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How To Stand Out When Applying To The Brandery

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[Editor’s Note: This post is by co-founder of The Brandery, Dave Knox. Dave, along with the rest of The Brandery team, will be reviewing applications for the next few months as we recruit startups for the Class of 2015. By day, Dave is the CMO of Rockfish. Read more of Dave’s blog posts and thought leadership here.]

Did you know that getting into a top tier startup accelerator is actually statistically more difficult than getting into Harvard? For its Class of 2018, Harvard accepted around 5.9% of their 34,000 applicants. In 2014, The Brandery accepted half that percentage with <2.5% of applicants being offered a spot in the program (a number we consistently see with other top-ranked peer programs).

So what should a founder do in order to get their application to stick out? After reviewing thousands of applications over our five previous classes, here are a few best practices I have seen work to help your startup stand out from the crowd. None of these are hard and fast rules, but more what I personally look at when I am reviewing our applications.

1. Become a known entity

If there were only thing that a startup could do when applying to The Brandery, this would be it. It amazes me how many startups apply for The Brandery but do not do any personal outreach. It is pretty easy to find out the decision makers behind our program. All of the founders and staff are listed on the website. All of us are very open about our contact info with emails and Twitter. And we hold a ton of events during application season where you can meet Brandery staff, alumni, and mentors in person. Yet despite this, an amazingly low number of applicants take any steps to reach out beyond their written applications. One of the keys to standing out is to have champions that believe in your team and your company. You can increase your odds of finding those champions by putting in the extra effort to meet the people behind the selection process.

2. Get a personal introduction / endorsement

Speaking of finding champions, one of the best ways to stand out from the crowd is with a warm introduction from someone in the Brandery network. We have an amazing group of mentors, investors, and alumni that are part of The Brandery family. If I get an email introduction from any of them telling me that “so and so startup is applying for The Brandery and they are awesome”, then I put that application on the top of my list. For instance, we had one application a few years ago that had a so-so initial product. But right before they applied, I received an email from an investor I trusted who said the startup had “one of the best mobile product teams” they had ever seen. Needless to say, that type of endorsement changed how I viewed the application right off the bat.

3. Do not be a “Me Too” Startup

Every year, The Brandery receives around two dozen applications that are best classified as “Me Too” Startups. The common theme of these companies is that they are a small twist on whatever the hot startup happened to be that year. When Groupon was gearing up for an IPO in 2011, we had an influx of companies with takes on the Daily Deal space. When Instagram was bought in 2012, our application inbox was flooded with photo startups. The shame with these applications is that I often don’t spend the time digging into the team because I’ve already dismissed the potential of the idea right off the bat.

4. Prove your hustle instead of telling us about it

Every startup talks about having the perfect “Hacker, Hustler, and Designer”. But it is interesting how often The Hustler actually doesn’t show their hustle. If you want to see hustle, talk to Michael Wohlschlaeger, CEO & Co-Founder of Ahalogy. When Michael applied to The Brandery, he and his wife were living in China. That year, The Brandery was having a “get to know us” happy hour during applications at a local bar in Cincinnati. Michael showed up at the event, where we learned that he flew from China to St. Louis (where his family was from) and then drove six hours from St. Louis to Cincinnati— just for the happy hour. That is the definition of hustle. I knew at that moment I would place a bet on Michael as an entrepreneur no matter what. Since Ahalogy has been ranked the fastest growing startup in Ohio the past two years, I think Michael has lived up to that reputation for hustle.

5. Apply early

Do not wait to the last minute to apply. Yes, the final deadline to apply is April 16th, but don’t make the mistake of waiting that long. All of us are reading applications as they come in, and I personally have a ranking of my top 10 applicants that is evolving in real-time. If your company has applied early, that has given me a longer time to learn about you, the company, and your team. I have been able to research the space you are playing in and talked with other investors about the opportunity. If you apply at the last minute, you are “forcing” me to make a quick decision about whether you should be a company we interview and accept.

All that being said, applications to the Class of 2015 are open now. The deadline is April 16.

