• Advice,  Code

    Don’t Break the Chain

    Before I decided to take Referly full time it was just a side project for a couple years. For New Year’s 2012 I set a personal goal to code every day (my job at the time was head of marketing for a developer company), and in early February of this year I decided to get serious with a “don’t break the chain” mindset.

    Referly was the project I decided to rebuild from the ground up and 6 weeks into my routine I let Jeff know I would be leaving so we could start the transition plan.  Shortly after that conversation I had some beers with Joseph Walla from HelloFax and he convinced me to at least try to get into YC.  We all know how that turned out.

    So thank you Jerry Seinfeld for your advice on productivity – it worked for me.

    From the article:

    He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself—even when you don’t feel like it.

    He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here’s how it works.

    He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

    He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

    “Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.




  • Advice,  Referly,  Startups

    Startup Metrics to Obsess Over

    I obsess over my startup’s metrics.

    I constantly have Google Analytics realtime running in my browser to monitor traffic on Referly, and throughout the day I check it to see how many people are concurrently visiting our website (scroll to bottom to watch video on how to use this tool). I can see how many are new and how many are returning, where they came from and which parts of the site their are viewing, all within a glance. The psychology of this quick data dump into my brain is powerful, either reassuring me that people are discovering us or scaring me into thinking we might live in obscurity forever.

    This is one of the worst images a startup founder can imagine (an empty bank account balance is at least an order of magnitude scarier) – and I saw it this morning:

    The saving grace here is that it is before 8am Pacific Time as of writing this, so traffic is just beginning to climb. However, that does also indicate that Referly is primarily being adopted by West Coast people in the early-adopter tech community. We are working hard to branch out and reach people all over the U.S. who want to make a little extra income referring products they love. Looking at you New York!

    For Google Analytics Realtime, in my head I set a “low water mark” where if the concurrent visitors on the site drops below it I treat it as a red flag (and usually go tweet, blog, etc. to drive more traffic).  For the past few weeks the low water mark has been 0, and this week I raised it to 1.  To put this in perspective, just 2 months ago when I was using this practice at my previous company this number was in the hundreds.  We have a long way to go.

    Find Metrics You Can Obsess Over

    One great piece of advice from PG, which reminds me of the early days at Twilio, is to find a single metric you can obsess over. For us, it is not web traffic because of the nature of Referly’s business, but for a lot of consumer startups being able to drive traffic successfully is a great place to focus in the early days as you are getting people to kick the tires on the product for the first time and building a word-of-mouth revolution where people are coming back and bringing their friends.

    Here’s what our traffic has looked like over the pay 2 months (we launched May 14th):

    The Psychology of Looking at Web Traffic

    Web traffic can be a dangerous metric to obsess about, because it is fickle. The graph above is smoothed at the monthly level, and on the daily and even weekly levels you can see major peaks (launch announcements, other press) and valleys (nothing interesting has happened for 5 days ahhhH!)

    It can also become a vanity metric, because it is something you can buy.  This is a big reason why I advise companies not to take any paid traffic unless they have very clear mechanics for converting that traffic into actually revenue in a short period of time.  For businesses with very high lifetime customer value, or high anticipated revenue in the first 90 days of a user registration, you can justify paying for traffic.  But for social sites, meme generators, news sites, fashion sites, and any other site where the user and her data ARE the product — don’t buy it.  If you can’t make it organically you don’t have a product yet.

    The reason this is so dangerous is that once you buy traffic you will have this graph that you can make go up and to the right on command.  Simply pump more money in, and the visits numbers will go up — probably as conversion rates go down (if they don’t then keep going!).  As your team and investors begin to see this graph it sticks in their mind.  People love to cling to the only scrap of apparent success in an otherwise muddled heap of we-don’t-really-know-yet.  Beware vanity metrics, Google Adwords can be very difficult to put down once you’ve started.

    Graphs That Shape Your Life

    I remember attending an art appreciation session years ago lead by Lee Sandstead (OMG I just Googled him and he is Emmy Nominated now! congrats Lee!!!) where he talked about the power art has over our everyday lives.  Simply by having it on our walls, by looking at it in passing, it shapes our world view.

    The most amazing observation was that it doesn’t even have to be art one likes.  Take for example the most common piece of artwork found in the Western world, Ave Maria – which is the baby Jesus sitting on the lap of the Virgin Mary.  Definitely not a piece of art I’m into putting up all over my house (I’m an atheist).

