Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Turning a Winning Product into an Industry Award

You may have heard that “Winning isn’t everything”. While that may be true in a soft and fluffy, spiritual kind of way, in the startup game, if you don’t quickly rack up some wins, you are going to be out of the game. A win may be that first big client, your first round of funding, or your first thousand users. Those are some of the necessary “win” milestones in a startup’s journey to the exalted “exit. One great tool to help get you there is winning an industry award. These awards add prestige to your company and products, and are helpful in getting you to those milestones you’re working so hard to reach. Over the years, I’ve written many award submissions, and even won a few (OK, “I” only wrote the award submission, but it really feels that way). Here are some things I’ve learned.
Qualify the award
Opportunities to enter awards come at you from many different directions; various sites you’ve registered to, business partners, colleagues and friends, your PR company (if you already have one). Even the organizations hosting the awards may seek out relevant candidates - for some of them, this is a thriving and lucrative business, and you pay to participate. But this doesn’t mean that you must enter them all. 
First and foremost, make sure you really have something to submit. If your product is not mature enough, or you haven’t introduced enough innovative new features since your last submission, you may be wasting your time. Take a good honest look at yourself, and make sure you really have something that is worthy of submitting.
Then, consider that awards may have very specific entrance criteria. Some awards are only for companies who do NOT yet have a product, others are only for companies whose product has already been launched. There may be limitations on the size of the company, targeting of a particular market (“How does your product help SMBs?”), commercial activity in a particular geographic region of the world (“What were your sales in APAC last year?”), or some special feature you must display in order to be eligible to apply (“How does the Ffitproduct reduce your carbon footprint in the world?”. These criteria are usually clearly stated on the award website. Read it carefully and see that you meet them.

Make sure you’re on the right playing field
But beyond these dry criteria, there’s also what I call the “award-company fit”. Some awards target early stage startups, while others go for more established companies. If you already have  50 customers and over a million dollars in sales, you may not want to be competing with startups of 4 people or less showing their first prototype. To get an idea if you’re in the right place, check out the award website, and see which companies participated in previous years.

So before you spend any time on preparing your submission, make sure you qualify to enter the award and there’s a good award-company fit

The price
Entering an award has costs. At a minimum, someone has to spend the time to make the best submission you can (otherwise why bother). In some cases there is a submission fee (which may take a hefty bite out of your marketing budget), and in others you may even have to send someone abroad to an award ceremony where the winners will be announced. You may even have to spend additional resources to quickly scratch out some particular feature from your development team, or set up a demo server for the required live demo. Anyway you slice it, entering an industry award costs you something, so make sure you are ready, willing and able to pay the price.

Answer questions carefully and accurately
Remember taking exams? For many young entrepreneurs, that is a not-too-distant nightmare. Did you ever write a great answer, but get zero points because it didn’t really answer the question? Well, it’s the same for industry awards. The panel of judges gets tens, if not hundreds of submissions. They want clear, concise, precise and most importantly, relevant answers to the questions. Nobody is going to spend too much time trying to decipher “techno-babble”, or to understand convoluted texts. If they don’t get it right away, you will simply fall out of the running.

Submit on time, and keep your antennae up
It’s a no-brainer that you must submit on time, but we’ve all been in a situation where “one more day” would make all the difference. Well, sometimes you get lucky, and submission deadlines are extended (quite possibly, several other contenders are in the same situation as you). So keep an eye out for emails from the award organizers and make sure you are up on all the latest information. And if you are really stuck, you can even try to contact them and make a request for an extension. It sometimes works.
Tell the best “truth” that you can
Entering an industry award is in the realm of marketing. You don’t want to lie about anything, but you do want to present the truth in the best possible light. And as in many marketing tactics, your audience’s perception of the truth is more important than the truth itself. “Close to a hundred thousand users” sounds better than “over 85 thousand users”. If a feature is only available on your demo version, or even just on your near-term’s a feature you support.

You actually won something? Hallelujah, spread the word
Winning an award is a big deal. You need to tell the world about it. First, start internally and spread the word within your organization. Everyone likes to feel that they work for a winning company. Depending on how big it really is, you might even consider rewarding all those directly involved in the win somehow. Then, it’s time to tell the world. Go on all relevant social media, add it to your website, include it in your marketing materials (both texts and graphics), add a note or image in your email signatures (and tell all other relevant colleagues to do likewise), put out a press release. Winning an award can create a buzz that goes a long way in getting you to your goals. It supports the decision your clients made when they went with your products, and it can even tip the scales for prospects you are currently pursuing.
So, winning an award may not be everything, but, as the saying goes, not winning an award isn’t anything. Awards can be a great boost to your company spirit, not to mention your business reputation. If you choose your awards well, and really give it your best shot, you may be looking for larger office space sooner than expected.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Have spell checker? Beware!

We all use them, whether we want to or not. Today's powerful word processors have them built-in and running in real time as we type. Misspell a word, and our trusty spell checker immediately puts a squiggly red line under it to draw our attention. Right-click for immediate correction. Even native English speakers need spell checkers. Our knowledge of the English language is not perfect. We all have our own set of words that we're never quite sure how to spell (accomodate or accommodate?). And then of course, we all make typos.

