Deep domain expertise but no CTO? Here’s a guide to hiring one

I originally published this on the blog. You can go there to subscribe to my weekly newsletter of startup tools, articles and advice.

I was recently asked by a founding team I know, how to go about hiring a CTO. They are experts in a significantly deep domain, but need a technologist with them to build their company, ideally one with a background in the same domain.

So far, they’ve been outsourcing technical work, but they’ve realized that this is not be the best approach.

Sealing the deal with a handshake

How to find your CTO co-founder

In my opinion, for any type of startup where you are building something new, that has not existed in the world before, it is best if you are able to hire a full-time technologist into a CTO type of role, as a partner or co-founder. Without working extremely tightly (in the same room, even) with the person who is building the nuts and bolts of the product, you always lose some of the innovative magic that comes from different disciplines all aligned on building a product.

Of course there are times you can’t do this, e.g. if your budget does not allow it or if the company only needs input from a technologist for a limited amount of time, in which case it can make sense to outsource. If this describes you, you might want to talk to my botwhich can help you decide where to outsource from. But if you’re in a situation where it makes sense to bring on a full-time technologist, one who can build your product and steer the technical vision, do it.

When you already have expert knowledge of a deep domain in the founding team, here are my recommended approaches to hiring a CTO, in order of preference:

#1: It’s all about your network

Take a good look at your existing network. It’s quite likely that you can think of a handful of the brightest technical people who you already worked with within the domain.

Work up the courage needed to pitch your idea to them, even if it seems like they are very comfortable right where they are and you think you might not have a chance of wooing them over to a tiny startup. You never know what they will say.

#2: It’s still all about your network

If you can’t hire from your network, it’s still exceptionally likely that someone in your network, who you’ve worked with in your domain of expertise, knows some ideal candidates.

Your next step is therefore to go deep on your network: Make a list of several folks in your existing network who are likely to know a lot of potential candidates, for example folks who have long experience from multiple companies either in your domain or in closely related domains.

Now, pitch to this list of people. You’re not trying to sell them on joining your company, but you need to convince them of your company’s worth well enough that they will be OK making introductions to valuable people in their network.

Once you have your introductions, it’s time to set up interviews. Since these are folks you either already know or were recommended by people in your network that you trust, the first round of interviews should mostly focus on personality fit, enthusiasm for the mission of the startup, and so forth.

#3: Traditional recruiting

You can try using a recruiter, and/or you can advertise the position, i.e. recruit the traditional way. I don’t necessarily recommend this approach, but if you do decide to try it, then it is higher on the priority list than #4, below.

The major issue with this approach is that there is a much higher chance of making a bad or mediocre hire. A bad hire can spell death for an early stage startup, and it can take months to recover from a mediocre one.

#4: Hire for potential if you can’t get proven experience

The last approach I can recommend is to lower the bar a little bit, and hire a person with less experience but a ton of potential. This is someone you might not be ready to put in a CTO role yet, but who you could see filling a CTO role within a couple of years. Someone smart and driven and very enthusiastic about what you’re building.

You might hire this type of person as a full co-founder who takes a bunch of risk with you and gets a good share of equity, or you might hire them more as an “employee number one,” paying them close to market rate for their experience level and giving them a good amount of stock options.

This could be somebody straight out of university, or somebody with a couple of years experience under their belt. It’s probably not going to be somebody who is already an expert in your domain.

The trick with this type of hire is, one of the more experienced folks in the founding team will need to take on more of the project management and product management than if you find a full CTO type of person. This type of hire will focus almost exclusively on the technical side in the early days, although you are hoping they can grow into handling more areas and becoming a domain expert over time.

I’ve witnessed first-hand how this type of hire can become a full-fledged CTO over time, so don’t sweat it too much if approaches #1 and #2 don’t work out for finding a CTO for your new company, just repeat them to find a more junior person who you are convinced is very talented and highly enthusiastic.

You need a bullshit detector

In the situation described above, the current founders are not technical. Whenever you’re non-technical and are hiring for an important technical role, it’s very important to get the help of an experienced technical person you trust to act as a “bullshit detector” for whoever you’ve short listed. Ideally you would get somebody you trust, who would be a fit for the CTO position (but who isn’t available or willing to join a startup), and ask for their time to do 2-3 technical interviews once you’ve done the first round of interviews.


  1. Use your network
  2. Dig deep in your network
  3. Do traditional recruiting only at your own risk
  4. If you can’t find a CTO as experienced as you’d like, find somebody with the potential to become CTO down the line
  5. Get a trusted, experienced technologist to act as a bullshit detector

GDPR: The Quick and Dirty Guide to Getting Compliant for Startups and Small Business

A lot has been written about the European Union’s new data protection regulation, the GDPR, but not much of it is tailored for startups and small businesses, and a lot of it just muddies the picture of what you really need to do or gives you an incomplete picture.

In this guide, it is my intent to give you a simple set of steps you can take, if you fit a particular profile that will apply to many small businesses and startups, to become compliant enough to avoid fines, to treat your users fairly under the new regulation, and to work towards fuller compliance over time as the regulation gets interpreted and more best practices get established around what it means to be compliant (much of this is a bit vague at the moment). Read on for important legal disclaimers, and for details on the profile you need to fit for this guide to apply to you.Private, photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

GDPR is in effect from May 25th, 2018, and whether you are based in the EU or not, you very likely will need to be compliant. If you have users living in the EU or EEAthen you need to comply. You will also need to comply if you process any personal data on users who live in the EU or EEA, even if that processing is done on behalf of a third party (i.e., the users are not directly your users).


I am not a lawyer, and none of the advice in this guide should be taken as legal advice. This guide is based on my own discussions with lawyers and other experts on European data protection regulations, as well as my own research in figuring out how to make my own startup compliant, but I strongly encourage you to seek your own legal counsel and expert advice to ensure you do what is right in your own particular situation. I also encourage you to simply read the regulation, it is not so terribly long or dense.

We (I the author and make no warranties about the completeness, reliability or accuracy of this information, or its suitability to purpose. Any action you take, or fail to take, based upon the information in this guide is strictly at your own risk, and we will not be liable for any losses or damages in connection with the use of this guide.

Profile you need to fit to use this guide

To keep this guide simple and concise, I’ve written it for a very specific profile that many startups and small businesses will fit. To avoid having to repeat the various criteria throughout the guide, please check whether you fit this profile:

  1. Your organization is a startup company or a small business. Not a public authority, non-profit, NGO, etc.
  2. You have fewer than 250 employees.
  3. You are not performing regular and systematic monitoring of people on a large scale.
  4. You don’t process personal information for children younger than 13.
  5. You do not process data revealing race, ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership, criminal history, genetic data, biometric data that can uniquely identify a natural person, health data, or data on sex life or sexual orientation.

If you don’t fit the profile, then this guide isn’t for you. You may find useful information in it, but please note that the rest of the guide will not explain which bits would be different for larger companies, or public authorities, or those processing childrens’ personal information, etc. The rest of the guide is written with the assumption that you fit the profile.

Also, to keep the guide simple, I am focusing on the changes occurring May 25th, 2018, and assuming you were already compliant with previous EU privacy regulations, for example showing an explicit notice for users to accept cookies if you use them for anything other than what is necessary for your service.


Before we get started, it will help to get some definitions out of the way:

  • Subject: A natural person, i.e. an individual.
  • Data Controller: The entity that collects and processes data on subjects. This will normally be the company that the user feels like they are submitting their personal data to. For example, if you run a B2C SaaS business, you are almost certainly a Data Controller.
  • Data Processor: An entity that processes data on behalf of a data controller. A lot of B2B SaaS companies will be Data Processors, for example anyone who runs an API-based service that accepts personal data. A lot of companies, especially B2B companies, will also find that they are both a Data Controller (to their own registered users), as well as a Data Processor (for the data entered by their users). An example of a company that is definitely both a Data Controller as well as a Data Processor would be a cloud-hosted CRM system; it is a Data Controller for its own registered users’ data, and a Data Processor for all the personal information on their prospects and customers.
  • Personal data: Any data that relates to a Subject (i.e. an individual), that either is identified or can be identified based on that or other data. Essentially, any data you store that relates to a natural person, whether or not you know their identity or just know enough about them that they might be identified.

Step by step

1. Catalog all personal data

Your first step should be to make a catalog of all the different types of personal data you store and process in your business. To jog your memory, here’s a list of different types of such data you might be collecting and processing:

  • Data on your employees (for payroll and other purposes)
  • User account data, settings, etc.
  • Usage records in your database
  • Diagnostic logs and analytics (may e.g. contain IP addresses)
  • Any data files, photos, etc. that you store on behalf of subjects
  • Details related to subscriptions, payments, etc.
  • Lead lists that you have created or purchased (e.g., lists of email addresses, names, titles) for direct sales or marketing purposes, without explicit consent from the subjects
  • Prospect and customer details in your CRM
  • Mailing lists that subjects have opted into

For each category of personal data you collect, add a row to a spreadsheet or database where you can record your answers to the following questions:

  1. What is our purpose for collecting/processing this data? If there are multiple different types of processing for one set of data, make separate entries in your spreadsheet for each different type.
  2. Where do we store the data? E.g., in a database, files (note the location), or in a 3rd party system such as Google Analytics or MailChimp?
  3. What types of personal data is collected/stored for this processing? Name? Email? Photographs of the person? Write down all the different aspects of data related to an individual that you collect and store for this particular processing.
  4. Where does the information come from? From the subjects themselves, or from 3rd party datasets, from your own online research, or it is entered or otherwise input by your users (e.g. if you run a CRM)?
  5. Do you use a Data Processor to store/process this data? For example, if it’s a flat file stored in Google Drive, then Google is your Data Processor here. List all data processors for each category of personal data.
  6. How long do you store the data? Could you store it for a shorter duration?
  7. What is your policy related to this data?
  8. What is your justification to process the data? The most common ones are that consent was given, or it is required to fulfill a contract with the Subject, or you have a legitimate interest to process the data that is not overridden by the interests or fundamental rights and freedoms of the Subject (yes, this last bit is vague – we’ll discuss this a bit more in step 7). If consent was given for the processing, what form of consent is it, and is it explicit enough? We’ll talk more about getting consent in step 3.

