7 UX / UI Design Tips to Improve Your Startup Growth

Below is a collection of my tips and feedback from a creative branding workshop I led during the most recent 500 Startups’ seed accelerator program, Batch 19. The goal was to teach startups to apply design thinking methods to improve their UX/UI , and thus increase user acquisition and market growth.

Did you know the human attention span is shorter than a goldfish’s?
[Fun Fact about Attention Span] Goldfish: 9 seconds > Human: 8 seconds. 😱

Yep, your website has a lot of work to do in a short amount of time to get your key message to your audience.

How do you do it? Here are 7 Design Thinking Tips to Improve Your Growth Rate 🔑:

1. Integrate

Combine a strong marketing message (content) with effective visuals (form).

My Feedback for Bstow: Bstow rounds up your spare change to charity.

Below is the original design for the top half of Bstow’s  home page. It has a simple marketing message, “Donate spare change to charity”. However, at first glance, the website looks like it’s featuring an analytics product.

Neither of the key visuals, the app interface on the phone nor the blue background, reflect the marketing message – “donation” and “charity”. How does the graph on the phone have anything to do with charity? Why the blue background?  They are disconnected. There is no integration of the form & the content.


I asked the founders to look at their analytics and see which part of the website gets the most engagement. They told me the most engagement comes from the “causes” section, which on the website you have to scroll all the way down to find:


Yep, that’s a lot of scrolling… By the time you scroll down to the causes, those Goldfish have already lost their attention – let alone humans!

I suggested the Bstow team integrate their charity causes into the homepage visuals by using the iPhone screen as a frame, showcasing charity partners’ content one by one.

Homepage After Feedback: Team Bstow came back with the new home page designs below: Boom! 💥


2. Manifest:

Present your company with a short, punchy tagline & visual, make it clear and obvious to the mind. This helps people remember who you are and what you do.

My Feedback for Scopio: Scopio is a search engine to find and license images on social media.

Homepage before Feedback:

Get a short and effective tagline (6-8 words) that conveys both HOW your company works and WHY you do what you do (your purpose, cause & belief).

Combine the original two lines on your website homepage,“Search engine and licensing platform for trending photos & videos on social media” and “Discover Moments and Tell Stories”, into a simple and effective one-liner.

Homepage After Feedback (version 1):

“Real Images Engage Audiences” is a much more effective tagline. Now how can we show (even better) that these photos are taken by real people?

When using very light weight text over the video, it’s VERY hard to read the tagline and explanation. I suggested changing the text, “A cutting-edge platform…,” into a one-liner.

The more clear and obvious you can make this, the better.

Homepage After Feedback (version 2 – current): Team Scopio came back with the new home page designs below. You can view the full site here.

3. Portray:

Depict your product/service vividly, let it come to life through visual storytelling.

My Feedback for ShearShare: ShearShare connects salon owners to stylists to fill empty salon chairs.

Below is ShearShare’s original Homepage:


On the home page, a static image of a phone with the app search bar text, “Where do you want to work?,” is not the best use of the precious space.

Let’s make it more vivid and engaging, by actually showing the audience how this app works. Embed the Demo video on your demo page as an animated .gif or video on the phone.

You can see my above feedback into the mockup below.

After the Feedback: Team ShearShare came back with a much improved homepage animation seen below. You can view the full site here. 👊

4. Reuse

Whether you are a new or established company, branding consistency always matters, because your brand is reflected in your logo and messaging. One of easiest ways to improve your branding consistency is by examining the visual consistency of your site/app. Reuse and reapply your branding colors and elements throughout the site and app, to create a unified look and feel.

My Feedback for ChangeJar: ChangeJar is a mobile cash platform optimized for small retail payments.

This is ChangeJar’s current logo:

But if you look at their icon page, the main branding has not been maintained. It’s completely different with white on a purple background.

To remain consistent across your whole site (and aid in brand recognition), add the green color from your brand/logo and/or the “jar” icon to the design of these icons below:

I made the mock up below to highlight the dollar signs in the green color from your brand logo. Now these icons look more consistent with your brand:

Also, the current Favicon is hard to read when it’s white on green gradient. Its design/color scheme is not consistent with the current logo.

Current Logo:

Current Favicon:

I suggest making it the same design & color scheme as the current logo. See the mockup below:

Similarly, here is Scopio’s current logo and it’s current set of icons (more on Scopio below):
I suggest you reuse the Symbol from the logo/brand as much as possible like below:

5. Organize

You can organize content by color making it easier for people to remember your brand name or for the audiences to differentiate the business.

When it comes to content marketing, color can help you stand out from the crowd. According to NeuroMarketing, “if a good color sells, the right color sells better.”

Color is an important emotional cue in content marketing. Different colors and their combinations will evoke different emotions and feelings. It is vital to choose the right color(s) which represents your identity truthfully and effectively.

According to CoSchedule, people make a judgment about your content in 90 seconds or less. And up to 90% of the judgment in that 90 seconds is influenced by color. Marketer Neil Patel gives further proof of how colors affect conversion rate, revealing that 85% of consumer-based buying decisions comes from color and that full-color ads in magazines get recognized 26% more than black and white ads. Color helps people recognize your brand by up to 80%. It’s important to choose your brand color carefully and stick with it.

My Feedback for Aumet: Aumet allows medical suppliers & distributors to do business with companies no matter where they are.

Here is Aumet’s current website:

Since “Aumet” is a made-up name, I recommend highlighting two different syllables, using two different colors, to help users learn how to spell and pronounce your name

Also, because your target audience is both medical suppliers and distributors, it makes sense to use the same two colors to highlight the two different target audiences.  

Since your brand is targeting the medical industry, the current mint green works well as the main color. I would suggest your additional color be something like blue to compliment the green. Here is a simple mockup of how this could be done:aumet-after

If your business market is facing both B2C and B2B, like Aumet and ChangeJar, I would also suggest using two different colors for the two different consumer audiences.  


A picture is worth a thousand words: Applying effective visuals helps to arouse emotion within your audience, creating an instant connection with your company.

My Design Feedback for TalentBase: TalentBase is an HR software for growing enterprises in Africa.

Below is their current website homepage:


Very straightforward website with all its functions. My overall feedback with your current branding & logo is: It’s too plain and there’s a lack of engagement.

If you are a B2B company, remember the foundation of business is still human. I love what Jack Ma suggests, whether your business market is B2C or B2B, it’s all about P2P, People to People.

I suggest you either add a secondary color that works with the existing blue color or add a set of colors inspired by your market, African HR (Human Resources) professionals. Start with Africa, and its people!

I have mocked the site with photos of real African professionals,  with the same text/content from the current site. Do you see and feel the difference?

Showing the faces of the workforce arouses emotion within your audience, thus establishing trust and loyalty between your audience and your company.

7. Elaborate

“Elaborate” means provide more context and add additional details, which can help others (e.g. your users or investors) to have a better understanding of what your business is.

My Feedback for ChangeJar: ChangeJar is a mobile cash platform optimized for small retail payments.

The width of the logo type and the symbol in the current logo looks a bit too thin, especially when it’s being scaled into a smaller size. It’s hard to see. Keep “change” in white, but change “jar” to green.

Also, add a dollar sign or currency symbol in the logo. At the moment the logo only conveys the notion of a jar, but it doesn’t indicate money. Adding a money symbol will help your audience subconsciously digest what your company (a payments provider) does. As you scale internationally, change the currency symbol. You can already create multiple mockups with a dollar “$” sign, pound “£”, euro “€”, and Japanese or Chinese sign “¥”, etc.

