The T-Shaped Startup - Communicating Vision While Building The Best Product

Running a startup can drive you crazy. I know we can’t succeed without the focus and execution to be the best in the world at something. But we have to quickly branch out to adjacent markets and products to grow large and achieve our dreams. In a competitive or fast-moving space, this can happen in a matter of months. These truisms are somehow opposing: losing focus to land-grab — or focusing without signaling — can break a fast growing startup.

IDEO’s Tim Brown created a concept called The T-Shaped Person, an employee who is strong in one particular vertical (their specialty), but knowledgeable and dangerous in many related fields (the horizontal part of the T). Many others have applied this to many different disciplines (marketing , for instance) for different types of employees, but I think it can be extracted and applied to organizations as a whole, especially startups.

The most successful startups can focus on the single core piece of the puzzle in a deep, meaningful way better than anyone else in the world. They understand their customers, solve a pain, and build the best experience. But they also lay the foundation for the future by explicitly signaling pieces of their intentions. Building a better product than anyone else is the vertical line in the T, and laying the foundation of their intentions is the horizontal line.

We’ll never win by going too wide too fast. That just ends up with a poor product in every aspect. The product has to be stellar. Branching out too early leaves our product a mess, our organization fragmented, our code base scattered, and our sales process disjointed.

Branching out too late, on the other hand, leaves room for competitors to come in and own an adjacent market before we can.

Branching out at just the right time, sending the right signals and building the right foundation, gives our customers confidence to get behind us, tells investors we have big plans, and helps keep competition at bay.

Take Facebook, which started as a digital replacement for Harvard’s pic book of new students. Mark Zuckerberg built a hugely useful utility for his college (which is why FB saw a massive adoption rate in a short time at Harvard). With an initial market of, perhaps, 10,000 students, Facebook was laser focused. But he quickly showed off his long-term intentions by opening up to just a few other schools (the Ivys, Stanford, UChicago, NYU, etc). He was telegraphing the future: we want to own the social graph, but we won’t compromise the product by doing so too early. By 2006, it was clear Zuckerberg and Facebook had grand plans, even if they hadn’t begun to attack them yet. They were diving deep into solving the problem, but laying the foundation for the future.

Uber is another example of a company executing on this idea. Uber began as a high-end towncar service built on mobile. The solution was absolutely killer and users love it. Towncars are still the core of their business (the vertical line), but they’ve also shown some of their future intentions: car sharing (Uber X) is just one example, but some of their other, one-off, initiatives are even more interesting. For instance, what they’ve done on Valentine’s Day or with ice cream trucks shows that they’re actually building a mobile platform for anything on-demand. That’s them signaling the horizontal line on the T.

Meanwhile, at MobileDevHQ, we’re deep on App Store Optimization (App Store SEO) and Inbound App Marketing (organic downloads), but we’re quickly signaling our intentions around app intelligence and workflow management, with Competitive Intelligence, download analytics, and app portfolio management. We think there’s a huge business to be built giving enterprises access to data about the app ecosystem, with our beachhead being around ASO and Competitive Intelligence.

About a year ago we spent a few months deep in customer development understanding what enterprises need and want from a solution for their app management. Our product, at the time, was hard to use, not extensible, and focused solely on App Store Optimization. So we had a product that was lacking and not wholly solving a core problem yet, but at the same time we were spending time with enterprises who were telling us what else they wanted. It was so easy for us to just bolt on another feature, disjointed from everything else we already had.

We did this a couple times before we realized how shallow our product was quickly becoming. Meanwhile, sales weren’t as easy or fast as they could be because we had some features for marketers, some for product owners, and so on. The sales cycles lengthened, product demos became less compelling, and our pricing was confusing. We found ourselves with an entire mountain to mine, but were only digging a foot deep anywhere.

About 3 months ago we refocused, redesigned our product, condensed features, and built a coherent solution for enterprise app marketers. The result is a product we’re proud of and one that resonates with customers. But that was only the first step. We had to dive deep, making the new core as deep and amazing as humanly possible.

We focused on our core Keyword Research product: what keywords should you be targeting as a marketer of an app? Previously we had volume (how frequently is this term searched for in the app store?) and difficulty (how hard is it to rank for this search term?) metrics for a term, but that was it.

We dove deep, real deep, on both the backend and frontend. Our volume metric is better than ever, with new and better data sources. Our difficulty metric is calculated differently to expose true differences between terms. We added a relevance metric to ensure marketers know which are the most relevant search terms for their app. And all our customers know that games are a huge percentage of apps (and searches), so we added a category breakdown — do I really want to focus on this keyword if I’m a Productivity app but all the results are Games? That’s a lot of data for a marketer to make a decision from, but we knew just adding those new metrics wouldn’t provide too much value; we had to break it down into a single score for marketers to know, at a glance, which are the best keywords.

