John B Petersen III

What is Firehawk Creative?

[UPDATED]

Firehawk Creative teams up with entrepreneurs to build remarkable products. Structured as a nimble two person shop, we dedicate ourselves to projects for the long haul, fusing brutal honesty and fresh ideas with exceptional coding and design. We have completely redefined the relationship between founders and their development partner to ensure the maximum opportunity for success before, during and after the development process.

With our craftsmanship, your vision can change the world.

We understand what a startup needs to succeed, thrive and grow, and it goes well beyond writing some code. It requires us to become a true cofounder of everything we build. This allows us to attack the most challenging projects and build products that are both beautifully designed and simple to use. Oh, and it helps that we’re really good at writing code too.

The Firehawk Difference

In order to produce extraordinary results and value for our clients, we know that we must think differently. We’ve have established four pillars that are at the core of everything we do.

Passion

We love building startups and feel that we have the best job in the world. We get to work with incredibly talented entrepreneurs who are on a mission to change the world. We believe that we, as technical cofounders, have the ultimate obligation to produce exceptional results. It is this belief and passion that enables us to pour our heart and soul into everything we do.

Expertise

It’s not enough for a technical cofounder to write great code; it’s the bare minimum. A great technical cofounder must fully understand the requirements, balance current functionality vs. future enhancements, anticipate edge case scenarios, and be able to bring everything together seamlessly with stunning design and a simple user experience. Having built over 25 startups together for our clients, we are able to achieve this while executing at the highest level.

Honesty

We can’t overstate this enough. Total honesty and transparency from day one from all parties is crucial to everything we do together. If we have an opinion, you’ll hear it. If we think there is a better way to accomplish something or reduce development time, we’ll tell you. But it works both ways. We demand the same from our clients as we know this is the best way to accomplish great things together. Complete honesty every step of the way.

Collaboration

We believe it is important to spend time with our clients before, during and after development to ensure the success of the project. We work with entrepreneurs to help them refine their idea and eliminate unnecessary functionality before the project kicks off. We also have complimentary monthly strategy sessions after development is complete to help our clients grow, iterate and improve. We are focused on building long-term relationships with great entrepreneurs.

We are, by design, a two person team: one-part product expert combined with one-part master coder. We use this combination to form the ultimate technical cofounder. We redefined what it means to be a development partner allowing you to execute your vision with profound results.

Do Something

How many times have we heard this story? I am going to build a successful startup. First I need to raise money. But before investors will give me money, I need to get traction. In order to get traction, I need a really good product. And in order to get a good product, I need to raise money.

It’s the modern day tragedy of the wantrepreneur.

Anti-Wantrepreneurship

A wantrepreneur is a person who wants to be successful more than they want to put in the effort required to be successful. They make excuses. They’d rather play pingpong than solve a difficult problem. They’re streaming movies during the day hogging up all the office bandwidth. They go to every networking event to avoid doing real work. They’re more interested in telling people that they are the founder of a startup than actually building their startup.

There are many reasons to love and respect Gary Vaynerchuk — this video being one of them — but he sent out this tweet that should really resonate with all of us:

This is the anti-wantrepreneur mantra. Don’t tell me. Show me.

No Excuses

If you really want to build something significant and worthy of investment, you have to actually build something. I know it sounds crazy, and I know it opens this up to a million excuses:

  • I don’t know anything about coding
  • I not a designer
  • I’m a product guy / business woman / growth hacker
  • I need a technical cofounder

Bullshit. You just have an excuse. You need to start building, executing and taking action.

You don’t need to build a fully functioning and beautifully designed website or mobile app. You can launch a business with a free Tumblr blog. You can build a very nice website on Squarespace with no coding or design experience whatsoever and be up and running in a weekend. You can run Craigslist ads and manually match buyers and sellers. There a infinite things you can and should be doing instead of telling people about what you are going to do.

Shut Up

Ken Lerer said it best in a recent conversation:

“I think most companies should shut up until they have something to say.”

But wait, you might say… “I need press in order to get the word out. I just raised my seed round. I need to get as much coverage as I possible can. This is my time to shine.” Stop it. Just stop. There were 1,749 companies who raised a seed round of financing in 2012. How many of them can you name? How many are even still around? Yes, startups are really freaking hard. I’m not saying they’re not. I’m just saying that I (along with most other people) am impressed by action, not empty words.

