The worst things startups do

I visit a lot of startups, the video here is of Posterous, a company that is doing it right. Usually you can tell immediately whether a startup is really run well (which Posterous is). You’ll have your own ability to “smell” real startups when you go on the Startup Crawl in SF on November 20. Start the video to listen to Posterous’s founders and then compare them to your favorite startup. Can you see the difference?

Here’s some things that startups that aren’t run well do:

1. Have plush offices in the most expensive part of town. Come on, who are you fooling? You are burning someone else’s money and you aren’t spending it like it’s your own.
2. You can’t tell me what you do in a single Tweet. See that super complicated Toyota Prius in my driveway? It gets better mileage than your car. If you can’t explain why your product is better, the way I just did with the Toyota Prius, in a short space or time on the phone you won’t make it.
3. If I look around and don’t see programmers. I can smell programmers. A good company is full of them. Posterous, for instance, has ONLY programmers. FriendFeed had something like 13 programmers and one other person. Great ratio.
4. You hire a PR firm. Now this one is dangerous, but the best companies have let their customers do the talking for them. At Rackspace, for instance, they worked to stay out of the public eye and worked on building the best service organization web hosting had ever seen. The best companies, when small, have just gotten good at telling their stories. I still remember when Stewart Butterfield showed me Flickr. He didn’t have any PR flacks with him. Now, maybe a PR company was helping them behind the scenes or to take care of leads and all the other stuff that goes with building a company but it wasn’t the first interaction I had with the company. Nothing like having a CEO or CTO just show you the product and explain why it’s better. 4b: you don’t have a blog and a Twitter account. Even worse if you have a PR firm and you don’t have both of those things.
5. They spend money on the wrong things. I’ve been in more than one startup that had bad chairs and small screens for their engineers but they had an expensive coffee machine. Let me make this clear: you have 18 months to build your business. You have figured out how to get some programmers to work with you. Make them as absolutely productive as they can be. Buy them a decent chair and get them at least two large screen high res monitors with fast computers. Remember SOASTA? Every engineer had a 30-inch monitor both at home and at work along with a MacPro (you can see one of those monitors in the interview I did with them). That was a HUGE recruiting tool and I think it was key in helping them keep their best people and, hey, I hear they are doing well.
6. (This should be #1) They don’t fire fast enough. I’ll be honest, at Podtech me and another guy were pulling the company in different directions. John should have fired one of us. He didn’t. The story got muddled. The rest is history. (In those situations it doesn’t really matter who is right, either, you gotta pick one direction and go with it, startups don’t have enough resources to try out two directions). I’ve seen lots of other startups be slow to fire people who weren’t pulling their weight. Always bad because the best people get pissed and/or leave. Again, you need to have everyone pulling with all their weight in one direction. If that isn’t happening the startup probably isn’t firing people fast enough.
7. You picked the wrong infrastructure. I’ll let you read into that what you want because I’m biased here (I’m a Rackspace Web Hosting employee), but ask great startups and you’ll hear some common themes here.
8. You let VCs control your management team and strategy too early. There’s lots of advice out on the Internet about this one, so I’ll leave it for you to figure out. But your early decisions will have big leverage on your company later. Hire the wrong management team and your company won’t make it to the B-round. I’m not experienced enough to give good advice here, but I’ve seen what happens up front. I remember meeting one CEO of one company that was just, well, let’s say clueless. How did he get hired? The VCs put him in.
9. You have a too cool name and logo. Oh, OK, this isn’t a worst thing, but companies spend too much time worrying about them (it’s a sign that you have too much money before you even have a company and customers, which is a bad sign). That said, I just interviewed a company named rrripple. Now if you end up with a name like that maybe you should spend at least 20 more minutes thinking through your name! (Sorry Rrripple).
10. You say yes too often, particularly in engineering decisions. Look at Posterous (the video embedded on this blog). They have a blog publishing tool. But are their comments threaded? No. Will they be eventually? Yes! Why didn’t they do them threaded up front? Because they set priorities on other things that mattered more. That’s actually a good sign for a startup: if you have only four engineers you can’t do everything. If there’s one thing I like about Evan Williams, founder of Blogger and Twitter, is that he doesn’t try to do it all. In fact he prides himself on NOT doing things. It takes great leadership to say “no, Scoble, you can’t have more than 500 members on a list.”
11. Startups pick old technology because it’s familiar. You’re a startup, you should be picking the best of breed for everything you do. If you are using Microsoft Office “just because” then you are making a mistake. Have you considered Jive, SocialText, Zoho, Google Docs and Spreadsheets and Wave before making your choices? Have you really looked at ways to make your small company more productive? Or you just going with the same stuff your dad’s company used?
12. You don’t change direction fast enough. Every startup should be looking at its direction every month or so. Are things going according to plan? If not, fix them. But sometimes you just made bad assumptions about what the market would want from you. That’s OK! But don’t take a year to change directions, change quickly and you’ll have a chance to save the company.

