Tag Archive | "startup"

Fastlane Launches Online Car-Buying Platform


DALLAS — Startup Fastlane this week launched a new ecommerce platform for automotive dealerships. It offers dealers the ability to customize and brand their online car-buying experience, while providing customers with a start-to-finish purchasing process.

Dealers use Fastlane to showcase their inventory, help their customers pick out the car they want, and choose other purchase components such as financing, service contracts and insurance, officials said.

“Fastlane has taken online car-buying to the next level by letting dealers customize their online check-out flow,” said David Luce, Fastlane’s vice president of sales. “Other car-buying platforms have a cookie cutter check-out flow that cannot be changed. Fastlane recognizes that dealers in one market, such as New York, may sell cars differently from dealers in other markets, such as Georgia or California. Fastlane offers dealers a way to personalize the online car-buying experience to meet their customers’ needs, while adding value to the overall purchase experience.”

Brandon Hall, Fastlane’s CEO, added: “Fastlane is much more than a lead-generating tool for dealers. It is a complete car-buying system, with advanced features and customizability. The platform seamlessly walks customers through the many aspects of the buying process.”

Online shoppers who land on a dealer’s website equipped with Fastlane’s platform can pick out their vehicle, get a value for their trade-in vehicle, get pre-approved for financing and even educate themselves on F&I products and vehicle insurance.

“Online car-buying certainly has its benefits, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for car owners to have a good relationship with a dealer. Our goal is to supplement current dealer operations by adding a unique customer experience through our online checkout,” Hall said. “We are here to make online car buying advantageous for car dealers and customers alike by fostering new ways of engagement and creating a dynamic shopping experience for all parties. It’s the best of both worlds.”

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How Startups Can Get Media Attention Without Hiring a PR Agency


In my last post, I outlined four reasons why early-stage startups shouldn’t hire PR firms. There are exceptions to just about every rule, but I stand by that advice for the vast majority of cases, reports Forbes.

Still, that piece lacked actionable guidance for startups to get press on their own. This post will provide that guidance.

In simple terms, startups have two options when ultimately choosing not to hire a PR firm:

1.) Hustle it out on their own.

2.) Find cheaper, non-traditional help.

If you’re considering these options, I recommend sticking with the first. Finding high-quality, non-traditional PR help is very hard for anyone to do, but it’s particularly hard for startups. The freelance PR market is fragmented and opaque, with plenty of dubious actors who can point to a couple minor successes, amidst a history of failures, to lure new clients. 

And as a population largely lacking in the chops to effectively evaluate PR professionals, startups are easy prey for bad actors. You’ll likely spend a long, long time trying to find one of the few high-quality freelancers out there, or end up getting fleeced in the process. My recommendation is to instead spend that time making headway on your own.

I’ll outline just how you can do that.

Gut and Relationships

In simple terms, you hire professional PR help for two reasons. First, they should provide a finely-tuned sense of what does and does not work as a press story, along with a similarly finely-tuned view of how to match those story angles with different publications. Second, they should have the relationships at those publications to get stories placed.

That’s it. Gut and relationships.

So when you think about going the hustle-it-out route, you should think about it in those terms. How are you going to make up for your lack of experience and relationships?

Gut

Let’s start with the first component—the fact that you probably have no idea how to make your company interesting to the press. If you have some effort to spare, there are some easy ways to make up for this deficit.

Before you do anything, you’ll need to acquire a solid understanding for how the press talks about your industry. Step one: head over to Google and spend as much time as you can getting a feel for what people are talking about in your space. What are the big questions, controversies or trends? How do different publications approach these topics? What are people getting wrong? What are they missing?

Basically, you need to soak yourself in relevant media so that, eventually, you can internalize the different lenses through which reporters approach topics and companies in your industry. Think backwards from headlines. How can you see your company plausibly fitting into the conversation?

Next, you still need some professional advice.

As the founder of a startup, odds are that you have some kind of moderately effective network. You may have investors, mentors, advisors, other founder friends, etc. Somewhere within that network is someone who knows a PR professional. It’s even possible that this PR professional knows what they’re talking about.

