My Favorite Tech Startup Blogs

There are lots of interesting and insightful tech industry blogs out there, many of which are highly trafficked and very well known.  Such properties like Techcrunch, VentureBeat, OnStartups, ReadWriteWeb, Mashable are all great blog and news feeds, but I’d like to share a few of my personal favorites that are popular, but not as mainstream as some of these news sites.  Here goes:

Both Sides of the Table.  This blog is written by Mark Suster, a leading Los Angeles VC and entrepreneur.  Mark interviews entrepreneurs as well as shares his experience as an investor.  Not news based, rather techniques and insights for helping entrepreneurs succeed.  One of the most active bloggers out there.  Follow Mark on Twitter @msuster.

Feld Thoughts.  Written by Boulder-based VC Brad Feld, also an entrepreneur and now partner in Foundry Group and co-founder of TechStars.  He blogs daily about his experiences, investments and personal use of technology.  I’ve met Brad and really enjoy his daily posts.  Follow Brad on Twitter @bfeld.

A VC.  Written by now legendary VC Fred Wilson, he also posts daily with common sense advice and techniques for entrepreneurs trying to navigate fundraising, selling and operating their businesses.  He also blogs about his personal use of technology and investments being made by his firm Union Square Ventures.  Follow Fred on Twitter @fredwilson.

Tim Ferriss Blog.  Tim is the best-selling author of “The 4-Hour Workweek” and “The 4-Hour Body”, both #1 NYTimes Bestsellers.  This blog is incredibly insightful and full of non-intuitive, practical advice for entrepreneurs.  I saw Tim speak in Los Angeles, pretty amazing guy.  Follow Tim on Twitter @tferriss.

Jason Calacanis Newsletter.  Jason is a serial entrepreneur and is into everything startup.  Currently the Founder of Mahalo and LAUNCH Conference, Jason puts out a periodic newsletter to subscribers.  Go to his website and enter your email in the upper right box under “Jason Nation Newsletter”.  Follow Jason on Twitter @jason.

While there are about 30 more on my list, these are my daily favs.

I’ll follow up this post with my favorite Twitter follows (a much longer list).

What are some other great startup blogs out there?

My Love Affair With Twitter

OK, so I have been a little slow on the uptake as far as social media goes.  I’m an Ops guy after all, not a self-promoting marketer, although this blog is an attempt to come out of my shell just a bit.  Sure, I’ve been a Facebook participant for years but more in a voyeur sense than a true active participant.

I never really “got” Twitter, largely due to a misconception, my second such realization in the past month when it comes to the use of technology.  My perception of Twitter has been based in the belief that its value (or lack thereof) was solely to communicate “what someone is doing right now” whether that be picking up a 6-pack at the grocery store or spying on Tom Hanks at the Beverly Hills Starbucks.  Like I have the time, energy or desire to receive up-to-the-minute status updates from quasi-friends or in many cases people I don’t know at all.  Or worse, that I have to have the added pressure in my day to tell people “I just saw Tom Hanks at Starbucks” or some other unimportant tweet.

But as I’ve committed my personal and professional development to dig deeper into social media, branch out professionally, write this blog and most important, dedicate a portion of my day to consume more information (technology news, trends, insights, points of view from respected voices in the technology community), I’ve discovered just how incredibly useful and productive services like Twitter can be to accomplishing the efficient consumption of large amounts of information.

Most of the folks I follow on Twitter are technology industry participants – entrepreneurs, VC’s, bloggers – who have been successful and have something, usually insightful, to say that is interesting to me from a personal or professional development standpoint.  It’s like a giant filtering mechanism for me, they filter and highlight news, information and their own point of view so I don’t have to find all this juicy content on my own.  I can scan tweets quickly and choose to click through links when something catches my eye.

So, it’s not just about trivial, useless updates of personal behavior or whereabouts (although there is some of that), but also about “following” those on Twitter that you genuinely respect and believe that the content they “tweet” is somehow useful in your life, whether personal or professional.

Another key point and major distinction from Facebook – the majority of the people I follow on Twitter, I’ve never met and they don’t likely know me, so I can “follow” or “un-follow” people based solely on the quality of the information I’m getting.  Much more difficult to do on Facebook.  As much as I’d like to, “un-friending” someone on Facebook who you know can be painful to do.  As a result, I get limited useful knowledge-based information from Facebook, it’s simply a way to keep up with folks and what’s going on in their lives and share the same in return.