When the time is right, you’ll get the press you deserve. But if you think that getting a mention in a TechCrunch article is going to drive explosive adoption of your product, you are sadly mistaken. A solid, well written press placement might get you a few thousand hits on a given day. Of those few thousand visitors, you might be able to pull a few hundred signups or email addresses if you are very lucky / good. That’s pretty much as good as it will get. What happens when those new users sign up and never come back? Even worse, what happens when they don’t like the product?

You can see why a user acquisition strategy of getting lots of press isn’t ideal. The same thing goes for attending every networking event, pitch event, or anything else that doesn’t involve you building something or getting feedback from your users. Stop telling and start showing.

Earn It

Reece Pacheco said it best the morning after the funding announcement for Shelby.tv.

“Expect nothing. Earn everything.”

Shelby had a lot to celebrate. They were part of the first NYC TechStars class. They were featured in the Bloomberg reality TV show series. They just raised $1.5 million. But Reece and Shelby weren’t popping champaign and kicking back. They knew that this was just one stepping stone in a long road to success. You certainly should celebrate your successes. This stuff is really hard. When you score a big win you should take time to recognize that, but stay focused and get right back on track.

A lot of people talk a good game. Very few of them actually do something about it. Don’t try to convince me. Execute. Show me. Do something.

Introducing Our Imaginarium

{This is a post from David Lesches on Firehawk Creative that I am reposting for your viewing pleasure}

We’re pumped to announce that we’ve just released the Firehawk Creative Imaginarium, our internal collaboration and brainstorming tool for client projects.

Over time, every devshop and startup develops its own processes and methods of operation. As these processes evolve, third-party organizational tools like Basecamp, Asana and Trello become less and less useful, as their methods and processes don’t mesh well enough with your own.

When that happens, it’s time to roll your own organizational tool. Ours is the Imaginarium.

The Most Important Things

Every great product is driven by a small set of defined, core principles. There are three principles that drove every design decision in the Imaginarium:

  1. The client is king. Many freelancers and devshops believe (with some justification) that a client is best served when he/she is relegated to observer status. We believe the opposite: we are the creatives, but only the client should approve tasks or mark them as satisfactorily complete.

  2. One big room. All bases of the Firehawk process need to be covered: everything from wireframing, stories, and tasks to file uploads, billing, and messaging should take place under one roof.

  3. But it’s just a website. The real magic of collaboration happens face-to-face. It’s important to us that while the Imaginarium needs to be a perfect tool for collaboration and review, it should not replace real-life interaction. The Imaginarium therefore purposely avoids overstepping. It never becomes the method of primary communication between Firehawk and the client. We prefer meetings and conference calls for that. So do our clients.

So, ready for the tour?

Meet the Client

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be familiar with Game of Thrones, the epic TV series and book saga about the the civil war for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

If you have been living under a rock, do not fear! Here is all you need to know: In Game of Thrones, the Lannister family are the richest people in the kingdom - so rich that practically everyone is indebted to them in some way. They are also not a particularly friendly bunch. (Surprise, surprise.)

For this theoretical run-through of our Imaginarium, the Lannisters are our client, and we are building them the Lannister Ledger, an app to keep track of all the money they’ve lent out.

Process

At Firehawk Creative, our process (outlined in detail here) follows five steps.

  1. Discovery - strategy sessions to get everyone on the same page.
  2. Wireframing - general mockups of the pages and workflow.
  3. Storyboarding - outlining all functionality as user stories.
  4. Design - transforming the wireframes and stories into full design mocks.
  5. Development - coding the app.

The Imaginarium is modeled directly on this process, with one section per step.

Wireframes

Work begins with wireframes. Great wireframes communicate layout and flow without getting caught up in design. We draw our own wireframes using Photoshop. While wireframing programs like Balsamiq are popular, the wireframes they render are cutesy rather than communicative. For the same reason, we never use fake “lorem ipsum" text in wireframes: text has an enormous influence on layout, and using real text changes the feel of the page.

Wireframes that have been approved by the client are overlayed with a green check. Each wireframe also has a details page which displays metadata, like the current state of the wireframe (draft, second draft, etc), and detailed comments. When the client is happy with the wireframe, he/she approves it.

Storyboarding

Great user stories make or break a product. After our client strategy sessions, we convert every single piece of functionality into a user story. The client then approves the stories they wish to build.

Our storycards are intelligent: using an algorithm, they automatically detect which stage of execution they are in (New, Client Approved, In Progress, Pending Signoff, Complete), and then update their state automatically. They also change color depending on their state, giving the client an easy way to visualize the overall status of the project.

Cue The Party

At this point, the client has approved the detailed wireframes and user stories, and everyone is on the same page as to how the final product will look and function. The design stage of the project begins.

