Get-Started-Quick Bootstrapping Tools

Originally posted on Reddit, but here it’ll be easier to find again.

These are links that I’ve bookmarked over the past year or so. General theme: Tools that you can use to quickly bootstrap. In most cases it’s best to prove out your concept before, say, spending $100s on a professional graphic designer. Some are free, others are just low-cost.

I haven’t used all of these services personally, but they all seemed handy enough to save for future reference. Not intended to be a comprehensive list of options.

Design + Visual

Logojoy:

Instantly design custom logos for free. Only pay if you’re 100% happy.

Launchaco Free Online Logo Maker: Basically the same thing as Logojoy but totally free.

Cool Backgrounds:

Cool Backgrounds is a collection of tools to create compelling, colorful images for blogs, social media, and websites. Beyond backgrounds, the images generated can be used as desktop wallpapers or cropped for mobile wallpapers.

Unsplash:

Beautiful, free photos. Gifted by the world’s most generous community of photographers.

I use Unsplash alllll the time because you don’t have to credit the photographers. You can, so I do when it’s feasible, but you have a lot more flexibility than with Creative Commons.

Flickr Creative Commons search with commercial use and modifications allowed: Another one that I use constantly. Make sure to attribute properly according to the license terms.

unDraw Illustrations:

Browse to find the images that fit your needs and click to download. Take advantage of the on-the-fly color image generation to match your brand identity.

LunaPic: Free online photo editor with lots of effects. The website looks archaic, but the results are surprisingly good. YMMV depending on the aesthetic you want.

Websites

Bootstrap Shuffle:

Bootstrap builder for busy developers. Too often developers don’t have time to perfectly implement their designs. That’s why we have built a tool that will help you move faster from building a layout to the refining stage so that you can have time to work on the details.

HTML5 UP:

Spiffy HTML5 site templates that are fully responsive, built on intelligent HTML5 + CSS3, super customizable, and 100% free under the Creative Commons.

(I lightly edited that description into an actual sentence.)

Carrd:

Simple, free, fully responsive one-page sites for pretty much anything.

Tons of templates. Pay up for a custom domain and other features that aren’t in the free version.

PhastPress:

PhastPress uses advanced techniques to manipulate your pages, scripts, stylesheets and images to significantly improve load times. It’s designed to conform to Google PageSpeed Insights recommendations and can improve your site’s score dramatically.

No idea how well this works, but if it does work well, what a great shortcut.

WriteFreely.host:

WriteFreely is a writing-focused blogging platform that’s uniquely simple and distraction-free. Instead of having one website called Medium or Tumblr, anyone can start their own entire community with the WriteFreely software and govern it however they want.

Marketing

“The art of storytelling” course by Pixar: Exactly what it sounds like.

Twitter’s advanced search page: Can be used to find reporters, other people to approach for various reasons, complaints about competitors, chatter from unserved niches, etc.

Stuff:

Create awesome invitations to small and large events. Distribution of invitations and collection of RSVPs made really simple. So no invitations are ignored or forgotten. Totally free. A really simple browser and email platform. Easy to use for both organizers and guests. Works for everyone without the hassle.

thad.cc:

Organize events from email. Add cc@thad.cc to an email. Once the email is sent, we’ll create a private event on thad.cc and send a follow-up email to each address with an invitation. Each participant will receive an email with a special sign-in link to access the event. No sign-up necessary!

“It’s okay that your startup doesn’t have a communications strategy”:

In today’s crowded startup landscape, it’s rarely obvious what will cut through the noise. You’re not just competing with direct competitors for customers, you’re competing with everyone for attention (and all the potential future hires, partnerships and funding rounds that awareness can help drive). Tactics are more amenable to creativity and experimentation, don’t devour massive resources, and come with shorter and simpler feedback loops.

I know it’s a little weird to include an article, but the advice is that good!

Legal

Y Combinator Safe Financing Documents:

Y Combinator introduced the safe (simple agreement for future equity) in late 2013, and since then, it has been used by almost all YC startups and countless non-YC startups as the main instrument for early-stage fundraising.

