To prevent climate catastrophe, look to the founding of the UN

The IPCC’s recent report on the effects of global warming of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels show that humanity clearly needs to strive for this goal. The difference between 1.5ºC and 2ºC of warming are already predicted to be huge, as summarized well by the Guardian, and current political commitments predict a much higher 3ºC (we’re currently at 1ºC).

I am not an expert or even particularly well educated on this subject, but I am truly alarmed by the big picture that I see, and I want to be able to tell my kids I did all I could to help. Therefore, as a start, I’m writing this essay which I hope will influence some of my friends and readers to apply more pressure on their governments, and to consider other ways they can help.

Climate change will affect many ecosystems
Photo by L.W. on Unsplash

You see, this is not a problem we can solve by recycling alone (although we should definitely recycle) or by just avoiding the use of disposable plastic (although we should avoid it). It is not a small local problem, or a problem that any one nation-state can solve. In fact, I believe far too much political attention is being spent on projects that ultimately will not solve the root cause of climate change, such as switching away from disposable plastic bags to other solutions. All such efforts are positive steps that also need to be taken, but we need our politicians to engage at a significantly higher level.

We are currently on track for catastrophic climate change, a scenario where it seems likely we could have hundreds of millions of people around the world fleeing their homes because their food no longer grows, or flooding and typhoons have become too frequent, or it simply becomes too hot to live where they live now. If you think how difficult the current refugee crisis has been, imagine if it was 10 or 100 times larger. While our western governments can and definitely should be doing much more to help refugees, it seems if we had 10-100x more refugees this would be too many to handle, and would be a likely trigger for the next all-out war, or at least significant skirmishes around the world.

I was intrigued and a bit shocked by this infographic from the Financial Times, that came out soon after the IPCC report:

Climate change can be affected by reducing our emissions. But what can we do as individuals towards this goal?
Source: Financial Times

A car-free lifestyle helps. Eating vegan or switching to an electric or hybrid car helps, but also, skipping just one transatlantic flight helps a ton. So why don’t we do more to reduce the frequency of flights?

How many fewer flights a year would you take if they were 3-4x more expensive? How much less likely would you be to eat strawberries flown from half way around the world if their cost reflected the ecological cost of transporting them? How much more likely would you be to use public transit if it was completely free, and if driving your personal fossil fuel-powered car cost you 2-3x more than it does today?

On a nation-state level, such cost changes can be created by applying taxation and allocation of public funds. This much government interference is distasteful to me, and I know some folks who will be absolutely horrified at it, but if it’s becoming a question of survival, then these types of government measures may be the only way to sufficiently influence people in a short enough period.

The other huge takeaway from the infographic above is that population growth is one of the largest drivers of our ecological problems. While we Westerners are the worst ecological offenders, population growth as well as rapid westernization in some of the world’s largest nations is bound to be a very impactful trend.

Newly rich and middle class folks in countries like India, China, Indonesia and others that are getting richer and also growing in population, will want to act like newly rich folks in the West, and have the trappings to show for it, like a big new car, flatscreen TVs, and import of luxury goods. You can’t fight human nature too much. As an example, rich folks in Vietnam are snorting rhino horns as a sign of prestige, since the horns are more expensive than cocaine and locally believed to have health benefits.

Believing that peoples’ altruism along with awareness campaigns will do the job of convincing them to give up luxuries they have become accustomed to, or of skipping luxuries that they see other nations enjoy, is simply unrealistic. Much larger sticks and carrots will need to be applied by government throughout the world, to discourage consumption, particularly of the most-polluting goods, and to encourage reuse and recycling.

There is, of course, a tragedy of the commons at work. It is unlikely that some of the largest and most populous nations will be willing to adopt policies that help the climate but reduce economic growth, if one or some of their neighbors or competitors don’t. This is why we need to look to the creation of the United Nations as an example of the kind of global political will that needs to be mustered. The Paris Agreement is not a bad start, but it seems clear we need something much bigger. Developed nations will need to shoulder much more of the burden, for example by helping to fund adaptation projects to allow people in less developed nations to keep living in their home areas as they undergo ecological change, and obviously by vastly reducing the developed nations’ vast existing emissions footprint.

The only way, as I see it, to reduce population growth without resorting to authoritarian methods or without ending up with a global war on our hands, is to help the most populous countries complete their transformation as fast as possible into “industrialized” nations. I hardly want to use that word here, because this time around if we want to avoid catastrophe it will have to happen without the massive amounts of pollution typically associated with this transformation. If you look at the factors that affect the rates of child birth, perhaps these can be achieved without all the pollution: Better health care, more stable economies, more job security, better social security, and so forth. It’s something we Westerners should have done more to help with long ago, as it will also help to lift an incredible number of people out of poverty, but better late than never.

A political solution on an almost unprecedented scale seems to be required. Required, but not sufficient.

My hope is that a combination of massive political changes along with large-scale scientific and technological innovation is how we avoid climate change catastrophe. In fact most or all of the scenarios for staying below 1.5ºC in the IPCC’s report rely on some technological measures to bind carbon, but I wonder if we can do significantly better than the report assumes.

