Startup Best Practices Spread Quickly

One of the not-so-secret secrets of the startup world is that everyone copies everyone else. UI/UX, marketing, product — everything is “fair” game and almost nothing is off limits. The “rocket ships” are the ones who get copied the most, and for good reason. They have the resources to aggressively test tons of experiments, so if they decide to make something the default experience, it’s a safe assumption that it moved the needle in the right direction. Not to mention, they’ve demonstrated explosive growth for a reason.

This creates an interesting side effect, because when something becomes a “best practice,” you’ll quickly see it spread across TONS of companies. This is one of the reasons so many products and sites in the startup world seem so similar, and while this a bit unimaginative and can have some negative side effects, it can also be really powerful when leveraged correctly. Once a user has experienced a certain UX flow they’re more likely to understand and respond positively to it in the future. Conversely, marketing tactics likely lose their effectiveness as they become more pervasive.

A few examples of this that I’ve noticed emerging over the last year+ are:

Pre-empted app permission modals

Notification Permission

Swarm Notification Pre-empted Request

This is one of my favorites because it’s so simple, yet it makes so much sense. One of the biggest flaws with Apple permissions is that it’s all or nothing — if you’re denied, that’s it. If the user changes their mind, they have to go into their settings and find the applicable app and grant the appropriate permissions. This is obviously a huge headache and something most users won’t do. Thankfully Apple has made “winning back” a user’s permission slightly easier in iOS 8, in that you can now link them into the appropriate location (whereas previously this was not possible), but it still a more involved process and so avoiding the denial altogether is still your best bet.

By pre-empting the Apple permission modal, you avoid the all or nothing pitfall. If the user says “No thanks” then you don’t present them with the Apple modal. This strategy is particularly helpful if you want to ask permission during on boarding, because this is when they’re most likely to deny you. Over time, once you’ve demonstrated value and the user is more engaged, you can show them your custom permission screen again.

Negative Opt-out Wording For Email Capture Modals

Who Would Say No to That?!?

Who Would Say No to That?!?

This one has caught on like wildfire, particularly with content driven sites. Now every site tries to guilt you into giving them your email, by making the “no thanks” link copy very pointed. The only issue I have with these is when the ‘no thanks’ answer is overly negative, but in general they’re pretty clever. It’s also a great opportunity to inject more of your brand in selling point into your email capture, rather than just a boring pop-up.

Swiping

Swipe Right For Yes and Left For No

Swipe Right For Yes and Left For No

The most common example of this is what Tinder has popularized; swipe right for yes and left for no. However, there has also been a large uptick in apps using the swipe action for a variety of uses. The second most common I’ve seen is to swipe away an app notification modal, rather than have to X it out. This is one of those situations where because ‘swiping’ has become so widespread, users have become educated on this action and so there is less friction in having it be a core part of your UX. Apple deserves some of the credit for popularizing this with their notification swiping.

Cute 404 Pages

When Viewing Live, The Scoop Falls Off The Cone

Viewed Live, The Scoop Falls Off The Cone

These have been around for a while now, but it feels like recently they’re getting more attention and more companies have realized that they’re worthwhile given the level of effort required to design and implement them. These are a great opportunity to show the fun side of your brand, but make sure not to overlook the UX of the page. A 404 page with no CTAs is useless, you want to help guide users away from the page and back into the core site experience.

Sad Unsubscribe Pages

Video Of A Grown Man Crying For Added Effect

Video Of A Grown Man Crying For Added Effect

Despite many predictions to the contrary and despite what you might want — email is not going anywhere. In fact, you could argue that email is more important than ever. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that unsubscribe pages are receiving more attention in an attempt to reduce subscriber churn. I mean, you’ve already worked hard to gain that email, why wouldn’t you want to put at least some effort into trying to stop them.

