Want your customer base to explode? Build an army of zombies.

Amy Hourigan

 

Amy Hourigan
Vice President, Marketing and Communications
Connecticut Innovations

 

 

Quick quiz: What’s the most effective way to get new customers?

  1. Advertising
  2. Marketing
  3. Social media
  4. Public relations

Actually, it’s a trick question. The best way to bring in new customers is to create an army of current customers who will advocate for your brand. Most of us know that people trust their friends and colleagues far more than they trust advertising, but many of us don’t know how to get those referrals. A new book by Peter Shankman, out at the end of this month, shows you how. While many of the tips in Zombie Loyalists: Using Great Service to Create Rabid Fans (PALGRAVE MACMILLAN TRADE, 2015) seem obvious—hire nice people, for one—it’s surprisingly rare how few companies manage to do it.

The book offers a good reminder of everything you know you should be doing, but that you might be overlooking. Because hiring jerks—and committing other deadly customer service sins—could cost you business.

A Real-Life Scenario

cupcakes

A couple of months ago, I went to a bakery where I’m a frequent customer to pick up a cake. When I walked inside, an employee was shooing another potential customer—and now me—out the door, saying the shop was closed but that he had forgotten to lock up. And he was really rude about it. The other customer explained that he just wanted to buy a loaf of bread that was sitting right there on the shelf. He didn’t even need change. The employee said no. Not ‘sorry,’ not ‘I wish I could,’ just no, and then he closed and locked the door in our faces. We were so taken aback that we talked about it in the parking lot for several minutes. Have I returned to the bakery? No. Neither has the other guy, who had been a loyal customer for 13 years but told me he would never set foot inside the shop again. And you can bet we both told others about our experience.

On the flip side, excellent customer service can put money in your pocket. According to a 2012 Acenture study cited in Zombie Loyalists, 66 percent of customers are willing to spend more money with a company that provides excellent customer service, while 85 percent of people who have stopped buying from that company said they would have stayed if only the company had acted differently toward them when they had a problem. Boden USA, Everlane and Zappos come to mind as companies that have provided great service both in everyday transactions and when I’ve had a problem. All three have taken returns without a receipt, without tags—even stuff that had been worn but didn’t really work! Zappos even replaced shoes that were a year old but were too big. (Color me flabbergasted, but happy!) Not only have I spent thousands of dollars with them each year, but I’ve also recommended them to my friends and family and posted about their products on social media. I think I have something like a thousand followers on my personal networks and ten times that on my professional ones. Not huge, but not bad either. That’s not counting the multiplier effect, when my friends’ friends see my posts on their feeds.  Those recommendations can really add up!

You’re probably no Zappos, but you can learn to delight (Shankman calls it “infect”) customers and turn them into brand ambassadors (“zombies”) who will advocate for your company. While I’ll boil down the book’s pertinent advice below, to get the full experience, pick up a copy. It’s a quick read, and because it’s chock full of stories that really bring the steps you should take to life (weird analogy for a book about the undead, I know), you’ll be that much more apt to heed it and to start enjoying the increased revenues that come from focusing on your customers even if it costs you money to do so.

Sage advice from the book

Identify barriers to loyalty.
Does your company shackle its employees with rigid rules? If so, you’d better take another look at your playbook. Chances are, while you’re enforcing rules, your customers are checking out your competitors—and your competitors are gobbling them up. Why not empower your employees to help your customers? You’ve hired smart, nice people, right? Let them loose (within reason, of course). You’ll find they like their jobs better because they have autonomy, and your customers like your company better because your employees are empowered to help them.

Don’t look at customer service as a project.
It’s long-term, baby. Bake it into your company’s culture. “You can’t half-ass this. You can’t delegate a team to this for a specified time, nor can you put a few people on the project,” says Shankman. Rather, if you want to create a breeding ground for ‘Zombie loyalists,’ you must get the entire company on board. “Every employee, from the front-desk receptionist to the head of marketing, from the vice president of engineering to the chief executive, needs to understand that they’re going to be living in a culture of the customer and that without everyone on board, the breeding ground [for zombies] is going to fail,” says Shankman. Did you know that Zappos offers new hires $2,000, no strings attached, to quit within the first 90 days if they don’t believe they fit into the company culture? Now that says something about how serious Zappos is about its customer-centric mindset!

