Tag Archives: Entrepreneurship

Creating Great Content Marketing

Post Syndicated from Roderick Bauer original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/creating-great-content-marketing/

In Cinema | Coming Soon: Content Marketing

Once the hot new marketing strategy, content marketing has lost some of its luster. If you follow marketing newsletters and blogs, you’ve likely even seen the claim that content marketing is dead. Some say it’s no longer effective because consumers are oversaturated with content. Others feel that much of content marketing is too broad a strategy and it’s more effective to target those who can directly affect the behavior of others using influencer marketing. Still others think that the hoopla over content marketing is over and money is better spent on keyword purchases, social media, SEO, and other techniques to direct customers into the top of the marketing funnel.

Backblaze has had its own journey of discovery in figuring out which kind of marketing would help it grow from a small backup and cloud storage business to a serious competitor to Amazon, Google, and Microsoft and other storage and cloud companies. Backblaze’s story provides a useful example of how a company came to content marketing after rejecting or not finding success using a number of other marketing approaches. Content marketing worked for Backblaze in large part due to the culture of the company, which will reinforce our argument a little bit later that content marketing is a lot about your company culture. But first things first: what exactly is content marketing?

What is Content Marketing?

Content marketing is the practice of creating, publishing, and sharing content with the goal of building the reputation and visibility of your brand.

The goal of content marketing is to get customers to come to you by providing them with something they need or enjoy. Once you have their attention, you can promote (overtly or covertly) whatever it is you wish to sell to them.

Conceptually, content marketing is similar to running a movie theatre. The movie gets people into the theatre where they can be sold soft drinks, popcorn, Mike & Ikes and Raisinets, which is how theatre owners make most of their money, not from ticket sales. Now you know why movie theatre snacks and drinks are so expensive; they have to cover the cost of the loss leader, the movie itself, as well as give the owner some profit.

Movie theatre concession stand
The movie gets the audience in the theater, but the theater owner’s profit comes from the popcorn.
Movie theatre snack concession. Image from Wikipedia.

The Growth of Content Marketing

Marketing in recent years has increasingly become a game of metrics. Marketers today have access to a wealth of data about customer and marketing behavior and an ever growing number of apps and tools to quantify and interpret that data. We have all this data because marketing has become largely an online game and it’s fairly easy to collect behavioral data when users interact with websites, emails, webinars, videos, and podcasts. Metrics existed before for conventional mail campaigns and the like, and focus groups provided some confirmation of what marketers guessed was true, but it was generally a matter of manually counting heads, responses, and sales. Now that we’re online, just adding snippets of code to websites, apps, and emails can provide a wealth of information about consumers’ behavior. Conversion, funnel, nurturing, and keyword ranking are in the daily lexicon of marketers who look to numbers to demystify consumer behavior and justify the funding of their programs.

A trend contrary to marketing metrics grew in importance alongside the metrics binge and that trend is modern content marketing. While modern content marketing takes advantage of the immediacy and delivery vehicles of the internet, content marketing itself is as old as any marketing technique. It isn’t close to being the world’s oldest profession, but it does go back to the first attempts by humans to lure consumers to products and services with a better or more polished pitch than the next guy.

Benjamin Franklin used his annual Poor Richard’s Almanack as early as 1732 to promote his printing business and made sure readers knew where his printing shop was located. Farming equipment manufacturer John Deere put out the first issue of The Furrow in 1895. Today it has a circulation of 1.5 million in 40 countries and 12 different languages.

Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac from 1739
Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac from 1739
Ben’s conversion pitch -- The location of his printing office “near the Market”
Ben’s conversion pitch — The location of his printing office “near the Market”

John Deere's The Furrow, started in 1895
John Deere’s The Furrow, started in 1895

One might argue that long before these examples, stained glass windows in medieval cathedrals were another example of content marketing. They presented stories that entertained and educated and were an enticement to bring people to services.

Much later, the arrival of the internet and the web, and along with them, fast and easy content creation and easy consumer targeting, fueled the rapid growth of content marketing. We now have many more types of media beyond print suitable for content marketing, including social media, blogs, video, photos, podcasts and the like, which enabled content marketing to gain even more power and importance.

What’s the Problem With So Much Content Marketing?

If content marketing is so great, why are we hearing so many statements about content marketing being dead? My view is that content marketing isn’t any more dead now than in was in Benjamin Franklin’s time, and people aren’t going to stop buying popcorn at movie theaters. The problem is that there is so much content marketing that doesn’t reach its potential because it is empty and meaningless.

Unfortunately, too many people who are running content marketing programs have the same mindset as the people running poor metrics marketing programs. They look at what’s worked in the past for themselves or others and assume that repeating an earlier campaign will be as successful as the original. The approach that’s deadly for content marketing is to think that since a little is good, more must be better, and more of the very same thing.

When content marketing isn’t working, it’s usually not the marketing vehicle that’s to blame, it’s the content itself. Hollywood produces some great and creative content that gets people into theaters, but it also produces a lot of formulaic, repetitive garbage that falls flat. If a content marketing campaign is just following a formula and counting on repeating a past success, no amount of obscure performance metric optimization is going to make the content itself any better. That applies just as much to marketing technology products as it does to marketing Hollywood movies.

When content marketing isn’t working, it’s usually not the marketing vehicle that’s to blame, it’s the content itself.

The screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride) once famously said, “In Hollywood, no one knows anything.” He meant that no matter how much experience a producer or studio might have, it’s hard to predict what’s going to resonate with an audience because what always resonates is what is fresh and authentic, which are the hardest qualities to judge in any content and eludes simple formulas. Movie remakes sometimes work, but more often they fail to capture something that audiences responded to in the original: a fresh concept, great performances by engaged actors, an inspired director, and a great script. Just reproducing the elements in a previous success doesn’t guarantee success. The experience in the new version has to capture the magic in the original that appealed to the audience.

The Dissatisfaction With So Much Content

A lot of content just dangles an attractive hook to entice content consumers to click, and that’s all it does. Anyone can post a cute animal video or a suggestive or revealing photo, but it doesn’t do anything to help your audience understand who you are or help solve their problems.

Unfortunately for media consumers, clickbait works in simply getting users to click, which is the reason it hasn’t disappeared. As long as people click on the enticing image, celebrity reference, or promised secret revelation, we’ll have to suffer with clickbait. Even worse, clickbait is often used to tip the scales of value from the reader, where it belongs, to the publisher. Many viral tests, quizzes and celebrity slideshows plant advertising cookies that benefit the publisher by increasing the cost and perceived value of advertising on their site, leaving the consumer feeling that they’ve been used, which of course is exactly what has happened.

Another, and I think more important reason that content marketing isn’t succeeding for many is not that it’s not interesting or even useful, but that the content isn’t connected in a meaningful way with the content publisher. Just posting memes, how-tos, thought pieces, and stories unrelated to who you are as a business, or not reflecting who your employees are and the values you hold as a company, doesn’t do anything to connect your visitors to you. Empty content is like empty calories in junk food; it doesn’t nourish and strengthen the relationship you should be building with your audience.

Is SEO the Enemy?

SEO is not the enemy, but focusing on only some superficial SEO tactics above other approaches is not going to create a long term bond with your visitors. Keyword stuffing and optimization can damage the user experience if the user feels manipulated. Google might still bring people to your content as a result of these techniques, but it’s a hollow relationship that has no staying power. When you create quality content that your audience will like and will recommend to others, you produce backlinks and social signals what will improve your search rankings, which is the way to win in SEO.

Despite all the supposed secret formulas and tricks to get high search engine ranking, the real secret is that Google loves quality content and will reward it, so that’s the smart SEO strategy to follow.

What is Good Content Marketing?

Similar to coming up with an idea for the next movie blockbuster to get people into theaters, content marketing is about creating good and useful content that entertains, educates, creates interest, or is useful in some way. It works best when it is the kind of content that people want to share with others. The viral effect will compound the audience you earn. That’s why content marketing has really taken off in the age of social media. Word-of-mouth and good write-ups have always propelled good content, but they are nothing compared to the effect viral online sharing can have on a good blog post, video, photograph, meme or other content.

How do you create this great content? We’re going to cover three steps that will take you from ho-hum content marketing to good and possibly even great content marketing. If you follow these three steps, you’ll be ahead of 90 percent of the businesses out there that are trying to crack the how-to of content marketing.

First — Start with Why You Do What You Do

Simon Sinek in his book, Start with Why, and in his presentations, especially his TED Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, argues that people don’t base their purchasing decisions primarily on what a company does, but on why they do it. This might be hard to envision for some products, like toothpaste or laundry detergent, but I think it does apply to every purchase we make, even if in some cases it’s to a small degree. For some things it’s much more apparent. People identify with iOS or Android, Ford or Chevy, Ducati or Suzuki, based on much more than practical considerations of price, effectiveness, and other qualities. People want to use products and services that bolster their image of who they are, or who they want to be. Some companies are great at using this desire (Apple, BMW, Nike, Sephora, Ikea, Whole Foods, REI) and have a distinct identity that is the foundation for every message they put out.

Golden Circle: Why? How? What?
From Simon Sinek, Start With Why

To communicate the why of your products and services, you can’t just put out generic content that works for anyone. You have to produce content that shows specifically who you are. The best content marketing is cultural. The content you deliver tells your audience what kind of company you are, what your values are, who are the people in the company, and why they work there and do the things they do. That means you must be authentic and transparent. That takes courage, and isn’t easy, which is why so few companies are good at it. It takes vision, leadership, and a constant reminder from company leaders of what you’re doing and why it matters.

Unfortunately, this is hard to maintain as companies grow. The organizations that have grown dramatically and yet successfully maintained the core company values have either had a charismatic leader who represented and reiterated the company’s values at every opportunity (Apple), or have built them into every communication, event, and presentation by the company, no matter who is delivering them (Salesforce).

If your company isn’t good at this, don’t despair. These skills can be learned, so if your company needs to get better at understanding and communicating the why of who they are, there’s still hope that with some effort, it can still happen.

Second — Put Yourself in Your Customers’ Shoes

You not only need to understand yourself and your company and present yourself authentically, you have to really understand your customer — really, really understand your customer. That takes time, research, and empathy to walk a mile in their shoes. You need to visit your customers, spend a day fielding support calls or working customer service, go places, do things, and ask questions that you’ve never asked. Are they well off with cash to burn, or do they count every penny? Do they live for themselves, their parents, their children, their community, their church, their livelihood? How could your company help them solve their problems or make their lives better?

The best marketers have imagination and empathy. They, like novelists, playwrights, and poets, are able to imagine what it would be like to live like someone else. Some marketing organizations formalize this function by having one person who is assigned to represent the customers and always advocate for their interests. This can help prevent falling into the mindset of thinking of the customer only as a source of revenue or problems that have to be solved.

One common marketing technique is to create a persona or personas that represent your ideal customer(s). What is their age, sex, occupation? What are their interests, fears, etc.? This can help make sure that the customer is never just an unknown face or potential revenue source, but instead is a real person whom you need to be close to and understand as deeply as possible.

Once you’ve made the commitment to understand your customers, you’re ready to help solve their problems.

Third — Focus on Solving Your Customers’ Problems

Once you have your authentic voice down and you really know who your customer is and how they think, the third thing you need to do is focus on providing useful content. Useful content for your customers is content that solves a real problem they have. What’s causing them pain or what’s impeding them doing what they need or want to do? The customer may or may not know they have this pain. You might be creating a new need or desire for them by telling a story about how their life will be if they only had this thing, service, or experience. Help them dream of being on a riverboat in Europe, enjoying the pool in their backyard on a summer’s day, or showing off a new mobile phone to their friends at work.

By speaking to the needs of your customers, you’re helping them solve problems, but also forging a bond of trust and usefulness that will go forward in your relationship with them.

Mastering Blogging for Content Marketing

There are many ways to create and deliver content that is authentic and serves a need. Podcasts, Vlogs, events, publications, words, pictures, music, and videos all can be effective delivery vehicles for quality content. Let’s focus on one vehicle that can return exceptional results when done right, and that is blogging, which has worked well for Backblaze.

Backblaze didn’t just create a blog that then turned into an overnight success. Backblaze tried a number of marketing approaches that didn’t perform as the company hoped. The company wrote about these efforts on its blog, which is a major reason why the blog became a marketing success — it showed that the company was willing to talk about both its successes and its failures. You can read about some of these marketing adventures at As Seen on Ellen and How to Save Marketing Money by Being Nice. Forbes wrote about Backblaze’s marketing history in an article in 2013, One Startup Tried Every Marketing Ploy From ‘Ellen’ To Twitter: Here’s What Worked.

Blendtec on the Ellen Show

Backblaze on the Ellen Show

Backblaze billboard on Highway 101 in Silicon Valley, 2011

Backblaze billboard on Highway 101 in Silicon Valley

Backblaze decided early on that it would be as transparent as possible in its business practices. That meant that if there were no good reason not to release information, the company should release it, and the blog became the place where the company made that information public. Backblaze’s CEO Gleb Budman wrote about this commitment to transparency, and the results from it, in a blog post in 2017, The Decision on Transparency. An early example of this transparency is a 2010 post in which Backblaze analyzed why a proposed acquisition of the company failed, Backblaze online backup almost acquired — Breaking down the breakup. Companies rarely write about acquisitions that fall through.

Backblaze’s blog really took off in 2015 when the company decided to publish the statistics it had collected on the failure rate of hard drives in its data centers, Reliability Data Set For 41,000 Hard Drives Now Open Source. While many cloud companies routinely collected this kind of data, including Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, none had ever made it public. It turned out that readers were tremendously hungry for data on how hard drives performed, and Backblaze’s blog readership subsequently increased by hundreds of thousands of readers. Readers analyzed the drive failure data and debated which drives were the best for their own purposes. This was despite Backblaze’s disclaimer that how Backblaze used hard drives in its data centers didn’t really reflect how the drives would perform in other applications, including homes and businesses. Customers didn’t care. They were starved for the information and waited anxiously for the release of each new Drive Stats post.

It Turns Out That Blogging with Authenticity and Transparency is Rewarded

As Gilmore and Pine wrote in their book, Authenticity, “People increasingly see the world in terms of real and fake, and want to buy something real from someone genuine, not a fake from some phony.” How do you convince your customers that you’re real and genuine? The simple answer is to communicate honestly about who you are, which means sometimes telling them about your failures and mistakes and owning up to less than stellar performances by yourself or your company. Consider lifting the veil occasionally to reveal who you are. If you put the customer first, that shouldn’t be too hard even when you fall short. If your intentions are good, being transparent will almost always be rewarded with forgiveness and greater trust and loyalty from your customers.

Many companies created blogs thinking they had to because everyone else was and they started posting articles by their executives and product marketers going on about how great their products were. Then they were surprised when they got little traffic. These people didn’t get the message about how content should be used to help customers with their problems and build a relationship with them through authenticity and transparency.

If you have a blog, you could use that as a place to write about how you do business, the lessons you’ve learned, and yes, even the mistakes you’ve made. Don’t assume that all your company information needs to be protected. If at all possible, write about the tough issues and why you made the decisions you did. Your customers will respond because they don’t see that kind of frankness elsewhere and because they appreciate understanding the kind of company they’re paying for the product or service.

Your Blog Isn’t One Audience of Thousands or Millions, But Many Audiences of One

Don’t be afraid to write to a specific audience or group on your blog. You might have multiple audiences, but you might have specialized ones, as well. When you’re writing to an audience with specialized vocabulary or acronyms, don’t be afraid to use them. Other readers will recognize that the post is not for them and skip over it, or they’ll use it as an entry to a new area that interests them. If you try to make all your posts suitable for a homogeneous reader, you’ll end up with many readers leaving because you’re not speaking directly to them using their language.

If the piece is aimed at a novice or general audience, definitely take the time to explain unfamiliar concepts and spell out abbreviations and acronyms that might not be familiar to the reader. However, if the piece is aimed at a professional audience, you should avoid doing that because the reader might think that the post isn’t aimed at professionals and they could dismiss the post and the blog thinking it’s not suitable for them.

Strive to match the content, vocabulary, graphics, technical argot, and level of reading to the intended market segment. The goal is to make each reader feel that the piece was written specifically for him or her.

Taking Just OK Content Marketing and Making It Great

Authenticity, honesty, frankness, and sincerity are all qualities that to some degree or other are present in the best content. Unfortunately, marketers have the reputation for producing content that’s at the opposite end of the spectrum. Comedian George Burns could have been parodying a modern marketing course when he wrote, “To be a fine actor, you’ve got to be honest. And if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

There’s a reason that the recommendation to be authentic sounds like advice you’d get from your mom or dad about how to behave on your first date. We all learn sooner or later that if someone doesn’t like you for who you are, there’s no amount of faking being someone else that will make them like you for more than just a little while.

Be yourself, say something that really means something to you, and tell a story that connects with your audience and gives them some value. Those intangibles are hard to measure in metrics, but, when done well, might earn you an honest response, some respect, and perhaps a repeat visit.

The post Creating Great Content Marketing appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

Bootstrapping to $30 Million ARR

Post Syndicated from Yev original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/startup-tips-bootstrapping-to-30-million-arr/

Backblaze Billboard on Highway 101 in Silicon Valley, 2011
Backblaze will be celebrating its 12th year in business this coming April 20th. We’ve steadily grown over the years, and this year have reached $30 million ARR (annual recurring revenue). We’ve accomplished this with only $3.1 million in funding over the years, having successfully bootstrapped the company with founder contributions and cash flow since the very beginning.

Last year our CEO and co-founder Gleb Budman wrote a series of posts on entrepreneurship that detailed our early years and some lessons learned that entrepreneurs can apply for themselves.

Recently, Gleb did a follow-on webinar on BrightTALK covering many of the series’ main points.
Given the time constraints most entrepreneurs face, I’ll highlight what I consider some of the key lessons for startups that Gleb outlined in both the entrepreneurial series and the webinar.

Gleb Budman on BrightTALK Founders Series

Gleb’s webinar on BrightTALK

Creating Your Product

Gleb’s first article, How Backblaze Got Started: The Problem, The Solution, and the Stuff In-Between, starts with one of the most critical aspects for any successful company: defining the real problem you’re trying to solve. In Gleb’s words, “The entrepreneur builds things to solve problems — your own or someone else’s.”

So the question is how do you go about defining the problem? The most obvious place to start is to look at pain points you’re trying to address and then defining the specific elements that contribute to them. Can you solve the problem by taking away or changing one of those elements or multiple elements? Or, is it a matter of adding in new elements to shift away the pain points?

In our case, there was an obvious need in the market for backing up computers. There were already solutions on the market that, at least in theory, provided a backup solution, yet the majority of people still didn’t use one. The question was why?

Just because solutions exist doesn’t mean the problem is solved. After a series of deep dives into why people weren’t backing up, we discovered that the major problem was that backup solutions were too complicated for most people. They recognized they should be backing up, but weren’t willing to invest the time to learn how to use one of the existing services. So the problem Backblaze was originally solving wasn’t backup in general, it was taking away the learning curve to use a backup solution.

Once you have the problem clearly defined, you can proceed to design a solution that will solve it. Of course the solution itself will likely be defined by market forces, most notably, price. As Gleb touches on in the following video clip, pricing needs to be built into the solution from the outset.

Surviving Your First Year

Once you’ve determined the problem you want to solve, the next step is to create the infrastructure, i.e. the company, in order to build the solution. With that in mind, your primary goals for that first year should be: set up the company correctly, build and launch your minimal viable product, and most importantly, survive.

Setting up the company correctly is critical. A company is only as successful as the people in it. At all stages of growth, it’s critical that people have clear definitions of what is expected of them, but in the beginning it’s especially important to make sure people know what they need to do and the vision that’s driving the business.

From the start you need to determine the company, product, and development resources you need, define roles to be filled, and assign responsibilities once key players start joining your team. It’s very common in the early stages of a startup for everyone to be working on the same tasks in a democratic process. That might be good for morale in the beginning, but can result in a lack of focused direction. Leadership must emerge and help steer the company towards the shared vision. With clearly defined roles and responsibilities, team members can collaborate on achieving specific milestones, ensuring forward momentum.

A far less exciting but equally important foundation for a startup is the legal entity. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of building a product and put off the less exciting legal aspects until you are ready to launch. However, trying to retroactively get all the legal requirements in place is far more difficult.

Ownership (equity) ratios need be locked in near the start of the company. Having this hammered down can avoid a lot of potential infighting down the line. If you plan on raising money, you will need to incorporate and issue stock. You may also want to create a Proprietary Information and Inventions Assignment (PIIA) document, which states that what you are all working on is owned by the company.

Once the (admittedly not terribly exciting) legal aspects are taken care of, the focus truly shifts to building your minimal viable product (MVP) and launching it. It’s natural to want to build the perfect product, but in today’s market it’s better to focus on what you think are the most important features and launch. As Gleb writes in Surviving Your First Year, “Launching forces a scoping of the feature set to what’s critical, rallies the company around a goal, starts building awareness of your company and solution, and pushes forward the learning process.” Once you launch your MVP, you’ll start receiving feedback and then the iteration process can start: more on that later.

Lastly, when it comes to surviving your first year, always make an effort to conserve your cash. It might be tempting to scale as quickly as you can by hiring a lot more employees and building out your infrastructure, but minimizing your burn rate is usually more important for long term success. For example, Backblaze spent only $94k to build and launch its beta online backup service. If you scale your startup’s people and infrastructure too fast, you might have to rush to find more funding, which typically means more dilution and more outsiders telling you what you should be doing — not great when you’re first starting out and trying to achieve your vision.