App Download Layovers On Mobile Sites

Customized By Sport and Current Events

Customized By Sport and Current Events

This has also been around in some form for a while — evolving from a small top banner on a site, to a more involved, full overlay like you see here. The new versions have undoubtedly raised conversions, because they are impossible to ignore, and they provide for a greater ability to insert your brand and value proposition. The companies that do this best use the tactic sparingly. If you’re constantly bombarding the user with popups and layovers, it’s going to be a terrible experience and will eventually turn them off from your site.

Bleacher Report only does the full layover when you get linked into an article and then they customize the graphic depending on what type of article you’re reading and what current events are happening for that sport— it’s very well done. Whereas if you visit the site directly, you’ll only see the less intrusive top banner. Given how pervasive this tactic has become, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these banner and overlays effectiveness have changed, in some cases positively and others negatively, as users have become more familiar with them.

 

Hopefully this was helpful and has given you a few ideas that you can incorporate into your product. A final word of warning — just because something has seen widespread adoption, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t test it first. Depending on your product, market and demographics you might find out that a “best practice” is in fact not applicable when it comes to your users. In addition, just because something moves the numbers in the right direction, doesn’t mean that you should do it. Remember to keep the user experience in mind and avoid making changes that you would find annoying if you ran across it on a different site.

I’m curious to hear what trends you guys have noticed recently — share them in the comments!

Startup Prerequisite: Tech Know How 101

Recently it seems the pendulum is swinging back on “everyone needs to learn to code” mantra that’s been so prevalent. I’ve seen several articles in the vein of, “why learning to code is probably a waste of your time”. Now if you actually read the articles, most articulated that while knowing to code is probably unnecessary, understanding from a high level how a modern application works is not. Hopefully, the link-baity titles won’t convince those looking to get into startups that technical know-how is optional. That would be a mistake — knowing basic technical skills is super important for anyone interested in getting involved with startups.

Technology is the engine that is powering the recent startup explosion, so If you want to work in startups today than you need at least a basic understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes. This is true regardless of the industry you want to work in; fundamentally all B2B, B2C, SaaS, eCommerce, Hardware, Marketplaces etc. companies today are technology companies. Now I’m not talking about possessing enough knowledge to be a junior developer or even remotely close to that much. But you should be able to write basic HTML/CSS, have played around with an OOP (object oriented-programming) language like Ruby or Python, have some knowledge of how databases work and possesses a basic understanding of how all those pieces come together to form a full-stack application. In my opinion, these should be considered table stakes for any startup job applicant, but it’s particularly important if you’re looking to join an earlier stage company.

When you work at a startup you’re going to be interacting and discussing product enhancements and improvements with your development team on a regular basis and the more you’re able to speak their language the more seriously they will take you. Nothing will piss your engineers off more than if you tell them you have a minor request when you have no idea what constitutes something minor or major. That’s not to say you should get to the level of technical expertise where you can properly asses the timeline and effort of development projects, but you need to understand, at a basic level, all that is involved with changing a feature. The better you’re able to spec out feature requests, the better your working relationship with you engineers will be.

If you’re interested in a marketing role, it’s important that you not only have technical aptitude but also technical chops. Being able to write basic HTML/CSS, create landing pages, email templates and having the technical aptitude to use common marketing tools are skills that will make you a far more useful employee. Bonus points for SQL knowledge and the ability to make basic commits to your repo (just make sure to get your thumbs!). Developers time is one of, if not the most, precious resources a startup has — don’t waste it. Not to mention, they’re going to be slammed working on features for the core product, which will likely take priority over your marketing request, so being able to do some minor technical tasks yourself will allow you to move much more quickly.

If you’re looking to work in sales or business development you can get by with less hands-on knowledge, but it would certainly still be helpful. However, it’s still important you have a basic understanding of programming and certainly for how your application works. Another case where this is important is when you’re talking to potential partners or clients. You want to be able to answer their basic technical questions and be able to properly explain, at least at a high level, how integrating or using your product works. Certain questions will likely be out of your depth, but the more you’re able to shield your developers from external questions, the happier they will be and happy developers = productive developers.