Value your employees.
Seems obvious, right? Value your employees, because only when your employees feel valued will customers have a chance of feeling valued as well. But do you really value them? Think about it. If the answer is no, or even maybe, turn it around. Citing a study by a consultancy called The Geek Factory, Inc., Shankman writes, “Almost 60 percent of employees said they would be more inclined to work harder, take better care of their customers, and be more ‘present’ in the workplace if they simply felt like their employer cared about them.” More than half your employees would work harder if they knew you cared!? Powerful stuff! Treat employees well and they’ll talk up your company to customers, potential customers, and Uncle Bob at the Fourth of July picnic (Uncle Bob loves to shop!). An effective way to do this, according to Shankman, is to show your employees the end result of their work. Did an employee go above and beyond for a customer, and was that customer delighted, or was she able to do something great as a result? Circle back to your employee and tell him or her about it. “Employees are investments,” says Shankman. “Treat them with the respect they deserve.”

Turn people into zombie loyalists by defying their expectations.
“The general expectation of any given customer in any given service situation is that they’ll be treated like crap and will leave neutral at best, unhappy at worst,” says Shankman. His advice—and he’s hardly the first to say it—is to under-promise and over-deliver. “If you do nothing else, that takes your customer service from ‘crap’ to ‘wow,’” he says, adding that companies should focus on “nonintrusive, beneficial-to-the-customer follow up that makes them feel helped, not sold to.”  He adds, “As you see problems with which you can help, step up. In some cases it’s as simple as a ‘hey, let’s make your day better.’ If you can do a little something to cheer your customers up or make their day brighter, not only does it reaffirm in their mind the choice they made to patronize your business, but it also creates Zombie Loyalists. The majority of customer service interactions in the world fall into the category of ‘eh.’ It wasn’t great, it didn’t suck, I got my product, whatever.”

That leaves a ton of room to wow.

What do you think? What are your strategies for turning your customers into “zombie loyalists?”

CI’s Peter Longo Honored by Venture Community

David Wurzer Photo


David Wurzer
Executive Vice President and Chief Investment Officer
Connecticut Innovations

The Crossroads Venture Group, a leading VC professional organization in Connecticut, recently presented its annual Founders Award to Connecticut Innovations’ (CI) very own Peter Longo. The award honors an individual with a long record of serving the local venture capital community as an investor.  With Peter’s more than 20 years in the industry and numerous achievements, it’s no surprise to us that the Crossroads Venture Group has taken notice.

Peter Longo Photo

Peter was nominated by the group’s board for the award, and was ultimately selected by the staff to receive the honor. The award was presented at Connecticut Technology Council’s Annual Meeting and Holiday Party at the University of Bridgeport in December.

Peter is a senior managing director of investments at CI and has held a number of roles, including president and executive director, throughout his nearly 20 years with the organization. In his current position, Peter is responsible for evaluating investment opportunities, structuring investments and monitoring portfolio companies at CI. Peter’s past CI investments include: Achillion Pharmaceuticals (IPO), CYA Technologies (acquired by enChoice), NeuVis (acquired by Rational Software), Nufern (acquired by Rofin-Sinar), Cardium Health (acquired by Centene), SilverSky (acquired by BAE Systems) and Post-N-Track. Peter also serves on the board of the YEI Innovation Fund, and the UConn Prototype Fund and serves on the UConn Patent Review Committee.

On behalf of CI, we thank Peter for his ongoing commitment to the startup community in Connecticut, and we also extend a thank you to the Crossroads Venture Group for highlighting Peter’s efforts with this award.

We hope you’ll join us in congratulating Peter on his accomplishment!

Three Can’t-Miss Marketing Predictions for 2015

2015

Amy Hourigan

 

Amy Hourigan
Vice President, Marketing and Communications
Connecticut Innovations

2014 was full of marketing buzzwords. Many have been around for a long time, and many have merit, but good or bad, you couldn’t escape them when creating your campaigns this year. I bet you realized you needed more content, more of a focus on digital (or mobile), and a greater effort on social media. You probably set out to create content that was shareable, tweetable, digestible, actionable, and most of all, measureable.

Like most industries, the landscape in marketing is always evolving. With potential customers now having access to a wealth of data at their fingertips thanks to the Internet, our focuses have shifted. We’re creating content that educates and helps move people through the sales funnel (rather than hitting them over the head with a sales message). We’re showing them that we care about their problems and want to fix them. We want to build a relationship and earn their loyalty so they’ll keep coming back and tell all their friends about us. We know that delighting our customers and potential customers means they’ll likely stay with us for years to come.

So how are we doing that? What will we marketers buzz about in 2015 (and what won’t we)? Read on.

