Building in Public as an Acquisition Tool

Being transparent as you develop your business is a great way to build a base of loyal supporters. By discussing your challenges, you generate empathy. By sharing ordinarily confidential data, you gain trust and respect. By asking for feedback on undeveloped projects, you give people a sense of ownership of what you're building. Overall, you can obtain an audience that will route for you, and who will be more willing to buy your product or join your community.

To realize these benefits, however, your transparency efforts must be meaningful and sustained. One-off attempts generally don't cut it. Ryan Hoover (Product Hunt), Danielle Morrill (Mattermark), and Joel Gascoigne (Buffer) have all been incredibly transparent as they develop their companies. And the group deserves credit for popularizing the current build-in-public movement. Two other founders, who I would like to highlight, are the latest to join them.

  • Alex Blumberg—NPR legend Alex Blumberg is documenting his journey towards creating a podcast company via a podcast series called StartUp. Alex knows little about starting a business, so it's incredibly interesting to hear him articulate the challenges he faces. You hear him struggle while pitching investors. You hear his intimate conversations with his wife as he questions his abilities as an entrepreneur. And you hear gut wrenching negotiations over equity splits with a potential co-founder. Alex's podcasts make the empathy pour out of you, and you can't help but want to support him and his company.
  • Zack Shapiro—Zack recently sold his company Luna. Now, he's exploring new startup ideas and sharing his journey through Built in Public, a Medium collection and newsletter. While less dramatic and introspective than Alex's StartUp, Zack's writing provides an inside look at how a successful entrepreneur finds a viable startup idea that he would be happy working on. He openly discusses his influences and passions, and he provides sharp analysis of the ideas he is considering. Zack's approach is less intense than Alex's professionally produced podcast series, but you still feel as though you're apart of Zack's journey, and you can't help but root for him. 

Office Hours as an Acquisition Tool

One of my favorite ways to engage with a target audience is to host office hours. There are many use cases for them:

  • An accounting startup can offer office hours to businesses that need help with their taxes (good for customer acquisition)
  • A startup's renowned hardware team can offer mentorship sessions to local engineers that want feedback on their projects (good for recruiting)
  • A VC firm can offer feedback sessions to nascent startups (good for generating deal flow), or can offer career advice to young engineers (good for portfolio company recruiting). 

For all of these use cases, office hours offer a low-friction, low-commitment alternative to traditional interaction methods. A potential customer doesn't have to pay a hefty fee to start using a company's services. A potential investment's founder need not begin the tricky dance of attracting angel money. And a potential recruit doesn't have to formally declare that they are looking for a new job nor start the dreaded application process. They also don't have to cold-email a bunch of people or join a weekend-long hackathon just to get feedback on a project. 

It may seem that office hours don't scale well, but you would be surprised. Hired's NYC team recently hosted office hours where three of its Talent Advocates provided 15 minute career coaching sessions over a two hour period. That's 24 sessions in total, all of which were sold out. If they hosted such sessions every Friday for a month, they will have met with nearly 100 potential candidates for their startup recruiting platform. 

You may also think that you will only get low quality meetings by hosting office hours, but you would also be wrong. : ) First, not all high quality targets want to go through the high-friction, high-commitment traditional interaction methods that I listed above. And second, you can frame your office hours as a scarcity, and make getting slots a competitive process. Y Combinator recently did this by having an application process for startup feedback sessions they hosted in New York City and Waterloo. Assuming they got more applicants than slots available, they were able select who they met with. And it seems to have worked out for them.

Of course, office hours don't guarantee immediate results. But hosting them is a great way to build goodwill and to enable serendipitous outcomes. Brad Feld has been hosting office hours for over twenty years, and one of his meetings—with David Cohen—famously led to the creation of TechStars

So whether you're a startup, a VC, or simply a person capable of giving great advice, consider hosting office hours. 

What Makes a Great Newsletter?

Through running Happy Inbox, I have evaluated hundreds of newsletters. Newsletters are very much a matter of personal taste, but I have found that there are some key traits to great ones:

 

Capital NY's Playbook

(1) Unique Content. Unique content is paramount to having subscribers that actually read and look forward to your newsletter. Recycling content published online won't cut it. A great newsletter should also anticipate how and where it will be read, be it in bed or in the middle of the work day, and optimize for that experience. The newsletter's content should offer a striking contrast to what a reader may get from anything else at that time, and it should leave the reader with a genuine sense of feeling informed, entertained, or connected. The Mattermark Daily—which shares the most significant startup analysis published each day—stands out from competitors by providing a thoughtful impression for each article it shares. The impressions are crafted so well that you feel the gravity of each piece and you understand how they add to the conversation. Politico's Playbook (the "Godfather of newsletters," if there were ever such a thing) and Capital New York's Playbook—which feature national and New York political news, respectively—provide an "insider" take on the latest political news early each morning. The insights are so fresh and respected that, as the New York Times described, "some of America’s most influential people will read [the Playbook] before they say a word to their spouses." 