Design

The Firehawk team begins working on the final design mocks, with intense emphasis on the design being beautiful, meticulous, clean, and user-friendly. As the mocks are completed, they are uploaded to the Imaginarium for immediate client feedback.

Cool mock, huh? I know how badly you want to see it close-up, so here ya go:

You’re welcome!

Development

As the design mocks are tweaked and approved by the client, the project moves into the development phase.

Within the development stage, the stories remain the core focus, and our attention never wavers from them. Each story is broken into smaller tasks, which are checked off as the story is coded.

You’ll notice that the stories themselves have been split into weekly sprints, allowing the client to foresee exactly what will be coded when. Also, unlike Basecamp and Asana, every task must be directly assigned to a specific person for completion. This ensures that tasks don’t fall through the cracks.

Vault

Every project also has a vault, which is a general file upload bucket. This is very useful for quickly sharing important documents with everyone while keeping everything together in a central place.

Dashboard

What would a project management app be without a dashboard? The Imaginarium dashboard affords a unique birds-eye view of the project, while doubling as a communication panel and message board.

The dashboard’s most important feature is the Watercooler, a live real-time chat system for a project’s collaborators to brainstorm and discuss ideas. The Watercooler doesn’t replace meetings, standups, or phone calls, but serves as a useful place to leave notes and general feedback for the entire team.

Underneath the Watercooler is a detailed Activity Feed which tracks every single action occurring in the project. This is a great way for clients to see a quick rundown of everything that has been happening: items uploaded, comments submitted, wireframes approved, tasks finished, and stories completed.

To the right of the Watercooler are general project statistics:

  1. The Overall Progress panel gives a clear representation of where the project is holding overall.

  2. We use errbit to track and catch errors in production. The Health panel queries our errbit server in real time and fetches the latest statistics on whether new bugs have been found.

  3. The Github panel provides statistics on the latest code items pushed to production.

Ultimate Collaboration

We spent the time to build out the Imaginarium as we know that the surest way to build the best product is through maximum collaboration with our clients. We felt that we weren’t able to achieve that through the existing solutions. As you can tell, we are incredibly excited about the Imaginarium as we know it is going to be a tremendous value add to all of our projects going forward.

Have questions or feedback? We’d love to hear it! Use the comments or shoot us an email to david@fireahawkcreative.com.

How I Cost the Government $499 Million

It’s hard work as a founder of a growing company. I had an ever-growing list of critical to-do’s on my plate. I initially battled this by putting in ridiculous hours at the office. When the eventual realization hit that infinity hours per week wouldn’t be enough, I promised myself that I was going to focus on the top priorities. This meant that I was going to have to pass on opportunities that weren’t core to growing the business, and this is how it all began.

It was the first week of October in 2012, and a few members of my team decided to go to the NY Tech Meetup. After hours, non-work related team building definitely falls into the core category. I remember thinking that the lineup of teams presenting at the NYTM seemed better than usual, so I definitely had some high expectations for the event. It wasn’t until I got there that I realized that Todd Park, the CTO of the United States, was going to speak about some of the projects that they were working on down in Washington. Todd announced a project RFP EZ which would be a “web-based solution for small businesses to bid on high-technology government projects.” I immediately emailed Todd before he even left the stage to let him know that I wanted to be involved.

Todd responded 17 minutes later with an introduction to the person who was in charge of the RFP EZ project. I emailed this person to let him know how excited I was for the opportunity to work with the government on some amazing projects.

The project leader responded with the following 4 points:

  1. He complemented us on our company’s website (score!)
  2. He asked me not to judge him for building the project in PHP as they were “designing for maximum deployability” (I didn’t, even though I’m still not sure what that means)
  3. He said the only thing I could do to help them until they completed the project was tell my friends (I did)
  4. He said, and this is an exact quote, “You’re exactly the kind of businesses we want working on government stuff” (jackpot! although I’m sure he’s used that line many times before)

So I made a note to follow-up with him in a few months to see how things were coming along with the project. I checked their blog a few times which had minimal updates and then gave up on the project. I dropped the ball.

Turns out they launched the site in January 2013 and it looks like RFP EZ is still up and running today, so they must be having some success, right?. This was my opportunity to win some small projects to build a relationship with the US Government, but I was busy focusing my priorities and trying to grow my business.

As a result of my focus, I missed out on the opportunity to build healthcare.gov.

