Archive for 'Advice'

Get (free) advice for your startup: Call Guido!

Last week we launched a new site at Mercury Grove to reflect the new direction of our startup – a startup collective in Ottawa, Canada where entrepreneurs can build awesome stuff alongside worldclass designers, developers, and investors.

One of the pillars of our new direction is to provide personalized, professional feedback for startups on their business – not as a paid service, but for free.  Why?  For two reasons:

  1. We’re trying to recruit the best startups in Ottawa to join us.
  2. Your success = Ottawa’s success

I meet a lot of startups every week – and I love it.  But between, our other apps, a growing family, travel, and the mentorship I’m doing across Canada, I just can’t meet everyone.

Meet Guido.  I’ve been impressed with Guido since we first met for his startup analysis skills and experience in this space.  A little background about him:

Guido is a young and passionate entrepreneur who just arrived in Canada from Italy. In his home country he worked with EnLabs, the first business incubator in Rome. He was responsible for structuring and launching this new incubator and was instrumental in its early success. While at EnLabs, Guido worked with some of the largest venture capital firms in Europe. He was also focused on selection and providing guidance and mentorship to startups in the program. He helped to develop and nurture the startup culture in Rome, organizing events and conferences with international speakers like Carl Schramm, former president of the Kauffman Foundation.

Guido has a Masters Degree in Entrepreneurship from LUISS University in Rome where he wrote his thesis about business incubators and early stage companies.

Guido has already met with over a dozen companies in Ottawa and all have had very positive feedback on his advice and feedback.

So I urge you to book some time with him – he’ll buy coffee, and I guarantee it will be worth your time.

(photo cred to Design Sponge)

By Scott Annan

Why your startup will fail: you never (really) understood the problem

Useless solutions

I meet with 3-4 entrepreneurs per week to talk about their startups.  Each discussion starts with a very informal pitch about their business or product.  Almost every time there are two core (and maybe the most important) topics that are missing or glanced over too quickly:

  1. The specific user pain, and how BIG it is
  2. Why they’re solving it

Instead the focus of the pitch is on the brilliance of the solution.  And although the solution may be brilliant, I usually tell them they’re concentrating on the wrong thing right now.

What most startups should be focusing on in the early stages is identifying – I mean pacifically, on a nano level – is the pain they’re solving.  And then the most basic way to solve it.  By rooting everything the company does for the first year on the market problem – and not on an elegant solution – is a much more logical approach to profitable discovery, is more likely to please users, and keeps you grounded when things get tough (which they always do).

And so… yesterday we launched a premium play – a detailed step-by-step project plan – for entrepreneurs on how to test a product idea quickly and inexpensively through refining your product idea, keyword analysis, A/B split testing a landing page, and using adwords to drive targeted users to signup for their solution.

We built it based on our experience at Mercury Grove and by talking to dozens of very successful entrepreneurs (there are three new product validation tests going on right now by uber famous entrepreneurs using this methodology – I bet you can’t find / name them, because they’re doing it the right way, without attaching their names to it… yet).  Even startups who have been working on their product for months (or years) can benefit from getting a good pulse on what the market really wants.

So don’t be surprised the next time I talk to you when I suggest you go and run this play – I’m betting it will help you build a better product faster.  Or, you can go buy it first and then come and talk to me – especially right now while it’s 80% off!

Oh, and if you can guess who is running the market validation tests (and which products) in the comments below, I’ll give you the play for free.

NOTE: Regarding the second thing that startups don’t work into their pitch – “Why they’re solving the problem”… your PR will easily be 20 x more effective if you can start your pitch with a specific, personal story that puts your idea into context.  Seriously, it will make it a lot easier for journalists’ to cover you if you can do this well.

By Scott Annan

If I hear one more entrepreneur complain I’m going to puke

Stop your complaining.

