A Reply To A VC-Funded San Francisco Based Startup

Photo by B.J. Mendelson of downtown Chicago

I’ve been on the road this week. So while I work on getting the new podcast and book notes online, I thought I would post this in the interim.

Occasionally I get pitched to promote things for startups and tech companies, and even though it could be extra money for me, I don’t (usually) do it because I feel like I’m taking advantage of them.

So last night, when I got an email that had the subject line, “SF startup about to launch. Want to pay you $1,500 to try our app and tweet about us”, I decided to respond. This is the email (mostly) verbatim. I just took out any identifying details of the startup because I’m not posting this to poke fun at them. I’m posting it to illustrate a larger problem regarding how startups and tech companies want to promote themselves and the same mistakes (almost) all of them continue to make for the reasons I touch on here. I also made some tweaks to my reply, but nothing major.

Tl;Dr Despite the fact that 3 out of 4 startups fail, the tech world continues to be fixated with Ivy League douchebags, growth hacks, MBAs, and engineers who are all obsessed with doing things that they can measure so they can feel better about their small dicks and fragile egos. Going into 2017 and beyond, if these companies (and others who like to copy the tech world) want to succeed, they’re going to need to make some serious changes.

Their Letter

Hi BJ,

My name is ________ and I’m the director of strategy at _______________ , a VC-funded startup

We’re about to launch our product (… Use your imagination here.)

I’m reaching out because I’d love to hire you to try out the app and post a tweet about us during launch week, including a link to our app store pages.

If you’re interested, I would be thrilled to get on the phone this week and nail down the details.

We’re only about a week from launch so would love to connect as soon as you’re available. Please let me know if/when you have the time to talk.

All the best,

My Response

Hey ___________

This is a longer response than necessary, but I appreciate the offer and that you took the time to reach out. So, this is entirely unsolicited advice on my part. Do with it what you will, but I hope you find some of it useful …

I’m happy to take your money. $1,500 is nothing to sneeze at. I have to admit, though, I’m burnt out on dealing with tech people. I’m tired of interacting with Ivy League douchebags and individuals who think that marketing and advertising are something they don’t need to bother with. (Or don’t want to bother with because they’re not able to measure it in a way that appeases their fragile little egos.)

I don’t fault them for this belief. It comes, to a great extent, because they’ve been lied to by an assorted group of schmucks who have decided to retell the stories of how a lot of the Unicorns (past and present) got to where they are by conveniently leaving out the actual reasons they succeeded.

Spoiler alert: With a few exceptions, the rest of them got to where they are through marketing, networking, and PR. You know, things that don’t scale and therefore no one puts any effort into? Yeah. That’s how tech companies fucking win, but nobody sees that because they’re too busy letting pricks with MBAs and engineers fill their minds with concerns about scale and social media numbers instead of actual metrics that matter like, you know, customers and revenue.
If I were you? I wouldn’t do a big fuck all launch. I’d start small in a test market, see what people think, and if they like it, figure out a way to empower those people to do the marketing for you. And then launch in another market, and then another, and another, repeating the process. A big splash might get you some notice in TechCrunch, and I totally get that, but the coverage and subsequent bump aren’t going to matter much regarding getting your investors their money back.

If you’re a week away from launch and you’re just now doing Influencer outreach, you’re going to be in for a bumpy ride. Sure, you might score a quick win here or there to impress your investors and other assholes who think an MBA is all they need to make decisions for the rest of us, but this sort of outreach should be done way sooner. You want to build a relationship with people, not do this spray and pray thing. People buy you, they don’t buy the product. It’s hard to buy into you or anyone new to them with an ask in such a short amount of time, you know?

Sure my Tweet might send a signal to Google to index your site, and then it may also trigger Apple’s algorithm within iTunes if people download the thing, but your bigger concern should be getting rave reviews and a lot of sustained downloads and traffic from larger sources (see: the media) over a sustained period of time.

And then there’s this:  Internet-based Influencers don’t often have the ability to drive traffic and conversions the way a lot of people think they do. I’ve worked with a ton of ad agencies that will all tell you this same thing. My click-through ratio on Twitter is NOT great, but I get better results than other alleged Internet-based influencers for a simple reason: I boost my post as an advertisement whenever I do one of these things.

I’ll let you in on another secret. I wouldn’t lead with being a San Francisco-based startup that’s VC funded. That time is over. Now San Francisco tech companies are seen as greedy assholes who are making their city unaffordable and talking about saving the world in the same tone and sincerity that Trump uses when he says he wants to make America great again.

That might be totally unfair, but that’s the perception, and companies like Uber are not doing you any favors right now to change that.

These days people know that getting funded doesn’t mean shit since 9 out of 10 startups fail. You want to lead with the product and why it’s awesome, and _________ sounds awesome.

(Although you should know there was a (company with a similar name) that got big, briefly, by abusing/spamming Facebook’s algorithm and later got crushed when Facebook put a stop to that loophole they were exploiting. So … That’s awkward.)

The product should be so awesome; others WANT to share it with their friends and family. Lead with that. Lead with something that makes a deep emotional connection with someone. Silicon Valley does that, but not in a positive way outside of the valley.

This email sounds douchey, and it’s not meant to. I want you to succeed, I do. So if you’re a week away and looking to make this huge splash, I want to do my part as a complete and total stranger to encourage you to take a step back. Evaluate what you’re doing (and why), and then ask yourself if there’s a better path toward a bigger, more successful (and far more sustainable) future.

The answer is yes.

But hey, I’m also not going to say no to $1,500 either. Have you seen the size of the rats in Chicago? Trying to fight them off of the garbage can you’ve been eyeing to eat out of is a challenging task.