Find a way to talk to that PR professional and milk them for 15 minutes of advice. If they’re any good, they’ll prevent you from making any number of stupid mistakes within the first five minutes and possibly give you a sense of the most promising angles for your business after the first 15. They’ll also be helpful for tactical tips and etiquette. (I.e., “How long should I wait to follow-up with reporters?”)

And if you don’t have a PR professional in your network? If you live in a media-dense market like New York or San Francisco, there are almost certainly events that have media professionals crawling all over them. Just go wherever reporters are, and you’ll probably find three PR people for every journalist. Since tech PR people need new business almost as much as they need to cozy up to journalists, they’re generally happy to talk to startup founders about a couple of their issues in these situations.

If that’s not an option, find someone who looks like they know what they’re talking about online and cold e-mail them. Some may not take the call, but a lot will. 

Relationships

For early-stage startups, PR firms often appear most valuable for their relationships with the media. This is valid, though you’d be surprised by how many firms survive by just cold-emailing hundreds of reporters. 

That said, relationships with the media are still enormously valuable. As a startup founder, you’ll never be able to match the rolodex of a quality firm, but the truth is that you don’t need to. At your stage, you likely don’t need an expensive, sustained communications strategy. You just need a couple of pieces of decent press, and a couple of relationships to get them. With a little work, that’s definitely achievable.

Here’s how to make that happen:

1.) Again, use your network.

Like I mentioned earlier, as a startup founder you should have some reasonably robust network. There are probably people within that network—investors, founders, consultants—who are on friendly terms with one or more journalists. Find those people, ask for introductions and go from there.

2.) Be helpful.

In order to do their jobs well, journalists have to continuously get information from people in the industries they cover. Guess what? You work in one of the industries they cover. By virtue of that fact, you probably have insights and opinions that could be very useful for them. 

As one prominent tech reporter noted, “If people are going to feed me information, then I’m much more likely to be their friend.”

In practice, this means providing helpful opinions and facts to relevant reporters via social media or a very concise, non-salesy email. 

3.) Go to events.

Again, this works best in a media dense market, but even smaller cities often have local reporters hanging around conferences or panels. Go to these events, talk to reporters like a normal human, and follow-up politely. To find relevant events, I recommend Meetup.com and local newsletters like Startup Digest or, in New York, Gary’s Guide.  

4.) Send thoughtful, targeted emails.

Even without relationships, an interesting product and angle, along with a couple of human-sounding emails from the founder, can do wonders. I gave this advice (pro bono) to the Columbia freshmen behind Readism, for example, and they ended up with articles in The Next WebPC WorldLifehackerBustle and Digital Trends.

Trust me, before they began the process they were just as clueless as you are now. But with a little effort you too can save yourself a couple grand on a PR firm and still get the press you deserve. 

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The Four Things VCs Look for In a Startup


I obviously don’t speak for all investors. But in my experience as an entrepreneur, and now spending my time amongst investors, I can generalize that almost all VC investments in early stage technology and internet investments come down to just four key factors. And they’re easy to remember because they all begin with an m: management, market, money and, above all else, momentum.

1. Momentum: The No. 1 thing that investors get their checkbooks out for is momentum. Everyone has their own definition of momentum (user numbers, revenue, channel partners, biz dev deals, whatever). You might hear, “[we] need to see traction.” Really this just means that they’re not ready to invest in your company. Why? Chances are they don’t know you well enough and can’t judge your performance or capabilities. Some have “rules” – everybody breaks them for the right deal.

Imagine the “typical” deal – somebody comes into a VC’s office, they’ve never met, they’re highly referred by a friend and they’re pitching a product demo and a PPT. You’ve never met them and are asked to make a judgment in 2-3 weeks because they’re doing a road show. That might work for $50-100k but less likely for $3m unless you’re a seasoned entrepreneur, known to the VC, have some metrics that work in your favor or have built something the VC believes to be truly unique. And VC’s are tough customers. They’ve “seen it all.”

So that’s why I tell all entrepreneurs that if you want to raise money from VCs you should see them early. If I see your alpha product then I can judge how it develops over time. If you have two developers and the next time I see you it’s a team of six with a new head of products, I can see momentum. If you have beta customers, new pricing plans, different positioning, more market insights, good press coverage, these are all signs that the ball is moving forward. And that momentum is easier to judge than a single data point.