I mocked up the above suggestions below:

If you want, you can even animate it with the different currencies, like this:

To summarize, here are the 7 Design Thinking Tips to Improve Your Growth Rate:

1. Integrate: 
Combine marketing message with effective visual content
2. Manifest: Make your message clear and obvious to the mind
3. Portray:
Depict your product / service vividly, let it come to life
4. Reuse:
Re-apply visual elements to achieve visual consistency
5. Organize: 
Categorize content by color to help users read & remember better
6. Visualize: 
Use visuals to engage and establish emotional connections
7. Elaborate: Provide context to help users understand your business better

And if you are paying close attention, you will notice the initials of each tips make the word “IMPROVE” (I know, so nerdy 🤓 right? But admit it, this just made your day!)


500 Batch 22 begins July 24th, 2017 in San Francisco.

Click Here to apply for our the Batch 22 Seed Program.


See also:

7 Marketing Secrets from 500 Startups Demo Days
7 Design Hacks to Improve Your Startup Logo Designs


Yiying Lu is award-winning bilingual (English & Chinese) artist and designer. Born in Shanghai China, Educated in Sydney Australia & London UK, now based in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, she currently is a Design Lecturer at the NYU Shanghai Program on Creativity & Innovation. She is also an individual creative consultant who provides talks & workshops for global startups and corporate innovation teams on design thinking, entrepreneurship & creativity. Her projects have been featured in many publications, including The New York Times, Forbes, NBC News, TIME, CNN, BBC, San Francisco Chronicle, TechCrunch, Mashable, and The Huffington Post. She was named a “Top 10 Emerging Leader in Innovation” in the Microsoft Next 100 series. For more from Yiying, you can follow her on TwitterLinkedin and Medium.


WMD ’16: Post-Conference Q&A with Brian Balfour

Guest blogger – Brian Balfour, Founder & CEO, Reforge

The below article is comprised of audience questions asked to Brian Balfour during his presentation at Weapons of Mass Distribution 2016. Brian took the time to answer the questions in detail post-conference.


“How do you determine your platform?”

One of the most powerful things I’ve done in my career is to build my blog. The blog acts as a platform for me to distribute my work, thoughts, and creations. The reason having this is so powerful today is because I believe we are moving towards a world where credentials matter far less, and it is more about your actual work/output. My blog is the way I do that but with tools like Dribbble, Github, Medium, Slideshare, and so many others there are a lot of ways to build a platform for yourself. Deciding on which one to use depends on two things. One, your fit with the medium. Different people do better with different mediums. For me, it is writing and therefore the blog works. Others are better suited for video, audio, etc. Two, fit between the medium and your type of work. Different types of work are better displayed in different mediums. My recommendation is to try a few, see what feels the most natural and go from there.

“Would you pay a growth marketer a base salary or revenue share?”

No definitely not. I might consider performance bonuses based on a balance of criteria, metric performance being one of them, but never a direct revenue share or commission. A few problems with that approach:

1. They aren’t in control of their own destiny. The growth of a metric like revenue is almost always a team effort, not an individual effort. Therefore one individual can’t be in control of their own destiny when it comes to generating revenue.

2. People will always look for ways to game the system typically in the form of doing the least amount of work for the largest amount of gain. You see this on sales teams which are why a comp is often always restructured on a yearly basis to plug holes. You want your growth team pursuing authentic growth. Authentic growth is more than just quantity, but also quality. Revenue shares focus on quantity which can lead you to trouble.

“Hiring tips to find an awesome Growth Marketer?”

I participated with a few other growth leaders such as Andrew Chen at Uber, Elena Vern at SurveyMonkey, and Shaun Clowes at Atlassian on some of our tips to hiring for growth. A few notes:

1. Depending on the specialty you want them to focus on, I often find great people from nonmarketing backgrounds. Since a large component of growth is quantitative I find that people coming from math, statistics, or finance backgrounds to have the right foundation to be really successful.

2. In terms of sourcing, I have found places like AngelList and Hired to have the best candidates. You can also search for Reforge alumni on LinkedIn as we are pretty selective in our programs.

3. The most important thing is making sure growth/marketing isn’t a second (or third) class citizen within your company. A lot of companies turn their nose up internally at marketing. Product, engineering, etc look down on marketing/growth. If your marketing/growth talent feels like a second class citizen, they will seek out better places. Make sure other teams within your company understand the importance and philosophy towards growth to the point that they respect it.

“How would you work with “growth” before PMF?”

The first thing you need to do is understand if you are in the traction, transition, or growth phase for your company. The traction phase is typically pre-product market fit. There should be a few goals:

1. Generate as much growth that is needed to prove out retention which is the best indicator of product market fit. To prove out retention, you need to generate a certain amount of new customers. There is no reason to step on the gas until you’ve proven this retention out.

2. Start testing and building proof around your long term growth hypotheses. In the early days you need to “do things that don’t scale” to get traction. But you also need to start forming an educated hypothesis about how you are going to grow long term. There are only a few truly scalable channels and to grow into a huge company you will need to play in one of those channels. So a large part of your early efforts should be starting to understand which one it is.

“How long do you think it takes to become an expert at something? How do you know?”

First thing is to be very wary of the term expert. I don’t like the term because it implies you have nothing left to learn about the subject. That is a dangerous thought to have because growth is never done and the moment you believe you are an expert is the moment right before you become obsolete. Your learning is never done.

There is no specific timeframe to go “deep” on something. It depends on the capabilities of the individual, the project they are working on, the people around them that they can learn from, and much more. Going deep on something to me means you understand it at a level where you are in the top 20%. Some indications that you have gone deep on something:

1. Almost everything you read about the subject on the web feels intro level or just skimming the surface to you. You have a set of knowledge that isn’t being written about and regurgitated by every content marketer out there.
2. You’ve been forced to solve a problem that you haven’t been able to answer with some google searching and a couple easy conversations.
3. You find yourself being sought out for advice from other smart and experienced professionals in the space.

View Brian’s full presentation at WMD ’16:

Thank you to Brian Balfour for contributing to the 500 blog. For more insights from Brian, follow him at his blog, Coelevate, or on Linkedin or Twitter.

The Yin & Yang of Marketing and Innovation

Guest Blogger – Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, Chief Marketing Officer Mozilla 

“Business has only two functions—marketing and innovation.”

I have heard this quotation attributed to Peter Drucker, a.k.a. “the father of business consulting” (talk about a guy with some dubious children), as well as Czech novelistMilan Kundera.

Citations for Drucker usually extend the quotation, adding, “All the rest are costs.”

Kundera. Drucker. Novelist. Consultant. Marketing. Innovation.

The Circular Interplay

There’s a wonderful, circular nature to the relationship between marketing and innovation.

First, I should say I do believe everything other than innovation and marketing in business is a cost—a necessary cost, usually. But the only thing that produces business profit is innovation and the discovery of a market need for that innovation—or, conversely, the discovery of a market need and the creation of an innovation to meet it.

Accounting, human resources, customer service, operations—all of these things are imperative, but not the reason we are in business. We are in business to figure out how something works (innovation) and to figure out who would find it useful (marketing) and then provide it at a profit. Marketing and innovation are intricately linked in that endeavor, and the interplay between the two is like the yin and yang of the business world, the result of which is the determination of price.

One creates the other, and the more they feed off each other, the better their net contribution to the business grows and the more profitable the price, where:

Gross Revenues – Costs = Net Marketing & Innovation Contribution to Revenue

Anything that lowers costs—from cost of goods sold to financing costs to labor costs—increases net marketing & innovation contribution to the business. Anything that increases revenue—either number of units sold or price per unit or both—increases net marketing & innovation contribution, as well.

In all cases, it is the interplay between marketing and innovation—innovation and marketing—that creates a situation where customers are willing to pay above cost for a good or service.

