Marketing for Hackers: a 5-min intro, 97% BS-free

1) Marketing is not necessarily evil.

If you come from the hard and logical side of coding, the word marketing has an aura of evil. It conjures images of blabbering corporate droids that make you want to play buzzword-bingo during all-hand meetings. On Hacker News I see comments such as:

Barf. Sad, to see Hacker News being used as a marketing channel.

The parent post of that link talks about how to use channels such as HN to maximize the launch of your startup. It’s a start, but marketing for a startup is about much more than just the launch. Is an ongoing tactical and strategic process. I’ll share a few quick things that have worked well for IndexTank so far. Disclaimer: I’m not a marketing expert, although I play one as the C*O of IndexTank. What I describe here is the result of trial/error plus valuable help from some experts (hi Martina).

2) You are already doing marketing. Might as well do it right.

First off, you are already doing marketing whether you like it or not. Are you trying to get page views? Do you talk about your product online? Do you go to meetups? Do you tweet/blog? All those are marketing activities. As the logical being you are, you do all that for a reason. Why not roll it all into a focused strategy that you can measure?

Ok, so you want to have a strategy. Before you have a strategy you need goals. I assume you know what you want: become the leading social network for Nepalese zombies, sell for one hundred billion dollars, whatever. You have assumptions about where you need to be in order to declare victory: you want to be making X dollars per month, have Y users, Z visitors to your site, etc. Let me introduce you to AARRR: Dave McClure’s startup metrics for pirates. Check it out and come back.

3) Measure, learn, iterate.

So you’ve been doing a lot of [A]cquisition activities. Are you measuring the results in terms of cost/effectiveness? How does writing a blog post compare to a tweet, running a contest, etc? For us, contests and some posts that did well on HN have been very cost-effective ways to increase the funnel. IRC/chat is not that cost/effective but I do it anyways because I enjoy it. Same with going to events. There are lots of other ways (ping me if you want ideas). I’m a big fan of guerrilla marketing, but in some cases you need the big guns of professional PR. Essentially experiment, measure, and go deep when you find out what works.

Other activities/metrics we use: for activation, we set specific goals on Google Analytics. For retention, we see what percentage of our users have made api calls in the past X days. For referrals, we measure tweets, blog posts and ask people how they heard about us. I’ll stop here because this is just a brief intro, but this is just the beginning.

TLDR version: don’t be afraid of marketing, it’s just a tool that you can use efficiently to your advantage. Also, it’s only as evil as you want it to be. If you truly believe your product is great, you are doing a good thing by making the world know about it. Have a strategy and use tactics that work.

This is the part where I ask you to follow me on Twitter for the hell of it. It’s free 🙂

Going Full Stack

One of our investors told me that one of the reasons he invested in IndexTank was because he’d seen me “go full stack.” I like that phrase, and I take it as a compliment. He was referring to the time back in 1998 when I built an mp3 search engine in C, hosted it on my desktop computer, promoted it until it reached 200k daily queries, and made six figures out of it (all in a matter of months).

Being able to “go full stack” is a very good ability to have for an entrepreneur. It’s not necessarily good for other life endeavors (e.g. being an academic researcher, or the CEO of a large corporation). I’m sure it can be very counterproductive in some cases, because it means that you won’t be able to have a multi-year focus on improving one single ability. Even for an entrepreneur, it’s neither necessary not sufficient. My case is that it’s very helpful, and I’ll elaborate a little bit on what “going full stack” means from beginning to end.

1) You have an itch to scratch. It’s possible to start a company building stuff you wouldn’t use but other people want. I prefer to build things I want because it’s easier. If I’m building something I wanted and I’m not using it myself, that’s a red flag. It makes me happy to find myself hacking quick apps with IndexTank once in a while.

2) You can code. This doesn’t mean you are a guru who would make it to the finals of Google Code Jam, or even that you could impress a technical interviewer with your deep knowledge of encryption protocols or graph traversal algorithms. However, you can read a “Learning X Language” book and manage to write a program from scratch. It runs and it does something. It may be ugly and inefficient. You may shudder at the thought that a seasoned programmer might see your code and post a snippet to TheDailyWTF. It doesn’t matter, it works and you are ready to try to build a business.

3) You understand people. It’s not enough to create something you want, other people have to want it too if it has a chance to become a business. You can sense frustration from people who are trying to do something and get on with their lives, even though they don’t care about technology. You can empathize with them. I don’t care if a bottle opener is well crafted or pretty, I just want to open the damn beer! Do you have one? I’ll pay a couple bucks or whatever.

4) You can make things “not too ugly.” A designer may cringe when seeing Craiglist, but it has been successful for many years despite not being beautiful. There is a threshold of ugliness that makes people ignore a product because they can’t stand to look at it, Craiglist is clearly on the right side of it (perhaps barely). Our brains evolved that way. Do you use any sites made in Comic Sans?

