The best tips and tricks from this year’s Lab series

Rachel Quon
Dec 19, 2019 · 10 min read

Our favorite golden nuggets from the experts we brought in to share their knowledge with our portfolio founders, CEOs, product/sales/marketing leaders, and managers of all kinds

Our Learning Labs and LabXs (taking a cue from TEDx) were built to create a community focused on learning and inspiring everyone with new ideas on how to get better at whatever they do. The series seeks to educate not just founders and CEOs, but team members in key functions and provide them with tools, resources, and templates that they can use right away.

The idea dates to the end of 2017, when I joined VictorOps for one of their team dinners at AWS re:Invent. I chatted with co founder and COO, Bryce Ambraziunas, and when I asked him what else we can be doing to help, he mentioned that he knows that we provide our portfolio CEOs with valuable workshops and many resources, but suggested that we should really be doing so for the team members with boots on the ground. After all, these are the people who are executing and most of the time have limited resources.

I brought this feedback back and Martina and I created a series of functional workshops for early stage CEOs and their teams (which can often be teams of one). Over the course of the past two years, we solicited feedback to help us better customize the content and format of each Lab so that attendees always walked away with actionable processes and templates and the opportunity to develop their own “team” and network of peers to do more ongoing idea sharing.

Below you can find some of the key learnings from this year’s Labs that apply to anyone in a startup— from founders and CEOs to demand gen leads to product designers to the VP of Sales.


Startup CEO Advice

  • Go-to-market fit is just as important as product market fit. Instead of trying to create a sales funnel funnel, you need to create a customer flywheel that provides a steady but manageable stream of business. (from CEO LabX with Brian Halligan, CEO of Hubspot)
  • You can only find GTM-fit outside your building. Engage with your market and find the TRUE urgency which is usually different than what you originally thought. (from GTM-fit LabX with Bob Tinker, Cofounder & Former CEO of MobileIron)
  • Hire a Davy Crocket ‘pioneer’-style rep to do this early work, not a VP of Sales. A good VP of Sales wants to come into something that is working. They aren’t the ones to do the work to figure out how to line up with an urgent wave. Try new stories, find your path through your woods. (from GTM-fit LabX with Bob Tinker, Cofounder & Former CEO of MobileIron)
  • Select only one GTM model to grow fast. You can experiment to figure out which works best, but commit to one at a time to succeed at hypergrowth. (from GTM-fit LabX with Bob Tinker, Cofounder & Former CEO of MobileIron)
  • Create a repeatable playbook. One page, maybe two. It charts the physics of the customer journey. It is not your salesforce stages. It’s the customers’ view of their journey with you. (from GTM-fit LabX with Bob Tinker, Cofounder & Former CEO of MobileIron)
  • Keep a short weekly to-do list (6–7 items max) and distributed to everyone in the company. Ensure that team members are helping your company make progress on its most important priorities by sharing a short list of high-priority items every week. (from CEO LabX with Brian Halligan, CEO of Hubspot)

Product Management

  • True customer discovery means assessing risks before you build. Most minimum viable products (MVPs) are more heavyweight than they need to be. A lighter touch works better. You should focus less on whether you can build and support an idea and more on whether people will buy it and use it. And remember: startups are almost never in a category by themselves. Someone will always claim to do something similar or better. You need to find out not only if there is demand for particular product, but also if there is demand for it from you. (from Product Lab with Chris Jones, SVPG)
  • Contact customers more frequently. Modern best practices dictate that you should interact with customers at least three times a week and continue customer discovery after you have validated your concept and are building it. There are plenty of tools that can help you involve outside users, but there is no substitute for getting out of the building and seeing customers use your products in their daily lives. Context impacts the perception of value. (from Product Lab with Chris Jones, SVPG)
  • Six is a magic number. In early growth stages, you need at least six people outside the building to give you a positive or negative signal on an idea. This is also the minimum number of early evangelists you want to have. (from Product Lab with Chris Jones, SVPG)
  • Ideal ratios for product teams. How many people should you have any job function? Generally speaking, there are specific ratios that are useful to remember in early-stage growth. They are: one project manager, one designer, and 1–10 engineers (4–6 is average), along with fractional time from PMMs and data analysts. Remember especially not to underinvest in design. Designers often drive discovery iteration, which doesn’t typically happen enough in B2B companies. (from Product Lab with Chris Jones, SVPG)
  • Product managers should be customer experts. Product leads should have 15–30 customer conversations before they even start creating. If you are a founder, and your PMs don’t know more about your customers than you do, they need to get out of the building more. (from Product Lab with Chris Jones, SVPG)