What other mistakes do you see startups make?

Aside, if you work for a startup, I’d love to know the tools you are using for a list I’m keeping that I call “weapons for entrepreneurs.” I would love to know what tools/companies you’re using to outrun everyone.


The worst question in social media

Chris Walker, on Twitter, asked a question I get often: “Any advice on getting followers?”

It’s the worst question in social media. Sorry Chris for picking on your question.

It’s actually a question lots of people wonder, but it’s the kind of thing that no one really can answer.


Because we’re not in control of who follows us.

So, I’d rather not think about it.

I rather think about things I CAN control. What are those?

1. What I write about.
2. Who I follow.
3. Who I hang out with.
4. The lists I follow and steal from.

See, the people I follow will inform my opinion. I find I use what I’m learning on Twitter all the time. So, if I follow smarter technologists, I will probably become more informed. At least I’ll be able to @reply to the best thinkers in the business.

Wait a second, did I just discover a way to get followers? Why, yes! See, if you have something smart to say back to people who are smart they just might follow you.

But, really, followers don’t matter anymore. Here’s proof. I just created a new Twitter account to display only my RSS feed (this blog will be on that new account shortly). I told everyone that I would add the first 500 people who followed that account to a list. Guess what? I didn’t need to follow them back. Here’s the list.

This list is useful to me. Why? It gives me a look into what the people reading me (and who are online on Friday afternoon) are thinking about. I might never have followed many of these people. But now I get to see them. I wish I had a list of ALL of my followers but Twitter is lame and only lets 500 people onto a single list.

So, I can “Follow You” (big “F”) without “following you” (small “F”). So, is the new Twitter goal to get me to follow you? Or put you on a list? Help, my head hurts.

Seriously, why else doesn’t getting followers matter? Twitter search. Several times a day I read every tweet that has the word “Rackspace” in it. Every day! Same for “Scoble.” Same for all sorts of different terms. Today I’m tracking “Google Chrome.” Say Google Chrome in a Tweet and I will see it.

Do followers matter in a search scenario? No! I see your Tweet whether you have 1 follower or a million!

Yesterday I was talking with @pistachio, Laura Fitton, who runs One Forty, a great way to find Twitter apps, and she told me that it’s not the number of followers that matters anymore.

It’s the content you write. Oh, geez, I’m doomed!

So, if you want more followers you gotta find a way to write better? Or do better videos?

Now THAT is the best question in social media: “how do I write better?”

Me? I’m too lazy and it’s Friday afternoon so I’m gonna give up on this writing thing and head to San Francisco for a nice meal with Maryam and friends.

In the meantime, good luck with the followers. I’ve been working in online communities since 1985 and I still haven’t figured that out.

My world has changed (and I get to share with you)

Twitter’s new list feature is one of those things that seems simple on the surface and is easily ignored.

But it has deeply changed how I get my news and how I interact with the tech community.

