Browsed by
Tag: startups

[Interview] How Upstart Avoided the Four Common Mistakes of Community Building

[Interview] How Upstart Avoided the Four Common Mistakes of Community Building

Community building is an integral part to growing any business. Nielsen recently published a research report that states 77% of consumers are more likely to buy a new product when learning about it from friends or family. So how then does one convert regular users into vocal advocates? Although each business has its own unique path to developing a strong community, there are some common practices to be avoided.1

I sat down with Brigitte Bradford, a startup marketer based in Palo Alto to discuss how she helped Upstart overcome the common mistakes in community building.

Upstart is a business that provides loans to students and new graduates. It solves the problems that young adults go through to secure a financial loan. By taking academic backgrounds and work experience into consideration, Upstart sees more than just a “credit score” and offers reasonable loans to high potential applicants. Started in 2013, Upstart has since raised more than $7 million in seed funding and was part of the Thiel Fellowship.

0343_UpstartShoot_2014

1) Simplifying  messaging

“The best start-up idea is not the most complicated one”

What would your business look like on a car bumper sticker? How would you explain it in a tweet? These were the questions Brigitte asked herself when customers expressed difficulty explaining Upstart to friends. Upstart first launched with a novel financial product. On top of considering academic backgrounds and work experience during the underwriting process, Upstart had a unique loan system called the “Income Share Agreement”. Instead of a traditional loan with principals/interest, borrowers agreed to share a percentage of their future income for 5 or 10 years.

Startups often make the mistake of trying to change too many things in an industry to be “disruptive”. A fine balance needs to be made. How do you expect customers to advocate for you when they can’t even sum up the different things your business is trying to accomplish?

Evernote is a great example of an online business that boasts a simple ‘cut to the chase’ tagline. They pride themselves on being “one workspace” – an application that lets you store notes whether its on your phone, computer, at work, or at home.

2) Parking emotions at the door

“If the markets aren’t listening or responding, then you have to let go and do what people want.”

It can be hard not to get emotionally attached to your startup – after all it’s a product made by you! With Upstart, although many users appreciated the unique underwriting process, it became clear that there was a strong market and interest for a more traditional loan. Using the same income prediction model at the heart of their original  offering, the company began exclusively offering a more conventional 3 year fixed rate loan.

By listening to their customers, Upstart has since experienced 100% month-over-month growth. Not only did this change attract new customers but it made it easier for current users to share and advocate for Upstart. Additionally, features that you take out today could very well come back at a later stage of the business. Boasting this “customer-first” mentality is important when community building.

3) Own your messaging

“If you are calling yourself disruptive, own it, be willing to put yourself out there.”

Part of having a brand is owning that relationship you have with customers. When you think of your best friend, would you classify that relationship as authentic or fake? Hopefully its authentic. This same principle applies when building a community. This is how Brigitte describes Upstart:

  • We are a smart, hardworking bunch
  • We boast an open door policy (Send anybody an email anytime – [email protected])
  • We love data
  • We want to empower people financially with information and services that utilize technology

The personality that you are forming in your mind right now is exactly how Upstart is. From their open email policy to lightning fast customer service, Upstart truly lives up to who they promote themselves to be. For example: they just ran a bold, “hipster-esque” advertisement on Facebook, receiving likes, dislikes, and even media coverage. Upstart ran a unique email campaign entitled “Are you financially smarter than the average American?” – Sparked by recent news suggesting how US citizens generally have lower financial IQ than other OECD countries, Upstart created a 10-question quiz that challenged blog readers. This was extremely well received and generated a large number of views and referrals. By embedding core values into the company DNA, your customers will have a better expectation and appreciation of your brand.

4) Engage in ways your competitor can’t

“…the things our competitors are not doing well, how much time would it take for us to do that stuff well…”

Nothing rallies people together more than solving a problem. Every business answers a problem or need. Companies use this subject matter to their advantage! When Upstart created their blog, they wanted to ensure it embodied the company’s core personality and mission. Looking at the blogs written by large American banks, a lot of complicated financial jargon was used. To contrast, Brigitte made sure that every article was written in a friendly, easy to understand manner. Gifs, graphs, and pop-culture references were even used to add a more human element to this traditional, boring financial content. Brigitte mentions its important to respond to customer feedback with quick adaptivity. If readers enjoyed the blog post on credit scores, then write 3 or 4 more articles on different angles of credit scores! Always test your market and maximize customer responses.