WilmerHale Document Generator:

Our Document Generator is custom-tailored to offer important legal documents that will enable you to start and grow your company. It is an invaluable resource for entrepreneurs and founders of startups in various stages of growth and is designed to help you navigate the unfamiliar and manage interrelated issues. The Document Generator has been developed with the guidance of our experienced lawyers who have a longstanding tradition of offering strategic advice and an indispensable business perspective.

Security

macOS Security and Privacy Guide:

This guide is targeted to “power users” who wish to adopt enterprise-standard security, but is also suitable for novice users with an interest in improving their privacy and security on a Mac.

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Survivorship Bias and Startup Hype

Luck plays a significant role in business success. Not just in the mere fact of success, but in the magnitude of any given company’s triumphs. We tend to overlook this reality because of a mental distortion called survivorship bias. It is a common cognitive failure, and a dangerous one because it obscures the distastefully harsh nature of the world.

We love to fantasize that emulating the habits of extraordinary entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Elon Musk will catapult the most talented imitators to the stars. In reality, there are plenty of would-be titans of industry who simply weren’t in the right place at the right time. Even with a great product, they could have failed to make the crucial personal connection that would have accelerated their endeavor to the next level.

Survivorship bias is best summed up by a sardonic XKCD comic: “Never stop buying lottery tickets, no matter what anyone tells you,” the stick figure proclaims. “I failed again and again, but I never gave up. I took extra jobs and poured the money into tickets. And here I am, proof that if you put in the time, it pays off!”

“The hard part is pinning down the cause of a successful startup,” a pseudonymous commenter on Hacker News wisely noted. “Most people just point at highly visible things,” such as hardworking founders or a friendly office culture. “The problem is that this ignores the 5,000 other startups that did all those same things, but failed.”

Ambitious people with incisive minds may be fewer than schmucks, and certainly multi-billionaire CEOs tend to be both brilliant and driven. Yet there are scads of brilliant, driven people who will never make it onto the cover of a prestigious magazine. Or any magazine.

Consider the mythology around hoodie-wearing college dropouts. Y Combinator founder Paul Graham once joked, “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.” The quip is funny because it mocks a real tendency among venture capitalists: Pattern-matching to a fault.

In the same vein, a stunning proportion of partners at VC firms graduated from a handful of tony universities, as if the seal on a person’s diploma were what indicated investing abilities. (Granted, the incidence of leveraged social connections and postgraduate degrees may amplify that trend.)

Steve Jobs, along with Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, became fantastically successful after quitting school to start a company. “How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed?” Scientific American asked rhetorically in 2014. “Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.”

The press inadvertently helps perpetuate survivorship bias. People find famous entrepreneurs fascinating and inspirational, so journalists write about them extensively. The general public is primarily interested in the fates of companies that are household names or close to that status. And of course, reporters themselves are susceptible to survivorship bias just like anyone else. This is reflected in their coverage.

So what’s the antidote? Well, it’s boring: Being careful and thorough. Make sure to look for counterexamples whenever you think you’ve identified a trend or a pattern. Resources do exist, although not always on the first page of Google results.

For example, CB Insights compiled a list of 242 startup postmortems from 2014 through 2017. The analysts wrote, “In the spirit of failure, we dug into the data on startup death and found that 70% of upstart tech companies fail — usually around 20 months after first raising financing (with around $1.3M in total funding closed).”

Most of all, don’t let the headlines rule your worldview. “The press is a lossy and biased compression of events in the actual world, and is singularly consumed with its own rituals, status games, and incentives,” as three-time SaaS founder Patrick McKenzie put it.

Listen to Walter Lippmann, in his 1922 book Public Opinion. “Looking back we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live,” Lippmann wrote, reflecting on the inaccuracies of tick-tock reporting during World War I. “We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly; but that whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself.”

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PR Advice for Startups From an Actual Reporter

“How I got press coverage for my dinky seed-stage startup” is a common topic in places like /r/Entrepreneur, but it’s pretty rare for a journalist’s perspective to be included. Well, I’m a full-time tech reporter who’s been following and writing about the industry for several years. I don’t claim to be a veteran, but I certainly receive a lot of pitches from or about startups. I would appreciate it if the caliber of those pitches improved!