We’re committed to being the best place in the world for App Store Optimization and Inbound App Marketing and we’ll continue to dive deep on this. But the tension is tough and branching out is tantalizing. We have limited resources on our small team and making decisions on whether to dive deep or signal our commitment to building a big business and showing customers our potential is not an easy task. It’s one we’ve struggled with, will continue to struggle with, but will continue to get better at.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 — 1 note   ()

A Rant: Replacing The 2nd Amendment For Modern Times

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

I believe in gun control. I’m not opposed to the benefits that guns provide (especially to many people in remote areas who use guns to hunt for food or protection), but I think the negatives far outweigh the positives. This country needs sweeping gun control reform.

One of my absolute biggest pet peeves is when someone uses the Second Amendment as an argument for guns. Saying, “because it’s in our constitution” is, in my opinion, perhaps the most naive pro-gun argument. To be sure, our country’s forefathers were a smart and sophisticated group of individuals (however, they were by no means perfect; see: slavery, women’s rights, and so on). But using this argument is to say that intent has no merit or place in a rational discussion on modern day gun control.

Bringing the intent of the authors of the Constitution into light, it is immediately clear that it is all about providing another check-and-balance against the government. At a time when the most powerful weapon that existed was a gun, allowing individuals to carry guns meant that the government would have a hard time oppressing its citizens with force.

Of course, that’s no longer the case today. If we wanted to be equal in terms of military power with the government, we’d say that every individual should have the opportunity to hold nuclear weapons. I don’t see anyone out there arguing this, for obvious reasons.

But the intent of our forefathers ensuring another check-and-balance against our government remains. In fact, it may be more important today than it was over 200 years ago.

The biggest threat to citizens being oppressed by the government today comes in the form of technology. I’m far more worried about this government (including the Obama administration, of which I have been a supporter) taking away my liberties through the use of computers than I am with military might. The news about PRISM (which I think we all knew, but didn’t want to freely admit) way oversteps boundaries I am comfortable with from my government and my right to privacy.

If we really want to embrace the Second Amendment, we need to worry less about access to guns and more about how to appropriately add checks-and-balances against the government abusing power and oppressing citizens through the use of modern technology.

Friday, June 7, 2013   ()

The Curse of the Technical CEO

It’s common wisdom that all software startups should have a technical co-founder. Someone who can lay down code, it is said, allows the company to move fast and build a product well and cheaply. As a technical co-founder, I clearly agree with this statement.

Having a solid engineer as a co-founder isn’t just good from the standpoint of being able to build product quickly; it’s also good for recruiting (smart engineers want to work with other smart engineers), hiring (how would a non-technical founder adequately interview a technical hire?), fundraising (investors want to see solid technical talent if you’re working in a technical domain), and acquisitions (if you sell early, chances are the acquirer is buying your technical talent).

But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies being a technical co-founder. Especially when the technical co-founder is the CEO. I’ve been running into this lots with MobileDevHQ, and it wasn’t until last week that I finally bit the bullet — I’m no longer writing code for production.

What does a startup CEO do?

It took me a long time to figure this out, but if you’re a technical CEO and your startup is scaling, please put down your editor. You’re doing yourself, your employees, and your company a disservice.

What’s the job description of a CEO? According to Fred Wilson (via an unnamed source), the only responsibilities of a CEO are:

A CEO does only three things. Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders. Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.

In short, the CEO’s job is to be a storyteller. Tell a story to current employees, investors, media, etc. Tell a story to potential employees. And tell a story to potential customers and investors.

Why is being a technical CEO bad?

If your job is to be a storyteller, why is being technical bad? Presumably, you can tell a much richer story with the technical expertise to back it up. At the very least, you can understand what is possible versus what isn’t.

I think that’s true, for the most part. But, unfortunately, there’s also a curse that goes along with being a technical CEO.

In a startup, the vision in your head is constantly ten steps and two years ahead of where you are today. You know of every bug and every future feature you want so badly. And you’re certainly resource constrained.

What to do, then? Well, if you’re technical, it’s dead simple for you to just dive into the code again. Pull the latest code from GitHub, fire up the editor, and fix a couple bugs. Heck, maybe even implement that feature you wanted so badly but that your engineering team hasn’t had time to get to yet.

This ease of getting back into product development works well in the short-term, but it’s not scalable in the long-term.

Gap filling

At a higher level, working on code as a technical CEO is really just a symptom of being a “gap filler.” When you’re a doer by nature (as all engineers are), you want to do. So you’ll find any holes in your team and you’ll fill them, doing those things.

