The anatomy of a viral landing page

Last month I built the Startup Death Clock as a mini promo piece for The Startup Foundry. Six hours after launch, the startup death clock received over 10,000 unique hits, hundreds of tweets, and significantly increased traffic to TSF. In this article I’m going to break down things that I learned while building death clock and I will also share a few mistakes I made along the way that you should avoid.

Simple, simple, simple

Design is an exercise in restraint. Make things as simple as possible. Your goal is to have your users share the site with their friends. You’re going to want to make sharing the page as simple as possible. It’s better for a viral page to gain traction than to be absolutely perfect at launch. Iterate quickly and capture eyeballs.

Pick a time to strike (and get lucky)

Color, the photo sharing company that raised $41 million, launched on March 23rd. I released The Death Clock on March 24. Topical events are a fantastic way to learn about your users. Leverage well known events in your community to your advantage.

Things that I screwed up: (abridged version)

• I should have made an option to Tweet out your score. I believe more people would have shared the link if it was personalized.
• It would have been fun to incorporate different levels of success (Ramen profitable, Quit your day job, etc. instead of just “37signals”).
• Don’t take things too seriously. After I launched the death clock I had one user absolutely pissed at me (perhaps he didn’t like to know ). I let one user out of 10,000 spoil my mood for a few hours. This was incredibly stupid of me. Grow thick skin and don’t take things too seriously.

What have you learned?

I’m very interested to hear about what you’ve learned with your experiences. Feel free to share what you’ve learned in the comments!

Could an Online Startup Incubator Succeed?

The Idea:

Build a startup incubator that runs online. This incubator could leverage expert mentors all over the world while lowering the barrier of entry for founders and entrepreneurs (who would no longer need to move). Your talent pool wouldn’t be constrained geographically. Theoretically this gives you a huge talent advantage.

What makes an incubator great?

Nobody runs an incubator better than Paul Graham. Paul launched YCombinator in 2005, and many (myself included) would consider YC to be the best incubator worldwide. They aren’t perfect, but they get a lot of things right. After interviewing several YC alum I can confidently say YC’s biggest strength is their people network. Anyone can offer money to a startup but the connections that Paul Graham and company provide are simply unrivaled.

I asked Paul Graham (Founder of YCombinator) about an online incubator and he said:
“It would not work, at least not with current technology
for doing things remotely.  The kind of interactions the
startups have with us and with the other startups need
to happen face to face.”

Fair enough. Paul doesn’t think you could put a YC style incubator online and maintain the same quality experience. I would agree with his initial assessment, but I believe an online incubator that challenged our preconceived notions of how an incubator functions could flourish online.

Barriers to entry:

I asked Sanjay Parekh (from Shotput Ventures) his thoughts on an online incubator and he said:
“Personally I have a hard time seeing how this works – successfully. There
are just some aspects to early stage startup formation that you lose when
doing things online.

I think that a lot can be said about the real world
interaction. I know the startups that we (Shotput Ventures) have funded
have generally done a great job communicating over email but I also see
them regularly at either meetings they setup or randomly at events in town.
When that happens, I feel like I can brainstorm and help them a lot
faster than if I’m limited by the bandwidth between my brain, my hands, the
keyboard, and the Internet. The bandwidth between my brain, eyes, ears,
and mouth is tremendously more capable for these interactions.”


I’m stuck on the fence if an online incubator would work. I can’t shake the feeling that with the right people it could be wildly successful. I’m very interested in this concept and have been thinking about it for a long time. I’m eager to hear what you think in the comments.

Does anyone feel like blowing $20k on an experiment?

5 Slide Startup Challenge (Get covered on TSF)

 TSF readers have been working on some fantastic startups. I would love to feature more reader created startups on the site so I came up with the 5  Slide Startup Challenge.

Here’s the deal:

1. Build a slide deck with a maximum of 5 slides. Don’t include any animations in your deck.
2. Record your elevator pitch. This should be no longer than 2 minutes. Video quality isn’t a big deal (just use your built in webcam), but really polish your pitch.
 3. Send us an email at with “5 slide challenge” in the subject line and your slide deck and video attached (or a link to them).

I’ll feature the best startup pitches on TSF. I’d really appreciate it if you helped to spread the word (on Twitter, Facebook, etc.). I’m very interested in what TSF readers are building, and I’m looking forward to hearing from you! Good luck!

Your MVP is a Ford Pinto but it’s better than a Ferrari without wheels.