Finally, I do feel a sense of responsibility to also contribute content to the social communities that provide value to me.  So posting on Facebook or tweeting content on Twitter is something I’m doing more regularly now – not that anyone cares, but hey, if it’s not valued then I’ll be un-followed or un-friended.

Until then, follow me on Twitter!

Building a Consumer Brand, For (Nearly) Free

Three years ago when we were just starting TrueCar, one of the biggest challenges we faced once the beta version of the product was built was how would we generate consumer awareness, credibility and ultimately drive traffic to the website?  It’s the challenge any consumer-facing web property has to overcome – inexpensive customer acquisition – unless you are one of the lucky few (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) that has an exponential viral coefficient.

And it’s not just about driving traffic to your website, but also converting that traffic to do what you want them to do – buy something, view something, tell their friends, etc.  Building credibility into the brand is critical to not only attracting who you want to your property, but converting them to action.

During our first few years, we spent no money on advertising and yet had become the #1 share-of-media over our top two competitors combined, were receiving over 1,200 monthly media mentions, were performing nearly 100 monthly media interviews and had been featured multiple times in publications and web properties such as Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Automotive News, CNN, Consumer Reports, NY Times, USA Today and others.  We grew our web traffic from zero to nearly 1M UV’s with no advertising spend.  For more content around our media attention, click here.

So how did we generate brand awareness, credibility and consumer traffic to TrueCar in the early days where cash was scarce?  Initially, it was through a comprehensive industry and consumer public relations effort until we had a credible reputation and the ability to convert and monetize traffic, then we migrated to a paid marketing strategy once we could guarantee a positive ROI.  It’s the first, initial effort of public relations to develop credibility and awareness that I’d like to address in this post.  Why PR first before advertising?  2 primary reasons:  Credibility and Cost.

Credibility.  Advertising by its nature is about self-promotion.  It’s a pitch no matter how you slice it.  Effective media coverage through PR however is about positioning your company as the expert in its field so that the media “filterers” (journalists, editors) are the one’s communicating directly to their readership.  There’s a level of separation that makes the company’s message more credible.

Cost.  Advertising is expensive.  Just ask General Motors who spends in excess of $2B per year on advertising.  A well-executed PR program’s most significant costs are the people that execute the strategy.  There is no comparison between the two on cost alone.

With that as the backdrop, what did we do at TrueCar to develop and execute a successful and low cost PR capability?

1. Determine What Credibility Means in the Context of the Brand Strategy.  For us, it was convincing the auto industry, through data analytics and unique insights, that TrueCar was the “go to” company for what’s happening in Auto for all things pricing.  Tough to do in a world where 80-year old brands have a foothold already in pricing.

2. Formulate a PR strategy that Focuses on Attaining this Credibility.  Our industry strategy for TrueCar was to become the most transparent, trusted and credible source of auto pricing data and auto industry trends, so we targeted publications, social media and influencers in the industry where the topic of vehicle pricing was at the forefront.  And, our consumer strategy was closely aligned on transparency, accuracy and (hopefully) boosted by the industry credibility that we were after.

3. Find the single most influential, credible industry analyst or personality and hire them.  This is the most important takeaway and I don’t know why more startups don’t persist here, especially in cases where industry credibility is correlated to successfully penetrating the consumer market, as is the case with Automotive.  There’s a fallacy that this person, given their stature, is “out of reach” or too expensive to engage.  While that might be true for some, you’d be surprised how energizing it can be for someone who has “done it all” in their industry to have the opportunity to do it again, to leverage their skills and relationships to have a massive impact on a new and emerging brand.   We wanted to first build our Industry credibility, then expand into our consumer strategy, so that’s where we started.  The right candidates have deep media relationships, are performing high volumes of media interviews, have an online social media presence and are viewed as credible industry ambassadors, not spin doctors.  Those folks are out there for every industry, and we hired the best in Automotive.  Jesse Toprak has been the leading Automotive Analyst for 15 years and has performed over 10,000 media interviews during that period.  He was on auto-pilot at his previous role, and was motivated by the challenge of starting from scratch to build our brand around credibility.  No shortage of risk for him personally, but the aspirational fit was there for both of us.