(Of course, there are other ways to make a profit by monopoly or oligopoly, legislation, and price manipulation. These are not the kinds of business practices I’m talking about, because, however pervasive, they are outside the scope of what agile marketing and true competition are all about.)

Did Marketing Emerge From Innovation or Vice Versa?

In his book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter, Terrence Deacon, neuroscientist and chair of UC Berkeley’s Anthropology Department, discusses in great detail the integral connection between presence and absence in our world, how each caused the other to be. He explains the interplay between materialism and consciousness, between the present and the emergent, has created all the world we see around us and within us.

However complex the book’s science and philosophy, it was Deacon’s simple description of the first organic replicators that struck me as a direct conceptual parallel to the connection between marketing and innovation—and indeed the connection between many things in life.

A Creates B Which Creates A

When Deacon discusses the misconceptions surrounding DNA and RNA replicators, he writes,

“Although it is generally believed that polynucleotide chains like DNA and RNA molecules constitute life’s replicators…they do not replicate themselves. To be more explicit: polynucleotide A cannot directly produce another exact duplicate of polynucleotide A. Instead…polynucleotide molecule A can produce a complementary polynucleotide molecule B, which in turn under the same conditions can produce polynucleotide molecule A.”

The reason this is the arrangement we see today is that, in replicators where A made itself in exact duplicate, the instability of the system doomed it to fail. That is, anytime A made a bad duplicate of A, the system would break down and not survive.

However, when A makes B which in turn makes A again, the stability of the system is exponentially more robust, because a mutation in B doesn’t necessarily doom the cycle to failure if the small change in B doesn’t destroy its original ability to make A. In fact, it makes adaptation possible.

I find this idea to be a profoundly useful for agile marketing:

Stability and adaptation come not from self-duplication, but from the interplay of complementary opposites.

This idea is in many ways apparent and intuitive. Think: positive/negative, up/down, light/dark, form/entropy, male/female—one doesn’t exist without the other, and strength is the result of the complementary nature of the relationship, not the imposition of sameness or domination of one by the other.

Our problems in business between innovation and marketing occur when this need for opposites gets thrown out the window in favor of one steamrolling the other.

“Marketing Is Too Important to be Left to the Marketing People.”

That’s what David Packard of Hewlett-Packard fame once said. I think the humor of Packard’s statement shouldn’t be overlooked, but I find within it a glance at the innovator’s outright dismissal of marketing’s role. And I think he’s referring to traditional Mad Men-style, sell-the-sizzle advertising and marketing, a dismissal which may be deserved.

But with agile marketing—small iterations through test and measurement, responsive work in tandem with product development, trying anything once but not failing at it twice—marketing has moved more into the world of scientific approach and hypothesis testing, the world engineers and innovators know and respect.

In a complementary-opposite response, innovators must now move more toward understanding what marketing is and what the market says and does. That is, innovators have to let markets guide their innovation, rather than making something and trying to foist it upon the market. When innovators make things that markets do not want—or when they don’t listen and adapt to changing market sentiments—marketing has to get too reactionary and “sales-y” to try to sell products people don’t want.

When marketing gets too sales-y, the complementary-opposite relationship with innovation loses it’s strength and balance and falls apart.

Sales Is Not Marketing. Sales is the Cost of Bad Marketing.

To use another quotation from Drucker, “The aim of marketing is to make selling unnecessary.”

I absolutely believe the more hard selling a business must do indicates how poorly it has studied the market and how poorly it has created products to match the market. Selling—like other functions of business outside marketing and innovation—is a cost, a necessary cost, perhaps, but one like all costs to be minimized.

Innovation creates agile marketing, which creates innovation, which creates agile marketing, which creates innovation, which creates agile marketing, ad infinitum.

  • Doesn’t the need for too much selling indicate a breakdown in the relationship between innovation and marketing?
  • Doesn’t the iterative and complementary activity between marketing and innovation require that one department not usurp the other?

I think it does.

And the profound concept of A makes B makes A bears this out in a bigger way. When marketing goes agile, it’s reaching out to the innovators for stability. Innovators have to reach out to marketing, as well, without turning marketing into something unstable and subservient, where A makes A.

Thank you to Jascha Kaykas-Wolff for contributing to the 500 blog. Jascha will be a speaker at this year’s Weapons of Mass Distribution 2016 conference on Nov. 4 in San Francisco. Get 20% off tickets with code: JASCHA or Buy your ticket HERE

For more insights from Jascha, follow him on Linkedin or Twitter.

This article was originally published on Jascha’s Linkedin

Hooks: An Intro on How to Manufacture Desire

Guest Blogger – Nir Eyal, Author “Hooked: How yo Build Habit-Forming Products”

Type the name of almost any successful consumer web company into your search bar and add the word “addict” after it. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Try “Facebook addict” or “Twitter addict” or even “Pinterest addict” and you’ll soon get a slew of results from hooked users and observers deriding the narcotic-like properties of these web sites. How is it that these companies, producing little more than bits of code displayed on a screen, can seemingly control users’ minds? Why are these sites so addictive and what does their power mean for the future of the web?

We’re on the precipice of a new era of the web. As infinite distractions compete for our attention, companies are learning to master new tactics to stay relevant in users’ minds and lives. Today, just amassing millions of users is no longer good enough. Companies increasingly find that their economic value is a function of the strength of the habits they create. But as some companies are just waking up to this new reality, others are already cashing in.

First-to-Mind Wins

A company that forms strong user habits enjoys several benefits to its bottom line. For one, this type of company creates associations with “internal triggers” in users’ minds. That is to say, users come to the site without any external prompting. Instead of relying on expensive marketing or worrying about differentiation, habit-forming companies get users to cue themselves to action by attaching their services to the users’ daily routines and emotions. A cemented habit is when users subconsciously think, “I’m bored,” and instantly Facebook comes to mind. They think, “I wonder what’s going on in the world?” and before rationale thought occurs, Twitter is the answer. The first-to-mind solution wins.

Manufacturing Desire

But how do companies create a connection with the internal cues needed to form habits? The answer: they manufacture desire. While fans of Mad Men are familiar with how the ad industry once created consumer desire during Madison Avenue’s golden era, those days are long gone. A multi-screen world, with ad-wary consumers and a lack of ROI metrics, has rendered Don Draper’s big budget brainwashing useless to all but the biggest brands. Instead, startups manufacture desire by guiding users through a series of experiences designed to create habits. I call these experiences “Hooks,” and the more often users run through them, the more likely they are to self-trigger.

I wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products to help others understand what is at the heart of habit-forming technology. The book highlights common patterns I observed in my career in the video gaming and online advertising industries. While my model is generic enough for a broad explanation of habit formation, I’ll focus on applications in consumer Internet for this post.

Nir Eyal Hook


The trigger is the actuator of a behavior—the spark plug in the Hook Model. Triggers come in two types: external and internal. Habit-forming technologies start by alerting users with external triggers like an email, a link on a website, or the app icon on a phone. By cycling continuously through these hooks, users begin to form associations with internal triggers, which become attached to existing behaviors and emotions. Soon users are internally triggered every time they feel a certain way.  The internal trigger becomes part of their routine behavior and the habit is formed.

For example, suppose Barbara, a young lady in Pennsylvania, happens to see a photo in her Facebook newsfeed taken by a family member from a rural part of the State.  It’s a lovely photo and since she’s planning a trip there with her brother Johnny, the trigger intrigues her.


After the trigger comes the intended action. Here, companies leverage two pulleys of human behavior – motivation and ability. To increase the odds of a user taking the intended action, the behavior designer makes the action as easy as possible, while simultaneously boosting the user’s motivation. This phase of the Hook draws upon the art and science of usability design to ensure that the user acts the way the designer intends.

