Sree Vijaykumar was a speaker at the Octane User Group Meeting on 25th Sept 2013 and here is some feedback from the session.. We’ll post the actual talk as soon as we are able to get our hands on it
Sree Vijaykumar was a speaker at the Octane User Group Meeting on 25th Sept 2013 and here is some feedback from the session.. We’ll post the actual talk as soon as we are able to get our hands on it
Let’s analyze your daily content consumption habits. You are spending way too much time on Twitter and Facebook! Sure, you read that great blog through Twitter last week and that inspirational quote on FB, which got you all fired up and productive. But at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve not done much work. The fact that your likes and comments have earned you ‘favourite cousin’ status in your family and you know exactly what Richard Branson was thinking a few minutes ago don’t seem to help.
So you’ve decided to filter your tweets and removed a bunch of acquaintances from FB who are not really your friends. Good for you!
Now, subscribe to TradeBriefs. It’s work-related stuff – News, Insight, Jobs. It will keep you smart (think promotion! think raise!) and it’ll save you an hour every day; from roaming the corners of the internet, looking for content.
Our editors (aided by our curation algorithms) read everything that’s important, then pick the articles that really matter, package it into a nifty newsletter and deliver it into your Inbox every day. If you are in India, we have 7 sectors that you can deep-dive into right now (www.TradeBriefs.com). Since you love infographics so much, here’s one that explains how we do it. The individual personalization is limited to jobs right now, but soon we’ll be able to tell if you care about macro-economic fundamentals or cross-channel merchandising and help you become an expert at either.
One piece of advice every early-stage entrepreneur will get is to get feedback from a lot of people on your business. This is indeed important, especially customer feedback, to improve your product and business model; but also investor feedback, mentor feedback and feedback from anyone who could potentially add value to your business. However, one of the challenges with going out and getting all this feedback is dealing with NOISE. Noise is feedback that should NOT be included in your decision-making process, because it is, well, noise; not useful information! For various reasons, people don’t always give useful feedback.
A real challenge is avoiding the tendency to dismiss negative feedback as noise because you don’t like what you hear.
So, how does one figure out what is useful feedback and what is noise?
I had an opportunity a few months ago to go through this process, as I met with several mentors at 500 Startups as part of the accelerator program. We also went through several weeks of modifying our investor pitch, getting feedback and going through that cycle again and again. The people giving us feedback were investors, ex-entrepreneurs and others in the startup scene. I got feedback from well over 50 people in a period of 3 months. Here’s how I went about separating the feedback from the noise.
Is he good at giving feedback?
Where I had an opportunity, I observed the person giving feedback to others before I formed an opinion on that person’s ability to give good feedback. You watch someone giving feedback a few times and it becomes clear to you if the person understands the objective of the process and is actually giving good actionable feedback – something the entrepreneur can use to improve the pitch/business model. Observing as a third-party helps you be neutral and not let your own pre-conceptions cloud your opinion of that person’s feedback-giving skills.
Does the person understand your space?
Somebody who might give excellent feedback to an entrepreneur in the real estate industry may not be the best judge of online media. Industry knowledge and experience matter, especially when diving into the details. Give more importance to feedback from someone who has done something similar before, more so than from someone who is a celebrity but has never dealt with your space before.
Un-bias yourself, be statistical in your approach
If 10 people who are good at giving feedback and understand what you are doing tell you something you don’t like, it is more likely that you are biased in your opinion. Don’t kill the dream, but take something constructive out of every feedback and incorporate it. Intuition is great, but bias towards something as personal as your own venture is a real thing. So, when in doubt, get statistical. Are many ‘credible’ people telling you the same thing? Use it!
Take something positive out of every interaction
While we like to read stories about how successful entrepreneurs beat the odds by defying conventional logic, remember that the untold story is one of the mentorship and feedback they got from others who tread that path before.
Thank you for your continued support and appreciation emails. As we continue to keep corporate India informed (625,000 subscribers and counting), I wish to share some exciting new developments at TradeBriefs.
Our New Office
This is where the magic happens. Our content, technology and alliance teams (led by Yahya , Mohsin, KotiReddy) work hard to come up with new ways to excite our subscribers, partners and advertisers every day. Our team of industry curators – Phalguni, Arpit, Sathya, Salar, Amit, Sreehari, Madhavan and Kuldip help create the best content for you, so you stay knowledgeable about your sector at all times.