Gleb goes into more detail in this video clip:

Getting Your First Customers

When you’re finally ready to go, you should target people who will give you lots of feedback as your first customers. Often, this means friends and even family members that are willing to give you their opinions on what you’re doing. It’s important to press the people close to you to give you honest feedback, as sugar-coating comments might actually lead you to make incorrect conclusions about your product.

Once you have a chance to evaluate the initial feedback and iterate on it, consider a private beta launch. Backblaze’s initial launch target was to get 1,000 people to use the service. In his article, How to Get Your First 1,000 Customers, Gleb goes into detail on how Backblaze successfully used PR outreach to achieve the beta launch goal.

One of the PR tactics used was to give publications, such as Techcrunch, ArsTechnica, and SimpleHelp, a limited number of beta invites. This not only raised awareness, but it gave early beta users a feeling of exclusivity, which helped in getting beta users to provide honest feedback.

Equally important is to have a system in place to collect contact information from everyone that expresses interest, even if you can’t service them at the time. You always want to be building your customer pipeline and having mechanisms in place to collect leads is important for sustained growth.

Startup Highs and Lows

It’s unavoidable that every startup entrepreneur will have to face a number of unexpected lows that will supplant what seem as increasingly infrequent highs. Dealing with both is vital to sustain your business (and your mental health). Often times, what at first appears to be a low point can inspire actions that ultimately help drive your business to new highs.

In the following clip Gleb gives several examples of seemingly low points that Backblaze was ultimately able to turn into wins, or as Gleb says “turning lemons into lemonade.” Note: I recently wrote a post about similar turnarounds on the social media front, Making Lemonade: The Importance of Social Media and Community.

Building Culture

It might not be foremost in your mind at the start, but from day one of your startup you are building your company culture. Culture is a little more nebulous than product design (maybe a lot more nebulous), but it is equally important in the long run. Culture affects every aspect of how your company operates because it has a day to day effect on every employee and the decisions they make, as Gleb points out in this short clip.

A prime example of how company culture affects your business is Backblaze’s emphasis on transparency. One of the first major wins for Backblaze was the release of our first Storage Pod design back in 2009. Most companies would keep proprietary design IP (intellectual property), like the Storage Pod, under lock and key, because they provide a major competitive pricing advantage. Yet the cultural importance of transparency led to a decision to open source the Storage Pod design despite the risk of competitors taking the designs and copying them. It also enabled us to answer a common question, “How can you provide this service at this low a price?” by writing one blog post with specifications, photos, and a parts inventory showing exactly how we do it.

The result of that very risky decision was a massive increase in brand awareness. Hundreds of articles were written about Backblaze comprised of not just general-interest and news articles, but also business case studies examining the rare business decision to be so transparent about our IP.

All of this attention ultimately positioned Backblaze as a thought leader in the cloud backup space (later, also in cloud storage), allowing us to be mentioned in the same articles and to compete against far bigger companies, including Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.

I hope you enjoyed this TL:DR version of Gleb’s entrepreneurial series and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. I highly encourage anyone involved in a startup to take the time to read the original series as time permits and watch the entire webinar on BrightTALK, Founders Spotlight: Gleb Budman, CEO, Backblaze.

Gleb Budman’s Series on Entrepreneurship on the Backblaze Blog:

  1. How Backblaze got Started: The Problem, The Solution, and the Stuff In-Between
  2. Building a Competitive Moat: Turning Challenges Into Advantages
  3. From Idea to Launch: Getting Your First Customers
  4. How to Get Your First 1,000 Customers
  5. Surviving Your First Year
  6. How to Compete with Giants
  7. The Decision on Transparency
  8. Early Challenges: Managing Cash Flow
  9. Early Challenges: Making Critical Hires

The post Bootstrapping to $30 Million ARR appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

Making Lemonade: The Importance of Social Media and Community

Post Syndicated from Yev original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/social-media-marketing-strategy/

Social media manager Yev at his desk at Backblaze

Spending all day on Twitter and Reddit shouldn’t really be a job, but here we are. With every organization from a local coffee shop to mutli-billion dollar enterprise having a social media presence, community and social media management has become not only a job, but a career path that tens of thousands of people have adopted in the last two decades.

Many still question the value, if any, of KPIs (key performance indicators) for tracking social media, and the overall return on investment of a dedicated social media presence. With that in mind, I wanted to share why Backblaze continues to invest in maintaining strong community and social relationships.

Having a strong social presence has not only helped us build a community of fans and advocates, but it has also helped drive serious growth, playing a large part in helping us achieve nearly 50% growth and an ARR of over $30M.

Spoilers — Key Takeaways

In this post I’ll discuss the takeaways below and dive in to two case-studies where bringing all these together helped Backblaze navigate some tricky situations (more on those below):

  • Social media can be fickle. Finding the right balance for your brand between being funny, informative, and helpful can be hard but it is paramount if you want to cultivate the right kind of audience and community.
  • Empathy is important, especially if you provide social tech support — people writing into support are usually not having a great day. Very few of our support tickets are simple praise (and when they are, we share them with the whole company). Being empathetic can help craft your responses in a way that does not put your customers on the defensive, and even if you can’t help them, being understanding of their situation goes a long way in helping them feel heard.
  • Do not use standard answers. As much as I can, I try to use hand-crafted, artisanal responses for every person that writes in. Even if you get a flurry of similar questions that require the same steps to solve (say there’s an outage, or there’s a popular blog post that yields identical questions), addressing people by their names and individualizing responses helps immensely and puts a more approachable face on your company.
  • Some days are going to be bad: not all news is good news. Sometimes there will be a particularly bad day on the horizon that you see coming and start dreading. Know that it’ll pass and get yourself mentally prepared for the onslaught. Sometimes knowing that there will be controversy will help you craft your messaging in advance. Try to think through the edge cases and if you don’t have a good answer, tell people that you’ll find one and get back to them.
  • Follow up. If you are in the middle of a busy day, try to get to everyone within a few hours. If you cannot, flag them and reply later. You want people to have warm and fuzzies when they think about you. Hearing back from you on social, even a day later, can absolutely have that effect. Making sure no one falls through the cracks helps people feel heard and a part of your community, and shows that community members are valued.

Backblaze’s Social Philosophy — Branding First, KPIs Last

Contrary to popular belief, Backblaze is not a large organization (though we keep staffing up, check out our backblaze.com/jobs page!) Our social media team consists of an army of one, Yev (me), and a few folks on staff who also have logins and can act as backups in case I go on vacation. It’s good to have backups.

How did I get involved with the social side of Backblaze? I joined Backblaze in 2011 as part of our Customer Support team. Natasha, a former contractor (and now one of our product marketers) ran our social media efforts — essentially responding to questions and posting new blog entries and interesting tidbits. A few months into the job I took over the outbound social media posts for the company from Natasha, and a little while later took over both aspects of our social channels. Natasha still helps out as one of the people on the social backup rotation.

My philosophy on social and community stems from my strong belief in customer service. I’ve always encouraged having a support aspect to our social channels, which means being communicative when we have issues and often handling simple support cases before referring folks to our customer support team. Since backup and data storage are serious business, every opportunity to offer support is a good one. Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and other platforms can also act as an early detection canary when people are having issues. That said, I try to avoid debugging issues in a public forum and have found that a lot of people prefer a relevant knowledge base link or a shortcut over going into details about their computer on Twitter. Being receptive to people on different social platforms and giving them individualized answers shows that real people are paying attention to them and that they’re not just talking to a brick wall. I consider these efforts to help customers less about customer support and more about brand-building, but ultimately, it’s just the kind of company that we want Backblaze to be.

Is There Value in Measuring Social Media KPIs?

We’ve historically focused our social efforts more on the brand than on KPIs for several reasons. A common mistake people make is to view social media as just another direct response channel. While social can certainly drive traffic and sales, it has the potential to be far more important for overall business growth and brand building. Focusing too narrowly on direct response KPIs not only undervalues social’s overall benefit but can also move focus onto the wrong activities.

That said, KPIs are not entirely worthless. Some of the most common KPIs include: clicks, views, mentions, trackable purchases, as well as a host of other more narrowly focused engagement metrics. While it’s great to have tracking and to know how many folks are purchasing as a result of your social activities, using those metrics as the sole arbiter of whether or not your social strategy is working is, I believe, a bit short-sighted. Plus, if you’re a shrewd social media manager, you can easily manipulate the KPIs. Need to goose your click numbers for the month? Here come the brand-relevant kitten gifs, but how is that good for your business? You know what is good for your business? Getting people to recommend you.

The Real Value of Social Media

Social proof is one of the single biggest influencers on a customer’s purchase decision. Regardless of whether your product is consumer-focused or enterprise-driven, your social channels are building out your community. That building of community, in turn, builds brand awareness and positive vibes. The better the community and social interactions are with your company, the more your message gets amplified. When things are good that means recommending your service, and when things are bad it means that they’ll be more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Your social channels’ worth is hard to measure day to day, but don’t listen to people who say it can’t be measured at all. Measuring growth takes understanding what your goals are and whether your community can help attain them. You can start to see the benefits when people in various online places stand up for you, or field questions on your behalf in public forums (bonus points if they field them correctly). All those things mean you are doing a good job of educating your fans. Having customers and fans who help get your point across is a wonderful thing, and as I go into a bit later, can lead directly to revenue.

Cloud Backup Suggestions on Reddit

Reddit Recommendations

Comment on Twitter: "We use Backblaze. Love it!"

Unsolicited Twitter Recommendations Are Great

Insight #1

Focus on the customer impact and business results, then determine the right metrics for your business, knowing there may not be any. A branding-first approach of using social media as an extension of your support organization can make customers happier and can reduce complaints. The fewer help tickets coming in, the more kudos you get from your support team (and it lowers your operating expenses). Plus, being outwardly communicative and having quick response times can ease the customer’s anxiety in times of stress. If you can successfully do all that, it can lead to customers who are truly brand advocates and are more likely to amplify your message, recommending you, or giving you the benefit of the doubt.

My Daily Social Media Tools

I’ve covered the importance of engaging community and the strategy we take to make sure those community needs are met. That still leaves the question of how to actually do it. To that end, I’d like to take you through a typical day of mine.

My day starts by checking Twitter. It is the most real-time firehose of information and can act as a harbinger for how the day is going to go. I use the Fenix app on my phone to separate my personal account from my work account. All the Backblaze tweets go to Fenix, while my personal Twitter is tied to the default app. This separation helps prevent me from accidentally posting to the corporate stream. The other benefit is that the notifications become separate so I know whether to investigate quickly if it’s a Fenix notification, or let it slide for a personal one. Once Twitter has been scanned, I respond to the people who need help, either by sending them a helpful link or routing them to our support team.

When I arrive in the office, TweetDeck takes over. If you’ve never seen it, to some it looks a bit overwhelming. There is a series of columns, each one keeping track of separate lookups and keywords. I have streams set to follow @Backblaze, the term “Backblaze,” and some of the hashtags that we use frequently. It’s also a great way to see what competitors are up to, and see if you can add any helpful information to conversations that might be about your organization (e.g. someone is considering you and your competitors and is asking for opinions). An additional benefit is that you can gauge the general sentiment that customers have towards you. If most of the tweets mentioning your competitors are positive, that’s great and you have some work to do in making sure you’re thought of in the same way. If most of the mentions are negative, that can be a great time to jump in and try to win some people over, especially if their issue is with something that you excel in — just be nice.

While TweetDeck acts as a general firehose for Twitter, it can’t monitor what’s happening elsewhere in cyberspace. For that, I use Mention. It’s essentially an aggregator for the mentions that your keywords receive all over the internet. It is pretty close to real-time, only lagging by a few minutes. There are more robust tools available (Hootsuite, Sprout Social, and Buffer are all good robust tools), but for the money, Mention does a great job finding keywords from social media sites, blogs, news articles, and forums. It’s a great way to get an overview of where your organization was mentioned, and even has some analytics tools to help you parse through it all and see where and how folks are talking about you.

Mentions over time

Mentions Over Time

Hard drive stats word cloud

Hard Drive Stats Word Cloud

Thoughts on Twitter

More than any other social media platform, Twitter has become the place where people go when they have an issue, need information, or just want to ask a question. Being responsive and making sure each person is responded to builds a rapport with your followers and encourages a sense of community. Having a temporary unplanned outage? Make sure you tweet it so that folks know you’re on top of it and they aren’t feeling left out of the loop. Have a new feature to announce? Let the masses know so they can update to the latest and greatest version. Getting questions about your service? Respond quickly and with relevant information. Someone taking out their frustration on you? Respond with compassion and empathy; make sure they understand that you have heard their feedback and that it’s understood, even if there is nothing you can do.

This leads to a more cohesive community where no one feels left out and everyone feels like they’re a part of the group. If someone is having a bad day and takes it out on you, that’s the perfect time to try and bring them in for a soft landing. Very few people ever reach out to Customer Support because they’re having the best day ever. For the customer where something has gone wrong, the way that you treat them dictates how the community at large will view your brand and company. Being empathetic does not have any downsides in these cases and builds trust over time.

Insight #2

One of the reasons I use multiple services to track mentions is to make sure that people don’t fall through the cracks. It’s important that folks are responded to when they write us with a question or frustration. Even if the interaction with us is not positive, the goal is to make sure everyone feels heard. That helps establish the positive brand and good vibes I am trying to cultivate and results in brand amplification and customer lead recommendations.

Where Social Fits In At Backblaze

Venture capital backed companies tend to be built around hypergrowth, spending money to acquire customers while honing the product and finding their niche. In the almost thirteen years Backblaze has been around, we’ve raised less than $3M. We’re funded by our own operations; this is known as being a bootstrapped company. Being bootstrapped brings with it a lot of benefits, like the freedom to make our own decisions, but it does also mean we can’t spend a lot of money buying Facebook ads, much less buying radio and TV time. So we have to be creative with how we attract people and keep them happy once we earn their business. We want the Backblaze brand to reflect our culture: transparent, empathetic, and efficient. Compared to our competition, we believe that offers a unique and different proposition to people deciding where they want to store their data. Not only that, but those beliefs also reflect who we are as people.

To attract customers and educate the masses without breaking the bank, we focused on writing interesting blog posts, open-sourcing technology, and being generally available to our customers. Being available is what we think truly sets us apart from the competition. For us, availability and being social means being good internet citizens, responding to hails from around the web, and joining in on conversations about the industry. That means going to where folks are talking about us and sharing some of our insights, like our hard drive stats posts. All of that, plus listening to our customers when making product decisions (like adding much-requested file sharing in version 5.0), helps move the product forward while bringing our customers along for the ride.

One of the tangible side benefits of being present on other platforms is that sometimes being involved in the conversation elsewhere can help stave off support tickets before they enter our system. We have a great Customer Support department and they handle all of our tickets in-house, so being able to head off potential issues on other platforms where currently and possibly future customers are chatting, not only helps us stay engaged in the conversation, but can also reduce the number of tickets coming in.

Insight #3

Community building is paramount. What is community? For me, it means any place where Backblaze is mentioned and anyone who engages with our company. Perception being reality, your company will be judged by its public actions. For better or worse, mindshare on the internet is driven by social interactions. Those interactions have to be genuine and not just lip-service with canned missives written by lawyers. While sometimes review is necessary, honest conversation in real-time is the standard I strive for. A company that does not invest in some form of social presence is actively not investing in its brand.

The Social Media Strategy

The strategy for our social efforts is simple: stay engaged. There’s a literal time component to this — we try to respond quickly, ideally within a few hours. Responding quickly is great, but if you’re responding fast with an automated message, you risk infuriating your customers. Ideally the response is quick and has relevant information. How do you maintain relevance? You do it by sending out useful, topical, or interesting tidbits that are industry related, and by participating in the comments wherever they come up. If you aren’t sure of the right answer or don’t have the necessary information at your fingertips, reply and let them know that you’ll work on getting them the right answer — then follow up.

Participation is one of our most important tactics. If you aren’t shy of wading into the comments, whether they be positive or negative, the community learns to ask questions and expects to receive answers. That, in turn, leads to trust, which is immeasurably important.

That’s especially true when something goes awry, for example when an Adobe issue ate some Backblaze files, or if you want to capitalize on an opportunity, as when we were able to move quickly and gain customers when CrashPlan’s exit of the consumer business was announced. Backblaze is in the data storage business, which makes it important to strike a balance between being funny, informative, and helpful. It’s difficult, but relentless participation is paramount for cultivating the kind of community you want your brand to have.

I am lucky enough to have the latitude to make decisions about what to explore and expand upon in public forums. That means that if something is happening in real-time, I don’t have to wait for an hour and a half to get approval about what I can and cannot say. This isn’t all improv (though I did do that in high school). We create this environment by having honest internal conversations that assume we are going to be discussing things with our customers. We are constantly calibrating and communicating so that when things happen in real-time we can react quickly. Do mistakes happen? Sometimes they do, but the benefits of being able to move quickly in an informed way have thus far outweighed any downsides we occasionally see.

Another thing to consider is that there are a lot of SaaS companies offering ready-made community platforms that allow you to manage your own online community. Platforms such as Vanilla, Chaordix, and CMNTY all help brands build and design their own online spaces. I’ve found that in general, these are great for large companies with huge brand awareness, and while Backblaze is large, I do not need such robust tools (not yet anyway). Instead I look for where people are discussing Backblaze already and join the conversations there. Places like Reddit, HackerNews, Twitter, Facebook, MangoLassi, SpiceWorks, and the comments sections of blogs or articles, are all places where Backblaze gets mentioned. Jumping into those conversations provides for a more natural flow and proves to folks that we really are paying attention, instead of letting the news come to us.

Insight #4

Think there isn’t much community in your B2B space or that joining one isn’t a big deal? If there is no community, or no one talking about your product, then there’s no market. If there’s no market, you should start polishing your resume. As long as your business has customers, there’s likely a community element as well. The trick is to find where they congregate, or if no such place exists, create one. Once established, work with your team to come up with guidelines for communication that will free you up should the need to move quickly arises.

Bringing It All Together: Tales of Disaster and Making Lemonade

We’ve had a lot of interesting experiences that have played out on social media over the years, and I’ll give two real-world examples of how being transparent, empathetic, and efficient has helped us navigate those events.

Adobe Deletes Data — Transparency and Legwork

In February of 2016, Adobe introduced a bug into their Creative Cloud program that deleted data. Specifically, files were deleted from the user’s root directory. Backblaze has a file, .bzvol, that we place on every one of our customers’ hard drives to keep track of the drive and whether it is plugged in or not. If we detect that the .bzvol file is no longer on the computer, we display a pop-up, asking folks to contact support. On the evening of February 10th, 2016, we started receiving a lot of tickets related to disappearing .bzvol files. Twitter also started to light up with people posting screenshots of the pop-up and asking what was going on. While all this happened, I was at a conference and was able to stay plugged into our internal conversations via Slack while we tried to figure out what was happening.

We caught a break the next morning. Our designer and co-founder, Casey, got hit with the error. Our lead Mac developer ran over to his desk, grabbed his logs, and started digging to see what the cause was. The only thing out of the ordinary was that Adobe Creative Cloud software had updated about an hour before he got hit with this error, so we were off to the races chasing things down.

Throughout this whole ordeal we had been tweeting updates and letting people know how they could fix the .bzvol issue. Once we realized that it was tied to Creative Cloud, we communicated that it was not a bug, but that Backblaze was simply a piece of software affected by the Adobe issue. Why was that? It turned out that the files Creative Cloud was deleting were the first files alphabetically found in the root directory. Because .bzvol is a hidden file that started with a “b,” odds were pretty good that if you had Backblaze installed, our .bzvol would be the file that was deleted and the resulting error would alert you of the problem. Backblaze was serving as a canary for a larger problem happening on machines everywhere.

Adobe warning tweet

Adobe Twitter Warnings

We also realized that it wasn’t just Backblaze customers experiencing this. Anyone using Creative Cloud would be affected. They just might not have known their files were deleted silently, since they wouldn’t get the .bzvol pop-up that our customers got.

As the week wore on, our social and support channels were blowing up. We started creating and tweeting videos of how the issue was manifesting and how people could avoid it, and we contacted Adobe with our videos, trying to explain to them what was going on.

Spike in mentions

Spike In Mentions

Mentions around Adobe

Mentions Around Adobe

What did we gain by being proactive and communicative? By February 14th, Adobe had both acknowledged and fixed the issue, releasing an update that wouldn’t silently delete data. We even got a mention in their FAQ on the subject. Plus, because we are lucky enough to have active followers who pay attention to what we post, they were gracious enough to help us spread the message more quickly. In the end we gained the appreciation of our customers and blog readers. While that’s not necessarily a monetary victory, it did reinforce the core strengths of our brand: transparency, empathy, and efficiency. The comments on that post confirmed that we did the right thing by being communicative.

Community response

Community Response On The Blog

CrashPlan’s Exits Consumer — A Strong Community Drives Your Business

On August 22nd, 2017, CrashPlan announced the end of their consumer backup service, shifting focus to their enterprise and SMB offerings. This was rather shocking news to us since CrashPlan was our largest competitor in the online backup space and one that we would send folks to when we weren’t a good fit for their particular need. The news broke early in the morning and our team started to scramble, brainstorming on how we could put ourselves in the best position possible for all of the CrashPlan refugees who were waking up to news of their online backup service going away.

To their credit, CrashPlan tried to communicate with their customers, giving them a couple different options, including a discounted first-year rate with a competitor. We had to move quickly if we wanted to win over some of the people who were going to start looking for alternatives. We did the only thing that made sense: we wrote a blog post.