Starting a business is hard.  There’s tons of stuff you don’t know how to do, and often, you don’t even know that you don’t know how to do it, because you don’t know that you have to do it.  You have to put yourself “out there”, expose your mistakes, your ugly UI, your unproven business model.  You have to get up in front of investors who criticize your idea, your execution, your plan, and you (you!).  You’re scared of customers but love users (nameless, faceless) because they don’t tell you that you suck (or only tell you by email).  You work a lot.

Well guess what?  You’re a whiny bum.  You read too much techcrunch.  You think your life sucks?  Shut up.

Instead why don’t you try:

  • being an actor
  • working at a call centre
  • working retail
  • picking up garbage
  • filling out forms all day
  • writing grant proposals
  • being an artist
  • being your friend husband / wife / girlfriend / boyfriend / parents having to listen to you bitch about your hard life while they work a real job

Those are all tough things too.  Lots of people work long hours.  Lots of people don’t make a lot of money.  Lots of people have “JOBS” that suck.

The difference is that you get to build your dream.  You get to wake up every morning trying to figure out how to create something important that people will love.  We live in an awesome time in history where you won’t starve, you have somewhere to live and sleep, and you can pursue your dreams with (in real terms) no real sacrifice… except it’s “hard work”.

So stop complaining, try harder, put yourself out there and make shit happen.

Oh, and read this – it will give you extra motivation.

(photo credit: Scott Lake as a baby)


If you read this post, add a comment below with one of the following types of comments:

- yeah, I know an entrepreneur and I’m tired of hearing them bitch
- I’m an entrepreneur and I’m  going to stop bitching
- I’m an entrepreneur and I think you’re full of crap
- you just wasted 5 minutes of my life and that makes me angry

By Scott Annan

Why I’m not a pirate, and you shouldn’t be either!

This is a copy of the original article on Mercury Grove, creators of NetworkHippo.

There was a viral post last week on TechCrunch called “Are you a Pirate” that I, like many entrepreneurs, found inspirational and a great portrayal of the entrepreneur life.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that:

  1. Pirate’s suck
  2. Many entrepreneurs are pirates
  3. Most VC’s and service providers are pirates
  4. I’m not a pirate, and hope never to become one

In his article, Michael Arrington describes Pirates as having messed up risk aversion algorithms that made them social outcasts and doomed to a life of solitary life with the single-driving purpose and low-chance of finding treasure.  And the description seems appropriate.  But what he doesn’t point out is that their primary and exclusive goal was to get rich.  And not $1M a year lawyer rich, but filthy, stinking rich.

I imagine in the 17th century being around pirates would be really shitty – scary actually.  Pirates are filthy people who have no respect for anyone but themselves, would cheat anyone to get a buck, and attack (would the contemporary entrepreneur term be “swindled”?) innocent people for money to fuel their maniacal, self-absorbed, narcissistic life.

In fact, I think about pirates every time I read a description of the type of entrepreneurs VC’s are looking for (“heat-seeking missiles“, “thunder lizards“, and “Ninja Assassins” – all fancy terms for pirates).  They want people who are completely and utterly obsessed with making billions of dollars because these VCs are pirate-pirates – they attack other pirates.

As much as I love exclusionary clubs, the truth is that there are tons of “non-entrepreneurs” who work their ass off to achieve personal – and sometimes world-changing – success against crazy odds and shitty money.  This includes (some) teachers, actors, olympic athletes, writers, (some) politicians, scientists, painters and people who dedicate their lives to eradicating diseases, poverty, war, and other oppressive social conditions.  All of these people make huge personal sacrifices to achieve great things, sometimes at the expense of their resumes, money, and marriages.

In the 17th century, alongside pirates were Galileo, Descartes, Bach, Newton, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Samuel de Champlain and thousands of other important people who made major contributions to technology and society.  The founders of Google, Apple, Paypal, eBay, Facebook, Amazon and other innovative life-changing web technologies aren’t pirates.  Maybe they were when they started, but they aren’t anymore.

