch do you eat when you succeed? That’s what most people can’t tell me when they come in.”

Quiet Power: “A Very Compelling Pitch Style”

Not all entrepreneurs are, as they say in the restaurant industry, “front of house” people, but Barrica said introverts and unlikeable folks can also pitch effectively.

“I tell people that quiet power is a very compelling pitch style,” she said. “Sometimes, founders avoid me like the plague because they think that I’m gaining to make them be really gregarious and loud,” she said, but that’s the opposite of her strategy, which stresses authenticity.

“You don’t have to be something you’re not, but you have to be brilliant, brave, and effective,” said Barrica. Discomfort with public speaking “isn’t an excuse to be boring or verbose,” she offered. “I would say if you don’t like pitching, you have to be even more brief.”

When Pitching Investors, Screen Your Trailer, Not The Movie

Before we wrap up, Barrica refers again to deadly Power Point decks packed with minutiae investors won’t remember after the pitch concludes.

“Those details are better for a Q&A in a one-on-one meeting,” said Barrica, “and if you want to get that one-on-one meeting, you keep it simple.”

“Your pitch is going to hurt you,” she warned. “That’s why coaching is so important, and that’s why my job’s so hard – it’s hard to templatize what I do, when it’s more of an art than a science.”

Barrica admits a bias, but “I hate other [accelerators’] demo days because they’re just robots, one after the other. [In a monotone] this is my market, this my product, this is the problem. I’m not about that. I’m about, let’s tell a story.

Presumably, without opening, “in a galaxy far, far away?”

“I love that example,” said Barrica. “No, we’re just looking for the teaser trailer.”

Fintech Investment is Exploding — 5 Ways Governments & Ecosystem Builders Can Help

with Sheel Mohnot

Investment in fintech companies is up 8X in the past 5 years, with over 200 financings for a combined $4.9 billion in 1Q2016 alone.  

“Silicon Valley is coming. There are hundreds of startups with a lot of brains and money working on various alternatives to traditional banking.”

Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, pointed out: “Silicon Valley is coming. There are hundreds of startups with a lot of brains and money working on various alternatives to traditional banking. They are very good at reducing the ‘pain points’.”

Quarterly financing to VC-backed fintech companies has been growing immensely:

Financing Trends

But investment is not flowing freely everywhere.  

For example, in 1Q2016, Chinese fintech companies received $2.4 billion in funding (albeit primarily from two mega-deals), while the rest of Asia received only $0.2 billion.  

Meanwhile in Europe, deal count increased but the amount of capital invested did not.  Even when the investment flows, the performance often does not.

 

Why?

After investing in more than 130 fintech startups in 15 countries and providing ecosystem development advisory in markets around the world, we’ve identified three core challenges that most ecosystems face with fintech.

Fintech’s 3 Ecosystem Challenges

1. Regulatory regimes are often ill-suited for fintech.  

Regulations in the finance sector are often unclear or highly complex, and regulatory processes and agencies may be slow.

For example, in the U.S., there are 48 different rules (state by state) around what constitutes a money transmitter business. Many states require a surety bond that varies by state and can cost over $1 million. This alone prevents many fintech companies from getting off the ground.

2. Traditional financial institutions may hold down fintech startups, intentionally or unintentionally.  

Not long ago in the U.S., many banks did not even entertain meetings with or extend invitations to fintech startup founders.

When some banks did begin engaging with fintech startups, it was with the idea of gaining an edge over competing banks by co-opting and closing off the startup — which could in turn prevent the startup from achieving its potential.

An analogous hypothetical would be forcing Visa to be exclusive to certain issuers and merchants, rather than allowing ubiquity.

3. Customer preferences may not be ready for certain fintech solutions.  

Customer acquisition is very difficult in fintech.

It’s relatively easy to build a big invite list, but it’s very hard to get people to actually change financial institutions. We (the post authors) personally still bank with the banks where we got our first accounts more than a decade ago. Insurance, Loans, and Mortgage are the 3 most expensive word groupings to acquire users for on Google.  

Banks in the US spend over $500 to acquire a single user, and over time many startups will get there as well. Unlike some other industries with a higher viral coefficient, in fintech you often spend more to acquire the millionth user than you did to acquire the thousandth.

Banks in the US spend over $500 to acquire a single user, and over time many startups will get there as well

 

These challenges can’t be fixed overnight, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be done.

5 Ways Goverments Can Help

 

1. Create a “regulatory sandbox” that provides startups the opportunity to test new ideas without immediate threat of regulation.  

Regulating early-stage startups — before they have found product-market fit and achieved any meaningful scale — seems generally unnecessary from either a systemic risk control or consumer protection perspective while stifling innovation before it starts. Exempting startups from certain regulations in the early-stage can enable innovation and experimentation.  

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has done this already, and the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) is looking at doing something similar.

2. Offer fast and transparent regulatory review of potential new fintech products or services.  

Once startups emerge from the earliest stages they ought to be compliant.

Reducing the regulatory review process from years to months or from months to weeks would substantially reduce legal expenses and could even mean the difference between life and death for a startup.

3. Create a support system or kit to help fintech startups meet regulatory requirements

Even founding teams with finance and legal experience can find industry regulations to be a challenging maze. Developing and sharing resources could reduce friction in the industry and ensure early-stage compliance.  

Accelerators specializing in fintech are one effective way. For example, startups in 500’s fintech accelerator track get a nontrivial amount of support to sort out regulatory compliance. In the UK, the FCA established an innovation hub with staff available to guide any startup through financial regulation.

4. Roll out consumer awareness initiatives to increase demand.

PSA campaigns to improve financial literacy can help clarify the potential value of switching to new fintech products & services.  

Campaigns to raise basic awareness of existing protections can help overcome risk-related hurdles to adoption. The effectiveness of startups running such campaigns is likely low, whereas the cost can be quite high. This is a clear market failure that governments can rectify.

5. Encourage traditional financial institutions to invest in or partner with fintech startups — preferably non-exclusively.  

Some banks and some fintech startups have already indeed realized that partnering can be better than competing, so we’re pleased to see that this is happening on an ad hoc basis.  

It would be even better though to establish formal processes and even alliances.  JPMorgan is moving in this direction with their upcoming announcement of a startup residency program.

 

Ultimately, the selection of ideas and details of implementation depend on specific market context. Moreover, the efforts need to be part of a broader ecosystem of investment and other support.

If you’re interested to learn more or do more, please contact us:

– For fintech investment, Sheel at sheel@500.co

– For ecosystem development and corporate innovation advisory, 500 managing partner Bedy Yang at bedy@500.co

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About the authors:

Sheel is a partner with 500 Startups and head of the recently-announced 500 FinTech fund.  His prior startup experience includes 2 successful fintech exits, a payments company and a high-stakes auction company.  He also created and hosts a podcast called The Pitch, which has >10,000 listeners.

Eddie is a venture partner with 500 Startups.  He is a head of the recently-announced 500 Startups Vietnam fund and is supporting development of 500’s corporate innovation and ecosystem development advisory offerings.  He has invested in fintech startups and provided advice on promoting fintech investment in Vietnam.