marketing 101 backboard

Update: This post made it to #5 on Hacker News, thanks everyone! I wish there was a way to integrate the comments on the thread. To check them out, click here. 

Since the acquisition was announced in December, I’ve been inundated with emails from entrepreneurs wanting to meet over a cup of coffee to talk about their idea or startup. Although my time has been more limited with my new position at NetLine, I try to set them up on weeknights or weekends and provide helpful feedback when I can. One of the recurring themes I’m seeing is technical founders building a product for themselves. I wish I would have been in their shoes. That is, until I find out they’re forging ahead without a marketing plan.

Over and over, I hear them say “I know my user because I AM my user and all I have to do is show them my product. They’ll buy it.” Here’s a typical dialogue:

  • “How are you going to find these users?” “I’m going to approach them and tell them about it.”
  • “Where are you going to find them?” “On Twitter, Facebook or [insert site here]”
  • “How are you going to make them listen to you?” “I’ll send them an email or respond to a forum [or something similar]”
  • “Are you going to send emails to all your users? Why are they going to care?

By this time, most of them understand they haven’t fully fleshed out their go-to-market strategy and they turn it back on me and ask me for ideas. It’s as if they assume because they gave me a two-minute spiel of their product or service, my brain is magically going to overflow with promotional ideas that will generate their first one hundred users.

If only it was that easy!

With this post, my goal is to provide a methodology for building the framework of a marketing plan. It is geared towards those with a technical background although anyone can take advantage of this structure.

Marketing 101 for Developers:

Step 1) Learn everything you can about your target market

market research

Before you can devise a plan on how you’re going to get your first users, you need to understand them. This is especially true if you classify yourself as your own user. Too often, I read stories on Hacker News of technical founders whose own assumptions turn around to bite them because they couldn’t take themselves out of the picture.

This is comparable to the requirements you would put together before starting development. It is the most imperative component of building a marketing plan and too often, it’s not given enough time. Who is your typical user? Where do they hang out? What do they like? What do they not like? Where do they fall in the adoption cycle? What are their demographics? Psychographics? etc.

I like to start this by researching what bloggers are saying about similar tools and services. I write down a list of keywords that pertain to my product and market and Google it one by one. I open up multiple tabs of pages that are relevant and start reading. I compile notes on a separate document with what I’ve learned. I also include links to the respective page if the information is really valuable in case I want to reach out to that person in the future.

Next, I take the same keywords and turn to listening on Twitter. For example, we’re promoting a new RSS to Email tool at RevResponse. This product takes RSS feeds and automatically converts them to email newsletters that site owners can provide their readers. I came up with the following keywords:

  • RSS to Email tool
  • convert RSS to Email
  • Feedburner alternatives
  • Feedburner sucks
  • hate Feedburner
I was able to add the last two to my list during my initial research. I saved all these keywords as searches on Twitter. Every day, I go through them to see what people are saying. When someone says something I don’t understand, I reach out to them and ask them to elaborate. This is a great way to start building relationships with future users. Because we’re further along, I’ll ask what they’re looking for in an RSS to Email tool and relay that feedback to my team.

While the research aspect is often a one-time process, the listening process should be on-going. Once you feel like you have a good understanding of the space, it’s time to validate your assumptions and ensure you know exactly who you’re going after and what they want from a product or service like yours. Surveys are a great way to do this. I love using Wufoo and Google Forms.  I’ve also seen Survey.io mentioned on Hacker News although I have not used it yet. For useful resources on how to tackle this section, check out the links below.

  1. Survey Design – A comprehensive guide on designing and launching a successful survey.
  2. 5 Tips for Better Online Surveys – From the guru himself, Seth Godin provides insights into how to create better surveys.
  3. How I Used Amazon Mechanical Turk to Validate my Startup Idea – A entrepreneur discusses how she used Amazon Mechanical Turk to distribute her survey.
  4. Using Facebook in Market Research – Helpful tips on how to use Facebook ads to gain responses from your target market.
  5. Talk to Your Target Customer in 4 Easy Steps – Andrew Chen describes how to write a survey, recruit participants and distribute it online.
For a more targeted way to get the right group of people to answer your survey, there’s also a service called “Ask Your Target Market.” It allows you to input the demographics of the participants you’re looking for and it will distribute your survey for a nominal fee. Of course, keep in mind this is more appropriate after you’ve validated the assumptions of your target group. I would recommend reading “Four Steps to Epiphany” by Steven Blank for hands-on, step-by-step techniques to help you build a product your users want.