I place a lot of value on my marriage, my relationship with my kids, parents, and friends.  I read philosophy, history, and a lot of social commentary.  I’m involved in politics and my local community.  And I constantly make risk/reward decisions, concessions, and seemingly irrational investments of my time, money, and mental energy towards my startup.  I’m pursuing my hard-to-reach goal to change the world – just like thousands of other people.  It’s not unique, but its meaningful.

So I’m no pirate.   And truth be told, I’d prefer not to work with them, or be in their club.

By Scott Annan

Seth Godin: Hope and the magic lottery

Below is a blog post from Seth Godin’s blog from two days ago that I thought was so good I wanted to repost here.  If you enjoy it, please go over to Seth’s blog and read other great posts he’s written.

Hope and the magic lottery

Entrepreneurial hope is essential. It gets us over the hump and through the dip. There’s a variety of this hope, though, that’s far more damaging than helpful.

This is the hope of the magic lottery ticket.

A fledgling entrepreneur ambushes a venture capitalist who just appeared on a panel. “Excuse me,” she says, then launches into a two, then six and eventually twenty minute pitch that will never (sorry, never) lead to the VC saying, “Great, here’s a check for $2 million on your terms.”

Or the fledgling author, the one who has been turned down by ten agents and then copies his manuscript and fedexes it to twenty large publishing houses–what is he hoping for, exactly? Perhaps he’s hoping to win the magic lottery, to be the one piece of slush chosen out of a million (literally a million!) that goes on to be published and revered.

You deserve better than the dashed hopes of a magic lottery.

There’s a hard work alternative to the magic lottery, one in which you can incrementally lay the groundwork and integrate into the system you say you want to work with. And yet instead of doing that work, our instinct is to demonize the person that wants to take away our ticket, to confuse the math of the situation (there are very few glass slippers available) with someone trying to slam the door in your faith/face.

You can either work yourself to point where you don’t need the transom, or you can play a different game altogether, but throwing your stuff over the transom isn’t worthy of the work you’ve done so far.

Starbucks didn’t become Starbucks by getting discovered by Oprah Winfrey or being blessed by Warren Buffet when they only had a few stores. No, they plugged along. They raised bits of money here and there, flirted with disaster, added one store and then another, tweaked and measured and improved and repeated. Day by day, they dripped their way to success. No magic lottery.

What chance is there that Mark Cuban or Carlos Slim is going to agree to be your mentor, to open all doors and give you a shortcut to the top? Better, I think, to avoid wasting a moment of your time hoping for a fairy godmother. You’re in a hurry and this is a dead end.

When someone encourages you to avoid the magic lottery, they’re not criticizing your idea nor are they trying to shatter your faith or take away your hope. Instead, they’re pointing out that shortcuts are rarely dependable (or particularly short) and that instead, perhaps, you should follow the longer, more deliberate, less magical path if you truly want to succeed.

If your business or your music or your art or your project is truly worth your energy and your passion, then don’t sell it short by putting its future into a lottery ticket.

Here’s another way to think about it: delight the audience you already have, amaze the customers you can already reach, dazzle the small investors who already trust you enough to listen to you. Take the permission you have and work your way up. Leaps look good in the movies, but in fact, success is mostly about finding a path and walking it one step at a time.

By Scott Annan

Should Startups Pay to Pitch? Damn Right!

Last week I pitched Network Hippo on This Week in Startups Shark Tank segment (embedded below) and Jason Calacanis (@jason) asked me about presenting at the DEMO conference – which is a high-quality, but expensive, conference for start-ups to pitch their business.  This “pay to pitch” debate been going on for awhile and led Michael Arrington (@Arrington) and Jason Calacanis to create TechCrunch50.  Jason has gone on to create the Open Angel Forum, which is another way for startups to pitch for free.  And when I was at the DEMO conference this year, Robert Scoble (@scobleizer) published the blog post “Where oh where did the great startup launch go?” where he panned the DEMO conference and suggested instead that companies “invite a handful of people [they] liked, trusted, and knew would be interested in a new kind of gadget, and had dinner with us.”.  Scoble’s suggestion is that instead of paying to pitch, they should just call him (he left his cell phone number in the post… I did call him).