I don’t want to list out the different resources and courses available to learn these technical skills, as there are numerous guides which I’m sure do a far better job than I would, so just Google it. And who knows, you might just realize that a more technical path is for you — it’s never been more in demand and there are more resources than ever to make it a reality.

Virtual Reality – The Next Frontier

I’ve always been a huge gamer, and one of my earliest memories of playing video games is using the Nintendo Virtual Boy to play Mario Tennis when I was around six years old. The childlike wonder at being immersed in this alternate world is something I still remember incredibly vividly. Ever since then I’ve been obsessed with virtual reality and the idea of being transported without even moving. Unfortunately, as I got older I was less easily impressed and my future run-ins with virtual reality failed to wow me in the same way that Virtual Boy had. That was until I tried an Occulus Rift.

When the developer versions first came out, a friend of mine had been one of the original backers on Kickstarter and so got his very early on. I was incredibly excited to give it a try… to say that it was amazing would be an understatement. At the time, the go-to demo was the roller coaster, and you truly felt as if you were riding one, to the point where you actually got a bit sick (an issue I understand has since been improved). It was the first time that a virtual reality experience made me feel completely immersed and forgetful of my actual surroundings since my first experience with Virtual Boy so many years ago.

While I’m incredibly excited about what virtual reality will do for the future of gaming, I understand that there are still challenges in overcoming the nausea affects and that the nature of random user inputs in gaming presents technical challenges so it might be a bit longer until movement and controls are fluid enough not to break the immersion. That being said, what I’m most looking forward to in the next few years are the non-gaming uses of virtual reality. I think those are much closer on the horizon and will likely have a broader and more far reaching impact.

The one application that I’m most excited for is ‘guided’ tours of both current and historical landmarks and events. My hope is that not only will you be able to visit the Colosseum as it currently stands today, but also the Colosseum as it stood 2,000 years ago in all its glory and maybe even watch a gladiatorial event! The possibilities for what we’ll be able to see and experience are limitless, and I believe the power virtual reality will have for inspiring and teaching future generations could surpass even Wikipedia.

My favorite social product right now is SnapChat and one of the main reasons is the curated SnapChat stories. I’m not aware of any other product that does as good a job of providing a firsthand account of what it feels like to be at different events happening around the world, especially in real time. If you’re a young kid living outside a major city, I would bet it’s difficult to imagine what life is like outside of your bubble. You can watch videos, but those lack a certain element of intimacy. Something about knowing that the SnapChat story you’re watching was recorded in the last 24hours and that you’re seeing it from many different perspectives gives it an added depth and realism. Virtual reality will be able to provide that same kind of feeling, but on steroids. The internet has done incredible things to inspire people by exposing them to so much information and by helping them realize that there is so much to offer in this world: virtual reality will take this another huge step forward.

My love for virtual reality is not without concerns; when I’m feeling pessimistic, I worry that civilization as we know it could collapse once virtual reality becomes as realistic as everyday life. If you’re not happy with your life, why would you choose to live it when you could escape to a world dreamed up by your imagination, where you’re cable of doing anything and everything. I remember thinking when I first saw Inception it was a pretty good parallel for virtual reality. In particular, there is one scene where my boy Leo comes across a group of people who have chosen to live their lives in ‘the dream’ — my fear is that people will do the same once lifelike virtual reality exists. On the flip side, for the old and infirm living there lives out through virtual reality might offer a better alternative.

While my optimism and pessimism for virtual reality might be way off base, one thing I do know for certain is that I’m incredibly excited by what virtual reality offers for the future, whatever that may be. My hope is that it will be more than just immersive gaming experiences. But, if I’m wrong I certainly won’t be opposed to playing some of my favorite childhood games from a truly first person perspective.

Should You Join a Startup?

Startups are in vogue. It seems like everybody is working on their own startup, working at a startup, looking to join a startup or at the very least, has an idea for a startup. If you’re a recent or soon to be graduate, you might be trying to decide if you should join a startup or take a job at a more established company. Unfortunately, there’s no “right” answer, so rather than give you a blanket answer, I’ll discuss the positives and negatives I’ve experienced during my time working at startups. And while I wish I could offer an apples to apples comparison to working at a larger company, I have only worked at startups and my internships were at very small companies.

