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Who will win Tim Ferriss’s Business Competition? (and the need for a Z Combinator program)

Today Tim Ferriss and Shopify announced a $100k business competition.  They will award a $100,000 prize to a new company that has the highest two months of consecutive revenue within the next six months.  I immediately thought – can I predict the type of business that will win this competition?  Who will be the entrepreneur that will win?

After looking into the competition, I found out the business had to be built on a Shopify store (duh, why else would they sponsor it), so the type of business that will win is fairly obvious – it will be a online store.  They will also likely sell a product at zero profit margin or even at a loss (higher volume of sales).  They also won’t waste time building the product they sell, but will instead sell an existing product.

However, the second question still remains…

Who will be the entrepreneur that wins?

***Spoiler Alert ****

It is someone who you already know.

I love this competition because it addresses a challenge that is rarely talked about in entrepreneurship classes or the early days of a startup– the challenge of acquiring customers.  When I talk to many new startups I often hear them channeling Kevin Costner —  “if you build it, they will come.”

We need a Z Combinator Program

yc500I loved my experience with Y Combinator – and I love the motto “make something people want.”  My co-founder and I went through the Y Combinator program, and Xobni would not exist if it weren’t for the money, guidance, and network Paul and crew provided.  The problem however is that many startups come into Y Combinator, build a product, and expect a Techcrunch blog post to accelerate their startup to escape velocity.  This almost never happens.  Making something people want is still the most important step for a startup, but users turn a product into a business.  We need a Z Combinator program to address this second step ( is already taken – I tried buying it).

The next step after building a product is making sure people know about it.  I like to say the role of an entrepreneur/founder is to “make something people want and make sure they know about it.”  I see these as the two important roles of product and marketing inside a company. The final step is becoming a profitable business, but in my experience few companies that have solved these first two challenges falter on the last piece.

The Rich Get Richer

There is a huge advantage for to companies that already have distribution – they sidestep the difficult second step.  A simple example that proves this point is Axe body spray (let’s forget for a moment that they are a division of Unilver).  Axe started with a simple new product with a great marketing campaign.  They succeeded and got huge distribution.  Now they can easily sell new product lines: body wash, shampoo, etc, because they’ve already solved the distribution problem.


A favorite counter example often heard is, “what about Google, they won because they had the best product?”  I think there is a lot to this, and with technology-enhanced megaphones like Twitter and Facebook amplifying word-of-mouth, great products are even more quickly bubbling to the top (this is an exciting trend I hope to write more about soon).  However, do you know how Google really hit escape velocity?  They did a deal with Yahoo, who at the time was the world’s biggest search engine. I remember seeing it “yahoo search, powered by google”  That was a huge mistake by yahoo and it was a coup for google.  Google made something people wanted but yahoo made sure people knew about it.

Back to the $100k business competition…

Because existing businesses are not permitted to enter this competition, the winner will most likely be an entrepreneur with an existing strong personal brand.  Someone like Tim Ferris (as a co-sponsor he won’t be competing), ijustine, or Ashton Kutcher.  The winner will have 100,000 or more twitter followers, a name we all know, and they will sell something they didn’t make.

Oh, and one more thing about the entrepreneur that will win – the person is going to need some free time to work on this new business, and not be tied up with another project.  Or, at least enough time to hire someone else to work on it for them.
May the best, already popular, currently available entrepreneur win!

No one cares about your stupid little startup – 5 tips to make them care

This post is adapted from a talk I gave at Sutherland Gold’s PR Bootcamp in October 2009.

The title of this post “No one cares about your stupid little startup” was a message I learned in the earliest days of Xobni during a phone call with SiteAdvisor and Hunch founder Chris Dixon.   To this day, I still haven’t met Chris in person (Chris if you come across this post, we’ve got to catch up next time I’m in NYC), but this one phrase has guided every step of my thinking for Xobni’s PR strategy for the past 3 and a half years.

I’ve embeded my presentation below.  The presentation will take you through our path to 3 million downloads.  The first half of the presentation isn’t PR specific but outlines our stages of user development.  I outline how we rolled our product out to the masses through carefully planned stages: stealth, closed beta, nerd scarcity, invite beta, public beta,official launch, and business model driven growth (the current stage).

The second half of the presentation specifically focuses on five tips and case studies for how to drive awareness for your startup through PR.  I’ve  broken out the latter half of the presentation below and included much more explanation than I was able to put in powerpoint.

Here is a link to the preso just incase the embed above doesn’t work for you

1.  Tie yourself to a bigger trend

This is the best way for a startup to hack the PR system.  There are thousands of startups.  Why should a journalist write about yours?  Yet, they all love to write about Facebook, Information Overload,  and Google vs. Microsoft.  So, tie yourself to one of these trends.

For Xobni, we tied ourselves to the following trends

  • The web inside your inbox
  • Facebook crossing into the business world
  • Email, the oldest social network
  • Enterprise software is going grassroots
  • Email overload

But you can’t just say you are part of a trend, you have to make some noise so people pay attention.  So here is what we did.

Remember a couple years ago how Facebook would send you an email that said “you have a message,” but didn’t send you the content of the message?  I hated that.   Turns out, a lot of people hated this.


So, one night we made a Facebook app that would put a big button on your Facebook page that said “Stop!  Email Me Instead” and when a user clicked the button, it opened an email addressed to you.   You could also one-click reply to any Facebook message with this button and kindly ask the sender “Please email me instead.”

EmailMeButton10 thousand people installed our app in less than a week. Fred Wilson, VentureBeat, and others wrote about it.  We hadn’t even announced what Xobni’s real product was and yet we were already working on our PR.