Within hours of the announcement, we were able to write and publish our post, an Invitation for CrashPlan Customers. It reaffirmed our commitment to unlimited online backup for consumers (something that we see less and less of as tiered and complicated services sprout up) and listed the reasons we thought we’d be a good match for individuals who had used CrashPlan in the past. The initial post highlighted some of our favorite features, the reasons why people love us, and touched on the difference between syncing and backup. We felt that last part was important because we had seen a few tweets that morning of people stating “well at least I have Dropbox” and we wanted to make sure they were aware of the differences before making a possibly costly mistake.

CrashPlan blog post readership

CrashPlan Blog Post Readership

The blog post was widely circulated almost immediately, with over 60,000 people reading it in the first month (it still receives hundreds of visits per day). Once the blog post was rolling we got to work on the next phase of our plan. Phase two was putting the blog post front and center on our computer backup website, creating FAQs based on common questions we were seeing, and writing a guide on how to migrate data from CrashPlan. We also added the ability for folks to create a reminder for themselves once their existing CrashPlan license was started expiring, with instructions on migrating.

While phase two was proceeding, I was hard at work on the social. It was my job to stoke the fire while being respectful. That meant not piling on and being a good community steward by sharing the CrashPlan post and our Version 5.0 release notes (fortuitously released a few weeks prior), which touted faster backup speeds and file sharing. While Twitter was heating up, I was also actively involved in threads on HackerNews and Reddit. Backblaze’s CTO Brian Wilson and I were hard at work making sure that anyone who had questions on the web was responded to.

It’s important to be gracious to your competitors. There’s always someone on the other end of the screen and it was paramount to remember that while we were having a good day, others were having a bad day. To that end, I sent an edible arrangement that day to CrashPlan’s support team, because I knew what it felt like to be having a horrible day in the court of public opinion. Again, we’re all on the same team: get people’s data backed up. I was later told that the gesture was greatly appreciated.

The following are some examples of my Twitter efforts trying to attract customers, having fun, but also being gracious:

What was the benefit? We’ve seen almost a 2x increase in the number of sign-ups that we get for our computer backup service. Not only that, but it has also helped drive almost 50% annual revenue growth this year.

In time sensitive situations, being agile, efficient, and having the ability to execute surgically on a series of tasks can have tremendous impact on the overall business. It’s all about catching the wave at the right time. I’m lucky enough to have the latitude to make decisions about how best to approach things when in the thick of it. That lets me move quickly without having to go up the chain and wait a long time for approvals, which helps the conversation flow more naturally and allows me to stay engaged.

Insight #5

Here’s some advice on competition — it’s important not to pile on. When competitors are having a bad day, attempting to pour gasoline on their fire is considered distasteful and will likely not be taken well by your community. It’s one thing to see and interact with people mentioning or asking questions about you in the comments. It’s entirely different to rub a competitor’s nose in the dirt. Being a jerk online is not only mean but reflects poorly on a company’s brand. Remember that on the other end of every computer is a person who has to deal with their own corporate and social fallout. Treat them the way you’d want to be treated in a crisis situation. We’re all in this together.

Fin

Congratulations on making it to the end! I hope this post was not just verbose, but also helpful. Do you have any social media tips or tricks that have helped you grow your brand? Have questions about our approach? Let’s chat below in the comments!

The post Making Lemonade: The Importance of Social Media and Community appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

Tackling climate change and helping the community

Post Syndicated from Alex Bate original https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/fair-haven-weather-station/

In today’s guest post, seventh-grade students Evan Callas, Will Ross, Tyler Fallon, and Kyle Fugate share their story of using the Raspberry Pi Oracle Weather Station in their Innovation Lab class, headed by Raspberry Pi Certified Educator Chris Aviles.

Raspberry Pi Certified Educator Chris Aviles Innovation Lab Oracle Weather Station

United Nations Sustainable Goals

The past couple of weeks in our Innovation Lab class, our teacher, Mr Aviles, has challenged us students to design a project that helps solve one of the United Nations Sustainable Goals. We chose Climate Action. Innovation Lab is a class that gives students the opportunity to learn about where the crossroads of technology, the environment, and entrepreneurship meet. Everyone takes their own paths in innovation and learns about the environment using project-based learning.

Raspberry Pi Certified Educator Chris Aviles Innovation Lab Oracle Weather Station

Raspberry Pi Oracle Weather Station

For our climate change challenge, we decided to build a Raspberry Pi Oracle Weather Station. Tackling the issues of climate change in a way that helps our community stood out to us because we knew with the help of this weather station we can send the local data to farmers and fishermen in town. Recent changes in climate have been affecting farmers’ crops. Unexpected rain, heat, and other unusual weather patterns can completely destabilize the natural growth of the plants and destroy their crops altogether. The amount of labour output needed by farmers has also significantly increased, forcing farmers to grow more food on less resources. By using our Raspberry Pi Oracle Weather Station to alert local farmers, they can be more prepared and aware of the weather, leading to better crops and safe boating.

Raspberry Pi Certified Educator Chris Aviles Innovation Lab Oracle Weather Station

Growing teamwork and coding skills

The process of setting up our weather station was fun and simple. Raspberry Pi made the instructions very easy to understand and read, which was very helpful for our team who had little experience in coding or physical computing. We enjoyed working together as a team and were happy to be growing our teamwork skills.

Once we constructed and coded the weather station, we learned that we needed to support the station with PVC pipes. After we completed these steps, we brought the weather station up to the roof of the school and began collecting data. Our information is currently being sent to the Initial State dashboard so that we can share the information with anyone interested. This information will also be recorded and seen by other schools, businesses, and others from around the world who are using the weather station. For example, we can see the weather in countries such as France, Greece and Italy.

Raspberry Pi Certified Educator Chris Aviles Innovation Lab Oracle Weather Station

Raspberry Pi allows us to build these amazing projects that help us to enjoy coding and physical computing in a fun, engaging, and impactful way. We picked climate change because we care about our community and would like to make a substantial contribution to our town, Fair Haven, New Jersey. It is not every day that kids are given these kinds of opportunities, and we are very lucky and grateful to go to a school and learn from a teacher where these opportunities are given to us. Thanks, Mr Aviles!

To see more awesome projects by Mr Avile’s class, you can keep up with him on his blog and follow him on Twitter.

The post Tackling climate change and helping the community appeared first on Raspberry Pi.

Early Challenges: Making Critical Hires

Post Syndicated from Gleb Budman original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/early-challenges-making-critical-hires/

row of potential employee hires sitting waiting for an interview

In 2009, Google disclosed that they had 400 recruiters on staff working to hire nearly 10,000 people. Someday, that might be your challenge, but most companies in their early days are looking to hire a handful of people — the right people — each year. Assuming you are closer to startup stage than Google stage, let’s look at who you need to hire, when to hire them, where to find them (and how to help them find you), and how to get them to join your company.

Who Should Be Your First Hires

In later stage companies, the roles in the company have been well fleshed out, don’t change often, and each role can be segmented to focus on a specific area. A large company may have an entire department focused on just cubicle layout; at a smaller company you may not have a single person whose actual job encompasses all of facilities. At Backblaze, our CTO has a passion and knack for facilities and mostly led that charge. Also, the needs of a smaller company are quick to change. One of our first hires was a QA person, Sean, who ended up being 100% focused on data center infrastructure. In the early stage, things can shift quite a bit and you need people that are broadly capable, flexible, and most of all willing to pitch in where needed.

That said, there are times you may need an expert. At a previous company we hired Jon, a PhD in Bayesian statistics, because we needed algorithmic analysis for spam fighting. However, even that person was not only able and willing to do the math, but also code, and to not only focus on Bayesian statistics but explore a plethora of spam fighting options.

When To Hire

If you’ve raised a lot of cash and are willing to burn it with mistakes, you can guess at all the roles you might need and start hiring for them. No judgement: that’s a reasonable strategy if you’re cash-rich and time-poor.

If your cash is limited, try to see what you and your team are already doing and then hire people to take those jobs. It may sound counterintuitive, but if you’re already doing it presumably it needs to be done, you have a good sense of the type of skills required to do it, and you can bring someone on-board and get them up to speed quickly. That then frees you up to focus on tasks that can’t be done by someone else. At Backblaze, I ran marketing internally for years before hiring a VP of Marketing, making it easier for me to know what we needed. Once I was hiring, my primary goal was to find someone I could trust to take that role completely off of me so I could focus solely on my CEO duties

Where To Find the Right People

Finding great people is always difficult, particularly when the skillsets you’re looking for are highly in-demand by larger companies with lots of cash and cachet. You, however, have one massive advantage: you need to hire 5 people, not 5,000.

People You Worked With

The absolutely best people to hire are ones you’ve worked with before that you already know are good in a work situation. Consider your last job, the one before, and the one before that. A significant number of the people we recruited at Backblaze came from our previous startup MailFrontier. We knew what they could do and how they would fit into the culture, and they knew us and thus could quickly meld into the environment. If you didn’t have a previous job, consider people you went to school with or perhaps individuals with whom you’ve done projects previously.

People You Know

Hiring friends, family, and others can be risky, but should be considered. Sometimes a friend can be a “great buddy,” but is not able to do the job or isn’t a good fit for the organization. Having to let go of someone who is a friend or family member can be rough. Have the conversation up front with them about that possibility, so you have the ability to stay friends if the position doesn’t work out. Having said that, if you get along with someone as a friend, that’s one critical component of succeeding together at work. At Backblaze we’ve hired a number of people successfully that were friends of someone in the organization.

Friends Of People You Know

Your network is likely larger than you imagine. Your employees, investors, advisors, spouses, friends, and other folks all know people who might be a great fit for you. Make sure they know the roles you’re hiring for and ask them if they know anyone that would fit. Search LinkedIn for the titles you’re looking for and see who comes up; if they’re a 2nd degree connection, ask your connection for an introduction.

People You Know About

Sometimes the person you want isn’t someone anyone knows, but you may have read something they wrote, used a product they’ve built, or seen a video of a presentation they gave. Reach out. You may get a great hire: worst case, you’ll let them know they were appreciated, and make them aware of your organization.

Other Places to Find People

There are a million other places to find people, including job sites, community groups, Facebook/Twitter, GitHub, and more. Consider where the people you’re looking for are likely to congregate online and in person.

A Comment on Diversity

Hiring “People You Know” can often result in “Hiring People Like You” with the same workplace experiences, culture, background, and perceptions. Some studies have shown [1, 2, 3, 4] that homogeneous groups deliver faster, while heterogeneous groups are more creative. Also, “Hiring People Like You” often propagates the lack of women and minorities in tech and leadership positions in general. When looking for people you know, keep an eye to not discount people you know who don’t have the same cultural background as you.

Helping People To Find You

Reaching out proactively to people is the most direct way to find someone, but you want potential hires coming to you as well. To do this, they have to a) be aware of you, b) know you have a role they’re interested in, and c) think they would want to work there. Let’s tackle a) and b) first below.

Your Blog

I started writing our blog before we launched the product and talked about anything I found interesting related to our space. For several years now our team has owned the content on the blog and in 2017 over 1.5 million people read it. Each time we have a position open it’s published to the blog. If someone finds reading about backup and storage interesting, perhaps they’d want to dig in deeper from the inside. Many of the people we’ve recruited have mentioned reading the blog as either how they found us or as a factor in why they wanted to work here.
[BTW, this is Gleb’s 200th post on Backblaze’s blog. The first was in 2008. — Editor]

Your Email List

In addition to the emails our blog subscribers receive, we send regular emails to our customers, partners, and prospects. These are largely focused on content we think is directly useful or interesting for them. However, once every few months we include a small mention that we’re hiring, and the positions we’re looking for. Often a small blurb is all you need to capture people’s imaginations whether they might find the jobs interesting or can think of someone that might fit the bill.

Your Social Involvement

Whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, Hacker News or Slashdot, your potential hires are engaging in various communities. Being socially involved helps make people aware of you, reminds them of you when they’re considering a job, and paints a picture of what working with you and your company would be like. Adam was in a Reddit thread where we were discussing our Storage Pods, and that interaction was ultimately part of the reason he left Apple to come to Backblaze.

Convincing People To Join

Once you’ve found someone or they’ve found you, how do you convince them to join? They may be currently employed, have other offers, or have to relocate. Again, while the biggest companies have a number of advantages, you might have more unique advantages than you realize.

Why Should They Join You

Here are a set of items that you may be able to offer which larger organizations might not:

Role: Consider the strengths of the role. Perhaps it will have broader scope? More visibility at the executive level? No micromanagement? Ability to take risks? Option to create their own role?

Compensation: In addition to salary, will their options potentially be worth more since they’re getting in early? Can they trade-off salary for more options? Do they get option refreshes?

Benefits: In addition to healthcare, food, and 401(k) plans, are there unique benefits of your company? One company I knew took the entire team for a one-month working retreat abroad each year.

Location: Most people prefer to work close to home. If you’re located outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, you might be at a disadvantage for not being in the heart of tech. But if you find employees close to you you’ve got a huge advantage. Sometimes it’s micro; even in the Bay Area the difference of 5 miles can save 20 minutes each way every day. We located the Backblaze headquarters in San Mateo, a middle-ground that made it accessible to those coming from San Jose and San Francisco. We also chose a downtown location near a train, restaurants, and cafes: all to make it easier and more pleasant. Also, are you flexible in letting your employees work remotely? Our systems administrator Elliott is about to embark on a long-term cross-country journey working from an RV.

Environment: Open office, cubicle, cafe, work-from-home? Loud/quiet? Social or focused? 24×7 or work-life balance? Different environments appeal to different people.

Team: Who will they be working with? A company with 100,000 people might have 100 brilliant ones you’d want to work with, but ultimately we work with our core team. Who will your prospective hires be working with?

Market: Some people are passionate about gaming, others biotech, still others food. The market you’re targeting will get different people excited.

Product: Have an amazing product people love? Highlight that. If you’re lucky, your potential hire is already a fan.

Mission: Curing cancer, making people happy, and other company missions inspire people to strive to be part of the journey. Our mission is to make storing data astonishingly easy and low-cost. If you care about data, information, knowledge, and progress, our mission helps drive all of them.

Culture: I left this for last, but believe it’s the most important. What is the culture of your company? Finding people who want to work in the culture of your organization is critical. If they like the culture, they’ll fit and continue it. We’ve worked hard to build a culture that’s collaborative, friendly, supportive, and open; one in which people like coming to work. For example, the five founders started with (and still have) the same compensation and equity. That started a culture of “we’re all in this together.” Build a culture that will attract the people you want, and convey what the culture is.

Writing The Job Description

Most job descriptions focus on the all the requirements the candidate must meet. While important to communicate, the job description should first sell the job. Why would the appropriate candidate want the job? Then share some of the requirements you think are critical. Remember that people read not just what you say but how you say it. Try to write in a way that conveys what it is like to actually be at the company. Ahin, our VP of Marketing, said the job description itself was one of the things that attracted him to the company.

Orchestrating Interviews

Much can be said about interviewing well. I’m just going to say this: make sure that everyone who is interviewing knows that their job is not only to evaluate the candidate, but give them a sense of the culture, and sell them on the company. At Backblaze, we often have one person interview core prospects solely for company/culture fit.

Onboarding

Hiring success shouldn’t be defined by finding and hiring the right person, but instead by the right person being successful and happy within the organization. Ensure someone (usually their manager) provides them guidance on what they should be concentrating on doing during their first day, first week, and thereafter. Giving new employees opportunities and guidance so that they can achieve early wins and feel socially integrated into the company does wonders for bringing people on board smoothly

In Closing

Our Director of Production Systems, Chris, said to me the other day that he looks for companies where he can work on “interesting problems with nice people.” I’m hoping you’ll find your own version of that and find this post useful in looking for your early and critical hires.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say, if you know of anyone looking for a place with “interesting problems with nice people,” Backblaze is hiring. 😉

The post Early Challenges: Making Critical Hires appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

Early Challenges: Managing Cash Flow

Post Syndicated from Gleb Budman original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/managing-cash-flow/

Cash flow projection charts

This post by Backblaze’s CEO and co-founder Gleb Budman is the eighth in a series about entrepreneurship. You can choose posts in the series from the list below:

  1. How Backblaze got Started: The Problem, The Solution, and the Stuff In-Between
  2. Building a Competitive Moat: Turning Challenges Into Advantages
  3. From Idea to Launch: Getting Your First Customers
  4. How to Get Your First 1,000 Customers
  5. Surviving Your First Year
  6. How to Compete with Giants
  7. The Decision on Transparency
  8. Early Challenges: Managing Cash Flow

Use the Join button above to receive notification of new posts in this series.

Running out of cash is one of the quickest ways for a startup to go out of business. When you are starting a company the question of where to get cash is usually the top priority, but managing cash flow is critical for every stage in the lifecycle of a company. As a primarily bootstrapped but capital-intensive business, managing cash flow at Backblaze was and still is a key element of our success and requires continued focus. Let’s look at what we learned over the years.

Raising Your Initial Funding

When starting a tech business in Silicon Valley, the default assumption is that you will immediately try to raise venture funding. There are certainly many advantages to raising funding — not the least of which is that you don’t need to be cash-flow positive since you have cash in the bank and the expectation is that you will have a “burn rate,” i.e. you’ll be spending more than you make.

Note: While you’re not expected to be cash-flow positive, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about cash. Cash-flow management will determine your burn rate. Whether you can get to cash-flow breakeven or need to raise another round of funding is a direct byproduct of your cash flow management.

Also, raising funding takes time (most successful fundraising cycles take 3-6 months start-to-finish), and time at a startup is in short supply. Constantly trying to raise funding can take away from product development and pursuing growth opportunities. If you’re not successful in raising funding, you then have to either shut down or find an alternate method of funding the business.

Sources of Funding

Depending on the stage of the company, type of company, and other factors, you may have access to different sources of funding. Let’s list a number of them:

Customers

Sales — the best kind of funding. It is non-dilutive, doesn’t have to be paid back, and is a direct metric of the success of your company.

Pre-Sales — some customers may be willing to pay you for a product in beta, a test, or pre-pay for a product they’ll receive when finished. Pre-Sales income also is great because it shares the characteristics of cash from sales, but you get the cash early. It also can be a good sign that the product you’re building fills a market need. We started charging for Backblaze computer backup while it was still in private beta, which allowed us to not only collect cash from customers, but also test the billing experience and users’ real desire for the service.

Services — if you’re a service company and customers are paying you for that, great. You can effectively scale for the number of hours available in a day. As demand grows, you can add more employees to increase the total number of billable hours.

Note: If you’re a product company and customers are paying you to consult, that can provide much needed cash, and could provide feedback toward the right product. However, it can also distract from your core business, send you down a path where you’re building a product for a single customer, and addict you to a path that prevents you from building a scalable business.

Investors

Yourself — you likely are putting your time into the business, and deferring salary in the process. You may also put your own cash into the business either as an investment or a loan.

Angels — angels are ideal as early investors since they are used to investing in businesses with little to no traction. AngelList is a good place to find them, though finding people you’re connected with through someone that knows you well is best.

Crowdfunding — a component of the JOBS Act permitted entrepreneurs to raise money from nearly anyone since May 2016. The SEC imposes limits on both investors and the companies. This article goes into some depth on the options and sites available.

VCs — VCs are ideal for companies that need to raise at least a few million dollars and intend to build a business that will be worth over $1 billion.

Debt

Friends & Family — F&F are often the first people to give you money because they are investing in you. It’s great to have some early supporters, but it also can be risky to take money from people who aren’t used to the risks. The key advice here is to only take money from people who won’t mind losing it. If someone is talking about using their children’s college funds or borrowing from their 401k, say ‘no thank you’ — even if they’re sure they want to loan you money.

Bank Loans — a variety of loan types exist, but most either require the company to have been operational for a couple years, be able to borrow against money the company has or is making, or be able to get a personal guarantee from the founders whereby their own credit is on the line. Fundera provides a good overview of loan options and can help secure some, but most will not be an option for a brand new startup.

Grants

Government — in some areas there is the potential for government grants to facilitate research. The SBIR program facilitates some such grants.

At Backblaze, we used a number of these options:

• Investors/Yourself
We loaned a cumulative total of a couple hundred thousand dollars to the company and invested our time by going without a salary for a year and a half.
• Customers/Pre-Sales
We started selling the Backblaze service while it was still in beta.
• Customers/Sales
We launched v1.0 and kept selling.
• Investors/Angels
After a year and a half, we raised $370k from 11 angels. All of them were either people whom we knew personally or were a strong recommendation from a mutual friend.
• Debt/Loans
After a couple years we were able to get equipment leases whereby the Storage Pods and hard drives were used as collateral to secure the lease on them.
• Investors/VCs
Ater five years we raised $5m from TMT Investments to add to the balance sheet and invest in growth.

The variety and quantity of sources we used is by no means uncommon.

GAAP vs. Cash

Most companies start tracking financials based on cash, and as they scale they switch to GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles). Cash is easier to track — we got paid $XXXX and spent $YYY — and as often mentioned, is required for the business to stay alive. GAAP has more subtlety and complexity, but provides a clearer picture of how the business is really doing. Backblaze was on a ‘cash’ system for the first few years, then switched to GAAP. For this post, I’m going to focus on things that help cash flow, not GAAP profitability.

Stages of Cash Flow Management

All-spend

In a pure service business (e.g. solo proprietor law firm), you may have no expenses other than your time, so this stage doesn’t exist. However, in a product business there is a period of time where you are building the product and have nothing to sell. You have zero cash coming in, but have cash going out. Your cash-flow is completely negative and you need funds to cover that.

Sales-generating

Starting to see cash come in from customers is thrilling. I initially had our system set up to email me with every $5 payment we received. You’re making sales, but not covering expenses.