1. Content marketing will continue to be a major focus for marketers.

Depending on which study you believe, anywhere from 64 to 92 percent of buyers conduct online research before making a purchase. What does this mean for B2B and B2B companies? If you’re not doing so already, you’d better make sure you help buyers conduct that research by producing content that rises to the top of Google. Do you sell CRM software? Then it’s a good idea to publish articles, slide decks and videos with titles like, “10 things to look for when you buy a new CRM,” or “Five ways to convince the C-suite to invest in CRM.” With the internet, information on practically anything is a few clicks away, and those companies that can help potential buyers make informed decisions will always outsell their quieter competitors. Always.

If you’re not doing much content marketing yet, our recap of the premier Content Marketing Conference of 2014 is a good place to get some motivation. Members of our team heard from major players in the industry who offered tips too good not to pass on.

2. QR codes will go by the wayside.

As a consumer, I’ve tried scanning them. As a professional, I’ve designed them into marketing pieces. The result? Alas, although much hyped, QR codes are a big waste of time and energy. Kind of like the Sea Monkeys I had in third grade.

If you need more convincing, just listen to Scott Stratten, author of “QR Codes Kill Kittens.”

3. Storytellers will become the most sought-after marketers.

Last year, it was all about the marketing technologist. And it still is—if you don’t have one on your team, post that job description right away. (Now that marketing and IT are in bed, and marketing campaigns are largely automated and integrated, and search and social media play a role in your customers’ lifecycle, you need a technologist to help you measure ROI, spot trends, tell you what’s working and what’s not. Otherwise, it’s spray and pray all the way.)

But before all that, to actually get great results to measure, you have to tell a great story. Great writers—great storytellers—evoke emotion in your prospects like nobody else. Without the story, all the measurements will be disappointing. So while you may be focused on hiring logical left-brain number crunchers, don’t forget the right-brained creatives that have always dominated marketing. Without them, you won’t have much to measure.

So those are my predictions in a nutshell: Tell a great story, share it via great content, and don’t make anyone scan a square barcode.

What do you think the future has in store for marketing?

How an Annual Engineering Competition Teaches Valuable STEM Skills through Real-Life Applications

Amity High School students represent Connecticut in national competition

Barb-Circle

 

Barb Lesh
Program Associate, Small Business Innovations
Connecticut Innovations

There’s been a lot said lately about the need for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in our public schools. Leaders have realized how important it is for students to learn these skills so that they’re prepared for the modern workplace. In my (slightly biased) opinion, it’s especially important for our Connecticut students. We need to equip them with the skills they need to become the state’s next great innovators.

Enter the “Real World Design Challenge,” an annual competition among high school students across the country that teaches STEM skills in real-life applications. Connecticut Innovations supports the competition each year, and in this year’s iteration, first-time participant Amity Regional High School represented Connecticut in the national competition after beating out other Connecticut high school teams.

But what does the competition mean for STEM education, and more important, the students?

Imagine, as a 14-18 year old, getting up in front of hundreds of high-powered individuals from aerospace, agriculture and government agencies to pitch a design that you came up with. Imagine also that your design is expected to solve a real-life problem that even the pros have struggled with. That’s exactly what Amity Aviation 1 from Amity Regional High School did!

The Amity Regional High School team

The Amity Regional High School team

The students were tasked with designing an unmanned aircraft system to address precision agriculture. From April to November, they worked with mentors from Pratt and Whitney as well as their teacher, Scott Demeo. The result was an 80-page engineering notebook and fifteen-minute PowerPoint presentation.

The team presented their work at the national competition in Washington, D.C. and competed against teams from 26 other high schools around the country. Although they didn’t make it to the top three, they were honored as the competition’s best first-year team! That’s an excellent accomplishment!

Being honored is important, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that the amazing experience is what the students were most excited about. They were able to work on a project currently affecting today’s economy that’s also being looked at by 30-year professionals. One of the mentors commented:

“This experience is huge for these students. They are working on a challenge that professionals do and let me tell you, many of those professionals cannot present their work and articulate their findings as well as these students.”

The students from Amity Aviation 1 have participated in something that other students wouldn’t even dream possible. They learned how to use professional engineering software that will undoubtedly prepare them for future education and careers, and they networked with key staff from the Department of Defense, PTC, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and more. All of this was possible because of the Real World Design Challenge.

Congratulations to Amity Aviation 1!

What the Launch of BioInnovation Connecticut Means for Connecticut…and Human Health

Today marks the launch of CI’s new BioInnovation Connecticut website, the home of two important funds that we administer: The Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF) and The Regenerative Medicine Research Fund (RMRF).

These funds are two of the many steps Connecticut has taken to become a major player in bioscience innovation. In addition to funding, the state has made strides in fostering a bioscience community through the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Network (CURE), which has hubs in New Haven and New London.