After this is fleshed out, take the time to build user personas. Personas are descriptions of fictional users that represent a majority of your target market. It’s focused specifically on how they would use your product/service to meet their goals. Through this exercise, you actually bring these characters to life and you use them to set the tone for future initiatives. This infographic provides a nice guide that explains how they work and provides other resources to look into.

Step 2) Determine your USP (or unique selling proposition)

USP

Thought we were ready to dig into the plan? Not quite yet. You just spent a lot of time researching your ideal customer, now it’s to dive into why they would care about your product or service. This is where developing your USP comes in. It’s usually good practice to devise a few variations and A/B test them when you build out your site. Before jumping ahead, let’s get into how to go about this.

Before you can figure out what makes you different from your competitors, you need to research them! While this post will not get into how to perform a competitive analysis, you can find a lot about the topic through a Google search. The main differentiators are going to center around 4 key areas: cost, quality, uniqueness, and speed of service. A couple of things to note – 1) Great customer service is no longer a point of differentiation. The widespread use of social media has made this a mandatory component and 2) You can’t possess all of those qualities. Two of them are standard and you may be able to do three if you’re lucky.

Now that you know how your competitors differ, it’s time to go through how you’re going to distinguish yourself:

  1. Start by writing down all the benefits of your product on a whiteboard, leaving enough space underneath each sentence to fit 3 bullets.
  2. Once you’ve exhausted all of them, go down your list and ask yourself “Why would X care about this?” Use the personas you’ve built if available and input your answer in the first bullet.
  3. Do this again for the second bullet.
  4. And again for the third.

Marketing Experiments also has a nice USP exercise you can view on Scribd. You want to be that annoying little kid that’s always asking why broccoli is good for you. After his/her parent realizes saying “because I said so” isn’t good enough, he or she will take the time to explain that broccoli is full of vitamins that will help him/her grow into a healthy adult. That’s exactly the process you’re going through in this step, you’re getting to the core of what your users really want. Some of them will be duds and others will make you say, “why didn’t I think of that before?”

Tip: If you come up with yours easily, you didn’t do it right.

Step 3) Start with your goals then move on to strategies

I’m a big advocate of interns as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Whenever I held our quarterly marketing strategy meeting, they would start by shouting out ideas they have. They would be all over the place, ranging from getting exposure to business development to selling. Every time, I would stop them and ask them if the idea was relevant to the goal we had set. Usually the answer was no. Before devising tactics, you need to come up with your marketing strategy and before that you need to set your goals.

Goals set the context for your marketing plan. Is your goal to acquire 1000 users by June? Is it to hit $10k in monthly revenue by then? Create SMART goals – that is, make sure they’re Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. Wikipedia has a thorough page outlining each criteria.

Once you have your goals outlined, it’s time to discuss strategies. First, you need to understand the difference between a strategy and a tactic. Strategies are focused on how goals can be achieved and tactics are actions taken to execute the strategy. E.g. Blogger outreach is one of our strategies in raising awareness of our RSS to Email tool. Offering paid reviews to bloggers who qualify is a tactic.

Step 4) Brainstorm session: Get all your ideas on a whiteboard

This is my favorite step. Now is the time to get the creative juices flowing so you can determine your final strategies. I like to start by defining marketing channels, then laying out ideas for each. Some examples include email marketing, social media, SEO and so on. Don’t leave anything out. I’ve found a crazy or boring thought can spark a new idea that jumps to the top of the list later on. The only criteria is to ensure the concepts are relevant to the goals you laid out above.

If you have a bigger team, you may want to write your ideas on a post-it separately and then share it with the group so everyone’s thoughts doesn’t impede sharing. With this process, the protocol I’ve used is as follows:

  1. Set a time limit for brainstorming. A good timeframe is 15 minutes
  2. Write ONE idea on a separate post-it
  3. Once time is up, have each person get up in front of the idea, share it with the team and stick it to the respective category on the whiteboard

Step 5) Evaluate the expected return and prioritize

startup-todo-list

My old partner taught me a technique to evaluate ideas called the Value Judgment Analysis. The exercise involves measuring the expected impact, time, and cost each idea. The benefit being it allows for easier prioritization. To start, make a list of all the ideas in an Excel spreadsheet. Add “Impact,” “Time,” and “Cost”columns. Create a legend to dedicate how you’ll measure each criteria. Go through each idea and determine the corresponding rating on a scale of 1 to 5. Add up the total and re-organize how you’re going to start executing your promotions.