Using the example of Barbra, with a click on the interesting picture in her newsfeed she’s taken to a website she’s never been to before called Pinterest. Once she’s done the intended action (in this case, clicking on the photo), she’s dazzled by what she sees next.

Variable Reward

What separates Hooks from a plain vanilla feedback loop is their ability to create wanting in the user. Feedback loops are all around us, but predictable ones don’t create desire. The predictable response of your fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep opening it again and again. However, add some variability to the mix—say a different treat magically appears in your fridge every time you open it—and voila, intrigue is created. You’ll be opening that door like a lab animal in a Skinner box.

Variable schedules of reward are one of the most powerful tools that companies use to hook users. Research shows that levels of dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing variability multiplies the effect, creating a frenzied hunting state, activating the parts associated with wanting and desire. Although classic examples include slot machines and lotteries, variable rewards are prevalent in habit-forming technologies as well.

When Barbra lands on Pinterest, not only does she see the image she intended to find, but she’s also served a multitude of other glittering objects. The images are associated with what she’s generally interested in – namely things to see during a trip to rural Pennsylvania – but there are some others that catch her eye also. The exciting juxtaposition of relevant and irrelevant, tantalizing and plain, beautiful and common sets her brain’s dopamine system aflutter with the promise of reward. Now she’s spending more time on the site, hunting for the next wonderful thing to find. Before she knows it, she’s spent 45 minutes scrolling in search of her next hit.


The last phase of the Hook is where the user is asked to do a bit of work. This phase has two goals as far as the behavior engineer is concerned. The first is to increase the odds that the user will make another pass through the Hook when presented with the next trigger. Second, now that the user’s brain is swimming in dopamine from the anticipation of reward in the previous phase, it’s time to pay some bills. The investment generally comes in the form of asking the user to give some combination of time, data, effort, social capital or money.

But unlike a sales funnel, which has a set endpoint, the investment phase isn’t about consumers opening up their wallets and moving on with their day. The investment implies an action that improves the service for the next go-around. Inviting friends, stating preferences, building virtual assets, and learning to use new features are all commitments that improve the service for the user. These  investments can be leveraged to make the trigger more engaging, the action easier, and the reward more exciting with every pass through the Hook.

As Barbra enjoys endlessly scrolling the Pinterest cornucopia, she builds a desire to keep the things that delight her. By collecting items, she’ll be giving the site data about her preferences. Soon she will follow, pin, re-pin, and make other investments, which serve to increase her ties to the site and prime her for future loops through the Hook.

Super Power

A reader recently wrote to me, “If it can’t be used for evil, it’s not a superpower.” He’s right. And under this definition, habit design is indeed a super power. If used for good, habits can enhance people’s lives with entertaining and even healthful routines. If used to exploit, habits can turn into wasteful addictions.

But, like it or not, habit-forming technology is already here. The fact that we have greater access to the web through our various devices also gives companies greater access to us. As companies combine this greater access with the ability to collect and process our data at higher speeds than ever before, we’re faced with a future where everything becomes more addictive. This trinity of access, data, and speed creates new opportunities for habit-forming technologies to hook users. Companies need to know how to harness the power of Hooks to improve peoples’ lives, while consumers need to understand the mechanics of behavior engineering to protect themselves from unwanted manipulation.

What do you think? Hooks are all around us. Where do you see them manufacturing desire in your life?

Here’s the gist:

  • The degree to which a company can utilize habit-forming technologies will increasingly decide which products and services succeed or fail.
  • Habit-forming technology creates associations with “internal triggers” which cue users without the need for marketing, messaging or other external stimuli.
  • Creating associations with internal triggers comes from building the four components of a “Hook” — a trigger, action, variable reward, and investment.
  • Consumers must understand how habit-forming technology works to prevent unwanted manipulation while still enjoying the benefits of these innovations.
  • Companies must understand the mechanics of habit-formation to increase engagement with their products and services and ultimately help users create beneficial routines.

Thank you to Nir Eyal, Author or “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,”  for contributing to the 500 blog. Original article found HERE. Get 20% off tickets with code: NIREYAL. Nir Eyal will be a speaker at this year’s Weapons of Mass Distribution 2016 conference on Nov. 4 in San Francisco. Buy your ticket HERE

How to Grow a Startup, Marketing Hell Week Edition

Today’s post comes from guest author Lauralynn Stubler, a growth marketer who’s been helping out 500 Startups’ brand new Batch 17 survive our Accelerator program’s (in)famous Marketing Hell Week.

Batch 17 Marketing Hell Week is over, but the learnings from our startup resources have just begun….

Today we’re sharing some key takeaways on how to grow a startup from our recent Marketing Hell Week roster of speakers.


“Start with running A/A tests to test your tools.”

Hiten Shah on A/B Testing

Click-to-tweet: http://ctt.ec/hK6zd

A/A testing is often overlooked but it’s an excellent method of double-checking the effectiveness of your A/B testing software. A/A testing is the tactic of using A/B testing to test identical versions of a page against each other. In an A/A test, the tool should report no difference in conversions between the control and variation after enough conversions have been logged.

“Optimize ad spend for power users to maximize ROI with a limited budget.”

(Daniel Riaz on Customer Segmentation)

Click-to-tweet: http://ctt.ec/16N6t

By identifying and understanding your power users, you can optimize your marketing spend by targeting those who match their profile.



“Growing users without having those users complete the core action is the empty calories of growth. It feels good but it’s not good for you.”

— Sarah Tavel on B2C Engagement Hierarchy

Click-to-tweet: http://ctt.ec/ySc2c

If they nibble it doesn’t mean they are hooked. It’s not enough to drive traffic to your website, you actually need your users to take a specific action. And not just any action, but the ones that are in line with your objectives.

“The most important part of your dashboard is the janitorial work. The janitor updates the data every day and keeps the data clean. If you are going to build a dashboard and not keep it clean, don’t build a dashboard.”

— Susan Coelius on Remarketing

Click-to-tweet: http://ctt.ec/hyQeC

Pretty dashboards that tell all-the-things are great, if you need to know all-the-things. If not, it becomes a bloated daily chore that you begin to de-prioritize. Which makes the data, at worse, useless. And at best, something you need to spend time updating before you can see the whole picture. Keep it simple so you can update it on a regular basis.


“People don’t go to FB to make decisions, they go to FB to avoid making decisions. Educating customers/generating leads is a better use of FB ads – give them value to build relationships instead of being aggressive and trying to make a sale.”

— Armando Biondi on Facebook Ads for Startups

Click-to-tweet: http://ctt.ec/H66d2

While our ultimate goal with paid acquisition is to land the deal, it’s a truth that most consumers need more than one touch before making a decision. Providing valuable content to your Facebook audience, rather than pushing a product, is a great way to nudge them through your activation funnel quicker.

“Avoid money in Referrals: Bringing up money changes context for users from social norms to market norms.”

— Ivan Kirgin on Referral Marketing

Click-to-tweet: http://ctt.ec/xVaNf

If you’re unclear about social vs market norms, consider this from a different angle. What would happen if you asked your dinner guests to bring a specific cash donation instead of a bottle of wine?

So, in other words, by offering money your referral incentive goes from “I share because I’m a caring person” to “Is this worth taking advantage of my network?” Figure out the best motivation for your customers to share your product, and capitalize on that thing. Sharing is actually a pretty big ask, and not everyone cares about a couple of bucks off.

Case in point: Twitter. If you don’t fix retention, you’ll run out of Internet to acquire.”