Don’t listen to them.

What Jason, Arrington (some of the time), and Robert are doing is awesome and critical for a vibrant startup ecosystem.  They are fighting for startups to get noticed and providing free powerful outlets that help startups get their message out and attract press, investors, and users.  Jason had me on his show (see below) and provided some good insight and drove a lot of great traffic to the site (and investors!).  TechCrunch covered our launch last month after a personal note I sent to Michael telling him I was in town, and Robert talked to me for nearly half an hour on his cell phone in his car, signed up when he arrived home, and offered to grab a coffee next time I was in town.  I think these guys are hustling for startups and want to see good ideas rise to the top and succeed.  It’s great.  I’m thankful for their help and I hope they keep it up!

But you should pay to pitch because Startups shouldn’t be political.

If you:

1. Don’t live in San Francisco or Silicon Valley

2. Have a great product

3. Are trying to get the message out to the world

Then you should weight the cost and value and pitch whenever and often as you can.

There’re a lot of people trying to take money from startups and there are VC conferences every week that want you to pay a couple thousand dollars to pitch.  Most that I’ve seen are a waste of time and money.  Jason, Michael, and Robert (and many others) are doing some great events that help you get exposure, but don’t get sucked in by their politics – get your message out anyway you can.

By Scott Annan

Getting media coverage for your startup: making the pitch

This is part three in a three-part series. Part one covered whether or not your news is worthy, while part two looked at the mechanics of writing a news release. Now let’s look at making the pitch…

So, you have a well-written, newsworthy news release. That means you should have no problem getting press, right? WRONG!

Just as having a kickass business idea doesn’t mean you’ll get funding, the pitch is the crucial element that will determine whether or not a reporter will do a story about you.

Now considering you’re asking for words, you’d think it’d be easier than say, asking for $1-million in seed funding, but it might not be. Reporters are overworked, underpaid and under a lot of stress to deliver high quality news in short amounts of time. Also, the sheer volume of pitches they receive means the reality is many get ignored all together.

Because of this, an email pitch should be short and succinct and include all the relevant facts. Think of the reporter’s audience and craft a message that would appeal to them. Paste or link to your news release directly in the email (no attachments) and send early during business hours. While this is standard procedure, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get coverage.

how do you cut through the clutter and dazzle reporters with your pitch? Here’s a few tips:

  1. Do your homework
    A journalists biggest complaint about pitches is they are off-target. Specifically the person making the pitch has no idea what the journalist actually writes about. Before you pitch, read some articles and make sure that person covers the type of news you’re pitching. Thanks to Google, this is incredibly easy to do.
  2. Flattery goes a long way
    And remember, big difference between flattery and ass kissing. You’ve already done your homework, maybe you really enjoyed something the reporter had written? Perhaps he/she recently made the move to a publication you really enjoy. Find common ground or a sincere compliment to assure the reporter you know what you’re doing.
  3. A phone call just might do the trick
    Personally, I hate calling reporters. And many of them say they hate being called. BUT the truth is a phone call is a much more personal touch and usually warrants great results (Others agree as well). Be sure to call in the morning as many journalists (especially at daily newspapers) spend the afternoon writing and don’t like to be interrupted. Also, you can follow up after emailing a news release, but don’t say “Hey did you get my release?” Be ready with additional facts or information that could help them. 

And as a final point, be persistent, but not annoying. Don’t expect to put out a bunch of pitches and even hear back from one reporter the first time. Continue to send relevant news as it happens and eventually your hard work will pay off.

That’s the end of this three-part series… But wait! I do have one final piece of advice:

Develop Relationships!

Despite the second word in media relations being relations, many seem to forget it. The absolute and best way to get press is develop great relationships with the reporters, editors and journalists in your space.

Above all the steps I’ve outlined in this series, remember to reach out to reporters even when you don’t have news. Ask them out for coffee, or just send along helpful info that doesn’t benefit you directly. It’s networking and relationship management! Remember: reporters are people too.