We have added a new stakeholder to our eco-system in the past few months, our partners. Our partners are top companies/associations with high quality opt-in lists. We help partners by creating high engagement daily communication vehicles (e-newsletters) that can be used to provide industry knowledge, engage with their member base and build brand recall. The Association/Company and Members receive this valuable service for free. We are proud to announce Retailers Association of India (RAI), Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and eTailing India as our first 3 partners.
Contact us now to see if your organization/company qualifies.
TradeBriefs welcomes Nivedita Betgeri and Sanjay Badhe to our panel of columnists.
Nivedita comes with a wealth of experience in the Retail industry in India and abroad. Her current role is Head, Western Region for HiDesign.
Sanjay is a veteran in the Indian Retail industry, with senior level appointments at Tata Trent, Aditya Birla Retail and Shoppers Stop. He currently helps SMEs and startups in retail take the leap to the next level of growth.
If you understand a sector well and wish to write for us, Apply to join our panel of industry experts.
In partnership with IAMAI, we have launched TradeBriefs Digital Media, the most comprehensive daily brief on the Digital Media sector. Sign up here.
In collaboration with eTailing India, we have launched TradeBriefs eCommerce, the essential daily brief on the eCommerce industry. Sign up here
We welcome Shopify, Adobe, Times City, Easy Educate, TUI India and Balance Design and Fashion to our community of advertisers.
In the past quarter, we have also piloted re-targeting. Now, advertisers can get the benefit of targeting subscribers who have already shown an interest in their product or service. Our first two clients have received phenomenal open rates of 33%+ on these campaigns.
Contact us today to see how we can help your company get more customers from India’s most engaged subscriber base of 625,000 professionals.
Most companies are NOT satisfied with their Open Rates and Click-Through Rates (CTR). If you really want to solve this problem, it is important to take a step back and look at email as part of an overall communication strategy. Here’s a framework to help you identify the levers that really matter for effective email communication.
Place in Life
Since email is push-based, you have to figure out how much of a role you play in your target audience’s life. While we all like to think that our customers are constantly thinking about us or will want to use our platform 24 hours a day, it’s important to be realistic. When designing an email communication plan, think about the ‘Place in Life’ you occupy in your target customer’s life. The infographic gives you a place to start.
For example, if your target audience is 20-30 year-old males and you are an e-commerce company, your target customer does not expect to hear from you more than once a month (ok, definitely not more than once a week). Make sure that the communication is really high quality, targeted, personalized, based on past purchase behaviour if you have that information, and adding value beyond the transactional relationship.
We introduce here a concept called opt-in quality, which is extremely important in gauging the response you can expect from your email audience. An email address collected on your website where intent and frequency of communication is explicitly stated is of much higher quality than one collected with a checkbox as part of another signup process or at a physical store while filling out a loyalty form. This concept relates to the ‘intent strength’ of the subscriber when signing up. This has an impact on open rates and click-through rates. The higher the intent strength, the higher the engagement you can expect.
Frequency of Communication
An explicitly stated frequency is much better than ‘we will occasionally send you updates on our products’. Sometimes less is more. I am less likely to unsubscribe from your monthly communication than your daily one. You can also segment your customers into various communication buckets. While your power users might like to hear from you every week, others might prefer less frequent communication.
Quality of Content
This is the holy grail. Quality here includes the concept of Relevance. The initial Quora weekly emails were of high quality because the topics were universally interesting (how does it feel to murder a person – with answers from a real convict, wow!). They also personalized them, with questions related to my alma mater, for example. With email, you have the opportunity to speak to each individual as an individual. However, the effectiveness of this depends on the quality of information you have about each subscriber. LinkedIn has begun sending me job emails, but most of those jobs are irrelevant. To begin with, I am not looking for a job. Also the keyword matching is sub-optimal. I receive many jobs that are not related to my background or areas of interest. Twitter, on the other hand, has managed to get me spending more time with it because it is helping me discover interesting people almost every day, based on my twitter behaviour and that of others in my network, on twitter and on the web (every major site has a tweet option). Facebook emails are not interesting any more, as tags from friends and likes and comments are mildly interesting, but this information is easier to browse and discover when I visit Facebook a few times a day.
For businesses, it is important to see how social and new media companies are using email, because they look at email more intensely than most companies out there. Think about email in conjunction with your other communication efforts. Use it to engage (and re-engage) customers who may have forgotten you.
Opens and CTR
Open rates are an indicator of your brand’s strength (From Name and Quality of previous emails) and the Subject Line. While catchy subject lines might get you a temporary bump in opens, it can backfire if there is dissonance between the subject line and the content of the body of the email. However, most companies under-estimate the importance of a good subject line. A fair yet powerful subject line can improve open rates by upto 30%. Your ‘From Name’ is your brand. If you have a strong offline (or online) brand, use it. But make sure your communication quality backs it up.