In terms of making technology to fight climate change a reality, politics can help. Nations need to reprioritize their spending and allocate vast funds to basic research, applied science, and technological projects intended to help deal with the effects of climate change and to help prevent further climate change. Think carbon binding, carbon recycling, improved recycling methods, lower-polluting solutions for mass-market goods (such as plastic bottles), less-polluting transportation solutions, and so forth.

I think the need for technological solutions is so large that you can compare the required projects with the Apollo launches, or the Manhattan project. Projects on that kind of scale don’t normally occur in short timeframes without massive allocation of funds by government, or without governments creating large economic incentives where currently there are limited incentives.

Friends and readers, I hope this will inspire you to think how you could contribute to a solution, and inspire you to get in touch with your political representatives. We all need to start doing all we can to get political and technological projects at the “founding of the UN” and “Apollo launch” scale started, and we need to shepherd these projects as if our collective lives depended on them. It seems that they very possibly do.

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.

Why I left Google

Make like a tree and leave

When I decided to leave Google a few months ago, I was asked all the questions you might reasonably expect people to ask. “Isn’t it a fantastic place to work? Couldn’t you just switch projects to something really exciting like self-driving cars? Don’t they pay really well? Are you sure you still know how to fend for yourself after all of the free food? I’d cut off a leg if it meant getting a job at Google, what’s wrong with you?” And so on.

Since this blog is supposed to document my post-employment adventures, I guess it makes sense to start at the beginning: Why I left Google, and why I’m not planning to be an employee again for the foreseeable future.

Was it because I no longer liked the project I was working on? No. My last project was Google Chrome. It’s a pretty fantastic project, I’m a fan of the product, I was working with a lot of incredibly great people, and it was, for a long time, an incredible learning experience to be part of such a massive engineering undertaking (last month, over 600 user accounts made code changes), witness the problems you start having at very large scale, and participate in fixing them. To be honest though, I enjoyed myself quite a bit more when I worked on much smaller teams that owned an entire product end to end, such as the Google Desktop team that was never more than about 18 or so engineers and about 30 people in total, yet produced and supported a product used by tens of millions of users every week.

Was it because, for the last three years of my nine and a half years at Google, I was working remotely from Iceland? Not really. The Chrome project is a fantastic project for working remotely, because its culture fosters contribution from teams and individuals all over the world. I traveled a fair amount, enough to see the core team in California quite regularly, but not so much that it became a drag. If I’m being honest though, I think I might have stayed at Google for a bit longer if I’d been working from Google HQ in Mountain View, California. There is just so much Kool-Aid to drink there.

Was it because I felt like I was no longer learning new things and growing in my role at Google as fast as before? Maybe a little bit. For my last couple of years there, I started feeling that maybe Google wasn’t the place where I was going to do the best work of the rest of my life. But that wasn’t the only reason. If it had been, it would have been quite easy to let things slide, stay in the cushy job, maybe switch projects to something where I could learn a bit more.

I think there are two separate reasons I decided to leave. One is that I have unfinished business, and the other is that I want to be the master of my own destiny to the largest extent possible. Let’s start with the latter.

I went through two different project cancellations at Google, of projects that I was leading at the time of cancellation. One of them I led from its inception, the other I had taken over about a year prior. Both of these projects were innovative, risky, and were significantly affected by outside forces – competition and a shifting technology landscape – and were cancelled because Google didn’t want to invest more in the face of those outside forces.

I believe the best work of the rest of my life will also involve risky projects.

When you do a risky project at a big company, there will always be a decision maker somewhere above you with the authority to pull the plug, regardless of how much you are willing to fight for the project, make the case, and pledge your blood, sweat and tears to make things work. To make matters worse, when the plug is pulled, the project might completely disappear from the face of the earth.

When you do a risky project as an entrepreneur and things are not quite going your way, your investors might get spooked, you might have to pivot, pull all-nighters, scale down your company, fire some of your best friends, pull favors, piss people off, and generally do incredibly difficult things. However, your ability to figure out ways to continue the project if you still believe in it is much greater. Worst case, you can probably open-source some work that could prove useful to others.

There are other ways to get to finish risky projects, you might say. Go into academia, or join a research department somewhere. You might not get to build full products but you’ll generally be able to find ways to keep researching whatever you’re interested in. This is where my unfinished business comes in.

Before Google, my career in software was exclusively at startups. I was an early employee at Iceland’s first Internet startup, I co-founded a spin-off from that company, co-founded another company on the side that I ended up not joining full-time, and was an early employee at another couple of startups before joining Google. But I never had full responsibility for any of these companies, and I didn’t see any of them through to successful exit or profitability. That said, a few of them did enjoy significant success, ranging from moderate to Icelandic-entrepreneurship-landscape-changing.

Bottom line: I have the bug. I need to build my own company. I have a lot of useful experience that I can build on.

I might be crazy. The statistical track record of entrepreneurship says that I probably am.

But hell, here goes nothing.