On SEO, content marketing, lead generation, and positioning

  • The effectiveness of both sales and marketing is directly correlated to how well coordinated they are. In our marketing Lab on demand gen and positioning, Lisa Ames shared that when her team unpacked demand generation, marketing efficiency could improve without any increase in spend or change in tactics. Instead of trying to inject marketing into the sales process, she found that coordination with sales follow up and having sales right marketing waves move the needle. (from Marketing Lab: Demand Gen & Positioning)
  • Stop saying “Request a Demo.” It never converts above average, whereas a call-to-action (CTA) like “Watch a 5 minute video” does way better and is also a better customer experience. Experiment with different CTAs until you get to 10% conversion. (from GTM Lab: Using SEO and Digital Strategies to Drive Leads with Garrett Mehrguth, CEO at Directive)
  • Invest in making your content better than anyone else’s. It takes time to do content well. Add more keywords and terms organized around what people are naturally searching for that is close to what you’re already talking about. This increases your likelihood of discovery and improves your perception of expertise. (from GTM Lab: Using SEO and Digital Strategies to Drive Leads with Garrett Mehrguth, CEO at Directive)
  • Distinct positioning requires telling a different story. Nobody wants another vendor. Even if you lead your category, you still build a story not just about your technology, but about solving a problem in a larger context. And if you can’t tell your story without using the following words, you’re not trying hard enough: flexible, comprehensive, collaborative, scalable, agile, easy-to-use, and platform. Own your corner by defining other corners and placing your competition on them. (from Marketing Lab: Demand Gen & Positioning with Bob Wright, Firebrick Consulting)

On sales prospecting, target customers, closing deals, and building great demos

  • Multithreaded prospecting — making contact with every entry point you can, using multiple channels — boosts conversion, even for SMBs. When prospecting for business, make sure you’re using all communications channels at your disposal including email, phone, direct mail, events, social, site personalization, content development and so on. The more you can reach out and make contact the better. (from Sales Lab: Challenger Method with Craig Rosenberg, cofounder of TOPO)
  • Develop a target customer profile even at the earliest stages. You can develop your ideal customer profile by starting big (your target market) then focusing on a small list of selected process starts large (target market) but gets refined to a very narrow set of selected (from Sales Lab: Challenger Method with Craig Rosenberg, cofounder of TOPO)
  • Build great demos using the “Tell-Show-Tell” method. Break your demo into multiple loops. TELL about the situation and the steps; SHOW the software steps while adding benefit statements; then TELL the primary operational benefit. You can then assemble the demo into multiple TELL-SHOW-TELL loops. (from Sales Lab: Building Great Demos with Aaron Jacobs from Demo2Win)
  • Focus your messaging on the Value Pyramid. Make sure your messaging resonates at three levels: Operational — the impact on their jobs; Management — productivity gains and risk reduction; and Executive — strategic goals and initiatives. (from Sales Lab: Building Great Demos with Aaron Jacobs from Demo2Win)
  • Great prospect emails follow the RRR format. Relevance: How is your product relevant to them. Reward: what content with insight or benchmark information can you offer. Request: ask for a time to speak or engage. (from Sales Dinner: Prospecting Best Practices with Shari Johnston at Winning By Design)
  • Be easy to do business with. Build your playbooks and messaging strictly from a customer point of view and a buyer journey. (from Sales Dinner: Prospecting Best Practices with Shari Johnston at Winning By Design)