But can you trust them?
Spell checkers are great, but they're not infallible. Their ability to understand what we really want to say is very limited, and usually, they just check our words to see if they exist without considering any context. I'm always reminded of a poem I came across over 20 years ago, then titled "Owed to a Spell Checker," that warns about the perils of relying on these useful tools too much. It was written by a gifted man to make a point about the need for spell checkers in early email clients. Of the original 225 words, 123 are faulty, although they're spelled correctly. Read the full story here. Things are getting better, but they're still far from perfect. Google Docs still only detects 25 words as incorrect.

Here's the full original poem.

Candidate for a Pullet Surprise

Eye halve a spelling checker.
It came with my pea sea.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished inn it's weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.

A checker is a bless sing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when aye rime.

Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours o'er every word
To cheque sum spelling rule.

Bee fore a veiling checkers
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we're lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.

Butt now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know faults with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear.

Now spelling does knot phase me,
It does knot bring a tier.
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped words fare as hear.

To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should bee proud,
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaws are knot aloud.

Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want too pleas.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Anglit Kasha Safa

8 common English mistakes Israelis make.

I made Aliya over 30 years ago, and even though I had spoken some Hebrew at home growing up, my native language has always been English. Hebrew is a difficult language to learn. It’s a downright backward language the reads right-to-left. To this day, I don’t know any formal rules of grammar. I never learned them in school. If I get anything right, it’s just how I picked it up. To this day, there are many things I’ll get wrong if I just let them flow without thinking about it. Exchanging א  and ע. Exchanging ק and כ. Switching masculine and feminine (damn, is it אחד or אחת). But one thing I can attest to. Israelis everywhere LOVE to correct you.  It’s a question of both national pride, and an honest desire to help the Oleh blend into Israeli society. There were times I could not utter a full sentence without someone correcting me.

It’s payback time!

In general, the level of English in Israel is pretty good. English is taught in school from quite an early age (although, as I’ve seen, not always by qualified teachers), and movies and TV programs in English are not dubbed (but rather subtitled). And then, Israelis love to travel. As a result, even if you’re a D student, there’s a fair chance you’ll speak some English. And of course, those of you with a gift for languages, or those who have spent significant time abroad can display a truly impressive command of the language.

Do-not-think-it-means-289x250.jpgNevertheless, there are a number of mistakes that I’ve seen or heard over and over again. And that’s what this post is all about. Below are some mistakes that make me cringe every time I hear them.

So if you really want to learn something, keep reading. Otherwise you can skip to the end for a neat riddle that I saw back in my school days in Hong Kong.

Caveat: I don’t claim to be an authority on English grammar. Like you, I can speak my language, but can’t always explain the reason why something is said one way or another. I just know what I know.

It's mean/It's look like

For example, “It's look like traffic is bad. It's mean I will be late”

This is definitely one of the most common mistakes Israelis make when speaking English. It almost seems like teachers learn this mistake, and then propagate it through the generations.

The correct way to say this is: It means/It looks like
“It looks like traffic is bad. It means I will be late.”

To help you remember this and get it right every time, simply replace ‘It’ with ‘He’.
He looks like traffic is bad/He means I will be late. While the sentence might not really make sense, it will remind you of the correct usage of “It”.

Respond vs. Response

I’ve seen many emails starting with “Thank you for your respond”. And others ending with “Please response quickly”.
This is a simple confusion between the noun and the verb.
Respond is the verb.
Response is the noun.
Maybe to avoid confusion we should just invent the form Respondse (pronounced re-sponge) which acts as both a noun or a verb depending on the context.

So before we start to redefine the English language…
“Thank you for your response. I will respond quickly.”

Advise vs. Advice

This is very similar to previous example.
Advise is a verb.
Advice is the noun.

Should we also have advisce (pronounced advishe) ?
“Thank you for your advice. I will advise my colleagues to do the same.”

Complimentary vs. Complementary

These two words are very similar in how they’re spelled, but the following example shows how a single letter can mean a world of difference.

I was recently at a Meetup, where a VP Sales presented about developing partnerships in order to increase global sales. One of his slides showed the company’s main product, and then there was a big title showing the other complimentary products.
Imagine a customer sitting through this presentation thinking he was going to get a lot of stuff for free.

Customer vs. Costumer

This one is easy.
A customer is what we all want. It’s someone who has paid for our products or services.
You might want a costumer when Purim comes around.
An easy way to remember this difference is by thinking of the word “customize”. It has the same root, because it means doing something specially suited for your customer.

Constrains vs. Constraints

There are two causes for this error. One is because the ‘t’ at the end of constraint, while not really silent, is easy to miss in day-to-day speech. The other is simply a confusion between the verb “constrain” and the noun “constraint” (like advise and advice, or respond and response).

From the context of texts I have seen, people usually mean constraints to a system.
For example, “The system has a few constraints which we must work around.”