Ramen-profitable

But it takes a lot of $5 payments to pay for servers and salaries, so for a while expenses are likely to outstrip sales. Getting to ramen-profitable is a critical stage where sales cover the business expenses and are “paying enough for the founders to eat ramen.” This extends the runway for a business, but is not completely sustainable, since presumably the founders can’t (or won’t) live forever on a subsistence salary.

Business-profitable

This is the ultimate stage whereby the business is truly profitable, including paying everyone market-rate salaries. A business at this stage is self-sustaining. (Of course, market shifts and plenty of other challenges can kill the business, but cash-flow issues alone will not.)

Note, I’m using the word ‘profitable’ here to mean this is still on a cash-basis.

Backblaze was in the all-spend stage for just over a year, during which time we built the service and hadn’t yet made the service available to customers. Backblaze was in the sales-generating stage for nearly another year before the company was barely ramen-profitable where sales were covering the company expenses and paying the founders minimum wage. (I say ‘barely’ since minimum wage in the SF Bay Area is arguably never subsistence.) It took almost three more years before the company was business-profitable, paying everyone including the founders market-rate.

Cash Flow Forecasting

When raising funding it’s helpful to think of milestones reached. You don’t necessarily need enough cash on day one to last for the next 100 years of the company. Some good milestones to consider are how much cash you need to prove there is a market need, prove you can build a product to meet that need, or get to ramen-profitable.

Two things to consider:

1) Unit Economics (COGS)

If your product is 100% software, this may not be relevant. Once software is built it costs effectively nothing to deliver the product to one customer or one million customers. However, in most businesses there is some incremental cost to provide the product. If you’re selling a hardware device, perhaps you sell it for $100 but it costs you $50 to make it. This is called “COGS” (Cost of Goods Sold).

Many products rely on cloud services where the costs scale with growth. That model works great, but it’s still important to understand what the costs are for the cloud service you use per unit of product you sell.

Support is often done by the founders early-on in a business, but that is another real cost to factor in and estimate on a per-user basis. Taking all of the per unit costs combined, you may charge $10/month/user for your service, but if it costs you $7/month/user in cloud services, you’re only netting $3/month/user.

2) Operating Expenses (OpEx)

These are expenses that don’t scale with the number of product units you sell. Typically this includes research & development, sales & marketing, and general & administrative expenses. Presumably there is a certain level of these functions required to build the product, market it, sell it, and run the organization. You can choose to invest or cut back on these, but you’ll still make the same amount per product unit.

Incremental Net Profit Per Unit

If you’ve calculated your COGS and your unit economics are “upside down,” where the amount you charge is less than that it costs you to provide your service, it’s worth thinking hard about how that’s going to change over time. If it will not change, there is no scale that will make the business work. Presuming you do make money on each unit of product you sell — what is sometimes referred to as “Contribution Margin” — consider how many of those product units you need to sell to cover your operating expenses as described above.

Calculating Your Profit

The math on getting to ramen-profitable is simple:

(Number of Product Units Sold x Contribution Margin) - Operating Expenses = Profit

If your operating expenses include subsistence salaries for the founders and profit > $0, you’re ramen-profitable.

Improving Cash Flow

Having access to sources of cash, whether from selling to customers or other methods, is excellent. But needing less cash gives you more choices and allows you to either dilute less, owe less, or invest more.

There are two ways to improve cash flow:

1) Collect More Cash

The best way to collect more cash is to provide more value to your customers and as a result have them pay you more. Additional features/products/services can allow this. However, you can also collect more cash by changing how you charge for your product. If you have a subscription, changing from charging monthly to yearly dramatically improves your cash flow. If you have a product that customers use up, selling a year’s supply instead of selling them one-by-one can help.

2) Spend Less Cash

Reducing COGS is a fantastic way to spend less cash in a scalable way. If you can do this without harming the product or customer experience, you win. There are a myriad of ways to also reduce operating expenses, including taking sub-market salaries, using your home instead of renting office space, staying focused on your core product, etc.

Ultimately, collecting more and spending less cash dramatically simplifies the process of getting to ramen-profitable and later to business-profitable.

Be Careful (Why GAAP Matters)

A word of caution: while running out of cash will put you out of business immediately, overextending yourself will likely put you out of business not much later. GAAP shows how a business is really doing; cash doesn’t. If you only focus on cash, it is possible to commit yourself to both delivering products and repaying loans in the future in an unsustainable fashion. If you’re taking out loans, watch the total balance and monthly payments you’re committing to. If you’re asking customers for pre-payment, make sure you believe you can deliver on what they’ve paid for.

Summary

There are numerous challenges to building a business, and ensuring you have enough cash is amongst the most important. Having the cash to keep going lets you keep working on all of the other challenges. The frameworks above were critical for maintaining Backblaze’s cash flow and cash balance. Hopefully you can take some of the lessons we learned and apply them to your business. Let us know what works for you in the comments below.

The post Early Challenges: Managing Cash Flow appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

The Decision on Transparency

Post Syndicated from Gleb Budman original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/transparency-in-business/

Backblaze transparency

This post by Backblaze’s CEO and co-founder Gleb Budman is the seventh in a series about entrepreneurship. You can choose posts in the series from the list below:

  1. How Backblaze got Started: The Problem, The Solution, and the Stuff In-Between
  2. Building a Competitive Moat: Turning Challenges Into Advantages
  3. From Idea to Launch: Getting Your First Customers
  4. How to Get Your First 1,000 Customers
  5. Surviving Your First Year
  6. How to Compete with Giants
  7. The Decision on Transparency

Use the Join button above to receive notification of new posts in this series.

“Are you crazy?” “Why would you do that?!” “You shouldn’t share that!”

These are just a few of the common questions and comments we heard after posting some of the information we have shared over the years. So was it crazy? Misguided? Should you do it?

With that background I’d like to dig into the decision to become so transparent, from releasing stats on hard drive failures, to storage pod specs, to publishing our cloud storage costs, and open sourcing the Reed-Solomon code. What was the thought process behind becoming so transparent when most companies work so hard to hide their inner workings, especially information such as the Storage Pod specs that would normally be considered a proprietary advantage? Most importantly I’d like to explore the positives and negatives of being so transparent.

Sharing Intellectual Property

The first “transparency” that garnered a flurry of “why would you share that?!” came as a result of us deciding to open source our Storage Pod design: publishing the specs, parts, prices, and how to build it yourself. The Storage Pod was a key component of our infrastructure, gave us a cost (and thus competitive) advantage, took significant effort to develop, and had a fair bit of intellectual property: the “IP.”

The negatives of sharing this are obvious: it allows our competitors to use the design to reduce our cost advantage, and it gives away the IP, which could be patentable or have value as a trade secret.

The positives were certainly less obvious, and at the time we couldn’t have guessed how massive they would be.

We wrestled with the decision: prospective users and others online didn’t believe we could offer our service for such a low price, thinking that we would burn through some cash hoard and then go out of business. We wanted to reassure them, but how?

This is how our response evolved:

We’ve built a lower cost storage platform.
But why would anyone believe us?
Because, we’ve designed our own servers and they’re less expensive.
But why would anyone believe they were so low cost and efficient?
Because here’s how much they cost versus others.
But why would anyone believe they cost that little and still enabled us to efficiently store data?
Because here are all the components they’re made of, this is how to build them, and this is how they work.
Ok, you can’t argue with that.

Great — so that would reassure people. But should we do this? Is it worth it?

This was 2009, we were a tiny company of seven people working from our co-founder’s one-bedroom apartment. We decided that the risk of not having potential customers trust us was more impactful than the risk of our competitors possibly deciding to use our server architecture. The former might kill the company in short order; the latter might make it harder for us to compete in the future. Moreover, we figured that most competitors were established on their own platforms and were unlikely to switch to ours, even if it were better.

Takeaway: Build your brand today. There are no assurances you will make it to tomorrow if you can’t make people believe in you today.

A Sharing Success Story — The Backblaze Storage Pod

So with that, we decided to publish everything about the Storage Pod. As for deciding to actually open source it? That was a ‘thank you’ to the open source community upon whose shoulders we stood as we used software such as Linux, Tomcat, etc.

With eight years of hindsight, here’s what happened:

As best as I can tell, none of our direct competitors ever used our Storage Pod design, opting instead to continue paying more for commercial solutions.

  • Hundreds of press articles have been written about Backblaze as a direct result of sharing the Storage Pod design.
  • Millions of people have read press articles or our blog posts about the Storage Pods.
  • Backblaze was established as a storage tech thought leader, and a resource for those looking for information in the space.
  • Our blog became viewed as a resource, not a corporate mouthpiece.
  • Recruiting has been made easier through the awareness of Backblaze, the appreciation for us taking on challenging tech problems in interesting ways, and for our openness.
  • Sourcing for our Storage Pods has become easier because we can point potential vendors to our blog posts and say, “here’s what we need.”

And those are just the direct benefits for us. One of the things that warms my heart is that doing this has helped others:

  • Several companies have started selling servers based on our Storage Pod designs.
  • Netflix credits Backblaze with being the inspiration behind their CDN servers.
  • Many schools, labs, and others have shared that they’ve been able to do what they didn’t think was possible because using our Storage Pod designs provided lower-cost storage.
  • And I want to believe that in general we pushed forward the development of low-cost storage servers in the industry.

So overall, the decision on being transparent and sharing our Storage Pod designs was a clear win.

Takeaway: Never underestimate the value of goodwill. It can help build new markets that fuel your future growth and create new ecosystems.

Sharing An “Almost Acquisition”

Acquisition announcements are par for the course. No company, however, talks about the acquisition that fell through. If rumors appear in the press, the company’s response is always, “no comment.” But in 2010, when Backblaze was almost, but not acquired, we wrote about it in detail. Crazy?

The negatives of sharing this are slightly less obvious, but the two issues most people worried about were, 1) the fact that the company could be acquired would spook customers, and 2) the fact that it wasn’t would signal to potential acquirers that something was wrong.

So, why share this at all? No one was asking “did you almost get acquired?”

First, we had established a culture of transparency and this was a significant event that occurred for us, thus we defaulted to assuming we would share. Second, we learned that acquisitions fall through all the time, not just during the early fishing stage, but even after term sheets are signed, diligence is done, and all the paperwork is complete. I felt we had learned some things about the process that would be valuable to others that were going through it.

As it turned out, we received emails from startup founders saying they saved the post for the future, and from lawyers, VCs, and advisors saying they shared them with their portfolio companies. Among the most touching emails I received was from a founder who said that after an acquisition fell through she felt so alone that she became incredibly depressed, and that reading our post helped her see that this happens and that things could be OK after. Being transparent about almost getting acquired was worth it just to help that one founder.

And what about the concerns? As for spooking customers, maybe some were — but our sign-ups went up, not down, afterward. Any company can be acquired, and many of the world’s largest have been. That we were being both thoughtful about where to go with it, and open about it, I believe gave customers a sense that we would do the right thing if it happened. And as for signaling to potential acquirers? The ones I’ve spoken with all knew this happens regularly enough that it’s not a factor.

Takeaway: Being open and transparent is also a form of giving back to others.

Sharing Strategic Data

For years people have been desperate to know how reliable are hard drives. They could go to Amazon for individual reviews, but someone saying “this drive died for me” doesn’t provide statistical insight. Google published a study that showed annualized drive failure rates, but didn’t break down the results by manufacturer or model. Since Backblaze has deployed about 100,000 hard drives to store customer data, we have been able to collect a wealth of data on the reliability of the drives by make, model, and size. Was Backblaze the only one with this data? Of course not — Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and any other cloud-scale storage provider tracked it. Yet none would publish. Should Backblaze?

Again, starting with the main negatives: 1) sharing which drives we liked could increase demand for them, thus reducing availability or increasing prices, and 2) publishing the data might make the drive vendors unhappy with us, thereby making it difficult for us to buy drives.

But we felt that the largest drive purchasers (Amazon, Google, etc.) already had their own stats and would buy the drives they chose, and if individuals or smaller companies used our stats, they wouldn’t sufficiently move the overall market demand. Also, we hoped that the drive companies would see that we were being fair in our analysis and, if anything, would leverage our data to make drives even better.

Again, publishing the data resulted in tremendous value for Backblaze, with millions of people having read the analysis that we put out quarterly. Also, becoming known as the place to go for drive reliability information is a natural fit with being a backup and storage provider. In addition, in a twist from many people’s expectations, some of the drive companies actually started working closer with us, seeing that we could be a good source of data for them as feedback. We’ve also seen many individuals and companies make more data-based decisions on which drives to buy, and researchers have used the data for a variety of analyses.

traffic spike from hard drive reliability post

Backblaze blog analytics showing spike in readership after a hard drive stats post

Takeaway: Being open and transparent is rarely as risky as it seems.

Sharing Revenue (And Other Metrics)

Journalists always want to publish company revenue and other metrics, and private companies always shy away from sharing. For a long time we did, too. Then, we opened up about that, as well.

The negatives of sharing these numbers are: 1) external parties may otherwise perceive you’re doing better than you are, 2) if you share numbers often, you may show that growth has slowed or worse, 3) it gives your competitors info to compare their own business too.

We decided that, while some may have perceived we were bigger, our scale was plenty significant. Since we choose what we share and when, it’s up to us whether to disclose at any point. And if our competitors compare, what will they actually change that would affect us?

I did wait to share revenue until I felt I had the right person to write about it. At one point a journalist said she wouldn’t write about us unless I disclosed revenue. I suggested we had a lot to offer for the story, but didn’t want to share revenue yet. She refused to budge and I walked away from the article. Several year later, I reached out to a journalist who had covered Backblaze before and I felt understood our business and offered to share revenue with him. He wrote a deep-dive about the company, with revenue being one of the components of the story.

Sharing these metrics showed that we were at scale and running a real business, one with positive unit economics and margins, but not one where we were gouging customers.

Takeaway: Being open with the press about items typically not shared can be uncomfortable, but the press can amplify your story.

Should You Share?

For Backblaze, I believe the results of transparency have been staggering. However, it’s not for everyone. Apple has, clearly, been wildly successful taking secrecy to the extreme. In their case, early disclosure combined with the long cycle of hardware releases could significantly impact sales of current products.

“For Backblaze, I believe the results of transparency have been staggering.” — Gleb Budman

I will argue, however, that for most startups transparency wins. Most startups need to establish credibility and trust, build awareness and a fan base, show that they understand what their customers need and be useful to them, and show the soul and passion behind the company. Some startup companies try to buy these virtues with investor money, and sometimes amplifying your brand via paid marketing helps. But, authentic transparency can build awareness and trust not only less expensively, but more deeply than money can buy.

Backblaze was open from the beginning. With no outside investors, as founders we were able to express ourselves and make our decisions. And it’s easier to be a company that shares if you do it from the start, but for any company, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Ask about sharing: If something significant happens — good or bad — ask “should we share this?” If you made a tough decision, ask “should we share the thinking behind the decision and why it was tough?”
  2. Default to yes: It’s often scary to share, but look for the reasons to say ‘yes,’ not the reasons to say ‘no.’ That doesn’t mean you won’t sometimes decide not to, but make that the high bar.
  3. Minimize reviews: Press releases tend to be sanitized and boring because they’ve been endlessly wordsmithed by committee. Establish the few things you don’t want shared, but minimize the number of people that have to see anything else before it can go out. Teach, then trust.
  4. Engage: Sharing will result in comments on your blog, social, articles, etc. Reply to people’s questions and engage. It’ll make the readers more engaged and give you a better understanding of what they’re looking for.
  5. Accept mistakes: Things will become public that aren’t perfectly sanitized. Accept that and don’t punish people for oversharing.

Building a culture of a company that is open to sharing takes time, but continuous practice will build that, and over time the company will navigate its voice and approach to sharing.

The post The Decision on Transparency appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

Improved Search for Backblaze’s Blog

Post Syndicated from Roderick Bauer original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/using-relevannssi-wordpress-search/

Improved Search for Backblaze's Blog
Search has become the most powerful method to find content on the Web, both for finding websites themselves and for discovering information within websites. Our blog readers find content in both ways — using Google, Bing, Yahoo, Ask, DuckDuckGo, and other search engines to follow search results directly to our blog, and using the site search function once on our blog to find content in the blog posts themselves.

There’s a Lot of Great Content on the Backblaze Blog

Backblaze’s CEO Gleb Budman wrote the first post for this blog in March of 2008. Since that post there have been 612 more. There’s a lot of great content on this blog, as evidenced by the more than two million page views we’ve had since the beginning of this year. We typically publish two blog posts per week on a variety of topics, but we focus primarily on cloud storage technology and data backup, company news, and how-to articles on how to use cloud storage and various hardware and software solutions.

Earlier this year we initiated a series of posts on entrepreneurship by our CEO and co-founder, Gleb Budman, which has proven tremendously popular. We also occasionally publish something a little lighter, such as our current Halloween video contest — there’s still time to enter!

Blog search box

The Site Search Box — Your gateway to Backblaze blog content

We Could do a Better Job of Helping You Find It

I joined Backblaze as Content Director in July of this year. During the application process, I spent quite a bit of time reading through the blog to understand the company, the market, and its customers. That’s a lot of reading. I used the site search many times to uncover topics and posts, and discovered that site search had a number of weaknesses that made it less-than-easy to find what I was looking for.

These site search weaknesses included:

Searches were case sensitive
Visitor could easily miss content capitalized differently than the search terms
Results showed no date or author information
Visitor couldn’t tell how recent the post was or who wrote it
Search terms were not highlighted in context
Visitor had to scrutinize the results to find the terms in the post
No indication of the number of results or number of pages of results
Visitor didn’t know how fruitful the search was
No record of search terms used by visitors
We couldn’t tell what our visitors were searching for!

I wanted to make it easier for blog visitors to find all the great content on the Backblaze blog and help me understand what our visitors are searching for. To do that, we needed to upgrade our site search.

I started with a list of goals I wanted for site search.

  1. Make it easier to find content on the blog
  2. Provide a summary of what was found
  3. Search the comments as well as the posts
  4. Highlight the search terms in the results to help find them in context
  5. Provide a record of searches to help me understand what interests our readers

I had the goals, now how could I find a solution to achieve them?

Our blog is built on WordPress, which has a built-in site search function that could be described as simply adequate. The most obvious of its limitations is that search results are listed chronologically, not based on “most popular,” most occurring,” or any other metric that might make the result more relevant to your interests.

The Search for Improved (Site) Search

An obvious choice to improve site search would be to adopt Google Site Search, as many websites and blogs have done. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that Google is sunsetting Site Search by April of 2018. That left the choice among a number of third-party services or WordPress-specific solutions. My immediate inclination was to see what is available specifically for WordPress.

There are a handful of search plugins for WordPress. One stood out to me for the number of installations (100,000+) and overwhelmingly high reviews: Relevanssi. Still, I had a number of questions. The first question was whether the plugin retained any search data from our site — I wanted to make sure that the privacy of our visitors is maintained, and even harvesting anonymous search data would not be acceptable to Backblaze. I wrote to the developer and was pleased by the responsiveness from Relevanssi’s creator, Mikko Saari. He explained to me that Relevanssi doesn’t have access to any of the search data from the sites using his plugin. Receiving a quick response from a developer is always a good sign. Other signs of a good WordPress plugin are recent updates and an active support forum.

Our solution: Relevanssi for Site Search

The WordPress plugin Relevanssi met all of our criteria, so we installed the plugin and switched to using it for site search in September.

In addition to solving the problems listed above, our search results are now displayed based on relevance instead of date, which is the default behavior of WordPress search. That capability is very useful on our blog where a lot of the content from years ago is still valuable — often called evergreen content. The new site search also enables visitors to search using the boolean expressions AND and OR. For example, a visitor can search for “seagate AND drive,” and see results that only include both words. Alternatively, a visitor can search for “seagate OR drive” and see results that include either word.

screenshot of relevannssi wordpress search results

Search results showing total number of results, hits and their location, and highlighted search terms in context

Visitors can put search terms in quotation marks to search for an entire phrase. For example, a visitor can search for “2016 drive stats” and see results that include only that exact phrase. In addition, the site search results come with a summary, showing where the results were found (title, post, or comments). Search terms are highlighted in yellow in the content, showing exactly where the search result was found.

Here’s an example of a popular post that shows up in searches. Hard Drive Stats for Q1 2017 was published on May 9, 2017. Since September 4, it has shown up over 150 times in site searches and in the last 90 days in has been viewed over 53,000 times on our blog.

Hard Drive Stats for Q1 2017

The Results Tell the Story

Since initiating the new search on our blog on September 4, there have been almost 23,000 site searches conducted, so we know you are using it. We’ve implemented pagination for the blog feed and search results so you know how many pages of results there are and made it easier to navigate to them.

Now that we have this site search data, you likely are wondering which are the most popular search terms on our blog. Here are some of the top searches:

What Do You Search For?

Please tell us how you use site search and whether there are any other capabilities you’d like to see that would make it easier to find content on our blog.

The post Improved Search for Backblaze’s Blog appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

How to Compete with Giants

Post Syndicated from Gleb Budman original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/how-to-compete-with-giants/

How to Compete with Giants

This post by Backblaze’s CEO and co-founder Gleb Budman is the sixth in a series about entrepreneurship. You can choose posts in the series from the list below:

  1. How Backblaze got Started: The Problem, The Solution, and the Stuff In-Between
  2. Building a Competitive Moat: Turning Challenges Into Advantages
  3. From Idea to Launch: Getting Your First Customers
  4. How to Get Your First 1,000 Customers
  5. Surviving Your First Year
  6. How to Compete with Giants

Use the Join button above to receive notification of new posts in this series.

Perhaps your business is competing in a brand new space free from established competitors. Most of us, though, start companies that compete with existing offerings from large, established companies. You need to come up with a better mousetrap — not the first mousetrap.