Connecticut is also a hotbed for bioscience talent. It’s no. 4 in the nation in bioscience-related patents and is anchored by two nationally-renowned research institutions in Yale and UConn. It’s also home to major multi-national bioscience companies such as Boehringer Ingelheim, Purdue Pharma, Alexion Therapeutics, Protein Sciences, The Jackson Laboratory and others.

The community, talent and support system is in place, but what about critical funding? That’s where CBIF and RMRF come into play.

How CBIF helps

CBIF

CBIF came to fruition thanks to legislation passed by Governor Dannel Malloy in September 2013. The fund helps to bridge an important gap in bioscience funding known as the “valley of death.” This is the stage in development after basic research, discovery and prototype design, but before late-phase clinical trials, introduction to market, and growth, where it is difficult to attract critical funding.

So many companies with great potential fail due to a lack of funding. There’s no way around it – starting a bioscience venture is not cheap. While many technology companies can move from development to launch in a short time, bioscience companies often take years and millions of dollars just to get to a stage where venture capitalists are comfortable making an investment. 

But for bioscience founders, that’s okay. They’re not discouraged by the time and effort it takes to make a company profitable, but rather they’re encouraged by the potential world-changing effects of the end result. That drives us, too.

Through CBIF, Connecticut bioscience companies doing groundbreaking work in bioscience, biomedical engineering, health information management, medical care, medical devices, medical diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, personalized medicine or related disciplines can receive up to $500,000 to further develop those world-changing ideas. It’s critically important funding.

Our quarter 1 and quarter 2 awardees include companies and researchers developing new surgical techniques, vaccines and other treatments that will save lives. Bioscience innovation is extremely important to making the world a better place. That’s the goal of the fund.

How RMRF helps

regen_main_img_text

The same goes for the Regenerative Medicine Research Fund, which, at eight years old has seen many successes already. Regenerative medicine treats diseases and medical conditions by replacing, engineering or regenerating human cells, tissues and organs.

In 2010, a Yale researcher was able to build functional lung tissues in rats that assumed 95 percent of a normal lung’s inhaling and exhaling functions. Time named the achievement one of its 50 best inventions of 2010 – 22 spots ahead of the iPad. And that’s just one example.

As of June 2014, the fund has supported 170 research projects including one that uncovered a key link between stem cell factors that fuel ovarian cancer growth, one that studied the use of stem cell-based treatments for temporal-lobe epilepsy and one that used stem cells to explore new drug therapies for conditions such as obesity and autism.

Connecticut Innovations assumed control of the fund from the Department of Public Health in 2014. Through this fund, we’re able to offer:

  • Seed Grant Awards of up to $200,000 for early-stage projects not yet ready for larger-scale funding.
  • Established Investigator Awards of up to $750,000 for projects that are further along with a track record of independent research, grant support and regular peer-reviewed publications.
  • Group Project Awards of up to $1.5 million to support coordinated approaches to ambitious strategic goals that are beyond the scope of a typical single laboratory.
  • Core Facilities Awards of up to $500,000 to provide shared core facilities for regenerative medicine researchers (including stem cell researchers) at eligible Connecticut institutions, hospitals or companies.

What this all means 

In any industry, any discipline and any walk of life, if someone has the proper tools, they are much more likely to succeed. Through these funds, Connecticut bioscience researchers and companies are able to access the most important tool of all – capital.

Our new website puts our funds in one, easy-to-access place with clear explanations of all guidelines, deadlines and details. Our goal is to make even more people aware of what’s available so groundbreaking ideas don’t fail before they have the chance to change the world.

If you’re a bioscience researcher or company, check out the new site and let us know what you think in the comments. And, of course, share the information with those in your network who you think may benefit from it.

Why New Haven is a Destination for Entrepreneurs and Startups

Four reasons for entrepreneurs to be excited about where the Elm City is headed

Matt-Circle

 

Matthew Storeygard
Senior Investment Associate
Connecticut Innovations

It’s been 11 years since I moved to New Haven from Washington, D.C. with my wife. At the time, we were making the move to further our careers. My wife was pursuing her pediatric residency and I was attending business school.

We were skeptical about the move. We never anticipated staying beyond our respective trainings. However, once we got here, we found a burgeoning small city teeming with culture, great food that has received national recognition, and young, talented people across a variety of industries.

And 11 years later, we’re still here.

People are moving back to the city. Between 2000 and 2010, New Haven experienced the highest population growth rate of any city in the Northeast, even surpassing Boston. A lot of this population growth can be attributed to the growing number of businesses making New Haven their home. It also doesn’t hurt that the city has become a desirable place to live. There are a few compelling reasons for this trend:

1. New Haven’s residents are educated

Companies are finding a strong base of talent across industries. The city demonstrated the 5th highest growth rate in college degree attainment between 2000 and 2010. The talent pool includes many graduates from Yale University, as well as other colleges and universities in the region.