My team at Firehawk Creative could have saved the US Government an awful lot of embarrassment and about $499,000,000 of the taxpayers money (by some estimates), by building them a site that actually works. I missed my calling. At a previous role, I became the go-to problem solver for the biggest failing projects at an international bank. These were multi-million dollar international IT projects with incredibly ugly legacy systems and some of them were certainly failing miserably. But, I’d jump in there, roll up my sleeves and get things done.

I’m confident we could have done the same for healthcare.gov if Obama had given us a call. With a $1 million budget and a several months, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we would have delivered on time (certainly wouldn’t take 3 years), on budget (likely much under budget) and with a much better overall experience than what we see today. Startups take a seed round of funding and produce massive traction under conditions of enormous uncertainty. The big government contractors have virtually limitless budgets and either don’t have the experience or don’t have the proper incentives required to get the job done right.

As of right now, healthcare.gov is filled with massive glitches in all areas of the site. Jeffery Zients, who was brought in to fix the site, claims that the site will be ready by the end of November. I’m not so convinced, but I guess if you throw enough money at something, anything is possible. He is quoted as saying, “We’re now at 90%; 90% can create an account.” I know it’s a vast improvement from where it was, but that still means that 10% of the people who visit the site can’t even get past the account creation, let alone use the service for what it’s intended for.

I recently attempted to use the site to experience this all first hand. I was fortunate enough to be in the 90%, but I found another massive problem (that I’m sure they’re aware of and is currently on a to-do list somewhere). I went through the entire process of creating an account and verifying my identity. I finally get to a page where I’m ready to continue on to the marketplace, but the giant green continue button doesn’t actually direct me anywhere. It just lets me click on it endlessly with no results. Wonderful.

I’m not here knock anyone down for the work that was done. I’m sure that they did the best that they could with the tools that they had available to them. This site could have been built as an amazing success story and a shining example of how government and small business can work together successfully. Instead, they bring in an army of private contractors who get paid insanely expensive contracts.

Can I ask why it was so necessary to build out an entire new infrastructure that couldn’t even handle a few hundred thousand signups? My friends at DigitalOcean could have helped us build out something that would scale to the moon for a fraction of the cost. Looking at the fact that there are so many problems with creating accounts and basic site navigation, I can’t imagine anyone feeling very comfortable that the site is actually going to produce accurate results.

Look, I understand the new rules created by Obamacare are difficult. We built out a project for a client that is being used by major healthcare providers right now to advise their users about the new penalties, tax credits and rates created by Obamacare. These rules are obnoxiously complex, but we built it on time and budget with amazing results.

I fully realize that healthcare.gov is a massive effort involving countless legacy systems with changing requirements and regulations up until the very end. My point is that there are incredibly talented people who could have pulled off this project for a fraction of the cost with much better results. This deeply upsets me as a taxpayer and as a person in technology who understands more about the development process than most. We need to demand more out of our elected officials and they need to be held accountable for their mistakes.

You Can’t Argue with Validation at Lean Startup Machine

I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to be a mentor at the Lean Startup Machine workshop in NYC. This was my second time as a mentor, and what happens in the span of 48 hours is quite remarkable. I often think that I get more out of the workshop as a mentor than the participants do, but I know that’s not true. I have a front row seat to watch all the lightbulbs going off as the lean concepts and methodologies start to click with each team.

My most exciting takeaway from the event was that the participants truly recognize the need for validation and challenge their teammates to find it. Validation of the customer, validation of the problem, validation of the riskiest assumptions and validation of the solution. I heard two quotes that really stuck with me. Here is the first:

Wait. That is an assumption. We need to validate that.

Music to my ears.

It is so easy to get attached to a particular problem or customer and think that we know all of the answers. We think we have to perfect solution and want to rush to build it before someone else does. Until we actually validate that our customer exists and that they truly are looking for a solution to the problem, we are all just guessing. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong. That’s why it’s so important to validate everything, to take the guessing out of the equation.

The first question one particular team asked me the was “How are we going to build this and what technology should we be using?” My response to them was simple. “How do we even know that we have a customer for this and that this problem exists.” The team then spent the weekend validating the customer and problem. The best part about their customer discovery was that their customers told them exactly how they want the solution to be designed. A Lean Startup dream come true.

Another team was struggling a bit on Saturday morning. They received some data from the discovery process that totally invalidated their assumptions and they couldn’t figure out the next step — change the customer, change the problem, or completely pivot? As we looked at their Javelin Board, we realized that they had abandoned the Lean Startup Machine process when they got some data they didn’t like. An exact quote “We know we are supposed to be using the Javelin Board, but…”

We then recreated their first two experiments, their assumptions, their learnings and recreated their Javelin Board. Suddenly, all of the answers became clear. There was no more arguing. The next experiment was so completely obvious. One of the team members said:

Look at the board. Look at what we learned. You can’t argue with validation.

