Has a Flawed Startup Narrative Tricked You Into Chasing Mana From Heaven?

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about a business idea he had. It was a pretty solid idea with proven demand and he was in a good position to execute on it.

He has a relevant audience, the financial resources, and could get a team together quickly.

There were two things preventing him from pulling the trigger.

  1. He didn’t know any investors
  2. His idea wasn’t “unique enough”


The word unique is thrown around to the point where it doesn’t mean anything. Change out “unique” with the words “new, special, innovative, etc.” and you can see what I mean.

We’ve got a unique perspective on the problem.

We’ve got an innovative solution we’re working on.

We’ve got a new way of getting traction.

When you peel back the covers, you see unique is just a new coat of paint polished with a few buzzwords. Don’t get me started on buzzwords.

The thing is, you don’t have to be unique, or cutting edge, or innovative to build a successful business. In the current startup narrative, everyone is unique but no one is different.

Here’s what unique looks like.

Come up with an idea.

Do a semblance of validation.

Create a pitch deck.

Get initial funding.

If that part doesn’t work – build an MVP in 30 days.

Launch it on Hacker News and Product Hunt.

Get users that aren’t paying because it’s in beta or “monetization” hasn’t been figured out.

Create another pitch deck.

Get the funding that was denied the startup earlier.

Spend the money on a team that’s too big and marketing people that are clueless.

Develop a beast of an app.

Burn money until traction, the startup makes it to the next funding round, or the founders have to shutter the whole venture.

It doesn’t matter. It wasn’t their money anyway.

Repeat the process until they die of old age, put together an investment fund, or hit it big.

Unique takes precedence over being successful and profitable.

And that startup narrative really sucks.

Companies with no reason to exist have not only come to life but have been given millions of dollars. I know better than most that business can be a crapshoot.

Juicero, the $400 juice machine, closed its doors in 2017. The final nail in their coffin was when a Bloomberg piece showed their juice packets could be squeezed by hand.

Juicero’s entire business model went up in smoke. Some of the largest companies and investment groups had thrown over $100,000,000 at the young company.

Do you think none of them did their due diligence? Did they think the general public was too stupid to find out? Or was it simply a matter of greed?

Whatever the case, those are symptoms of a larger problem.

The real problem is how much dumb money is floating around. To compound that, groupthink is real. If it were just a bit harder to get funding for ideas then people would be forced to validate their business models, distribution channels, and products more thoroughly.

You know, they’d be required to do “the business of business.”

Inventing a new wheel

It may seem like funding is the enemy. It’s not. Investment dollars have made it possible for a lot of indispensable companies to get off the ground.

Smart investment spend brought us everything from Walmart to Quora. The way investment dollars are distributed is what’s broken.

The networks are insular. If you don’t know someone or can’t get an introduction then your business with real merit may be dead in the water. People who’ve failed multiple times have a better network, can send a few emails, and get introductions to another moneyed firm willing to fund the next possible unicorn.

Something seems off about that whole scenario to me. We need a better wheel.

I have a crazy idea

Build a business that doesn’t rely on investor funding. Put real skin in the game. Take the time to build it right the first time around instead of breaking shit because you’re moving too fast.

Forget about whether you’re unique. Worry about whether or not you can turn a profit on every item/unit you sell.

Before I continue, this approach may not work for every business. A social media platform, for example, needs a lot of users before they can attract advertisers or get acquired. They’ll need some stay afloat money.

Heavy manufacturing or technologies on the fringe (think artificial intelligence) also have huge sunk costs before they ever begin to yield fruits. They don’t count.

What about that social media scheduling app or the project management software? Are they going to make any real impact on the world?

Do they really need to be funded?

They should be able to prove their merit before funding becomes part of the equation.  Let’s strip away the pervasive idea that a startup is an idea, a website, and a few lines of proprietary code.

That’s a hobby.

Instead of building like this:

  1. Find an idea
  2. Create a pitch deck
  3. Meet investors
  4. Get funded
  5. Do things to look bigger
  6. Make decisions for the short term because growth at all costs is the goal
  7. Burn through the funding
  8. Avert going insane with the help of your dearest loved ones
  9. Close the company doors

Build like this:

  1. Find an idea
  2. Build it
  3. Get customers
  4. Become profitable
  5. Retain your sanity
  6. Make decisions for the long term because growth at all costs isn’t the goal
  7. Maybe find investors

It takes a longer and you put real skin in the game. Are those bad things?

