How to keep customer feedback from destroying your startup

You’ve launched your product. You’re getting some adoption. People seem to like it. You start to get some feedback. TechCrunch does a write up on your site. You get lots more feedback.

Sounds great, right? In many ways, yes. But feedback can destroy your company, if you let it causes you to thrash in what you are doing.

Your earliest adopters tend to be the most geeky, the techies who probably don’t represent your target customers. (Unless your target customer is techies.) The feedback they give you isn’t going to matter to the general market.

I heard Stewart Butterfield, the founder of flickr, talk about this early on. Some of his users wanted that ability to geotag photos by uploading tracklogs from Garmin hiking GPSes and syncing their timestamps with the timestamps on their pictures. Great idea. I loved it and would’ve used it. But me and 10 other people. It turned out not to be necessary in the long term because cell phones (which are the source of the vast majority of pictures online) automatically embed GPS information.

In the short term, geeks like me found tools like GeoSetter and iTag to embed GPS date into EXIF fields on photos.

There are a few other problems with customer feedback:

  • It’s not prioritized, even by the person giving feedback. Generally they don’t tell you whether it’s really important to them or just an “it would be nice.” Would it affect their likelihood of sticking around? Would they pay more for your service? Would it help you get the word out to more people? Who knows? Most feedback doesn’t come with that level of detail.
  • You don’t know who they are how they use the product. Without understanding the customer’s persona, feedback is less valuable.
  • It’s rarely the case that more small features will make or break your product. There are rapidly diminishing returns on many features. In a lot of cases, there are negative returns.
  • They are unlikely to know what your business model and goals are.

In order to make the most of the feedback you get, you need to organize it. See how much of a certain type of feedback you get. Group similar feedback. Have your product and business teams decide where it falls within the business goals.

This is especially true of business-to-business companies. You’re having one-on-one interactions with the buyer. He’s giving you some interesting ideas. Sales tells you that if you had “one more feature,” they’d close the deal.

Wait. When there are a small number of big customers, you risk becoming a captive development arm. You definitely don’t want to be that. It makes it easy to lose track of your other customers. If your product becomes too specialized for a specific customer, it can hurt your valuation.

You want to take in feedback and harmonize it with feedback you get from other customers and potential customers.

It can be hard when you’re working closely with someone to say “no.” Your sales team might keep nagging you for that feature. (In a future post, I’ll discuss how to deputize your sales team and sales engineers into mini product managers.)

Stay strong. Make sure what you’re doing aligns with your roadmap and will appeal to other customers.

There are somethings early customers will ask for that are no-brainers. Examples are GDPR compliance and SSO. You don’t have to do these right away, but be sure to have an answer prepared on how you will solve these problems.

Yesterday, I sent some feedback to the CEO of a company I’m looking to invest in. It’s an incredible feature. I know it will help them sell to new customers. Of course he should take my feedback: I’m a potential investor, reasonably well-known writer, have decades of product experience and I run UX quizzes on Twitter that people seem to value.

His response?

Sounds like a good idea.

That’s something that we can think about adding to the system. Thanks for the feedback.
That’s exactly the right response. It increases the likelihood that I will invest.

PR tips for startups

6277209256_934f20da10_bGetting attention for a startup can be hard. There are thousands of startups out there of various size. How do you break out from the noise? Here are some tips on the best ways to get coverage of your startup. They draw from my experience both as a journalist and someone who has been interviewed by many media outlets.

One tip that applies to all startups: never spam reporters. It may be tempting to compile a list of all the various tips@ media@ etc. from every tech site and blanket spam them. Never do that.

A reporter’s job is to tell a story, not a story about you.

Companies 1-10 people

You don’t need to hire a PR firm. (You probably can’t afford one anyway.) The odds that a $5,000 a month retainer for your startup will get you meaningful coverage is slim to none.

Here’s what I would do instead:

  • Set up a Google news alert for a competitor and for industry news related to your company’s business.
  • Read about your areas of focus intently.
  • From those two, you should be able to compile a list of writers who cover your space. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) reach out to every writer at TechCrunch; find the one or two who specifically focus on your business area.
  • Follow those writers on Twitter.
  • Writers will often ask for help on various topics related to their beat. Help them out, help them to understand their space. Do this in a non-promotional way. If you have specific data or consumer experiences, definitely share them.

Me experience is that journalists are relatively forgiving to startup CEOs.

Greater than 10 people

At this point, it begins to make sense to hire an agency.

Here’s how I’d go about it:

  • If they pitch you with “coverage” they’ve gotten in “publications” like PR Newswire or Businesswire, run away. In the era of blogs, you don’t need to pay for this worthless distribution.
  • Talk to the actual person who would be doing media outreach, not just the account rep. Assess whether they are personable. You want someone who is outgoing. Abrasive personalities are not good for PR.
  • Look at what kind of coverage they’ve been able to get for similar-sized companies. Have realistic expectations. (See below.)
  • If you’re in the local space, listen to the kinds of publications they pitch you on and what coverage they can get. In local, you want local and regional coverage. That gets you customers; tech blogs and national press give you credibility with partners and investors.
  • I’d bias to smaller agencies or independent PR people, where your retainer actually means something to them. It makes it more likely that you will get their time.

Outcomes

Startups (and companies in general) tend to have unrealistic expectations of outcomes, especially when talking to major publications like Businessweek, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. If your CEO spends 30 minutes on the phone and you get a paragraph of coverage, that should be considered a success. This is especially true for recorded radio or TV interviews. I’ve had 20 minute conversations that were edited down to 3 second sound bites.

When the story appears, send a thank you email to the writer. If there were errors or misperceptions in the piece, offer clarifications for future pieces. If there were egregious misrepresentations, call them out in a nice way. Only people like Elon Musk can tear into a reporter.

DON’Ts

These apply whether or not you have an agency.

  • Do a blog post about your news and then share it with reporters. At that point, it’s not news. Unless you’re Facebook, Google or Apple, it’s unlikely that a reporter will write about it once it’s out there.
  • Send a link to a story a competing reporter has written. Again, not news. Also implies that the other writer was more important.
  • Send messages that are “EMBARGOED,” except to journalists who have agreed to accept an embargo. (Embargoed stories are ones that won’t be released until a certain time. For example, a product launch.)
  • Send messages that are “Off the record.” Off the record is something that has to be agreed to by the journalist. In general, I won’t say things that are off the record except to journalists I trust.

Have questions on startup PR? Find me on Twitter – @rakeshlobster.