It’s important to note when I refer to a startup, I’m talking about something very early stage, as in less than 50 employees, as well as a company that is looking to achieve massive growth and so will likely take on venture funding. And while I believe that companies with more than 50 employees or which are not looking to achieve massive growth or take on venture funding can still very well still be considered startups (I talked about it here), for the purposes of this post that is what I’ll be focusing on, as those are the types of companies I have experience working at.

The Good

Since joining CoachUp, I’ve worn many hats; I’ve worked on marketing, business development, product and customer support. This was hugely beneficial for me as a recent graduate, since, like a lot of people, I didn’t know what type of job I would enjoy or excel at. When I first joined CoachUp it was in a business development/sales capacity, but overtime it became obvious that I was better suited for a marketing and product role. Had I joined a larger company as an inside sales rep or business development associate, it would’ve been a more difficult path toward figuring out I was in the wrong role. I would’ve likely spent a year realizing BD/sales wasn’t for me, and then I would’ve wanted to try product or marketing, but I still wouldn’t have known for sure if that was the right role for me due to lack of exposure. So if I were lucky, I would’ve been given the opportunity to switch positions within the company, but in all likelihood I would’ve had to find a new job. However, at CoachUp, we realized there wasn’t as much need for someone fully dedicated to BD as we originally thought, so I began helping with marketing and product. It quickly became clear I could provide more value there, and so we quickly transitioned me to the marketing department full time. The transition was seamless, because I didn’t have to build rapport or trust at a new company with a new team.

Another huge benefit of wearing many hats is that you get to learn about all different aspects of building a business. Not only is it great that I got to figure out that I enjoy working in marketing and product, but I also got to learn about BD/sales and customer support. The one team I haven’t been a part of is our engineering team, but in the early days when we were smaller we all sat together (now that we’ve grown we sit by department) and so I was able to ask them a ton of questions about the technical aspects of our product and given my role, I still collaborate with them on a daily basis. This has helped me learn a ton more about building an application from scratch and managing an engineering team. I’ve even got to make some simple commits to our repo! This kind of exposure to every facet of a business is not possible at larger companies. You’re much more siloed, which prevents you from learning about other aspects of the business, unless you really go out of your way to do so. At a startup you’ll learn a ton just through osmosis, plus you can learn even more by picking you coworkers brains whenever possible.

The intimate work setting of a startup means that there is a huge amount of transparency into the business. You know everything that is going on because you see it firsthand. It’s also become fairly standard practice at startups to share key business metrics amongst the company so that everyone is aware of how the business is doing as a whole. We send out company-wide updates from the marketing, engineering and customer support teams so that everyone is aware of the happenings of every department. We also have an admin dashboard that shows real time stats for all of our important KPIs, which anyone in the company can access. This was a huge reason why I wanted to join an early stage startup – I wanted to see and be a part of building a company from the ground up, so that I can take those learnings and apply them to my own company one day.

Having the work I was doing on a day-to-day basis actually contribute to the company’s growth was something hugely important for me. Coming from playing sports my entire life, I was used to and enjoyed being a key contributor to my team. The idea of going to a large company where I wouldn’t be able to see how my work was helping the company was not very appealing. The exact opposite is true at startups. You’re going to be given a lot of responsibility and you’ll be able to see very clearly how the work you’re doing is helping move the company forward.

The other things people often cite as benefits of working at a startup are: no dress code, social activities with your co-workers, great perks (stocked kitchen, paid meals, kegerators, etc.), cool offices — just to name a few of the “superficial” perks you often hear about. Unfortunately, early stage startups won’t have those crazy perks or amazing offices you hear about, because they can’t afford them. In fact it’s a giant red flag in my mind if an early stage company has incredible digs or crazy employee perks — they should be spending that money on building their business! And while I’m obviously being a bit of a snob calling them “superficial” perks, I like kegerators as much as the next guy, I just don’t think they’re nearly as important as the other reasons I gave earlier. I also think that in general many workplace environments are moving in the “startup vibe” direction, so joining an early stage startup is not a requisite for finding a company that can offer those types of benefits/perks.

