Melissa Zieger - Guest Blogger


Declaration of Independence: Can Startups Retain Startup Vibe Post Acquisition?

I cannot think of any two business scenarios more different from one another than running a scrappy startup and being one of many components organized beneath the banner of a global brand. But thanks to a deceptively simple procedure known as an acquisition, the loners and the joiners often find themselves seated across the conference table from each other.

And  interesting example is Urbanspoon.

To be fair, the Urbanspoon story is one that’s mostly positive because of the nature of the company that acquired it. In 2009, the online restaurant guide launched by Patrick O’Donnell and two partners was purchased by IAC, which recognized the value of the company and invested in it with the goal of realizing a return. After the acquisition, the other two founders moved on, leaving O’Donnell with two options: Either remain and steward the startup culture he’d worked to establish or follow their lead and move on to something new.urban spoon

“I’m still here because I love the product, and if you’re motivated by that it’s far more likely to work,” he says. And if the numbers mean anything, it appears to be working: The Seattle-based product team, which consisted of five people when the company was acquired, now has nearly 40 members and will soon be moving into roomier digs – the offices once occupied by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in fact.

Even though it has grown, O’Donnell says the team retains a lot of the vibe it’s had from the start. “Our team has a very geeky, food-loving personality,” he tells me. “A lot of offices bring food in a lot, but there’s a little more showmanship in our case.”

The enthusiasm isn’t just for office potlucks or in-office foosball and ping pong matches. “We’re in charge of our own destiny,” says O’Donnell. “We want Urbanspoon to be wildly successful with lots of users and to be a revenue-generating force.” In addition, O’Donnell cites big company benefits and partnerships as positive aspects of the acquisition.

O’Donnell’s perspective is informed in large part by having participated in other acquisitions that have left team members less than motivated. “The worst thing that can happen is for a startup culture to develop and then get acquired by a big company that brings in a lot of senior people who heavily influence things,” he says. “Even with the best of intentions, that’s going to have a negative impact on the culture, and once you lose momentum it’s hard to get it back.”

O’Donnell’s advice: Don’t lose momentum.

“Early in the acquisition you need to fight like hell,” he says. “There can be points of integration between your startup and the acquiring company, but the main goal is to deliver a better product or service for the customers.”

O’Donnell believes that startups run by founders whose goal is to be acquired often lack the attributes that smart acquirers are seeking, namely energy and passion. “Once they’ve bought you they can do whatever they want, so your duty is to fight like hell to make it work and keep the passion on the product team,” he says. “Or, at the very least, stay focused on what made you successful to begin with.”

Do you have an acquisition story? We’d love to hear it in the comments.

Thanks for reading,

Melissa Zieger

Melissa Zieger (@HP_SmallBiz) is the editor-in-chief of HP's SMB blog, 367 Addison Avenue and a worldwide public relations manager for HP's Personal Systems Group.

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10 Marketing Tips That Don't Cost a Penny

Marketing and publicity is unavoidable for a business that is serious about succeeding. Here are ten marketing tips that won’t cost you anything.

clip_image0011. Be an expert. Get your name out there as a bona fide expert. Teach a class, give speeches and presentations at meetings and conferences, and write articles for publications that reach your target audience. Participate in LinkedIn Answers to establish yourself as an expert within an industry.

2. Hold a contest. Ignite interest in your business with a contest or a giveaway. Integrate the contest with social media efforts to boost traffic and publicity.

3. Crowdsource your marketing. Involve new and existing customers in the development of your business. Open up product ideas to votes and suggestions to increase and engage your audience as well as to gain instant feedback. For example, have a contest to name a new release or make a poll to decide the next flavor on the menu. Again, integrate social media to crowdsource the publicity reach as well.

4. Host an event. Offer a workshop or demo. Host a networking event for your field or a get-together for your community’s local businesses.