That realization is so powerful. It is the entire point of the Lean Startup Machine workshop. The idea that your team works on this weekend is much less important than learning the process of customer discovery and lean startup techniques. It turns out that their idea wasn’t so bad either as this team who was in disarray on Saturday morning ended up winning runner up for the entire event.

(Shout out to Fake Grimlock and his artwork for the Lean Entrepreneur that we used for the lovely fishing image)

9 Questions You Must Ask Before Hiring a Development Partner

One of the most difficult and critical decisions and entrepreneur has to make is deciding who will built the product. The most obvious answer is to find a technical cofounder. Unfortunately, finding this cofounder is nearly impossible as anyone good enough to fill this role has unlimited opportunities. Another option is to teach yourself to code. If you have several months to dedicate yourself to this task, you might be able to pull it off, but some people just aren’t cut out to stare at code all day.

So that leaves us with the third and most likely choice of finding a development partner. As someone who has been on both sides of the table (looking to hire a developer and as a founder of Firehawk Creative), the most important thing I can tell you is to do your homework. Your ability to decipher an amazing programmer from a gumbie is probably weak at best. With your time, money, reputation, and future success riding on this decision, you’re going to need all the help you can get.

Here’s the 12 most important questions you should be asking your development partner before you make a final decision:

1. What is your development process?

This is one of the most revealing questions, so I recommend you pull it out early. If there is no process, run away fast. You should be looking for a development partner that has a fully ironed-out process for attacking a new project. The only way to continually deliver an exceptional product is by have a repeatable process that works. You want to understand exactly how you will be kept up-to-date on the progress of the project. You also should find out how many clients they work with at a given time. Make sure you are comfortable with the working arrangement before you get started.

2. Who is actually going to be doing the programming?

This will help you avoid the bait-and-switch — get sold by a partner or lead developer and then get assigned the newest member of the team. Or worse. Your development gets outsourced and you didn’t even realize it. It sounds crazy, but it happens. Make sure you flat out ask, “Do you outsource anything?” You want to know exactly who is going to be writing your code and what this person’s experience is. It doesn’t help if a company has a great portfolio, but the person your assigned hasn’t built any of it.

3. How do you deal with collaboration and iterations during the development?

No project has ever finished exactly as everyone thought on Day 1. It’s not supposed to. As you begin development and get feedback, things change. It’s important to make sure your development partner understands and embraces this. If you have a product that is going to be throwaway work at the first sign of change, you are in trouble.

4. What happens once the project is over?

Super important to understand this upfront. Once you pay the final bill, is that it? How are emergencies handled? What about transitioning to a new developer or CTO? Do you have to hire someone on retainer to “watch” your site and handle maintenance? What if bugs come up that weren’t found during development? What about a new feature that is critical to growth? Ultimately, you most likely want to find a full time developer to join your team, because that means you are growing and continuing to build. You want to make sure this person will be able to get up to speed quickly. And until you find the right person, you need to make sure you’re not going to be left out in the cold.

5. What is the most technically complicated thing you have ever built?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. This is by far the best question we’ve asked during every technical interview we’ve ever done. You want to separate the adults from the little children? Ask this. You don’t even need to understand what they’re saying, but you’ll be able to tell right away if they know their stuff. Trust me. It’s magical.

6. Can you send me some references that will help me understand what it’s like to work with you?

Please, please, please. Don’t skip this question. It is so important to get in touch with past clients to hear about their experience. Ask for a quick phone call with them. You don’t need much of their time, but just get them talking about their experience, any problems they had, any feedback or suggestions they have if they were starting the process over again today. I’ve heard some funny stories of people used as references that did not have nice things to say about the developers. Make sure you ask!

7. What happens if you can’t figure something out?

Even the best developer doesn’t know the exact answer to everything. If you knew how much time developers spend searching Stack Overflow and googling things, you’d be shocked. What separates the best developers from the rest of the pack is that they know exactly where to look when they don’t know the answer. Spending 10 minutes researching something instead of a half day trying to hack something together is what will make all of the difference in the world when delivering an amazing product on time and budget. Also, being well connected with the development community and having mentors and colleagues at your disposal always helps.