That’s the challenge Backblaze faced. In this post, I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned from that experience.

Backblaze vs. Giants

Competing with established companies that are orders of magnitude larger can be daunting. How can you succeed?

I’ll set the stage by offering a few sets of giants we compete with:

  • When we started Backblaze, we offered online backup in a market where companies had been offering “online backup” for at least a decade, and even the newer entrants had raised tens of millions of dollars.
  • When we built our storage servers, the alternatives were EMC, NetApp, and Dell — each of which had a market cap of over $10 billion.
  • When we introduced our cloud storage offering, B2, our direct competitors were Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. You might have heard of them.

What did we learn by competing with these giants on a bootstrapped budget? Let’s take a look.

Determine What Success Means

For a long time Apple considered Apple TV to be a hobby, not a real product worth focusing on, because it did not generate a billion in revenue. For a $10 billion per year revenue company, a new business that generates $50 million won’t move the needle and often isn’t worth putting focus on. However, for a startup, getting to $50 million in revenue can be the start of a wildly successful business.

Lesson Learned: Don’t let the giants set your success metrics.

The Advantages Startups Have

The giants have a lot of advantages: more money, people, scale, resources, access, etc. Following their playbook and attacking head-on means you’re simply outgunned. Common paths to failure are trying to build more features, enter more markets, outspend on marketing, and other similar approaches where scale and resources are the primary determinants of success.

But being a startup affords many advantages most giants would salivate over. As a nimble startup you can leverage those to succeed. Let’s breakdown nine competitive advantages we’ve used that you can too.

1. Drive Focus

It’s hard to build a $10 billion revenue business doing just one thing, and most giants have a broad portfolio of businesses, numerous products for each, and targeting a variety of customer segments in multiple markets. That adds complexity and distributes management attention.

Startups get the benefit of having everyone in the company be extremely focused, often on a singular mission, product, customer segment, and market. While our competitors sell everything from advertising to Zantac, and are investing in groceries and shipping, Backblaze has focused exclusively on cloud storage. This means all of our best people (i.e. everyone) is focused on our cloud storage business. Where is all of your focus going?

Lesson Learned: Align everyone in your company to a singular focus to dramatically out-perform larger teams.

2. Use Lack-of-Scale as an Advantage

You may have heard Paul Graham say “Do things that don’t scale.” There are a host of things you can do specifically because you don’t have the same scale as the giants. Use that as an advantage.

When we look for data center space, we have more options than our largest competitors because there are simply more spaces available with room for 100 cabinets than for 1,000 cabinets. With some searching, we can find data center space that is better/cheaper.

When a flood in Thailand destroyed factories, causing the world’s supply of hard drives to plummet and prices to triple, we started drive farming. The giants certainly couldn’t. It was a bit crazy, but it let us keep prices unchanged for our customers.

Our Chief Cloud Officer, Tim, used to work at Adobe. Because of their size, any new product needed to always launch in a multitude of languages and in global markets. Once launched, they had scale. But getting any new product launched was incredibly challenging.

Lesson Learned: Use lack-of-scale to exploit opportunities that are closed to giants.

3. Build a Better Product

This one is probably obvious. If you’re going to provide the same product, at the same price, to the same customers — why do it? Remember that better does not always mean more features. Here’s one way we built a better product that didn’t require being a bigger company.

All online backup services required customers to choose what to include in their backup. We found that this was complicated for users since they often didn’t know what needed to be backed up. We flipped the model to back up everything and allow users to exclude if they wanted to, but it was not required. This reduced the number of features/options, while making it easier and better for the user.

This didn’t require the resources of a huge company; it just required understanding customers a bit deeper and thinking about the solution differently. Building a better product is the most classic startup competitive advantage.

Lesson Learned: Dig deep with your customers to understand and deliver a better mousetrap.

4. Provide Better Service

How can you provide better service? Use your advantages. Escalations from your customer care folks to engineering can go through fewer hoops. Fixing an issue and shipping can be quicker. Access to real answers on Twitter or Facebook can be more effective.

A strategic decision we made was to have all customer support people as full-time employees in our headquarters. This ensures they are in close contact to the whole company for feedback to quickly go both ways.

Having a smaller team and fewer layers enables faster internal communication, which increases customer happiness. And the option to do things that don’t scale — such as help a customer in a unique situation — can go a long way in building customer loyalty.

Lesson Learned: Service your customers better by establishing clear internal communications.

5. Remove The Unnecessary

After determining that the industry standard EMC/NetApp/Dell storage servers would be too expensive to build our own cloud storage upon, we decided to build our own infrastructure. Many said we were crazy to compete with these multi-billion dollar companies and that it would be impossible to build a lower cost storage server. However, not only did it prove to not be impossible — it wasn’t even that hard.

One key trick? Remove the unnecessary. While EMC and others built servers to sell to other companies for a wide variety of use cases, Backblaze needed servers that only Backblaze would run, and for a single use case. As a result we could tailor the servers for our needs by removing redundancy from each server (since we would run redundant servers), and using lower-performance components (since we would get high-performance by running parallel servers).

What do your customers and use cases not need? This can trim costs and complexity while often improving the product for your use case.

Lesson Learned: Don’t think “what can we add” to what the giants offer — think “what can we remove.”

6. Be Easy

How many times have you visited a large company website, particularly one that’s not consumer-focused, only to leave saying, “Huh? I don’t understand what you do.” Keeping your website clear, and your product and pricing simple, will dramatically increase conversion and customer satisfaction. If you’re able to make it 2x easier and thus increasing your conversion by 2x, you’ve just allowed yourself to spend ½ as much acquiring a customer.

Providing unlimited data backup wasn’t specifically about providing more storage — it was about making it easier. Since users didn’t know how much data they needed to back up, charging per gigabyte meant they wouldn’t know the cost. Providing unlimited data backup meant they could just relax.

Customers love easy — and being smaller makes easy easier to deliver. Use that as an advantage in your website, marketing materials, pricing, product, and in every other customer interaction.

Lesson Learned: Ease-of-use isn’t a slogan: it’s a competitive advantage. Treat it as seriously as any other feature of your product

7. Don’t Be Afraid of Risk

Obviously unnecessary risks are unnecessary, and some risks aren’t worth taking. However, large companies that have given guidance to Wall Street with a $0.01 range on their earning-per-share are inherently going to be very risk-averse. Use risk-tolerance to open up opportunities, and adjust your tolerance level as you scale. In your first year, there are likely an infinite number of ways your business may vaporize; don’t be too worried about taking a risk that might have a 20% downside when the upside is hockey stick growth.

Using consumer-grade hard drives in our servers may have caused pain and suffering for us years down-the-line, but they were priced at approximately 50% of enterprise drives. Giants wouldn’t have considered the option. Turns out, the consumer drives performed great for us.

Lesson Learned: Use calculated risks as an advantage.

8. Be Open

The larger a company grows, the more it wants to hide information. Some of this is driven by regulatory requirements as a public company. But most of this is cultural. Sharing something might cause a problem, so let’s not. All external communication is treated as a critical press release, with rounds and rounds of editing by multiple teams and approvals. However, customers are often desperate for information. Moreover, sharing information builds trust, understanding, and advocates.

I started blogging at Backblaze before we launched. When we blogged about our Storage Pod and open-sourced the design, many thought we were crazy to share this information. But it was transformative for us, establishing Backblaze as a tech thought leader in storage and giving people a sense of how we were able to provide our service at such a low cost.

Over the years we’ve developed a culture of being open internally and externally, on our blog and with the press, and in communities such as Hacker News and Reddit. Often we’ve been asked, “why would you share that!?” — but it’s the continual openness that builds trust. And that culture of openness is incredibly challenging for the giants.

Lesson Learned: Overshare to build trust and brand where giants won’t.

9. Be Human

As companies scale, typically a smaller percent of founders and executives interact with customers. The people who build the company become more hidden, the language feels “corporate,” and customers start to feel they’re interacting with the cliche “faceless, nameless corporation.” Use your humanity to your advantage. From day one the Backblaze About page listed all the founders, and my email address. While contacting us shouldn’t be the first path for a customer support question, I wanted it to be clear that we stand behind the service we offer; if we’re doing something wrong — I want to know it.

To scale it’s important to have processes and procedures, but sometimes a situation falls outside of a well-established process. While we want our employees to follow processes, they’re still encouraged to be human and “try to do the right thing.” How to you strike this balance? Simon Sinek gives a good talk about it: make your employees feel safe. If employees feel safe they’ll be human.

If your customer is a consumer, they’ll appreciate being treated as a human. Even if your customer is a corporation, the purchasing decision-makers are still people.

Lesson Learned: Being human is the ultimate antithesis to the faceless corporation.

Build Culture to Sustain Your Advantages at Scale

Presumably the goal is not to always be competing with giants, but to one day become a giant. Does this mean you’ll lose all of these advantages? Some, yes — but not all. Some of these advantages are cultural, and if you build these into the culture from the beginning, and fight to keep them as you scale, you can keep them as you become a giant.

Tesla still comes across as human, with Elon Musk frequently interacting with people on Twitter. Apple continues to provide great service through their Genius Bar. And, worst case, if you lose these at scale, you’ll still have the other advantages of being a giant such as money, people, scale, resources, and access.

Of course, some new startup will be gunning for you with grand ambitions, so just be sure not to get complacent. 😉

The post How to Compete with Giants appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

Surviving Your First Year

Post Syndicated from Gleb Budman original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/startup-stages-surviving-your-first-year/

Surviving Your First Year

This post by Backblaze’s CEO and co-founder Gleb Budman is the fifth in a series about entrepreneurship. You can choose posts in the series from the list below:

  1. How Backblaze got Started: The Problem, The Solution, and the Stuff In-Between
  2. Building a Competitive Moat: Turning Challenges Into Advantages
  3. From Idea to Launch: Getting Your First Customers
  4. How to Get Your First 1,000 Customers
  5. Surviving Your First Year

Use the Join button above to receive notification of new posts in this series.

In my previous posts, I talked about coming up with an idea, determining the solution, and getting your first customers. But you’re building a company, not a product. Let’s talk about what the first year should look like.

The primary goals for that first year are to: 1) set up the company; 2) build, launch, and learn; and 3) survive.

Setting Up the Company

The company you’re building is more than the product itself, and you’re not going to do it alone. You don’t want to spend too much time on this since getting customers is key, but if you don’t set up the basics, there are all sorts of issues down the line.

startup idea board

Find Your Co-Founders & Determine Roles

You may already have the idea, but who do you need to execute it? At Backblaze, we needed people to build the web experience, the client backup application, and the server/storage side. We also needed someone to handle the business/marketing aspects, and we felt that the design and user experience were critical. As a result, we started with five co-founders: three engineers, a designer, and me for the business and marketing.

Of course not every role needs to be filled by a co-founder. You can hire employees for positions as well. But think through the strategic skills you’ll need to launch and consider co-founders with those skill sets.

Too many people think they can just “work together” on everything. Don’t. Determine roles as quickly as possible so that it’s clear who is responsible for what work and which decisions. We were lucky in that we had worked together and thus knew what each person would do, but even so we assigned titles early on to clarify roles.

Takeaway:   Fill critical roles and explicitly split roles and responsibilities.

Get Your Legal Basics In Place

When we’re excited about building a product, legal basics are often the last thing we want to deal with. You don’t need to go overboard, but it’s critical to get certain things done.

  1. Determine ownership split. What is the percentage breakdown of the company that each of the founders will own? It can be a tough discussion, but it only becomes more difficult later when there is more value and people have put more time into it. At Backblaze we split the equity equally five ways. This is uncommon. The benefit of this is that all the founders feel valued and “in it together.” The benefit of the more common split where someone has a dominant share is that person is typically empowered to be the ultimate decision-maker. Slicing Pie provides some guidance on how to think about splitting equity. Regardless of which way you want you go, don’t put it off.
  2. Incorporate. Hard to be a company if you’re not. There are various formats, but if you plan to raise angel/venture funding, a Delaware-based C-corp is standard.
  3. Deal With Stock. At a minimum, issue stock to the founders, have each one buy their shares, and file an 83(b). Buying your shares at this stage might be $100. Filing the 83(b) election marks the date at which you purchased your shares, and shows that you bought them for what they were worth. This one piece of paper paper can make the difference between paying long-term capital gains rates (~20%) or income tax rates (~40%).
  4. Assign Intellectual Property. Ask everyone to sign a Proprietary Information and Inventions Assignment (“PIIA”). This document says that what they do at the company is owned by the company. Early on we had a friend who came by and brainstormed ideas. We thought of it as interesting banter. He later said he owned part of our storage design. While we worked it out together, a PIIA makes ownership clear.

The ownership split can be worked out by the founders directly. For the other items, I would involve lawyers. Some law firms will set up the basics and defer payment until you raise money or the business can pay for services out of operations. Gunderson Dettmer did that for us (ask for Bennett Yee). Cooley will do this on a casey-by-case basis as well.

Takeaway:  Don’t let the excitement of building a company distract you from filing the basic legal documents required to protect and grow your company.

Get Health Insurance

This item may seem out of place, but not having health insurance can easily bankrupt you personally, and that certainly won’t bode well for your company. While you can buy individual health insurance, it will often be less expensive to buy it as a company. Also, it will make recruiting employees more difficult if you do not offer healthcare. When we contacted brokers they asked us to send the W-2 of each employee that wanted coverage, but the founders weren’t taking a salary at first. To work around this, make the founders ‘officers’ of the company, and the healthcare brokers can then insure them. (Of course, you need to be ok with your co-founders being officers, but hopefully, that is logical anyway.)

Takeaway:  Don’t take your co-founders’ physical and financial health for granted. Health insurance can serve as both individual protection and a recruiting tool for future employees.

Building, Launching & Learning

Getting the company set up gives you the foundation, but ultimately a company with no product and no customers isn’t very interesting.

Build

Ideally, you have one person on the team focusing on all of the items above and everyone else can be heads-down building product. There is a lot to say about building product, but for this post, I’ll just say that your goal is to get something out the door that is good enough to start collecting feedback. It doesn’t have to have every feature you dream of and doesn’t have to support 1 billion users on day one.

Launch

If you’re building a car or rocket, that may take some time. But with the availability of open-source software and cloud services, most startups should launch inside of a year.

Launching forces a scoping of the feature set to what’s critical, rallies the company around a goal, starts building awareness of your company and solution, and pushes forward the learning process. Backblaze launched in public beta on June 2, 2008, eight months after the founders all started working on it full-time.

Takeaway:  Focus on the most important features and launch.

Learn & Iterate

As much as we think we know about the customers and their needs, the launch process and beyond opens up all sorts of insights. This early period is critical to collect feedback and iterate, especially while both the product and company are still quite malleable. We initially planned on building peer-to-peer and local backup immediately on the heels of our online offering, but after launching found minimal demand for those features. On the other hand, there was tremendous demand from companies and resellers.

Takeaway:  Use the critical post-launch period to collect feedback and iterate.

Surviving

“Live to fight another day.” If the company doesn’t survive, it’s hard to change the world. Let’s talk about some of the survival components.

Consider What You As A Founding Team Want & How You Work

Are you doing this because you hope to get rich? See yourself on the cover of Fortune? Make your own decisions? Work from home all the time? Founder fighting is the number one reason companies fail; the founders need to be on the same page as much as possible.

At Backblaze we agreed very early on that we wanted three things:

  1. Build products we were proud of
  2. Have fun
  3. Make money

This has driven various decisions over the years and has evolved into being part of the culture. For example, while Backblaze is absolutely a company with a profit motive, we do not compromise the product to make more money. Other directions are not bad; they’re just different.

Do you want a lifestyle business? Or want to build a billion dollar business? Want to run it forever or build it for a couple years and do something else?

Pretend you’re getting married to each other. Do some introspection and talk about your vision of the future a lot. Do you expect everyone to work 20 or 100 hours every week? In the office or remote? How do you like to work? What pet peeves do you have?

When getting married each person brings the “life they’ve known,” often influenced by the life their parents lived. Together they need to decide which aspects of their previous lives they want to keep, toss, or change. As founders coming together, you have the same opportunity for your new company.

Takeaway:  In order for a company to survive, the founders must agree on what they want the company to be. Have the discussions early.

Determine How You Will Fund Your Business

Raising venture capital is often seen as the only path, and considered the most important thing to start doing on day one. However, there are a variety of options for funding your business, including using money from savings, part-time work, friends & family money, loans, angels, and customers. Consider the right option for you, your founding team, and your business.

Conserve Cash

Whichever option you choose for funding your business, chances are high that you will not be flush with cash on day one. In certain situations, you actually don’t want to conserve cash because you’ve raised $100m and now you want to run as fast as you can to capture a market — cash is plentiful and time is not. However, with the exception of founder struggles, running out of cash is the most common way companies go under. There are many ways to conserve cash — limit hiring of employees and consultants, use lawyers and accountants sparingly, don’t spend on advertising, work from a home office, etc. The most important way is to simply ensure that you and your team are cash conscious, challenging decisions that commit you to spending cash.

Backblaze spent a total of $94,122 to get to public beta launch. That included building the backup application, our own server infrastructure, the website with account/billing/restore functionality, the marketing involved in getting to launch, and all the steps above in setting up the company, paying for healthcare, etc. The five founders took no salary during this time (which, of course, would have cost dramatically more), so most of this money went to computers, servers, hard drives, and other infrastructure.

Takeaway:  Minimize cash burn — it extends your runway and gives you options.

Slowly Flesh Out Your Team

We started with five co-founders, and thus a fairly fleshed-out team. A year in, we only added one person, a Mac architect. Three months later we shipped a beta of our Mac version, which has resulted in more than 50% of our revenue.

Minimizing hiring is key to cash conservation, and hiring ahead of getting market feedback is risky since you may realize that the talent you need will change. However, once you start getting feedback, think about the key people that you need to move your company forward. But be rigorous in determining whether they’re critical. We didn’t hire our first customer support person until all five founders were spending 20% of their time on it.

Takeaway:  Don’t hire in anticipation of market growth; hire to fuel the growth.

Keep Your Spirits Up

Startups are roller coasters of emotion. There have been some serious articles about founders suffering from depression and worse. The idea phase is exhilarating, then there is the slog of building. The launch is a blast, but the week after there are crickets.

On June 2, 2008, we launched in public beta with great press and hordes of customers. But a few months later we were signing up only about 10 new customers per month. That’s $50 new monthly recurring revenue (MRR) after a year of work and no salary.

On August 25, 2008, we brought on our Mac architect. Two months later, on October 26, 2008, Apple launched Time Machine — completely free and built-in backup for all Macs.

There were plenty of times when our prospects looked bleak. In the rearview mirror it’s easy to say, “well sure, but now you have lots of customers,” or “yes, but Time Machine doesn’t do cloud backup.” But at the time neither of these were a given.

Takeaway:  Getting up each day and believing that as a team you’ll figure it out will let you get to the point where you can look in the rearview mirror and say, “It looked bleak back then.”

Succeeding in Your First Year

I titled the post “Surviving Your First Year,” but if you manage to, 1) set up the company; 2) build, launch, and learn; and 3) survive, you will have done more than survive: you’ll have truly succeeded in your first year.

The post Surviving Your First Year appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

How To Get Your First 1,000 Customers

Post Syndicated from Gleb Budman original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/how-to-get-your-first-1000-customers/

PR for getting your first 1000 customers

If you launch your startup and no one knows, did you actually launch? As mentioned in my last post, our initial launch target was to get a 1,000 people to use our service. But how do you get even 1,000 people to sign up for your service when no one knows who you are?

There are a variety of methods to attract your first 1,000 customers, but launching with the press is my favorite. I’ll explain why and how to do it below.

Paths to Attract Your First 1,000 Customers

Social following: If you have a massive social following, those people are a reasonable target for what you’re offering. In particular if your relationship with them is one where they would buy something you recommend, this can be one of the easiest ways to get your initial customers. However, building this type of following is non-trivial and often is done over several years.

Press not only provides awareness and customers, but credibility and SEO benefits as well

Paid advertising: The advantage of paid ads is you have control over when they are presented and what they say. The primary disadvantage is they tend to be expensive, especially before you have your positioning, messaging, and funnel nailed.

Viral: There are certainly examples of companies that launched with a hugely viral video, blog post, or promotion. While fantastic if it happens, even if you do everything right, the likelihood of massive virality is miniscule and the conversion rate is often low.

Press: As I said, this is my favorite. You don’t need to pay a PR agency and can go from nothing to launched in a couple weeks. Press not only provides awareness and customers, but credibility and SEO benefits as well.

How to Pitch the Press

It’s easy: Have a compelling story, find the right journalists, make their life easy, pitch and follow-up. Of course, each one of those has some nuance, so let’s dig in.

Have a compelling story

How to Get AttentionWhen you’ve been working for months on your startup, it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae when talking to others. Stories that a journalist will write about need to be something their readers will care about. Knowing what story to tell and how to tell it is part science and part art. Here’s how you can get there:

The basics of your story

Ask yourself the following questions, and write down the answers:

  • What are we doing? What product service are we offering?
  • Why? What problem are we solving?
  • What is interesting or unique? Either about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, or for who we’re doing it.

“But my story isn’t that exciting”

Neither was announcing a data backup company, believe me. Look for angles that make it compelling. Here are some:

  • Did someone on your team do something major before? (build a successful company/product, create some innovation, market something we all know, etc.)
  • Do you have an interesting investor or board member?
  • Is there a personal story that drove you to start this company?
  • Are you starting it in a unique place?
  • Did you come upon the idea in a unique way?
  • Can you share something people want to know that’s not usually shared?
  • Are you partnered with a well-known company?
  • …is there something interesting/entertaining/odd/shocking/touching/etc.?