    But Lee made this amazing point — it would be better to have this artwork on your walls than nothing.  If he lived in a world where this was the only artwork allowed (as was the case for hundreds of years) he would welcome it.

    It would shape you — you would look at it from time to time and reflect on it.  It might be simply religious symbolism to you at first, but over time it also might take on other meanings and conjure up other thoughts and memories.  It would become a point of conversation, maybe with other people, but certainly with yourself.  It would become a dialogue you returned to over and over again – anything from the mother to son relationship, to asking why he gazes at her but she does not appear to return her gaze to his eyes.  You might have questions about the halos they wear on their heads, or maybe what she is reading, or why his torso seems so misshapen.

    Metrics are the startup version of Ave Maria.

    Stick them on the wall, talk about them with each other, reflect on them privately, turn the data this way and that way in your mind trying to understand what it means.  Forge new connections.  Place two graphs next to each other which you assume are unrelated and test that assumption.

    Metrics You Should Consider Obsessing Over

    Here are some other metrics you might consider measuring and understanding. Some of them are more important than others to different kinds of businesses – and what you really want to look for is a single metric that can really tell you whether you are succeeding or failing.

    • Visits & % Unique Visitors (you could have very high visits because you have the same people coming back over and over again — not a bad thing!  but important to differentiate from the number of truly unique people)
    • Change in your bounce rate over time (are people who come to your site sticking around?  is it what they expected to see when they clicked through from wherever they were before?)
    • Number of times your website is mentioned each day on Twitter
    • Number of sites advertising against your website on Google, Facebook, etc.
    • % of users who come back more X times
    • % of users who come back and perform an action more than X times
    • % of users who contribute to revenue
    • % of users who have made a “round trip” in your product (completed the GOAL of the product)
    • Average number of days (or hours) it takes for a user to go from signed up to achieving the “round trip”
    • Signup conversion rate (by day of week, by region, by time on site)
    • Email open and click through rates (transactional emails vs. newsletter emails)

    Some of these things can’t be tracked with Google Analytics alone, I definitely suggest checking out Pardot and Kissmetrics for more sophisticated event tracking.

    There are probably many more, and I’ll keep adding to this list.  Do you have a startup metric you obsess over? Share it in the comments and help your fellow entrepreneurs.

    How to Use Google Analytics Realtime

    Great video from Darren Rowe to help you get started



  • Advice,  Startups

    500 Details: The Process of Mentoring Startups

    This morning I posted a link on Twitter & Facebook to How I Mentor Startups & Entrepreneurs.  After it went out, I realized it doesn’t tell the full story.  Where are the details of how this whole thing works.  I knew I’d written it down at some point, so I dug up this email I wrote to the 500 Startups list.  New personal rule: emails longer than 4 paragraphs might need to be blog posts.  Enjoy!


    As a mentor who has gotten involved in ~12 companies and ended up writing checks to 3, so far, I want to share a little about how I think about the whole process.  First of all, I love mentoring and it is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done with my free time.  Its teaching me a ton about myself, things I’m interested in that I don’t always get to think about in my day-to-day work, and I get paid back with data — either the advice I give helps the startup or it doesn’t.

    However, I don’t work with every start that approaches me.  For other startups/mentors here’s my process:

    0:  I get an inbound request/intro from a founder/startup/investor/etc. — my first question is, “can I help these folks?”.  If they have a startup in an industry or problem space that I don’t know anything about, or can’t find excitement for, or think is a dumb idea then I tactfully decline.  Those things make it impossible to become a “true believer” and every time I have gone against this I have regretted it.

    1:  I agree to meet up for coffee and find out my about the team, their vision, their execution so far, and how they think I can help them.  Usually they come to me for my broadly advertised skills in marketing, but often they find Ican help with a bunch of other stuff too.  I can usually tell if I am likely to invest in them after my first meeting, and this sets how much time I want to commit.

    2: Usually I find that there is a period at the beginning where the startup needs a lot of time and attention, and has a specific use for me as a mentor.  I like to commit to meeting a few times over the next 3 months for 2-3 hour working sessions, and if things are going well then I’ll usually write a check in the next 8-12 weeks.  If not, then I’ll usually wrap things up after the 3 month period and move on.  Some startups just stop using me, whether its because they’re busy or because I’m not helping I don’t know, but I am laissez faire about it.  If you keep asking me for my time you will get it… but don’t expect me to pursue you too much.