8. How do you pick what projects and clients you work with and why are you excited about my project?

As simple as it sounds, this question provides some solid intel. Are there people knocking down the door looking to work with them? Are they barely scraping to get by and taking any project they can get? Are they generally excited about your project or is this just another paycheck for them? Just as you have to be incredibly passionate about your project, you should demand the same out of your development partner.

9. How can you help me make my product better?

If you are a serial entrepreneur with several successful exits, you probably don’t need much help in refining you idea and making the product better. For the rest of us mere mortals, we need help. You should make sure that you aren’t working with a yes-man who is just going to build exactly what you say. You want someone with plenty of experience who is going to push back and make you defend your assumptions. You want complete honesty and transparency. This collaborative environment is what will help you build the best product and significantly increase your chance for success.

Finding a development partner is a scary process. You are putting your baby in the hands of someone you barely know. Before you lose the next 6 months of your life, a lot of money and countless hours of frustration, make sure you’ve thoroughly done your homework.

Attracting Your Earliest Adopters

I often tell people before we begin working with them that we do the easy part. Sure, writing code and building a functioning app is a skill that most people don’t possess, but it’s what comes after development that almost everyone underestimates. The ability to attract your core group of power users is going to define your early success. Most startups fail miserably with this. Here are the 3 best techniques I’ve ever used to attract early adopters.

Best Buyer Strategy

What it is:

The first thing you need to do is figure out who your core user is going to be and how to market to them. Often times, entrepreneurs think that they can just put their app out there and their users with magically find it. This isn’t fairy tale land. You have to do everything in your power to convince these power users that you have the solution they are looking for.

If you are going after enterprise clients, you need to create a list of your 100 “best buyers” and a plan to bring them on board. This plan must include a lot more than just a cold email. If you are a consumer play, then you need to figure out what group of people will most benefit from your solution (i.e. hipsters, moms, car owners). Then get real specific about your earliest adopters. Perhaps it’s hipster moms from Brooklyn who own a car. Once you have your best buyers, you go all in to bring them on board and make sure they have an amazing experience.

The Best Buyer Strategy was introduced to me by the late Chet Holmes who used it double sales at his division of Berkshire Hathaway 3 years in a row. Here’s what this looked like when we implemented the Best Buyer strategy for the inaugural NY Tech Day.

How we implemented it:

When we decided to do the event, we were selling an idea. People had no reason to believe us, we had no credibility, and when we started, we didn’t even have a date or a venue. But we decided early on that in order to pull of a massive “science fair” for startups, we first needed to signup our best buyers.

We called our Best Buyers “Featured Startups” (they really liked the idea of being “featured”). We created a list of the 50 most popular startups that we’d love to have at the event. We figured if we could get 5 Featured Startups for our inaugural event, we’d be in good shape. The first two startups on board were GetGlue and Lot18. We were thrilled. We included them in all of our marketing as Featured Startups and they loved it. So did we. By the time we were done, we had 12 Featured Startups including Tumblr, Buddy Media, AppNexus, Twilio, Boxee and Meetup. Our inaugural event pulled in 200 total startups and 4,000 registered attendees. Great success.

Moving the Free Line

What it is:

Once you’ve identified your earliest adopters, you have to figure out how to bring them on board. There are two techniques that have been particularly helpful for me in this department. The first is called “Moving the Free Line” and was coined by Eben Pagan. Moving the Free Line is at the heart of the freemium model and is critical for attracting initial traction.

You start by drawing a straight line on a piece of paper. This is your customer timeline that you break up into steps to move this person from a prospect to a paying customer. If you’re saying that you don’t have a freemium model or that you just ask directly for the sale, you’re either a) doing it wrong or b) don’t know that you already doing some of this.

How we implemented it:

Here’s what one scenario of this looks like at Firehawk Creative. Each step along the way we are improving the relationship, and Steps 1 - 4 are all “free” (I say “free” in quotes because some of it does cost us time which certainly is not free, but that is all part of our process. We will meet with anyone to see if we are good fit. Give, give give, give, get, give.)

  • Step 1: I meet people at tech events and have a introductory conversation with them (what they’re working on and what we do).

  • Step 2: They visit our website, understand our process, read our blog, and check out our resources section.

  • Step 3: We meet with them to continue that introductory conversation and start talking about the technical requirements, timelines, budget, etc.

  • Step 4: We show them past portfolio work and put them in touch with some of our past clients as references.

  • Step 5: We kickoff the project and the fun begins.

There are obviously many variations on this process for us, but this is how we Move the Free Line from someone who may potentially be a prospect into a paying client. We are constantly moving the prospect closer to the deal and adding value every step of the way. We are very selective about the clients we work with, so we can afford to “invest” in our prospects. If you’re trying to attract massive users, you can still successfully use the Free Line technique, you just need to understand the customers long-term value and how much you can invest in them.