5. Get social. Use social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, but learn how to use them wisely. Do some homework before you delve into the land of tweets and likes to make sure you’re not wasting your time or your audience’s. Check the analytics and stats for Twitter and Facebook to see if your efforts are driving results. Depending on what kind of business you have, check out other social media channels, such as LinkedIn for business-to-business marketing or Pinterest for visual marketing.

6. Provide public customer service. Make a visible case for how helpful and responsive your business is. Answer customer questions and provide solutions on forums like Yahoo Answers and on social media channels.

7. Blog and network. Blogging is a useless marketing tactic if nobody’s reading. First, create good content and push it out using social media. Extend your reach by interacting with other bloggers, exchanging links, commenting on other sites, and guest-posting on other blogs.

8. Use your e-mail lists wisely. Use e-mails to build your brand with customers who have already expressed an interest. Don’t pay them back by sending frequent, inane, or overlong e-mails. Be authentic and engaging while adding value to your e-mails, such as tips, narratives, promotions, and coupons.

9. Donate in-kind. Provide goods, services, or space for events and campaigns. Being a sponsor doesn’t just mean providing financial support.

10. Help a Reporter. Try Help a Reporter, which connects reporters and journalists looking for sources with company and industry experts. A free basic account gets you e-mails three times a day with media opportunities. HARO recently opened its service to UK reporters and sources.

Thanks for reading,

Melissa Zieger

Melissa Zieger (@HP_SmallBiz) is the editor-in-chief of HP's SMB blog, 367 Addison Avenue and a worldwide public relations manager for HP's Personal Systems Group.

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5 Tips for Hiring the Right Employees

How do you know you’re getting the right people for the job? The hiring process is time-consuming and expensive enough, and when it doesn’t work out, those numbers only go up. In fact, some experts estimate the costs of filling a position can range from 8 percent to 20 percent of the position's annual salary for the first year – and that’s not chump change.

Startup hiring wisdom

A recent article about hiring the right employees for startups offered great advice that could apply to any small business. As any entrepreneur can attest, starting a business is a costly, stressful and exhilarating proposition that often involves late nights, brainstorming and not doing much else until the business is up and running and meeting defined goals.

In that scenario, the right personalities are key – while the wrong ones can be an unmitigated and pricey train wreck. Follow these hiring tips to make sure your next hire is a good one. 

  • Look for skills first. Avoid the temptation to hire the great personality who’s also a quick study. If the skills aren’t there to begin with so your new hire can hit the ground running, it could be a decision you regret later as a business owner. Most small businesses don’t have the outlay of cash for major training resources – and owners can’t afford mistakes. Hire the skills first, and avoid problems later.

  • Make sure the skills are relevant to your business. This might sound like a no-brainer, but work experience isn’t always about how many years the person has doing a certain thing. If, for example, you’re hiring a technology writer, that person doesn’t need an engineering degree. Rather, the person simply needs to know how to write well about technology – and about your business.

  • Look for an aggressive, competitive nature. There’s no time for wallflowers need in a fast-moving business environment, so look for those aggressive personalities with a competitive drive to succeed. These are the kind of people who thrive on crazy deadlines and competitive challenges under pressure. Ask your potential hire about their thoughts on working in a pressure-cooker environment – and hire the ones whose eyes light up.

  • Flexibility is critical. Small businesses need employees who can quickly shift with a businesses’ changing priorities – whether that means your new hire is in charge of sales and business development one month and marketing the next. Ask how comfortable they are with change at the drop of a hat. You don’t want those employees who are loathe to break out of a mold every once in a while.

  • Try before you buy. Considering an employee but not sure if you want to make the commitment yet? Think about hiring the person on a project basis as a contractor. It’s a great way for both of you to test the waters to see whether the fit is good for the long-term.

Thanks for reading,

Melissa Zieger

Melissa Zieger (@HP_SmallBiz) is the editor-in-chief of HP's SMB blog, 367 Addison Avenue and a worldwide public relations manager for HP's Personal Systems Group.

Keep reading