Again, make sure each entry in your database or spreadsheet has only a single purpose for the processing. If you use the same set of data for different types of processing, duplicate the entry and just change the purpose bit on each entry. For example, if you use your registered users’ email address both as a key to their user accounts, and also for some marketing purposes (e.g., finding and following them on LinkedIn), then those are two separate purposes.

You may find that you don’t have great answers for items 6 through 8 to begin with. Don’t worry, we’ll get to those columns in later steps of the guide.

2. Minimize risk and reduce work

From the document you generated in step 1, your next step is now to use those details to reduce the amount of work you need to do, and to minimize risk for you and for your users.

The more you reduce your work and minimize your risk in this step, the less work you will have in subsequent steps.

First, for each item, see if you can collect less information, store that information for less time, or make the information collected not personally identifiable by partially or completely scrubbing it.

One important way to do this is for example, if you collect IP addresses (and almost all HTTP server logs do!), why not strip out the last 8 bits so that they are no longer potentially traceable back to an individual? Even without those last 8 bits, they’ll still be specific enough to understand roughly where in the world they are (based on IP geolocation) and perform various other types of analytics on.

Second, review all the different Data Processors that you use as subprocessors. Are they all GDPR compliant, or planning to be? Do they all offer a Data Processing Agreement (DPA)? It’s easy to figure this out by doing a search like “[provider name] GDPR” and “[provider name] DPA”. If there are any Data Processors that you feel like you can stop using, at least temporarily, then consider doing so. If there are any that you critically rely on, that don’t yet have a clear statement on GDPR compliance and availability of a DPA, it’s time to start a serious discussion with them or create a fallback plan to mitigate your risk.

Third, note that one of the requirements of the GDPR is for data controllers and processors to “implement appropriate technical and organisational measures to ensure a level of security appropriate to the risk.” Since you fit the profile for this guide, there may not be that much you need to do beyond what you already do, but I would recommend you schedule a risk assessment meeting with your technical team, to generate a list of what the highest technical and process risks might be to the security of personal data, and suggest mitigating steps for each of these. Write down meeting minutes from this risk assessment. You don’t have to take every potential mitigating step right away, but you might want to start on one or two of the lowest-hanging fruit. For example, transmit personal data only over encrypted communication channels, or minimize the number of staff that have full access to all production data.

3. Get consent

Going back to the list of data generated in step 1, review the justification for processing each category of personal data.

For any category where the justification is consent, make sure you are getting that consent in the right way, and plan modifications to your product or service as quickly as possible to fix any areas where you’re not quite doing it in a compliant way.

The GDPR requires that you use explicit opt-ins or forced choices, so no more pre-checked opt-in buttons or unchecked opt-out buttons. This is the most common change a lot of websites and products need to make.

The GDPR also requires unbundling of choices, so no more “enter your email to create an account in our product and join our mailing list.” Those need to be two separate choices.

However, it does allow for unambiguous consent rather than explicit opt-in when you are not collecting sensitive data, and this is great to use where you can, as it’s a better user experience as well as creating less friction than explicit opt-in or forced choice. This is best explained by way of example:

Let’s say your account signup is based on an email address, and above the email field you have text saying something like “We will use your email to send you transactional emails”. If the user enters their email and submits your form after seeing this notice, then they are giving unambiguous consent to this use of their address (i.e., you can now send them transactional emails).

In the example above, due to the requirement of unbundling, a good next step might be to have a forced “yes/no” choice of whether to also sign up for your newsletter.

4. Enable subjects to exercise their rights

Under the GDPR, data subjects have a number of rights that you as a Data Controller must allow them to exercise, and that you as a Data Processor must enable a data controller to implement.

Subject rights according to the GDPR include full access to their data in a computer-readable format, the right to correct their data, to object to any part of your data processing activities, and the right to be forgotten (right to erasure). You need to be able to implement all of these, not just with data that you directly store, but with data stored by any subprocessors you use.

Implementing all of these rights in a fully-automated manner can be a daunting task, especially for small companies. Fortunately, the GDPR does not require that exercising these rights be fully automated or instant; it just states that we should do things “without undue delay”.

My recommendation is to initially implement each of the rights only through a manual process: Create an internally documented checklist and train your customer support staff on what to do for each type of request from subjects, and to ask subjects to submit requests to exercise their rights through your support ticketing system. Later, when you understand more about how frequent different types of requests are, you can see what the return on investment for fully or partially automating each task will be, and decide based on that.

Here are some recommendations on how to some of the different rights:

  1. Right of access: If they ask, you need to tell them whether and how you are processing their data. You can also mostly handle this right by having a public statement about your data protection policies (see next step).
  2. Right to data portability: You can handle these two rights more or less the same. Document a process whereby you gather all data on the person into a single folder, ZIP it up, and send to them. Use your list from step 1 to achieve this, and don’t forget data stored by various subprocessors. The GDPR requires that the data be machine readable but does not specify the exact format. As standards emerge around this, look to them and try to do what others are doing, but for now, who’s to say what the right format is?
  3. Right to rectification: This is essentially a right to make corrections. Just accept the corrected data and update your systems.
  4. Right to erasure: Part of this right requires that you “forget” subjects if you no longer need to process their data. The other part is, they can withdraw their consent or object to your processing of their data (see below) at which point you need to erase them from your data. If you only process data based on consent, then all you need to do is remove their records. If you also process personal data not submitted by the subject in question, see the next right (the right to object).
  5. Right to object: If you fit the profile for this article, then this is bound to have to do with direct marketing, e.g. cold outreach or some other form of processing where they did not consent, but rather you are processing their data because of a business need you have. If they object, you stop processing their data (i.e. you unsubscribe them / add them to an exclusion list) and make sure you do not process their data again without consent. It’s unclear to me whether you are allowed to keep their email address or some other identifier on file as part of an exclusion list, but I would think that as a first step towards an implementation this should be OK; a more advanced implementation would be to keep a list of one-way cryptographic hashes of email addresses or other identifiers that have opted out.

5. Document your policies

Internal policy documentation is important when it comes to treating data subjects fairly, and doubly important when it comes to avoiding fines. Your internal documented policies and training of staff in dealing with the GDPR are likely to go a long way to convincing regulators you should not be fined, even if something happens to go wrong or not be 100% compliant.

Create a master document for all data protection policies and documentation internally, and link everything there.

Make sure you have a documented security policy and a documented policy on access to personal data and handling of personal data by your staff. Among other things, this policy should minimize the number of staff who have full access to everything, and should attempt to establish appropriate controls for what can be done with data and who needs to authorize which type of use of data. Refer back to your list from step 1 to create this policy.

I also recommend creating an external web page, promoted similarly as your Terms of Service and your Privacy Policy (and probably also linked to from your Privacy Policy). Call it Data Protection Statement and document as much as you can for external users – give them an insight on your policies, which subprocessors you use, how your subprocessors are compliant, and give them instructions on how to exercise their rights (see step 4). Refer to the right of access for a list of information you need to disclose and should be part of your Data Protection Statement.

6. Sign DPAs and consider territories

The most onerous requirement of the GDPR, for small businesses, is the need to sign a Data Processing Agreement (DPA) with any sub-processor you use, and if you are a Data Processor, to offer your customers to sign such an agreement with you.

Many well-established platforms and SaaS that you may be using will already have these well before the GDPR deadline of May 25th, 2018. For example, Amazon Web Services and MailChimp had these ready well in advance. Other providers, you may need to contact their support team and indicate to them that you will be unable to use their services after the deadline unless they sign such an agreement with you.

If you are a Data Processor, you will need to have a lawyer draft your DPA. You can look to other providers’ DPAs for inspriation.

Another potentially onerous obligation for small companies is that if you are outside the European Union (and a handful of other countries), you need to get explicit consent from the user, consenting to have their data processed outside of the EU (remember, explicit consent means an explicit opt-in or forced yes/no choice indicating that they agree to this; in this case an unambiguous consent is not sufficient).

There are two ways around the above, but only the former is likely to be feasible by a small company such as yours:

  1. For US businesses, you can certify to the U.S. Privacy Shield framework.
  2. For businesses in other jurisdictions, you could apply to the EU privacy regulators to have them certify so-called Binding Corporate Rules. You’ll probably prefer to just ask for explicit consent from the user.

7. Be transparent

A fundamental principle of the GDPR, and one of the rights of data subjects, is transparency. This means, it needs to be clear and easily discoverable how and why you are processing the subject’s data.