Step 6) Test and measure. Repeat!

Testing is a concept that’s all too familiar to developers. Just as you go through Quality Assurance to ensure your program is working, you have to do the same with your marketing channels and messaging. Make it a point to keep testing your site copy, subject line of your email campaigns, paid search keywords/ads and so on. What are your KPI’s? Did they increase or decrease? Adjust as necessary. One way to accomplish this is with A/B testing. A few tools that can help with this include Google Optimizer, Optimizely, Performable, and Unbounce.

Final things to keep in mind:

  • Create baselines before embarking on any new marketing initiative (For instance, we want to rank organically for “RSS to Email tool.” When we searched for that keyword, we placed #39th in Google. With our promotions, we’ve been able to bump it to #5).
  • Utilize Google Analytics events. Record all new blog posts, marketing promotions, email campaigns as they are executed. You’ll be able to go back to this later to see what worked and what didn’t. Focus on what worked.
  • Getting a lot of traffic doesn’t matter. It’s TARGETED traffic you want. If you notice your signup or sales conversion rate is low, you may not be promoting to the right audience.
  • Putting together a marketing plan is NOT the same as creating a brand for your Company. While I touch on it above, it is a separate topic altogether.
  • Along the same lines, marketing is also not the same as selling or advertising.
  • I assume you’ve already validated your concept and de-risked your assumptions.
  • Startups should never hire a PR Company. If you can’t get exposure yourself, you’re doing it wrong.
  • I haven’t run across one startup that doesn’t need more blogger outreach. Utilize this as one of your main strategies. Mark Hendrickson has a great post you should bookmark on how to pitch a tech blogger.

Before you even you start reaching out to your audience, determine the voice and personality of your brand. This guest post on Fred Wilson’s blog sums it up perfectly. Alexis Ohanian (co-founder of Reddit) also has this wonderful class video series on General Assembly’s site where he talks about how he built the brand and mascots of Reddit and Hipmunk.

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Related Resources:

My topic was about how I brought GirlDevelopIt to Philadelphia with a brief background on my struggles as a non-technical person starting a technology company and not knowing how to communicate with developers. I was going to write a personal recap of the event but I’m not sure I can do it justice with what’s already out there on TechnicallyPHL and Flying Kite. Go ahead and give them a look. You’ll notice I nabbed the coveted “Best Overall” presentation which I’m still excited about. So much so I volunteered to speak at the next one!

My talk is titled “Learning How To Code With GirlDevelopIt”:

I have to give my brilliant friend (and GirlDevelopIt teacher) Pam Selle a shout-out on her “Go the f&*k home” presentation before signing off. She talked about how to be more efficient at work, why supervisors should set an example for their employees and creating a life/work balance. Her hilarious speech was my favorite and the video is embedded in her blog post.

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  • February 10, 2012

I went to a friend’s birthday get-together tonight and a couple of people asked about my occupation. I vary my description depending on whom I’m speaking with. This particular person didn’t seem like a techie so after a brief pause, I quickly explained that I’m the Product Marketing Manager at an ad network. He nodded, then proceeded to switch the subject. I was initially put off by it and it wasn’t until I walked home that I realized why which led to this blog post.

When I was running 123LinkIt, I had my pitch down cold. I would almost always receive follow-on questions that would lead to discussions about advertising, technology, entrepreneurship, or another subject in the space. I loved being self-employed and describing what I did. I felt like I had a purpose and it showed.

Most of the way things have shifted since the acquisition was expected. However, actually experiencing it first-hand is another matter. What it boils down to is I feel like an average, ordinary Jane. I get up early, go to work, make dinner or go out with friends, go to sleep and get up to do it all over again tomorrow. I’m accustomed to hearing people complain about their work woes and I would secretly pat myself on the back for not being in the same situation. I may have been broke and always hustling, but I felt special and unique as an entrepreneur. The shoe is now on the other foot and I’m not quite sure how to perceive it. It has been seven weeks since I started my new gig and I’m wondering why I haven’t fallen into a routine yet.

It’s not like I have it bad. I’m working on some exciting initiatives and I have autonomy on certain things. My boss and my coworkers are great and our office environment is extremely laid back. I go to work in jeans every day. Facing the tribulations I used to hear people complain about is what adds to the “average Jane” feeling. I have a long commute, I sit ALL DAY (this is the hardest thing for me as I tend to become restless easily), I hit a mental block in the early afternoon and so on. Before I know it the week has flown by, it’s the weekend and it goes by in a blur.

