Last night Founder Mentors' hosted an excellent event called "Customer Acquisition in Practice" at Dogpatch Labs in Cambridge. Understanding effective customer acquisition is something I'm particularly interested in. Often when I talk with new founders they are much more focused on product & technology (like I have been) than customer acquisition strategy. When asked how users/customers will find them they mumble something about SEO, social media or "virality" that clearly hasn't been deeply considered.
Sean Lindsay, who started Founder Mentors, interviewed a panel with Brian Balfour of Boundless Learning, Dan Marques of Gemvara, Jeff Steeves of Wayfair and Parker Swift of Vistaprint. Sean Laurence took much more detailed notes of the event, but this is what struck me:
- Brian smartly advised start-ups to focus on one, or maybe two channels in the early days. To do inbound marketing or experimenting with Adwords takes time, often more time than originally estimated. Spreading yourself too thin means you are less likely to do it well.
- Across the board few were using a lot of tools for measuring channels. The most common cited were Google Analytics and Excel.
- While no one was endorsing black-hat techniques for acquiring users, no one was exactly condemning using, shall we say, aggressive techniques. Those early in the SEO/search pushed the rules to get top rankings, or those early to social platforms have tried to ride that wave. General take seemed to be that startups shouldn't be unethical but certainly look for new advantages. And that tracking the world of affiliate marketing can be educational even if filled with shady tactics.
- Sean asked about whether making one's product or marketing "viral" was more of a myth or something than could be aimed for. Brian and Jeff both picked up the same thread that the first step is having a strong product that someone would want to share organically. The set of share levers and game mechanics are secondary to that, and should be thought of as accelerates.
- It seemed as though at least some of the companies don't include headcount costs into COCA. Brian commented that there is a move toward including all costs (which is what I've seen) to more accurately reflect the total costs. That makes more sense to me when trying to compare channels like SEM to PR, inbound but not something I've had to do.
- If there was a disappointment to the evening it was when Sean asked about further reading it was a good but short, well-known list. It feels a bit that those who really live in this world are reluctant to broadcast their tips and tricks. Brian said he had a list of video links mainly to AppSumo. I hope he provides that list to Sean!
One final note is that this seems like a skill-set where Boston has some very smart thinkers, although somewhat hidden from view. To be blunt, the visual design of sites like Vistaprint, Wayfair, TripAdvisor and HubSpot often belie how sophisticated the thinking is of those who run those businesses. Or outfits like Shareaholic or Nanigans that may not be known outside of certain circles that are super-sharp in user acquisition methods. Hope this is just one of many down-in-the-trenches events on this topic!