Recently on TSF we’ve been talking a lot about “Minimum Viable Products” (MVP) and I’ve had several readers write in asking me why I was so high on the concept. My reasoning behind it is threefold. If I missed anything I would appreciate you sharing your experiences in the comments. 

Gain traction:

The point of your MVP is to act as your “beater” vehicle. Remember that Ford Pinto you flipped burgers in high school to pay for? It’s purpose was to take you from point “A” to point “B”. You wouldn’t want to pick up a prom date in it, but it took care of your daily commute.  You MVP is the same concept. It’s not your dream car, but it can still take you places.

It allows you to learn what features you should actually spend your time on.

Don’t try to build everything at once. Focus on a few  features and see how the community responds. Never create in a vacuum.

It doesn’t matter how fast a Ferrari can go if it doesn’t  have wheels

Theoretical performance means nothing if the rubber can’t meet the road. It’s much better to have something launched (even if it just has the core features) than something that is perpetually “just a few weeks away from launch”. As King said Let your community grow alongside you: Ship unfinished apps.

A Ford Pinto will take you much farther then a Ferrari without wheels.

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Let your community grow alongside you: Ship unfinished apps.

[editors note: This was a guest post written by: King Sidharth. King Sidharth is a young entrepreneur and designer. He works at Besperk while helping startups any way he can find. You can read more of his stuff at 64 Notes or say hi:]

Do you remember Google Wave? It was a social app that shipped in (nearly) complete form. It had all sorts of bells and whistles. It also was very confusing and much of the UI focused on solving problems that real life users weren’t experiencing. After a year or so Google canned the project for lack of user adoption.

Contrast that with Gmail. Gmail started as a barebones application that slowly grew with the communities needs. Take, for example, Priority Inbox. Priority Inbox came from users complaining that they were overwhelmed with emails. Features that grow organically from user requests make much more sense then features added because of a board meeting.

Another example of an application that grew with the community is Twitter. When Twitter first launched it was extremely simplistic. Users complained that there wasn’t a way to reply to users, so they started to use the “@” symbol to signify a response to a specific person. Twitter then adopted this practice for their official clients and made it a feature.

It’s not about adding every feature users ask for, it’s about solving problems, creating a better experience, and improving the little things. This is why the concept of MVP works so well. MVP allows you to ship the bare minimum and find out where the users pain points are located.

You cannot build a social startup in the dark corners of your room.

You need to ship it- raw, unfinished, and let your users have a taste. Then key in on finding their problems and fix them quickly.

Sitting in a dark room developing your social startup alone (or worse – having someone else work on every aspect of it while you’re the idea guy) makes it so easy to say, “add this – they might need it.” Doing that will keep you a step removed from your actual users.

Startups, like poetry, are never finished. They are always being abandoned or always growing.

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WakeMate (YC S09) on building their business and their YCombinator experience

I recently had the chance to do an interview with the founders of the YCombinator backed startup, WakeMate. WakeMake wants to help you sleep better by tracking your sleep. In this interview we talk about how they came up with the idea, how they gained traction, and their experience with YCombinator. I’ve also included a summary below the video.

What is WakeMake

WakeMate is a cellphone accessory that tracks your sleep cycle, and helps you improve your quality of sleep.

Where did the idea come from?

• Idea came from an experience 6 years ago when they realized they didn’t always feel refreshed in the morning when they woke up.
• They’ve done a ton thinking and research.

What helped to set you apart?

• Dedication.
• Research.
• We had already built a prototype.
• Proved that we were determined (both had dropped out of school at this point to work on WakeMate).

Biggest plus to being in YCombinator:

• The YCombinator Brand. This opened a lot of doors.
• Direct Access to Paul Graham. You have a lot of people giving you advice and it helps to have just one voice to focus on.
• Incredible almuni network.

Getting in to YCombinator:

• Don’t let not getting into YCombinator hurt you. There are many successful startups that have nothing to do with YC.
• Focus on building a business. Statistically you’re not going to get into YC, but that shouldn’t stop you from building an awesome startup.
• Advance your startup, and don’t worry about getting into YCombinator. Focus on building a business.

How did WakeMate gain traction?

• WakeMate solves a problem that is easily communicable. The best salesman you have is a customer who loves your product.

How do you move from early adopters into the mainstream?

• Target specific market segments where sleep is a major pain point (traveling businessman, medical students, etc.)

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs and founder that are just starting out

• Talk to everybody. You need to gather research.
• You need to be an expert in your field so keep learning.
• Focus on your elevator pitch. Figure out how to comunicate your business in 30 seconds.

For more startup news, follow us on Twitter @startupfoundry.

Turbulence and the Start Up Bubble- “If you freak out, I’ll freak out”.