5) You can put the pieces together. Coding is not enough, you need to be able to set up your product or service somewhere and make it available for people to use. Today that’s easy, in the case of web apps all you need to do is know how to deploy to the cloud and make sure your stuff doesn’t crash too much.

6) You can promote your stuff. Some young hacker guns believe that creating something awesome is good enough. Sometimes that’s the case, but more often it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. There are plenty of stories of Silicon Valley startups that had great technology but could not figure out how to get it in front of the right people at the right time. For example… um, well, you get my point. Because you don’t have deep pockets you’ll have to resort to guerrilla marketing tactics. This is a lot of fun (who doesn’t like the thrill of seeing a blog post get lots of retweets or upvotes on social news sites), but you can’t do it willy-nilly. This leads to the next point.

7) You can communicate. You don’t need to be a motivational speaker, but you have to be able to present your ideas to an audience. You must be able to tell a story both orally and in writing. You have to put yourself in the place of the listener. Are you still reading this? Are you bored? If so, I’m failing. OMG ZOMBIES! MICHAEL BAY!!! Ok, moving on.

8) You can sell. Obviously this depends on being able to communicate, but it’s more. You must not be shy about asking for money. You must think of your product not in terms of what it cost you to produce but in terms of the value it gives to your customers. What alternatives do they have? Will they do it themselves? Why did they come to you? Why did they listen to you? This seems daunting to a young hacker but it isn’t. If you are building something good, selling it is just a matter of spending time paying attention and listening. Read “How to Win Friends & Influence People.”

9) AND MOST IMPORTANTLY: You enjoy the whole process. None of the above feels like a horrible burden. Some things may not be as interesting as others (OH NOES ANOTHER SALES CALL!!), but the prospect of doing *whatever it takes* to be successful is exciting to you.

Are you like this? Close this window and go build stuff. Investors are waiting!

BitCoin will be made illegal, but cryptocash is here to stay

In case you haven’t heard of BitCoin, it’s one of those concepts straight out of science fiction books from late last century. Untraceable digital cash that’s not controlled by a central agency such as a government. Jason Calacanis thinks it’s the most dangerous project he’s ever seen.

Bitcoin is a P2P currency that could topple governments, destabilize economies and create uncontrollable global bazaars for contraband.

Hyperbole much? I don’t think BitCoin is dangerous, at least when compared to unmanned drones, sharks with frickin’ lasers or BigDog. Sure, people can and will use BitCoin for buying drugs and other illegal services just like cash today. Of course, there’s the added advantage that you don’t need to be physically together in order to exchange payment. Spies will no longer have to collect suitcases from trashcans in exchange for lists of double agents, but for physical goods it’s not so important.

What’s interesting to me is that BitCoin is now in a legal grey area. The BitCoin economy is small enough that it’s still flying under the radar of governments (the total value of all existing BitCoin currency is on the order of $50M USD). It reminds me quite a bit of mp3 files in 1997, when they were just a novelty and record companies didn’t know what to make of them. It was obvious to me that digital music was going to be huge, so I spent six weeks hacking nonstop on my own mp3 search engine. It turned out to be a good investment, as I made some interesting cash operating the system and later sold the software to Inktomi. But I digress.

The parallel between mp3 files and digital currency is that both addressed a very specific need/want. In the case of music it was about convenience. There’s no need to explain to someone under 20 how ridiculous it would be spend time choosing the 10 or 15 CDs you’d want to take on a road trip, let alone packing huge boxes of them when going off to college. For digital currency it’s more than that. Most people I know don’t like the fact that all their purchases are being tracked by marketers, governments or their spouses. Cryptocash is not only convenient, but also untraceable. You can call that dangerous as much as alcohol, a hammer or bittorrent. It’s just a tool, and there are legitimate uses for exchanging cash anonymously.

Of course, governments don’t like to be left out of overseeing financial transactions. More importantly, they have the power to make these transactions illegal AND enforce this law. I agree with Calacanis in that if BitCoin takes off, it’s only a matter of time until the US government decides to throw serious resources to combat the evil of anonymous currency. I’m sure they’ll come up with a creative name, such as the War on Digital Evil Terror Drug Laundering Money. The difference with mp3 files is that this time the government will be the principal, not just a proxy for the movie/record industries.

Still, Pandora’s box has been opened. Because there are such compelling use cases for digital currency, it won’t go away. Maybe BitCoin will be thwarted, but ByteBill or NibbleNickel will take over. It would be sad if something as useful as anonymous, untraceable digital cash was only used by criminals. I for one am going to be watching this one unfold with popcorn in hand.

If you’ve read this far, you may want to follow me on Twitter.