— Casey Winters on Retention

Click-to-tweet: http://ctt.ec/inwH7

There has been a shift in focus recently from acquiring new users to retaining existing users. It’s more costly to convince a new lead to become a user, and it’s downright agonizing to reactivate a churned user. Keep your customers, find out what makes them happy about your product. Then you can focus on acquiring new users who will undoubtedly stick around longer.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be publicly releasing all our Marketing Hell Week videos.

>> Sign up to be notified when the videos are available <<

The Startup Pivot Pyramid

In 2011 we raised $2M from some of the top investors in Silicon Valley. Our startup, SocialWire (later renamed Manifest), helped online retailers instantly personalize the shopping experience when their customers signed in with Facebook. However — we soon learned that it was hard to convince the big retailers to add our product recommendations to their websites which they’ve been optimizing for years. We also found that not enough customers wanted to sign in with Facebook while they were shopping online to get a more personalized experience.

With most of our $2M still in the bank, and a technology that was good at matching Facebook users to the right products, we decided to pivot on the problem we were solving for the same customer and rebuild our product. Instead of generating product recommendations using Facebook — we would dynamically generate personalized product ads on Facebook. This new direction resonated with online retailers and the company was eventually acquired by Rakuten.

Searching for Product Market Fit

Finding product market fit is hard. Most companies fail while searching for it. Marc Andreessen, in his 2011 essay, introduced the term as a moment in your startup’s journey where things start to work. More and more customers demand your product and you achieve sustainable growth.

When you have product market fit, you know it.

Most successful companies go through several pivots to find product market fit. What makes it work is usually not one major pivot, but a series of experiments across customers, problem, product, technology and growth channels. Is there a process for entrepreneurs to experiment across these areas of their business in an efficient way?

Growth marketers already figured this out. Great growth people are not necessarily the most knowledgeable marketers — they approach marketing like scientists. They have a thesis on how their idea (e.g. new advertising channel) will lead to growth, they run the experiment, look at the data and if the experiment is successful — they make it repeatable. I strongly suggest you read this by Brian Balfour, check out this talk and spend time on growthhackers.com to understand the growth experimentation process.

Growth experiments are the tip of the iceberg — that is your startup.


But growth experimentation is the tip of the iceberg — that is your startup. How can entrepreneurs apply this process of experimentation to other areas of their business, and pivot to find product market fit?

Introducing the Pivot Pyramid

Enter the Pivot Pyramid. It is a visual guideline to help founders make changes and run experiments in different areas of their business to drive growth. As investors, this is similar to how we ask questions and evaluate your startup. As founders, you could use the same guideline to come up with ideas or pivot your startup.

the startup pivot pyramid diagram


Customers are the foundation of your startup. The problem you solve, the product you build, and the technology it’s built with — all depends on who your customer is. You may change and pivot your customer, but when you do, you will need to re-evaluate everything above in the pyramid.


Maybe you have identified the right customer, but you are solving a problem that doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter that much. You can pivot here, but you’ll need to re-evaluate and change your solution, tech, and growth strategy. If you have the customer and problem right — you have a market.


You’ve identified the problems that matter to your customers. Now you have to build a product that resonates with your customers better than existing solutions in the market. Like any other changes in the pivot pyramid, changes you make in product must target quantifiable growth.


Your technology is just a means to build your solution. Even if your product resonates well with your customers — your technology choices may be hindering your growth and retention. For instance, one of the main reasons Friendster failed as the first mainstream social network was because they couldn’t keep their servers up with demand.


All changes in the pivot pyramid must lead to growth. But some experiments do not require any significant change in your product or technology. These changes reside at the top of the pivot pyramid. A great marketer should frequently experiment with new growth tactics. This is needed because most growth channels get saturated or become too expensive over time.


Famous Examples of Pivots for Each Stage


Key Takeaways from the Startup Pivot Pyramid

Frequency of Experiments

Changes you make at the bottom of the pyramid won’t be frequent. For instance, you can’t change who your customer is the problem you are solving often. The pace of experimentation increases at the top of the pyramid. This is especially the case as your startup matures and you find product market fit.

Start with the customer and problem

A common mistake entrepreneurs make is that they start with their product and technology without truly understanding who their customer is. If this is broken — nothing else works. That’s why you shouldn’t focus too much on marketing before you nail the customer, problem and solution. First, you have make something people want. You don’t want to put jet fuel in a car with a broken engine. Fix the engine first.

Pivoting below, changes everything above

The changes you make at the bottom of the pivot pyramid, will impact your decisions above. But the changes you make at the top, don’t necessarily require you to change things below.

For example — if you pivot on your problem, you will need to change or re-evaluate your product, technology and marketing channels. On the other hand, if you changed your technology stack, your customers may not notice any changes in your product. Similarly, experimenting with a new marketing channel may not require any changes in product or technology.

You can’t have multiple types of customers

A common mistake that kills early stage startups is focusing different types of customers at once. The changes you make at the bottom of the pivot pyramid will impact the decisions you make above like product, technology and marketing. So if you focus on more than one type of customer, you are literally building multiple startups at once. As you mature as a company and achieve product market fit — it is to have more than type of customer (e.g. SMB and Enterprise). As an early stage startup, you can’t afford to do that.

Marketplaces (e.g. Uber, Airbnb) are an exception to this. Marketplaces have two types of customers from day one: Sellers and Buyers. But that’s why building marketplaces is really hard.

All experiments must lead to GROWTH

One of the most important things founders can learn from growth marketers — is the scientific process for experimentation. That is also the foundation of the pivot pyramid. If you have an idea for a pivot like “testing a new marketing channel” or “implementing a referral program” (GROWTH) or “migrating your servers to AWS” (TECHNOLOGY), make sure it is closely tied to a measurable goal to help with growth. Have a thesis, run a low cost experiment, measure the results, and if it works — implement change.

What is your Pyramid?

So, what is your Pivot Pyramid? Tell us about your pivot stories and how they made an impact in your business.In the mean time, be sure to follow us if you want to hear about real examples of successful pivots from companies in the 500 Startups portfolio.

You can also find this post on Selcuk’s blog and follow him here.
Here’s the full Pivot Pyramid deck on SlideShare:
* Special thanks to Dominic Coryell, Mathew Johnson, Andrea Barrica, Susan Su, Yonas Beshawred, Sahin Boydas, and Carl Fritjofsson for reading drafts of this, providing feedback and suggesting edits.

Inside the 500 Accelerator, Week 3: Marketing Hell

In this week’s post 500 founder Troy Sultan shares his take on the ~25 hours of lectures, workshops and presentations by 500 growth mentors that we call Marketing  Hell Week. The week’s programs cover everything from pricing and positioning to marketing metrics, content marketing, viral growth and more.


MHW did indeed live up to its name. There was far less time for “real” work, so a lot of us had to get creative. Taking calls and meetings during breaks or lunch, scheduling walking meetings to and from the office, and leaving the office at or past midnight were common themes for most of us.

This post is long, so I’ll get right to it.

Note: There were few sessions I didn’t attend which is reflected in the notes below. Also — huge thanks to Tammy, Susan and all else who helped make MHW so memorable (and exhausting).


Building A Growth Machine w/ Brian Balfour (video)

  • Growth has nothing to do with tactics, everything to do with process
  • Silver bullets don’t exist: what works for others won’t work for you
  • Experiments don’t always have to be right, but theres an expectation that the results and learning improves over time

Goals of the process:

  1. Rhythm: Momentum is powerful. Establish a cadence to fight through failures, get to successes and find momentum.
  2. Learning: constant learning of your customer, product, channels, and feeding and learning into the process to improve.
  3. Autonomy: individuals decide what they work on to achieve the team goals.
  4. Accountability: with autonomy comes accountability. You don’t have to be right all the time but there is an expectation to improve.