Yale

The high number of well-educated residents also means a stronger economy. Those with advanced degrees earn more money, on average, and can afford to spend more locally. New Haven has been seeing this trend for several years now.

2. New Haven has culture

New Haven offers more food, art, and culture that most cities of similar sizes, making it an attractive place to run a business. It has the best pizza in the country (I’m partial to Frank Pepe’s – try the bacon and clam), is home to the world’s first hamburger, the Yale Art Gallery, which is completely free to the public, and the Peabody Museum. Combine this with exciting nightlife and beautiful scenery, and you’ll understand why the city has been getting a lot of attention for its culture in recent years:

Louis Lunch

Louis’ Lunch

3. The region has a diverse industry base

Not dependent upon one large employer or industry, the region’s sectoral diversity has helped it weather economic and social changes. It was even named one of the country’s 20 recession-proof cities during the recent economic downturn. While education and medicine represent New Haven’s core strengths, the city also has a base of talent in finance, IT, manufacturing, and other industries.

4. New Haven’s relationship with Yale has improved dramatically

Perhaps most import of all, Yale and the City of New Haven are working together to move the city forward. The divide between town and gown was previously a wide chasm, with a baseline of antipathy that occasionally erupted into larger demonstrations of tension and differences. By the time I came to New Haven, the leaders of both New Haven and Yale had recognized the symbiotic relationship, and have fostered a much closer partnership. A good example is the New Haven Homebuyer Program in which Yale provides financial incentives to employees and faculty to purchase homes within designated areas of New Haven.

Former New Haven mayor John DeStefano, Jr. on the relationship between New Haven and the Yale University.

 

The Result

The excitement and energy from these positives is reflected in the city’s startup scene. This list of New Haven startups, which was put together by local entrepreneur Miles Lasater (with help from the community) shows just how many startups call New Haven home. The Elm City has become increasingly attractive to companies because it provides access to talent and capital at a cost of living dramatically lower than other hubs on the East Coast.

On top of that, potential connections with Yale cannot be understated. The university attracts many established venture capitalists and entrepreneurs to campus for events that are open to the public, and produces talent to fill the hiring needs of startups. A particularly notable theme within the startup list is the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute. The organization was founded in 2007, and ventures emerging from it have raised over $100 million. Many have also tested their visions and products within the city, adding to its vibrancy. A few notable startups in New Haven from this list that illustrate the diversity of thriving sectors include:

  • Arvinas (CI Portfolio Company) – an early stage biotechnology company based on a game-changing technology from Yale that opens new drug target categories for biopharmaceutical products. It is focused on developing new small molecule strategies for degrading disease-causing cellular proteins.
  • Continuity Control (CI Portfolio Company) – provides community banking executives with a smarter approach to managing compliance. The software as a service (SaaS) company provides community banks with a comprehensive platform to reduce compliance burden in the face of the increasing number of regulations faced by these institutions. It has even created the Banking Compliance Index which tracks the total regulatory cost to the banking industry. The Index has been picked up for distribution by the Wall Street Journal.
  • Digital Surgeons – a full service creative agency that provides integrated marketing, brand development, content planning and execution, and website design among other services. Its client list includes Guess, Camelbak, Crossfit, Sephora, United Technologies, and many other large companies. Additionally, the company has been instrumental in helping many local startups with their media, marketing, and websites. As they write on their own website, “We’re headquartered in New Haven, CT. A vibrant city steeped in history with a culture of innovation. We love its energy, independent spirit, and crazy-good food scene. We’re proud to call it home.”
  • Rally Bus – emerged from Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and is a crowd-sourced, on-demand travel company. The company organizes transportation to special events such as political rallies, concerts and sporting events. It provides a cheaper alternative to a taxi, and a more convenient option than public transportation. Thus far, Rally Bus has organized travel for over 50,000 people.
  • SeeClickFix – SeeClickFix provides tools for citizens to report on non-emergency issues, access information and submit service requests. It provides comprehensive back-end solutions for governments to triage these requests, assign service tickets, and close issues, providing increased levels of transparency and communication.

These are just a few of the many companies on the startup list that represent the full spectrum of industries and talent that exists in New Haven.

The Ultimate Startup Weekend in New Haven (Friday, November 14)

If you want a true taste of the great things going on in the city’s startup community, I highly recommend spending the afternoon of Friday, November 14, on the New Haven Startup Tour. You’ll have the opportunity to visit your choice of 10 New Haven-area startups as well as The Grove, a co-working space that houses a number of startups in New Haven, and the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.