To add to it, I used to associate myself with my Company. We were essentially one “person.” I can’t help feeling lost and stripped of a part of my identity (is this what separation anxiety feels like?). I just went to register for the Women In Tech Summit that I’m helping to organize and I lingered at the “Company” portion.  Do I input 123LinkIt? NetLine?

All in all, this transition has not been as smooth as I initially imagined. I’m left uncertain of how to label myself and I don’t like it. I pause when people ask me what I do because I don’t want to sound like another employee and I miss explaining that I work for myself. I can’t help but wonder if I can still call myself an entrepreneur even though I have a 9 to 5. If it’s simply a matter of patience and getting accustomed to my new role or if it’s a mindset I need to change within myself.

How have others handled this type of career transition? If anyone has ideas or feedback, I would love to hear it.

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  • December 26, 2011

top 5 postsOne of the things I miss most since the acquisition is working from coffee shops. It’s quite fitting that I’m sitting in Starbucks right now with a chai tea latte to my right and my headphones on blaring Lana Del Rey. I’m not accustomed to not having things to work on during the Holidays. I used to spend breaks like this to catch up or “bypass” the competition as I would tell myself. I’ve decided to use the time for “self-improvement” (can you tell I’m big on that by now?).

At the end of every year, I look over the list of goals I’ve put together the year before and compile a “What Went Well” and an “Even Better If” column. This blog goes in the former category. I had invested so much time in my old one that I put off creating a new personal blog and I’m glad I finally got around to it in April. Below, you’ll find a list of the most trafficked posts. Enjoy!

  1. Notepad of Startup Ideas – I transferred my “idea book” into this blog post one weekend and it skyrocketed to the top of Hacker News, blowing all the other posts out of the water. You’ll find a variety of ideas I’ve had since I was in high school, some good ones that ended up being built and others that I probably shouldn’t have included.
  2. 10 Years Ago (Or a Brief Back Story) – I was surprised to discover this ranked second, especially since it was posted nine days ago. This entry was produced after seeing something of my past that made me reflect upon how my life has changed over the last ten years. I’m still receiving nice emails and comments on it.
  3. Being My Own Worst Enemy – This was another surprise. In this post, I highlighted my dissatisfaction from winning First Place at Temple’s Business Plan Competition to showcase my self-deprecating behavior, how it has been a self-fulfilling prophecy, and how I would like to combat it.
  4. Finding Interns in Philadelphia – I’m a huge advocate of utilizing interns and after constantly being asked where to find them, I compiled a list of local universities that offered internship programs with their contact information.
  5. 123LinkIt has been Acquired by Netline – This one doesn’t need an explanation :-).

I’m going to finish up my annual review list. You can help by leaving a comment on how you would like this blog to improve or provide ideas of topics you’d like me to write about. Thanks in advance.

red hyundai accent

I was driving to work this morning when a red sedan in the opposing intersection made a right at the same street I was about to turn on. I instantly knew the year, make and model. It was a 1998 red Hyundai Accent. I’m not a car expert by any means but that particular vehicle holds a special place in my heart. It was an exact replica of my first car.

I was nineteen years old when I acquired my driver’s license. I had purchased it with my life savings, exactly five thousand dollars. I remember handing the envelope full of cash over to the car salesmen and holding on to it just a little too long, reluctant to part with it. I thought of the hours of hosting it took for me to make its equivalent (I was earning $5/hr at the time). I cherished that car like it was my child. In fact, I had a weekly ritual where I washed and detailed it every Sunday. I used to joke with my family and friends that I wanted to be buried in it.

Why did it mean so much to me? I had worked exhaustively to get it. The year before, my siblings and I had discovered we weren’t eligible for college scholarships nor could we attain legitimate jobs. My parents had not filed the proper immigration paperwork when we migrated to the U.S. in 1991. To make a long story short, we are refugees from the Persian Gulf War. My siblings and I were born in Kuwait except for the youngest and we were living there when Saddam Hussein invaded our Country in 1990. Because my little brother is American, a couple of U.S. Ambassadors came to collect us and we were whisked away onto a plane where we ended up in Philadelphia.