The Click-through Rate (CTR) is what you typically want to maximize. You want people to click on links within your email, go to your landing page and read that information or make that transaction. There are several best practices for optimizing email creative to ensure high click-through rates – some of the basic ones are – make one point in the email, have multiple click-through links (at the top and the bottom for example) and use a good mix of text and images. Too much image ends up not appearing properly on many mobile clients and in inboxes where images are not turned on. Images also take time to load. Only-text emails might be boring and may not do a good job of making the communication lively.
The more you can think about adding value to your subscriber’s life with your content, the better. Make it useful and/or entertaining. Only then, ask them to consider buying your product or service.
TradeBriefs started off as as an attempt to solve a personal problem. When the organized retail business in India started taking off a few years ago, I was a Retail consultant in the US, eagerly watching the space. The lack of a comprehensive and reliable source of information on this exciting new sector is what made me start our first portal and newsletter – India Retail News (www.IndiaRetailNews.com). Soon, we had visitors and a few subscribers for the newsletter. Open and click rates were high, so I knew we were on to something.
Offline Subscriber Acquisition
After the move back to India, my initial efforts to get subscribers revolved around in-person acquaintances at conferences and events. Soon, we had interns collecting business cards and lucky draws to attract more subscribers from offline events. Our Retail training venture (the pre-pivot business) helped us gain word-of-mouth publicity and more subscribers. However, subscriber growth was so slow that we really didn’t know if this could be a viable business.
Our First Advertiser
One fine Monday, a consulting startup founder I had met at an event, called me to ask if he could advertise with us. I wasn’t sure if it would be a good investment for him and offered him email marketing at a nominal cost to begin with. His email to our audience of 10,000 subscribers got him several email responses, 10 of which were good leads (3 of whom eventually went on to become clients). We were in business!
BBC World News
We used the money earned from our training business to grow our newsletter venture. I hired our first editor. More raffles, more business cards, more subscribers. We made our presence felt at Retail conferences. Our newsletter was becoming the most comprehensive and trusted source for industry information. And one day, I got a call from BBC World News. They wanted a reliable estimate on the size of the Retail industry in India, with projections. We had no clue! I quickly ran through a bunch of reports we had curated, called a few industry folks and cobbled together some estimates. Our brand was on TV! The visibility helped us get some more subscribers and interest from advertisers.
Subscriber Needs and Advertiser interest go hand-in-hand
One thing that has caused good things to happen to us from the beginning has been our focus on subscriber needs. Even today, when I go through our subscriber logs to check what is working and what is not working, it helps me give direction to our offerings. And the best part about focusing on your audience is this: If you focus on subscriber engagement, the content stays relevant and subscribers will love you and Advertisers will find you! To this day, almost all our advertisers (including large ones like Ogilvy and The Financial Times) have approached us, rather than the other way around.
TradeBriefs is born
I remember having this conversation with my chief editor one evening. We seem to be doing well, she said. I agreed and thought to myself – we are doing this for Retail, but can we do this for other industries – can we scale this up to something much bigger? Some research on the internet made it pretty clear that there was a need for an industry-focused offering in several industries in the country. Within a matter of days, we put together a plan and launched 4 more verticals – Telecom, Finance, Software and FMCG.
The Dark Underbelly of Email
By now we were relying on SEO to get most of our subscribers. Offline subscriber acquisition was expensive and not scalable. Since we had started small and accidentally landed up in the email newsletter business, we ended up building all the email infrastructure ourselves. Over a period of a year, we educated ourselves on SMTP, IP reputation, Complaint feedback loops, Relay servers and all the wonderfully dark alleys of the email universe. In the early days, we would sometimes get asked why we charge so much for marketing to our audience, when one can purchase 10 million internet addresses on the internet for $100. Depending on the sophistication of the audience, my responses would range from – “That’s just illegal” to “Imagine your sending reputation to be like a credit score and how you’ll get screwed for life if you default on a big loan. That’s what will happen to your IP and domain if you try to send an email to 10 million addresses bought off the internet”.
What is truly Opt-in?