Upstart: The Kickstarter for People

0288_UpstartShoot_2014

A huge thanks goes out to Brigitte from Upstart as she shares these best case practices in community building. If you are interested in learning more about Upstart be sure to check out their website and follow Brigitte on Twitter! Comments or suggestions for community building? I would love to read them so write them out below. To wrap things up, here are some fun questions I asked Brigitte:

Pet Peeve:

People who say they are bored.

Cups of Coffee a Day:

On average 2 – 3 big cups of coffee a day.

Morning Ritual:

10 minutes of meditation and 10 minutes of yoga.

Book Recommendations:

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. Check out our team’s summer reading list!

Unique fact:

Travelled and volunteered in Tanzania for 2 months.

Favorite Quote:

Upstart lives by the “Just Do it” model – At the office, if you need to do something, just do it. If you have to apologize later that’s fine! No need to ask for permission, just get stuff done.

[Interview] How Vanhawks raised $820,000 on Kickstarter in 30 days for their Smart Bike

[Interview] How Vanhawks raised $820,000 on Kickstarter in 30 days for their Smart Bike

The Valour Smart Bike, by Vanhawks, is a light carbon-fibre bike that is connected to your smartphone. Using Bluetooth and built in sensors, commuters can now travel via GPS without checking their phone, be notified of blind spot traffic, and measure calories burned.  Vanhawks successfully raised more than $820,000 in pre-orders on Kickstarter. We sat down with Vanhawks Co-Founder and COO, Ali Zahid, to find out the secrets behind their successful launch.
Ali Zahid (Right)
Ali Zahid, COO (Left) & Sohaib Zahid, CEO (Right)
Tell us a bit about yourself.

I went to Queens University, studied bio-medical computing, dropped out and went to an incubator called FounderFuel in Montreal.  Spending four months there, I helped launched a Kickstarter campaign for our smart bike – Valour.  Since our initial success, we have now grown month over month, moved to Toronto, and currently have a 10 person team.

Start-ups traditionally face the dilemma of choosing who to target and when.  How did you decide who to target as first adopters?

We did a ton of market research. Yes, although anyone can buy a bike, who can afford one at $1000? I did a lot of customer interviews through my network. For example: at the time I was recruiting for some consulting firms, and was able to ask them about our initial product.  I also flew down to San Francisco and interviewed people who worked at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple etc. In the end, I conducted more than a thousand interviews!

A perfect group we identified were employees of large tech companies. Developers make a good amount of money and since they work in tech, would be intrigued by the idea smart bike. The other group of people we wanted to target were those who wanted the “finer things in life” – People who like Monocle, GQ, Uncrate, and Hypebeast. The last group of people we wanted target were those who were willing to spend money on things for “looks” because we knew our bike was pretty good looking.  From these interviews, we determined that Vanhawks is more of a lifestyle brand over a biking brand.

When we actually interviewed bikers, we realized that bike enthusiasts were not our main target – these were people who cared about every single detail of their bike. “I want this feature, I want that tube..etc.” – this was not our brand. Our brand is for the daily commuter – a person who wants to get from point A to point B.

How did you gather all this information?

When conducting each interview, I used google docs to store my answers and took a picture of the actual person. When designing my interviews, I tried to come up with interview questions that really drove numbers. I ended up asking a lot of questions that may seem mundane but were actually really valuable to me. At the end of each interview, I would get to know each person on a more personal basis.  I really cared about what they are doing because at the end of the day it is for the people.

Vanhawks Phone
Users can connect their smartphone’s GPS to their bike
How did you reach out to potential customers?

Reddit was a huge resource, but there is a lot of trolls so watch out. SF2G – is an online group of people who live in San Fran, work at Google, and love riding their bikes to work. I started the conversation on the forums and got them really excited. A good friend and mentor at Shopify also helped me out by setting up an interview station at the Shopify offices in Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto.

Reaching out to Queens Alum was a huge win.  I pinged everyone who worked in big tech companies in the San Fran area and they helped leverage their network for me as well. The biggest thing for me was becoming each person’s friend on Facebook – this helped because once you are friends on Facebook, you can become more personable. I try my best to keep up with my contacts, weekly, monthly and not lose of track what they are doing. If I ever find something interesting I’ll always be sure send them a quick message about it.

Building a strong customer relationship is really important. For example, every customer has my personal phone number. Sometimes I get calls at 3AM and I’m always friendly.  We are also a first mover in the industry – no one has ever done this before – so it’s a really interesting time for us, we created a whole new market for ourselves. One day we gave all our Canadian backers free shipping – although this was not much, it helped create a cultish following of people. We think heavily on investing in the brand and how to turn customers into people that love you so much.