4. Rally the organization around the PR strategy and commit people resources.  Executing a successful PR strategy, one that will be compelling to your target media, requires unique insights that others in the industry are not providing.  That requires lots of data, analysis and product and technology support.  Additionally, because your PR team is externally facing and presumably are experts on trends, they can be important in actually driving product strategy and features.  All of this requires a commitment across the organization to dedicate resources to enable PR – online, offline, social media, daily blogging, outreach, interviews – the list goes on.  Let me be clear, this is hard to do during the early stages where seemingly every person in the company is over-worked and focused exclusively on developing core features and functionality, not crunching data that the PR team can go talk to reporters about.

5. Determine and Track Key Metrics, Measure Results and Adjust.  Some of our key metrics for PR activity include #interviews, #media mentions, #press releases, total consumer reach, unique visitors by media publication, social media followers, UV conversion (to sale) and Revenue.  Key metrics must be tracked!  Which implies there is an ability to actually attribute performance to PR versus some other activity such as viral, marketing, SEO, etc.  We set up unique campaign URL’s in our business intelligence software to track each media campaign separately.

What techniques have you used to build your brand in the early days?

The Morning Ride

Today was the first day I’d been out for a before work, early morning cycle ride in probably 8 months.  I’ve been doing my riding almost exclusively on the weekends, not regularly, and I’ve really missed getting in a 2nd or 3rd ride in during the week.

It was gorgeous this morning.  I did a short version of my typical route from Venice, out the Pacific Coast Highway to Topanga Canyon, then up Fernwood to the top of saddle peak and back.  Here are the stats from my Polar 800CSX computer:

  • Time Elapsed:  2:16:41
  • Miles:  34.45
  • Elevation Gain:  2,620 ft
  • Max Speed: 40.1 mph
  • Avg HR:  142
  • Max HR:  168
  • Calories:  1,805

I love geeking out on statistics, especially when I’m training for some event.  Believe it or not, just by tracking this stuff leads to improvement.  And I’ll need lots of improvement to get ready for Mt. Baldy with only 5 weeks left until my 75 mile, 10,000 ft climb.

I’ve got a 6,000 ft of climbing day ahead of me tomorrow.

The Incredible Business of Water

I read a really interesting article yesterday in Fast Company, one of my favorite publications, about the world’s use (and misuse) of our most precious commodity – water.  There are two aspects of this story that I find really compelling.  First, some of the statistics on water use are truly staggering.  Second, there are enormous business opportunities not yet fully exploited around the data analysis and management of water, which I’ll explain further.

First, some data.  Most of us arguably take water for granted, but there are some statistics that are shocking to me –

  • 4 out of every 10:  People in the world that have no access to clean water or must walk to retrieve it.
  • The U.S. uses more water in a day than it uses in oil in a year.
  • The U.S. uses more water in 3 days than the world uses oil in a year.
  • 5,000:  Children who die from lack of water or from waterborne disease each day.
  • 528 Gallons:  Amount of water required to raise and process food for 1 American’s diet for 1 day.
  • 250 Gallons:  Amount of water necessary to generate 1 American’s electricity for 1 day.
  • Intel and Coca-Cola include water use and the risk water scarcity represents to their businesses in their Annual Financial Reporting.  Intel addresses water issues on its website.

According to the article, despite these statistics, there has been little focus by big business on the economic value of water, meaning the value of things we can do with water – brew coffee, grow wheat, process microchips.  Because the price of water itself, especially in the developed world, is so low, we act as if clean, on-demand water has zero economic value – it has indispensable usefulness, but rarely has a significant price – at least, so far.

This leads to the second compelling issue for me – there might be real opportunity to develop systems, software, analytics, etc. to help businesses measure, track and ultimately reduce water dependence and cost, particularly if water is not the core business, but rather an input that is likely getting ignored.  In my experience, what you don’t measure and track is likely inefficient, costly and lacks innovation.

Take the case of Coca Cola, a business where water IS a focus, is diligently measured and teams are created to focus on minimizing water use.  It actually takes 5 liters of water to produce each 2 liter bottle of Coke, which is a 9% improvement over just 5 years ago, or 8 billion gallons of water per year saved.  Still seems like a lot of water use for the end product to me, but goes to show the opportunity.