Even before I bought my first car, I had picked up two jobs under the table at local restaurants and I was trying to figure out how I was going to put myself through school. My Father, a mechanical engineer, had given up on his first son following in his footsteps. Having possessed the best grades in my family, he forced me to enroll as a Mechanical Engineering student at a local Community College. When I decided to switch majors after one semester, he stopped paying my tuition.

One warm summer day the same year, he packed a suitcase and hopped on a one-way flight to Jordan with my 13-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother. He took all of the family’s savings with him, leaving my Mom and his remaining four children to fend for ourselves.

As if that wasn’t enough, 9/11 happened and our lives were further turned upside down. Citizenship applications were delayed, and then completely halted. I walked into one of my jobs the next day and the Manager exclaimed, “Yasmine, you don’t know how to fly planes, do you?” in an employee meeting where everyone laughed half-heartily. Some of the regular customers stopped speaking to me, as if I was a terrorist by association. I was let go a couple of weeks later for not following a rule everyone broke on a daily basis.

It took me a little over seven years to finally graduate college. To be fair, going back and forth from working part-time, going to school full-time and vice versa wasn’t fully to blame. I switched majors four times and more than twenty of my credits didn’t transfer when I decided to pursue my Entrepreneurship degree at Temple University. I knew I wanted to work for myself and be my own boss, I just didn’t know what I wanted to pursue. As you can see from this previous post, I had a plethora of startup ideas. I finished in late 2006 and instantly started working at Team and a Dream (now Philly Marketing Labs), where I had interned during my last semester. It’s where I became submerged in tech startups. I worked with early-stage entrepreneurs helping them get their ideas off the ground and their products/services to market.

Most of you know the rest of the story. I worked my butt off for almost 3 years, eventually climbing up to Partner. However, I had an incessant itch to be on the other side of the table and to build my own Company. When the idea for 123LinkIt arose out of a personal need I had, I gave my three months notice and embarked on my journey.

That wasn’t an easy road either. I had a lot going against me. For one, I was a non-techie trying to build a tech Company. I started without a CTO. I found one halfway around the world. I bootstrapped the Company with money I’d put away from the consulting business. I lived at my Mom’s house to save money. My CTO departed in December and I contemplated throwing in the towel right around my birthday. My advisers and I thought long and hard about it and decided the opportunity was too big. I had trouble recruiting another CTO candidate because of the state of the software so I raised a small friends & family round and hired contractors to fix it. I eventually brought someone on board. I hired a team of four interns during the summer to help me recruit bloggers to our platform. The new CTO didn’t work out and it was getting really hard to keep pushing. Thanks to some smart preparation, my advisers at PhilaDev and I were able to turn a potential partnership into an acquisition.

facebook_timeline - me signing the final acquisition paperwork

Signing the final paperwork at FedEx on November 18th

What’s my point in this story? I worked hard, scratch that, EXTREMELY hard, to get to where I’ve ended up. I’ve hustled relentlessly for years and even that is an understatement. I know what’s like to be treated like a lower-class citizen, to be told I’ll “never amount to anything”, to have to swallow my pride, to stretch every dollar, to not have enough for my first fill-up at the gas station (yes, I’m referring to the Hyundai), to forgo college parties because I was too exhausted or had to get up early for work the next day, to go out with friends and order a glass of water instead of a drink…basically, to not lead a “normal” life.

Yet I would not take it back for anything. It has been ten years and I’m now 29 years old. As cliche as it sounds, I recognize where I am because of those struggles and hardships. I didn’t covet that red 1998 Hyundai Accent because it was my first car. I appreciated and took care of it because I had attained it with my hard-earned money. [Let’s do the math for a second. At the $5 an hour I was making as a hostess, it’s one thousand hours. To put it in context, that’s over six months of working forty hours a week.] Seeing it today made me think about what has transpired since and the long, bumpy, often hilly road I’ve had to go through, around and climb since. It has not been easy, but then again, they say nothing worthwhile ever is. I’m not going to forget where I came from because I’ve been at the bottom, I’ve worked my way up, and I don’t want to go back.

People have been coming up to me and either asking how much I’ve made from the acquisition or joking about being able to live an extravagant lifestyle. Yes, I have been on a spending spree the last couple of weeks. That’s because for now, it’s time to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

Update: I finally became an America citizen in 2012. I expanded upon this with a new post titled “Living the American Dream.

Note: I grabbed that picture online because I couldn’t find any digital ones in my laptop. You probably don’t even care anyway.

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  • December 7, 2011

Note: This post was started on Monday, December 5th and completed on Wednesday, December 7th.

