October 16th, 2014

Challenging startup conventions

Startups are the very definition of going against the grain and doing something different. Yet, during my time as an entrepreneur, I’ve noticed they have their own set of conventions around how things should be done - whether it’s fundraising, developing a growth strategy or hiring new employees.

I disagree with this notion strongly, and believe that each startup needs to find its own unique path to success. There is no incorrect of doing things, and in fact, those who take the lesser-known approach are often more successful.

Yesterday, I shared a keynote presentation on this very topic with MaGIC, a fast-growing entrepreneurship center in Malaysia led by my good friend Cheryl Yeoh.

Cheryl and I met during the rise of the New York tech ecosystem, both of us first-time entrepreneurs who were following our dreams in an environment ripe with opportunity. Over the course of a few years, we witnessed a unique transformation of New York from an also-ran to the second most funded tech ecosystem in the world (though, really, we’d happily tell you we’re #1). It was a result of the confidence, attitude and hard work of the entrepreneurs, who did what they could with the resources they had and ultimately became a magnet for the VC funding, accelerator programs and government involvement which followed years later.

One important aspect of the New York tech ecosystem is that we didn’t model ourselves on Silicon Valley or the conventional way of building a startup ecosystem. Rather, we built a community that was unique to our strengths, interest and experience. We took advantage of the diversity of our city, our dominance in many industries (fashion, real estate, banking, marketing, etc) and the city’s incredible geographic efficiency. 


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The story of New York is a great example for all emerging startup ecosystems, not only for the one in Malaysia where the seeds are already in place and the foundation for growth is excellent. Each of these ecosystems have something unique to share, but to be noticed, they must forge their own path and behave like a true Challenger. Government funding alone will not help them to succeed, nor will an attitude that’s focused more on what is lacking versus what is abundant.

Being a Challenger is difficult but very rewarding. I’ve often found that my ideas on marketing and growth run counter to startup conventions, which are dominated by blind faith in data and a culture of indiscriminate testing, while lacking a true focus on people. These ideas have been propagated for years by many who built the foundation of Silicon Valley. They’ve forgotten that people are the only ones that matter, especially as technology becomes more personal (think mobile and wearables) and increasingly molded to fit our lives.

My keynote in Malaysia was a great opportunity to articulate some of these opinions, which I list below and will discuss in more details in future blog posts:

  1. Put people at the center of your company
  2. Answer the “Why?” with deep human insights
  3. Invest in relationships
  4. Focus on one: customer, niche, message
  5. Celebrate great ideas
  6. Create a minimum beautiful product
  7. Think first, test later
  8. Create a growth process
  9. Make growth a team sport

Thanks to Cheryl for giving me the opportunity to share my perspective on startups and growth. The experience not only clarified my own beliefs on what is truly necessary for success, but also drew my attention to the incredible opportunities in emerging startup ecosystems around the world, including Malaysia, my home country of Poland and elsewhere.

It’s inspiring to see such excitement about technology and the gradual shift from shiny gadgets to products and services that truly enrich people’s lives. It validates the beliefs I’ve always held as true, and it motivates me to find the opportunities where I can truly excel.

I challenge everyone to forge their own path as well, and answer the question that Peter Thiel so eloquently posed:

"What important truth do very few people agree with you on?"

August 4th, 2014

Techstars Kaplan Accelerator

I’m excited to announce that be I’ll be mentoring the newest class of companies in the Techstars Kaplan Accelerator. The program, which runs overs the course of three months, provides twelve startups in education technology with advice and access to top entrepreneurs, investors and industry influencers, as well as cash and office space. The companies range from classic SaaS products to ecommerce and hardware businesses.

One of the unique aspects of the program is its focus on helping startups to build functional capabilities for their business. To achieve this, Techstars has invited a small group of mentors to meet with all companies on a regular basis and and work with them to implement ideas, processes and frameworks from several discplines. I will be focusing on marketing and growth, while my colleagues Chris, Lindsay and Andrew will cover customer development, user experience and analytics, respectively.