Would you be a fool for going out to find your first ten customers by hand? Then doing the same thing for the next 100? Or should you build scalable systems from the very first day?

If you tried you’d soon find that you’re optimizing for an event that may never happen.

Would it be a bad thing if it took you a decade to build profitable million dollar business?

Or should you take all the funding you can find, go public, and lose billions every year?

We’re conducting an experiment at KyLeads. Our premise is simple. Build products people want, sell to those people, and grow the business on the back of profit.

I know – radical.

We employ a small group of passionate people. It’s not glamorous and we likely won’t be featured in Tech Crunch or Entrepreneur in the beginning – if at all.

The mana was temporary

For all intents in purposes, we’re a startup. Except for the fact that we’re not. A startup is a company that’s conceived and designed to grow fast.

The wheel we’re inventing is as old as humanity. When people were still foragers there was no one to lend them resources. They earned everything.

When we made the horrible decision to start farming, you only grew when you went out and worked for it. There was no one to give you free grain or money. Even in the Bible, Mana only lasted for forty years.

That’s just not how the real world works. Am I calling investment capital a fairy tale?

What do you think millions of dollars in exchange for ownership of an entity that exists only on paper is?

This is our truth.

What’s yours?

9 Out of 10 Companies Don’t Have a Clear “Reason Why.” Are you One?

Does your brand exist to make a lot of money or does it have a deeper reason why?

Seriously, why was your company formed? Is it worth the bandwidth it takes to render your site or the pixels on your web pages?

Many times, no one sits down to think about it. There’s no wider goal or mission.

Is yours any different?

When I was busy conceptualizing KyLeads, I completely ignored the reason why we exist.

It was all about mapping features, developing use cases, and dissecting the competition. These are necessary components of the creation process.

You need to know how your product can be used and what’s already on the market.

At the same time, you and everyone on your team needs to know why they’re staying up late at night, why they should work on weekends, and why they should care.

Without a compelling reason why you can never develop a compelling story and align people from diverse backgrounds.

Without a compelling story, you can never stand out in the minds of your customers. Your product will never be more than the latest webpage in a long line of things they’ve seen while on the internet.

Your reason why is the conduit through which you distill your message and guide the actions of yourself, your team, and the people who’re talking about you.

When you look at it like that, it’s not something you can throw together in a few minutes is it?

Arriving at our reason why

The lack of an articulated reason for being hit me when I was writing copy for our marketing site. I was running into trouble.

The messaging was off. It was lifeless. There was no personality. We had no reason for doing what we were doing. We had no reason to serve the people we were serving.

Beyond that, I knew it’d be difficult to say no to cool – yet conflicting – things going forward if I didn’t get this straight now.

That realization hit me hard.

We could have all the cool features in the world, but, over time, I knew that’s all we’d be – a series of features – if there was no unifying reason and ethos.

I’ve got to give a hat tip to Jason Fried and DHH over at Basecamp. They know why they exist. It’s allowed them to avoid feature creep and build a product their customers love.

Did they do that by buckling under the pressure?

No, because they exist to make project management simple. They’re notorious for ignoring what people “think” should be in their app.

They have a reason for being and everything they do flows from that. Simon Sinek gave a popular Ted Talk (over 37 million views) that introduces a golden circle.

It contains why, how, and what. We all know what we do and some even know how we do it. Almost no one knows why.

He uses Apple as an example. They’re an iconic company. They want to challenge the status quo and think differently. They just happen to make computers.

We’re not apple.

I was determined to articulate why I was building KyLeads and why anyone – you – should care.

The Why

Over the next few days, I looked at my experiences and what made me so keen to start KyLeads.  It wasn’t to make millions of dollars. That’s not a life goal.

It wasn’t to piss anyone off. What’s the point?

The harder I looked, the more elusive the answer became.

That is, until I logged into a tool I’ve been using for years and have disliked every moment of the experience.

It’s expensive, clunky, and hard to understand (No, I won’t name it. Don’t ask.). It was built for teams who can hire a consultant to implement the majority of the features.