(I also owe a hat-tip to Sean Byrnes; last week he asked me how I decide which emails to pay attention to and which companies to cover. That’s why this subject is top-of-mind.)

Before we get into the suggestions, one caveat: Unless you have a Trumpian sixth sense for publicity, you will probably get farther by following my advice than you will by following your instincts. However, that doesn’t mean that my preferences generalize to literally all reporters.

Optimal Attitude

You’re not heading into a fair contest.

For one thing, the supply-demand dynamics are against you. Tech journos are inundated with pitches on a daily basis, and we only have so much time. That’s why you should adjust your approach to make our lives more convenient, whereas we can delete three times as many emails as we respond to.

For another thing, reporters are strongly biased in favor of companies or founders that our readers already know about. Especially at general-interest publications. “Popular Entrepreneur Does Thing” will usually generate more reader excitement than “Unknown Entrepreneur Does Thing” and journalists are keenly aware of that. Companies like Google or Facebook could be terrible at PR and they’d still get covered nonstop, because readers love hearing about them.

I’m sure it’s frustrating, but that’s just how the incentives work out. You’ll have a better time if you accept the unfairness and tailor your approach to giving your company the best chance possible.

Necessary Elements

Emails that don’t satisfy these requirements are wayyy more likely to be trashed immediately.

Within the first few sentences, say who you are and what your relationship is to the company. If you’re the founder, I want to know that. If you’re the head of comms, I want to know that. Etc, etc.

Explain the company’s purpose — what it does and what the product is. Be concrete and use plain English! Cliché or baffling jargon is an immediate turnoff. (This step isn’t necessary if your company is well-known, but if that’s the case, why are you even reading this post?)

Don’t pretend that you closely follow my coverage of blah blah blah, unless it’s actually true. Acceptable: “Since you wrote about [whatever topic], I think you might also be interested in covering [similar topic].” Annoying: “I really enjoyed your article about [whatever topic], and [insincere flattery].” C’mon — I am skeptical for a living.

That said, please do look at what I’ve written about before, and don’t pitch me if your company is not even remotely on my beat! It’s a waste of everyone’s time. The automated “spray and pray” approach to PR can work when executed well, but only if you manage to reach journalists who write about your subsegment of the industry.

Sparking Interest

Beyond the basic email etiquette outlined above, here are the criteria I use to evaluate whether a startup is worth more attention:

Does the product sound like it’s useful, and does the company have a business model? Yes on both counts = you pass this round. Yes on product = maybe. No to both = do not pass Go; do not collect $200.

Did the company actually do something? “Hey, my startup exists” is far less compelling than a genuine event. If you want to be in the news, do something newsworthy! Examples:

  • raising money
  • launching a product
  • changing strategy or pivoting
  • hiring a notable person

Side projects and internal initiatives can also qualify.

Will the company share metrics? Revenue is the best one, but hardly anyone discloses that. DAUs, MAUs, number of paid seats or licenses, MRR, burn rate — going on the record with financial details of any kind automatically makes you more interesting to me. Especially if the figure hasn’t been reported before!

Is there external validation? VCs can serve this purpose, as can advisors or notable customers. If Elon Musk called the founder a brilliant person, you will have an easier time getting covered.

6/15/2017 Update

I got the following text from a PR person who introduced me to a relatively early-stage startup:

I’m wrapping up the freelance gig with [company] and wanted to re-engage before I do and see if you wanted to revive this. Any feedback is helpful to them, too. What they’re doing is unique but I honestly struggled to get their name out there.

I responded:

Hey! So, in this case I wanted to write about the company or do a video but didn’t have buy-in from my editors for a dedicated piece.

Also, PR operates on long time-cycles. (You can tell them I said so.) it wouldn’t be surprising if I have a reason to mention [company] in the future. Knowing about the company and how it works means I have someone to tap if I’m going to write about [industry], for example

I probably didn’t do a good enough job distinguishing my enthusiasm about the idea from a guarantee of coverage — I can’t really ever guarantee that, and I’m trying to be more proactive about saying so

Tl;dr you did a fine job, but the stars didn’t align on my end

Hopefully that exchange adds some context about how this works in practice.