Guest Post: Stop Building Features

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[Editor’s Note: This post was written by 2014 graduate Connor Bowlan. Connor and his co-founder, Rhett, originally were accepted to The Brandery with their fashion and beauty advice app, Lookit. Throughout the course of the program, their startup evolved to what is now: Cintric, a joint venture between Connor’s company and another startup in the program. You can read more about their journey through The Brandery in this recent Soapbox article.]

Features are one of the worst things a startup can build into an early-stage product.

Features distract the company. Startups find success in innovative solutions to big problems. These solutions form the core of products, and are where the customer finds value they’re willing to pay for. At an early stage, startups should be focusing all their efforts on finding the best version of their solution by iterating on their core product. Feature development distracts from this task.




In one of the earliest versions of our application “Lookit,” we had a little robot character that guided the user through the signup process. The robot even had animations that would progress with each letter the user typed for their name and password. Was it neat? Definitely. Is animating the registration fields spending time improving the core product? Definitely not.

Features distract the product.

When creating a product that’s new, one of the biggest challenges is crystallizing exactly what it is. This applies in both the minds of the team and the end users. The simpler the product, the easier it is to understand what it’s purpose is and how to best achieve it. Features add complexity, and complexity distracts from the core purpose of a product.




In a later build of “Lookit,” we experimented with gamifying the platform. We built a series of “trinkets” that users could win by contributing to the community and gambling in a slot-machine feature. Session time skyrocketed to an average of 14 minutes, but we weren’t solving the problem we had set out to. It drew users away from the core of the product, and away from where we were able to give the most value.

Features distract the user.

When you’re building something new, the end user will have to learn how to use your product. Adding features means the user has more learning to do before being able to draw value from the product and use it effectively.

In the second build of our application “Quack,” we tried to solve one of our user-experience problems by adding another feature. This feature did away with one of the core rules of our product in order to get around a relatively small issue. In doing so we completely confused the user by introducing a competing ruleset, and made them go through another permissions process, all to implement a feature that ended up not being enjoyable for them to use.

Features are often wasted.

Startups frequently change their core products in significant ways as development progresses. When the product changes, features that have been developed often don’t have a place anymore and must be scrapped.




There is a fully complete card-based version of “Lookit” sitting on a bitbucket server somewhere that will probably never see the light of day. It has voting, a gorgeous UI, face-detection, and quite a few more features. Ultimately though, none of those matter. They’re great bits of design and coding that had to be thrown out because the core product they were built on wasn’t strong enough.

Once a product has matured enough to where it’s solving a user’s problem in the most efficient way possible, then features can be introduced to make that process enjoyable for the user to engage with. This must be done slowly though, so as not to confuse or overwhelm the user.

This is where the CPO role really shines, as their job is not just to guide what the product is, but also to guide what the product isn’t.

Building a product without features can be difficult. In the early phase of a startup, it can be challenging to avoid getting carried away in an environment where the product roadmap is set in something more akin to clay than concrete. This is where the CPO role really shines, as their job is not just to guide what the product is, but also to guide what the product isn’t. A good CPO will aggressively maintain development focus on the core of the product, even when features might be exciting or easy to complete.

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At Cintric, we help developers build efficient mobile location services into their apps, from early stage startups that want to use location as a basis for their core experience, to large enterprises that wish to add location features to their existing and established apps. Cintric can be used to integrate rich location components that add a tremendous amount of value to the core of a product. Even including customizing experiences via demographic information and precise analytics of where users engage with different parts of the app.

If you’d like to chat about how Cintric can improve your mobile app with efficient and easy to setup location services, or you’d like to simply tell me why I’m wrong about features, contact me at connor@cintric.com.

Guest Post: 8 Similarities Between Rock Bands and Startups

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[Editor’s Note: This post is part of a new blog series in which our graduates and partners share their perspectives on startups. Thanks to Eron Bucciarelli-Tieger, CEO and co-founder of MusicPlay Analytics, for this post. Prior to founding MusicPlay Analytics, Eron was the drummer of the platinum-selling rock band, Hawthorne Heights. Follow Eron on Twitter.]