Complaint vs. Compliant

These two very similar words are completely different.
A complaint is something you will get if your customers are not happy.
Compliant is what you must be if you want your product to be certified by a standards body, or if it must meet a set of rules.

If your product is not compliant to industry standards, you will get many complaints from your customers.

Trial vs. Trail

Try All.jpgI’ve seen companies offering free trails.
Well guess what! Trails are usually free. I know of one or two trails in New Zealand which you have to pay to trek over, but otherwise, it’s no surprise that they’re free.

So you guessed it. What you want to offer is a free trial. An easy way to remember this is that free trials usually encompass the widest set of functionality available in a product. You want your potential customer to “try all” features with a 30-day free trial.

And here’s the promised riddle.

Can you think of an English sentence that correctly uses the word “and” 5 times in a row?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Keep a High Profile

The main problem that every new startup eventually faces is the issue of funding. This just might be the biggest challenge that any entrepreneur faces, and a good company profile is crucial to getting the attention of investors. But how do you write a company profile that will intrigue investors and engage them to take action afterwards? The key to this question is to speak the “language” of the investors. Getting in their heads and thinking the way they do will take all the guess work out of the process. Here are a few tips on how to do that.

Be clear on what you’re doing

A common mistake entrepreneurs make is to not clearly state the problem they are solving in their respective marketplace. They'll talk about the features of the product and get romantically lost in their own brilliance instead of emphasizing the benefits of their solution, who it helps, and how it will help them. Be very explicit about the problem you are tackling, and state exactly how you plan to solve it. 

Don't confuse me with details

Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of putting too much information in their company profile. Overwhelming an investor with tons of useless information will get you nowhere fast. An investor’s time and attention span is very short early on in the game. Limit your profile to the highlights emphasizing the points that make you stand out. Hit hard and lead with your biggest benefits without getting too wordy. Use words, sentences and paragraphs that are short and clear. Long words and technical jargon will make you seem pompous and disconnected. Your potential investors may not know a thing about your industry, so burdening them with words they don't understand is a sure way to lose their attention. So KISS also works for company profiles. Keep It Short and Simple

Speak on your biggest assets - you and your team

A typical startup company scrambles to maximize the effectiveness of the few tangible assets it has. One of the strongest assets of an early-stage startup is the team. A strong team is a valuable selling tool. Talk about your qualifications, skills, experience and background. Your team and what they bring is one of the first things investors will look at. They want the confidence that you can take their investment and turn it into the next big exit. You are your company, your company is you.

So these are three key points that you need to address when writing your company profile. If you don't have the time to invest in this between development, marketing, biz dev, administration and the thousands of other tasks occupying your mind, you can outsource it to a professional copywriter. These web content providers specialize in writing services that can be targeted to different audiences (e.g. investors vs. users), but nonetheless, it's important for you to stay deeply involved in the process. Nobody can tell your story better than you.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Birth of a writing services business

A business is born

What happened?

It was sparked off by the convergence of two major events in my life. The first was the fact that the technology company I worked in for many years, closed down. Most employees (including yours truly) were laid off (under generous terms, so no need to feel bad), while a few were kept on to tie up loose ends. The second event was my turning 50. Yes...that magical number did something to me.

Why writing services?
I had been toying with the idea of doing something independently for quite some time - and the confluence of these two events presented the opportunity. I felt like “it’s now or never”. So after a brief experiment with an idea I had for a startup (that quickly died in an Excel spreadsheet), I took the direction of writing services. Why writing services? Well, I had plenty of experience writing different texts in the various positions I held over the years. Many of those years were in Product Marketing where I engaged in a variety of writing assignments from web content to technical RFx proposals. I remembered how much I enjoyed putting the finishing touches on a writing assignment - and how proud I was when my submissions to industry competitions won prizes for my company.

So I went about the technicalities of setting myself up as an “Authorized Dealer” or “Osek Murshe” as the term goes in Israel. This meant opening files with the different government agencies - Internal Revenue, National Insurance and VAT. I got myself a great accountant who briefed me on everything I needed, and in fact he handled all the beaurocracy. “Hey presto” - within a couple of days I was ready to do business.

Or was I? 

Here I am. Come on. Bring on the business. Don’t push. It’s not quite like that as we all know. I need to set up my web presence and let the world know I exist (which is one of the points of this blog of course). So first I got myself a logo designed on fiverr by a great graphic designer called actualreviewnet. He also did the cover photo for my Facebook business page (yes, please go ahead and “like” it).  Then I needed a website. So this was my project for a while. I went with Wix because they provided the best tools and templates, for someone as graphically inept as me, to create something that looked half way decent. And since my business cards were delivered last week, I can now say that my infrastructure is done.

Lessons learnt so far
So I'm ready to go, and already have me a couple of great customers. Even in this short time, I've learnt a few valuable lessons:
  • You can get some great quality work on Fiverr. It makes starting a business affordable under any circumstances
  • Go to meetups - they’re really interesting, you meet people who are really doing stuff and they’re great for networking
  • When out networking, keep your business cards loose in your pocket so that you can whip them out easily. Don’t futz about trying to extract them from ill-fitting holders.
  • I’ve got so much to learn.