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“Your Product Probably Sucks” GROWtalks Montreal delivers candid advice

Nextgen product marketing conference GROWtalks held its first ever stop in Montreal on Tuesday. The event was quite well attended, with a mix of speakers walking the line between getting hopes up and spelling out the harsh reality of today’s VC/startup dynamic.

Nextgen product marketing conference GROWtalks held its first ever stop in Montreal on Tuesday. The event was quite well attended, with a mix of speakers walking the line between getting hopes up and spelling out the harsh reality of today’s VC/startup dynamic.Nextgen product marketing conference GROWtalks held its first ever stop in Montreal on Tuesday.

The event was quite well attended, with a mix of speakers walking the line between raising the hopes of startup attendees and spelling out the harsh reality of today’s VC/startup dynamic.

On one hand, as spelled out by iNovia’s David Nault in the final presentation of the day, “If you have a great product, you will get funded.” On the other side of the equation was Clarity co-founder Dan Martell, who said: “Your product probably sucks. Don’t let that stop you, but I’m just telling you now, your product probably sucks.”

GROWtalks attendees were mostly local, but I spoke with some gentlemen from Ottawa who are putting together a “social magazine” product called ZINation. They were eager to discuss the Ottawa tech scene, and to book a one-on-one consultation with one of the speakers. The entire point of GROWtalks is to develop face-to-face recognition, and this was underscored in several presentations in which the crucial element of serendipity played a role. A lot of people in business, it seems, have bumped into someone they know in a lineup who provided an important contact that became a key catalyst for their business.

Over several years of attending conferences on marketing or website building and development, etc., I have heard one refrain repeated more often than any other: not quite “Content is king,” but definitely, “Hire a professional copy writer.” If a startup is going to invest in developing its product for presentation to the world, offer many speakers, the least labour-intensive part is to make sure that some person who can write has taken a look at it, given that typos lose companies huge sums of money.

Expanding on that theme, one presenter, Laura Fitton of Boston’s HubSpot and author of Twitter for Dummies, emphasized the importance of telling a story and creating a persona. Her presentation, on the subject of inbound marketing, hammered home the primacy of good content, making customers come to you, since spam and email blasts are ineffective. “Don’t shill,” she implored the audience, instead challenging entrepreneurs to develop something “that your customers will thank you for.” Her definition of marketing is to attract customers by making “content people like”. Sounds commonsensical, but seemingly one of the more obvious challenges an entrepreneur must overcome when working up the nerve to approach a VC.

The entire point of GROWtalks is to develop face-to-face recognition, and this was underscored in several presentations in which the crucial element of serendipity played a role. A lot of people in business, it seems, have bumped into someone they know in a lineup who provided an important contact that became a key catalyst for their business.

Complementing this focus on content was a real plea to pay attention to metrics. In advance of pitching to a VC, says David Nault of iNovia, “know your numbers by heart”. For all the talk about “disruption” and being a visionary, VCs “invest in familiar markets” and projects for which a good fit exists, he says.

A proper pitch, says Nault, can take at least six months and easily up to a year. But don’t come with something small, he warns. VCs are looking to invest in companies that could potentially be huge. “The bar has been raised,” insisted Nault, pointing to the proliferation of start-ups chasing after the kind of success bestowed upon local Montreal companies like Frank & Oak, Off the Rack and AppDirect.

The day’s opening speaker, Brant Cooper, co-author of the book Lean Entrepreneur focused on the difference between sustainable innovation and disruptive innovation, while hammering home the importance of measurement and metrics. This theme would return, with speaker after speaker underscoring the importance of paying attention to analytics (when they weren’t talking about the importance of having quality content).

Montreal-born Greg Isenberg, a local boy made very good, is currently a partner in Wall Street Survivor and an angel investor. He spelled out eight mistakes he made, he said, so the audience wouldn’t have to. “Mistake #1 – Allowed developers to write copy.” The lesson from that, again, “Good copywriting is underrated. Having good copy is a differentiator.” At the end of his list, he added a favourite bit of advice, “Put nicotine in your product,” a charming way of saying to make it addictive.

Kate Rutter, of San Francisco’s Luxr, talked about the difference between user experience (UX) and user interface (UI), again challenging entrepreneurs to prove that their product “doesn’t suck” by being precise and thoughtful when constructing the product and how users interact with it, and leaving the audience with the idea that your team should be able to “rally around the narrative”. In a nutshell, beauty without purpose is UI without UX, says Rutter.

From Moncton, the energetic Dan Martell, speaking of his company Clarity, told the crowd to spend approximately 30% of its time measuring analytics and studying user behaviour. His “ninja” advice was to “set your goals on a weekly basis”.

Alistair Croll, originally from Montreal, scrolled through a mind-bending slew of highly detailed slides which represented a condensed version of his book Lean Analytics , which seems destined to be a must have for your book shelf if you hope to figure out the metrics behind becoming a successful product developer.

From San Francisco’s Urban Airship, Scott Kveton talked refreshingly about the centrality of failure to the start-up culture, of getting fired from jobs, and just when you think you’ve failed, failing again. After regaling the crowd with stories of getting in on the ground floor of push notifications in 2006, and struggling through the worldwide economic crash of 2008, he suggested that impulsive, drunken domain name buying can pay off in the end (urbanairship.com being one such case). It was a nice, light contrast to the seriousness of metrics and content. And contrary to the “disruptive” visionary method, he advised the group to “listen to your paying customers, not Techcrunch.”

Several other speakers laughingly dismissed “bullshit metrics” (counting the number of followers you have on a certain bird-like social media platform, for example).

The Montreal startup ecosystem is growing, but it is still young and underdeveloped compared with well-established incubators like the Communitech Hub or even the burgeoning Vancouver scene. But Nault says he takes calls from American VCs who are on the hunt for new talent up north on a regular basis. He ended the question and answer session saying that if you’re a developing start-up, there’s a good chance that you are already on his radar.

GROWtalks stops in Toronto on February 21.

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