Entrepreneur

You're a little company, now act like one

(Editor’s note: Jason Cohen is founder of Smart Bear Software. He contributed this column to VentureBeat.)

I talk to a lot of companies that are still hunting for customer number one, or have made a few sales, but the ball really isn’t rolling yet.

Most of them are making the same mistake: Their public persona is exactly wrong.

I know, because I made the same mistake – but I learned my lesson.

Even before I had a single customer, I knew it was important to look professional. My website needed to look and feel like a “real company.” I needed culture-neutral language complimenting culturally-diverse clip-art photos of frighteningly chipper co-workers huddled around a laptop, awash with the thrill and delight of configuring a JDBC connection to SQL Server 2008.

It also meant adopting typical “marketing-speak,” so my “About Us” page started with:

“Smart Bear is the leading provider of enterprise version control data-mining tools. Companies world-wide use Smart Bear’s Code Historian software for risk-analysis, root-cause discovery, and software development decision-support.”

“Leading provider?” “Data mining?” I’m not even sure what that means. But you have to give me credit for an impressive quantity of hyphens.

That’s what you’re supposed to do right? That’s what other companies do, so it must be right. Who am I to break with tradition? Surely my potential customers would immediately close the browser if they read:

“Hi, I’m Jason and I built an inexpensive tool for visualizing what’s in your version control system. It’s useful for answering questions like ‘When was the last time we changed this file?’ Check it out and tell me what sucks!”

I mean, can you imagine a person with “Software Engineer III” on their business card taking me seriously if I just talked like a human being? What if someone got offended by the word “sucks?” No.. No… Big companies want to see professional language, I thought.

But I was wrong. I’ll explain why from the point of view of selling software over the web, but the same lesson applies to every little company trying to get off the ground.

Now repeat after me:

“My next sale won’t be a 1000-seat order from Lockheed Martin…”
”My next sale won’t be a 1000-seat order from Lockheed Martin…”
”My next sale won’t be a 1000-seat order from Lockheed Martin…”

I’m telling you this having sold software to every size of company from micro-ISV to IBM, and, well, to Lockheed Martin.

Your vision is to land $100k deals with big companies and you will – but not today. Today your product is a shaky version 1.0 with bugs you haven’t uncovered yet, missing 80 percent of the features big companies require. It also lacks significant documentation like case studies or a proper manual or an ROI model or a large, reference-able customer.

Today, you’re a complete mismatch with Lockheed Martin. But there’s a nice big niche that’s a perfect match: Early adopters.

Early adopters are people who want to live on the bleeding edge. They like new technology, even if that means it’s buggy. They like working with teeny companies where they have a personal relationship with the founders – where they are showered with attention and where their ideas are implemented before their very eyes. They don’t mind putting up with a hundred bugs so long as they get fixed fast. They want to be involved in the process.

The best part is, this is exactly the moment in your company’s life when you need early adopters to help you build the right product. You don’t need people who download, get discouraged and then never call you back. You need a chatty Cathy who wants to dive in and help out.

Returning to your public corporate persona… What do you put up on your website that screams out to those potential early adopter cheerleaders that you are exactly what they’re looking for: A cool new company with a fresh product and fresh attitude; a product that might be rough around the edges but is ripe for feedback and collaboration; a company that may be small today but is thinking big.

Well here’s how not to it: Say “a leading provider of” and blather on about how you “Provide the ability to quickly and easily do XYZ so you can go back to accomplishing high-value tasks.”

Puh-leeze. Can you be more uninspiring?

Balsamiq Studios is doing it right. Read their company page. It’s says “Hello.”  It says “Yes, a couple of guys in a studio.” They don’t skirt the issues of being a small company:

I know, it sounds iffy: how can such a small team create, test, maintain, market, sell, and support a software company?

Well, that remains to be seen – but Balsamiq made $800,000 in their first year of operations, so don’t tell me “big companies” need to hear garbage PR/marketing language. And Balsamiq got 100 product reviews during their first six weeks of operation, so don’t tell me “a couple of guys in a studio” isn’t a good public persona.

You want that kind of success? Stop acting like a faceless, humorless, generic, robotic company.

Put yourself in the shoes of that early adopter. Does she want to see useless garbage phrases or does she want to hear about how you understand her pain? Should you come off as a big, established, safe company or as a cool, passionate, small team who wants to make a difference? Should you hide behind “Contact Us” forms or display your phone number and Twitter account on your home page?

Be human. Stop hiding. Be yourself.


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