Below is the presentation I shared with the companies last week during program kickoff. In the spirit of education, I outline my philosophy on marketing, my plan to help them build core skills as well as the frameworks I will use to organize their thinking.

May 22nd, 2014

Themes from the M1 MobileFirst Summit 2014

Billed as the “black diamond” of mobile conferences, the very first M1 MobileFirst Summit on May 20th in New York was an epic affair, featuring 94 speakers, 28 panels and 700 attendees. The event was organized by Nihal Mehta of Eniac Ventures and Gary Moon of Headwaters MB, with the goal of bringing advanced-level conversations to the mobile community. While it certainly delivered on this promise, it also achieved much more. Over the course of the day, a high-caliber roster of mobile experts and top execs like Ken ChenaultMark Suster, and Shiv Singh shared their thoughts on the current state of the mobile industry as well as its future. A wide range of topics were covered in the conversations, ranging from mobile discovery, engagement and monetization to wearable technology and connected devices.

imageA full house at the M1 MobileFirst Summit

At times, the diversity of topics and fast pace of the panels made M1 feel a bit overwhelming. But this also made the conference special, as panelists were quick to share their opinions and engage in debates.

I had the opportunity to experience the M1 Summit from start to finish (minus the afterparty), attending numerous panels and live-tweeting the event. Not only did I build on my existing thinking on mobile, but I also had the opportunity to connect with a diverse group of people and a wide range of opinions. Below are the seven key themes that emerged across all of these discussions, as well as my thoughts on their implications.

1. Beyond mobile awareness
2. Moments as the currency of mobile
3. Owning the customer journey
4. Anticipating future needs
5. Holistic app distribution
6. Data-driven content
7. Wearables as an experience

Nihal Mehta and Gary Moon introducing the M1 Summit


Since the late 2000s, the mobile industry has been claiming that it’s finally “the year in mobile.” Each year, it has used this rallying cry to spur marketers into action, as many still underinvest in the medium despite data showing mobile is now the second most-important marketing channel after TV. At the M1 Summit, several panelists suggested that the phrase should be discontinued, as it does not help the industry to further its cause. In fact, there was consensus that awareness of mobile is not problem in the market; rather, it’s the complexity of the medium that makes it difficult to fully embrace.

In the panel on the Next Frontier of Mobile Advertising, Stephanie Bauer Marshall of Verizon mentioned that mobile still feels very chaotic for marketers. They are very much overwhelmed with the industry vernacular, technology choices and rapid pace of change, and need a guiding hand to navigate the channel.

imageJohn McDermott of Digiday hosting the panel on mobile advertising

In her fireside chat, Esther Lee of AT&T echoed the same sentiment for consumers, noting that they, too, are overwhelmed by mobile technology as much as they are empowered by it.

The key takeaway here is that industry needs to do more to educate its audience, rather than riding the wave of unprecedented growth and assuming that change will happen by itself. This includes providing ample resources to for teaching and training, as well as a high-level perspective on key industry topics. The Mobile Marketing Association has done a good job in the area, but more help is necessary. Even as companies are hiring a growing number of mobile marketing managers, the change of pace in mobile is simply too quick for them to keep up.


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Mobile is often viewed as an asynchronous set of activities that happen in short bursts and on the go. The erratic nature of these usage patterns means that marketers need to focus on “moments” - or specific points in time and space - to engage their users. This was the theme of Brian Wong’s afternoon keynote, in which he explained how Kiip thinks about customer rewards for brands.

Mark Ghermezian of Appboy also spoke of “moment engagement” in the Analytics, Data and Engagement for Mobile Publishers panel. He used the term in the context of understanding mobile users based on their behaviors and finding specific opportunities to engage them via notifications and messaging. 

imagePanelists speaking about mobile engagement and analytics 

Even Forrester Research has jumped on the moments bandwagon, including the concept in its upcoming book and even promoting the #MyMobileMoments hashtag. The company describes moments that are critical to many different professions, from sales and marketing to product usage and office work.