It doesn’t get much less exciting than, “We’re launching a company that will backup your data.” But there were still a lot of compelling stories:

  • Founded by serial entrepreneurs, bootstrapped a capital-intensive company, committed to each other for a year without salary.
  • Challenging the way that every backup company before was set up by not asking customers to pick and choose files to backup.
  • Designing our own storage system.
  • Etc. etc.

For the initial launch, we focused on “unlimited for $5/month” and statistics from a survey we ran with Harris Interactive that said that 94% of people did not regularly backup their data.

It’s an old adage that “Everyone has a story.” Regardless of what you’re doing, there is always something interesting to share. Dig for that.

The headline

Once you’ve captured what you think the interesting story is, you’ve got to boil it down. Yes, you need the elevator pitch, but this is shorter…it’s the headline pitch. Write the headline that you would love to see a journalist write.

Regardless of what you’re doing, there is always something interesting to share. Dig for that.

Now comes the part where you have to be really honest with yourself: if you weren’t involved, would you care?

The “Techmeme Test”

One way I try to ground myself is what I call the “Techmeme Test”. Techmeme lists the top tech articles. Read the headlines. Imagine the headline you wrote in the middle of the page. If you weren’t involved, would you click on it? Is it more or less compelling than the others. Much of tech news is dominated by the largest companies. If you want to get written about, your story should be more compelling. If not, go back above and explore your story some more.

Embargoes, exclusives and calls-to-action

Journalists write about news. Thus, if you’ve already announced something and are then pitching a journalist to cover it, unless you’re giving her something significant that hasn’t been said, it’s no longer news. As a result, there are ‘embargoes’ and ‘exclusives’.

Embargoes

    • : An embargo simply means that you are sharing news with a journalist that they need to keep private until a certain date and time.

If you’re Apple, this may be a formal and legal document. In our case, it’s as simple as saying, “Please keep embargoed until 4/13/17 at 8am California time.” in the pitch. Some sites explicitly will not keep embargoes; for example The Information will only break news. If you want to launch something later, do not share information with journalists at these sites. If you are only working with a single journalist for a story, and your announcement time is flexible, you can jointly work out a date and time to announce. However, if you have a fixed launch time or are working with a few journalists, embargoes are key.

Exclusives: An exclusive means you’re giving something specifically to that journalist. Most journalists love an exclusive as it means readers have to come to them for the story. One option is to give a journalist an exclusive on the entire story. If it is your dream journalist, this may make sense. Another option, however, is to give exclusivity on certain pieces. For example, for your launch you could give an exclusive on funding detail & a VC interview to a more finance-focused journalist and insight into the tech & a CTO interview to a more tech-focused journalist.

Call-to-Action: With our launch we gave TechCrunch, Ars Technica, and SimplyHelp URLs that gave the first few hundred of their readers access to the private beta. Once those first few hundred users from each site downloaded, the beta would be turned off.

Thus, we used a combination of embargoes, exclusives, and a call-to-action during our initial launch to be able to brief journalists on the news before it went live, give them something they could announce as exclusive, and provide a time-sensitive call-to-action to the readers so that they would actually sign up and not just read and go away.

How to Find the Most Authoritative Sites / Authors

“If a press release is published and no one sees it, was it published?” Perhaps the time existed when sending a press release out over the wire meant journalists would read it and write about it. That time has long been forgotten. Over 1,000 unread press releases are published every day. If you want your compelling story to be covered, you need to find the handful of journalists that will care.

Determine the publications

Find the publications that cover the type of story you want to share. If you’re in tech, Techmeme has a leaderboard of publications ranked by leadership and presence. This list will tell you which publications are likely to have influence. Visit the sites and see if your type of story appears on their site. But, once you’ve determined the publication do NOT send a pitch their “[email protected]” or “[email protected]” email addresses. In all the times I’ve done that, I have never had a single response. Those email addresses are likely on every PR, press release, and spam list and unlikely to get read. Instead…

Determine the journalists

Once you’ve determined which publications cover your area, check which journalists are doing the writing. Skim the articles and search for keywords and competitor names.

Over 1,000 unread press releases are published every day.

Identify one primary journalist at the publication that you would love to have cover you, and secondary ones if there are a few good options. If you’re not sure which one should be the primary, consider a few tests:

  • Do they truly seem to care about the space?
  • Do they write interesting/compelling stories that ‘get it’?
  • Do they appear on the Techmeme leaderboard?
  • Do their articles get liked/tweeted/shared and commented on?
  • Do they have a significant social presence?

Leveraging Google

Google author search by date

In addition to Techmeme or if you aren’t in the tech space Google will become a must have tool for finding the right journalists to pitch. Below the search box you will find a number of tabs. Click on Tools and change the Any time setting to Custom range. I like to use the past six months to ensure I find authors that are actively writing about my market. I start with the All results. This will return a combination of product sites and articles depending upon your search term.

Scan for articles and click on the link to see if the article is on topic. If it is find the author’s name. Often if you click on the author name it will take you to a bio page that includes their Twitter, LinkedIn, and/or Facebook profile. Many times you will find their email address in the bio. You should collect all the information and add it to your outreach spreadsheet. Click here to get a copy. It’s always a good idea to comment on the article to start building awareness of your name. Another good idea is to Tweet or Like the article.

Next click on the News tab and set the same search parameters. You will get a different set of results. Repeat the same steps. Between the two searches you will have a list of authors that actively write for the websites that Google considers the most authoritative on your market.

How to find the most socially shared authors

Buzzsumo search for most shared by date

Your next step is to find the writers whose articles get shared the most socially. Go to Buzzsumo and click on the Most Shared tab. Enter search terms for your market as well as competitor names. Again I like to use the past 6 months as the time range. You will get a list of articles that have been shared the most across Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+. In addition to finding the most shared articles and their authors you can also see some of the Twitter users that shared the article. Many of those Twitter users are big influencers in your market so it’s smart to start following and interacting with them as well as the authors.

How to Find Author Email Addresses

Some journalists publish their contact info right on the stories. For those that don’t, a bit of googling will often get you the email. For example, TechCrunch wrote a story a few years ago where they published all of their email addresses, which was in response to this new service that charges a small fee to provide journalist email addresses. Sometimes visiting their twitter pages will link to a personal site, upon which they will share an email address.

Of course all is not lost if you don’t find an email in the bio. There are two good services for finding emails, https://app.voilanorbert.com/ and https://hunter.io/. For Voila Norbert enter the author name and the website you found their article on. The majority of the time you search for an author on a major publication Norbert will return an accurate email address. If it doesn’t try Hunter.io.

On Hunter.io enter the domain name and click on Personal Only. Then scroll through the results to find the author’s email. I’ve found Norbert to be more accurate overall but between the two you will find most major author’s email addresses.

Email, by the way, is not necessarily the best way to engage a journalist. Many are avid Twitter users. Follow them and engage – that means read/retweet/favorite their tweets; reply to their questions, and generally be helpful BEFORE you pitch them. Later when you email them, you won’t be just a random email address.

Don’t spam

Now that you have all these email addresses (possibly thousands if you purchased a list) – do NOT spam. It is incredibly tempting to think “I could try to figure out which of these folks would be interested, but if I just email all of them, I’ll save myself time and be more likely to get some of them to respond.” Don’t do it.

Follow them and engage – that means read/retweet/favorite their tweets; reply to their questions, and generally be helpful BEFORE you pitch them.

First, you’ll want to tailor your pitch to the individual. Second, it’s a small world and you’ll be known as someone who spams – reputation is golden. Also, don’t call journalists. Unless you know them or they’ve said they’re open to calls, you’re most likely to just annoy them.

Build a relationship

Build Trust with reportersPlay the long game. You may be focusing just on the launch and hoping to get this one story covered, but if you don’t quickly flame-out, you will have many more opportunities to tell interesting stories that you’ll want the press to cover. Be honest and don’t exaggerate.
When you have 500 users it’s tempting to say, “We’ve got thousands!” Don’t. The good journalists will see through it and it’ll likely come back to bite you later. If you don’t know something, say “I don’t know but let me find out for you.” Most journalists want to write interesting stories that their readers will appreciate. Help them do that. Build deeper relationships with 5 – 10 journalists, rather than spamming thousands.

Stay organized

It doesn’t need to be complicated, but keep a spreadsheet that includes the name, publication, and contact info of the journalists you care about. Then, use it to keep track of who you’ve pitched, who’s responded, whether you’ve sent them the materials they need, and whether they intend to write/have written.

Make their life easy

Journalists have a million PR people emailing them, are actively engaging with readers on Twitter and in the comments, are tracking their metrics, are working their sources…and all the while needing to publish new articles. They’re busy. Make their life easy and they’re more likely to engage with yours.

Get to know them

Before sending them a pitch, know what they’ve written in the space. If you tell them how your story relates to ones they’ve written, it’ll help them put the story in context, and enable them to possibly link back to a story they wrote before.

Prepare your materials

Journalists will need somewhere to get more info (prepare a fact sheet), a URL to link to, and at least one image (ideally a few to choose from.) A fact sheet gives bite-sized snippets of information they may need about your startup or product: what it is, how big the market is, what’s the pricing, who’s on the team, etc. The URL is where their reader will get the product or more information from you. It doesn’t have to be live when you’re pitching, but you should be able to tell what the URL will be. The images are ones that they could embed in the article: a product screenshot, a CEO or team photo, an infographic. Scan the types of images included in their articles. Don’t send any of these in your pitch, but have them ready. Studies, stats, customer/partner/investor quotes are also good to have.

Pitch

A pitch has to be short and compelling.

Subject Line

Think back to the headline you want. Is it really compelling? Can you shorten it to a subject line? Include what’s happening and when. For Mike Arrington at Techcrunch, our first subject line was “Startup doing an ‘online time machine’”. Later I would include, “launching June 6th”.

For John Timmer at ArsTechnica, it was “Demographics data re: your 4/17 article”. Why? Because he wrote an article titled “WiFi popular with the young people; backups, not so much”. Since we had run a demographics survey on backups, I figured as a science editor he’d be interested in this additional data.

Body

A few key things about the body of the email. It should be short and to the point, no more than a few sentences. Here was my actual, original pitch email to John:

Hey John,

We’re launching Backblaze next week which provides a Time Machine-online type of service. As part of doing some research I read your article about backups not being popular with young people and that you had wished Accenture would have given you demographics. In prep for our invite-only launch I sponsored Harris Interactive to get demographic data on who’s doing backups and if all goes well, I should have that data on Friday.

Next week starts Backup Awareness Month (and yes, probably Clean Your House Month and Brush Your Teeth Month)…but nonetheless…good time to remind readers to backup with a bit of data?

Would you be interested in seeing/talking about the data when I get it?

Would you be interested in getting a sneak peak at Backblaze? (I could give you some invite codes for your readers as well.)

Gleb Budman        

CEO and Co-Founder

Backblaze, Inc.

Automatic, Secure, High-Performance Online Backup

Cell: XXX-XXX-XXXX

The Good: It said what we’re doing, why this relates to him and his readers, provides him information he had asked for in an article, ties to something timely, is clearly tailored for him, is pitched by the CEO and Co-Founder, and provides my cell.

The Bad: It’s too long.

I got better later. Here’s an example:

Subject: Does temperature affect hard drive life?

Hi Peter, there has been much debate about whether temperature affects how long a hard drive lasts. Following up on the Backblaze analyses of how long do drives last & which drives last the longest (that you wrote about) we’ve now analyzed the impact of heat on the nearly 40,000 hard drives we have and found that…

We’re going to publish the results this Monday, 5/12 at 5am California-time. Want a sneak peak of the analysis?

Timing

A common question is “When should I launch?” What day, what time? I prefer to launch on Tuesday at 8am California-time. Launching earlier in the week gives breathing room for the news to live longer. While your launch may be a single article posted and that’s that, if it ends up a larger success, earlier in the week allows other journalists (including ones who are in other countries) to build on the story. Monday announcements can be tough because the journalists generally need to have their stories finished by Friday, and while ideally everything is buttoned up beforehand, startups sometimes use the weekend as overflow before a launch.

The 8am California-time is because it allows articles to be published at the beginning of the day West Coast and around lunch-time East Coast. Later and you risk it being past publishing time for the day. We used to launch at 5am in order to be morning for the East Coast, but it did not seem to have a significant benefit in coverage or impact, but did mean that the entire internal team needed to be up at 3am or 4am. Sometimes that’s critical, but I prefer to not burn the team out when it’s not.

Finally, try to stay clear of holidays, major announcements and large conferences. If Apple is coming out with their next iPhone, many of the tech journalists will be busy at least a couple days prior and possibly a week after. Not always obvious, but if you can, find times that are otherwise going to be slow for news.

Follow-up

There is a fine line between persistence and annoyance. I once had a journalist write me after we had an announcement that was covered by the press, “Why didn’t you let me know?! I would have written about that!” I had sent him three emails about the upcoming announcement to which he never responded.

My general rule is 3 emails.

Ugh. However, my takeaway from this isn’t that I should send 10 emails to every journalist. It’s that sometimes these things happen.

My general rule is 3 emails. If I’ve identified a specific journalist that I think would be interested and have a pitch crafted for her, I’ll send her the email ideally 2 weeks prior to the announcement. I’ll follow-up a week later, and one more time 2 days prior. If she ever says, “I’m not interested in this topic,” I note it and don’t email her on that topic again.

If a journalist wrote, I read the article and engage in the comments (or someone on our team, such as our social guy, @YevP does). We’ll often promote the story through our social channels and email our employees who may choose to share the story as well. This helps us, but also helps the journalist get their story broader reach. Again, the goal is to build a relationship with the journalists your space. If there’s something relevant to your customers that the journalist wrote, you’re providing a service to your customers AND helping the journalist get the word out about the article.

At times the stories also end up shared on sites such as Hacker News, Reddit, Slashdot, or become active conversations on Twitter. Again, we try to engage there and respond to questions (when we do, we are always clear that we’re from Backblaze.)

And finally, I’ll often send a short thank you to the journalist.

Getting Your First 1,000 Customers With Press

As I mentioned at the beginning, there is more than one way to get your first 1,000 customers. My favorite is working with the press to share your story. If you figure out your compelling story, find the right journalists, make their life easy, pitch and follow-up, you stand a high likelyhood of getting coverage and customers. Better yet, that coverage will provide credibility for your company, and if done right, will establish you as a resource for the press for the future.

Like any muscle, this process takes working out. The first time may feel a bit daunting, but just take the steps one at a time. As you do this a few times, the process will be easier and you’ll know who to reach out and quickly determine what stories will be compelling.

The post How To Get Your First 1,000 Customers appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

From Idea to Launch: Getting Your First Customers

Post Syndicated from Gleb Budman original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/how-to-get-your-first-customers/

line outside of Apple

After deciding to build an unlimited backup service and developing our own storage platform, the next step was to get customers and feedback. Not all customers are created equal. Let’s talk about the types, and when and how to attract them.

How to Get Your First Customers

First Step – Don’t Launch Publicly
Launch when you’re ready for the judgments of people who don’t know you at all. Until then, don’t launch. Sign up users and customers either that you know, those you can trust to cut you some slack (while providing you feedback), or at minimum those for whom you can set expectations. For months the Backblaze website was a single page with no ability to get the product and minimal info on what it would be. This is not to counter the Lean Startup ‘iterate quickly with customer feedback’ advice. Rather, this is an acknowledgement that there are different types of feedback required based on your development stage.

Sign Up Your Friends
We knew all of our first customers; they were friends, family, and previous co-workers. Many knew what we were up to and were excited to help us. No magic marketing or tech savviness was required to reach them – we just asked that they try the service. We asked them to provide us feedback on their experience and collected it through email and conversations. While the feedback wasn’t unbiased, it was nonetheless wide-ranging, real, and often insightful. These people were willing to spend time carefully thinking about their feedback and delving deeper into the conversations.

Broaden to Beta
Unless you’re famous or your service costs $1 million per customer, you’ll probably need to expand quickly beyond your friends to build a business – and to get broader feedback. Our next step was to broaden the customer base to beta users.

Opening up the service in beta provides three benefits:

  1. Air cover for the early warts. There are going to be issues, bugs, unnecessarily complicated user flows, and poorly worded text. Beta tells people, “We don’t consider the product ‘done’ and you should expect some of these issues. Please be patient with us.”
  2. A request for feedback. Some people always provide feedback, but beta communicates that you want it.
  3. An awareness opportunity. Opening up in beta provides an early (but not only) opportunity to have an announcement and build awareness.

Pitching Beta to Press
Not all press cares about, or is even willing to cover, beta products. Much of the mainstream press wants to write about services that are fully live, have scale, and are important in the marketplace. However, there are a number of sites that like to cover the leading edge – and that means covering betas. Techcrunch, Ars Technica, and SimpleHelp covered our initial private beta launch. I’ll go into the details of how to work with the press to cover your announcements in a post next month.

Private vs. Public Beta
Both private and public beta provide all three of the benefits above. The difference between the two is that private betas are much more controlled, whereas public ones bring in more users. But this isn’t an either/or – I recommend doing both.

Private Beta
For our original beta in 2008, we decided that we were comfortable with about 1,000 users subscribing to our service. That would provide us with a healthy amount of feedback and get some early adoption, while not overwhelming us or our server capacity, and equally important not causing cash flow issues from having to buy more equipment. So we decided to limit the sign-up to only the first 1,000 people who signed up; then we would shut off sign-ups for a while.

But how do you even get 1,000 people to sign up for your service? In our case, get some major publications to write about our beta. (Note: In a future post I’ll explain exactly how to find and reach out to writers. Sign up to receive all of the entrepreneurial posts in this series.)

Public Beta
For our original service (computer backup), we did not have a public beta; but when we launched Backblaze B2, we had a private and then a public beta. The private beta allowed us to work out early kinks, while the public beta brought us a more varied set of use cases. In public beta, there is no cap on the number of users that may try the service.

While this is a first-class problem to have, if your service is flooded and stops working, it’s still a problem. Think through what you will do if that happens. In our early days, when our system could get overwhelmed by volume, we had a static web page hosted with a different registrar that wouldn’t let customers sign up but would tell them when our service would be open again. When we reached a critical volume level we would redirect to it in order to at least provide status for when we could accept more customers.

Collect Feedback
Since one of the goals of betas is to get feedback, we made sure that we had our email addresses clearly presented on the site so users could send us thoughts. We were most interested in broad qualitative feedback on users’ experience, so all emails went to an internal mailing list that would be read by everyone at Backblaze.

For our B2 public and private betas, we also added an optional short survey to the sign-up process. In order to be considered for the private beta you had to fill the survey out, though we found that 80% of users continued to fill out the survey even when it was not required. This survey had both closed-end questions (“how much data do you have”) and open-ended ones (“what do you want to use cloud storage for?”).

BTW, despite us getting a lot of feedback now via our support team, Twitter, and marketing surveys, we are always open to more – you can email me directly at gleb.budman {at} backblaze.com.

Don’t Throw Away Users
Initially our backup service was available only on Windows, but we had an email sign-up list for people who wanted it for their Mac. This provided us with a sense of market demand and a ready list of folks who could be beta users and early adopters when we had a Mac version. Have a service targeted at doctors but lawyers are expressing interest? Capture that.

Product Launch

When
The first question is “when” to launch. Presuming your service is in ‘public beta’, what is the advantage of moving out of beta and into a “version 1.0”, “gold”, or “public availability”? That depends on your service and customer base. Some services fly through public beta. Gmail, on the other hand, was (in)famous for being in beta for 5 years, despite having over 100 million users.

The term beta says to users, “give us some leeway, but feel free to use the service”. That’s fine for many consumer apps and will have near zero impact on them. However, services aimed at businesses and government will often not be adopted with a beta label as the enterprise customers want to know the company feels the service is ‘ready’. While Backblaze started out as a purely consumer service, because it was a data backup service, it was important for customers to trust that the service was ready.

No product is bug-free. But from a product readiness perspective, the nomenclature should also be a reflection of the quality of the product. You can launch a product with one feature that works well out of beta. But a product with fifty features on which half the users will bump into problems should likely stay in beta. The customer feedback, surveys, and your own internal testing should guide you in determining this quality during the beta. Be careful about “we’ve only seen that one time” or “I haven’t been able to reproduce that on my machine”; those issues are likely to scale with customers when you launch.

How
Launching out of beta can be as simple as removing the beta label from the website/product. However, this can be a great time to reach out to press, write a blog post, and send an email announcement to your customers.

Consider thanking your beta testers somehow; can they get some feature turned out for free, an extension of their trial, or premium support? If nothing else, remember to thank them for their feedback. Users that signed up during your beta are likely the ones who will propel your service. They had the need and interest to both be early adopters and deal with bugs. They are likely the key to getting 1,000 true fans.

The Beginning
The title of this post was “Getting your first customers”, because getting to launch may feel like the peak of your journey when you’re pre-launch, but it really is just the beginning. It’s a step along the journey of building your business. If your launch is wildly successful, enjoy it, work to build on the momentum, but don’t lose track of building your business. If your launch is a dud, go out for a coffee with your team, say “well that sucks”, and then get back to building your business. You can learn a tremendous amount from your early customers, and they can become your biggest fans, but the success of your business will depend on what you continue to do the months and years after your launch.

The post From Idea to Launch: Getting Your First Customers appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

Managing a Remote Workforce

Post Syndicated from Natalie C original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/managing-a-remote-workforce/

working in an airport
While Backblaze has customers all around the globe, the company itself is a pretty small enterprise with just over 50 employees. Many of those employees are actually remote. 75% of Backblaze employees work from the main Backblaze office (San Mateo), 15% are datacenter employees, and 10% working remotely full-time.