The Bad

A lot of the positives about working at a startup are unfortunately also the negatives — I know weird. By wearing many hats you learn about a lot of different aspects of a building a business, but you don’t go really deep in one area. This can sometimes make it feel like you haven’t learned much of anything at all because you’re not an expert on anything. It can also make it tricky if you want to transition into a larger company, as you’ll be expected to focus on one thing and if your skill set encompasses a little bit of a lot that can be tricky. If many of your skills don’t translate you may be forced to move laterally as opposed to upwards when taking your next job.

Similarly, it’s great to be given ownership of a project or an area of the business, but at the same time it sucks when you don’t know what you’re doing and you have nobody to ask. You’re constantly learning on the fly at a startup, and there won’t be much in the way of mentorship or learning from a seasoned veteran. Either because your company is not yet at the stage to hire someone more senior or because if you do have someone with more experience, chances are they’re too busy doing a million things themselves to really take you under their wing. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll be working with incredibly smart people and will be able to learn a lot from them, but it likely won’t be a very structured mentorship-type of relationship. This means that teaching yourself will be a huge part of your job. For the most part this is very rewarding, but it’s also challenging and when you get assigned a huge project that is unlike anything you’ve ever done before it can be very intimidating.

Priorities are constantly changing at startups; one day you might be told to put a huge project on hold you’ve been working on for sometime (and maybe really enjoy working on) because something else will benefit the business more. Because priorities are constantly changing and there is never a lull in work that needs to be done, you often have to dive in to projects without having as much time as you’d like to lay the foundation. Worse, is when you finish a project, but don’t feel you fully or perfectly executed it because of juggling too many other projects or because of pressure to move on to the next of the ever-growing backlog of to-dos. Similarly, you often won’t have as much time as you’d like to do a thorough debrief after a project to learn from the successes and failures and apply them to future projects.

If you’re joining an early stage startup, there is a good chance you’re either shaking up an existing business model / vertical or you’re operating in an entirely new one. This means there is no playbook. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can be fun to trek into unknown territory, but it’s not without drawbacks. You might work very hard on a project only for it to completely and utterly fail. In fact, this will likely happen a lot. You’ll often know going into a project that the likelihood of success is slim and the amount of work is high. You might launch several large, labor-intensive projects, only to have a minor task be the most successful. You have to learn to get over your failures quickly and keep pushing yourself to figure out what’s going to be scalable and repeatable.

The pay will typically be less than what you would get for a similar job at a larger company, while the responsibility and time commitment will likely be more. Not to mention every startup has a finite “runway” until you reach profitability, and if you’ve taken on venture funding you’re likely not optimizing for profitability (at least early on), so one day that runway might end and your job would just disappear. People will often cite equity as the reason why you’re sacrificing pay and job security when joining a startup, but I take issue with that. If this is your first job out of college, if you’re not technical, or if you’re not a founding team member, your option grant will likely be very small. So unless your company ends up being the next Facebook, which is highly unlikely, the best-case scenario is that your equity will amount to a sweet bonus… the worst and far more likely scenario is that it’s worth zilch, nada, zip. That’s not to say that having equity, even a small amount, isn’t an incredible feeling, because it is really cool knowing you own a piece of the company you work for. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that your equity alone will make up for the salary cut you’re taking from working at a larger company.

The Ugly

I wish I could say that there is no ugly, but that would be disingenuous. Startups are incredibly stressful and you’ll often be given projects with short deadlines and little in the way of direction other than to “get it done.” If you’re looking for a 9-5, then startups are definitely not for you. Your work is never ending, as there is always something that needs doing and you’re constantly juggling multiple projects. Most of the time, those are good things because you’re never bored, but it can take a toll on your psyche and the dreaded “burn out” is a very real issue. Also, because there is always something that needs doing it can be difficult to separate your work and home life – leaving the office only to go home and continue working is often the rule rather than the exception.