Setting goals: OKRs (Objectives and Key Results)

  • Objective: Qualitative statement (timeframe: 30–90 days)
  • KR1: Measurable goal 1 (hit 90% of time) (relatively easy to hit)
  • KR2: Measurable goal 1 (hit 50% of time) (pretty good job)
  • KR3: Measurable goal 1 (hit 10% of time) (knocked these out of park. lets go to vegas and celebrate)

If you rarely hit KR1s, you’re being too aggressive. If you regularly hit KR3s, you’re not setting goals aggressively enough.


  • Brainstorm
  • Prioritize
  • Test
  • Implement
  • Analyze
  • Systemize

REPEAT: as many times as possible within 30–90 period of OKRs

4 key documents:

  1. Backlog: idea dump (everyone contributes). Provides an outlet to dump any ideas that arise as you go through the experimentation cycle (don’t keep them in your head).
  2. Pipeline: ledger of experiments that you’ve run previously, the ones currently running, and the ones on deck. When a new member joins your team, they’ll see every experiment you’ve run from day 1, understanding clearly how you got to today.
  3. Experiment doc: (most important) forces you to think through whyyou’re doing this experiment, what you expect to learn from it, how you’ll design and implement it successfully, and what learnings might help you improve.
  4. Playbooks: step by step guides to successfully repeat the things you want to do over and over again.

After a few cycles (quarterly or every ~4mo) look at:

  1. Batting average: how many successes to failures? Improving over time?
  2. Accuracy: are your hypotheses getting more accurate?
  3. Throughput: how many experiments are you running in a given time period? How do you do more?

Pricing and Positioning: Mat Johnson

Positioning: be IMPORTANT!

  • For customers
  • For word-of-mouth
  • For investors
  • For acquisitions

Pricing is NOT about revenue. It’s about:

  • Strategy and competition
  • Customer segments

Pricing could be a matter of life and death. You’re a small startup — if you don’t already have an unfair advantage, you’ve already lost.

Customer attention:

  1. Do I care enough to pay attention?
  2. Does this product address my #1 problem?
  3. Is this product even any good?

How to think about acquisition multiples:

  • Revenue alone: 1x annual sales (“internet property”)
  • Eng team: $1M/high-quality engineer (“acqui-hire”)
  • Strategic Leadership team: $50M+ (Assistly/Desk.com)
  • Market-winning product line: $1B (Yammer)
  • Strategic threat/the future: $B+, 10% mkt Cap (Instagram, Whatsapp)


  • Compete with pricing
  • 3x your revenue, just by asking for it
  • Raise money at higher valuations from better investors by positioning yourself as the future
  • Sell your company for higher multiple

One Metric That Matters (OMTM): Andrei Marinescu

Focus is major key advantage. A good metric is:

  • Comparative
  • Understandable (can the board members understand it?)
  • Actionable
  • A ratio (not an absolute value. e.g. # of users)
  • An enabler of behavior change (does it let you know if things are going well or not?)

What are you trying to measure?

  • Qualitative (e.g. customer sentiment) vs. Quantitative (LTV, CAC, etc…)
  • Vanity (# of accounts, # of page views etc…) vs. Actionable (purchases)

Leading vs. Lagging:

  • Leading = does it predict success? You can act upon it with these customers (customer satisfaction)
  • Lagging = by the time you see it, you have already failed with these customers (churn)

Correlated (it correlates to certain events. e.g. more purchases on Sundays) vs. Casual

How to choose your OMTM: have context!

Type of business is important (B2B, B2C, SaaS, gaming, app): similar companies have similar OMTMs

Bad OMTMs:

  • # of page views
  • # of unique visitors
  • # of downloads
  • # of registrations
  • # of shares / likes
  • # of emails collected
  • Time on site

The time interval for the OMTM should be weekly (something you can look and react upon every week).

Funnel-related OMTMs are good, because they will work for ANY acquisition channel.

Fireside Chat: Dave McClure and James Currier

Dave describes James as “one of the smartest people in the fucking world”

Key takeaways:

  • Most people start with the thing they want changed in the world and then work from the product toward the messaging. Do the opposite. Start with the messaging that’s already in people’s heads and work backwards to the product.
  • How are you positioned in the consumers mind? Go down to the basement of what your business really is to position it. That’s the foundation of growth.
  • Know where you get your love. Know what you’re really after, why you’re really here, what you really want to happen in the end.
  • Failure is temporary but success is forever. You need humility to succeed in a network business — it’s all about iteration speed.

Helpful growth-related books/articles:


Smoke Tests: Dominic Coryell (video)

You can “fake” features (and even whole products) to prove customer demand before building anything.

  • See if people want it FIRST
  • Get to know your customers better
  • Wait as long as possible to allocate engineering resources
  • Shorten your backlog: eliminate all features you don’t need
  • Don’t alienate the dev team from customers
  • Let growth drive the product roadmap

SEO for F*cking Startups: Aaron Blumenthal

Aaron was both entertaining and *really* knowledgable on SEO

Do startups need an SEO?

  • Full time? F*ck no
  • Part time? Maybe

How to pay them:

  • Salary / wages (don’t do it)
  • Fees / contract (meh)
  • Commission / referral / equity (do go on..)

Divvy up the work: SEO is a team sport (content + eng + SEO)

  • Keywords define relevancy
  • Relevancy = using same language as the person searching for stuff
  • Use clean URLs, not nasty ones (which confuse search engines)
  • Preventative maintenance is ~75% of SEO

Meta description

  • Part sales pitch
  • Part relevancy hack
  • Beware of keyword stuffing

H# tags: H1 = candy, H2 = chocolate, H3 = dark chocolate

  • Only use one H1 per page
  • Don’t use H tags for page structural purposes


  • DON’T stuff keywords
  • DO use lots of keyword permutations
  • Don’t sound like an idiot
  • DO revise your content often


  • Links = equity
  • Seek them religiously
  • Give out links sparingly

URL structures

  • Flat structure preferred
  • What’s easy != what’s right
  • Clean URL example: www.blah.com/pagename
  • Don’t use subdomains if you can avoid it


  • BE RESPONSIVE. It’s 2016. Just do it.
  • Pay attention to bounce rate: Google tracks who many people click the back button. Focus on holding the user.


  • Always buy a domain with existing SEO history if possible. Consult with an SEO before buying.

IP/Server history

  • Shared IPs: problematic, you do not want to share a server with shady sites

Competitive research

  • Look at your competitor’s robots.txt. Lots of interesting things in there they don’t want search engines (or you) to see 🙂

Content and Email Marketing w/ Susan Su (videos here andhere)

Email marketing

Golden rules

  1. Always Be Collecting [emails]: persistent across site, CTAs on marketing content, staff profiles, email signatures, promote offers, consider offline
  2. Be persistent: multiple touches, social proof
  3. Subject lines MATTER: they impact a subscriber’s perception of your entire email
  4. Deliverability: use mail-tester.com
  5. Target and segment: don’t be random
  6. Measure what matters: opens, clicks, conversions, subscribes, unsubscribes, replies
  7. TEST: over 65% of email gets opened on mobile FIRST


Paid acquisition — Search: Samir Patel (full guide here)

Check out Samir’s guide above. It’s an incredible resource he’s giving away for free.