Stacking the Cool

What it is:

This is probably my favorite technique for attracting early adopters created by the Internet Marketing genius that is Frank Kern, and yes, it really is just what you are thinking. In Frank’s (incredibly extreme) example, he is selling a Honda Civic. He launches a buy now campaign that says if you buy a Civic today, we will throw in a Lamborghini. And then a boat. And so on and so on. So that by the time you get back to the idea of purchasing a Civic, it is a no brainer because you are going to get the Lambo and a boat and a plane.

I know you’re thinking that this is crazy and could never work in the real world and you’re right that giving away a Lambo with the purchase of a Civic is crazy. But here’s how we made this work at DigitalOcean and then with Tech Day.

How we implemented it:

DigitalOcean is a cloud hosting provider. When I was doing Biz Dev with them, we had to figure out how to attract our core user base. We had one feature that we knew every developer would love — a beautiful control panel to make it incredibly easy to interact with your server. On top of that, we let customers deploy a new server in 55 seconds (a minimum of 2x to 3x faster than the closest competitor). On top of that, we offered customers a cheaper option than any major competitor. And then on top of that, DigitalOcean started adding SSD drives standard as part of their hosting plans. If you’re a developer, you know that the cool has been sufficiently stacked.

At our Tech Day event this year, we wanted to double the size of the event from the first year. Ambitious, but we knew we could do it if we sufficiently stacked the cool. So, from a startup’s perspective, we told them we were bringing in thousands and thousands of people for the event. Add in an exclusive Press and Investor hour. And we know that hiring is tough, so we’re bringing in developers and students from all over the country looking for jobs. Oh yeah, and we’re throwing an exhibitor Pre-Party so you can meet all the other startups. Oh, and one last thing, it’s only a few hundred bucks as opposed to similar events that charge thousands. Boom. Done. 200 startups the first year. Over 400 for Year 2.

Don’t make the fundament mistake of thinking that your product is so amazing that it will instantly go viral and everyone will share it with their friends and suddenly you’ll have a million users. That just doesn’t happen on Day 1. You have to work for every early user that you can get. There are plenty of other techniques you can use to get that initial traction you need, but these three are my favorite and have worked with incredible success for me in the past.

P.S. I have no formal sales or marketing background whatsoever but have learned all this stuff along the way. I realized how important these skills are to success and have been studying the game ever since.

Lessons from Fake Grimlock

Yesterday we had the most epic of all coffee meetings so far. David and I had the pleasure of meeting with Fake Grimlock while he was in town for a secret stealth mission. We all know of the genius that is Fake Grimlock from things like this, this, this, this, this and this, but it’s quite another thing to be able to meet with him in person. We took full advantage of the opportunity and want to share what we learned.

Optimize for the Rat Brain

There have been studies performed that show that the brain will have an emotional reaction about something within one twentieth of a second. After that, the rational brain then justifies the reaction that the rat brain has already made. What does that even mean? Well, when a visitor looks at your website for the first time, they have already formed an opinion within a twentieth of a second about whether or not they like you, about whether or not they want to purchase what you’re selling. Then the visitor proceeds to spend the next few seconds attempting to justify this decision by looking at your design, content, etc.

FG explained the two tests he uses to optimize for the Rat Brain — the Squint Test and the Notebook Flash. The Squint Test simply means that you squint your eyes until everything is blurry. Now take a look at your landing page and figure out what pops. If your message isn’t coming through properly when squinting, you’re doing it wrong. The Notebook Flash is not what you’re thinking, so get your mind out of the gutter. Find a notebook the size of the screen your optimizing for (i.e. legal for websites and small spiral notepad for mobile). Draw or print the mock of your site with all of the content, images, UI and UX included. Then flash this image for one second to someone who hasn’t seen your site. Then ask them fun questions — what did you see, what does the site do, would you buy from these people, etc.

The Development Tradeoff

Clients want a quality product delivered on time / budget. That’s just common sense. The only way to consistently accomplish this is through experience. Inexperienced developers are either going to sacrifice on quality or miss on time / budget. A seasoned developer has been through the ring of fire before. He can look at a project and identify the pitfalls and black holes that can spiral a project out of control. An inexperienced developer will often times stumble upon these pitfalls only when it is too late. You get what you pay for with developers. If you want a quality product delivered on time and on budget, find talented and experienced developers.