Click through these lists and you’ll see a different world than you would have thought possible on Twitter. This is the order I visit the lists in the morning:

Tech News Brands. Here’s 500 tech news sources. Everything from the Wall Street Journal to TechCrunch. Watch this list for a few minutes and you’ll be up to date on what’s happening in tech right now. This is far more complete than Techmeme or Google News and far faster too.

Once I’ve gotten up to date on the news, I check out the people who write and produce the news. Here you’ll find 491 journalists and bloggers and see what the back channel is. Often this is more interesting than the tech news brands, but it’s lots of fun to flip back and forth while some big news story is breaking.

Want to know what the news will be tomorrow? Well, the rich guys who are funding companies often know what will be big and so I watch this list of 415 venture capitalists and angel investors to see what they are thinking about.

The venture capitalists, though, are fun to contrast with 447 people who founded their own companies. Often these two lists have divergent points of view that are fun to flip back and forth between.

After all that I visit the tech pundits list. These are 451 folks who love to tell you what they think happened.

If you’re an entrepreneur I’ve built a list of weapons for you. Everything from stationary companies to Yammer, for keeping your team up to date. This is still a list in progress, so if you have a company that has a weapon for entrepreneurs, let me know!

What about tech company executives? I have a list of 283 who are CEOs, CTOs, CIOs, or VPs. Lots of times news gets announced by these people. Marissa Mayer, for instance, announced that Google had made a search deal with Twitter and if you were following this list you would have seen that.

Here’s a list of 376 tech companies and their official PR accounts (everyone from Google to startups). I find a lot of new products here and find out about updates, too.

Web Hosting and Cloud Hosting/Cloud Computing list. 500 people, news sources, hosting companies (not just Rackspace, either). I’m trying to keep up to date on the hosting business and Cloud Computing and this is how I do it. Find a more complete list anywhere.

Everyone should watch their coworkers. I do the same, with a list of 302 Rackspace employees and data sources. Have you made a list of your coworkers? Why not?

These are my core information lists that I check many times per day.

But I have a few specialized lists too:

TechStartups: this is a list of 500 startups that most people won’t have heard of yet (mostly early stage). I’ll work on this list more over the next few weeks.

Geolocation (174 people and companies). I’m interested in developers and companies that are building new kinds of apps that use GPS and location. Things like Foursquare and Gowalla (both of those are on this list, along with the founders).

iPhone. 500 of the top iPhone app developers and companies and other influentials and programmers.

Twitter tools and devs (353). Twitter has a growing ecosystem of companies and people who are developing tools and services. This list has everyone I’ve been able to find so far.

Tech Event Organizers (239). These are people who run events and the events that they run. Everything from Emerging Tech to BarCamps.

Video or audio shows (101 people and shows). These are podcasts and video shows, mostly tech centric. Everything from Leo Laporte’s shows to Gillmor Gang.

My favstar list (500 people). These are the people I’ve clicked “Favorite” on the most. keeps track of who I favorite the most and puts them on this list. It’s actually one of my favorite lists, but less focused than the others.

Web Innovators (79). If you’ve done something big for the Internet I put you on this list.

Programmers (306). I’m not sure what I’ll do with this list in the future (Twitter limits me to 500 people and obviously there’s more than 500 programmers in the world). But, if you are looking for what programmers think this is a good place to start.

Most influential in tech (225). This is my most followed list, but it’s also the most subjective. What makes someone influential? Well, I study who has the respect of their peers and who gets stuff done. Or, who has a bully pulpit and can get things focused on.

Anyway, if you are looking for other lists, I highly recommend using Listorious, which is a service that tracks lists (you have to add yours, if you haven’t you really should).

If you think you should be added to a list of mine, let me know in the comments here or drop me a line at Thanks and hope you get some value out of these. I know that these have dramatically changed my world.

A few other things: 1. you should check out my favorites list. Every day I put my favorite tweets on there. In about two months I’ve put 8,000 items on this list.

My favorite Twitter client is now Seesmic Web, which supports lists now (and other new Twitter features like Geolocation). The other day I interviewed the Seesmic team about these new features and the video is very telling.