There are dozens of startup analogies out there. It’s human nature to relate new stuff to old stuff. While I, like everyone else, know sports, I won’t fall into that cliche. It just so happens that the “stuff” I know most is music. Prior to founding the company I now run, I was a professional musician for ten years, so it’s only natural for me to view startup “stuff” through the lens of a musician. Since everyone likes their stuff presented in list form, I now present to you, “8 Similarities Between Bands and Startups”:

1 – Team Matters

People come together to form bands because they share a collective musical vision. With startups, it’s not much different. Instead of musical passion, it’s product vision. Regardless of the reason and situation, not having the right group of people can have dire consequences early on. Before record deals and funding can happen, everyone needs to pull their weight with little immediate reward. Not having the right people prevents you from creating a good product (or song). More importantly, not having committed people will lead to everything falling apart the second disaster strikes; your van breaks down in the middle of a poorly attended tour or your app doesn’t get accepted to the app store. Everyone has to wear multiple hats early on. You might be the singer, but you’re also the booking agent. You might be the CEO, but you’re also the head of marketing and HR. It’s all about talent and work ethic. If ever those two aren’t balanced properly, the band or company will fail.

2 – Starving Artist/Starving Entrepreneur

Seriously, what’s the difference? When you’re starting off, it doesn’t make a difference whether you’re writing a song or writing code – you’re not making any money (or very little). What matters is you’re chasing some sort of dream, and not eating regularly is simply a casualty of that pursuit. The best art comes out of a place of hardship. It’s only when you’re down and out that you really push yourself. Ever wonder how a band’s first album can be so good and their latest be such crap? Struggle = genius. Comfort = garbage. It’s only the truly gifted songwriters and businesses that are able to replicate this inspiration or find other inspiration with equal passion that end up having repeatable success.

3 – It’s All Legos

Writing a song or coming up with a business idea follow the same creative thought process as playing with those amazing plastic blocks as a kid. Both begin with an idea, it gets fleshed out and eventually released upon the world. Business planning can easily be substituted for jamming, hacking/iterating for recording and launching for distribution. Those are all different terms for the same process. A rose by any other name…

4 – Content Is King

A product is a product, (whether it’s a song or an app). That’s not a Dr Seuss limerick. As the creator of a song or a business, you get to dictate the terms under which your product goes to market. It’s only the ratio between desperation and buzz that leads to companies and bands getting good/bad deals (assuming the product is great). Labels and VC wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for you. It’s hard to invest in nothing and make money on it. Remember that.

5 – Pour Some… Money On Me

Startups need money to grow. Musicians need money to promote themselves. There are always a few exceptions in both worlds, but “Bootstrapping" and “Doing-It-Yourself” are synonyms and can only get you so far. At some point, you need money from an investor to take things to the next level (whatever that may be).

6 – All That Glitters Is (Not) Gold

Most startups fail, most bands fail. When I started my musical journey, only 1% of all CDs released sold more than 1,000 copies (in a year). Of that 1%, only a small handful were fortunate to sell 500,000+ copies (a measure of success at that time). These are somewhat antiquated metrics for success in today’s music environment, but the percentages closely mirror the percentage of companies receiving VC. In reality, securing funding doesn’t equal success, but not having funding most often leads to failure.

7 – Investment Does NOT Equal Success

Getting a record deal doesn’t guarantee sold out arena tours in your future. Likewise, VC doesn’t guarantee you’ll be the next Über or Facebook. Funding simply opens up new opportunities. It’s up to you to walk through those doors as they open. No one is giving out piggyback rides.

And lastly…

8 – Personnel

  • CEO is the lead singer (generally). They are the visionary, the creative director, and responsible for the company’s culture or the band’s gimmick. Sometimes, they’re just the public face.
  • CTO/CPO is the lead guitarist or songwriter. Without a good product, a company is going to fail. Without good songs, a band will fail.
  • COO is the drummer. Drummers and COOs are usually the ones holding things together (okay, I’m biased). 9 times out of 10, the drummer is the “business guy” in the band. They do all the work and get none of the credit.
  • The head of logistics/supply chain is the bassist. You never notice when everything is going alright, but when the bass player drops, out everyone panics. You don’t think about the ability to ship your product to market, but if that channel is severed you’ll freak out.
  • CMO is the rhythm guitarist. They’re great to have but they’re not always necessary when you’re starting up.