I just came back from TD Bank and I’m sitting in front of my computer at work wondering why I wasn’t reveling in what just transpired.

The day started simply enough. I woke up at 6am, caught the 7am train, and arrived at work around 8:30am. I created a to-do list for the day and made a mental note to run to the bank during lunchtime. I had received my check from the 123LinkIt acquisition on the 28th and I had yet to deposit it into my account.

Why the wait?

I told my family I would get to it when I had the time, that I had just been busy getting acclimated to my new position. After all, there are a lot of adjustments. This is my first full-time job, I’m now getting up early (My friends know this is a substantial shift. I’m a die-hard night-owl), I have a boss, I have co-workers in the same physical space, I went from a commute of a few steps from my bed to my desk to a three-hour daily commute and the list goes on.

My response was partially the truth. The actual reason is because I knew it would be the final step of the acquisition process and I wasn’t mentally ready to put the stamp on it. I didn’t realize the extent of this feeling until I stood at the bank counter. I looked at the check for a good five minutes. This was without a doubt the biggest check I had ever seen AND IT WAS MADE OUT TO ME! What the heck was I doing holding on to it?!

My fingers grazed the numbers on the check as if I was making love to it. I looked at the back and turned it around to the front. I put it down, then picked it up. I’m thankful the bank was empty or else people would have wondered what the strange woman in black was doing. A gamut of emotions went through me, everything from sadness to happiness. A carousel of thoughts going back two years slowly rolled through my mind. My Company had been a partner AND a child to me. I had consumed and nurtured it for more than two years. There had been bad times, so-so moments and fantastic highs. Here I was holding on to what was left, a standard check-size piece of paper.

This past year had been especially challenging. My CTO and I had departed in December and I had run the Company using contractors. I raised a F&F loan and maxed out my credit cards to support it. I was living like a pauper, counting every dollar as it was spent. I had a challenging summer. There were a couple of times when I contemplated folding. Yet, here I was. I pushed through with the support of my wonderful advisers, PhilaDev and family to make it to this unforgettable point.

iphone message exchangeThis was really it, I remember thinking. I was finalizing the deal and there wasn’t going to be any turning back. (In actuality, everything had already gone through). I texted a couple of friends while I stood there like an idiot. The photo on the side is from one exchange. The lock button on my iPhone isn’t working so I asked him to take a screenshot (A new iPhone will be one of the first purchases I make this week!.).

I flipped the check over and moved my pen to the Signature line. My right hand shook as I signed it. I tried to use my best penmanship but it was fruitless. I thought the tasking part was over until I turned to face the tellers. I wanted to walk over but my legs stood planted firmly on the carpeted floor. My eyes accidentally locked with the teller who was open. I took a deep breath and hesitantly walked over.  Just when I reached him, I realized I had not filled out a deposit form.

Oh jeez, here we go again!

It’s been a couple of days since I wrote the above. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m not happy with the acquisition. I’m beyond thrilled. Words can’t rightfully describe how elated I am. 123LinkIt is going to move to new heights with resources I had not possessed. It’s part of a full-time team and it is being integrated with an existing product that has a substantial user base. It’s also led by an incredible management team with 50+ employees that generated over $10M in revenue last year and growing.

123LinkIt is moving forward. It may not be my baby anymore but it’s going to flourish faster with an extended family that I am lucky and proud to be a part of.

Netline Acquires 123LinkIt
Goal: Sell first Company before turning 30.

*checks off list*

I’m elated to announce one of my dreams has come true this past month. NetLine, the #1 B2B content syndication network, has acquired 123LinkIt. The deal officially closed on November 18, 2011.

From the announcement on the 123Linkit blog:

We have been working hard to help bloggers make money from what they are already doing since early 2010. We believe by seamlessly transforming product and brand keywords into money-making opportunities, we enable bloggers to effortlessly build passive income from their published content.

After integrating our software with tens of thousands of blogs, we believe now is the best time to expand our efforts with another team that shares our vision of enhancing the online advertising process. We’re excited to announce that we have been acquired by NetLine and will be joining their RevResponse team to continue creating an enriching and unobtrusive advertising experience on the web.

What happens now? 123LinkIt will continue to live on under its own brand. We’ll be integrating our technology with NetLine’s to enable them to provide in-text advertising to their B2B ad network, RevResponse. I have joined their East Coast team in Lansdale full-time as the Product Marketing Manager to help with the move as well as other exciting initiatives.

