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Here are 10 quality posts from the Founder's Library:

Startup sales: #6: Pre-qualification and triage

First, second, third, fourth, fifth parts. Now sixth part:

#6: Pre-qualification and triage

Leads come in all shapes and sizes. Most of them are "unqualified", basically complete unknowns. In fact, to some extent, all of them are, until information attached to them is acquired and verified.

Even in a two-people company, there are good leads, not-so-good leads, and great leads. Being able to tell those apart allows you to focus on the kinds of clients who will give you the best bang for your buck, both in terms of return and in terms of effort spent selling.

This is where triage and pre-qualification can make a big difference, by allowing you to focus your best salesperson's energy on the leads where she can make the most difference.

Pre-qualification is basically gathering information on the lead before contacting them. Ideally, what you want there is a type of research that someone can perform quickly, efficiently, without thinking about it too much and without having to interact with people (because that takes a lot of time). That requires you to figure out what key bits of information are both important and attainable when you're about to call a lead.

There are various tools you can use to help with this, from simply browsing the lead's website and extracting information from there, to using tools like DueDil to dig up some financials, or even using LinkedIn and other tools to rummage around. Ideally, though, you want a simple process that can be carried out in a few minutes, so that it can plug into any lead generation process, and turn those unqualified leads into leads with basic information available.

Once you have these fundamental bits of info, the next step is to triage them. The simplest split is: great, ok, not that great. Soon enough, if you have decent lead generation in place, you should get more leads than you can handle. At this point, triage becomes very important: why waste your time chasing leads that will take a lot of convincing and return little money, when you have bigger fish waiting?

So, pre-qualification gives you the information you need to do triage, and triage enables you to help your salespeople (even, or especially, if you only have one or two) focus on the best leads.


Building a strong company trunk  

Here's an excellent article by Spencer Fry of of Carbonmade, about the importance of building out a very strong core capability before branching out into other domains.

Think Apple and Facebook — both launched with a single stripped down product — Apple's operating system (their hardware was just a delivery system) and Facebook's simple social networking: messaging and, more importantly, photo sharing. Both focused all their attention on building their trunk and then leveraged their core product to branch out.

Spencer also has some good advice for how to go about building this strong trunk: be patient, persistent, and focused.

Too many entrepreneurs think that they need to rush to become overnight successes or they'll never get there. They think it's a sprint and not a marathon. Carbonmade has been around for five years as of December, 2010. It took us three years to be able to work on it full-time, and then another year and a half before we were able to hire our first two employees. Carbonmade is only at 1% of what it'll be in five years. Patience, my friends.

Other than having patience, you need to build a stripped down, functional product that is focused on a special type of user, but at the same time something that can still be used by a more general audience. That way you aren't discouraging anyone from using it.

What's your company's trunk?

The choices we make when we build startups  

Joel from Buffer on the impact of his strategic choices to the success of his company:

They have absolutely shaped what Buffer is today. However, if you were to try and attribute these choices purely to success (maybe take revenue as the metric), then I think we could probably be just as successful with different choices:

  • being a distributed team
  • not raising a Series A
  • doing retreats 3 times a year
  • choosing to not have a sales team and instead focus on self-serve
  • serving small businesses rather than large enterprise customers
  • establishing cultural values early and being disciplined about living to them

He contrasts this with another founder whose controversial values included creating a fun workplace, yet grew the business to $8 billion in revenue:

I kept saying that our values were not responsible for the run-up in our share price and should not be blamed for any downturns in the future.

Which leads Joel to:

I can't say that creating a company where everyone is happy is something that will make us more successful, and I can't say that being fully transparent about revenues, user numbers, salaries and other details helps us grow faster than other companies. The point is that our values should hold true in either case, and we should stand by them.

Values aren't independent to the key choices though. Principled decisions connect values to choices, and speed up decision-making.

For example, when Buffer was hacked, they responded quickly and transparently, and they were lauded for it. Joel refers to Buffer's core cultural values: Happiness and Positivity; and Defaulting to Transparency.

In my experience with Founder-Centric, our startup training business, our consistent values have always been Do The Right Thing, Make Founders Better, Be Intellectually Honest, and Choose Work That Makes You Happy. We started by teaching for free, then when we wanted to teach full-time, we only charged for big workshops. By keeping a free option, we stayed true to Do The Right Thing. But we started to burn out from all the travel, so moved into curriculum design. Choose Work That Makes You Happy. This also made more time for the right workshops, conference talks, deeper research, and making our content freely accessible.

We can navigate our business through various stages because we stay true to our values. This hasn't been simple, because four partners need to agree each time! But each decision is far faster and easier because we refer to what we stand for.

What sort of entrepreneur are you anyway?

From my father's blog about wisdom:

The trouble with values is that they are all good.

Most people will swiftly agree with most of the high values of humankind: freedom, happiness, truth, respect, justice, equality, prudence, compassion, courage, modesty, patience, moderation, harmony, industry and so on; but ask them which is the most important and prevailing. You will suddenly find in the pattern the striking differences that tell fascists apart from communists and religious fanatics from tolerant free thinkers.