I strongly believe that the positives outweigh the negatives, and I wouldn’t want to work in any other type of environment. That being said, I don’t preach the startup gospel as devoutly as many others… perhaps because I have no experience working a “traditional” job. At the end of the day I don’t think you can necessarily go wrong either way, so long as you do your due diligence, join a strong team and find a role where you’ll be learning a lot. It’s also hard to make a catastrophic career decision when you’re young, because there is still plenty of time to figure out what environment you enjoy most.

The last thing I want to emphasize is my belief that the two most important factors in deciding whether you should accept any job, startup or otherwise, is the quality of the team and the amount you’ll be challenged / be in a position to learn. Even if you join a large company you’re likely only be interacting with a small team on a regular basis, so make sure you do your homework on the team. This is even more important with a startup because there is no joining a new team and there is no escaping your team — your team is the company. As for finding a job where you’ll be learning something, that should be relatively easy when accepting your first job, because you don’t know shit about shit, even if you think you do. But you need to make sure you’re taking a job that’s going to push you, because you’ll learn the most when you’re outside of your comfort zone. Unfortunately, you won’t know for sure on either of these factors until you join, so do your best and trust your gut but if it turns out you made a wrong decision don’t be afraid to restart the job hunt. Ideally you want to stay at any job for at least 2 years, but in today’s day and age it’s not unusual, as it once was to move around more quickly than that at the beginning of your career.

Don’t Forget About Customer Support

There has been a lot of discussion around the increasingly important role of strong design at early stage startups, particularly for consumer facing companies. It seems like not long ago being a startup was a valid excuse for lackluster design. This is no longer the case. Now it’s rare to see a startup with poor design get much traction: good design has become table stakes. Obviously there are some massively popular services that buck this trend; I don’t think Twitter or Reddit are going to win any design or UI rewards. Despite their simple design — or perhaps, in part because of it — both have obviously amassed huge user bases. That being said, in general most new services are being released with a higher level of polish than ever before.

There is another equally important aspect of startups that doesn’t get the same fanfare – Customer Support. In fact, you could make the case that customer support is even more important than design and possibly even engineering in your earliest days. When you’re in the early stages your users are typically going to be your most fervent. The ones whose problem you’re most closely solving. Because of this, they’re going to be less demanding when it comes to your design and product, assuming the business model solves their core problem. However, what can be hugely beneficial to accelerating your growth is to turn these early users into evangelists. The best way to do this is to make them feel a sense of community with your product, and the foundation of your community is your customer support.

Later, as you start to grow outside of your core user base, strong customer support can help you stay in the good graces of users for whom your product doesn’t yet fully address their needs. This is not to say that they’ll stick around if your product looks and works like dog shit just because you’re quick to answer emails or available to chat over the phone. But if your product is a bit rough around the edges, strong customer support can help keep them patient while you work on improving design and product to more fully address their needs. It will also give them the sense that you have a committed team and give them confidence that the rest of the product will continue to improve. Additionally, by listening and acting on your customer’s feedback they’ll feel like they’re part of the team and feel a stronger connection to your product.

Keep in mind that you’ll rarely solve the problem you’re addressing in your first pass — which is part of why having the right design and product is less important as you’re going to be iterating quickly in your early days. Part of the way you’re going to figure out how to properly solve the problem is through customer support and learning from your users. That’s not to say customers have all the answers, but they can be helpful in identifying the pain points and gauging the direction your product should be heading. By having strong customer support you’ll be in a better position to learn from your users.

So if you’re thinking about starting a company, don’t think you can overlook customer support in the early days. Besides the reasons already listed, you don’t want the attitude that your customers don’t matter baked into your culture. Companies that put customers first tend to be the companies that ultimately win, and if you’re not in it to win it then you shouldn’t be starting a company to begin with.