    3:  Writing the check.  Usually $5k and really I don’t worry about the valuation or think I’m going to get the money back (or care) - I’m paying to be at the table for the long term.  Its a way to have skin in the game.  I also have companies where I have a small % equity in return for my time… which is usually only something the really early stage ones can offer.  And yes, if one of these companies had a moderate return I would super happy — but the reality is that I’d probably just invest it in more companies (or maybe my own one day).

    4: The ongoing relationship - I block out time for my investments/mentorships on my calendar.  Sunday is my 500workday :)  I host an office hours at a local coffee shop doing 20 minute lightening mentor sessions, and I meet withstartups at their offices or at my house if they don’t have an office yet.  I work on them even when I don’t meet with them, doing research or catching up on their news.  They probably don’t even know how much I stalk them.

    And that’s how it works for me, I spend about 6 hours a week on it… so it will take me about 32 years to hit my 10,000 hours of mastery.  That’s cool, because my 58 year old self will be a really quirky and fabulous angel investor.  Here’s hoping  🙂

  • Advice,  Events,  Lessons In Startup Marketing,  Startups

    How to Hustle SXSW for Fun & Profit

    This is a copy/paste of an email I sent to 500 Startups Founders & Mentors email distros.  Another reason why you should join our program – I will fill your inbox with swear words and unsolicited advice.  Enjoy!

    Thank you so much to everyone who voted this up on Hacker News, where it spent 3 hours in the #1 position and more than 12 hours on the front page.  This post has now officially beat out How I Built a Multi-User Door Buzzer for our Apartment, with over 8,000 unique pageviews in the last 12 hours.

    This is the email where you all find out I am a hyper-socially sensitive (if you didn’t already notice) and have an incredibly intense meta level dialogue going on in my brain during every social interaction.  Basically, it is my super power.

    SXSW is upon us I want to share with you some tactics and strategies for having fun and hustling hardcore at this event.  This is a jumping off point for conversation, because I have spoken to several entrepreneurs with various fears/concerns/questions about SXSW.  This does not cover everything, it got really long and I wanted to get off my soapbox and have a beer.

    Before I forget

    Save my number in your cell 425-698-7497 DANIELLE MORRILL (I know, a lot of double letters) —- TEXT me when you are at SXSW and we can hang out!  I roll in the Twiliomobile (like “Batmobile”, not the mobile version of Twilio, see pics a the end of this post) version 3 (although I will not be hand painting it this year) and I love breakfast burritostacos.  I also have access to a lot of interesting activities off the beaten path, so if you happen to find me you might consider saying, “hey Danielle, where are you going next?  Can I come?”  If the car is not full, the answer is YES.

    Prepping your calendar

    Don’t fucking do it.  At least not in the way everyone else seems to.  Here is what is going to happen.  You are going to think you are being a front of the class kind of kid and spend PRECIOUS HOURS carefully picking through events, judiciously adding what you perceive to be highest value to your calendar and RSVPing for those event.  And guess what — BOOOOM! — the magical serendipity of SXSW is going to screw it all up.

    Instead, put EVERYTHING on your calendar so you know what ALL your options are, RSVP for EVERYTHING (yes I use an intern to do this — get one at #500strong) or use also #500strong.  If there is something you absolutely have to be at, like an event your company is hosting/sponsoring then make it a different color.  But if you are the CEO/most senior person going and you have a team there then *tell them you will not be there every moment*.  They will live, and if you are less stressed about getting there in time you will hustle better.

    Prepare like a soccer mom on crack

    So you aren’t going to plan your calendar beyond knowing all the options, but that doesn’t mean you can throw all planning out the window.  You need to treat yourself and the team like athletes.  Anything that could keep them from finishing the game/series/season is a problem.  I rent an SUV (getting 2 this year – covering them with vinyl decal branded stuff) and fill it with supplies for me and for the people in the Twilio community.  This includes bottled water, granola bars and other fast snacks (don’t do chocolate bars or candy – it melts in the Texas heat), and First Aid kits.

    First Aid is REALLY REALLY REALLY important (you can buy a standard kit at Walmart)!  I took an attendee of one of our events to the hospital, he sliced his foot open climbing off the bus and needed 10 stitches!  Did it ruin the event/day/trip?  Hell NO!  I got to spend an hour with one of our newest community members stuck in Austin traffic, trying to come up with things to distract him from how much blood he’d lost — we keep in touch, and I can’t wait to spend time with him this year.