Bad people have no problem with good values. Irreconcilable opposites are made from the same handful of values representing goodness. It is the weight of each that differs.

The same is true for entrepreneurial values. Everyone but the most psychopathic entrepreneur will agree that a business should treat its employees well, shouldn't waste money, should create value, should generate returns for its shareholders, shouldn't kill people or make them ill, and so on.

And, more specifically in the tech startup world, a great many entrepreneurs will agree that startups should hire the best people they can, should iterate, should keep an eye on relevant metrics, should have automated test suites, should have automated deployments, should have backups of valuable user data, should be running on secure, well-administered servers, and so on. For B2B startups, everyone agrees that making sales, creating a good brand and building strong customer relationships are good things.

At the very least in public, very few entrepreneur will disagree with those values. But, as with the more generic human values, there is a world of difference in how each entrepreneur orders those values. Are backups more important than automated tests? Is saving money more important than implementing good metrics measurements? Is it ok to treat your employees harshly in the name of shareholder returns?

If you're going to work in someone else's business, it is wise to try and determine how they have ordered their values before doing so - this is why interviewing with people who work there already can be so important for the job seeker.

And, similarly, for yourself! What sort of entrepreneur are you (or will you be when you start your own business)?

To be aware of your values and to examine their worth with your own mind is yet another subtle source of freedom. Keep Nietzsche's hammer at hand to gently tap on each value and to judge the sound. Depending on the place where they are hung, some of those bells may give an empty ding of hypocrisy. We tend to forget that values are man-made axioms agreed as beneficial. There is nothing God-given about them. You do have a right to examine them freely - in your head - to chose your own choices. This is not theory: your own chime, your arrangement of personal values chants who you are.


How to fire an executive  

Here's a very informative article by Ben Horowitz, about how to go about the complicated and painful task of firing an executive. Some key points:

While it's possible to fire an executive for bad behavior, incompetence or laziness, those cases are rare and relatively easy. Unfortunately, unless you have a horrible hiring process, those are probably not the reasons why you got to this point. At this level, almost every company screens for the proper skill set, motivation, and track record. Yes, the reason that you have to fire your head of marketing is not because they suck; it's because you suck.

(...)

But keep in mind that your choices are: a) alarm the board or b) enable an ineffective executive to remain in her position. While choice (a) is not great, it's a heck of a lot better than choice (b). Leaving a failing leader in place will cause an entire department in your company to slowly rot. Let that happen and the board will be more than alarmed.

Worth reading the whole article carefully, and hoping that you won't need the information inside too often.

More about finding cofounders  

Some great ideas in this Quora thread, as a follow up to earlier today. Hat tip to Salim Virani of LeanCamp.

Details of a company sale  

Fred Wilson shares this in-depth story of the recent sale of WhatCounts. It's very instructive if your company is about to go through a similar process, to set expectations and see what this lengthy and generally opaque process might look like.

Here's a different story detailing two failed acquisitions of another company, Backblaze.

Good looking emails are killing your customer conversations  

Giuliano Iacobelli writes:

[U]sing Intercom and triggering 4,500 automatic email with a personal message for a specific segment of user and triggered on specific conditions: 1% replied.

Same logic, but only 110 raw text email with the same kind of personal message sent from my personal Gmail account: in less than 24 hours later I got 26 replies and established conversation ready to take off. 23% of replies. That's quite a good improvement, isn't it?

It's easy to lose sight of the point of regular customer conversations, which don't have to be over scheduled calls or meetings. Email automation and niceties can seem helpful at first, but not if they get in the way of actual learning.

Guiliano describes how he learned from more customers over email, just by emailing his users manually and in plain-text. The human touch goes a long way.

Criticism and two-way streets  

Great design approach by Des Traynor in this post:

Like Apple, Microsoft encourages their designers to create many different solutions to any given design problem. But picking an outright winner isn't easy. It can cause arguments and standstills. The quality of resolution here defines the quality of the design process. Who gets to decide? Is it the loudest shouter? The most senior? The highest paid? None of these are correct by default.

Every solution is great in some circumstances and terrible in others. Design debates are best settled by inviting everyone to present their solution, but also explain under what circumstances their solution is terrible. Finally they're asked to explain under what circumstances their colleague's solution would be better. This is what Bill Buxton refers to as walking on both sides of the street.

This can be scaled down to a small startup team. When solving a tricky design problem, ask everyone involved to come up with some solutions, then get them to explain when their solution won't work, and why the solutions they didn't come up with are better.

The article makes several other interesting points.

How to stop startups from failing in 4 common ways  

Most articles listing ways startups fail are not very interesting. There are millions of ways startups can fail.

This article by Elad Gil is different, because it offers some concrete advice about what to do to prevent each of those issues: running out of money, team implosion, a living dead company, or a bad board/investors. Have a read.

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