If you want to check out Eron’s company, go to musicplayanalytics.com. If you want to check out Eron’s biggest hit, Ohio Is For Lovers, download here.

Guest Post: 10 Ways To Build A Rock Solid Marketing Engine For Your Startup

When my company, Leap, was in the Brandery class of 2012, we had a “spray and pray” approach to marketing. It was really just pure hustle and a little bit of luck that helped us reach 50,000 downloads for our mobile app in a matter of weeks.

As we started to grow, I marched on out to the Valley thinking a nice chunk of change (a few hundred thousand) was going to fall into our laps and all would be right with the world.

But it didn’t exactly work out like that.

Now there are a lot of reasons why and there are a lot of mistakes that our team made that we can talk about, but today I want to talk marketing. Specifically what mistakes we made (which are also mistakes I see other early stage companies making), what I would have done differently knowing what I know now, and finally a little bit about the approach (and some juicy tips for you) that I use today.

Where I Messed Up

When it came time to raise the big bucks for Leap, I struggled to answer these questions:

  • How do you guys get users long term (beyond press and App Store features)?
  • What’s your revenue model?
  • Who’s your target audience?
  • What’s your unique value proposition?
  • What’s your customer acquisition cost? LTV?
  • How are you focusing on marketing right now?

My answers were weak. Something along the lines of…

“Well, we’re building partnerships with influencers so that they can build communities on Leap and it spreads organically because people share content from the app. Basically, once we build up the user base we’re going to bring brands onto the platform so that they can create challenges on our app. Right now our audience is pretty broad – we’re narrowing down into some of the really active communities we see doing challenges. We’re too early to know our customer acquisition cost.”

Now that I spent time working at a VC firm last year and now help fast growing companies scale their online marketing, I slap my forehead when I think back to those days. And you wouldn’t believe the amount of companies that I talk to that really can’t answer these basic questions and are hoping to raise a $1 million seed round from investors.

What You Can Learn From My Mistakes

When I read the example of my answers above, here’s what I think today:

“Ok, this company doesn’t truly know who their customer is – I think they’re going to have a hard time finding a scalable way to generate growth (PR & features won’t do it). Since they aren’t 100% who they’re going after, how do they find the right channels for their business?

Hmm… if they aren’t really focused on a core audience to start with, then overall their marketing is going to be tough since they can’t really communicate a unique value proposition.

And they don’t really have a revenue model so finding out how to spend money to acquire users at breakeven isn’t going to happen until they figure out how to make money, since ‘going viral’ isn’t how 99.999% of businesses are built.”

Now let’s use that to think about the takeaways for your company, and we’ll drill down into some actionable tips.

Here’s what I want you to think about:

Who is my customer? What problem am I really solving for them?

  • Actionable tip #1: take your most active existing users and put them in a spreadsheet.
  • Actionable tip #2: create columns with their name, email, & Facebook profile page. Then stalk the crap out of them. Go onto Facebook and find out what books they read, how old they are, male or female, where they live, what websites they like, what interests they have, what groups they are a part of, grab everything you think will be useful.
  • Actionable tip #3: then find them on LinkedIn and do the same thing. Look for patterns – this is how you’re going to find out who your customer is. (H/T to Noah Kagan’s Summer of Marketing for this)

How are you going to get people to use your product?

  • Actionable tip #4: use that list above to find out where those people are hanging out online and what their interests are, and what demographics your biggest fans have in common.
  • Actionable tip #5: go build out some Facebook Ad campaigns targeting that same person! (You can check out the Crush Campaigns blog for more tips on how to actually structure your campaigns).
  • Actionable tip #6: next find out what the biggest players in your market are already doing! Spy on their ads using SEMRush. They’ve probably spend a crap-ton of money getting customers, so find out what channels are already working for them. You can get a good guess by filtering out ads and campaigns that have been running for a long time.
  • Actionable tip #7: put all that competitive stuff in a spreadsheet. Find out as much as you can about where they get traffic, what they’re doing on social, etc. Not only will you have a better idea of where you focus your attention, but you’ll know where the gaps you can exploit as a little scrappy startup are.
  • Actionable tip #8: now you have a good idea who your customer is and how to find more of them. Write down 3 things that you can test each week (3 ways you can reach this customer). Validate or invalidate great potential user acquisition channels over time. See how much it costs you to get an email address, a download, or a customer and track the results!
  • Actionable tip #9: And this is how you’re focusing on marketing right now. You’ll sound really smart, like you know what you’re doing :)

What’s your customer acquisition cost? What’s your revenue model, etc.?