It just happened to have a feature I needed that other tools seemed to ignore. Therefore, I was stuck.

Going deeper than that, I didn’t like the way data was presented. You’re a human and there are reasons behind what you do. You have personal motivations – so do I.

That’s when the seeds of what was bothering me bubbled to the surface. I didn’t build KyLeads to beat my chest and say I’m a SaaS CEO.

KyLeads exists to level the conversion optimization playing field for smaller brands so they can focus on their core competency. That’s almost never conversion rate optimization.

Beyond that, I’d argue the more important reason is it exists to help you make your messages personal.  We’re here so the underdog has the ability to create better experiences for their audience

That way, our customers can worry about what matters – delivering the best product they can.

We do that by designing simple interfaces, intuitive apps, and insightful training material to give them – you – an edge.

We just happen to have apps for opt-in forms, surveys, and quizzes. In five years, that may be different. We may have thrown out landing pages and opt-in forms and introduced heat maps and click maps.

There’s no telling what the future holds when it comes to specific features. That’s part of the fun – no?

What we do know, without a shadow of a doubt, is why we exist and who we’re here to serve.

That’s not changing any time soon.

It’s internal.

I’ve chosen to share our reason why. It’s not a prerequisite.  It should be shared and reinforced internally. Apart from that, it’s your call.

When there’s tight alignment between your daily processes and your reason why, everything you do will reflect it.

If you’re in business to empower the underserved, you wouldn’t be caught dead using underage labor.

If you’re in business to create a better future for humanity, you’re going use green tech and fight against gender inequality.

Apart from that, a solid reason allows you to craft a compelling story. Facts tell stories sell.  Throughout our website, we’re irreverent. That’s because we know we’re in business for a certain segment of people. We don’t need to please the entire world.

The narrative we craft aligns with our reason for being. It informs the way we work and the end products we deliver.

If something makes our applications too complicated or clunky then it’s tossed at the conceptualization phase.

It’s not all roses. You’ll have times when your reasons are challenged and you’re forced to make tough decisions.

Just remember why you’re doing it. Let your decisions flow from there.

Share the reason why you wake up every morning and fight for your dreams in the comments.

Optimizing for Humans: Create a Brand That’s Loved

It’s about time we started optimizing for humans.

I started my journey into all things digital a little under a decade ago. What works has changed.

It was easier to get an email address. It was harder for people to pay for things.

There weren’t so many digital services. It was hard as hell to get a payment processor that you liked.

Building a website was a grueling process. Now, It takes all of twenty minutes from domain purchase to going live.

One thing that’s remained the same is our inexorable march towards adapting offline interactions to an online world. Personalization, live chat, and user experience advocates reflect this shift.

The path has been anything but straight. It reminds me of the line success takes.

success looks like in optimizing for humans


We’re not where we need to be. Not by a long shot. We’re well on the way to getting there. There’s no turning back at this point.

Yes, the barrier to entry for a digital brand is lower. At the same time, the barrier to success has been raised. Startups have millions in funding, growth teams, and advanced analytics.

The bootstrapped company, the blogger, and the solopreneur have the same tools on the surface. The topical view is rarely accurate. Can you implement all the tactics, analyze the data, read all the books, and chase growth at all costs?

No, you can’t.

That’s why it’s important to optimize for humans.

A quick primer on the journey of web optimization

There have been a number of loose phases when it comes to how people optimize on the web. I’ve split them into three.

Optimized for sales

The first phase was about chasing a quick buck. The techniques were more or less copied and pasted from direct response marketing. You had the long pages, the underlined words, the fear of losing, the psychological triggers, and everything in between.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My constant companions were (and are) The Gary Halbert Letters, The Robert Collier Letter Book, and The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook.

Great resources.

I recommend them until this day.

The methods they employ are effective. Gary has personality for days. Robert has countless templates you can adapt to email. The Copywriting Handbook is just that, a handbook to be used. They’re best suited to the Wild West era of the web when everything was focused on the visitors who would convert on the first interaction.

It’s a bit different now. It takes multiple interactions to get a conversion. Adopt the fundamentals from them, those will never expire. Everything else can be tossed. I mean the tactics. Tactics are for specific situations.

Strategy is timeless.