After that, join Startup Weekend New Haven to learn what it takes to launch a company in New Haven. You’ll meet like-minded entrepreneurs, share your great ideas, and join forces to turn the best ones into companies. It’s 54 hours of exhilarating, informative madness.

It’s clear to me that The Elm City is a city on the rise. What do you think about New Haven? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Is Buffer’s Culture of Transparency a Model Other Startups Should Follow?

Brandon Gearing
Marketing Coordinator
Connecticut Innovations

Startup culture is, by nature, inherently radical: offices with open layouts, irregular hours for employees, nap rooms, free beer, TVs, video games, loud music and more. These are perks employees at traditional companies can only dream of.

But startups are different. With innovative ideas come innovative ways of doing work, and as Facebook, Google and many others have shown, doing it differently does work.

So when I read about Buffer’s intense focus on transparency, I thought it was fascinating. Here’s another startup trying to redefine what “normal” is, but doing it in a completely different way: culture first.

The Buffer Way

Buffer is a social media management software company founded by Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich. When the duo became a team of seven in January 2013, the company laid the foundation for its long-term culture. Here’s where they started:

This slide deck, just like everything else about Buffer, is available to the masses online. There are no secrets. Transparency is the number two most important value at the company just behind happiness.

The company announced on October 27 that it’s raising a $3.5 million round of funding and published a blog post explaining the ask and providing key metrics. In it Buffer shared a spreadsheet of all employee salaries (including the formula used to arrive at each salary), a dashboard with all metrics including money in the bank, monthly recurring revenue and net revenue, as well as negative metrics like cancellations, refunds, downgrades and revenue churn.

Buffer Salaries

Photo credit: Buffer

This is how the founders qualified their decision:

One of the most exciting parts of our journey so far has been in pushing the boundaries of how transparent companies can be, both with team members and with the wider public of customers, users, blog readers and other entrepreneurs. We now feel a duty to continue to be fully transparent about everything we do, always finding areas [where] we can be even more open.

Perhaps even more fascinating than the access to the company’s internal metrics is the breakdown of its fundraising strategy. It doesn’t fit the traditional series A, B, C, IPO model that most startups follow. Gascoigne and Widrich had particular opinions about what they did and didn’t want when it came to raising funding and put it all out in the open. Want 20-30 percent equity? You’re not for Buffer. Want a board seat? No way. Expecting an IPO in 5-7 years? Sorry, Charlie.

Most startups would be concerned that listing these demands so publically would scare potential investors away. But despite its strict qualifications, Buffer has had no problem raising money. At the time of my writing this, it is $350,000 away from being fully subscribed. The company’s investors value Buffer’s commitment to transparency and share a lot of the same views.

Entrepreneurs on the outside have been applauding the move. All you need to do is scroll through the comments section of the blog post to see that. Commenters are throwing around words like “inspiration,” “epic,” “amazing” and “heroes.”

Are They Right?

I imagine this post is equally likely to find startup founders as it is investors. How does Buffer’s commitment to transparency sit with you?

Buffer has received some flak for publishing employee salaries. Some believe that the company’s employees have a right to privacy. Gascoigne and Widrich counteract that argument with the fact that since publishing the salaries, the company has actually seen an increase in applications for open positions.

An investor I spoke said that the approach to transparency was “indeed interesting,” but he found it “a bit gimmicky.” Most startups ask investors to sign non-disclosure agreements, he said, so he wasn’t sure if total transparency was a trend that was going to catch on.

Gascoigne had advice for others considering being transparent that he shared with Quartz:

Just do a little bit. Experiment with transparency in a small way. You don’t have to go as far as posting everyone’s salary on the blog. There’s some cool things you could do. Every email between two or more people, any email in the team you cc a list. We have a bunch of different lists. I’m emailing who I’m going to meet. We’ve found some really incredible benefits of that. So share something that’s not your most critical information. See how that feels—and just build from there.

What do you think? Is “the Buffer way” the right way?

In the Fight for Success, Knowledge Is Your Greatest Weapon

Brandon Gearing
Marketing Coordinator
Connecticut Innovations

Throughout our careers, whether we’re working for someone else or working for ourselves, the ultimate goal is always growth. Growth is the upward trajectory that we ride straight to success. At least, that’s how many entrepreneurs see it. I have an idea, I’ll start a company, we will grow because people will love it and we’ll be successful.

Of course, after just a few days into chasing that dream, we realize that it’s not that easy. So, we focus on nailing down the growth part first.

But, what is growth? There’s not a set answer, really. Growth is defined as different things to different people. It can be higher revenues, higher salaries or simply helping more people. Maybe it’s none of those things at all. Your definition of growth is based on your business and/or personal mission.