Very soon we got our own lessons in what happens when you piss off the cops in the email universe, namely the email providers (aka yahoo, hotmail, gmail, etc). While Gmail provides an Unsubscribe header option and Yahoo, Hotmail and others provide feedback loops where they let you know which subscribers are marking you as spam, it wasn’t very clear to us upfront why someone who has opted-in would mark your emails as spam. Well, for that we have to dig into what “opt-in” really means. The easier you make it for someone to sign up (let’s say by dropping a business card at an event), the easier it is for that person to forget why they signed up with you in the first place. Also, if you use the wrong incentives (like a cash prize) to get your users to get their friends to subscribe to your service, the more spam they send and your IP reputation suffers in the process. Besides, the more emails you send someone, the more you are likely to be perceived as spamming them; no matter how relevant you think that information is for them. Even some large companies like Facebook have learnt this the hard way. Access to someone’s Inbox is a privilege and should be treated as such.
We have 400,000 subscribers today, who trust us to provide them with industry information on a daily basis. It is a privilege for us to be able to reach them and every once in a while, we let our advertiser partners access that privilege. So, for those of you out there who are thinking of using email as a mechanism to communicate with your audience, remember that it is an excellent medium (There are more Email Inboxes being read every day than any media channel in the world), but tread cautiously!
This was originally an email post which got a tremendous response. I am adding it here with some new perspective. Please comment and discuss so we can all benefit.
Knowledge Series Part 1:
This is the first part of a knowledge series where we share best practices on B2B selling and how content can be used intelligently to build your brand and generate more sales for your business on an ongoing basis.
The Reality of B2B selling today
It is often believed that selling to businesses is best done the old-fashioned way, meeting people face-to-face, understanding customer requirements and proposing solutions that solve their problems.
While the B2B sale is typically closed after several meetings and consultations, the biggest challenge for most businesses today is building quality leads. Leads have traditionally come through sales personnel with several years of contacts in their Rolodex. Existing customers call you back if the relationship/experience is good.
However, these tactics are not good enough anymore. There are 10 competitors today for every competitor five years ago. There is constant pressure to reduce prices and there is risk of commoditization in every industry. The most effective way to get out of this spiral is by investing to build your brand.
How can a B2B Business build a brand?
Well, if you are Accenture or Aditya Birla, you can spend millions of dollars in traditional media and convey to consumers and businesses what you stand for and hope to keep your brand top of mind. Unfortunately, most businesses don’t have the luxury to spend such money where the returns cannot be justified easily.
Here are some ideas on what businesses can do:
Build thought leadership: If you spend time understanding your customer’s problems and understanding industry dynamics, you will begin to gain insights that could immensely benefit your customers. Sharing these insights with your customers is something that your organization should do on a regular basis.
The customer then begins to see you as a partner rather than a vendor and will entrust you with more business as the relationship matures.
How can I build my brand without breaking the bank?
You don’t have to be IBM or Tata to be considered by your customers as a partner in their journey. You just have to be the expert in your area.
For example, if you make Retail fittings, make sure you understand the nuances of various retail formats. Also, stay on top of trends in the latest materials, technologies and techniques that could add value / save money for your customers. Know as much as a visual merchandiser and a store operations manager would know about their areas of expertise and combine that with your knowledge of fittings to propose the best solutions for your clients.
Clients want solutions, not products. Working with them to create solutions will help build your brand as the go-to guys in your space and help you sell more products.
Communicating your position of expertise is as important as building it.
Here is where content can be used effectively to build your brand. Sending a weekly or monthly email newsletter for example, can keep your customers updated and help build your position of expertise. The key here is content that’s useful to the customer. This is where most content-based efforts go wrong.
Don’t just blow your horn. The more informative and enlightening your content is for your audience (again, not for you, but for your audience), the more engaged your prospects will be. Engagement will lead to trust in your expertise, which will lead to more sales.
For businesses, a content-based program that reaches out to current and potential customers at a regular frequency is the best marketing investment you can make.
About the author: Sreekumar (Sree) Vijaykumar – The Author is Managing Director at TradeBriefs (www.TradeBriefs.com), a content-focused email newsletter company with over 400,000 corporate subscribers
How we got in
I did not reach out to mentors in the network to recommend me to partners at the incubator. I did not have to stalk one of the partners and present my plan to him in the cab on his way back to the airport. But entrepreneurs are hungry and determined folks, who can go to extra-ordinary lengths to “hack” the system and get things done. These are real things that real people have done, and they succeeded because of their determination to get in.
My story is a little different. I knew I wanted to start a company from my days at IIT Bombay, which was a long time ago. Having worked in corporate America for several years, the “normal” thing to do was to join an MBA program. Once at Columbia Business School though, the entrepreneurial spark was rekindled. I won a business plan competition and decided to jump in full time to start a Retail Training business in India. We bootstrapped. I didn’t even know what an incubator was when we started our company in 2008. What we did was take savings from one of my co-founders and put in countless hours of hard work first trying to build a retail training business, then pivoting to build an email publication business, constantly getting feedback from customers along the way. The second business became profitable in the first year and has grown steadily to over 400,000 subscribers.