You already set up your public Data Protection Statement, which is one of the main ways to fulfill your obligation to be transparent.

Another very important obligation is to report security incidents.

If there is ever a security incident where a personal data breach is possible, i.e. where it looks like unauthorized parties may have gained access to any personal data, you have an obligation to:

  1. Notify the data subject without undue delay. You probably already know their email or phone number, so use that. If you don’t, you need to set up some kind of opt-in mailing list or similar that users can subscribe to for such notifications, or you will need to communicate publicly about data breaches. There are certain situations where you can skip notifying individual subjects.
  2. If you are a Data Processor, you must notify affected Data Controllers without undue delay.
  3. Unless the data breach is “unlikely to result in a risk to the rights and freedoms of natural persons”, you must notify the supervisory authorities of the EU/EEA member state(s) affected, i.e. where the data subjects reside.

8. Consider your cold outreach practices

Recall that one of the rights of data subjects is transparency. You need to let them know how and why you are processing their data. For consent-based or contract-based processing, they should already know this from the time they consented. They should know they are users of yours, and they know where to find and read your Data Protection Statement to see how to reach you, how to withdraw their consent if they wish, etc. You still need to have the typical unsubscribe links in emails you send to a mailing list, and so forth, but mostly you can do things the same as you have before, after finishing all the steps above

For direct marketing, e.g. cold email campaigns, the waters are murkier. Some have said that cold email is dead with the advent of GDPR, but I don’t think this is actually true. Important figures such as highly placed folks at Amazon have claimed that you can still cold email under the GDPR.

My reading of the regulation is that you need to still provide transparency, and let the user know how they can object to processing. I would suggest you include not only a link to unsubscribe (already required by several regulations in many countries around the world), but also a one-liner of where you got their data and why you are emailing them (i.e., what your legitimate business interest in contacting them is), and a link to your Data Protection Statement so that they have clarity on how to exercise their rights. I would also suggest that you be even more careful than before in targeting very specific market segments, departments, titles, etc. so that it is easier to make the case should the regulators start talking about fining you, that you were strongly convinced that this particular piece of email would be of interest to the particular group of people you contacted.

An alternate approach that you may wish to try instead of contacting individuals, and is certainly lower risk now that the GDPR looms large, is to prefer sending to generic email addresses such as info@ and contactus@, asking for an introduction to the right person.

Finally, we may see a return to more cold calling rather than cold emailing. While you still have an obligation to be transparent and answer truthfully if they ask why you are calling them or how you found their name and phone number, I doubt that it will be a requirement any time soon to start every call with a two-minute disclosure of this information.

The GDPR is very open to interpretation and only time will tell how strictly it gets interpreted. As long as you make your best effort to be compliant and treat your data subjects fairly, process their data lawfully, and be transparent, I think you should be fine.

What’s missing?

This guide has been targeted at companies that fit the profile, i.e., many small businesses and startups. For companies processing sensitive data, there are lots of additional requirements including stronger consent and more strict security requirements. For companies with more than 250 employees, there are stringent record keeping requirements, essentially you need an audit log of all activities. Fortunately, as small companies, we don’t need to worry about that until we grow – and once you get big enough to have to worry about that, then you’ll be big enough to hire lawyers and other experts to help make sure you do the right things to get compliant.

Useful resources

The two resources that helped me the most while working through GDPR compliance were:

  1. This neat indexed version of the full text of the GDPR, with links to relevant additional material for each article. This is what I’ve linked to in several places in the guide.
  2. The UK Information Commisioner’s Office (ICO’s) guide, which is the most concise and easy to understand full commentary on the GDPR. I especially recommend their checklist for data controllers and data processors.

This article was originally published on the blog. If you need more help getting your startup off the ground, I suggest you join the mailing list where you’ll get a weekly newsletter with tools and articles to help you get your startup going.

Pitching your startup: Lessons learned

How to pitch

I was recently asked to give a talk on how to pitch a startup, and I figured since I’m building a deck and gathering resources for the talk, why not write it up as a blog post. You’ll find the presentation near the bottom of the post.

I’m far from the biggest pitching expert in the world, but I’ve pitched CrankWheel on stage at multiple conferences around the world, I’ve won pitching competitions a couple of times, I’ve pitched to many investors, and I’ve mentored a lot of startups, so I’ve seen my share of both good and bad pitches.

Why pitch?

You pitch for multiple reasons, all of them in the end having to do with promoting your startup. These include:

  1. Attracting investors
  2. Selling to customers
  3. Finding partners
  4. Hiring people
  5. Trying to win a pitch competition

In this blog post, we’ll focus on pitching in general, i.e. the art of promoting your startup through an in-person presentation, and on the type of material you would include in a pitch deck if you are pitching to attract investors.

Decks to send vs. decks to present

There are two broad categories of pitch deck for startups seeking investment:

  1. The one that is only intended to be shown with you presenting the pitch live.
  2. The one that you can email an investor and leave with them. This is what an investor wants when they ask you to email them a pitch deck. It needs to have a lot more details and typically more slides than the first type.

We’ll focus on the first type, the one you deliver in person, but there are many links to resources on pitch decks you can email in the resources section.

Pitch basics

Make your deck look nice

Your slides should look nice. Get a designer to help you, or buy a PowerPoint template you can customize – for example, the templates for my slides (shown below) were purchased at GraphicRiver. I also found a good-looking template that is specialized for pitch decks (they also have a nice infographic about how to pitch). You can also find lots of free PowerPoint and Keynote templates online.

Listen to Guy Kawasaki

Follow Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 advice: No more than 10 slides that should take no more than 20 minutes to deliver, and no font should be smaller than 30 points. That last bit prevents you from having slides that are too text-rich.

Practice until perfect

Practice your pitch until you can deliver it without reading from any notes, and with maximum emotional impact.

I am dead serious about this. When people get up on stage and the pressure builds and they want to deliver their pitch but haven’t practised enough, I’ve seen very bad things happen.

Ideally, you should be able to give a perfect rendition of your pitch while a friend stands in front of you, screaming insults, jokes and math quizzes in your face.

Personally, I spend hours perfecting my delivery, and even for a pitch I’ve delivered a few times before, I still need a couple of hours to refresh my memory so I can deliver it just right.

Emotional hooks

My number one piece of advice is that you need to find a way to have your audience connect emotionally to what you’re telling them.

Basic: Ask about experiences in the past

The simplest thing is to ask them a question that reminds them of a painful or joyful experience related to the problem you’re trying to solve. For example if you’re improving pizza delivery you might ask the audience “when was the last time your pizza arrived cold”?

If it’s something they may not have directly experienced, you can do the same through somebody they care deeply about. For example, if you have a solution to make computer games even more engaging, you could ask them “have you ever seen your kids so deeply engrossed in a computer game you couldn’t talk to them?”

Advanced: Directly give them an experience

Even better is if you can directly give them an experience during your pitch that lets them connect on an emotional level then and there. I’ll give you a couple of examples from some of my own pitches of CrankWheel:

  1. I gave a pitch where I was highlighting the fact that being able to quickly show things visually can really help you communicate better over the phone. To give them the emotional connection, early on in the pitch I asked the audience to close their eyes. I then proceeded to try to describe the clothes I was wearing. About 10 seconds in, I asked them to open their eyes, and to notice that now that they can actually see what I’m wearing, it both takes much less time than listening to me describe it, and they have a much more correct understanding. Here is a video of that pitch.
  2. Another pitch I did was to illustrate the importance of being able to get software demos instantly, instead of waiting for days. At the start of this pitch, I told the audience “I know you’re ready and interested in hearing my pitch”, and asked them if they’d like to go ahead. When they said yes, I told them “OK, just fill in this simple form (while showing a form with 15 fields on it), and I’ll get back to you within a couple of days to book a meeting where you can get to hear my pitch.” Right then and there, they’ve experienced how silly and frustrating it is when you visit a website and want to know about some piece of software, to have to request a demo and only get more information days from now. Here is a video of this pitch and here is a more produced version that we actually use on our website.

Parts of a pitch

A typical investor pitch should cover roughly the following areas, often in roughly this order:

  1. One-liner / elevator pitch
  2. Team
  3. Problem
  4. Solution
  5. Your (ideally unfair) advantage
  6. Product (demo or slides showing it)
  7. Your traction
  8. Market analysis and go-to-market plan
  9. Competitive analysis
  10. Business model
  11. Investment ask
  12. Contact details

These definitely don’t all need to be stand-alone slides. For a pitch deck you’re presenting, you’ll not want to drown your audience in details on each slide either.

This is just a rough order you can work with, but you can definitely change it around. For example, if your team doesn’t consist of industry veterans with a proven track record, then you might not want to make that slide number two. Get to your strengths and your “wow factor” as quickly as you can in the deck.

Let’s look at pitch deck slides from some well-known companies as examples of each part of the pitch:

1. The elevator pitch

Your first slide should simply tell people, in a nutshell, what you’re all about. If you can’t come up with one sentence that clearly tells people what you’re doing, like AirBnB did, then make a sentence that tells people roughly in what space you are and makes them intrigued.

This example is an adaptation of AirBnB’s original pitch deck by Slidebean.

2. Team

If your team is strong, you should highlight its strengths early on in the pitch. Here’s an example from Square, which had an extremely strong founding team.