Regardless of how you define it, one thing remains constant – growth is tangible. Success is tangible, too. People who achieve growth and are successful set measureable goals and benchmarks to track their progress. They know where they want to end up, but just have to figure out how to get there. The best way to do this is by setting goals.

I have to give a nod to Joe Pulizzi of Content Marketing Institute for that contribution. Pulizzi, in his keynote during Content Marketing World 2014, told us that he used to struggle to understand what success was. He had a job at an insurance company and was doing fine, but wasn’t sure if he was headed down the right path in life. Pulizzi didn’t say it directly, but he implied that he thought could be doing much better. He went on to explain that a few different books changed his outlook and drove him to start setting goals for himself. Seven years later, Pulizzi is the head of a very successful company.

But again, we know that it isn’t that easy. Simply setting goals alone is not going to launch you to growth and eventually success. So what’s the missing ingredient?

Knowledge.

Not to be confused with intelligence, knowledge is the facts, information and skills you acquire over time. It takes work to gain knowledge. Intelligence is your natural ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. It’s something some of us are born with. Your level of intelligence will remain fairly constant throughout your life. It’s part of your personality. Knowledge, however, can grow. It’s limitless. You can always learn more.

In order to accomplish your goals and achieve growth and ultimately success, you should always pursue knowledge. Those who are intelligent sometimes short change themselves in this department. You may be smart, but there is always more to learn. Be open to different opinions, ideas and perhaps most important, criticism. Take advantage of every opportunity to learn something new.

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We are never perfect. If you have a groundbreaking product that you think will change people’s lives, keep fine tuning it. Make it better based on new knowledge that you gain. Consider Maya Angelou’s quote above. It’s basic, but so true. Your product may be your greatest accomplishment to date, but if you continue to learn, it won’t always be that way. You can always make it better. You can always be better.

In order to do that, you need knowledge. With it you will be better aligned to achieve your goals, set yourself up for growth and ultimately, be successful.

Where does knowledge fit into your growth strategy? I’d love to hear in the comments.

Product Hunt Just Released Its First Startup Toolkit…and It Rocks

Brandon Gearing
Marketing Coordinator
Connecticut Innovations

If you’re not yet subscribed to Product Hunt, take a moment to do so. I get a list of great new products sent to my inbox every day. A lot of the tools I find increase my day-to-day productivity. Others are just plain cool.

Today, Product Hunt launched its first “startup toolkit.” What an awesome idea! Even better, the products on the list all have discounts for those who come from Product Hunt.

Here’s who they included (descriptions from Product Hunt):

  • Trello – “Organize anything with anyone.”
  • Intercom – “An entirely new way to connect with your customers.”
  • Mixpanel – “The most advanced analytics platform for mobile & the web.”
  • Optimizely – “A/B testing you’ll actually use for web and mobile apps.”
  • Algolia – “Build realtime search.”
  • reddit – “Promote to +170 million engaged + passionate users on reddit.”
  • Typeform – “Human & beautiful responsive online form & survey builder.”
  • Teespring – “Teespring allows you to create and sell products people love.”
  • Peek by UserTesting – “Get a 5-minute video of a real person using your site or app.”
  • MailLift – “Automate REAL handwritten letters (for business.)”
  • Sqwiggle – Fastest & easiest way to stay in close contact w/ your team.”
  • Crazy Egg – “Powerful heatmap and eye tracking software for CRO.”
  • FbStart – “Mobile startup program from Facebook. Up to $60,000 in tools.”
  • inDinero – Accounting, tax filing, and payroll solution for startups.”

Have you used any of the products on the list? If so, what are your favorites? Let us know in the comments.

Five Steps to Flawlessly Navigating Your First Hire

Brandon Gearing
Marketing Coordinator
Connecticut Innovations

No matter the stage your company is in, your primary goal always remains the same: revenue growth. To accomplish this, early-stage companies often focus on product development, validation, market research and customer acquisition. But as your business takes shape, an important part of your growth strategy is your team. Talent is everything.

But when it comes time to grow your team, are you prepared? There’s a lot more to it than simply hiring employees. You’ll likely be faced with this task at least once, and if you’re like most early-stage companies, you’ll face it often. What are the steps to take to ensure that you not only hire the right person, but do so legally?

I talked to our vice president of human resources here at CI, Suzanne Kaswan, and got the skinny on all you need to know.

Step 1: Take stock of state and federal hiring regulations

Employing someone legally requires a lot of work. There are regulations, forms and standards that you’ll need to know about and understand. The Small Business Administration (SBA) put together a nice list of steps to take when hiring to ensure proper compliance. You should keep it handy, especially if you’re making your first hire.

