Going over the falls together in barrel

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Jesse Rodgers. Jesse is the  CEO of TribeHR, the Director of the VeloCity Residence at the University of Waterloo, organizer of StartupCamp in Waterloo and an allround great guy.

Jesse stopped by my offices in Toronto to chat about sales, marketing and PR (convenient of @jevon to write about the same topic recently). Jessementioned that the TribeHR team had left Waterloo and were holed up in a hotel room in Niagara Falls. They were living together, working together, writing code and being more productive than they could with the distractions of family, friends and the strong community in Waterloo. I was amazed at the commitment of the team to step away from their personal lives and get the next version of TribeHR built before they head to SxSW for the Small Business Party. You can read the update or watch the caffeine and other stimulant-driven vacation summary. There’s lots startups can learn about improving productivity by going on vacation together.

Barrel to go over the Falls

Over the month of February the TribeHR team has been taking advantage of low hotel prices in Niagara Falls and turned a suite at the Hilton into our office (we were at the Marriott, but the Hilton is $20 less a night and has king size beds). The goal for this little retreat to the romantic city of Niagara Falls: get TribeHR polished off, implement our new user interface, get our go to market strategy figured out, and start executing on all cylinders.

If it works, we will be a stronger team (who can put up with each others snoring) and will have made some awesome progress. If it fails, then we know our team isn’t as good as we thought.

Other cities we thought about were Montreal and Toronto. Toronto would have far too many distractions for us so we had settled on Montreal (we would have loved to work out of the Knotman house). The problem there was that those of us with young kids would be too far away to head home if we had to. So here we are in Niagara Falls, in a tiny hotel suite, working our asses off.

Room with a view in Niagara Falls by TribeHRIn terms of work hours put in, when you do this, it’s pretty crazy. While in a hotel room, assuming you ignore the casino across the road, you work from around 8am to 12am, take out eating time, it is around 14 hrs or so of ‘work’ per person. It is a crazy amount of focus and the results are great, at first. Once all the easy stuff is taken on, we then have to address the bigger problems and we start to slow down. But we can work through it and it’s a heck of a lot easier when you have completely removed yourself from your routine.

At the end of week 2 we have learned the following:

  • It takes 5 min to turn a hotel room into an office but the wifi sucks, the tv can’t use a PS3, and anything but pizza is way overpriced.
  • Not having kids wake you up at 6am doesn’t mean you won’t be awake at 6am.
  • The US side of the falls gets a rainbow in the afternoon.
  • The Starbucks coffee is never hot, Tim Horton’s wins
  • As a team we can take each others grumpy moods and swear it out until everyone is laughing again.
  • Hotel chairs spin really well, and provide a great distraction near the end of the day

Why have we done this? Because we are still a very much a bootstrapped startup with plenty of distractions (wives, kids, other commitments) in Waterloo, and if we are going to get anything done while things are still so early, we have to immerse ourselves and get to work. It’s uncomfortable and exhausting, but it’s productive, energizing and we love it.

Sales, Marketing, PR and Support in Startups

Fred Wilson wrote a few posts about marketing in startups. He really put his unvarnished opinion out there and circled back with a bug report. Sometimes when you put your opinions on paper your expose your blind spots. Fred had a few (saas, b2b, etc) that he acknowledged in the bug report.

Howard followed up with a great post about his experience with Stocktwits. Three years in and he is just starting to look at broad acquisition channels. It makes sense because once you have the product in the right place then you can pour some fuel on the fire. Sometimes it takes 3 years, sometimes it takes more.

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with Mike McDerment, the co-founder and CEO of Freshbooks. I asked him about their sales operation. I wanted to know about their inside sales operation but his response was “well, our support department is our sales department”. Ok, who is your support department then? — “everyone“.

In the following days I had similar conversations with Ali at Well.ca and Dan Debow at Rypple. They all have different configurations but the theme was the same: We are doing this ourselves.

Sales, Marketing, PR and Support are not seperate functions in an early stage startup. Your team DNA has to be created to allow you to execute on all of these disciplines internally and to continually improve related processes. Your developers need to be integrating marketing tools in to your product and they must understand the marketing process to do that. Marketing needs to live and die by the product and in the beginning it needs to BE the product.

That is where I see the difference between great founder/CEOs and those who misunderstand the role. A great CEO knows that it is more painful to build these skills inside the house rather than outsourcing them, but they understand that the long term benefit is more than worth it.

In the beginning everyone is a generalist. To some degree everyone must understand everyone elses capabilities. This creates an environment of trust, respect and transparency. Development is necessarily linked to marketing, sales, support and other functions. Making sure that this happens is difficult. It is some of the hardest work you will ever do as a leader because it means exposing your own weaknesses. It means that you too have to learn from those around you. You must become a pupil again.

Build for speed of execution, the rest will come. Hustle is a big word. A startup with hustle is one that can execute rapidly, find weaknesses, and then execute again.

At one of my previous startups we had raised a decent amount of capital. We had enough that you could theoretically fix any problem with money. We could have just outsourced a problem and voila— fixed. I had a partner who had been through it before though, and he knew that wasn’t the long term solution. So we built every important competency internally and it was HARD. It caused a lot of frustration and it slowed us down at times, but he put our feet to the fire and made sure we even got a little burned. In the end I believe it paid off in multiples. We got fast and efficient and when we did separate the roles out more clearly it was painless and that was years into it.

Every startup comes to a point when they need to start separating and segregating some functions, but that should happen when you are done experimenting and you are ready to execute more broadly and deeply. We all grow up but it is dangerous if it happens too soon. The scale and timing is different for every startup. It is what Howard is doing and it is what we all have to do someday.

Giveaway – 2 Tickets to Art of Marketing on March 7, 2011

The Art of Marketing on March 7, 2001 in TorontoStartupNorth and The Art of Marketing are giving away 2 tickets to the March 7, 2011 conference in Toronto. The conference features:

It’s a great line up of speakers. I’ve seen Guy Kawasaki speak in the past. He hosted a conversation with Steve Ballmer at  Mix08 in Las Vegas. And comedy ensued:

Guy Kawasaki at Mix08

Guy has written a number of books that I have enjoyed reading including: Reality Check, Rules for Revolutionaries, How to Drive Your Competition Crazy and The Art of the Start. Very entertaining speaker, and I’ve been told that we should try to organize a startup hockey game for him while he is here.

I’m most excited about hearing Dr. Sheena Iyengar. I did not know that she was born in Toronto. Her TED Talk about The Art of Choosing and cultural biases is a very engaging and insightful presentation.

Dr. Sheena Iyengar at TED on The Art of Choosing


This is a giveaway. We have 2 tickets. The tickets have no cash value. Someone from StartupNorth will randomly select 2 emails submitted before 11:59:59 EST on Feb 27, 2011. There might be a skill testing question. Please only one entry per person. What’s an entry? Your name and email address. It’s our promise that we will always respect your privacy. From time to time we may email you to inform you about future events, or updates about the giveaway.

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The promo code: LD27 gives you a $50 discount off the regular ticket price, or $100 discount for groups of 3 or more for The Art of Marketing March 7, 2011 event.