2.  Take every opportunity to meet a journalist in person

I won’t say much, other than two quick corollaries.  First, use a product feedback session as a way to build a relationship before you are ever looking for a story. Tech journalists like Arrington, Om, Rafe and others have seen a lot products come and go.  They have a good idea of what works.  Have them look at your product way before you need that press hit  “ah.” (arm slap, arm slap – think trainspotting heroin injection)  You’ll get some good product feedback and you’ll build a relationship that is deeper than any press release.

Second, this all become much easier if you are in a tech capital where tech journalists and bloggers are living their lives.  The ability to bump into a writer from the WSJ, TechCrunch, or CNet on a street corner is an under appreciated benefit of basing your company in the SFBay.

3.  Heavily engage with users – WOM is better than PR

A few things we’ve done that seemed to work well:

  • Our 5th employee was a customer support guy
  • We have an elite alpha forum of 500 users that test and provide feedback way ahead of the general public.  And they worship Tyler our QA lead and his rare form of tough love.


    Tough Love Tyler

  • We continue to stay focused on individual users.  I try to do one phone call per week with a user.  It resulted in a good blog series.
  • We have a special twitter handle for customer support xobni_support
  • And we send out a lot of t-shirts :) is one company that has made their blue ribbon customer support a PR story in and of itself.

4.  Journalists are people.  People are lazy.  Therefore, journalists are lazy.

Most startups are on to this trick.  Just like you design your product for the expected laziness of your users, build a press center for lazy journalists.  They are people too.

We have a webpage dedicated to everything a journalist could ever need (screenshots, videos, company history, investors) in one spot.  A product video on youtube can do miracles.  You can help a blogger understand your product without having to try it and they’ll often put the youtube video in their blog.

5.  Be a source  of data

The press may not care about your product, but they often will care about the data your company has can provide.  Do you remember Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the Superbowl?  It was the most replayed piece of television ever recorded.  Tivo had the data.


I know that was the first time I ever thought, “Damn, I wish I had a Tivo.”

Our 3rd Revenue Line in 4 months

I had to write about tonight’s announcement because it is a little bit nostalgic for me – tonight we launched our Salesforce extension, which is a premium service that connects Xobni (and Outlook) to

I’m proud of the team for launching three business models in the last 4 months (if you didn’t see the other business models, check them out here and here).  We spent the first three years of the company putting together the vision, conceiving a product people would use on a daily basis, raising the money to build the product, hiring the team to build the product, and getting that product into the hands of 3 million people.  It is exciting to finally be at the point where Xobni is making money.  I never thought it would take so long.

Tonight’s announcement is the first monetization our web services extensions (although for the next few months during the beta period, we won’t be charging for it, so get it now salesforce users!).   This is cool (1) because we’ve been excited to monetize our web services extensions since we added the first free ones: linkedin, facebook and hoovers.  But this is even more exciting (2) because rarely do things from your early business plans make it to fruition, but this did.   I dug up our old business summary from 2006 (which I won’t share in its entirety here), but here are some of our early thoughts:

Xobni Relationships will be adopted by power networkers and salespeople.  It will become part of their relationship management tool set.  A professional version will contain all the functionality of Xobni , plus advanced features such as integration into  Our enterprise product will contain all of the above and aggregation of a group’s data.  With integration, a sales manager can view the aggregated sales activity of his team as a feed in his Xobni sidebar.

And while I’m at it, here is the conclusion of the business summary that does a good job encapsulating Xobni’s vision still today

Email is the internet’s last bastion of underused data.  Google organized all of the web’s information by making search work well.  But there is more information in email than on the web.  How many kilobytes of web page data did you produce in your life?  Far less than the megabytes of email you’ve written.  *Even though there is more information in email, it is underutilized.*

An email also contains richer information than a web page.  It contains usage, trend, relationship, and time data which extends beyond the email’s content.

Xobni organizes and displays this data in useful ways.

Fortunately for Adam and I, I didn’t post a lot of the stuff from the original business plan that was far from being accurate.   Especially the parts about when we would launch stuff.  Boy were we off on that.

Update:  While I was writing this post, our launch got picked up by MG at Techcrunch.  Read more here

Starting Is The Hardest Part

A few weeks ago I completely ruptured my right Achillies tendon.  I will be spending the next 3 months doing very little other than sitting behind a computer, book, or tv (likely in that order).  So, it happens to be a perfect time to start a new project: this blog.

I’ve been meaning to start a blog for a long time – but I’ve been so busy working on Xobni that it has been tough to get the free time to write outside of work.  Fortunately, I recently hired a great new head of communication that will be taking over responsibility for the Xobni blog – a responsibility I’ve had for over 3 and a half years. Hopefully this will open up time for me to write more on my personal blog.

Like any new project the hardest and most important part is actually getting started.  So, I’m starting today. I don’t know where this will end up.   I’ve got a good idea for where it will start, but I know it will change.

The Idea

I like to surround myself with makers – people that do stuff.  I wrote a blog post about a few of these friends 3 years ago. My friend Trip from Scribd encouraged me to post my article on his website.  It has now been viewed over 19 thousand times.

I also really like meeting new people and listening to their dreams.  A lot of entrepreneurs come to me these days asking for advice on product, marketing, building a company, and inevitably raising money.

So I’m starting out with the theme of Matt Brezina & Friends for this blog.  I’m going to write about the people I meet and the things they are making as well as about projects I’m working on.

I’ve never been one to spend time with a narrow group of friends. I usually find myself spending time with a broad range of friends with a myriad of backgrounds.  So you’ll just as easily find me writing here about new bands following their dream,  software companies solving new problems,  non-profit entrepreneurs solving the world’s problems, or even my oldest buddy spending a whole year as a “full-time friend.”  I think I’ll write about that last guy first – he has an incredible story.