Core concepts of search marketing:

  • Intent
  • Relevance: it’s not about what you want to say, it’s what the user is looking for
  • Quality Score

5 Pillars of Adwords optimization:

  1. Account structure
  2. Keywords
  3. Ad copy
  4. Landing pages
  5. Google Analytics

Impression share report: know what % of impression share you have vs. competition


Viral Growth — YouTube Viral Videos: Karen Cheng

Karen is a total badass


  1. Don’t be too good for marketing: what if I do everything I can to promote and get no views? That would be embarrassing. Videos don’t go viral without a bunch of marketing behind them.
  2. Think like a reporter: what is the story that someone else might care about?
  3. Release on a Monday or Tuesday (particularly for videos). People typically watch videos at work. Avoid holidays!
  4. Make it short: how short? as short as possible while still getting point across
  5. Understand which emotions spread: Some emotions spread well: awe, anger and amusement (high arousal emotions). Some don’t: sadness, contentment.
  6. Do something controversial: hit on the anger emotion
  7. Make other people look good: users share not because your stuff makes you look good, but because it makes them look good
  8. Fake it until you make it: get friends to try your new trend, pose as fans/evangelists of your video for press, etc.

Sales Hacking: Matt Ellsworth

Defining sales: Sales is generating revenue through person-to-person (or bot) interaction

  • Deals need perceived and actual value
  • Be helpful (not just sales meetings, but all meetings)
  • Sales hacking is a process to finding better ways to sell

John Boyd’s four point loop for making fast and effective decisions:

  1. Observe: collect current information from as many sources as practically possible
  2. Orient: analyze this information, and use it to update your current reality
  3. Decide : determine a course of action
  4. Act: follow through on your decision

Breaking sales into 3 parts:

  • Targeting
  • Selling
  • Delivering

Day 5

A/B Testing: Hiten Shah

Thanks Hiten! Are we, like, homies now?

Growth isn’t a strategy, it’s a result.

  • Be better than yesterday (this was a core value at Kissmetrics)
  • 1 out of 5 tests win
  • Always have test running, no matter how small
  • If you don’t have a process, there’s no way to continuously improve.
  • Process > tactics: improving your experimentation process is what will get you growth

A/A tests: before starting a test, run the same thing against the same thing. If the conversions are different, something is wrong. (Get patterns about your traffic, seasonality, what days of week are converting better, what are the patterns, etc).

Document every test and create a playbook. That should include these items:

  1. Your starting hypothesis
  2. Dates for when you ran the test
  3. Screenshots of control and all variations used during the test
  4. Expected change in conversion
  5. Probability of change
  6. Screenshot of raw data used in your analysis
  7. A screenshot of the A/B test report in KISSMetrics/other
  8. The decision you’ve made from the test
  9. What you learned from the test

Workshop: Funnel Optimization: Ryan Deiss

Goal: craft a conversation funnel that lowers the cost of acquisition, while simultaneously increasing immediate and lifetime customer value.

Follow the 12 steps to intimacy in a business context

  • You wouldn’t approach someone at a bar and ask them to marry you, yet you do this with your customers.
  • Sometimes, it DOES hurt to ask

Understand your customer journey:

  1. Aware
  2. Engage
  3. Subscribe
  4. Convert
  5. Excite
  6. Ascend
  7. Advocate
  8. Promote

Speak directly to the desired result. Get to the end goal your customers want with your messaging. Use the same language they use.

Writing better copy

Think about the before and after state that you shift people through: good marketing is articulating the shift from that before state to the after state.

4 categories:

Have: What do (or don’t) they have before? What do they have after?

Feel: What is their emotional state before? What is it after?

Average day: What’s the average day like before? After?

Status: What is their status before? After? How does your product/service make them more valuable?

Questions to answer:

  1. How will you get their attention?
  2. How will you turn a glance into a stare? (value first — education or entertainment)
  3. How will you “get their number”? (specificity is essential)
  4. How will you get them to show commitment? (wallet or calendar?)
  5. What “little victory” will you offer that will encourage them to ascend? (Tesla sales reps encouraging test-drivers to try a P85D Insane Mode launch)
  6. How will you teach them?

Building a Growth Team: Open Discussion

Define the culture you’re creating early

  1. Know what do you stand for
  2. Know your purpose
  3. How do you work as an organization?
  4. How do you treat each other?
  5. What attitudes and behaviors are unacceptable?
  6. How much/little process do you want?
  7. How numbers driven are you?
  8. How much nonconformity do you tolerate?
  9. Are you centralized and hierarchical?

Hiring & Firing

  1. Hire amazing people: Get good at being able to tell the difference. If you’re a not a natural, this can be learned.
  2. Don’t be an asshole: Good hires are hard to make. If its not working out, deal with it quickly and respectfully — it’s best for both sides.
  3. Listen to your gut: But consciously avoid bias and seek diversity — mix of backgrounds and approaches. This starts at the pipeline phase — its never too early!
  4. But don’t discriminate: Age, race, gender, sexual orientation, even length of commute — anything not directly related to their ability to perform on the job. “A players hire A players. B players hire C players”
  5. On hiring friends: BE CAREFUL. These situations are usually terrible mistakes or a huge competitive advantage to your business.

“I’d fire my mom if she wasn’t getting the job done” — Anonymous


So what did all of this lead to? A pipeline of 30 experiments we’ll each be running over the next few weeks with oversight from our Distro POC.

I’m excited to report back on our learnings. Market on!

Is your company hiring? Check out Resource’s modern candidate sourcing and outreach.

If you like this post, share it!




Or, let Troy know your thoughts on twitter or by email at [ troy at idklabs.com ].

Previous posts in this series:

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Before You Acquire, Reactivate — How to Reactivate Your Dormant Email List (Includes Scripts)

I recently released The Ultimate Email Playbook — 43 Scripts for Startups, my 78-page tome based on my work helping hundreds of startups step up their email marketing game.

Today I wanted to share some templates and further thoughts on one of the biggest problems in email marketing — how to reactivate dormant subscribers.

We’ll start out with a crash course on dormancy in email marketing, and then get into some templates below.


While it’s sexy to acquire new users (just google image search “new user acquisition sexy” and you’ll see what I mean), it’s smarter and cheaper to do as much as you can to reactivate the users and subscribers you already have.


And yet, if it’s so obvious… why is it that most businesses don’t do reactivation, at all?

In looking through my vault of top emails — including many from my email marketing heros — this came as a shocking observation.

I was receiving email after painstaking email, not opening them, and then getting more of the same. For most of these lists, I had become a fully dormant subscriber (more on that definition later), and yet, I was being treated exactly the same as someone who was opening and engaging with every single message. It’s disappointing.

Between 60% – 75% of subscribers on email lists around the world are dormant, meaning those people haven’t opened an email from that list in 6 months to a year.

It seems obvious, but the reality is that very few businesses are proactively re-engaging dormant subscribers, buying into the distracting sex appeal of new user acquisition.

But, healthy growth is about a lot more than top of funnel activities.

If you’re even thinking about reactivation, you’re already ahead of most businesses — and your competition.

Email can be a very effective (but not the only) way to reactivate users for a few reasons:

1. It’s your OWNED channel, not a rented one.

Retargeting works, but it’s pay-to-play. By contrast, it’s basically FREE to send through reactivation efforts via email.

If users have already given you their email addresses (or you’ve acquired them otherwise), wouldn’t you rather work what you already have?

2. It’s one of the most direct channels in your multichannel mix.

Really good reactivation happens on multiple channels at once; you need to create a crescendo effect to overcome the powerful inertia of dormancy.

While email isn’t the only channel to reactivate…

…you should also pull in paid retargeting, SMS and phone where available, and content marketing as a layer on top of it all…

Email is your bread and butter reactivation channel because your message has the potential to go straight to the user (theoretically).

Later on in this post, I’ll set you up with a few actual email templates you can paste in right now to start working on that dormant list.

What’s a “Dormant” subscriber?

You want to send reactivation messages to a dormant segment of your list to move them up the food chain.

Josh Egan’s User States model maps over to email marketing well, even though the exact intervals are longer when it comes to email subscribers.

New ==> Core ==> Casual ==> Marginal ==> New ==> Dormant ==> Resurrected


What counts as “dormant” on an email list?