That’s it! Let me know if you have any questions. I’m smann@inc.com, me@sonyaellenmann.com (checked much less frequently), and @sonyaellenmann on Twitter.

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How to Save a Startup: Advice from Milt Milloy

Milt Milloy is the entrepreneur behind Springboard Startup and Springboard Turnaround. He helps businesses set themselves up, and helps them figure out how to save themselves when money runs dangerously low. I came across Milloy’s work via his Medium posts about handling a cash crisis. (This is not a problem for me, but it’s an interesting quandary in general.) I was impressed by his ruthlessness:

“If you, the owner or manager, have difficulty telling people no, put someone in charge of expenditures that does not. Different personality types will struggle with being the cash gatekeeper more than others. Find someone who cares less about being liked and more on doing the right thing to achieve the desired outcome — in this case conserv[ing] cash and buy[ing] time.”

I spoke to Milloy on the phone about what companies can do to avoid needing Springboard Turnaround’s services. As he told me, “When things haven’t gone well, you’re kinda on rough seas at that point. Being able to build a realistic plan and articulate it to all of those stakeholders to keep them from jumping ship” can stop the hemorrhage of confidence. If that confidence drains away, so do your customers, employees, and investors, which is the worst-case scenario. (I hope you’ll never reach that point, dear reader! And I hope that I won’t either.)

Founders can be their own worst enemies. Milloy stated, “As things continue to spiral down, it really is very similar to a grieving process. At first there’s denial, then anger and blame.” Eventually the company must come to grips with harsh reality.

Background photo by Taylor Nicole via Unsplash.
Background photo by Taylor Nicole via Unsplash.

Milloy explained, “When somebody launches a company that is what I would call fatally flawed, they haven’t done adequate customer-discovery work.” In other words, “They’re building a product or creating a service that they really don’t have a good customer base for.” Additionally, “Markets change, competitive dynamics change — some of those are very difficult to predict and they just happen.” A successful company will have a certain amount of flexibility.

I asked Milloy what he thinks of unit-economics disasters like SpoonRocket and some of its on-demand brethren. He told me that these implosions are “what happens if [the cost to deliver the product] just hasn’t been tested enough and recorded enough.” In those scenarios, “The forecast is just way too optimistic.” Milloy endorsed the rule of thumb that “it’s gonna take twice as much money and twice as long” as your first guess to accomplish your business objectives.

“Two challenges. One is to actually produce the product or service. Founders are underestimating how much that’s really gonna cost.” The second challenge is that the “cost of getting the customer — the marketing cost — is very underestimated.” Milloy knows this from gritty hands-on experience. “I had an agricultural-based business that I started from scratch,” which ran into cashflow issues. He admitted, though not ruefully, “I got some education in the school of hard knocks.”

Fundamentally, Milloy said, there are “three big categories of problems [that a company can face] and a whole bunch of different sub-categories within them.” You have to sell something, AKA convince people to buy from you. You have to spend less money than you’re taking in. And thirdly, “You can’t carry such a debt load that even if you are making money, you can’t service the debt.” It really boils down to living within your means, not unlike personal finance.

Rest assured, Milloy is in favor of bootstrapping when you can make it work:

“Bootstrapping is not for everyone. It requires more personal sacrifice. And the slower trajectory may allow competitors to leap ahead. However, if you are convinced your idea has potential but investors are not interested, it can be a satisfying path forward. The upside is, if successful, you will have 100% ownership in a debt-free business.”

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How To Describe Your Product On Your Landing Page

Think about copywriting as a type of design. The goal of design is to make things usable and delightful, right? Words can jump-start the process. Effective copy explains the point of your product to people who haven’t tried it yet. Clear descriptions and calls to action can prompt readers to purchase your product, download it, set up an account, or [insert desired action here].

Thousands of people make products that they want other people to try. A small but meaningful subset offers something useful, something worth people’s time or money. My guess is that the majority of entrepreneurs who’ve built a useful product get stuck at that stage, because they don’t communicate what it does or how it will solve people’s problems. Product-market fit is meaningless if you can’t convince the market to pay attention!

