How to attract A-players

As a company, you’re only as good as the quality of your team. That’s why A-companies are almost always run by A-teams, backed by A-investors and work for A-clients. And by A, I mean Awesome. The problem is though that Awesome is hard. Hard to find, hard to motivate and hard to retain. It’s the way it is.

To make the matters even worse, Awesome people always have options. Everybody wants to hire them because they get things done, they push the company forward and they attract other A-listers. So in a world where A-people can get any job they want, how does one find, motivate and retain A-players?

Reputation. Let’s take Yahoo! as a case-study. A few weeks ago, you wouldn’t be able to get an A-lister even 10 miles close to a Yahoo! office. Today, thanks to Marissa Mayer’s reputation, I’m sure many A-players would love to join the company. Reputation works well because you can’t fake it. You’re either an A-player or you’re not. You’re either an awesome startup, with an awesome product and awesome clients, or you’re not. There’s only so much hot air and smoking mirrors you can project, but smart people will always spot you out. Awesome people look for awesome companies, so those who figure out how to communicate that well externally will attract the best of the best.

Thoughts on execution

When it comes to startups, everybody has ideas, many of which are good. Yet only a few execute like the bad ass entrepreneur we all want to become: faster and better than the other guy working on the same thing. Great execution is hard. Real hard. And while everybody speaks about how important it is, nobody talks about how to do it. So lately I’ve been asking myself what separates the Zucks from everyone else? The list below is by no means complete or comprehensive, but it’s stuff that helps me become better when it’s time to step it up and execute.

For starters, know your objectives like the back of your hand. Most people know where they want to be, but very few know how they’re going to get there. A million members by the end of the year? That’s great. But how are you going to get there? What are your assumptions? What happens if the assumptions are wrong?

Once you know your objectives, use a planning methodology to make sure everyone is on the same page. At Brainient, we use John Doerr’s Objectives and Key Results framework. It helps our management team align the entire company to one main objective.

Build a world class team. The thing is, single-handed innovation is a myth. Steve Jobs was undoubtedly a genius, but he also had an amazing team behind that got things done. I’ve been lucky to have a core team of a few people who’ve been around ever since I started my first company. They are amazing and I know I can rely on them under any circumstances.

Focus. It’s obviously much easier to execute really well on fewer things. The problem comes when you have to decide which ones to focus on, and while there’s no right or wrong answer with this one, it’s always best to focus on the stuff that gets you more traction (whether that’s users or revenue).

Set tight deadlines. At Brainient, all our product efforts revolve around events (presentations, PR events, board meetings, etc). This gives us a hard date that we need to reach whenever we’re launching something. It keeps the team focused on executing as fast and as well as they can.

So that’s it. At the end of the day, the company with the best product has more chances to win than the one with a crappy product. Great products require great execution, which is the most valuable skill an entrepreneur can build.

 

Delivering instant gratification

Over the past week, we’ve been working on a new presentation video at Brainient and we needed a voiceover for it. If it were 1999, we would have had to put up an ad in a newspaper, organise an audition and hire a studio. It would’ve taken about a month and cost $3,000. In 2012, we just uploaded our voiceover text to a website called Voices.com and two hours later we had 65 people who had auditioned, offering to do the whole thing for an average cost of $150. That’s 100 times faster and 20 times cheaper.

The internet has enabled humanity to achieve many great things, and one of these things is the ability to deliver instant gratification to almost every existing sector, from retail, to film, to finance, to voiceovers. And I’d go as far as saying that the success of many of the great companies of our generation is very much based on the ability to deliver gratification in real-time. It’s why iTunes, Spotify, Kindle, Netflix and Google’s AdWords have thrived and grown at such an enormous pace as they have.

Now, not long ago the lack of the psychological trait of being able to delay gratification used to be considered somewhat of a psychological disfunction but the internet has made it absolutely normal to expect things to be delivered instantly. Would you rather wait 3 days for a book or have it delivered on your device in 3 seconds? Would you prefer to wait 1 month for a voiceover or have it deliver in 1 day? Would you like your software to come in a box or do you prefer to download it from your phone?

People want instant gratification and if you’re not delivering it, chances are that another company will. It can be a serious competitive edge or it can bury you. So next time you think about a new product or a new feature, ask yourself if it makes your customers or users feel good, in real-time. The best products are a lot like chocolate – they offer a strong kick when tasted and always make you come back for more.

Why startups should charge customers. A lot.

There’s a mistake many startups make (yours truly included) when they first start talking to customers: “yeah, we’re early stage so you can use it for free until we get out of beta”; or, “yeah, you’re a beta client so we’ll give you a big discount”. After all, there’s nothing wrong with getting pilot clients to prove your business, right? Um, wrong. The thing is that if you get customers used to the fact they get stuff for free, they’ll never want to spend a lot of money on it. And if you give them a discounted rate from the beginning, they’ll never want to pay more. It sucks. Of course, if your product’s like crack and gets them addicted instantly, by all means offer a free trial but for a very limited period of time.

We’ve been through this at Brainient. In order to prove that our business works, we went in and gave customers access to our platform at discounted rates. That worked well to get some proof of concept, but 12 months in we went back asking for more money and, surprise, surprise, they weren’t willing to pay much more. Main argument? “Well, if you could offer me this for that price, it means you’re just charging more to make better margin.”