Don’t give too much detail on each person; ideally you want to highlight a couple of really impressive facts, for example if they played a key role in a successful and well-known company or brought in a lot of business as a salesperson.

3. Problem

You need to explain the problem that you’re addressing. What is the pain point or lack of efficiency that you help with? Ideally, customers should NEED a solution to this problem, rather than WANT one. This is sometimes expressed as whether your product is a vitamin (customers want it) or a painkiller (customers need it).

The example is from Mixpanel. They went on in a second slide to say that companies were using inconsistent data from multiple sources without a single source of truth or a good way to analyze things.

4. Solution

Carrying on with Mixpanel as the example, as it flows naturally from the problem. You should describe your solution as simply as possible. You’ll have a separate chance to show off the details if you have a product demo or a few slides on your product.

5. Your (ideally unfair) competitive advantage

What unfair advantage, that your competitors will find hard to beat, do you have as a company or with your product? This can be technology, it can be existing market size, growth rate, and more. You should also illustrate how your solution is better than the existing solutions out there, although sometimes this can belong on the slide where you show the competitive landscape.

6. Product

Here’s where you either do a brief product demo or show a few slides illustrating your product. If possible, your demo should reinforce why your solution is better and the unfair advantages you may have. This is one of Foursquare’s original slides.

7. Traction

If you can, show the traction you are getting on a slide. Buffer’s original deck is pretty ho-hum and not the prettiest, until you get to the traction slide, at which point most people would want to invest. If you don’t have that kind of traction, you can still try to show traction by means of customer testimonials, ROI your customers have seen, or a timeline of company achievements where you can tell that things are speeding up.

8. Market analysis and go-to-market plan

The most typical way to show your market size is to show the TAM (Total Available Market), the SAM (Serviceable Available Market) and your own projected market share. Here’s that slide adapted again from AirBnB’s original deck.

You often also want to show what your go-to-market strategy is: How will you get your product in front of users? What will be the acquisition cost of a new customer, and what will be the lifetime value? How will you achieve the projected acquisition cost? What are your distribution channels? Is there a viral factor and why?

9. Competitive analysis

Another example from AirBnB is one of the nicest ways to illustrate your competitive landscape. Choose a couple of axes where your startup will be up and to the right compared to the competition – in this example, AirBnB is most affordable and the most online transaction-y.

Regardless of what your slide looks like, what you want to show when you talk about the competition is how your startup is positioned to be different and better than the rest.

10. Business model

A lot of articles on pitch decks will tell you to have 3-year financial projections summarized in one slide.

Take my word for it: Unless you’re looking for your Series B or later and already have a significant financial track record, no investor worth their salt would ever believe projections stretching that far out, or showing that level of detail when you’re .

In my opinion the best thing to show on the business model/financials slide is:

  1. How you make your money, i.e. who pays you and for what. This isn’t always obvious in the case of marketplaces, social networks, educational apps and many other types of business, so it should typically be spelled out.
  2. That your unit economics are solid: The lifetime value of a user/customer greatly exceeds the typical acquisition cost of a user/customer. You should ideally already have shown in your traction slide that you are able to grow your user/customer base fast.

Here’s how Buffer showed this:

11. The investment “ask”

Your investment slide or “ask” is important to include when you’re pitching to an investor.

Typically you would include how much money you’re looking for, roughly what the terms are (e.g. priced round or a convertible note at X% discount), and how much runway this gives you. Sometimes, when it’s not obvious, you should include how the funds will be allocated, for example if there’s a significant capital outlay or a significant ad spend, rather than the more typical case of almost all of the money going to salaries and contracted services.

12. Contact details

This is one of the original slides from TheFacebook that they used as a press kit. Just goes to show that even though I advise you to make your slide deck look good, in the end of the day it’s the quality of your company that matters.

If you want folks to be able to contact you after your presentation, you’d better include your contact details on one of the slides. If you’re sending out a pitch deck rather than presenting in person, this is doubly important.

The call-to-action

Whenever you’re in front of an audience, always take that opportunity to leave them with a call to action.

If you’re pitching to investors, the call to action should be to ask questions, get in touch, and ultimately invest in your startup.

For a different crowd, try different CTAs. For example, if you’re in front of a large audience at a startup conference during a pitch competition, and your startup is all about a mobile game, you could end with this call to action:

  1. “Alright everybody, can I ask you for a favor? Take your smartphone out of your pocket.” (wait for most people to do it)
  2. “Now that it’s out of your pocket, you’re just three clicks away from installing NameOfMyGame. It’s available on the App Store and Google Play, why not install it now?”

My presentation

Here are all the slides from my presentation, unfortunately they don’t quite look right because of a font my slides used that Slideshare doesn’t seem to like. If you click through and view notes you’ll see my speaker notes as well.

Further resources

Articles on what should be in your pitch deck and how to pitch:

Example pitch decks from well-known companies:

PowerPoint and Keynote templates:

  • Improve Presentation’s specialized pitch deck template ($19)
  • Lots of PowerPoint and Keynote templates for sale at GraphicRiver
  • PowerPoint and Google Slides templates for free at SlidesCarnival
  • Lots of free PowerPoint templates at Showeet (just be careful not to click the various misleading “download now” ads)
  • Free Keynote templates at Slidesmash (search for the ones with “Free” in the title of the template – the rest don’t seem to be free)

That’s it!

Thanks for reading! If you need more help getting your startup off the ground, I suggest you join the mailing list where you’ll get a weekly newsletter with tools and articles to help you get your startup going. You can also email me at to request to join our friendly Slack community full of experienced founders and entrepreneurs.

The $0 Subscription Startup Stack – Part 2 of 4: Start selling

The $0 Subscription Startup Stack – Part 2 of 4: Start selling

In part 1 of this 4-part series, we covered tools you can get for your startup for no fixed subscription, to help you ideate, validate your idea, build your product, and run it.

The second and third parts will talk about what is arguably the most important thing for any startup: Finding and convincing users to use your product, and letting users find your product, and sometimes help promote it. These activities are also known as sales and marketing.

We’ll start with sales in this second installment, then go on to marketing in part 3. The fourth and final installment will talk about all the other stuff you need for your startup: Legal, accounting, fundraising, customer support, and more.

As before, any tool or service in this article has a zero-subscription tier, either free or freemium. In some cases, I make recommendations for paid tools above a free alternative, when there are high costs to switching later, and certain services that can’t be found free but are available without a fixed monthly fee may also be included.

My recent background is from my B2B SaaS startup CrankWheel, so this and the next installment will be significantly slanted to the type of sales and marketing you do for a startup like that, but many or most of the tools and approaches will be relevant for most types of startups.

hands shaking on a deal

Sales first

I’m covering sales first, because I think it’s typically more important than marketing, especially at an early stage. Most products are sold, not bought.

Granted, you always need to do the bare minimum of marketing, so that people will see that what you’re promoting is a real product with a real business behind it: You need a nice-looking website on your own domain, a contact email, and I’d usually recommend a business phone number and address. You should probably throw in a Facebook page and a Twitter handle as a bare minimum, along with occasional content and some followers to show that you’re for real.

The above level of marketing may be enough for certain types of startups, and it’s definitely enough to start hustling your way to get your first 100 paying customers, if that’s the game you’re in.

If you’re doing B2C, and particularly if you have a completely free product and plan to monetize later, then a lot of the following won’t apply to you. Let me give you some advice though: You want to have a good idea early of how you’re going to monetize, and even if your initial focus is on gaining free users, you want to start understanding and probably talking to your eventual paying customers as soon as possible. For an ad-driven business, these are typically the ad buyers, or the ad networks as a middleman. For a marketplace or an affiliate site, it’s whoever ends up actually paying you a fee out of their revenue.

A lot of startups, particularly those who start off by bootstrapping, are looking for paying customers almost from day one. These startups will benefit most from the following tools, which help with the day-to-day hustle of finding prospects, reaching out to them, and helping to convince them to buy.

Before we start the hustle, we need to know:

businessman drawing circle around diagram of people

Who are your customers?

The first step to finding more customers is understanding who is your best type of customer, or if you’re just starting out, taking a good guess at which type of person is likely to be your best customer.

I say person because even if you’re selling to other companies, your buyer is always an individual or a group of individuals who you sell to and who make the decision to purchase.

You should have at least a rough idea of what kind of person is most likely to be a good customer based on your ideation and validation stage. Who did your idea resonate with the most? Were some of the people you spoke to willing to maybe even put money on the table right then and there, i.e. to pre-purchase your product? These are a good first step.

If you already have some customers, which of them most actively use your product? What do they have in common?

The more specific you can make your ideal customer profile, the better. This will help you when you try to find more customers to contact, and will help you hone your pitch.

How should you sell?

Before we dive into tools for different sales processes, we need to talk about this: There are different approaches to sales that you can and should take depending on what your unit economics are like.

What are unit economics?

To understand unit economics, we need to look mostly at two numbers and the ratio between them. One is the customer lifetime value or CLTV, and the other is the customer acquisition cost, or CAC.

Your average CLTV is the total amount of lifetime revenue on top of your cost of goods for stuff you sell to an average customer, for the average lifetime of a customer. If you’re running a SaaS product, your cost of goods typically includes your hosting costs, payment processing costs and any subscriptions for platforms and services necessary for the operation of your SaaS. If you’re doing e-commerce, it would include your cost to source the goods you sell, your shipping and warehousing costs.