Some entrepreneurs have said to me, “yeah, but then the VC sees you when you’ve not yet matured and you set a bad initial perception.” Not if you manage expectations. “We know that we’re meeting you earlier than you’d normally invest. We therefore may not have the full progress you’d expect but we’d like to meet you early so that when we’re at the stage you normally invest you’ll have a chance to judge our progress.” Lowering the bar is disarming.

So imagine when the entrepreneur who isn’t taking investor meetings comes back for the next funding round. It’s true that I’ll have points A & B. But I would have missed a lot in between. And my “point A” is only determined by what I read in the press since we never had our initial meeting. If the company has data to prove it’s doing well I suppose it hardly matters. But if it’s like most, it’s harder to measure. Almost every deal I’ve ever funded I’ve gotten to know the founders over time. I’ve talked before about how to build long-term relationships with VCs.

2. Management Team: This is really a no-brainer. Different VC’s have different calibration points on the continuum of management, product or product/market fit. I’m 70 percent management, 30 percent product. But for any investor it takes a miracle to get investment dollars out of them if they’re not impressed with the team. You will find some investors who will say to themselves, “I could do this deal but the CEO will need to be replaced.”

Sadly, I hear that all to often. I never feel that way. If I get the feeling that the CEO can’t cut it I’m highly unlikely to invest.

Because management is so important I always tell people to make the bio slide the first in your deck. If you have good experience then the VC will be leaning forward for the rest of the presentation. If you save the punch line that you’re from the industry, did CS at MIT, worked for three startups, whatever, then they don’t have that powerful knowledge as part of their evaluation set.

3. Market Size: Whether you’re talking with micro VCs, seed stage investors, or series A,B investors they all want to believe that your company can be big one day. They might want you to start lean. They might accept that a $50 million outcome will drive good returns given their small investment size, low price of entry, etc. But almost all VCs care about investing in big markets with ambitious teams. So never talk about early exits, quick flips, tuck-in acquisitions, previous interest shown by acquirers, etc., during your meeting.

And make sure you have some metrics or some way of demonstrating why you believe this is going to be a really big market. As I’ve said before, “sorry guys, it’s the size of the wave, not the motion of the ocean.”

4. Money: The final “M” is often misunderstood. Most VCs will want to be able to put a certain amount of money to work and will want to own a large enough percentage of your company to pay attention. There are modern investors who think differently and are willing to invest $100k as part of a $1.5 million round. But mostly when they do it’s just because they consider you part of their early stage investment portfolio where they’re less sensitive about ownership percentage. If you “take off” they’ll likely want to own more. I acknowledge that some investors have as their strategy to make lots of small bets. It’s the exception rather than the rule.

We can have an intellectual debate about whether it is the right investment strategy or not to have a minimum threshold. I’m only here to tell you that it is the case and better that you know going in. Most VCs want to own between 20-25 percent minimum of your company. If they co-invest with somebody else that they consider important they might be willing to cut that back to 15 percent. But most VCs won’t want to own eight percent of your company. If they do it’s likely because they want an option to invest more later.

I’ve heard one prominent investor talking about how one of his best returns he only owns seven to eight percent. But that’s because it turned out to be a $2.5 billion company (and counting). So if you turn out to be that then people will be happy with just two percent. But for the 99.9 percent of everybody else know that VCs will likely allocate their time more to companies with higher earning potential over time. Don’t shoot the messenger. It just is.

And by the way, it’s OK to ask, “do you guys have a minimum ownership level that you like to hit?” Doesn’t hurt to politely get this out in the open.

But wait? All these “M’s” and you never spoke about product? That’s not an “M”? True, that one’s a “P.” But to make things more memorable I had to wrap product up in momentum, which is mostly based on product momentum. But to be clear: investors care about management, markets and products. They invest in deals where they can own enough to make it worth their time – thus “money.” And all of this is wrapped up in forward progress that you demonstrate over time.

Investors invest in The Big Mo.

This article was written by Mark Sutter and published in Entrepreneur magazine.

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