Before signing off I’d like to thank my team, my family, my friends (especially Jeff Brelsford), my advisers – Anthony Gold, CH Low, Skip Shuda, Dave Fortino (of NetLine), Donna McCarthy and Scott Jangro – as well as PhilaDev (which includes Phil Ives & Chris Myers), a startup accelerator in Philadelphia.

Last but not least, a huge thanks to our 123LinkIt users (with a special shout-out to Stephen Belyea) and partners who have supported us along the way. This would not have happened without you!

Update: The official press release can be found here.

Stay tuned as I post what I’ve learned during this experience in the coming weeks.

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  • November 10, 2011

yasmine-mustafa-colin-lenton-photo-shootI’m in the last year of my twenties, getting more and more gray hairs every month and I’ve probably aged twice as fast in the last two years thanks to my startup.

So what’s a girl to do when faced with these realizations? Have a professional photo shoot of course! I’m suddenly reminded of a Sex and the City episode when Samantha decides to pose for nude photos because she wants to remember her body before “everything goes south.”

This wasn’t THAT kind of photo shoot by any means. Not even close. I decided to have headshots done primarily for my various social networks and websites. All of my photos have been cropped from personal pictures with friends (sound familiar?) and I felt like I needed the “grown-up” variation.

The first photographer that came to mind, Colin Lenton, is a friend who shot the TechnicallyPhilly guys and the most well-connected man in Philadelphia, Mikey Il. Colin and I have an interesting history. To make a long story short, I accused him of trying to commit a felony the first night we met (wasn’t even close). When I ran into him the next time, I asked if he had lost a lot of weight because I remembered him being much heavier. I’m blaming this on a case of reverse beer goggles. And yes, I am that blunt.

I also noticed that he appeared first when I googled “Philadelphia photographer. I reached out to him a month ago to discuss dates and we met in his studio a couple of weeks later. I have to say, being on the other side of the camera isn’t easy. I felt like an “America’s Next Top Model” reject. Well…except I’m much shorter with hips and I have no idea how to strike a pose without giggling like a little schoolgirl. Colin faced these challenges and to my surprise (Sorry Colin, underestimating you turned out to be a great thing), I’m extremely happy with the way the final pictures turned out. One of my favorites is on my About page.

Check out his work at http://colinmlenton.com. Maybe he’ll include my picture in his gallery one day (hint, hint!). Hopefully this post makes up for implying he was obese that one day (he’s not at all by the way, and ladies – he’s single!)

Updated 10/30/2011 – The video of the event has been embedded below. I start at the 1:09:05 mark.

I’m about to head out the door to speak at PANMA’s “WhyWe LovePhilly – The Awesome Philly Tech Scene” event. The idea is to showcase the diverse, tech community in Philadelphia by having various organizers come in and speak about the groups they started or participate in.

As most of you know, I’m fairly active in Philly’s tech scene and I’ve spearheaded a few projects. They include:

  1. GirlDevelopIt Philly
  2. TechGirlz
    • Goal: To encourage middle school girls to get into technology-related fields
    • Next event: Programming with Kodu on November 19th
    • Sign up link or contact info[at]techgirlz[dot]com
  3. Philly Startup Leaders Poker Club
  4. Philly Startup Leaders Book Club

I just started a LearnRuby 101 group as well and I’ll post more information on that once we get off the ground.

See you tonight!

It was about 4pm on Friday and I remember telling a friend I wish I hadn’t committed to going to Startup Weekend. I’ve had a grueling couple of weeks of work and I knew from my previous experiences that it was going to be a taxing weekend. As I was walking to the gym, I was struck with an idea. Why not float around during the weekend and go around helping teams instead of committing to one? I finished my workout and jogged home in the rain satisfied with my decision.

It was easy to spot the venue when I got there with my friend around 6pm as there were a few guys milling around in front of Drexel’s Earle Mack School of Law. The auditorium was packed at this point and pitches were about to begin. I went down the stairs and found a spot to stand by the wall. I was surprised at how many people I didn’t know at the event when I glanced around the room. I’ve been involved in the Philly tech scene since 2006 now and I like to think I know mostly everyone. I watched a long line of people line up on the other side, to the point where they had to stand outside the door.