So, next time you go speaking to customers – charge your full rates regardless what stage your company’s at (and prove the value of the product, by the way). It’s better to have them come back for discounts rather than you going to them asking for more money. Lesson learned.

Big data, big paycheck

If I had a 10 year old today (which to my knowledge I don’t) I’d encourage her to start learning statistics. Looking around, a good data scientist nowadays can make a fortune while solving fascinating problems. Some of our generation’s fastest growing technology companies – Google, Facebook, Twitter – are data companies at heart. Google with PageRank, Facebook with Social Graph, Twitter with Firehose, and so on. Everywhere you see a successful company, you see data.

But it’s not the data that’s valuable because most of it can, ultimately, be bought. The biggest challenge is creating the right algorithms to make sense of your data. Google created AdSense. Facebook created Facebook Ads. Twitter hasn’t figured it out yet, but I’m sure they will, provided that they find the right – you guessed it – data scientists.

The thing is that big data, as they call it these days, is such a new field that nobody really understands it. Ten years ago the only organisations who had access to big amounts of data were universities. These days, startups go from zero to millions of users and billions of data points in a matter of months. And most startups make very poor use of that data, if at all. Not because they don’t want to use it, but because there’s so much scarcity when it comes to people who actually know what they’re talking about.

So if you’re a techie, mathematician or geek who’s not sure which way to go, grab a statistics book and get going. Oh, and drop me an email as well because Brainient is hiring – you guessed it – a data scientist to work on some really interesting problems in the video advertising world.

It’s a Brainient New Year

As you may have seen, we’ve raised $1.8M from a few fantastic investors, backers of companies like DataXu, AdSafe Media and RevenueMax. I’m thrilled and very excited, because I think 2012 will be the year advertisers start using video for more than just reach and eyeballs.

My thesis around video is quite simple: all online advertising mediums besides video (search, social, display) are highly targeted, personalised and interactive. Even more, they’re all paid on performance (most often on a CPC). Video is still in the only advertising medium still paid on a CPM, very often poorly targeted, with no personalisation and no interactivity. That’s why we created Brainient. Video should be highly targeted, personalised, interactive and paid on performance – and we want to be the company to do it.

In order to deliver on this thesis, we created two products:

BrainRolls – an interactive video platform aimed at brand advertisers looking for viewer engagement rather than sales. It makes pre-rolls interactive enabling advertisers to engage their viewers. For example, BMW can enable viewers to book a test-drive, download a brochure or find near-by branches, right within the video ad. Engagement rates go up to 15%, which makes our advertisers really happy.

BrainAds – the first personalised video retargeting platform in the world, aimed at Direct Response advertisers looking to generate sales. Historically, video advertising has been all about reach and brand awareness. However, thanks to retargeting technology, RTB (real-time bidding) platforms and dynamic video processing algorithms, advertisers can now generate sales and build brand awareness at the same time. For example, an advertiser like ASOS.com can now retarget people with a pre-roll showing them the products they looked at on the site, right within the actual pre-roll.

We’ll be using the new financing to expand our client services and technology teams in London and Bucharest, and open a new office in New York. I’m looking forward to working together with the new investors to make Brainient the leading company in its space.

 

Planning your startup’s objectives, the Steve Jobs way

Those of you who’ve read Steve Jobs’ biography may remember the stories about his annual “company retreats” – trips organised in a remote location where his entire (management) team could focus on product, strategy and stay away from the day-to-day operations. While reading the stories when the biography came out, it seemed an amazing way to align the whole team to one unified vision, brainstorm, and prepare the product roadmap and company strategy. So this year I decided to organise a company retreat for the entire Brainient team.

The outcome of the trip has exceeded all my expectations. After spending four days with the team deep in the Carpathian mountains, not only is everyone aware of and aligned to one big objective, but we’ve set goals for each member of the team and prepared a detailed product roadmap. In other words, we know where we’re going and how to get there. And we also had lots of fun along the way. I strongly recommend that you try it for your startup, regardless of whether you’re five people or fifty. And here are a few tips to help you get started:

Go somewhere remote. It will help the team mentally disconnect from the day-to-day stuff. We chose to rent an entire cottage up in the Carpathian mountains in Romania. All we had was an internet connection, our laptops and a whiteboard. Living and working under the same roof for a few days can create incredibly tight bonds within the team.

Set a clear outcome and keep a tight schedule. Each day, we had at least 4 hours of discussions on a predefined agenda. We had a different theme each day: strategy, BrainRolls, BrainAds and objective planning / product roadmap. Our plan was to align the whole team to the same objective and make sure everyone has defined their goals for the year and for the first quarter of 2012.

Use a planning methodology. It makes it a lot easier to plan things out and align everyone to one objective. At Brainient, we use OKRP (Objectives and Key Results Planning), a methodology used by the likes of Zynga, Facebook and Google. Here’s how Google does OKRs, for example.

Have fun. Product planning and brainstorming can be tiring, so we made sure we had lots of fun prepared. From trips to the mountains to barbecues, Texas Hold ‘em, four on the couch or pushing our cars out of the snow upon departure, it felt more like a fun camp in the mountains than an intense company planning trip.

It’s a very comforting thought for a founder / CEO to know that every single member of the team knows what they have to achieve, and I can’t thing of a better and faster way to do it than the Steve Jobs way.