But those things aren’t things you should be doing. As a leader and CEO, you should be finding ways to open capacity for your team, to help them become leaders and be as effective as possible. Don’t be a crutch for them, doing the engineering work they haven’t been able to yet. Be a facilitator to make sure they’re able to get their work done better and faster. Invest in processes, people, and helping them become better.

The curse of the technical CEO is that it’s too easy to dive back in and get involved in the nitty-gritty. You’ve probably spent your entire career getting dirty and building things. Resist the urge to continue to do. Take a step back and make it a better place for the doers to do. Focus on being a storyteller. Continue telling a better story to current and future employees, customers, and investors. This is how you win.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013 — 15 notes   ()

Let’s reconsider our “users”


During a Square Board meeting, our newest Director Howard Schultz, pulled me aside and asked a simple question.

“Why do you all call your customers ‘users’?”

“I don’t know. We’ve always called them that.”

At Square we’re removing the term “users” from our vocabulary, replacing it with “customers”, and the more specific “buyers”, and “sellers.” The word customer, given its history, immediately sets a high bar on the level of service we must provide, or risk losing their attention or business. Below is a letter I sent the team after that Board meeting explaining why. It’s a start (we’re not done yet).

To everyone in the technology industry: I encourage you to reconsider the word “user” and what you call the people who love what you’ve created, starting with yourselves.

I love the direction here, but I don’t think it takes it nearly far enough. To really get in the head of a customer, we (as an organization at MobileDevHQ and as an industry as a whole) should nail down our customer to a specific person.

In our case, a user shouldn’t just be a customer, it should be a profile of a real person.

An example: From now on, I want everyone at MobileDevHQ to stop thinking in terms of a user or customer, abolish those words from our vocabulary, and instead start thinking in terms of Jane. Jane is the mobile marketing manager at a large publisher. She spends her day in a variety of tools, from paid ad networks, to engagement analytics platforms, to MobileDevHQ. She’s not technical — meaning she couldn’t code an app herself — but she understands technology, understands the basics of organic app marketing, and is looking to us for guidance on how she’s performing and how to get better.

In short: Jane needs MobileDevHQ to succeed at her job. She wants to help her organization build a big mobile business. And she wants to enjoy doing that every single day, so she needs to enjoy using MobileDevHQ.

From now on, I will mandate that we remove user from our vocabulary, but also remove customer, and instead replace it with Jane, a specific person we know well.

Thursday, October 18, 2012 — 699 notes   ()

"You’re Kinda Fuckin’ Nowhere"

That’s the feedback I was given by Andy last week during our weekly update meeting. It was in response to my telling him our product and revenue progress (now in the mid-5 figures per month).

I thought about that phrase for a few days and realized this is probably the closest to the entrepreneurial mindset in one sentence as you can get. No matter how much progress you’ve made, you’re always kinda fuckin’ nowhere.

Have a killer idea? You’re kinda fuckin’ nowhere. Beta product created? You’re kinda fuckin’ nowhere. Launched with TechCrunch coverage? You’re kinda fuckin’ nowhere. Built a profitable business with a million in top line revenue? You’re kinda fuckin’ nowhere. Just raised a big round for growth? You’re kinda fuckin’ nowhere.

No matter how far you get, your ambition as an entrepreneur will always leave you wanting more. This, to me, is the exact definition of entrepreneurship.

Aaron Levie tweeted it succinctly, too:

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 — 3 notes   ()

Watching friends succeed

I woke up far too early this morning (4:30 am) with that screw-it-let’s-attack-the-day feeling. But instead of getting up, I’m lying in bed thinking about why I woke up so early.

I ended up realizing that watching friends succeed is an invigorating way to get pumped for yourself.

Yesterday was a big day for some of my friends: Ashley, Rand, and the Moz team announced they made their first big acquisition in Follower Wonk, while Kevin and Adam and team released Haiku Deck to much fanfare (Frickin’ Ray Ozzie tried their product!).

Failure is a part of life in startup land, but at first I refused to watch it. In some way, I didn’t want it to affect me. Like that first time a child sees someone sick in the hospital: instead of compassion, fright shows up and the child doesn’t want to become similarly infected.

I realize now that in today’s world, there is very little actual failure. Every time I’ve seen a startup fail, the founders move on with a great next gig and lessons that last a lifetime. In most cases, they’re back at it within a couple years. The acceptance of failing and encouragement to get back up on the horse is a huge sign of a mature startup ecosystem in my opinion (and one that Seattle is starting to get).

But watching people succeed drives an amazing ability to fire me up. Having a community where everyone can share our successes and failures is an integral part of how to build a virtuous cycle of success.

For me that community mostly revolves around Founders’ Co-op and TechStars, but also Seattle in general. It’s one reason why I am anxiously anticipating yet fearing the day we grow large enough to move out of the FC space in South Lake Union.