    Your game face

    Okay fast forward and we’re in Austin now.  Repeat after me, “I am more hardcore than you” – hold this in your mind for a minute and feel a little competivie adrenaline rush.  This is the web marketing Olympics and its time to play ball.

    If you have ever played sports, team or otherwise, or crushed nerd face in StarCraft II like I do every Sunday then I want you to imagine getting and keeping your game face on for 5-7 days.  For those of you without these experiences, imagine how you feel trying to get out of San Francisco after a Giants game win.

    You have 3 game faces you will need to master:

    1. Company Figurehead (external facing) – You are repping your company 24/7, so whatever public persona you have or are developing needs to be in top form.  My recommendation: set the bar low.  For me, this means rarely wearing makeup, speak in plain English, and share exactly what I think without (too much) self-editing.  Again YMMV, but you are going to get stuck with this persona you created so think about it.
    2. Mercenary for the Leads / Missionary for the Brand – why the hell are you even going to SXSW (I probably should have started this email out with this) — to GET SOME leads.  Make this fun if you can, what I did last year with a team of 6 was to make a competition with daily prizes and overall prizes for most business cards, most Twitter engagement, and other *measure-able* things.  Measureable is key.  I gave out the prizes and announced the new challenge at breakfast each day, and each person gave a recap on cool people they met.   The order of magnitude for the challenge: MINIMUM 100 business cards per day (usually you’ll get 20 – 30% high quality leads).  This is totally DOABLE, don’t let anyone tell you it is not.
    3. Fearless Leader (internal facing) – your team is looking to you both for guidance and approval (always), don’t forget how important this is in an exhausting and stressful situation.  Make sure to praise things they are doing well but also to give quick, straightforward, helpful feedback if you see things that are slipping.

    If you need supplies, get to the grocery on day one with the team and make it happen.  Go to Walmart like we did last year (its on the way from the airport to downtown Austin) and buy up all the chalk, bubbles, glitter, and other fun cheap awesomeness you can.  Not sure how you’ll use it yet?  You’ll find a way.  Then take your team to eat a solid meal, probably the best one they will get and the one they will enjoy the most because they won’t be ready to fall asleep with their face in their plates.  Have a toast, make it count, this is an exciting moment.

    Mind like water

    Stress.  It’s going to happen because you’ll wake up Thursday and plans will constantly fall through, and you will be forced to be “on” 24/7 in person (which is much harder than online) for several days back to back.  You need to at least try to have a mind like water.  I am a Type A on a level that generates panic attacks so let me tell you other type As out there – forget the fucking details.  This is going to be a shit show organizationally — this about it like you are planning for a natural disaster and embrace the chaos, or you will be miserable.

    Mind like water = “oh cool, there’s another party down the street? let’s check it out”
    Mind like water = “looks like the wifi here is making our product demo impossible, lets get a beer and try again later”
    Mind NOT like water = “oh shit this is a nightmare, who forgot to ship the tshirts, you are all fired”
    Mind NOT like water = “why are you drinking, its 10pm on a Saturday but you are supposed to be WORKING!!!!!!!!!111111”

    You get the idea…

    You need a mind like water to work a room, to put up with the constant change, to understand that everyone else is also trying to adapt to this strange environment.  You need a mind like water so that you won’t be totally burned out at the end of the trip, or damage relationships.  But mostly you need a mind like water because once you let go a little bit it is extremely FUN.

    Okay, I hear everyone gets drunk at SXSW

    If you are going to get ridiculously drunk, and especially if you are considering using substances that the United States considers illegal, PLEASE DON’T WEAR YOUR COMPANY TSHIRT.  It is every PR person’s nightmare.  Please just no.

    Getting drunk at SXSW is deceptively easy, because if you are hitting nonstop events from noon to 2am and having 1 drink per 90 minutes (and are a lightweight like me) you are going to feel like shit by 10pm.  YMMV, but I did SXSW on a 2 drink per day rule last year and felt massively better.  One exception: if you are the host/MC of an event take 1-2 shots of tequila/vodka right before things kick off.  I do this with my team, and it really does help chill out the nerves around a massive event.  We hosted 800 people at Pure Volume house, with 2 VIP rooms and 2 signed bands on stage — to say I was freaking out abou the line wrapped about the building and the angry requests re: “the list” (from Type A people who planned ahead no doubt!) — so I needed it.