What great managers do

  • The ideal ratio of positive feedback to improvement feedback is 4:1. Great managers regularly highlight the positives, but don’t sugarcoat the improvement feedback. When delivering improvement feedback, 1. ask if it is a good time to provide feedback so no one is surprised; 2. establish shared intent; 3. focus on the facts and specific behaviors; and 4. make sure you give the feedback as close to the actual event as possible. (from CEO and Exec Lab: Giving and Receiving Feedback with Rebecca Zucker, NextStep Partners)
  • Constructive feedback is a gift — but is not always easy to receive. “The important thing when receiving feedback is to take a moment to acknowledge that your emotions have kicked in, and do your best to identify or articulate them.” (from CEO and Exec Lab: Giving and Receiving Feedback with Rebecca Zucker, NextStep Partners)
  • How you manage your team is how you build culture. This is true regardless of scale. The most successful companies in the valley thought about their crop culture at the earliest stages of their growth. Culture helps deliver on results and the bottom line. (from Talent LabX: Getting Great at Management with Tanya Koshy, VP of Product at UserTesting)
  • Don’t underestimate the effort it takes to do hiring well. The key is great hiring to have transparency and consistency in the interview process. Every team member on the interview committee should have a set role and outline of questions. It’s important to know who is asking what so that people don’t all ask the same questions, which can be tiring for the candidate. Set questions also help to avoid bias. You should also always use blind (no-name) resumes and debrief with blind written feedback and in person discussions with the interview committee. (from Talent LabX: Getting Great at Management with Tanya Koshy, VP of Product at UserTesting)
  • Set goals as a team for the year then revisit quarterly. Stretch goals are a great at pushing people, but it’s also good to align on what is a stretch goal and what is unrealistic. A good benchmark is to have 70% of your goals realistic and 30% a stretch. (from Talent LabX: Getting Great at Management with Tanya Koshy, VP of Product at UserTesting)
  • Regular one-on-ones are crucial to building trust and effectiveness. One-on-ones offer a great opportunity to build a relationship, line on priorities given get feedback, and unblock anything that is keeping an employee from being successful. Direct reports should check in once a week, while more senior managers should check in once a month. Questions to ask include:

— What are your top priorities?

— What do you need help with?

— What did you do last week/ what are you doing next week?

— What’s going well?

(from Talent LabX: Getting Great at Management with Tanya Koshy, VP of Product at UserTesting)

  • Offer a referral fee for all high demand or high-priority hires, not just technical ones. Many companies offer referral fees for technical hires but not sometimes equally valuable hires, like sales and marketing. Unfortunately, this makes it look as though the company does not value everyone equally. That’s not message you want your employees to get. (from Talent LabX: Getting Great at Management with Tanya Koshy, VP of Product at UserTesting)
  • Ditch the $!@* sandwich model for feedback. The so-called “$!@* sandwich” model of feedback advises that managers first offer praise, then corrective criticism, then more praise. The idea is to soften the blow and keep morale high. Unfortunately, what really happens is that the corrective message gets lost in the positive feedback. Instead, make giving and receiving feedback part of your culture and encourage employees to ask questions to discuss it. (from Talent LabX: Getting Great at Management)
  • Remote teams require 3x the amount of communication to make them feel like they are a part of the team. It’s important to be flexible and even friendly during one-on-ones with remote employees. It’s okay to simply take time to catch up on each other’s lives. One idea is to “go on walks” together where your both walking and on the phone. (from Talent LabX: Getting Great at Management with Margie Mader-Clark, VP of People at Gladly)
  • Create structure around compensation and leveling — and do it at the same time every year. When you company reaches 50–75 employees, you should arm all managers with tools for every scenario they might encounter. A good idea is to role-play prior to having these discussions. (from Talent LabX: Getting Great at Management with Johnathan Hodge, COO at Skedulo)

Thank you to all of our speakers for sharing their tips and tricks with us!

If you like what you read be sure to share on social or give the author a round of applause!

www.costanoavc.com

Costanoa Ventures

We back tenacious and thoughtful founders who change how…

Rachel Quon

Written by

@costanoavc | former player for @chicagoredstars | @stanford alum

Costanoa Ventures

We back tenacious and thoughtful founders who change how business gets done.

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