  • Actionable tip #10: Hopefully you have a revenue model. But the rest of the stuff will begin falling into place once you start these activities. Trust me, you’ll start to have a MUCH better understanding on marketing.

Final Tip

It’s never too early to start experimenting – so get started on this stuff now. You’ll have a much deeper understanding of your market, your customers, and how you’ll grow. Finally, you won’t have the short term “spray and pray” approach that Leap did – and when you’re ready to pound the pavement and talk to investors, you’ll be ready to answer some of those tough questions.

Author

James Dickerson is the Founder of Crush Campaigns, an online marketing agency that helps innovative companies acquire more customers.

Why Should Startups Create Epic Content?

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Startups have to claw their way to the top. We know that. Even with a good idea, successful startups have to cut through millions of distractions to become noticed.

And even when you do get noticed, how are you going to reel them in? Why should your customer choose you over your competitor? Why should they trust you? Why should they tell their friends about you?

Is it because your product is genuinely superior to every other one in the market? Maybe. Probably not. It’s about the brand. It’s about how people perceive your brand. And it’s about content. If you’re a startup without a content marketing strategy, build one.

So what’s content marketing? The simple definition we like by the Content Marketing Institute is, “It’s owning media, not renting it.”

In this post, we focus primarily on blogs, but keep in mind that content can be created just about anywhere these days, and new platforms are being created all the time. This phenomenal infographic from Marketo outlines 20 different mediums for content you can consider.

Here’s some suggestions on what to focus on when crafting your content marketing strategy.

Be a thought leader.


Simply put, writing blog posts that are centered on your industry without directly selling your product will help your business. We know content helps you in search (re: clawing your way to the top), and insightful articles that have never-before-seen ideas in them are, by nature, going to get more shares. Say you are creating an app that will locate and help you review and locate processed cheese puffs all over the world. Maybe you could conduct an interview with a cheese puff tester, ask a manufacturer what brand of high fructose corn syrup she uses, or talk to the distribution manager about where they sell the most cheese puffs per capita. Then create an infographic about it. You could research snack food consumption and how it makes people happier. Write it up and package it for the Internet to read. Stop selling and tell the story. Think about it—if you find an article that you enjoy, challenges you, or that you disagree with, you are more likely to share it with a friend, tweet it, or bookmark it. More shares and more search results means more traffic to your site.

Be human.


It’s great to constantly write about cheese puffs and only cheese puffs if your business is exclusively an e-newsletter about cheese puffs. But every once in a while, your readers and your consumers want to know about you. They want to know that someone’s heart is invested in the brand they support. Creating some original content that defines your personality, tells the audience how you met your co-founder, or what your personal favorite brands of cheese puffs are can make your company as a whole more relatable. Be as approachable as possible, and leave the technical jargon in the test kitchen. No one wants to read a blog written by a robot, but these posts won’t directly help scale your business either. Your customers are rarely startups. Find the balance that keeps the focus on your industry without distancing yourself from the customer.

Be receptive.


Content marketing is a two-way street. Don’t push, push, push to your consumer and never listen when they finally begin to interact. Have public conversations in the comment section of your YouTube video. Follow people back on Twitter every now and then. Ask for feedback on your latest podcast. And then adjust your content. If no one wanted to read your last post about what kind of plastic is used in cheese puff packaging, don’t write about what kind of lids they use next week. It’s okay to experiment, but take a hint when you have decreased interactions on a specific topic. As Brandery alum James Dickerson told our current startups, “Focus on one topic and see if anyone gives a crap. Write epic shit.”

Dedicating a little more time each week to create content can pay off big time. We’re obviously just scratching the surface here. You can dig deep into SEO and content working in tandem, examining your demographics to narrow down the best topics to focus on, or optimizing the time you’ll release your content. The list is long. What have you discovered are the best practices for your startup or small business?

Photo courtesy of Zackariah Cole Photography.