So, why did I need an incubator now? While we had success growing the company, it was on the verge of becoming a lifestyle business – a business that tottered around the fringes of something great. Having dropped out of business school to start a venture, running a lifestyle business was a compromise. I needed to put the company on a different trajectory. As things would have it, I reached out to Paul Singh while he was in India and got the offer to join the 500 Startups accelerator program in Silicon Valley in our first meeting. It couldn’t have been that simple, right? Well, as it turns out, one can do a lot of research on a company and a person online before one meets them in person these days. And when one has spent 3 years building a company, there is some real “traction” to show.
So what is this ‘Traction’ that everyone in Silicon Valley keeps talking about. Traction is anything that shows that your business has potential to grow into something big and exciting. It could be users on your site, it could be downloads of your app, it could be revenues. Yes, revenues are NOT a necessary condition for a business to be considered exciting. That is probably the single biggest difference between how companies are viewed in the Valley versus in other locations around the world. People often deride cash-burning zero-revenue businesses, but it is important to note that taking focus away from revenues in the initial stages is what has helped create some of the biggest successes in the Valley, including Google and Facebook.
Day 1 at 500 Startups
The office on Castro Street is in one of the most vibrant locations in the valley, surrounded by restaurants and bars. On day 1, I remember reaching the office only to be greeted by an ominous door with a sign asking outsiders to stay away. Once inside, the sight of tens of company founders working in a co-working space, discussing animatedly in various languages got me thinking about how exciting this would seem to a gate-crasher. After “grabbing” a desk, it was time for our first batch meeting. Dave, Christine, Paul, George, Bedy, Pankaj and Melissa are like the perfect band. Each plays a distinct role in the 500 orchestra and each has a distinct style of operating. While Dave bounced around on an exercise ball telling us how each of our companies would “die”, it was only later in the evening that we would get to see the full extent of the crazyness that is Dave McClure. A beer or two down, each founder had to pitch the company to our batch, a preview to what is to come in the “demo days” in February. While Dave attacked presenter after presenter, reinforcing the point about making an impression in a crowded room, the method to the madness started becoming clear. Investors are busy people and have more information thrown at them every minute than many of us consume in a day. Founders have less than 10 seconds to make that first impact. If you lose them there, it is very difficult to get their attention later.
Week 1 and Mentoring
Having a large network of mentors with expertise in various areas can be more powerful than one might imagine. The key is to choose the right mentors and be as specific with what you want from them. In the first week, I got atleast three concrete ideas from Hans Meakel, Mike Greenfield and Benjamin Joffe that have helped us change the trajectory of our subscriber growth and helped me re-assign responsibilities within the team to help us grow faster. There is nothing more powerful than a one-on-one discussion with a helpful expert.
Week 2 and living in Silicon Valley
It is incredibly difficult to find an affordable place to stay near Mountain View. I tried various channels such as Craigslist, AirBNB and finally the Patel hack – call any motel in the area, ask for Mr Patel (70% of motels in the US are run by Patels) and then negotiate a desi-friendly long-term rate. While Bharat-bhai of Hotel Strata tried his best, it was still too expensive. A chance meeting with the brother-in-law of a friend turned into a good room-mate situation; so that problem is finally solved.
Week 3 and Talks
One of the incredible things about the Valley is the cross-pollination of ideas and the general attitude that if you share, you build goodwill which will come back to help you at some point. It’s a nice virtuous cycle to have. The more you share, the more you encourage others to share, which leads to everyone gaining in the process. We have had some good, some great speakers who have spent valuable time talking to us about topics ranging from fundraising to design. They included Valley celebrities like Naval Ravikant of Angellist to founders from previous batches to entrepreneurs who have sold their companies in the recent past.
Week 4 and Conferences
I couldn’t help smiling through the first half of the Inbox Love conference, as I kept thinking to myself, “Wow! A conference about Email”. Never in a thousand years would I have thought that my passion in life would rely on a medium called ‘Email’ and that I would one day be sitting with hundreds of other people who felt as passionate about it as I did.
At the Growth Hackers conference, speakers ranging from the brutally honest Chamath Palihapitiya of Facebook fame to the always energetic Aaron Batalion of LivingSocial to the unexpectedly funny Blake Commagere made the whole day worthwhile. Learning of the day – It is not enough to create a product and watch it grow; you have to keep working towards growing it even if you have millions of users.
Now, it’s time to get back to work and create the next big thing!