(Throughout this article I’m going to use “product” as a blanket term for “thing or service that you’re selling or trying to convince people to use”. Fill in your own blank. “Landing page” should also be interpreted expansively — it might be your website, your App Store listing, or even a Google search result.)

Here are the three essential components of a new or unknown company’s landing page:

  1. Concrete explanation of what your product or service is. Don’t be afraid to be literal.
  2. Value proposition, AKA why potential users should be interested.
  3. Call to action, ideally a form that can be filled out without navigating to another page.

That’s all you need! Hopefully every one of these three things is visible without having to scroll down. Put your short copy on top and push any longer copy below. Go ahead and write the longer copy if you think it’ll be helpful, but make sure it doesn’t supersede the crucial message on top. People should be able to look at your website for ten seconds and understand:

  1. What your product is and how they would interact with it.
  2. Why they might want to do so. What’s the benefit?
  3. The next action they should take if they want to go forward.

In fact, setting up an effective landing page is a lot like designing a billboard. Mattermark does a great job:

screenshot of mattermark.com on 3/21/2016
“Join over 500 companies using Mattermark to discover high quality leads, prioritize prospects, and better track their customers. Get started today.” Plus, obvious search bar is obvious. The only thing I’d change is putting a suggestion in there, e.g. “Start your search with [example term]…” Screenshot taken 3/21/2016.
Unfortunately, not everyone is executing as well as Mattermark. Many novice startups try to emulate the landing pages of highly successful companies — to a fault. Copying the winners seems like a common-sense move, but it misses the key difference between what a giant like Google and Facebook needs to communicate versus what an obscure startup needs to communicate.

Google.com can be a search engine with no onboarding because its use and purpose is common knowledge. Similarly, Facebook.com doesn’t need to explain its social network because most of their website visitors arrive with at least a rudimentary understanding of “friending” and the News Feed. Facebook could skip straight to the value proposition, although their logged-out landing page is actually pretty concrete:

screenshot of Facebook.com on 3/21/2016
Facebook’s landing page is nearly perfect, except for the emphasis on search, which I object to on dual grounds. Facebook’s search is garbage and it’s beside the point — their core value proposition is about connecting with people you know. Screenshot taken 3/21/2016.

I also want to give an example of someone who is doing it wrong, in my estimation: Refind, a service for saving links. I already pointed this out on Twitter, and to the company’s credit, their founder was very open to criticism. I’m not trying to pick on Refind, but their landing page is a great demonstration of damaging vagueness. Before I explain what the Refind service does, here’s their landing page:

screenshot of refind.com's landing page on 3/21/2015
“Discover the web. Refind is a community of founders, hackers, and designers who collect and share the best links on the web.” Screenshot taken 3/21/2016.

From their blurb, I can gather this: Refind is a link-related service and they’re targeting people who work in tech. But I have no idea what the product actually does! “Link-related” is a huge space. My first guess was “Reddit meets Instapaper” — nope, totally wrong. If you’re pitching people on a product, this is a bad reaction to get. Website visitors should not be making wild guesses about what your product is. Communicating that should be your top priority. Here’s how I would rewrite Refind’s blurb:

Use our browser extension to save valuable links, and we’ll insert them into your relevant Google searches later. Join a community of founders, hackers, [and so on].

Below that, a cleaned-up screenshot of what a Refind link looks like when pre-populated into Google results. For example, you could save the article that you’re reading right now and tag it “copywriting”, “product description”, etc. If you searched adjacent terms in the future, Refind would offer you this link again.

That’s it. The concepts are fairly simple. I’ll reiterate the list of top priorities for a new entrant’s landing page:

  1. Concrete explanation of what your product or service is. Don’t be afraid to be literal.
  2. Value proposition, AKA why potential users should be interested.
  3. Call to action, ideally a form that can be filled out without navigating to another page.

My thesis here is that website visitors who don’t understand what you’re offering are far less likely to pull the trigger. Thus the emphasis on specificity, and connecting all the dots for people right away. Make it easy for them to make a decision. Again, this is how copywriting can be thought of as a type of design — it guides the user toward your desired mindset and shows them what they should do.


If you found this post helpful, the next step is to invest in your value proposition with Product Communication Basics :)

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