By Kelly Rusk

Get media coverage for your startup: Writing a news release

This is part two of a three part, do-it-yourself publicity guide for startups. Part one was all about determining news value when planning a release, and now we’re on to writing the release.

Good writing is crucial, yet often overlooked. First and foremost, spelling, grammar and punctuation MUST be perfect in a news release. If you aren’t trained in PR writing, I strongly advise you have someone who has look over your release (feel free to drop me a line). The following are guidelines/tips for writing a great news release: 

  • Write in an inverted pyramid style – This is the way news stories are written. They start with the most important facts right up in the first paragraph, and each paragraph after represents less important information. Don’t hold out on your readers, get to the point. The lead (first) paragraph should contain the who, what, why, where, how of the story and each paragraph after backs up those points. As a general guideline every second or third paragraph should be a quote, and if possible try to quote a variety of stakeholders (i.e. company CEO, major client, industry leader).
  • Follow Canadian Press (CP) or Associated Press (AP) style -  In Canada the journalistic standard is CP, and in the US it’s AP. If you don’t want to hire an experienced PR writer, at least go out and spend the $20 to get this book and skim it over. You’ll earn serious brownie points with some journalists for proper style.
  • Edit, edit edit -  Most bad writing (and there’s a LOT of it) is not actually due to bad writers, but bad editors. Read your work several times over and especially read it out loud. Is it easy to read continuously? Also look for places where you naturally pause, because if there isn’t a comma there, there probably should be.
  • Lose the hyperbole - The purpose of a news release is to clearly state facts, not talk about how great your company is. You can say what you like in quotations (but think interesting and unusual sound bites) but in general,  avoid words like: leading, innovative, best of breed, next generation, etc. Basically anything that "sounds good" but is really an over-used cliché with no meaning. Don’t believe me? Well I’m sure you’d love to get in TechCrunch, and one of its writers definitely agrees.
  • Its and it’s – “It’s” is an abbreviation for “it is.” "Its" is a possessive. Don’t mix them up. And while we’re on the subject: a company name is singular, therefore you say “Company XYZ is expanding its product offering…” never, ever use ‘their.’ It’s insulting to those of us who paid attention in grammar class.
  • Use relevant keywords for search engine optimization (SEO) – This tip is solely for your own benefit… so it’s important! Use your SEO keywords in your news release and when appropriate, link those keywords to relevant pages on your web site. Aside from a necessary tool to get press, news releases are the new SEO wonder child.

Now you know how to determine if your news is newsworthy, and how to actually write the news release. Next in part three we’ll go over something you may already be familiar with–making the pitch.

Update: One important tip I forgot to mention: always have someone else read over your news release! You can be the best writer in the world–and the best editor–but the truth is you’re probably no good at editing your own writing. I freely admit I suck at editing my own work… Which is why I’m sending a big thanks to Irene Crosby for catching a couple little typos in this post and discreetly me know. Thanks Irene!

By Kelly Rusk

Carleton Poster of Tech Companies

Screen shot 2009-11-09 at 1.00.57 PMIn early 2010, Carleton University is looking to publish an updated poster featuring ‘innovation-based companies’ founded or co-founded by Carleton alumni and faculty. ‘Innovation-based companies’ are defined as “companies founded to either develop new technology that forms the basis of new applications, services or products or, conversely, develop new applications, services or products using existing technology”.

Luc Lalande, Director of the Innovation Transfer Office at Carleton, is looking for help identifying these companies. If you have information on some of them, please contribute to the list or contact Luc via Twitter or e-mail (luc_lalande [at]

By Scott Lake

Free Legal Advice for Startups

Luke Clare sent me a quick note to thank StartupOttawa for driving awareness to their June 23 Seminar. We always like it when we’re thanked :) It seems that their event was a great success and they have been nice enough to provide the material resulting from their course which can be found here: Free Legal Advice for Startups.

Check it out!


By Aydin Mirzaee