Many companies that were the pioneers with flexible work arrangements are now pulling back and asking their employees to report into an office. Why? Some part of that is due to not knowing how to manage these types of employees and belief that having an employee in the office, will improve work performance.

At Backblaze, we think that managing our diverse workforce is certainly a challenge… but, as the saying goes, the juice is worth the squeeze.

Communication is Key

When Backblaze first started, everyone worked out of the same room. Being 5’ away from someone tends to make communication easy (sometimes too easy). The first datacenter was just a few miles away, so if we needed to do something in it, we’d just hop in a car and drive over – calling co-workers from our cell-phones if we needed some help or guidance. Now, things have changed slightly and we use a lot of different tools to talk amongst ourselves.

It started with emails, then morphed into Gchat, then to Google Hangouts, and now we have a whole suite of communication tools. We use Hangouts and Slack to chat internally, Meet for video conferencing to bridge remote employees, , and good old fashioned telephones when the need arises. Tools like Trello, Redbooth, and Jira can help project manage as well – making sure that everyone stays on the same page.
For HR related needs, we use a variety of tools/perks to simplify employees lives whether they are at the office or at home enjoying time with their families. These tools include an Human Resource Information System (“HRIS”) called Namely, Expensify (expenses), Eshares (stock), Fond (perks) and Heal.

The most popular tool we use is Slack. Each department, location, product, and support group have their own Channel. We also have social channels where all the GIFs and news links live. Slack also has the added benefit of allowing us to limit what information is discussed where. For example, contract employees do not have access to channels that go beyond their scope and focus areas.

Solve for Culture, not Offsite v Onsite

One of the keys to managing a remote workforce is realizing that you’re solving for overall culture. It’s not about whether any group of employees are in office X or Y. The real question is: Are we creating an environment where we remove the friction from people performing their roles? There are follow-up questions like “do we have the right roles defined?” and “do we have people in roles where they will succeed?”. But by looking at managing our workforce from that point of view, it makes it easier to identify what tools and resources we need to be successful.

There’s no right way to manage remote employees. Every work environment is different and the culture, available technology, and financial capability affects how employees can interact. Backblaze went through a ton of iterations before we found the right tools for what we were trying to accomplish, and we’re constantly evolving and experimenting. But we have found some consistent patterns…

    • Nothing Beats Human Interaction

Even with all of the communication tools at our disposal, getting together in person is still the best way to get through projects and make sure everyone is on the same page. While having group meetings via Slack and Meet are great for planning, inevitably something will fall through the cracks or get lost in cyberspace due to poor connections. We combat this by having all of our remote employees come to the main office once every two months. When we hired our first remote engineers this was a once-a-month visit, but as we got more accustomed to working together and over the web, we scaled it back.

These visits allow our engineers to be in the office, be part of meetings that they’d otherwise miss, and meet any new employees we’ve hired. We think it’s important for people to know who they’re working with, and we love that everyone at Backblaze knows (or at least recognizes) each other. We also plan our company outings around these visits, and this brings about a great company culture since we get a chance to be out of the office together and interact socially – which is a lot more fun than interacting professionally.

    • Don’t Fear HR

When you have a small workforce, duties can sometimes be divided amongst a variety of people – even if those duties don’t pertain to their ‘day job’. Having a full-time HR person allowed folks to jettison some of their duties, and allowed them to get back to their primary job functions. It also allowed HR to handle delicate matters, many of which were amongst the most dreaded for folks who were covering some of the responsibilities.

What we’ve found in creating the full-time HR role for our remote workforce was that we finally had an expert on all HR-related things. This meant that we had someone who knew the laws of the land inside and out and could figure out how the different healthcare systems worked in the states where our employees reside (no small feat).

But Why Bother?

There is a principle question that we haven’t yet addressed: Why do we even have remote employees? This gets back to the idea of looking at the culture and environment first. At Backblaze, we look to hire the right person. There are costs to having remote employees, but if they are the right person for the role (when accounting for the “costs”), then that’s the right thing to do. Backblaze is performance driven, not based off of attendance and how long you stay at the office. I believe the you need a balance of both office work as well as remote to allow the employee to be most productive. But every company and setting is different; so experiments need to take place to figure out what would be the perfect blend for your team atmosphere.

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Building a Competitive Moat: Turning Challenges Into Advantages

Post Syndicated from Gleb Budman original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/turning-challenges-into-advantages/

castle on top of a storage pod

In my previous post on how Backblaze got started, I mentioned that “just because we knew the right solution, didn’t mean that it was possible.” I’ll dig into that here. The right solution was to offer unlimited backup for $5 per month. The price of storage at the time, however, would have likely forced us to price our unlimited backup service at 2x – 5x that.

We were faced with a difficult challenge – compromise a fundamental feature of our product by removing the unlimited storage element, increase our price point in order to cover our costs but likely limit our potential customer base, seek funding in order to run at a loss while we built market share with a hope/prayer we could make a profit in the future, or find another way (huge unknown that might not have a solution). Below I’ll dig into the options that were available, the paths we tried, and how this challenge completely transformed our company and ended up being our greatest technological advantage.

Available Options:

Use a Storage Service

Originally we intended to build the backup application, but leave the back-end storage to others; likely Amazon S3. This had many advantages:

  1. We would not have to worry about the storage at all
  2. It would scale up or down as we needed it
  3. We would pay only for what we used

Especially as a small, bootstrapped company with limited resources – these were incredible benefits.

There was just one problem. At S3’s then current pricing ($0.15/GB/month), a customer storing just 33 GB would cost us 100% of the $5 per month we would collect. Additionally, we would need to pay S3 transaction and download charges, along with our engineering/support/marketing and other expenses.. The conclusion, even if the average customer stored just 33 GB, it would cost us at least $10/month for a customer that we were charging just $5/month.

In 2007, when we were getting started, there were a few other storage services available. But all were more expensive. Despite the fantastic benefits of using such a service, it simply didn’t work for us.

Buy Storage Systems

Buying storage systems didn’t have all the benefits of using a storage service – we would have to forecast need, buy in big blocks up front, manage data centers, etc. – but it seemed the second-best option. Companies such as EMC, NetApp, Dell, and others sold hundreds of petabytes of storage systems where they provide the servers, software, and support.

Alas, there were two problems: One temporary, the other permanent (and fatal). The temporary problem was that these systems were hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get started. This was challenging for us from a cash-flow perspective, but it was just a question of coming up with the cash. The permanent problem was that these systems cost ~$1,000/TB of storage. Hard drives were selling for ~$100/TB, so there was a 10x markup for the storage system. That markup eliminated pursuing this path. What if the the average customer had 100 GB to store? It would take us 20 months to pay off the purchase. We weren’t sure how much data the average customer would have, but the scenarios we were running made it seem like a $5/month price point was unsustainable.

Our Choices Where:

Don’t Offer the Right Solution

If it’s impossible to offer unlimited backup for $5/month, there are certainly choices. We could have raised the price to $10/month, not make the backup unlimited, or close-up shop altogether. All doable, none ideal.

Raise Funding

Plenty of companies raise funding before they can be self-sustaining, and it can work out great for everyone. We had raised funding for a previous company and believed we could have done it for Backblaze. And raising funding would have taken care of the cash-flow issue if we chose to buy storage systems.

However, it would have left us with a business with negative unit economics – we would lose money on every customer, and the faster we grew, the more money we would lose. VCs do fund these types of companies often (many of the delivery companies today fall in this realm) with the idea that, at scale, you improve your cost structure and possibly also charge more. But it’s a dangerous game since not only is the business not self-sustaining, it inevitably must be significantly altered in order to survive.

Find a Way to Store Data for Less

If there were some way to store data for less, significantly less, it could all work. We had a tiny glimmer of hope that it would be possible: Since hard drives only cost ~$100/TB, if we could somehow use those drives without adding much overhead, that would be quite affordable.

“we wanted to build a sustainable business from day one and build a culture that believes dollars come from customers.”

Our first decision was to not compromise our product by restricting the amount of storage. Although this would have been a much easier solution, it violated our core mission: Create a simple and inexpensive solution to backup all of your important data.

We had previously also decided not to raise funding to get started because we wanted to build a sustainable business from day one and build a culture that believes dollars come from customers. With those decisions made, we moved onto finding the best solution to fulfill our mission and create a viable company.

Experimentation

All we wanted was to attach hard drives to the Internet. If we could do that inexpensively, our backup application could store the data there and we could offer our unlimited backup service.

A hard drive needs to be connected to a server to be available on the Internet. It certainly wouldn’t be very cost effective to have one server for every hard drive, as the server costs would dominate the equation. Alternatively, trying to attach a lot of drives to a server resulted in needing expensive “enterprise” servers. The goal then became cost-efficiently attaching as many hard drives as possible to one server. According to its spec, USB is supposed to allow for 127 devices to be daisy-chained to a single port. We tried; it didn’t work. We considered Firewire, which could connect 63 devices, but the connectors are aimed at graphic designers and ended up too expensive on a unit-basis. Our next thought was to use small consumer-grade DAS (Direct-attached storage) devices and connect those to a server. We managed to attach 8 DAS devices with 4 drives each for a total of 32 hard drives connected to one server.

DAS units attached to a server
This worked well, but it was operationally challenging as none of these devices were meant to fit in a data center rack. Further complicating matters was that moving one of these setups required cabling 10 power cords, and separately moving 9 boxes. Fine at small scale, but very hard to scale up.

We realized that we didn’t need all the boxes, we just needed backplanes to connect the drives from the DAS boxes to the motherboard from the server. We found a different DAS box that supports port multipliers and took that backplane. How did we decide on that DAS box? Tim, co-founder & Chief Cloud Officer, remembers going to Fry’s and picking the box that looked “about right”.

That all laid the path for our eventual 45 drive design. The next thought was: If we could put all that in one box, it might be the solution we were looking for. The first iteration of this was a plywood box.

the first wooden storage pod

That eventually evolved into a steel server and what we refer to as a Storage Pod.

steel storage pod chassis

Building a Storage Platform

The Storage Pod became our key building block, but was just a tiny component of the ‘storage platform’. We had to write software that would run on each Storage Pod, software that would create redundancy between the Storage Pods, and central software and systems that would coordinate other aspects of the system to accept/load balance/validate/clean-up data. We had to find and train contract manufacturers to build the Storage Pods, find and negotiate data center space and bandwidth, setup processes to buy drives and track their reliability, hire people to maintain the systems, and setup the business processes to do all of this and more at scale.

All of this ended up taking tremendous technical effort, management engagement, and work from all corners of Backblaze. But it has also paid enormous dividends.

The Transformation

We started Backblaze thinking of ourselves as a backup company. In reality, we became a storage company with ‘backup’ as the first service we offered on our storage platform. Our backup service relies on the storage platform as, without the storage platform, we couldn’t offer unlimited backup. To enable the backup service, storage became the foundation of our company and is still what we live and breathe every day.

It didn’t just change how we built the service, it changed the fundamental DNA of the company.

Dividends

Creating our own storage platform was certainly hard. But it enabled us to offer our unlimited backup for a low price and do that while running a sustainable business.

“It didn’t just change how we built the service, it changed the fundamental DNA of the company.”

We felt that we had a service and price point that customers wanted, and we “unlocked” the way to let us build it. Having our storage platform also provides us with a deep connection to our customers and the storage community – we share how we build Storage Pods and how reliable hard drives in our environment have been. That content, in turns, helps brings awareness to Backblaze; the awareness helps establish the company as a tech leader; that reputation helps us recruit to our growing team and earns customers who are evaluating our solutions vs Storage Company X.

And after years of being a storage company with a backup service, and being asked all the time to just offer our storage directly, we launched our Backblaze B2 Cloud Storage service. We offer this raw storage at a price of $0.005/GB/month – that’s less than 1/4th of the price of S3.

If we had built our backup service on one of the existing storage services or storage systems, it would have been easier – but none of this would have been possible. This challenge, which we have spent a decade working to overcome, has also transformed our company and became our greatest technological advantage.

The post Building a Competitive Moat: Turning Challenges Into Advantages appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

Turning Steel Into Tin: The First 10 Years of Backblaze

Post Syndicated from Gleb Budman original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/backblaze-turns-10/

Today Backblaze celebrates turning 10 years old. Tin is the traditional gift for a ten year wedding anniversary: a sign of strength and flexibility. Getting to this point took not only the steel to make the servers, but tin as well.

How things have changed:

20072017
TeamFive Founders in a Palo Alto apartment55 employees around the country
StorageHard drives strung together60-drive, tool-less Storage Pods
Drives1 TB drives8 TB and 10 TB dries
RedundancyRAID redundancy20-Storage Pod Vault redundancy
Storage45 TB of total stored customer data300,000+ TB
CustomersA few friends as customersHundreds of thousands across 125 countries
Files Saved1 customer’s data restored (mine)20 billion+ files restored
Business LinesConsumer BackupConsumer Backup, Business Backup, and Cloud Storage
Financials$0 revenueMillions in revenue and profitable
MissionMake storing data astonishingly easy and low-costMake storing data astonishingly easy and low-cost

From Our Humble Beginnings In 2007:

To Over 300 Petabytes in 2017:

Someone recently asked me, “Does Backblaze look now the way you imagined it would ten years ago?” The honest answer? I had never imagined what it would like in ten years; when trying to figure out how to even get to market, that timespan wasn’t even on my radar. When we were filming our first video, we were more concerned with finding our first customer than planning our first birthday.

Now, not only has it been a decade, but we’re signing 5-year data center contracts and talking about what the company will look like in ten years and beyond. We often say that we hope this will be the last job for our employees.

Thinking back, a few things I learned:

  • Staying in business is as much about commitment as cash.
  • The existential risks are hard to predict.
  • The hardest times are rarely due to tech or business; they’re personal.
  • The accepted wisdom is often wrong.
  • Less money often leads to better solutions.
  • Culture affects everything.

I’ll expand on all of these in future posts. Over the next few months, I’ll be more active in bringing back our entrepreneurship series of blog posts. Don’t worry, our Hard Drive Stats and all the other stuff aren’t going anywhere!

But today is about the community that makes Backblaze what it is: None of it would have been possible without all of the people who built Backblaze as their own company every day, our friends and boosters, partners, and (of course) our incredible customers. While I did not, and likely could not, imagine a decade ago where Backblaze would be today, I’m thrilled at where we have arrived. Thank you.

And tomorrow, onto the next decade.

The post Turning Steel Into Tin: The First 10 Years of Backblaze appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

How Backblaze Got Started: The Problem, The Solution, and the Stuff In-Between

Post Syndicated from Gleb Budman original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/how-backblaze-got-started/

How Backblaze Got Started

Backblaze will be celebrating its ten year anniversary this month. As I was reflecting on our path to get here, I thought some of the issues we encountered along the way are universal to most startups. With that in mind, I’ll write a series of blog posts focused on the entrepreneurial journey. This post is the first and focuses on the birth of Backblaze. I hope you stick around and enjoy the Backblaze story along the way.

What’s Your Problem?

The entrepreneur builds things to solve problems – your own or someone else’s. That problem may be a lack of something that you wish existed or something broken you want to fix. Here’s the problem that kicked off Backblaze and how it got noticed:

Brian Wilson, now co-founder and CTO of Backblaze, had been doing tech support for friends and family, as many of us did. One day he got a panicked call from one of those friends, Lise.

Lise: “You’ve got to help me! My computer crashed!”
Brian: “No problem – we’ll get you a new laptop; where’s your backup?”
Lise: “Look, what I don’t need now is a lecture! What I need is for you to get my data back!”

Brian was religious about backing up data and had been for years. He burned his data onto a CD and a DVD, diversifying the media types he used. During the process, Brian periodically read some files from each of the discs to test his backups. Finally, Brian put one disc in his closet and mailed another to his brother in New Mexico to have it offsite. Brian did this every week!

Brian was obviously a lot more obsessive than most of us.

Lise, however, had the opposite problem. She had no backup. And she wasn’t alone.

Whose Problem Is It?

A serious pain-point for one person may turn out to be a serious pain-point for millions.

At this point, it would have been easy just to say, “Well that sucks” or blame Lise. “User error” and “they just don’t get it” are common refrains in tech. But blaming the user doesn’t solve the problem.

Brian started talking to people and asking, “Who doesn’t back up?” He also talked with me and some of the others that are now Backblaze co-founders, and we asked the same question to others.

It turned out that most people didn’t back up their computers. Lise wasn’t the anomaly; Brian was. And that was a problem.

Over the previous decade, everything had gone digital. Photos, movies, financials, taxes, everything. A single crashed hard drive could cause you to lose everything. And drives would indeed crash. Over time everything would be digital, and society as a whole would permanently lose vast amounts of information. Big problem.

Surveying the Landscape

There’s a well-known adage that “Having no competition may mean you have no market.” The corollary I’d add is that “Having competition doesn’t mean the market is full.”

Weren’t There Backup Solutions?

Yes. Plenty. In fact, we joked that we were thirty years too late to the problem.

“Solutions Exist” does not mean “Problem Solved.” Even though many backup solutions were available, most people did not back up their data.

What Were the Current Solutions?

At first glance, it seems clear we’d be competing with other backup services. But when I asked people “How do you back up your data today?”, here were the answers I heard most frequently:

  • Copy ‘My Documents’ directory to an external drive before going on vacation
  • Copy files to a USB key
  • Send important files to Gmail
  • Pray
  • And “Do I need to back up?” (I’ll talk about this one in another post.)

Sometimes people would mention a particular backup app or service, but this was rare.

What Was Wrong With the Current Solutions?

Existing backup systems had various issues. They would not back up all of the users’ data, for example. They would only back up periodically and thus didn’t have current data. Most solutions were not off-site, so fire, theft or another catastrophe could still wipe out data. Some weren’t automatic, which left more room for neglect and user error.

“Solutions Exist” does not mean “Problem Solved.”

In fairness, some backup products and services had already solved some of these issues. But few people used those products. I talked with a lot of people and asked, “Why don’t you use some backup software/service?”

The most common answer was, “I tried it…and it was too hard and too expensive.” We’d learn a lot more about what “hard” and “expensive” meant along the way.

Finding and Testing Solutions

Focus is critical for execution, but when brainstorming solutions, go broad.

We considered a variety of approaches to help people back up their files.

Peer-to-Peer Backup: This was the original idea. Two people would install our backup software which would send each person’s data to the other’s computer. This idea had a lot going for it: The data would be off-site; It would work with existing hardware; It was mildly viral.

Local Drive Backup: The backup software would send data to a USB hard drive. Manually copying files to an external drive was most people’s idea of backing up. However, no good software existed at the time to make this easy. (Time Machine for the Mac hadn’t launched yet.)

Backup To Online Services: Weirder and more unique, this idea stemmed from noticing that online services provided free storage: Flickr for photos; Google Docs for documents and spreadsheets; YouTube for movies; and so on. We considered writing software that would back up each file type to the service that supported it and back up the rest to Gmail.

Backup To Our Online Storage: We’d create a service that backed up data to the cloud. It may seem obvious now, but backing up to the cloud was just one of a variety of possibilities at the time. Also, initially, we didn’t mean ‘our’ storage. We assumed we would use S3 or some other storage provider.

The goal was to come up with a solution that was easy.

We put each solution we came up with through its paces. The goal was to come up with a solution that was easy: Easy for people to use. Easy to understand.

Peer-to-peer backup? First, we’d have to explain what it is (no small task) and then get buy-in from the user to host a backup on their machine. That meant having enough space on each computer, and both needed to be online at the same time. After our initial excitement with the idea, we came to the conclusion that there were too many opportunities for things to go wrong. Verdict: Not easy.

Backup software? Not off-site, and required the purchase of a hard drive. If the drive broke or wasn’t connected, no backup occurred. A useful solution but again, too many opportunities for things to go wrong. Verdict: Not easy.

Back up to online services? Users needed accounts at each, and none of the services supported all file types, so your data ended up scattered all over the place. Verdict: Not easy.

Back up to our online storage? The backup would be current, kept off-site, and updated automatically. It was easy to for people to use, and easy to understand. Verdict: Easy!

Getting To the Solution

Don’t brainstorm forever. Problems don’t get solved on ideas alone.

We decided to back up to our online storage! It met many of the key goals. We started building.

Attempt #1

We built a backup software installer, a way to pick files and folders to back up, and the underlying engine that copies the files to remote storage. We tried to make it comfortable by minimizing clicks and questions.

Fail #1

This approach seemed easy enough to use, at least for us, but it turned out not to be for our target users.

We thought about the original answer we heard: “I tried it…and it was too hard and too expensive.”

“Too hard” is not enough information. What was too hard before? Were the icons too small? The text too long? A critical feature missing? Were there too many features to wade through? Or something else altogether?

Dig deeper into users’ actual needs

We reached out to a lot of friends, family, and co-workers and held some low-key pizza and beer focus groups. Those folks walked us through their backup experience. While there were a lot of difficult areas, the most complicated part was setting up what would be backed up.

“I had to get all the files and folders on my computer organized; then I could set up the backup.”

That’s like cleaning the garage. Sounds like a good idea, but life conspires to get in the way, and it doesn’t happen.

We had to solve that or users would never think of our service as ‘easy.’

Takeaway: Dig deeper into users’ actual needs.

Attempt #2

Trying to remove the need to “clean the garage,” we asked folks what they wanted to be backed up. They told us they wanted their photos, movies, music, documents, and everything important.

We listened and tried making it easier. We focused our second attempt at a backup solution by pre-selecting everything ‘important.’ We selected the documents folder and then went one step further by finding all the photo, movies, music, and other common file types on the computer. Now users didn’t have to select files and folders – we would do it for them!