Frankly, I found most of the pitches bland. A few grabbed my attention such as the hangplan pitch by Melissa Morris Ivone, the OperationNice gal from Philadephia. She found herself discovering what her friends were up to when it was too late and wanted an application that would allow her to look at her friends calendars and “check-in” if she was interested in joining. I walked over to my friend Chris Baglieri to see which ones he liked. We went down his list and briefly discussed them. By this time, the pitches hadended and everyone had a few minutes to go around and talk to the ones they liked. I snagged Melissa as she was heading over and the three of us discussed her idea in more detail. The more information she shared, the more I liked the concept. I could also see myself working with Melissa, and Chris and I have been talking about working together on a project. We talked to a few other members who came up to us and waited for the voting process to begin. By the end, it was clear hangplan was moving forward.

The pitchees (is that a word?) gave their elevator pitch one more time and everyone commandeered a spot to greet each other and talk about next steps. From right to left clockwise, our team included Michael Kolb, Brendan Lowry, Melissa Morris Ivone, Chris Baglieri, Jared Weinstock, Nathan Vecchiarelli, Quoc Le, Thach Nguyen (aka Rocky) and Andrew Ward.

startup weekend philly - day 1

The next morning, we determined our MVP would focus on 3 things – 1) integrating Facebook and allowing users to view their friends calendars 2) adding the ability to set up a new plan and 3) allowing friends to join a plan. The developers – Chris, Jared, Nathan, Mike, Quoc and Rocky – got to work. Chris and Nathan worked on the site, Mike on Facebook integration and the API and Jared, Quoc and Rocky on the mobile app. We literally had the perfect team, skill sets and personalities to execute on this idea.

Meanwhile, Melissa started designing the logo and background for the site. Brendon, Andrew and I talked about the brand, brainstormed marketing ideas and created a Twitter and Facebook account. We also bounced around some business models. Andrew put together a list of assumptions and we crafted a survey to test them. The goal was to figure out what type of people would use our application and what they would want to get out of it. We asked questions to confirm the pain-points we identified which focused on the methods they currently use to make plans with friends, what they disliked about it, what they would prefer, etc. We sent it to friends and spread it through our social networks. In addition, Chris and Muhammad from Houdini helped us get people to fill it out using their app which automates the Mechanical Turk process. We determined a couple of things from the survey – first, that college students were the perfect initial target market and second, that more than 50% of users would use the app to make plans a few days ahead of time so we decided to focus our messaging on creating plans within a week.

We had intended to launch our own sign up page but ran into trouble so we ended up using Kickoff Labs (a LaunchRock alternative) with the help of Chris’ friend. We were extremely active on our Twitter page, Facebook account and Tumblr blog (check it out for some funny posts), and it paid off – we had a hundred sign ups by midnight.

Day 3 was a blur and it seemed to drag on at the same time. Melissa had a fantastic, creative idea to put together a video showing a use case of how two friends can use hangplan as shown below. We used it in all our marketing initiatives to drive sign ups and found it helped our followers understand the concept better. We even got our first press story from PhillyPartyAmbassdor.com who agreed to endorse us and use our application when we launch.

We confirmed Melissa, Jared and I would pitch. Melissa would describe how she came up with the idea, go into the problem then the solution while showing a demo of how to set up a plan live on the site (You can check it out at http://hangplan.herokuapp.com). Jared would come in, act like he’s bored, glance through the mobile app and decide to join Melissa’s plan. I’d finish the presentation by detailing our user acquisition strategy, marketing plan and revenue model.

And that’s exactly how the demo played out Sunday night. Believe it or not, it took five minutes which was the time allotted for the presentation. Our Q&A lasted the same time. We were fifth to present overall from a list of twenty. The night seemed to drag on after and it was hard for me to sit still. Winners were finally announced around 8pm – Intro’d, an application that makes it easier to make introductions, by Jason Lorimer and Kevin Griffin took third place. We cheered when we learned we took second place and EffthePPA, an app that helps Philly drivers determine where to park, won First Place. For detailed coverage on the overall event, check out TechnicallyPHL’s recap.

hangplan team after win

I actually predicted we would win when we gathered together the first night. We had a great idea, the perfect team, the right personalities and all of us would use what we were about to build. All ten of us have confirmed we want to continue on. You’ll notice it’s been added to my sidebar under “My Projects.” :-)

Thanks to the hangplan team for an unforgettable experience, to the mentors for helping us throughout the weekend and to the judges for recognizing our hard work. Of course, I can’t forget Brad Oyler and Yuiry Porytko for organizing the event.

If hangplan sounds useful to you, sign up at http://www.hangplan.com and stay updated on our progress via Twitter and Facebook.