In the meantime, help me watch you succeed. Tweet, share, shout about it (look to the Simply Measured crew for examples; they do a great job at this). Let me share in your success so I can continue waking up excited to crush it just like you.

And to Moz and Haiku Deck: first, mazel tov; second, keep killing it; and third, thank you. Today will be a good day because of you.

Thursday, August 16, 2012 — 1 note   ()

A message to @KevinHartz: Bring your money to Seattle

Hi @KevinHartz,

First, I should say I’ve long admired Eventbrite and what you’ve done there. Moreover, I use at least a handful of products from companies you’ve invested in on a daily basis. You seem like more of a quiet operator and investor, not overhyping yourself and your investments — just the type I (and most Seattle entrepreneurs) like.

Today I read a Wired piece on why you’re no longer making angel investments. In particular:

Hartz doesn’t like to invest his when there is so much sloshing around Silicon Valley.

Hartz is making follow-on investments in his current roster of startups, but he’s not looking to do anything new — it’s just too expensive.

To this I say, come to Seattle and invest. NOW. The weather is getting better, so don’t be put off by the potential of rain. More importantly, we need investors like you: folks who can provide value to startups; folks with operational and investing experience; folks with networks and connections in areas we lack.

As for your concerns on valuations: don’t be. Our valuations are fair — extremely fair — by Valley standards. We don’t have YC companies raising seed rounds at a $9-10M pre. Many local investors are grinding entrepreneurs on price, even after you discount for not being in the Valley. Hell, some of our entrepreneurs are leaving Seattle because deal terms are so bad for us up here (while others of us are banding together to build a great future of startups). Needless to say, you’ll be very happy with the valuations entrepreneurs are offering here in Seattle.

Meanwhile, while investors are busy trying to grind on price, entrepreneurs are busy building great businesses. For a long time, Seattle entrepreneurs have been known as the lifestyle business types, not necessarily wanting to build massive companies. Quite frankly, I was part of that: if I could build a few million dollars a year in revenue business, that sounded great. But recently, that mentality has changed (I know this because I’m part of it): we want to build massive businesses now. We want to be aggressive and take risks. Just look at what Rand has done at SEOmoz.

So we want to take risks. We want to build great, big, lasting companies. Our valuations aren’t out of control. Now we just need capital and investors who can mentor us to do so. This should be you.

Come take a trip up here to Seattle. We’ll gladly host you at Founder’s Co-op, and we’ll ensure you meet the best of the best if you’re up here for just a couple days. You won’t be disappointed.

If you’re interested, email me at or call me at 406-426-1337.

Looking forward to meeting.

Thanks and talk soon,


Thursday, May 10, 2012   ()

Five degrees of separation

According to that, it looks like the formula for number of friends by degree of separation is:
if deg == 1
  130^deg / 2

For first degree, that would be 130, second degree would be 8,450, third degree would be 1,098,500. Assuming this holds true for more degrees, four degrees of separation would be 142,805,000 people and five degrees would be 18,564,650,000 people, or roughly 2.6x the population of the world.

In other words, it appears it really only takes 5 degrees of separation to get to anyone on the planet.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012 — 1 note   ()

The bigger question, of course, is whether Formula One can allow itself to be perceived as being on either side of a national conflict, particularly while blood is being spilled. Now, please don’t tell me that sports and politics should not mix; that there can be something useful accomplished by holding international sporting spectacles in countries with poor histories when it comes to freedom and human rights. Is China any more open, free and democratic a society in the wake of the 2008 Olympics? Was Germany after the Berlin Games in 1936? I have a little personal history with this kind of thing: I was a qualifier for the United States team trials for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, the year President Jimmy Carter kept the team home to protest the ongoing Soviet military action in, of all places, Afghanistan. I supported the Olympic boycott then, and I would today, knowing full well that supporting it or not are BOTH political statements. The simple fact is that politics and big-time international sport cannot be separated. Ask the organizers of any F1 Grand Prix, virtually all of which involve public funding, why they do it and the answer you’ll hear is some variation of “To bring us to the attention of the world.” What is more political than that?

Here’s the point: Formula One cannot just fly in, take a check, run a race, hand out the trophies and then leave town in those parts of the world where there is political repression, officially-sanctioned violence or economic exploitation. We are told that the Bahrainis are trying to work through their problems, and hopefully that is true. If there is a race, we will broadcast it. But to go to Bahrain as things stand right now only enforces the worst possible image of a sport that is supposed to be thrilling, inspiring, and conducive to national pride.

Remember just a few months ago when we were talking about AAPL exceeding XOM for the first time to become the largest company by market cap? 

Seems quaint, what with the 45% difference between the two today.

Remember just a few months ago when we were talking about AAPL exceeding XOM for the first time to become the largest company by market cap?

Seems quaint, what with the 45% difference between the two today.