Recently, I read an insightful Harvard lecture published on the Web with a straightforward perspective on how to start a startup and significantly increase the chance of its success. I am not starting a startup (at least not yet), but I gained one or two nuggets of good advice to apply to my non-VC backed venture.
Two important ideas struck me bluntly on the brain. First, if you want to start a startup, think of something in the world that “sucks” and then make it not suck. The honorable guru/programmer/hi-tech entrepreneur Paul Graham delighted in this quite economical word several times, presumably to connect with his young “Generation Next” audience and to make his point clear and simple.
There is no magic or mystery in it, he proclaimed. You’re not reinventing the wheel. The Microsoft’s, Google’s and Apple’s of the world did not invent something that did not exist before. They simply identified something that “sucked” in the world and knew how to make it not suck with genuine technical know-how and limitless creativity.
It’s been almost two and a half years now since I strolled wearily and wide-eyed from an El Al jumbo jet as a new immigrant into Ben Gurion Airport. It has been almost a year since I began writing marketing copy for Israeli startups.
As a new Israeli and someone who appreciates the great spirit, energy and creativity of the startup game, I’m am doing my best to make a valuable contribution.
In the spirit of learning from smart entrepreneurs about improving the world, and in Paul Graham’s cut-to-the-chase vernacular to Harvard computer science students and Bill Gates wannabees, “look at something people are trying to do and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t suck.”
With that said, one of the things that drove me to get into this business was my discovery of mountains of marketing copy, mostly on websites, that really sucked. As I browsed and clicked, the opportunity presented itself like a hot summer day to the ice cream man.
The amount of bad Web content writing being published was inexcusable. Call it gross incompetence, ignorance or lack of budgetary priority. Whatever the reason, my mission became clear: help startups communicate their product concepts and offerings as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Note: Israel is not the only place (including my home country) stricken with an epidemic of bad writing about good products.
I kept asking myself the same question. How could businesses expect to be taken seriously with such poorly written and formatted English? In addition, with an attention span of under 10 seconds, boring, confusing or long-winded copy can cause missed sign-ups and lost sales.
If your writing is sloppy and unprofessional, you’re losing a lot of potential customers to confusion, boredom or impatience. No one has time for undecipherable, unattractive novel length essays.
Granted, we are talking about (non-native English-speaking) Israeli companies with Israeli managers and Israeli employees. But, we are also talking about professional people with professional standards, investment money and a lot at stake on their paths to global dominance.
What’s worse are Israeli CEOs and CTOs with American or British university degrees and fluent English who think they can write their Web content by themselves. After all, they are the founders and/or product developers and should be able to write about it, right? Wrong.
Extensive knowledge on a particular topic does not necessarily equate with an ability to write, and in particular for marketing purposes. If presented in the right way, content can be an attention-grabber, make the right impression and support a brand. The value of great marketing copy must be felt, understood and of course measured. Only then, will it be brought up a few lines in the budget.
Sometimes I have a “hard sell” convincing startup managers of the value of hiring a professional to develop their website content. Most of the time people don’t think twice about hiring a plumber even though they have the right tools at home to do the job.
Let a professional do a professional’s job and in the long run everyone will be happier (and there will be no flooding in the house).
Exception: A lot of so-called marketing writing “professionals” (only because they’re taking money) leave an aftermath of frustration and dissilusionment in their path. Sometimes I have to mop up the mess, rewriting cumbersome and boring descriptions of exciting and innovative products.
I’ve also encountered Israeli executives who assume that just because I am a native English speaker, this alone qualifies me for the job. Granted, it helps, but there are plenty of native English speakers who are mediocre writers at best.
I only bring up the “native English speaking” thing because it is sometimes turned into a justification for bargaining down the price, as if they are thinking, “Come on, how hard could it be? I was going to do it myself. I just need someone to make sure everything is spelled right and capitalized. And maybe throw in a few cool American sounding phrases while you’re at it.” Argh!
Does it sound like I’m exaggerating? Sadly, I’m not. Of course there are Israeli startup executives who do not take this naive approach to their websites. But there are enough of you out there who do, and it needs to stop!
In these shaky economic times (excuse me for sounding cliché or campaigny), often the first budget item that gets slashed is marketing (large companies obviously can avoid this problem).
Cutting marketing, while tempting and seemingly logical in the beginning, can be harmful to a young company in the long term, disrupting the important initial process of shaping and putting out the right message.
If you’ve created the next great software the world can’t live without, leave the marketing content and strategic messaging to a professional. You could probably speak for hours and write volumes about your product and all of its cool features. This is not such a bad thing – in the proper context. Personal blogs, user manuals, or a university lecture series can be wonderful outlets to expouse and expand.
But, for marketing content, spend your money wisely and find a professional. Your message and content should be crafted carefully for bottom line action.
Let’s leave words to the wordsmiths, technology to the technologists and together we will make the world a more peaceful, prosperous and less sucky place for all of us to share.
Best of luck!
I’d love to hear your comments, stories and experiences, both positive and negative.