Your average CAC is the cost of acquiring an average customer. For example, if you look at a 3-month period and sum together all salesperson salaries, advertising costs, marketing costs, discounts, revenue shares, etc. for that period, and divide that by the number of new customers you gained in that period, that gives you your average CAC in the period.

Rule of thumb

A good rule of thumb is that you can have a well-growing business if your CAC is less than one third of your CLTV.

As an example, say you sell products in an e-commerce store and your average profit after sourcing, warehousing and shipping costs is $100 per customer, and that customer isn’t likely to come back later to purchase something else. You should try to get customers for a CAC of about $33 or less.

This isn’t a golden rule, of course, and especially in the early days you can be reasonably happy just to break even on CAC vs. CLTV, as those initial customers are likely to help you find more customers which will lower your CAC as time progresses, and their feedback will also help you improve your product.

Unit economics impact how to sell

Now let’s look at how you can sell, depending on your CLTV:

  • If your CLTV is, say, $30K, you can afford to spend around $10K on CAC. At this level and above, you can do Enterprise Sales. Have a dedicated account manager, fly to visit your prospective customer if needed, spend a bunch of time preparing specialized sales materials and proposals for just one customer. Of course, you need to keep in mind that only a percentage of deals will close, so you don’t want to spend the big money until the likelihood of closing is fairly high.
  • At a CLTV of, for example, $3K, your CAC target can be $1K. At this level you can afford to spend a lot of time on the phone and by email with prospective customers, but you wouldn’t typically be able to visit the customer in person. This approach to sales is commonly known as Inside Sales. When you see software companies online offering you a live demo with a sales person, Inside Sales is what they’re doing.
  • At lower CLTVs of say $300 or less, because a minority of prospects end up buying, you can’t really afford to spend much time selling each customer. At this level, you need to rely mostly on inbound leads and self-service purchasesor trial sign-ups, although you can also do some cold email outreach.

Let’s focus on Inside Sales

At the higher levels of CLTV, you can employ all the tactics that you can at lower levels, it’s just that you can also do more and it’ll still be worth it. At the lowest level, you can’t afford a dedicated salesforce and your revenue is mostly driven by marketing, onboarding, and helping customers be successful. At the highest level, in the early days it’s all about the hustle, and later on you can afford to get some high-priced sales consultant to help you devise some clever processes (not me!). Therefore, I’ll mostly focus on the middle-of-the-range Inside Sales type of sales process and tools in the sections below. This type of sales also what I know most about.

a diagram of various tools working together

Prospecting for outbound leads

Whether you are planning to do cold email outreach, or cold calling, or going to trade shows to sell your goods, you need to prospect for outbound leads. When you prospect, you should be looking for more people who fit your ideal customer profile.


LinkedIn is completely free to use and remains my number one prospecting tool for B2B leads, even though they have made some of their searching/filtering capabilities only available on their premium plans. You can still often hone down straight to your ideal customer profile. For example, say you have determined that your SaaS solution is most likely to be adopted by a VP of Marketing at a 30-60 person company in Industrial Automation. You can filter by industry and geographical location, and filter titles for keywords, e.g. “director marketing”, and then go through the list to check company sizes. In LinkedIn’s premium product, Sales Navigator, you can take this further and search for e.g. people who started a new position in the last year, filter by company size, and much more. It’s pricey but worth trying out their one-month free trial to see if it’s for you.


Another way to prospect on LinkedIn is to find groups for subjects that are related to your product, join those groups and start participating in a meaningful way. You’ll be able to find relevant prospects in the member list, and they’re more likely to know of you when you reach out to them if they’ve seen you post something useful or write an insightful comment in the group. You can do the same thing with Facebook groups and Slack communities, just always be respectful that the groups or communities are not there for you to sell to them, they’re there for you to participate in them.

Finding emails

Once you’ve found some prospects on LinkedIn, Facebook or in a Slack community, you can sometimes start chatting with them right there, and sometimes this is a good approach. Another approach is to use a tool to find their email address and add them to a prospect list. My go-to tool for this is Hunter, and another good one is Anymail Finder. Both of these have a limited number of requests per month for free.

Both Hunter and Anymail Finder will also let you search for all the known emails at a particular company. Useful if you don’t immediately find the prospect you wanted, but want to check if there are other folks at the same company who might be relevant.


CrunchBase is a database of tons of companies, often listing their founders and key employees, as well as giving insight into founding rounds. You could use it e.g. to find companies who have just received a funding round that makes them an ideal prospect for your product. CrunchBase’s premium offering makes this kind of monitoring very easy. AngelList is another good database for prospecting. AngelList is similar in many wasy to LinkedIn, but focused on startups and angel investors, so if startups are your target audience this is one way to find founders (BetaList is another but usually very early stage). Elucify is a crowdsourced leads database where you can filter by industry, company size, role within the company, and more. It seems to have pretty good quality data, and it’s free, but there’s a catch: To get access you need to give them access to your email, where they scan for contacts, information from email signatures, and more.

Prospecting by technology

If you’re selling to companies that use a specific technology, you can try Siftery or Builtwith (both free) to find such companies. Hunter TechLookup is another one that will let you find websites using one or more specific technologies, and also filter by language and popularity.

screenshot of Gmail login page

Email for Sales

There are few things more important for sales than a reliable email system that helps you remember to follow up with your prospects.

As a basic system, I recommend Gmail. It is extremely reliable and there are a lot of email productivity and cold emailing tools that are based on Gmail. That said, if you’re running your own domain you would need G Suite, which isn’t freemium. So I’ll mention that you could get by with Zoho Mail, a solid product, but you’ll be missing out on many of the email productivity and cold emailing tools below. For those reasons and the high switching costs, G Suite is one subscription where I would recommend thinking about spending money right off the bat.

Email Productivity

There are a few components to typical email productivity tools:

  • Reminders to follow up, often dependent on whether a reply is received or not
  • The ability to send later
  • Email templates
  • Email tracking, knowing when and whether an email you sent has been opened

A really good and completely free tool for all of these is, a Chrome extension that integrates with your Gmail or G Suite email. I used it for a long time, until my team and I started using Streak CRM, which has similar functionality built in. I suggest you try both and the free version of Streak CRM to see which one you prefer. The pro of is that it has unlimited email tracking whereas Streak offers up to 200 emails per month in the free version. Streak’s email reminders are a little nicer than’s reminders, and I find that it plays a bit better with some other extensions I use. Your mileage may vary.

If you’re not using Gmail, I would suggest using FollowUpThen. It only gives you reminders to follow up, by forwarding emails to a relevant address such as to get a reminder to follow up in 3 days, but honestly that’s one of the absolute most important abilities to have.

It is, however, hard to find a free or freemium tool for cold email campaigns. Although you could use, for example, the built-in email automation features in AgileCRM which we mentioned above, I wouldn’t recommend it. What you want is a tool that sends the cold emails as if you had sent them yourself, from your own inbox.

Enriched Lead tools for Email

There are two tools that you should try to get more details on anybody you receive an email from, or send an email to. They also let you easily add them on LinkedIn and such. These tools are Rapportive and Clearbit Connect. The former is for Gmail/G Suite only, the latter also works in Outlook. Both are good and have slightly different data sources behind them; I use both.

Cold email, it’s a gray zone

Before I talk about tools for cold email, please keep in mind that cold email campaigns can be quite effective, but they are illegal in some countries (Canada, for one), and if you don’t do proper research and customize your campaign appropriately for your target audience, they can be very spammy. My rule of thumb would be, if it will take your prospect more time to read and discard your email than you’re taking to research that prospect and prepare the message for them, then you shouldn’t email them at all. You should be researching the prospect well enough to have a fairly strong conviction that you could bring value to their business, and you should at least write a personalized email opener for them, or better yet maybe start by reaching out on social media (e.g. commenting on a LinkedIn post of theirs in a meaningful way).

Also, please keep in mind if you write follow-up emails to prospects that don’t respond, which is something that many people recommend as there is typically a very low response rate on just one email and a significantly higher one if you follow up multiple times: Never just follow up with a “did you get a chance to read my email” or “just following up”. Always, always, add more value to the prospect in each one of your emails. For example there might be a piece of research you could send them a link to that could be helpful for them independent of whether they choose to go with your product. You can get more ideas for how to add value from this free tool, and from this playbook.

That said, let’s dive into the tools.

Cold email tools

With a good email productivity tool, you can run your own cold email campaign at no additional cost. For example, Streak CRM even in its free version will let you upload a list of contacts as a CSV file, with fields such as name, company name, email opening line, etc., and create a mail merge from one of your saved email templates to all of those contacts.

The place where it’s better to have a dedicated cold email campaign tool is when it comes to following up in your campaign. This is hard to do manually, as you need to set reminders to follow up each individual prospect, and it’s also hard to manually keep track of folks who request to unsubscribe from future emails, whereas tools will help you with that.

One such tool that does have a free tier is If No Reply. The free tier is limited to only 20 contacts per month, and will add some branding to the bottom of your emails, but hey, at least it qualifies as a full member of the $0 Subscription Startup Stack. The tool overall looks pretty neat, it lets you edit your email templates right within Gmail.

A simple and robust tool that I’ve used is Mailshake, but it does not have a free tier or even a trial (they do offer a money-back guarantee though). Just like If No Reply, it connects with your Gmail or G Suite account.