Mobile moments are not new per se. In fact, the concept has been used in the discipline of communications planning at advertising agencies for many years now to identify ways to reach consumers. But a growing recognition of the concept in mobile is a welcome sign, given the industry’s skew to technical rather than human-centric solutions. 


Related to mobile moments was the idea of owning the customer journey. Ken Chenault referenced the topic in his keynote, arguing that companies today should strive to become a trusted partner of their customers at each step of the decision-making process. Given that mobile provides 24/7 access to people and is always within arms’ reach, this is a highly desirable and differentiating position, but also a very tall order to execute.

imageKen Chenault, CEO of American Express, discussing mobile

To help the M1 audience think about the customer journey, Shiv Singh presented a simple framework in which cultural context and social pressures drive key insights behind the product experience and inform the way companies interact with their audience. This, in turn, creates strong customer relationships

Insights (cultural context + social pressures) >
Experience (product + actions taken) >
Consumer relationship 

On Twitter, Darren Herman suggested that mobile forces companies to think about interactions outside the transaction. This, of course, requires knowledge about what they do in between purchases as well as the motivations that drive their behavior.

It’s becoming clear that successful mobile companies create multiple customer interactions prior to a sale, and that these moments facilitate their path to the register or shopping cart. 


One of mobile’s greatest strengths is that it provides marketers with a variety of signals about people’s mindset and context, including their location (GPS), motion (accelerometer, gyroscope) and a view of the outside world (camera). While marketers should use this information to satisfy people’s current needs, they should also anticipate what the may want in the future.

Shiv Singh of Visa spoke on this topic at length, underscoring the need for marketers to map out customer journeys and actively search for ways to surprise and delight them. He referenced a few examples of this in action, including Visa’s 360 Cam at the Winter Olympics which gave fans access to a first-person view of athlete training.

Tom Philips of Dstillery has a similar perspective on the Cross-Platform Advertising panel. He spoke about the need for predictive analytics to understand customer behavior across multiple screens, so that marketers can get proactively anticipate their audience’s behaviors.

Rich Wong of Accel further echoed this sentiment, speaking about the rise of smart apps which do much of the thinking on behalf of mobile users.

I’ve written on the topic of anticipatory computing at length and can attest to its importance in the broader context of mobile. The reality is that smartphones today are still much too difficult to use and have an unbalanced ratio of effort to value. The more mobile companies can take the burden off users by identifying patterns in behaviors and capturing intent, the the higher their chances of creating long-term engagement. Apps like Google Now, Cover, Sunrise and Foursquare have found success on this very premise, and many others are following in their footsteps.

If building sophisticated algorithmic predictions is not feasible, mobile companies can still invest time understanding their customers to identify unmet needs.

imageNetworking breaks between M1 panels


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As I wrote in my summary of the recent NY Mobile Apps event, there is a growing need among apps to look beyond app stores for distribution. App store optimization (ASO) is not enough to outshine large incumbents, budgets for paid advertising are never sufficient, and getting featured by Apple or Google is highly unlikely. According to panelists at M1, it’s therefore important to supplement app store efforts with other marketing channels, both digital and traditional. 

In an early-morning fireside chat, Mark Suster referenced the ongoing importance of his classic post, Web Second, Mobile First, to industry thinking in 2014. He reminded the audience that “mobile first” means leading with mobile, but it does not mean ignoring other marketing channels.

Many companies have discovered this truth the hard way, per Erin Griffith, moderator of the Mobile Trends Among VCs panel. As a result, they have adopted web-based tactics which would have been even more valuable in earlier stages of growth.

There were also multiple references among M1 panelists about cross-promotion as a new channel of mobile distribution. Fred Wilson recently coined the phrase app constellations to describe how companies like Dropbox (Mailbox, Carousel), Google (Search, Maps, Drive), Facebook (Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram) and Foursquare (Swarm) have built portfolios of apps by unbundling their services. In doing so, they’ve also amassed a collective audience which can be used to jumpstart a new app very quickly, thus solving the distribution issue.