When it comes to email marketing, keep in mind that not everyone is going to interact with your emails every time you send.

Most people may not even interact within a 28 day window, depending on how frequently you send those messages.

For example, if you only sent 1 this month, and they didn’t open that one message, that doesn’t mean you’ve got a dormant user on your hands.

Instead, subscriber engagement — and dormancy — need to be measured against the actual volume of emails that you send.


“Did they open an email within the last 6 months?”

But instead:

“Did they open one of the last 10 emails we sent them?”

Or whatever number fits for you. It may be fewer than 10, or more, if you’re sending at a higher frequency.

The emails in this next section are designed to wake up users that have fallen dormant.

(Btw, The Ultimate Email Playbook — 43 Scripts for Startups has 43 of these that you can steal immediately.)

TEMPLATE 1: $10 on Amazon


What all’s going on in this template:

1. A paid survey is a great way to do 2 important things at once:

  • It’s an engagement device
  • It collects customer insights

At the end of your survey is a great time to offer people the chance to stay subscribed, or to unsubscribe, like in the earlier two templates in this section.

2. The subject line is full of psychological triggers. It leverages aspiration, authority and psychological anchoring to a big brand (Amazon), and it uses some great hot words: “You/your,” a number, and a dollar sign.

3. Cheaper than acquisition. This is where things become satisfying — you can set the dollar amount based on an estimate of your subscriber acquisition costs. For many businesses, paying $10 for a reasonably engaged subscriber is not a bad deal.

TEMPLATE 2: Are you still doing that?

are you still doing that

What all’s going on in this template:

1. The subject line uses company name personalization (one of my favorite types). When we see our own first name in a subject line, we think… oh, it’s marketing. I don’t know about you, but no friend of mine has ever written me an email with a subject line starting with “Susan…”

2. It’s also really hard to say no to verifying something. “We’re going through our files to organize for the new quarter and wanted to verify…”  If it’s wrong, we get an itchy urge to correct it. If it’s right, we want to reaffirm it. It also doesn’t seem like it’s a sell.

3. It includes a benefits-focused topic. “Are you still interested in email marketing for startups?” gages whether or not the client is still a potential lead.

4. The “>>” draws extras extra attention to the verification landing page that then opts the subscriber into a reengagement funnel.

4 Golden Rules of Email Reactivation

1. You have nothing to lose. These subscribers are dormant already, so you really can’t “alienate” them further by sending them reactivation messages.

2. Choose ONE of these emails to send for reactivation; don’t send all of them because obviously they each reference a one-time question or opportunity.

3. Seek to understand why and when subscribers became dormant so that you can address your dropoff cliffs through remarketing via email and other channels.

4. NEVER DELETE SUBSCRIBERS because you can always use the emails for retargeting.

Prevent Future Dormancy

Now that you’ve done all this great work to reactivate your subscribers, don’t let it happen again.

Understand WHY your subscribers fell dormant, or unsubscribe, in the first place, then fix it.

Here are the 4 ONLY reasons for email list dormancy and/or churn:

1. Poor lead quality.

You didn’t get high quality leads. For example, if you purchased or otherwise acquired a list that’s actually not a good audience match for your product or service.

2. Email frequency too high.

You emailed too much and annoyed them, but instead of unsubscribing, they just went numb and started categorically ignoring all your messages.

3. Email frequency TOO LOW.

Most businesses — but ESPECIALLY startups for some sad reason — harbor a senseless fear of being “spammy.”

This is totally inane because what makes something “SPAM” is not its send frequency but its relevance and authenticity — both things you can easily control while still maintaining an aggressive campaign frequency.

The sad truth is that infrequent emails trigger unsubscribes or “numb out” dormancy just as frequently. They simply can’t remember who you are or why your stuff is relevant to them.

4. Poor email relevancy.

You sent content that was just plain BAD or not targeted. For example, you have been sending campaigns about women’s fashion to a bunch of young male subscribers.

This sounds silly and obvious to avoid, but it’s not always that easy depending on your subscriber acquisition and tracking efforts.


Have you tried data scraping tools?

A friend of mine has recently built http://rocketreach.co (but there are others as well) which scrapes multiple (up to 50+) sources of data based on parameters that you give it, such as someone’s email address or their name. I have had a lot of success finding personal email addresses that way.

Our identities are all tied together in the interconnected Google world… case in point:

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 8.20.06 AM

Using email addresses to create audiences for ad-based retargeting is the final tool in my reactivation toolbox.

You can do retargeting that’s campaign-specific, offer-specific, or just focused around your brand and building awareness.

If you’re a b2b business, or you otherwise only have people’s work email addresses, you can use a service like RocketReach to match those work addresses to personal, or directly to Facebook UIDs, to set up the foundation for your retargeting efforts.


A dormant list is an unfortunate email marketing reality when you’ve worked hard (or paid lots) to acquire and nurture those subscribers.

But, as with all growth, there’s always something you can do.

Examine and understand your drop-off points — where and why your subscribers are falling asleep on you — and then test out targeted reactivation campaigns like the one above to bring them back.

Remember, you have nothing to lose.

To get more copyable templates (43 to be exact), and learn my other secrets for startup email marketing, and to check out The Ultimate Email Playbook — 43 Scripts for Startups.


500 Growth Talks — a universe of top growth advisors, on your Slack

“Hey, what’s that thing you used to verify email sender?”

“Which of you has used this b2b sales automation tool?”

“What’s the best way to SMS-based referrals with this 10k list?”

Today, we’re thrilled to announce 500 GROWTH TALKS, a members-only Slack for early stage startup growth.


A membership-protected community connecting growth marketing mentors and startup founders over Slack.

Think of Growth Talks as a growth advisory board at your fingertips.

Growth Talks gives founders exclusive access to experts who’ve defined the growth category, including Sean Ellis, Andrew Chen, Aaron Batalion, and of course 500 Distro.

It’s open at ZERO COST to 500 founders, but it’s application-gated. This helps us make sure participating founders are ready to take on a growth mindset, and ensures that we don’t waste our mentors’ time with low-value pings.

500 Growth Talks will also be available as a premium subscription to qualifying founders outside of the 500 portfolio at a membership cost of $99 monthly. 


Growth Talks isn’t an internet marketing forum to talk about aspirational info schemes, or how to game the next affiliate system (with all due respect to my people making mad cash in the internet marketing world). 

Instead, we’ve created Growth Talks to make it possible for early stage founders to learn from top growth marketers actually running experiments and doing growth for early stage companies.

500 Growth Talks is a place to bring specific questions about the growth experiments you’re spending time and money on right now.


500 Growth Talks lives on Slack.

The 500 Growth Talks Slack features channels organized by growth topic, and works just like any Slack account — you can opt in to notifications for any topic channel that’s relevant to you.


  1. 500 founders who are already running growth experiments with dedicated growth staffing (this can be the founder themselves), and who are looking for that extra, outside “sanity check” — from the top growth marketers in the world.
  1. Founders outside of the 500 family with hard questions, no answers, and who are looking to get in on the 500 Distro experience.


  1. APPLY to 500 Growth Talks at http://growthtalks.com/application  SIGN UP at no cost until midnight PST November 30th at 
  1. We’ll let you know once your application has been approved, and you’ll get all your access info from there.

500 Growth Talks is totally free to 500 founders (public membership rate $99 / mo). If you’re a 500 founder, past or present, you can get no-cost access to Growth Talks anytime, but remember — you gotta apply.

We want to help you grow, and most of all, we want you to stop sending us one-off emails that could help tons of other founders just like you.

No more wasted time or $ — APPLY NOW.  SIGN UP NOW UNTIL NOV 30th.