Tracking Prospects – CRMs

If you’ve ever read about modern sales, you will probably have heard of tools called CRMs, or Customer Relationship Management tools. Salesforce is the most famous of these, and some folks say that if you’re an aspiring SaaS company, that’s what you should use, not necessarily because it’s the best but you’ll get insight into the product built by the biggest SaaS company in the world, and can learn from that.

That said, Salesforce is expensive and time consuming to deploy and it’s certainly not for everyone. Also, Salesforce always comes with a subscription, so it doesn’t fit in our no subscription stack.


I’ve used AgileCRM which is very full featured and flexible and has a free plan for up to 10 people. Just beware that for some of their built-in functionality, you may be 10x better served with a more focused solution; for example, I found it 10x easier to work with MailChimp for drip campaigns than using AgileCRM’s built-in functionality for that.

I’ve heard very good things about Hubspot CRM, which has a free version, and also a “scholarship” program for startups which is basically a 90% discount. In conjunction with Hubspot Sales (which also has a free version) it looks very powerful, letting you create sequences that can include emails and phone calls, and letting you call straight from your browser (although you’ll need the paid version for that – I’m assuming you might want to call for more than 15 minutes a month, which is what’s included in the free plan, just a taste).

diagram showing inbound inside sales

The Inbound Side of Inside Sales

The holy grail of Inside Sales for software is usually the live software demo over the Internet, with a salesperson. For many other industries, it’s often getting the prospect to agree to a phone call, or request to be called back, and the phone call may include a visual presentation in many cases.

This typically ends up as an “inbound” customer, i.e. one that requests a demo or phone call. There’s a lot that happens before that’s called marketing, but we’ll cover that a bit later. Marketing typically has a goal to get a prospect to further and further stages in a marketing pipeline, and a request for a phone call or a software demo is often the first stage of a sales pipeline, where marketing hands off to the sales team.

Typical process

Here’s how it typically goes, and I’ll use Inside Sales of software as an example since it includes most of the bells and whistles, some of which are not done in other industries:

  1. Marketing success! Prospect decides to request a demo.
  2. Capture the lead: They fill in some details in a form and submit their demo request.
  3. Follow up / Pick a time: They typically are either told “we’ll email you with some suggested times” or they get to choose a time right away using a calendar booking tool.
  4. Screen share: When the demo happens, the salesperson will call the prospect or join a phone conference or web conference along with the prospect, and use screen sharing to guide the prospect through the software being demonstrated.

The industry standard is for a demo to happen a day to several days later, but this is non-ideal; research shows that your chances of moving the prospect to the next stage of your sales funnel are 5x greater if you call within 5 minutes compared to within 10 minutes, and when you compare responding to them within 5 instead of 30 minutesit shows an even more staggering 21x greater chance. You should aim to get back to your leads within seconds from them requesting any kind of contact.

Between steps 3 and 4, prospects may be asked to make sure they are ready to use web conferencing software, which may involve a download or making sure they’re at their PC rather than just on their smartphone.

Let’s explore $0 subscription tools for each of the steps from 2 to 4, and then we’ll end with a tool that does all steps in one, helps you find an agent to call right away, and avoids the need for your prospect to download any tools or prepare in any way (disclaimer: my startup makes this tool).

Capture the lead

The typical way to do this is to use a web form that populates some sort of database, or subscribes your lead to a newsletter, adds them to a CRM, or whatever it is you want to do with that lead.

If you have a static site and want to wire things up yourself without having to run a database, one neat way to do this is to use a couple of tools together to achieve this; this is the way we do it on

  1. Formaholic is a free tool which you can send plain old HTML form submissions to. It will store the submissions (maybe that’s enough for you and you’re done?). It can also be configured to forward each submission as an email. We forward the submissions to the next tool.
  2. Parse Emails by Zapier is a built-in part of Zapier, a fantastic tool for integrating various systems together (it has a free tier). Set up the parser to parse your emails and now you can pick fields out of the emails that arrive and use Zapier to take the fields from emails received and move them into other systems, such as your CRM.

If WordPress does it for you, lots of plug-ins will do this for you. For an Inside Sales type of lead capture, WordPress Leads seems to fit the bill (it’s free).

Lead capture forms are also part of HubSpot Marketing Free, which I haven’t tried yet but which looks quite powerful. I believe they also have a WordPress plug-in.

Follow up

Making sure somebody follows up ASAP with a lead can be as simple as making a Zapier rule that emails the lead information to a group alias where the first person to see it will handle the lead. For teams larger than one, this can be problematic as you may have race conditions where more than one person handles the lead.

Many CRMs have the concept of a queue, or the ability to assign new leads rounds-robin to different agents, so you could use Zapier to add the lead to your CRM, maybe with a tag indicating it should be followed up on.

Pick a time

If you’re not going to try to call the prospect back right away, it can be nice to let them immediately choose a time for a demo rather than having to wait for a few emails to bounce back and forth before they know when they’ll be speaking with you.

The tool I recommend in this category is Calendly. They have a free plan that works great for a single event type, but you may wish to upgrade to have multiple event types or to have a team servicing a single event type (so folks can pick a time slot as long as at least one salesperson isn’t booked at that time).

Screen share

The most well known contender that fits in the $0 Subscription Startup Stack is, which has been around for a while and can be a solid choice. Their free plan allows up to 3 participants and their screen sharing is based on Flash and on app downloads for mobile devices.

Other solid web conferencing choices that fit the stack and that I have tried are UberConference and Zoom, both of which have free plans. Go with UberConference for a conference that many participants will be able to join using their browser, and Zoom if the folks you’re talking to are OK with downloading and installing software.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my own startup here, as our product is specifically designed for Inside Sales to reduce the friction involved in the software demo process, but that’s what we’ll cover in the next section.

All steps in one!

My startup, CrankWheel, provides a specialized screen-sharing solution for Inside Sales that takes care of all of the steps mentioned above, reduces friction at every step, and enables you to call your prospects within seconds rather than minutes. A free edition for single salespeople is available.

Friction is reduced because CrankWheel’s screen sharing works on practically every single browser out there, including on mobile devices, without there ever being a download, and because instead of asking a ton of questions all at once when capturing lead information, it asks just one to start with (their phone number) before asking the rest one at a time, while it searches for an agent to call the prospect.

All available agents get an instant notification that a prospect wants a demo, and need to be first to respond to get to pick up that demo request, which leads to very quick response times. CrankWheel adjusts its behavior and messaging based on agent availability.

Lead information is stored in the system itself, sent by email to agents, and can also be sent to other systems via Zapier and native integrations.

OK enough with my tiny sales pitch, hope you’ll excuse that and go try CrankWheel out for yourself or request a demo.

diagram of people at a conference

Get out there in the world!

While Inside Sales is great and I told you I wouldn’t talk too much about enterprise sales which is more about meeting customers in person, my final word of advice is to get out there in the world, go and meet (some) of your customers face to face, ask them what they think, and try to get their honest opinion. Not so much as an ongoing sales tactic, but as a way to learn faster.

One thing I think a lot of startups don’t do enough of is to go to industry-focused conferences where they can show off their product at a sales booth and get face-to-face feedback from their prospective customers. This can be expensive, but there’s no subscription fee (!) so I’ll let it slide as part of the $0 Subscription Startup Stack. Find conferences that are likely to attract your ideal type of customers, and try to go to them. Don’t go unless you can get a booth, or have some other solid plan for how to actually engage with hundreds of prospective customers. Sometimes you can get sponsorships or special pricing to go to startup conferences, but these aren’t very focused. As soon as you can afford it, go to a conference focused on the niche where there will be a high concentration of your ideal customers.


We’ve talked about why sales can be more important than marketing at an early stage, the importance of finding your ideal customers, and what kind of approach you should use to sell. We’ve then covered a lot of Inside Sales tools such as prospecting, email tools, CRMs and tools for the inbound funnel in Inside Sales.

The next installment, our third, will cover marketing – how to help your prospective customers find your product or service, and how to convince them to engage with you and eventually buy.

Our fourth and final installment will cover other stuff you need to build and run a startup – customer support, billing, legal, funding and more.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment. I’d love to hear your feedback, just email me.

The $0 Subscription Startup Stack — Part 1 of 3

The $0 Subscription Startup Stack — Part 1 of 3: Build something and run it

I’ve been building a SaaS startup for a couple of years now, and one of the things I noticed after a few months of operation is that all those small subscriptions I had for various things needed for the operation of the startup really start to add up. We have enough revenue now that those subscriptions don’t matter so much, but there was a time when they were a burden, particularly since we were bootstrapping.

I got to thinking whether it would be possible to build a startup stack with $0 in monthly subscriptions, and after putting together a list of the various tools we’ve been using, and looking for replacements for some of them where you can avoid the monthly subscription, I figured that this would be quite doable.

In this series of three articles, I’ll cover the different areas most startups need some help with, and list tools and approaches all of which have no fixed cost per month. Most of these are completely free, at least up to some decent level of usage, although some of the alternatives I list are zero subscription in the sense that you pay no fixed monthly fee although you do pay a small fee per usage.

Some of the services you use early on have high switching costs. I’ll try to point out tools that are like this, and give my advice on cases where I feel it may be good to invest some money early on to get you on the appropriate tool from day one, rather than having to spend a lot of time switching later.