Quick links:

Have new hires fill out these forms either prior to or on their first day.

Step 2: Write a killer job description

After evaluating your needs, the first step to finding the perfect employee is mastering the job description. This is going to be your first point of contact with potential candidates, so you’ll want to make sure it’s clear and accurate. You may be tempted, but don’t make any false promises in your job descriptions. If someone joins your team with an expectation that you can’t deliver on, you’ll be searching for someone new before you know it. HYRELL has some more great tips on writing job descriptions that are well worth a look.

Anatomy of a Killer Job Description

Step 3: Determine salary and benefits

Benefits

Right out of the gate, it’s important to note that you must provide some benefits to all fulltime employees. These are covered by the SBA and include social security taxes, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, disability insurance, leave benefits and family and medical leave.

You can provide other optional benefits including healthcare, retirement plans and pensions, and employee incentive programs at your own company’s discretion. Many employees value a strong benefits package as much or more than salary, so it’s important to consider what you’re offering if you’re hoping to attract top talent.

Salary

When deciding salary, you should do some research to determine the market rate for pay in the position you are hiring for as well as a number of other factors. This is a good overview of the steps to take when executing that research.

You should also determine how valuable the new hire will be to your company. If successful, how much will this person bring into your business? This number may be obvious for some positions (like sales people), but if the position doesn’t lend itself to bringing in revenue directly, think about how much time or money they may save you. Will they be doing tasks that allow you or someone else on the team to focus on revenue-generating tasks? Will they save you a lot of headaches? Apply a dollar value to the position and set a max salary cap.

On the flip side, you’ll also want to want to set a salary floor – the lowest you’ll pay someone in the position. This is when you want to factor in the market rate. You can expect to pay your new hire somewhere between market value and your max perceived value – the two dollar amounts you will have determined.

Quick links:

These are tools to help you determine the market rate of the position you’re hiring for.

Step 4: Properly classify the position

Once you have the position defined in terms of description, salary and benefits level, you must also be sure that you’re making the proper legal distinctions. There will be two things to decide:

  1. Exempt or nonexempt?
    This is a determination of whether or not your new hire will be eligible for overtime pay. Exempt employees are not eligible for overtime pay while nonexempt employees are. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) governs this distinction and it’s important to review the criteria before hiring. Employees that are classified as exempt are generally those who work in administrative, executive or professional positions because the work they do involves duties related to the company’s management. The criteria do vary, however, so it’s important to review the guidelines and seek professional advice if you’re unsure of how to classify your new hire.

Exempt or Nonexempt

  1. Independent contractor or employee?
    While many businesses rely on independent contractors because of the savings in labor costs, reduced liability, and flexibility in hiring and firing, it’s important to understand the differences in classification between an independent contractor and an employee.

According to the SBA:

An independent contractor:

  • Operates under a business name
  • Has his/her own employees
  • Maintains a separate business checking account
  • Advertises his/her business’ services
  • Invoices for work completed
  • Has more than one client
  • Has own tools and sets own hours
  • Keeps business records

An employee:

  • Performs duties dictated or controlled by others
  • Is given training for work to be done
  • Works for only one employer

Misclassifying your new hire as an independent contractor could cost you in payment of back taxes, owed wages and benefits and could even result in legal action.

Step 5: Set expectations for your employees

Once your new employees are hired, it’s important to have documented rules, procedures and expectations. While it isn’t required by law, an employee handbook is strongly recommended for a few reasons:

  1. It will serve as a reference guide for employees
  2. It will serve as a management tool for supervisors
  3. It will serve as protection should any legal issues arise

Ann Kontner of SJ Steptoe & Johnson gives a nice overview of what should go into a handbook in this blog post. As an employer, you have some legal obligations regarding meals and breaks, so you’ll certainly want to include that, but other items may include standards of conduct, an “at-will” disclaimer, an equal opportunity employment opportunity statement, an anti-harassment policy, a benefits overview, a computer use policy, etc.

Quick links:

These are links to posters that you’re required to post in your workplace. You can contact the Connecticut Department of Labor at 860.263.6790 to request that a packet of all required State of Connecticut postings be mailed to you.

If this sounds like a lot, well, you’re right. Managing the human resources function of a growing business can be challenging, especially as your hiring becomes more frequent. Some early-stage companies choose to outsource human resources, and there is certainly some benefit to that. Others feel that bringing on a full-time human resources staff member (or team) is more beneficial, as it’s important for human resources to build a rapport with employees. There are pros and cons to either decision and each situation is unique.

What are the biggest human resources challenges that you’ve run into? Let us know in the comments.

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