Editor’s note: The following is a guest post written by Jason Lorimer from CulturaHQ.

I was recently on a Southwest Airlines flight (not this one thankfully) from Philadelphia to Chicago, sitting next to a beautiful blond woman. Her being in the same general line of work and me being a nervous talker, we passed the time by talking shop. Specifically, how we were both amazed at how few innovative ideas seemed to be coming out the abundance of start up companies popping up all across the US.

How many task tracking and photo applications does the world really need?

With all the low hanging fruit out there waiting to be disrupted, why did everyone seem to be trying to build a better version of the same dozen or so things. My seat buddy, as adorable as she is smart, said:

“They build for the funding first and the customer second.”

Obvious and insightful — Marry me I thought.

On the return trip some days later, I sat in the back row having shown up late to the gate and was greeted with some of the worst turbulence I’d ever experienced. Not so bad in it’s depth as it was in it’s length. For several minutes at varying intervals, this 747 was being thrown around like a rag doll. Being in the back row and an avid people watcher, I noticed something that allowed me to refocus my brain away from the sheer terror that was creeping up my neck. The turbulence had gotten so bad that people were starting to be alarmed. They were slowly turning their heads to look at each other as if to say:

Should I be freaking out right now? If you are freaking out, I’ll freak out.

The flight soon after settled and once the attendants lined the aisle with over-priced booze, everyone seemed to go back to normal. The next day I was telling this tale to a friend back in Philly and I laughed to myself midway through as the parallels clicked: The start up scene is that airplane, the passengers entrepreneurs and the turbulence the investment capital. Everyone looking around at each other but not speaking up. Imagine the same mental monologue from an early stage entrepreneur:

“Is it me or is my start up pointless? I mean, if you don’t think yours is pointless, mine must not be pointless because if you thought yours was pointless, you would be freaking out about that 300K of investors money you are burning every month and you are not so I shouldn’t be worried that I have no customers or even a proof of concept, let alone revenue.

Anyway, Are you guys going to the Tumblr party at SXSW? I heard Jon Hamm is going to be there.”

For the record, anybody willing to put their neck on the line to build something instead of running their mouth about what they are going to do is good in my book, but is it possible
that start-up bubbles might just be caused by vanity as much as they are by an abundance of available capital?

Are revenue models not cool?

Maybe I am being naive but I just think if most entrepreneurs would put aside the idea of being crowned the Internet King on the Month and just focus on transforming pre-internet business models into post internet. ventures, everyone down the line would be better served.

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Mint’s Original Marketing Plan (circa 2007)

When personal finance assistant launched in late 2007, their app was warmly received by the startup community. You couldn’t go anywhere on the web without someone talking (positively) about Mint. A huge key of Mint’s success was the brilliant marketing plan they put together and executed.

For the first time ever, Noah Kagan (Mint’s former marketing director) gave TSF readers an inside peak at Mint’s original marketing plan. Noah has since moved on from Mint and now runs AppSumo, a site that provides “daily deals for web geeks”.

This document is pure gold for any startups that need help with marketing. Don’t miss this.

Marketing Game Plan for Mint

Again, special thanks to Noah Kagan from AppSumo for making this available to TSF readers.

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Love of the Game: Be foolish enough to believe your startup will make it.

A close friend of mine has been struggling with his startup for the past 2 years. He’s dropped out of school to work on it full time and is still working hard on gaining traction. He has recently moved back to his parents house so he could keep his expenses low and not have to take any funding. His diet primarily consists of Ramen Noodles and whatever fruit is on sale. His income is under $15k a year.

His lifestyle isn’t this way because he lacks options. He’s turned down Angel funding on 4 separate occasions. Within the past week he’s turned down two different jobs (which would have require him to quit his startup) where both companies were offering six figure salaries. Many of his friends called him foolish.

He isn’t looking at the startup world with rose-colored glasses. He knows that entrepreneurship is a bipolar existence. You can embrace his idea or dismiss it, but you can’t ever shake his faith that his startup will make it. Job security, comfort, and money paled in comparison to the thought of him building a startup.

As I’ve talked to more entrepreneurs about my friends experience, I’ve discovered his story isn’t unique. Many entrepreneurs are driven by an intrinsic belief that what they’re working on truly matters. Despite all the odds stacked against them, they believe their startup will succeed.

This sort of lifestyle can only come from a love of the game and belief in your startup. I absolutely love this about the startup community. Just remember, you’re not entitled to anything. Hustle for everything you’re worth.

Be foolish enough to believe you’ll make it.

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