I’ve spent almost 11 years doing startups (and almost 10 years leading technical projects at Google), but my recent startup experience is primarily from building a SaaS startup, so I’ll be able to provide the most relevant advice on categories of tools used by such startups. Many of the same tools apply to any type of startup, and I’ll also try to cover a few specialized tools other types of startups need, e.g. e-commerce startups, but I’m not an authority on those.

This first article of three will focus on tools you need to build a product and run it. The second installment will focus on how to get your product in front of your users, and how to make sales. The third and final installment will talk about all the other things you need to run a successful business: Accounting, customer support, billing, legal, financing and more.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Ideation and Validation

Startups typically start with an idea. In this section, we’ll explore some tools and approaches that can help develop your idea, validate it by getting it in front of potential users, and more.

I recommend pitching your idea to potential customers very early, and very often, to avoid building the wrong product or service. Even if you think you’re all for this idea and will do super early pitches to real decision makers at potential customers, take my advice: Whatever the earliest you would feel comfortable with pitching a customer would be, do it twice as early, and do it twice as often as you planned to before reading this paragraph. Here are some tools to help you.


Showing your potential customers a mockup of your product can be a great way to get early feedback. Having a rough design for your user interfaces ready will make it that much easier to explain your vision and get actionable feedback.

The cliché here is that your first mockup should be hand drawn on the back of a paper napkin is actually pretty close to how rough your early mockups should be before you start talking to customers.

Once you get a bit further, sketch-like mockup tools are all the rage. I use Balsamiq, which is a great tool, but it doesn’t have a free version except for a free trial. NinjaMock, which has been featured right here on for a while, uses a similar style of sketch-like mockups and they have a free plan; the only catch is that your projects on this plan are public.

A similar tool with a different type of free plan is Moqups. Their free plan lets you have just one project, with up to 300 objects.

Another type of mockup is what’s called a design prototype, and looks a lot closer to a finished product although with no functionality behind anything. A very popular tool for this is InVision, and they have a free plan that lets you work with a single design prototype.

I like Reddit, and I recently stumbled upon an interesting thread there on the subject of prototypes and mockups, that mentions a few other tools.

Remember, don’t just build your mockups and prototypes. Get feedback from your team or friends and colleagues in the same industry, iterate on your mockup, then go out there and get it in front of potential customers for more valuable feedback.

User Testing

Your first quite-a-few go-arounds of getting user feedback should be done completely manually and by interacting with real people directly.

The way we did this manually at my startup, CrankWheel, was first to pitch to potential customers, and then as our product started being closer to usable, to do hallway testing. Hallway testing is when you grab people from the hallway and ask them to try to achieve some goals with your product or service while you step out of the room, but maybe record their interactions to see what they get stuck on and why. How to do this could be the subject of a whole separate piece; if you’d be interested in a piece on that, email me to let me know.

Once you’re slightly further advanced, you’ll probably want to use some tools.

A very neat tool is Peek, which lets you get a 5-minute video of a person using your website or app (along with their comments while using it), for free. If I recall correctly there are some limits on how often you can do this, but it’s a very useful service nonetheless, that UserTesting (a very useful but pretty expensive service) uses as a teaser of their full set of paid services. If you can afford them, great, they seem to be a leader in this space, but most startups starting out can get by with hallway testing instead, as briefly described above.

Another great resource is UsabilityHub. They have a $0/month plan and as long as you invite your own testers, using their platform to run tests on that plan is completely free. Using testers from their network is a pretty reasonable $2.50 per test.

I’ll also sneak in Stuart Brent’s There is no free plan, but no subscription either — it’s pay per use. This could be an alternative to UserTesting but at a much lower price point.

Business Model Canvas

This is less of a way to validate your idea, and more a way to ensure that you’re thinking about the various different angles that might need validation. The Business Model Canvas is a very simple framework for putting a startup idea down on paper and understanding how it’s different, how it will make money, how you will get it in front of customers, and more.

You don’t really need a tool for this, there are lots of free templates you can download and fill in, but if you want a free and simple tool, you could try Canvanizer.

Validation from Investors

One good way to get often quite insightful feedback on your idea is to create a pitch deck and/or demo for it, and show it to some angel investors or VCs, and maybe apply for some accelerators. Even if you don’t get funded or accepted to an accelerator, you should most often get valuable feedback.

I would only recommend doing this if you are actually open to taking in outside funding, or joining an accelerator. You don’t want to burn any bridges you might want to cross in the future by making people feel like you wasted their time.

Product Development

This section focuses on tools you need to develop digital products. I realize not all startups are built around a digital product, but most have at least a website, which sort of qualifies.

It used to be you would need to pay lots of money for software libraries that you were going to use to build your product on. Those days are gone, with open source providing a free implementation for an incredibly wide range of things. Hooray! So what is left? Well, it turns out, quite a lot.

You may need to find and hire folks to work on developing your product. Maybe you’ve got this covered yourself, or through your co-founder(s) or close contacts that you can recruit, but maybe not.

You need a safe place to keep everything you’re developing, track versions, keep track of bugs, and so on.

You also need to manage your development project, get your product tested, and more.

Let’s start with a couple of tools to help you recruit talent, if you need it.


If you have local talent available and vetted by yourself or somebody you trust, that is often the very best way to start. Perhaps they are willing to work for some sweat equity, or even join up to become a co-founder.

If you’re not in a position to find the very best local talent, you may want to look online.

If you don’t have much time to spend and are willing to pay for the value you get, I would recommend Toptal. They have programmers, designers, and even finance professionals who can help you, and they hire only the top 3% of everybody who interviews with them, and they expect and enforce a high level of quality. There’s a no risk trial period so if you’re not happy with the person they find for you, you don’t have to pay.

If you have more time and are able to take a chance on trying a few people before you find the right fit, then check out Upwork. I’ve been able to find some good talent there at a good rate, but be advised that you may need to work with a few people before finding a strong talent and a good match in terms of ease of working with that person.

Obviously, neither Upwork nor Toptal are free, but both of them qualify for this article as there is no fixed subscription fee — rather, they are collecting a part of what you pay to the talent you hire through the platform.

Project Management

Developing your product is a project that can sometimes get really complicated, with lots of moving parts and many people involved.

My favorite tool for the cat-herding involved in project management is Asana. It’s like a perfect to-do list that you can categorize, tag, prioritize, and the best part is that it does collaboration really well. Asana has a very generous free plan for up to 15 users in a team.

Taking a slightly different approach to project management, a lot of people really love Trello. Instead of being based on the concept of a to-do list, the base concept feels more like boards on your wall with sticky notes where you can move sticky notes between boards. If you’re doing something like Kanban (we actually do this in my team but we use a real wall and sticky notes…), then it’s a pretty perfect match. Like Asana, they have a very generous free plan with an unlimited number of users and boards, but lacking some features you may end up deciding to pay for.

Code Hosting

You need your code in a safe place, off-premises, and you need to be able to go back to any older version of your code. Choosing a cloud service built around a revision control system is the best way to achieve this, and these days the only revision control system I’d recommend you use is Git.

Bitbucket by Atlassian fits the bill. It’s built around Git and it is free for teams of up to 5 developers. I haven’t used it personally but Atlassian is a solid company that’s not going anywhere, and I’ve heard people speak well of Bitbucket. That said…

Your source code repository is one case of a system that has very high switching costs, so I would choose carefully here. My company uses GitHuband we’re very happy with it; if you’re doing open source it’s kind of the industry standard (and it’s free if you only work with open source projects, no proprietary code). If you’re incorporating open source projects hosted on GitHub into your product, it makes it pretty easy to work with those.

Any feedback on Bitbucket vs. GitHub from folks who have used both? I’d love to get your comments.

Issue Tracking

I mentioned issue tracking in relation to GitHub above, so let’s tackle that next.

You need a place to write down problems that are found in your product, to assign them to people, track whether they’re new, fixed, have been verified as fixed, reopened, etc.

One way to do this for free is to track your issues in your project management tool, e.g. Asana or Trello, both of which I mentioned above. They’re not specialized for this, but can do the job.

Both Bitbucket and GitHub have simple issue trackers integrated. This is probably the way to go to begin with, for most startups.

Switching cost caveat: If you have a fairly large and complex product, you may be better served by going with a more feature-rich issue tracker right off the bat. There are full-featured open source issue trackers available such as MantisBTRedmine and the venerable Bugzilla, and if you host them yourself, there is no subscription fee, although I’d recommend using a hosted version for peace of mind and simplicity. There are also products such as FogBugz which some people swear by.