 

Product Hunt's Newsletter

(2) Humanized. Adding a personal, human message to a newsletter is a great way to connect with readers. Product Hunt's newsletter nails this. In each edition, Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover adds a little message that deviates from the newsletter's primary purpose, which is to share the top products posted to the site. His messages share everything from updates on his growing company to trends that the Product Hunt team is seeing. It's this personal touch and element of surprise that I believe gets people hooked to a newsletter—even if its minor and takes seconds to consume. To the contrary, newsletters that effortlessly share an RSS feed are unlikely to have engaged readers.

 

Farnam Street

(3) Thoughtful Design. A newsletter's design need not be fancy or loaded with graphics to be great. The Playbook newsletters, for instance, simply contain paragraphs of text. But the basic design seems to be an almost intentional way of reinforcing that the Playbook contains pure insight—no nonsense.  A great newsletter's design is more about what it shouldn't look like. It shouldn't look automatically generated (such as from an RSS feed), and it shouldn't have lackluster graphics. But the content must be extremely readable. After that, the possibilities are endless. I love newsletters that take the effort to give you visual cues as to how to read it, such as highlighting important information or boxing special messages. The Farnam Street newsletter, for instance, literally has a heading that says "Start Here" to guide readers on where to begin reading.  

 

StrictlyVC

(4) Consistent Schedule. Preparing a great newsletter is not easy. It takes a lot of effort to incorporate unique content, a humanized component, and a great design into each newsletter you send. But the best newsletters meet all of these criteria while being delivered on a consistent schedule, without fail. Promising a daily newsletter yet having frequent spates of not sending it will ultimately result in reader mistrust and disengagement. You also risk missing out on the natural growth that a great and consistently delivered newsletter can experience. Dan Primack's Term Sheet and Connie Loizos's StrictlyVC excel at consistency. They rarely miss a day. But if they have to, they arrange for substitute authors—which has the added bonus of changing the rhythm and adding some excitement to an otherwise consistent newsletter experience.

For more great newsletters, check out Happy Inbox

Don't Do This If You're Hiring in Tech

  1. Don't list positions on your job page that you aren't actively hiring for. Serious applicants will spend time preparing their application material, and you're just wasting their time. You also come off as careless to anyone poking around your website to learn more about your company. 
  2. Don't recruit and evaluate candidates for positions that you never intend on hiring for. Saying that you just wanted to "test out the waters" for potential positions after communicating with a candidate for weeks is inconsiderate. 
  3. Don't be inefficient. Have processes and clear steps in place for when you evaluate candidates. Make sure your whole team follows them. Communicate them with candidates and lead. Don't let a candidate languish for weeks waiting to hear back from you. It's inconsiderate and reflects poorly on your company. 
  4. Don't ask for free work products or suggest a test trial unless you will seriously consider the candidate and their work. Your company isn't the only one asking for this, and genuinely interested candidates will put a lot of time, effort and energy into this work. Don't waste their time. 
  5. Don't ignore applicants. Respond to every single one—even if you get thousands who are clearly unqualified. Automate this if necessary, and do it quickly. Respect their time and the fact that they wanted to work for your company. 

Political Expression in the Tech Community

I never could have imagined that I would hesitate to publicly express my views on something that I am passionate about. But until recently, I was hesitant to do so regarding the conflict between Israel and Hamas. It seems that I am not alone. While many people voiced support for either side, the tech community remained mostly silent as compared to the masses and to its own outcry over issues such as Ferguson. 

I think there were two reasons for the relative silence:

  1. The conflict is complex. It is rooted in a voluminous history that is difficult and impractical to thoroughly absorb. Reasonable people appreciate this and understand that what they read in the mainstream media is unlikely to make them better informed. The moral questions that the conflict raises also makes it difficult to form a perfectly defensible position. Because of this, I believe that people are simply unable to solidify their own views. If they do, the challenge then becomes crafting a fair message worthy of sharing publicly on Twitter or in a blog post. And if you get to this point, you should ideally be ready to defend your position against criticism, which can be fierce. 
  2. The conflict stirs deep emotions, and people don't want to alienate their professional peers. The tech community, perhaps more than any other professional community, relies heavily on Twitter and other public forums to connect with one another—so stating your views can come with professional consequences. 

Personally, I supported Israel before and throughout the conflict. But I didn't feel that I had a firm enough handle on the conflict to satisfy the first prong above. I spent July reading a lot of history and news from various sources, became more informed, and was ready to publicly support and defend the country. 

The second prong then became the obstacle. Would I come off as too political and risk alienating people by sharing even obvious arguments in support of Israel? Would I hurt my potential to grow in the industry by challenging more senior peers who shared messages that I strongly disagreed with? These risks are real, but they pale in comparison to the notion of staying silent on something that I am passionate about. And it is unacceptable to me to stay quiet while friends are risking their lives to defend Israel and all that it represents. So if people were to look negatively on what is an otherwise fair and responsible show of support, then I rather not work with them in the first place.

Current events have made for a sad, frustrating summer. But choosing to learn about and speak up on the controversial issues that I care about—as minor as these actions are—has given me some solace.