How did you specifically drive traffic to your Kickstarter page?

A really good video helps a lot! We also lined up a lot of press prior to launch – that really helped drive views. I also contacted every person in my contact list, even if I just emailed them once before. I wrote each person a personalized message, asking them how they were doing while telling them about Vanhawks – that was about 2000 people. I did the same thing on my Facebook which totaled about 1200 people.

I also made this unique sharing mechanism – when clicked on, people would be taken to a sharing page which made them share the project on Facebook/Twitter before taking them to the actual Kickstarter page. I even wrote a unique personal message on the share text that spoke about my story.  This worked really well because even if my contacts couldn’t support me financially, they were able to share it across their own networks as well.

Kickstarter Vanhawks
Surpassed initial funding goal by 800%
How long did it take to do all this?

*Laughs*  You gotta hustle. These things you can’t cheap out on. Two days before launch I didn’t go to sleep because I was so busy writing out all these messages. And then for the next three days, I barely slept as I was replying to all the emails that I’ve gotten. In total, I didn’t have sleep for week – it was crazy! You have to put in the hustle and you have to put in the time.

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone looking to launch a Kickstarter campaign?

There is no hack to Kickstarter, it’s like any other product launch. It’s a lot about customers, it’s a lot about creating a want for a product, to find what the perfect target. Remember to create something people want and it isn’t always something that we [the founders] want. Put a lot of work into it and put a lot of passion. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – you will learn faster. Be humble.

Pet Peeve:

When people can’t make decisions.

Cups of Coffee a Day:

Usually 1 – Americano either in the early morning/evening

Morning Ritual:

Well before my bag got stolen, I used to do this thing where I would write down three things before going to sleep that I wanted to do the next morning.

Book Recommendations:

The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Transformers or Ninja Turtles?

Ninja Turtles – They were my kid cartoon!

Favorite Quote:

It’s not really a quote but I live by this thing: if something is not making me happy, then why am I doing this? I’m very keen on happiness and driving value by creating happiness.  I wrote a medium post about this.


If you enjoyed this interview please be sure to follow Ali Zahid on his next big steps.  Vanhawks is a great example of the hustle entrepreneurs need to take in order to achieve financial success.  In my 30 minutes with Ali, I could tell he was a down-to-earth, hardworking, and generally awesome guy. How could you not help somebody who always smiles and wants to help others?

Future crowdfunders take note – although engineering and business acumen are important when running a Kickstarter, building a strong community of supporters is just as important as well. That all begins with the right attitude, and Ali Zahid scored 100%.

How Fencing Can Teach Us A Lesson On Marketing

How Fencing Can Teach Us A Lesson On Marketing

How Fencing Can Teach Us A Lesson On Marketing

En garde. Prêt. Allez.

That’s the start of a fencing bout. It’s also how you should run your business.

For those of you who don’t know what fencing is, allow me to give a quick introduction. Fencing is a sport that is played with three distinct blades: sabre, foil, and épée. Each weapon has a special style of attacking the opponent and wielding it. There’s also a specific foot sequence you have to follow when fencing and that’s the beauty of it. Fencing is a sport that can teach you the importance of patience and aiming for a certain target. This can be translated to launching a new product line or startup. Not only that, but if you think hard enough, fencing can teach all of us a certain lesson, it doesn’t even have to be about marketing.

Take what I just said and try to imagine how fencing can fit into marketing. The weapons, the movement, the rules. Do you notice that each component of fencing is a certain set of things you need to know if you were doing marketing? Below, I’ve outlined my reasons why fencing can teach us a lesson on marketing.

Take the offensive: 

Sometimes business can be rough, and at times it seems the hardest thing to do is getting it off the ground. Don’t just freeze there on the piste (fencing playing area), move around even if it means you’ll lose! It’s always better to try something than stay in one position, the same could be said about a business. Don’t waste 5-6 months coming up with the “perfect” marketing strategy if you can execute 3-5 mini marketing campaigns in 1 month. Whenever I was in a fencing match, my coach always told me to take the lunge, when you have the priority. Make a calculated observation, but what’s stopping you from trying out something different?

Brock Open Day 2

If you’re a foilist (like me) do some stepping rhythm and then perform a flèche to penetrate your enemy. Like managing a business, sometimes it’s better if you can perform something extraordinary. For example, think of a guerrilla marketing campaign that can penetrate the market and catch your target market’s attention in one fell swoop.