And the article discusses how “water is not smart”, meaning a water network moves water, but very little information about it.  And water is typically not measured in a way that allows you to manage or optimize its use.  IBM estimates that of the $400B industry water represents, the “smart-water” information technology sector could be worth up to $20B annually, and there’s currently very little innovation in this sector.

Sounds like a great new startup opportunity!  What do you think?

NY Times Paywall Just Might Work

There was an article Monday in ReadWriteWeb analyzing the traffic drop in the online version of the NYTimes in the recent two weeks after they instituted a confusing, laborious payment scheme.  There’s been a lot of negative press by prominent personalities on the decision and the most recent article, while comprehensive in its analysis of dropping traffic by 5-15%, does not address the potential INCREASE in subscription revenue that is being realized.  Obviously the NYT expected some sort of traffic drop – a “pay” v. “free” model is inherently exclusionary – but made the bet on a higher quality, paying consumer.  And most of the negative press or blogging I’ve seen ends something like “While its the highest subscription rate for news on the Web, I hate it, but I’ll probably pay it”.

The other x-factor in all this is the proliferation of hacks and workarounds that are popping up all over the web to avoid the subscription fee.

I actually like the Times, but I’m not a subscriber, I instead consume most of my news on my iPhone through their App as well as other news sources like CNN, TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb, numerous blog sites, CNBC and others.  Using the Times App, you can still access “Top News” and “Most E-mailed” news for free, but digging deeper into Section headings will cost $3.75 per week, or $195 per year.

Not sure this price point makes sense to me personally given all the various free news sources out there, but I could see if you were a loyal Times reader where this might make sense.

What do you think?

Foundational Events in a Company’s Life

In the life of an organization, it’s easy to reflect back at certain foundational events that either resulted in a new level of organizational development and success, or just the opposite in the case of failure.  But they are “foundational” because their occurrence contributed so significantly in either a positive or negative direction.  While there are numerous important wins or losses that are memorable and significant along the way, especially in a startup, these foundational events are set apart based on their epic significance.

At TrueCar, there have been at least 2 such events over the past 3 years.  The closing of our first Venture round of financing in 2008 and merging with our sister company Zag in 2010 to create TrueCar, Inc.  Well, we just had another one announced Monday that I believe could lead to a tipping point for TrueCar – A partnership with and equity investment from Guthy-Renker, the leading international infomercial producer.  The most notable of their product partnerships is Proactiv, the acne treatment system that has grossed over $800M.  This partnership with GR involves a large equity investment from them that will help fund a massive brand development and advertising campaign for TrueCar.  It speaks to the potential for success that the experts in this process are confident enough to invest capital and put their own skin in the game.

Why is this so significant for us and why now?

First, why now?  The past several years we (Zag & TrueCar) have been quietly and gradually building our product and brand and have been gaining share of automotive retail with little to no marketing spend.  We’ve instead grown through large partnerships with companies like USAA, AAA, Consumer Reports, American Express and others as well as a robust PR machine that has helped build a foundation for the TrueCar brand, both in the automotive industry and with consumers.  But PR and distribution partners will carry you so far, to really scale the brand you must have widespread, household awareness which can be incredibly expensive.  However, in order to spend marketing dollars to acquire customers, there has to be a positive ROI on that investment, meaning for every dollar spent on marketing, more than one dollar must be generated in profit.  That’s a tough equation to make work unless the product engine is converting customers at high rates.  This is an oversimplification, but suffice to say that we now have the engine in place that enables a positive ROI on paid customer acquisition.  So, the time is right.

Second, why is this significant?  A partnership, including investment, with a leading brand-proliferation company like Guthy-Renker enables a mass introduction of TrueCar to consumers that would be almost impossible to achieve otherwise.  It has the potential to make TrueCar a household name among consumers.  It enables us, now that the “product engine” is built, to immediately and rapidly build the TrueCar brand nationally as the new and only way to purchase your next vehicle.  If our conversions (website visitor who purchases through our program) stand up, this will not only be a large cash outflow to pay for the marketing, but also a hugely profitable partnership due to the revenue generated from paying customers who see and respond to the advertising programs.  It’s also significant because this widespread, infomercial approach has never been done before in automotive retail, and we believe auto is ready for this type of innovation.  That could lead to an important first-mover advantage.

Only time will tell whether this will be an epic foundational WIN or LOSS.  But it will certainly be foundational.

What were your “foundational” company events that defined success or failure?

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