Optimized for search

After the web came to its senses and realized it was more profitable for Google to send them traffic, they optimized for search. All you had to do was send a thousand spammy links to your site, keyword stuff the title, and you’d be ranking in a few days.

The quality of the sites on the first page of Google were, to say the least, poor. Real sites whose owners didn’t understand the intricacies of Search were pushed to the second, third, and fourth pages.

A whole industry sprung up around optimizing for search engines. Many times, they preyed on business owners who didn’t know any better.

They basically said “Look, SEO is hard. Give us thousands of dollars and in a few months we might be able to help you rank. No guarantees.” Imagine if your accountant told you that when you asked if your books were in order.

Today, the practitioners are called SEO’s, publications are dedicated to news about SEO, and it’s no longer about stuffing keywords in the title.

Google is a billion dollar company. Another billion dollar industry sprung up around them. They like their billions.

People were tired of search results that sent them to useless websites with direct response sales tactics. Internet users are utilitarian. If the app isn’t benefiting them, they’ll drop it in a heartbeat.

The Big G figured this out. They had two options:

    1.      Lose billions of dollars because they weren’t useful

    2.     Give prominence to websites that were useful to their product (if you’re not paying for an awesome service then you’re the product. Google is awesome. We’re the product.).

They chose the latter. They spearheaded the phase we’re currently in.

Optimizing for humans

Every blogger, corporation, and small business owner has begun to optimize for humans. It’s evident when you look around. Facebook tells you when your friends have birthdays. Google shows you results based on the ones you clicked in the past. Amazon sends you emails based on your browsing history.

Even small companies are doing it. Emails have your name in the text, they remember your birthday, and you’re shown offers based on the content you interact with (at least that’s how it’s supposed to work).

Going further, service on the internet has begun to mirror service in real life. Organizations are reaching out to users to have real conversations. Like, they’re asking to schedule phone calls so they can figure out how to serve you better.

Net promoter score was implemented to figure out how people feel about your company and why.

It allows us to ideate, launch, and iterate in the blink of an eye. We’ve adopted an approach that allows us to create in the open. We share our failures and successes with the world. GE did it with their icemaker Opal on IndieGogo.

The end result?

Brands are humanized.

It’s no longer a big corporation calling the shots. Rather, it’s a hundred thousand individuals plotting the course iteration after iteration. If you, my customer, doesn’t like it, I won’t spend countless dollars trying to get you to like it.

Consumers have countless options in every field. They wield the power. It’s no longer enough to optimize for sales or search. Those things matter and they always will. You’re in business to make money.

The approach is what’s different.

We’re optimizing, first and foremost, for humans. When you put their wants, needs, hopes, dreams, and ambitions at the forefront then you’re better able to serve them. If you’re better able to serve, they’ll be more willing to pay premium prices.

The more happy customers you have the more you can acquire.

It’s a virtuous cycle.

It all starts with a decision – to focus your company on humans. To optimize communication, marketing, and products for humans.

KyLeads is a product focused on conversion rate optimization. It allows our customers to build opt-in forms and quizzes to get more email subscribers and generate more revenue.

It’s a tool.

If it’s used incorrectly then it won’t be worth the price of the subscription. It’ll be just another expense. If it’s used correctly then its ROI will be evident from the first day.

We’ve made optimizing for humans a way of life at our company. Everything from the way we design features to the topics we write about is focused on humans.

The next step is to empower our customers to do the same and reap the rewards.

Introducing Optimizing for Humansa blog on marketing, conversion rate optimization, growth, and startup lessons. You’ll learn about our wins and losses, how to spread your message the way people want to receive it, and everything in between.

Sometimes it’ll be a short piece on an insight we just gained. Other times it’ll be an in-depth post about a marketing strategy. At all times, it’ll take you further down the path of optimizing for humans and reaping the benefits that come with it.

Final thoughts

The web is changing – fast. Tactics come and go every week. What remains are the fundamentals. Humans like to be treated like humans. They’ll forgive almost anything else.

We’re dedicated to empowering you to walk the walk and talk the talk of putting your customers first. In the process, we’re opening all our doors and showing you what works, what doesn’t and everything in between.

Join us on the journey by signing up for our newsletter – a piece of humanity – to get exclusive content and a weekly article.