Defensive: Another important component of fencing, or running a business, is the ability to know when you have to stop for a minute and reposition yourself. What you don’t want to get yourself into is a sticky situation where you’re cornered on the piste. Once you’re trapped, you can’t do anything else; Or can you? Fencing is all about opportunity. Business and marketing is about spotting a possibility and seizing that window of opportunity. If you feel that your marketing efforts aren’t working or your initial target isn’t your target audience after all, identify the right segment and reposition yourself. That’s the same for fencing, if you miss your strike, move back and reposition yourself before a counter attack.

In fencing, parrying is a staple to defending yourself and performing a riposte once you have the right-of-way. Managing a business is the same, it’s important to protect yourself at times and wait for the perfect timing. Once you see that chance, take the offensive. It’s important to take precautionary steps, but not to the point where you’re only defending. If you only defend, you’ll leave an opening for your opponent to lunge and take the point. You must strike that balance between offence and defence so you ensure your business or marketing campaign succeeds. If you ever find yourself stuck, it’s about finding an opportunity.

Look to the point of your blade and lunge.

5 Reasons Content Marketing is a Win-Win

5 Reasons Content Marketing is a Win-Win

5 Reasons Content Marketing is a Win-Win

What if we lived in a world, a bubble, where we didn’t know what was happening outside? We’re constantly shown stuff that we don’t care, and it has no effect on us. Wouldn’t life be boring that way?

Now comes content marketing, pushing all these pieces of content in our faces that are – interestingly enough – of value to us. We see this every day, and many of us don’t actually realize or stop to think about the purpose of it. Now becoming a prominent component of the business landscape, content marketing is everywhere when we turn our heads and even found in the online world. It’s almost like a new space that marketers have infiltrated to get their messages out.

Pushing Social says it best, “Storytelling for Sales.” Through all these layers of content that’s being shared to us, articles, blogs, and videos, there is one last layer standing. That is, getting sales and driving traffic to the creator of the content. Content marketers are constantly pushing new stuff out and consumers (like me) are absorbing it. I believe that the coolest part of content marketing is the value that is delivered and how it’s beneficial for the company brand. Some content is quickly shared while other content will never see the light again. Below, I’ve outlined 5 reasons why content marketing adds value to businesses and the consumers: 

content marketing

1. Branding: This isn’t something new. For centuries organizations have been creating a certain brand they want to resonate with their target market by launching various marketing strategies. If that company had a certain target audience they wanted to cater to, they would make sure the content attracts them. Content marketing is revolutionizing the way businesses brand themselves. One minute you see an article about the ‘benefits of social media’ and the next minute you’ll notice they’ve posted a funny picture that made you laugh. Consumers are often engaged to a certain extent with the brand building and it follows the company. It also helps them recognize the brands they want to align with and prefer.

2. Sharing content: When companies share something they think is cool, you (consumer) either think “That’s amazing!” or “I don’t really care, next.” Each person is unique, and thus the reaction to each piece of content is different. The benefit of sharing online is that you, as a business, reach a wide audience while incurring very low expenses. On the consumers’ side, you get the benefit of viewing new stuff that you didn’t know and you can even share it with your buddies!

3. Learning more: This point was sort of my thought as to why content marketing is good. Both sides essentially benefit from sharing content. When the company decides to engage in content marketing they “retweet” or share content. Consumers will (or not) take notice and read further into the information. Content will either be accepted or rejected, but at least there’s knowledge being spread!

4. Building relationships: Probably the 2nd most important aspect of content marketing or marketing in general, is to build connections with consumers. Some companies lament gravely whenever bridges are burnt with their consumers. Here at Sniply, we take care of our relationships with our users and reply to any questions they have. We want to keep those relationships and reach out to users whenever they voice their opinion. Content Marketing Institute says that you should treat your market as a community. It’s so crucial that as a business, you want those relationships to continue and build that close-knit community. When you see a problem your community is facing, share content that answers it. As a consumer, knowing that the company is trying its best to build the bridge is a good indicator that you can reach out to them one day if you’re stumped on something.

5. Creating value: At its finest, marketing is about delivering value to their audience (community). Content marketing is about pushing relevant, useful content that will benefit everyone: knowledge, a good laugh, even a smile 🙂 What’s so great about content marketing is that you can share articles and posts, and you have that fuzzy feeling knowing that you accomplished your mission if someone learned something from your post. The intrinsic value of any post is judged by each individual person. Understand this, even if you’re promoting your brand people won’t mind if you’re sharing content that is meaningful to them and adds value to their time.