Quality Assurance / Testing

The basics of quality assurance aren’t that complicated, even though the work is challenging, especially to find the most elusive bugs. For much of what you need to start, you don’t need any tools aside from your issue tracker and a documentation tool such as Google Docs:

  1. For as much of your functionality as economically feasible, create automated tests to cover this functionality. This helps a great deal to avoid bugs creeping in later, and is a key component of Continuous Integration, which I highly recommend. I say “as much as economically feasible” because for a startup in the early stages, you may be better off spending more time on manual testing and less time on automation, until your product is a bit more mature. Early stage products tend to change a great deal, which gives you less time over which to amortize the setup costs of the automated tests, whereas manual testing has close to zero setup cost, with the downside that the per-test cost is high.
  2. Have a written description for how to test your product, i.e. steps to take to run through all the basic test cases that will cover most of what your product does. Google Docs or any other documentation system is good enough for this.
  3. Create a test matrix of the different platforms your testing should be performed on. Depending on your product this may be a set of browsers and different versions of their browsers, or it could be a set of operating systems and different versions of those. In your test matrix you can specify which
  4. When your product is tested, it should be done based on the written test description, as well as exploratory testing outside of what’s in the written description to try to find new defects in corner cases. For any new or changed features, you should also ask for hints from your developers on what they think might break or need a particular emphasis in testing.
  5. Any time you find an issue, register it in your issue tracking system and decide how to prioritize it, when to tackle it, etc. Your issue tracking system can help with this, for example you can break your releases down to milestones (for example once every 2–3 weeks) and determine which bugs to fix immediately and which bugs it may be OK to defer a little bit. This depends on their severity and how many users they may impact.
  6. Any time you find an issue that you would not have detected using your written test description, take a step to make sure this or similar issues do not come back in the future. Add an automated test that would have caught the problem, or add a test case to your manual test description that would have made the problem obvious in routine testing.

Your initial testing can be done by you and your core team, but I would recommend having a separate person doing quality assurance pretty soon after the ball gets rolling. For one, it’s a somewhat specialized role and folks with experience in it will find more bugs than those without, and for another, you and your development team will become blind to defects in the product, and will do less creative exploratory testing. As for development, I would recommend Toptal if you want to be sure you get a great team member without having to try several times, and if you’re more budget conscious and have more time, you should be able to find somebody on Upwork, but you do need to be willing to take that time and may end up spending a fair bit of money to try a few freelancers before you settle on somebody for the long term.

One key tool that I always recommend for quality assurance of web-based applications is BrowserStack. It lets you run literally hundreds of different browsers on both desktop and mobile platforms right in the comfort of your browser. They used to have some of their features free, but no more (unless you have an open source project) — so I looked around for some alternatives for the $0 Subscription Startup Stack.

One alternative is Browsershots, which is completely free and supports a range of browsers. It doesn’t provide live testing though, only screenshots of your site across multiple different browsers and versions (this is the same service BrowserStack used to have for free).

Another that is now part of my toolchest is the Blisk browser, available for Windows and macOS, which does emulation of multiple devices so that you can view your site for quality assurance, and in fact for development as well. Their free version includes some of the devices they support, and you can upgrade to get more.


Now that you’ve built a product, what about running it? Most digital products need to be hosted somewhere online. Many require functionality such as email, SMS, telephony, and more, that you’re better off buying from a Platform as a Service rather than building and running those functions yourself. Finally, you will need to understand how your users use your products in order to be able to improve it, and for that you need product analytics. Let’s explore each of these areas in turn.


There are several levels of hosting you could go for. The simplest and least expensive level is when you have a simple static page. The next level after that is when you need your own dynamic back-end but can make do with something like WordPress, in which case you need a shared web host. Finally, if you are running a complicated digital product, you will likely want your own custom backend that you might host in multiple geographic locations. In all cases, you may want to use a CDN in front of your site to speed it up and decrease load on your servers.

Static site hosting

My recommendation: If you can build your site as a static site, you should do so. Especially if you’ve got some coding skills. You can do this even with fairly complicated sites that accept user submissions, might have a blog, and more.

For static hosting, I would recommend Netlify, which is simple to use and has a generous free plan. This is what I use for, which is a static site even though we have various forms you can submit (more on how to do that in the next installment in this series). You can either simply drop a folder on your Netlify deployment in order to upload that folder as a new version of your site, or you can integrate Netlify with GitHub to continuously publish any branch of any repository as soon as you push to that branch.

Another good alternative is GitHub Pages which is built into GitHub, so if you’re already using that it may be a very convenient alternative. I use this for the CrankWheel marketing site and it works really well.

There are many free and easy static site builders that you can use to make a static site feel more like WordPress. For example, when I write a blog article for CrankWheel, I’m basically just writing a Markdown file; no HTML or CSS. The static site builder that I’ve used and can recommend is Jekyll, which takes a set of source and configuration files and builds the static files that get served up for your site.

For non-developers out there, you can still use static sites. Ask your web developer to set up the initial site using e.g. Jekyll, and then use a tool like CloudCannon so that you have a visual, web-based editor for creating and editing blog posts and such.

Shared Hosting

Many companies offer shared hosting of WordPress and such. I need to do my research on this before creating a full comparison review, but Bluehostcomes highly recommended by many folks I’ve spoken to. While it’s not free, you can sign up for as little as $3.95 per month using this link, and you get more than $150 in advertising value with Google AdWords, Bing and other leading advertisers, which is more than you’ll pay for the first 36 months.

Cloud Hosting

For the most complex needs, you’ll want a cloud hosting provider. There are times when you might want to set up a virtual private server (VPS) rather than do cloud hosting, but in my opinion for almost any reasonably complex product, the ability to grow without switching providers is going to be very important, so I’d recommend going with cloud hosting.

I’ve primarily used Amazon Web Services (AWS), and I’ve had a very good experience with it. I’ve also heard good things about Microsoft Azure (it’s not just Windows — you can run Linux on it too). The most important criteria for a provider to me would be that I have to trust that they will stay in business and won’t cancel any of the platform services that I’m relying on, and both of these companies qualify.

Neither of those are free for serious usage, although both offer a free tier to get you started. However, as a startup you can apply for significant credits with both of them. With Amazon’s startup program, you can get up to $15,000 in credits that are valid for 2 years (even more in some cases), and with Microsoft’s BizSpark program you get up to $150 of cloud services per month for free (along with many other benefits), and up to $12,000 if you qualify for BizSpark Plus.

Content Delivery Networks (CDNs)

A CDN is a great way to reduce the load on your servers, and in some cases can also provide redundancy and protection in case of a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS). If you haven’t already heard of CloudFlare, then you should check them out. Just head over to their site and click Signup, and you’ll be able to add a site for free. Their free plan is quite generous and includes a basic SSL certificate for your site, caching, and various other goodies that can speed up your site. They take over as the nameserver for your DNS. Setup is really easy. I use this for multiple sites.

Platforms as a Service (PaaS)

Transactional Email

Transactional emails are those emails your system may send on account creation, password reset, confirmation of orders, shipping updates — the emails your customers definitely want to receive independent of their preference in terms of marketing email.

Don’t set up your own mail servers to send transactional email (and definitely not marketing email — but that’s for our next installment).

Use a service like Amazon SES (Simple Email Service) for sending email. They have a free tier for up to 62,000 messages per month, and pricing after that is not expensive — $0.10 per 1000 messages. I use this for CrankWheel and it’s rock solid, although it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Mandrill (now part of MailChimp), Mailjet (free for up to 6,000 messages a month) or Mailgun (free for up to 10,000 messages a month).

A key issue with transactional email is deliverability, a.k.a. not getting your email marked as spam. Once you’ve got your basic setup for transactional email, use the free tool MailTester to get hints on how to optimize for deliverability.

Non-Internet Communications

Do you remember life before the Internet? There used to be these things called telephones, which people would use to talk to each other, and a bit later there was this thing we now call a feature phone where you could send short text messages (SMS), it was like Facebook Messenger only without the GIFs.

It turns out, for many products, the ability to integrate with the telephone network or to send text messages can be extremely useful and effective. We use this at my startup to enable sending text message links to screen sharing sessions, and it’s great because it works on all phones.

The platform I recommend for both telephony and text messaging is Twilio. It’s been around for a while, and I’ve personally witnessed text message deliverability improve quarter over quarter for the last couple of years.

Logs Analysis

If you’ve ever run a webserver or a custom server, you’ll know how useful it can be to view server log files to diagnose problems.

There is a really useful class of services out there that allows you store logs from all of your different servers and machines in one centralized place, visualize them, query them, and create alarms based on them. I very much recommend setting this up if you have a complex product.

The solution I’ve used is Loggly. It’s a solid product, and it has a free tier that will be suitable for many startups.

There are significant switching costs for a product like this. I sometimes wish I’d gone for a metered product like LogDNA, which is priced per usage, rather than going with a plan-based product like Loggly, where I’ve had many months where we were on a plan that was significantly too large for us. I haven’t tried them, but they promise lower rates than Loggly, and much faster queries, which is an area where Loggly doesn’t exactly shine.

Usage Analytics

If you have a complex product, read this section. If you just have a static site or a WordPress site, wait until the next installment in this series, where I’ll talk about marketing analytics — that’s all you typically need for a website.

Usage analytics are important so that you can see where your users are having trouble, compare retention rates between versions, and more.

Many of you have probably heard of Mixpanel, which was the pioneer in the space of usage analytics, finally making it easy for small startups to track user churn, behavior funnels and more. They have a solid free offering.

The alternative that I recommend is Amplitude. They were first to offer a generous free plan, and although their free plan today allows fewer events than Mixpanel’s free plan, I can vouch that the free version of Amplitude is very powerful and lets you visualize and analyze a ton of stuff regarding how your users are behaving.


We’ve covered ideation and validation, product development, and operations in this installment of The $0 Subscription Startup Stack.

The next installment will cover sales and marketing — how to get your product in front of your prospective users, and how to make revenues from them.

The third and final installment will cover other stuff you need to build and run a startup — customer support, billing, legal, funding and more.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment. I’d love to hear your feedback, just email me.

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Originally published at on November 19, 2015.