    Designated drivers = do it, take it seriously.  Love your team and protect them.  Make sure they drink water.  Even if that means sitting together on the curb til 4am because no one is sober.  Do it together, life is too short.

    Sleep & Hangovers

    You best be getting out of bed by 9am and taking your team to breakfast every day chief, this is your army – feed them, cloth them, inspire them.  If you still have the hangover shakes at 1pm you are doing it wrong.  (See: substances)

    Doing Deals at SXSW

    Pick a single day, pick an expensive bar, camp out at a table, make friends with the staff.  Don’t spread your stuff all over or it will be obvious you’ve been there all day.  You’re just the guy who happened to get there early for every single meeting, as far as the person meeting with you knows.  Expensive is relative if you are not drinking much, but it keeps the place from being loud or crowded.  The nice bar in the Hilton right across from the Convention Center always has tables because they charge $15 for a glass of wine — its PERFECT.

    Tell your team what day is your deal day (I pick Sunday – because you will have time to fill the funnel) and cherry pick people from their business cards that you want to meet and call/text them to introduce yourself and set up a time.  You invite, you pay.

    It’s going to cost maybe $300 for the day if you have a table from 11am – 6pm and take 10 meetings — ~45 min apeice — at $30 each.  If you can’t afford this (you probably should have stayed home: “I am more hardcore than you”) then invite people to meet you at other events OR invite them to the VIP section of your own events.  However, events are not where you close deals (unless you are Dave McClure).  Events are for lead gen.

    If you spend $300 and have a 10% success rate from those 10 meetings then I am guessing you will recoup your cost.  Have > 10% success rate!!!

    —– end email

    Twiliomobile 2010

    Twiliomobile 2011

  • Advice,  Objectivism

    Tips for Asking Good Questions After a Lecture at OCON

    One great aspect of Objectivist Conferences is the opportunity to ask questions of the intellectuals presenting their ideas, immediately following their talks.  Coming up with a thoughtful question can add depth to the topic, and help express misunderstandings that might be shared by a lot of the attendees listening.  However, Q&A sessions have a limited amount of time, so if you’re going to take it up with your question you might as well do a good job.  I personally find it pretty intimidating to get up and ask a question in front of the large audience, however I can tell you a lot from an audience perspective.

    Write Down Your Question and Read It Aloud

    The time to think up your question is not when the microphone is before your lips.  Not having a clearly formulated question can lead to a lot of those “ummm”… “ahhh” moments, which most of us strive to avoid.

    I’m not saying that I think most attendees do this, but if you’re reworking your most eloquent presentation until the final moments before its your turn often your question comes off as made up on the spot.  Think about how much time the speaker spent crafting their talk, structuring it to keep you engaged and to help you inductively come to conclusions.  If you take this same care for your own questions, I think you’ll find it is rewarding to have a speaker say, “that’s a great questions, here’s what I think…” instead of “wait, I’m not following?”

    A Declarative Statement is Not a Question

    Questions should start with words like “who”, “what”, “where”, “when” and “how”.  Why, you ask, is this important?  A declarative statement preceding the actual question has a bunch of usability issues for the person being asked:

    Unpacking Incorrect Premises

    If a declarative statement is made and the speaker doesn’t agree, he’ll feel responsible for responding first to any errors in that statement, before even getting to the question.  This can distract from the actual question if it takes longer than 15-20 seconds to deal with, and leaves a lot of speakers asking, “what was the question again?”

    Wasting the Audience’s Time

    Yes, you probably are a pretty smart cookie but the Q&A session is not the time to show off.  Your question really should only require a sentence to express, which is another reason why writing it down is a good idea.  Helping the speaker to expand on a particular part of their talk, or bringing to light a perspective that can add depth is the goal – not making a speech about what you think is right.  People didn’t pay to hear you talk, if you want them to then consider offering your own speech (elsewhere).

    Get Up There and Ask

    Finally, I want to encourage anyone reading this to just get up there and do it.  It might not be perfect, but I think if you try to follow this advice it will help you put a bit more thought into your question, and that can’t hurt.  Remember, conferences are generally benevolent places where people are learning together – so the best thing we can do as attendees, staff, speakers, and those asking questions is help each other become better at understanding the concepts being presented.

    Looking forward to many good questions in the coming days!  These are just my initial thoughts, I’d love to hear what you think makes for a great question following a lecture in the comments.