Relocating Fake Grimlock and his Grim-Dog

If we want to get Fake Grimlock to move to NYC (or anywhere outside of his current home base), it can be done. He may or may not be looking for the perfect opportunity to make a move. There are critical factors that will drastically increase your likelihood of success.

  1. Present FG with an amazing opportunity to join your startup. Amazing opportunity means you have an insanely good idea and the right team behind it. Basically have a very strong vision for how you want to punch the world in the face.

  2. Find a new home for Fake Grimlock with a yard for Grim-Dog to play in. No dog should have to poop on concrete every day. FG and Grim-Dog need their space.

That’s it. Let’s bring the Grimmster to NYC!

Strategic Planning

Most people don’t spend enough time in the planning phase. This is why you have scope creep, unhappy clients, incomplete projects and inconsistency.The most important thing that can be done to ensure success in a project is to have proper strategic planning to come out with an iron-clad scope, wireframes, storyboards and expectations. Having everyone on board and on the same page from the beginning is critically important. This brings us to the final lesson (and our personal favorite)!

Pissing on the Tree

When building a new product, you must give everyone the opportunity to piss on the tree as early as possible. Every single dog that walks by a tree that another dog has pissed on is going to want to leave their mark. And so it is with product development. Every single person who has any say whatsoever is going to add their input whether you want them to or not. It’s best to force every major stakeholder to piss on the tree before any development begins to save incredible amounts of time and headaches down the road.

From what we’ve heard, Fake Grimlock’s stealth mission was a success. We’re sure glad that he made it back up to NYC and super-stoked to have been able to grab a few minutes of his time. Thanks for dropping some knowledge on the Firehawk Team!

What is Firehawk Creative?

Firehawk Creative is a development partner that works with carefully selected, early stage startups and entrepreneurs to bring their ideas to life. Our development process is carefully constructed to transform an idea through wireframes and storyboards to a fully functioning and polished product. We completely focus our resources to one product at a time to ensure that we are providing our partners with the ultimate experience.

From our time at the NYC Dev Shop as a founder / head of product and lead developer, we have extensive experience building startups from the very earliest stages of conception. We’ve learned so much during that time and have used that experience to form the four pillars of Firehawk Creative.

  • Passion — We love building startups. We love working with talented entrepreneurs. And we love solid ideas. We carefully screen and select every project we build to ensure we are passionate about our work. We want to pour our heart and soul into everything we do.
  • Expertise — We’ve built over 20 startups in just about every vertical and industry. We will only take on projects where we think we can add immense value. We know there are certain projects where we are not the best fit and we are happy to make referrals to other developers when appropriate.
  • Collaboration — We think that there are tremendous opportunities for improvement in the development world when it comes to collaboration. We’ve experienced time and time again that the best products are a result of a strong collaboration between the developers and the entrepreneurs. We aim for maximum collaboration throughout the entire project lifecycle.
  • Honesty — We can’t overstate this one enough. Total honesty from day one from all parties is crucial to everything that we will do together. If we disagree with something, we’ll tell you. If something is more complicated than we initially thought, we’ll tell you. If you’re not happy with how something turned out, you better tell us so that we can fix it. Complete honesty every step of the way.

You deserve a better development partner. Firehawk Creative is here to show you exactly what that means.

Need more coffee meetings

I’ve had a couple of really productive coffee meetings in the last few days, and I want more. Mark Suster and Gary Vaynerchuk have hammered home this point with Why You Need To Take 50 Coffee Meetings and Why Taking Random Meetings Matters So Much, so I don’t need to explain the why.

I want to take one coffee meeting every day. It doesn’t matter if we’re good friends, random acquaintances or we’ve never met before. Let’s meet. I know at least one of us (or more likely both of us) will get value out of the meeting.

One of the most enjoyable things that we do at Firehawk is meet with incredibly talented and passionate people. I love hearing what people are working on, the problems people are trying to solve, what keeps them up at night, the things they are struggling with and being able to offer feedback along the way. This is why I’ve been a mentor for a couple of Startup Weekends and a Lean Startup Workshop. I want to be able to help people who may be in a very similar position to where I was a few years ago. It’s really what makes this startup ecosystem here in NYC (and many other communities I’ve been to) so special.

I’ve set up daily Ohours for 9:30am every Monday through Friday at Financier Patisserie right by our new office at WeWork Labs. I may be flexible to other times / locations if you ask nicely :)

If you want to meet and may potentially be interested in a pistachio macaroon on me, sign up for the Ohours, tweet at me, email, call me, send an owl. Let’s make this happen!