Fail #2

More pizza and beer user testing had people ask, “But how do I know that my photos are being backed up?”

We told them, “we’re searching your whole computer for photos.”

“But my photos are in this weird format: .jpg, are those included? .gif? .psd?”

We learned that the backup process felt nebulous to users since they wouldn’t know what exactly would be selected. Users would always feel uncomfortable – and uncomfortable isn’t ‘easy.’

Takeaway: No, really, keep digging deeper into users’ actual needs. Identify their real problem, not the solution they propose.

Attempt #3

We took a step back and asked, “What do we know?”

We want all of our “important” files backed up, but it can be hard for us to identify what files those are. Having us guess makes us uncomfortable. So, forget the tech. What experience would be the right one?

Our answer was that the computer would just magically be backed up to the cloud.

Then one of our co-founders Tim wondered, “what if we didn’t ask any questions and just backed up everything?”

At first, we all looked at him askew. Backup everything? That was a lot of data. How would that be possible? But we came back to, “Is this the right answer? Yes. So let’s see if we can make it work.”

So we flipped the entire backup approach on its head.

We didn’t ask users, “What do you want to have backed up.” We asked, “What do you NOT want to be backed up?” If you didn’t know, we’d back up all your data. It took away the scary “pick your files” question and made people comfortable that all their necessary data was being backed up.

We ran that experience by users, and their surprised response was, “Really, that’s it?” Hallelujah.

Success.

Takeaway: Keep digging deeper. Don’t let the tech get in the way of understanding the real problem.

Pricing

Pricing isn’t a side-note – it’s part of the product. Understand how customers will perceive your pricing.

We had developed a solution that was easy to use and easy to understand. But could we make it easy to afford? How much do we charge?

We would be storing a lot of data for each customer. The more data they needed to store, the more it would cost us. We planned to put the data on S3, which charged $0.15/GB/month. So it would seem logical to follow that same pricing model.

People thought of the value of the service rather than an amount of storage.

People had no idea how much data they had on their hard drive and certainly not how much of it needed to be backed up. Worse, they could be off by 1000x if they weren’t sure about the difference between megabytes and gigabytes, as some were.

We had to solve that too, or users would never think of our service as ‘easy.’

I asked everyone I could find: “If we were to provide you a service that automatically would backup all of the data on your computer over the internet, what would that be worth to you?”

What I heard back was a bell-curve:

  • A small number of people said, “$0. It should be free. Everything on the net is free!”
  • A small number of people said, “$50 – $100/month. That’s incredibly valuable!”
  • But by far the majority said, “Hmm. If it were $5/month, that’d be a no-brainer.”

A few interesting takeaways:

  • Everyone assumed it would be a monthly charge even though I didn’t ask, “What would you pay per month.”
  • No one said, “I’d pay $x/GB/month,” so people thought of the value of the service rather than an amount of storage.
  • There may have been opportunities to offer a free service and attempt to monetize it in other ways or to charge $50 – $100/month/user, but these were the small markets.
  • At $5/month, there was a significant slice of the population that was excited to use it.

Conclusion On the Solution

Over and over again we heard, “I tried backing up, but it was too hard and too expensive.”

After really understanding what was complicated, we finally got our real solution: An unlimited online backup service that would back up all your data automatically and charge just $5/month.

Easy to use, easy to understand, and easy to afford. Easy in the ways that mattered to the people using the service.

Often looking backward things seem obvious. But we learned a lot along the way:

  • Having competition doesn’t mean the market is full. Just because solutions exist doesn’t mean the problem is solved.
  • Don’t brainstorm forever. Problems don’t get solved on ideas alone. Brainstorm options, but don’t get stuck in the brainstorming phase.
  • Dig deeper into users’ actual needs. Then keep digging. Don’t let your knowledge of tech get in the way of your understanding the user. And be willing to shift course as your learn more.
  • Pricing isn’t a side-note. It’s part of the product. Understand how customers will perceive your pricing.

Just because we knew the right solution didn’t mean that it was possible. I’ll talk about that, along with how to launch, getting early traction, and more in future posts. What other questions do you have? Leave them in the comments.

The post How Backblaze Got Started: The Problem, The Solution, and the Stuff In-Between appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

Backblaze Begins: Celebrating A Very Special Anniversary

Post Syndicated from Peter Cohen original https://www.backblaze.com/blog/backblaze-begins/

2017 is a milestone year for us at Backblaze: This year is our tenth anniversary. Our official birthday – based on our papers of incorporation – places that date in April. But January 15th was another important date: It’s when the work on what would become Backblaze first started in earnest.

Brian Wilson, our intrepid CTO and CFO, began coding Backblaze full-time on January 15, 2007, in a corner of his living room. Brian had already been coding for a couple of decades, and like our other founders is a serial entrepreneur. But Backblaze was a bit more personal.

Our guiding philosophy is that backups should be easy, automatic, and affordable.

Brian is known by family and friends to have a pretty elaborate and extensive – some might even say a bit insane – backup regimen. That expertise would occasionally lead to questions about data backup and recovery. That’s when Jeanine’s computer crashed. She begged Brian for help to recover her files. But without a backup to restore from, Brian couldn’t help.

While Brian felt bad for Jeanine, he quickly realized that this was just the beginning as photos, movies, and personal and work documents were all going digital. Purely digital. And like Jeanine, most people were not backing up their computers. The amount of data that was at risk of being lost was staggering.

Why were so few people backing up their computers? Managing backups can be difficult, especially for people who don’t live on their computers all the time, but still rely on them. And while there were already online backup services, they were confusing, expensive and required you to select the files you wanted to backup.

So we started Backblaze to solve that impending disaster. Our guiding philosophy is that backups should be easy, automatic, and affordable.

Backblaze caught fire very quickly, if you’ll pardon the pun. By early February we had already begun stringing together a Gigabit Ethernet network (in Brian’s home) to connect the servers and other gear we’d need to get Backblaze up and running. By early April we had working code. That’s when we called the lawyers and got the letters of incorporation rolling, which is why our “official” birthday is in April. April 20th, 2007 in fact.

So why did we call this new venture Backblaze? Back in 2001, Brian had incorporated “Codeblaze” for his consulting business. “Backblaze” was a nod to that previous effort, with an acknowledgment that this new project would focus on backups. April 20th is our official birthday.

4/20 is familiar to marijuana enthusiasts everywhere. and our birthday is a source of occasional mirth and merriment to those in the know. Sorry to be a buzzkill, but it’s totally coincidental: The great state of Delaware decided on our incorporation date.

It’s interesting how one great idea can lead to another. When Backblaze was still coming together, we thought we’d store backup data using an existing cloud storage service. So we went to Amazon S3. We found that S3 was way too expensive for us. Heck, it’s still too expensive, years later.

So we decided to roll our own storage instead. We called it the Storage Pod. We really liked the idea – so much that we decided to open-source the design so you can build your own if you want to. We’ve iterated it many times since then, most recently with our Storage Pod 6.0. We’re now putting 60 drives in each rack-mounted chassis in our data center, for a total of 480 Terabytes of storage in each one.

As our work with Storage Pods continued and as we built out our data center, we realized that we could offer cloud storage to our customers for 1/4 the price that Amazon does. And that’s what led us to start B2 Cloud Storage. You’ve enthusiastically adopted B2, along with a growing cadre of integration partners.

Ten years later, we’re astonished, humbled and thrilled with what we’ve accomplished. We’ve restored more than 20 billion files and the Storage Pods in our data center now keep more than 300 Petabytes of data. The future is bright and the sky’s the limit. We can’t wait to see what the next ten years have in store.

The post Backblaze Begins: Celebrating A Very Special Anniversary appeared first on Backblaze Blog | Cloud Storage & Cloud Backup.

Poland vs the United States: friends & acquaintances

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/06/poland-vs-united-states-friends.html

This is the seventh article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Cultural stereotypes are a dangerous and corrosive thing. They teach us that Poles are a tribe of thieving simpletons; or that Americans are arrogant, violent, and obese. And that’s just the ethnicities that get off easy: the perception of blacks, Muslims, or European Jews can be far more vicious, often serving a pretext for violent hate crime.

At the same time, there is no denying that certain unique archetypes are etched into the fabric of every society. I’d also posit that when cultures come into contact with each other, there is an uncanny valley effect at play: the more similar the nations are, the easier it is for travelers to instinctively pick up the subtle variations – and to misread them as the personality quirks of the people they interact with.

For Poles who settle in the United States, the most striking contrast of this sort must be the persistence with which Americans want to engage in oddly personal small talk: you will be always greeted with “how are you?”, be it by the cashier at a grocery store, by your mailman, by the park ranger met at a trail, or by the waiter serving your food at a restaurant. The social expectation is to share short pleasantries or announce a brief piece of good news. But if your answer is overly specific or focuses on a negative event, you may be given quizzical looks and the conversation will stall.

To many of my compatriots, the exchange – lacking any apparent purpose – feels uncomfortable and insincere. I try not to look at it in a cynical way: the upbeat chit-chat, repeated over and over again, can probably make your day a bit better and a tad more fun. This constrained form of communication also provides something to build on the next time you see that person, even if every individual interaction is necessarily non-committal and brief.

Another explanation for the forced positivity may have to do with the pervasive can-do spirit at the core of the American culture. The national ethos of self-determination and unconstrained social mobility flies in the face of the daily struggles of disadvantaged citizens – but it remains a fundamental part of the cultural identity of the United States. The American Dream manifests itself everywhere, from the country songs of the Midwest to the high-tech entrepreneurship of the Silicon Valley. Your friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even complete strangers are there to support you when true calamity strikes – but dwelling on everyday mishaps is almost universally seen as a weakness that one needs to overcome in order to succeed in life.

In this regard, the Polish culture is strikingly different. After hundreds of years of political repression and foreign control, Poles have developed a colorful tradition of sarcastic humor and idle lamentation. This coping mechanism functions to this day: to a Pole, being asked about your day is seen as an invitation to air all the petty grievances; you wouldn’t expect a friend to smile, exclaim “I’m doing great!”, and move on. Complaining about politics or work is how you build rapport with your peers. In fact, being overly upbeat or talking about professional success or accomplishment is likely to be met with suspicion or scorn. If you’re a successful entrepreneur, you will probably open by complaining about your dealings with the Polish equivalent of the IRS.

In many ways, the Polish approach to chit-chat is more genuine and less rigid. At the same time, I feel that the negativity comes at a price; meeting a cranky clerk at a store sets the tone for the remainder of your day. The constant pessimism can also dampen some altruistic instincts: relatively few people in Poland get engaged in their communities or dedicate themselves to other forms of civic service. It is more accepted to just complain about the ways things are.

Interestingly, in the United States, the boundaries that govern the conversations with complete strangers also extend into the workplace. When interacting with casual acquaintances, sarcasm is seen as jarring, while petty grumbling is perceived as an off-putting and unproductive personality trait. Off-color humor, widely tolerated in Poland, is usually inappropriate in white collar environments; doubly so if it comes at the expense of women, immigrants, or other disadvantaged social groups.

Some Europeans characterize the workplace etiquette in the US as political correctness run amok. There are situations where political correctness can stifle free speech, but I don’t think it’s one of them; for most part, not hearing political rants or jokes about blondes or Jews just makes the world a bit better, even if the comments are uttered with no ill intent. Violating these rules will not necessarily get you in trouble, but in a culturally diverse society, it can make it harder to find new friends.

For the next article in the series, click here.

Poland vs the United States: friends & acquaintances

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/06/poland-vs-united-states-friends.html

This is the seventh article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

Cultural stereotypes are a dangerous and corrosive thing. They teach us that Poles are a tribe of thieving simpletons; or that Americans are arrogant, violent, and obese. And that’s just the ethnicities that get off easy: the perception of blacks, Muslims, or European Jews can be far more vicious, often serving a pretext for violent hate crime.

At the same time, there is no denying that certain unique archetypes are etched into the fabric of every society. I’d also posit that when cultures come into contact with each other, there is an uncanny valley effect at play: the more similar the nations are, the easier it is for travelers to instinctively pick up the subtle variations – and to misread them as the personality quirks of the people they interact with.

For Poles who settle in the United States, the most striking contrast of this sort must be the persistence with which Americans want to engage in oddly personal small talk: you will be always greeted with “how are you?”, be it by the cashier at a grocery store, by your mailman, by the park ranger met at a trail, or by the waiter serving your food at a restaurant. The social expectation is to share short pleasantries or announce a brief piece of good news. But if your answer is overly specific or focuses on a negative event, you may be given quizzical looks and the conversation will stall.

To many of my compatriots, the exchange – lacking any apparent purpose – feels uncomfortable and insincere. I try not to look at it in a cynical way: the upbeat chit-chat, repeated over and over again, can probably make your day a bit better and a tad more fun. This constrained form of communication also provides something to build on the next time you see that person, even if every individual interaction is necessarily non-committal and brief.

Another explanation for the forced positivity may have to do with the pervasive can-do spirit at the core of the American culture. The national ethos of self-determination and unconstrained social mobility flies in the face of the daily struggles of disadvantaged citizens – but it remains a fundamental part of the cultural identity of the United States. The American Dream manifests itself everywhere, from the country songs of the Midwest to the high-tech entrepreneurship of the Silicon Valley. Your friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even complete strangers are there to support you when true calamity strikes – but dwelling on everyday mishaps is almost universally seen as a weakness that one needs to overcome in order to succeed in life.

In this regard, the Polish culture is strikingly different. After hundreds of years of political repression and foreign control, Poles have developed a colorful tradition of sarcastic humor and idle lamentation. This coping mechanism functions to this day: to a Pole, being asked about your day is seen as an invitation to air all the petty grievances; you wouldn’t expect a friend to smile, exclaim “I’m doing great!”, and move on. Complaining about politics or work is how you build rapport with your peers. In fact, being overly upbeat or talking about professional success or accomplishment is likely to be met with suspicion or scorn. If you’re a successful entrepreneur, you will probably open by complaining about your dealings with the Polish equivalent of the IRS.

In many ways, the Polish approach to chit-chat is more genuine and less rigid. At the same time, I feel that the negativity comes at a price; meeting a cranky clerk at a store sets the tone for the remainder of your day. The constant pessimism can also dampen some altruistic instincts: relatively few people in Poland get engaged in their communities or dedicate themselves to other forms of civic service. It is more accepted to just complain about the ways things are.

Interestingly, in the United States, the boundaries that govern the conversations with complete strangers also extend into the workplace. When interacting with casual acquaintances, sarcasm is seen as jarring, while petty grumbling is perceived as an off-putting and unproductive personality trait. Off-color humor, widely tolerated in Poland, is usually inappropriate in white collar environments; doubly so if it comes at the expense of women, immigrants, or other disadvantaged social groups.

Some Europeans characterize the workplace etiquette in the US as political correctness run amok. There are situations where political correctness can stifle free speech, but I don’t think it’s one of them; for most part, not hearing political rants or jokes about blondes or Jews just makes the world a bit better, even if the comments are uttered with no ill intent. Violating these rules will not necessarily get you in trouble, but in a culturally diverse society, it can make it harder to find new friends.

For the next article in the series, click here.

Poland vs the United States: civil liberties

Post Syndicated from Michal Zalewski original http://lcamtuf.blogspot.com/2015/06/poland-vs-united-states-civil-liberties.html

This is the sixth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, start here.

I opened my comparison of Poland and the US with the topic of firearm ownership. I decided to take this route in part because of how alien the US gun culture may appear to outsiders – and because of how polarizing and interesting the subject is. But in today’s entry, I wanted to take a step back and have a look at the other, more traditional civil liberties that will be more familiar to folks on the other side of the pond.

Before we dive in, it is probably important to note that the national ethos of the United States is very expressly built on the tradition of radical individualism and free enterprise – as championed by thinkers such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, or Adam Smith. Of course, many words can be written about the disconnect between this romanticized vision and complex realities of entrepreneurship or social mobility in the face of multi-generational poverty – but the perception still counts: in much of Europe, the government is seen less as a guarantor of civil liberties, and more as a provider of basic needs. The inverse is more true in the US; the armed forces and small businesses enjoy the two top spots in institutional trustworthiness surveys; federal legislators come dead last. This sentiment shapes many of the ongoing political debates – not just around individual freedoms, but also as related to public healthcare or the regulation of commerce. The virtues of self-sufficiency and laissez-faire capitalism seem far more self-evident to the citizens of the US than they are in the EU.

With that in mind, it’s worthwhile to start the comparison with the freedom of speech. A cherished tradition in the western world, this liberty is nevertheless subordinate to a number of collectivist social engineering goals across the whole old continent; for example, strong prohibitions exist on the promotion of Nazi ideology or symbolism, or on the mere practice of denying the Holocaust. The freedom of speech is also broadly trumped by the right to privacy, including the hotly-debated right to be forgotten on the Internet. Other, more exotic restrictions implemented in several places in Europe include the prohibition against disrespecting the religious beliefs of others or insulting any acting head of state; in Poland, people have been prosecuted for hurling childish insults at the Pope or at the outgoing Polish president. Of course, the enforcement is patently selective: in today’s political climate, no one will be charged for calling Mr. Putin a thug.

The US takes a more absolutist view of the First Amendment, with many hate groups enjoying far-reaching impunity enshrined in the judicial standards put forward not by politicians, but by the unusually powerful US Supreme Court. The notion of “speech” is also interpreted very broadly, extending to many forms of artistic, religious, and political expression; in particular, the European niqab and burka bans would be patently illegal in the United States and aren’t even the subject of serious debate. The concept of homeschooling, banned or heavily regulated in some parts of Europe, is seen by some through the same constitutional prism: it is your right to teach your children about Young Earth creationism, and the right trumps any concerns over the purported social costs. Last but not least, there is the controversial Citizens United decision, holding that some forms of financial support provided to political causes can be equated with constitutionally protected speech; again, the ruling came not from the easily influenced politicians, but from the Supreme Court.

As an aside, despite the use of freedom-of-speech restrictions as a tool for rooting out anti-Semitism and hate speech in Europe, the contemporary US may be providing a less fertile ground for racism and xenophobia than at least some parts of the EU. The country still struggles with its dark past and the murky reality of racial discrimination – but despite the stereotypes, the incidence of at least some types of casual racism in today’s America seems lower than in much of Europe. The pattern is also evident in political discourse; many of the openly xenophobic opinions or legislative proposals put forward by European populist politicians would face broad condemnation in the US. Some authors argue that the old continent is facing a profound new wave of Islamophobia and
hatred toward Jews; in countries such as Greece and Hungary, more than 60% of population seems to be holding such views. In Poland, more than 40% say that Jews hold too much influence in business – a surreal claim, given that that there are just several thousand Jews living in the country of 38 million. My own memories from growing up in that country are that of schoolkids almost universally using “you Jew!” as a mortal insult. The defacement of Jewish graves and monuments, or anti-Semitic graffiti, posters, and sports chants are far more common than they should be. It’s difficult to understand if restrictions on free speech suppress the sentiments or make them worse, but at the very least, the success of the policies is not clear-cut.

Other civil liberties revered in the United States, and perhaps less so in Europe, put limits on the ability of the government to intrude into private lives through unwarranted searches and seizures. Of course, the stereotypical view of the US is that of a dystopian surveillance state, epitomized by the recent focus on warrantless surveillance or secret FISA courts. But having worked for a telecommunications company in Poland, my own sentiment is that in Europe, surveillance tends to be done with more impunity, far less legal oversight, and without clear delination between law enforcement and intelligence work. The intelligence community in particular is often engaged in domestic investigations against businesses, politicians, and journalists – and all across Europe, “pre-crime” policing ideas are taking hold.

In many European countries, citizens are not afforded powerful tools such as FOIA requests, do not benefit from a tradition of protected investigative journalism and whistleblowing, and can’t work with influential organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union; there is also no history of scandals nearly as dramatic and transformative as Watergate. In the States, I feel that all this helped to create an imperfect but precious balance between the needs of the government and the rights of the people – and instill higher ethical standards in the law enforcement and intelligence community; it is telling that the revelations from Snowden, while exposing phenomenal and somewhat frightening surveillance capabilities of the NSA, have not surfaced any evidence of politically-motivated investigations or other blatant impropriety in how the capabilities are being used by the agency. The individualist spirit probably helps here, too: quite a few states and municipalities go as far as banning traffic enforcement cameras because of how they rob suspects of the ability to face the accuser in court.

When it comes to some other civil traditions that are sacrosanct in Europe, the United States needs to face justified criticism. The harsh and overcrowded penal system treats some offenders unfairly; it is a product of populist sentiments influenced by the crime waves of the twentieth century and fueled by the dysfunctional War on Drugs. While Polish prisons may not be much better, some of the ideas implemented elsewhere in Europe seem to make a clear difference. They are difficult to adopt in the States chiefly because they do not fit the folksy “tough on crime” image that many American politicians take pride in.

In the same vein, police brutality, disproportionately faced by the poor and the minorities, is another black mark for individual rights. The death penalty, albeit infrequent and reserved for most heinous crimes, stands on shaky moral grounds – even if it faces steady public support. The indefinite detention and torture of terrorism suspects, with the knowledge and complicity of many other European states, deserves nothing but scorn. Civil forfeiture is a bizarre concept that seems to violate the spirit of the Fourth Amendment by applying unreasonably relaxed standards for certain types of seizures – although in all likelihood, its days are coming to an end.

As usual, the picture is complex and it’s hard to declare the superiority of any single approach to individual liberties. Europe and the United States have much in common, but also differ in very interesting ways.

For the next article in the series, click here.