But even app constellations come with a caveat, per Semil Shah. New companies cannot afford such a strategy because they lack an existing app audience to draw from. As an alternative, however, we may see the rise of niche app networks created by a complementary group of apps who want to help each other build an audience.

In either case, everyone agrees that app distribution is becoming increasingly complex and requires a big-picture view of marketing. Apps today need to be more creative than ever before and allocate a significant chunk of time (~20-30%) to marketing experimentation outside of app stores.

imageM1 brochure and swag


Another rising theme in mobile is making use of the bevy of data that is collected by mobile devices. Privacy concerns aside, most companies are actually doing very little with this information to add value to the customer experience, which often results in low engagement rates and abandoned apps.

Steve Rosenblatt of Foursquare believes that mobile data needs to be paired with smart, relevant content. The new Swarm app, for example, sends people notifications when their friends are making plans nearby. This not only captures moments of social serendipity, but also gives people the opportunity to connect with their friends at convenient times and places.

Data-driven content is just in its infancy in mobile, but it has a bright future. As apps deal with the constant risk of fatigue and rely increasingly on messaging to engage their audience, they will continue to seek ways to keep their user experience fresh and interesting. To drive these results, they will need to employ data scientists on the quantitative front to make sense of information from hardware sensors and in-app behaviors, as well as editors and content marketers on the qualitative front to creatively articulate this information. I can see data-driven content becoming an important function in the app marketing process.


Last but not least, M1 featured several conversations about the future of wearables. The key takeaway from these discussions was the evolving definition of the term. To many companies on stage, wearables no longer connote hardware, but rather the entire experience built around these products.

This makes a lot of sense, given the shallow nature of the first wave of wearables to hit the market. As companies rush to build devices for every body part and use case (including wearables for dogs), they are forgetting to deliver real value to the experience. People are not excited about basic data on their movements and actions. They need products that fit their style as well as compelling, real-world reasons to put the technology on their bodies, like changing bad habits or improving health.

Wearable Tech: The Next Fashion Frontier panel

In the words of Margaux Guerard of Memi, wearables are challenging because they are often considered fashion accessories. Fit and feel become a prerequisite to the actual technology, turning people off to poorly designed products (or, the vast majority of the market).

Deepa Sood of Cuff adds that wearable are a true extension of a person, which ties them closely to their personality, feelings and emotions. Often, these factors are completely neglected.

When thinking about wearables as an experience, a big opportunity for companies becomes content and community, according to Andrew Mitchell of Brand Foundry Group. Great wearables will not only be great products, but also connect like-minded people and provide them with relevant content to enhance product interactions.

Wearables should therefore include foundational marketing thinking into the product development process and adopt a human-centric approach to design.


There were many other interesting moments at the M1 Summit which this article did not capture, like Mark Suster’s comparison of Apple to ChinaBrian Wong’sassertion that mobile advertising does not work, and Chieh Huang’s suggestion to mobile commerce companies to think more like gaming apps.

I also wasn’t able to attend all panels, including the ones on health and wellness (ft Tracy Harris of Personal Zen + Brian Wang of Fitocracy), million-user mobile apps (ft Michelle Tobin of Rovio) and mobile advertising (ft Jonah Goodhart of Moat), as well as the keynote by Omar Hamoui (Sequoia Capital), but heard positive feedback on each one.

Nonetheless, my experience at M1 was overwhelmingly positive, and it was a pleasure to interact with so many great minds in one place. I have no doubt that the conference will be back again in 2015, and I look forward to the rapid changes in mobile over during the upcoming year.

I’ll wrap up this post by summarizing the M1 MobileFirst Summit in four words, per moderator Seema Mody’s suggestion:

Double McTwist of mobile

imageOver 20 people helped to organize the M1 Summit 

So there you have it, a roundup of the M1 MobilFirst Summit in 2,600 words. See you all next year!


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For further reading on mobile, see the following articles: 

The rise of mobile cards
Anticipatory computing
Touch-free mobile interactions
Lightweight engagement
Unifying app discovery

I'm a founder, marketer and mobile consultant. These are my thoughts on building and growing technology startups.


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