Category Archives: Cole Vertikoff

How the Duke Alumni Association Taught Me to Engage Users

Last week I attended one of the most enjoyable events I’ve been to in Silicon Valley.  Strangely enough, there weren’t any pitches, no one talked about SEO, and I didn’t even learn any tricks for database management.  In fact, the vast majority of people there were not associated with startups in anyway.  This event was the Duke Alumni Association’s Forever Duke Send-Off Party for the class of 2016.

When I left for Duke, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a send-off party to go to.  This is probably due to, both the fact that I transferred to Duke, and the fact that I’m from New Mexico, which doesn’t have an incredibly strong Duke alumni base. However, I was lucky enough to attend the event this year (as a Duke senior) and really enjoyed the time I had and the lessons that I learned.

The Send-Off Party is an opportunity for the class of 2016 and their parents to meet current Duke students and alumni in a casual setting.  This event works incredibly well and  made me think about why I love Duke so much.  I’m a loyal Dukie through and through, but what has Duke done to make me feel so loyal? How can I draw some inspiration from their example and make my company (FlightPin) retain loyal users as well as Duke retains loyal alumni?  Well here’s what I came up with:

Feel like you’re a part of something: Duke does this incredibly well.  It’s not just the great atmosphere around basketball that creates this feeling, either (though that certainly helps).  Duke people LOVE meeting other Dukies.  As soon as two people discover a Duke bond between themselves, they have an instant connection.  As the Send-Off Party went on, into the evening, this became more and more apparent.  Future freshman were chatting up incredibly successful alumni (that many high school grads might not have had the guts to reach out to had they not shared the Duke bond) with ease.  The alumni were equally excited to meet all of the freshman and hear about their future plans.  This has to be because of the Duke bond.   How many really successful people take the time out of their day to talk to a 18 year olds (even ones that they may already know) to get a better understanding of their future plans and possibly mentor them?  My guess would be close to nill.  Since we all share the Duke bond, however, this became the norm at the Send-Off Party.

When it comes to engaging and retaining users, you need to make them feel like they’re a part of something big.  If they weren’t part of your company or brand, they wouldn’t be able to get whatever service or product you provide.  If you can create a brand that has loyalty like Duke does, you’ll be set.  I’m not positive how to tackle this task yet, as I’m still in the early stages with FlightPin, but I think a lot of it has to do with transparency.  I read and respond to every email that comes into FlightPin, regardless what user it comes from.  If you have any tips on further making people feel like a part of a great brand, let me know!

See what you can become: The Send-Off Party was a great example of this.  Incoming freshman and their parents had the opportunity to meet and chat with current students and alumni.  No doubt, all of them went home thinking about a few of the more memorable conversations that they had and the people they met.  This event gave freshman the chance to see themselves in the shoes of upperclassmen and Duke alumni.  When we’re younger, we all look up to the people a few grades, years, or levels above us.

This is, yet another, important aspect to grasp for customer engagement and retention.  When a user joins your site, they probably haven’t made any purchases or performed any actions.  In order to get them to do so, show them examples of people who were in their same situation, used your product, and had an incredible experience.

Get excited about the future: As the evening progressed, and more incoming freshman heard stories about others’ experiences at Duke, you could literally see and hear them get more excited about their futures at Duke.

This is a really important aspect to address if you want users to keep returning to your site.  Make sure that you keep delivering what ever product or service brought them to you originally incredibly well, but also show them glimpses of the future.  Get them excited about your next release or the next feature you’re adding.  If someone feels the need to check back into your site in anticipation of an upcoming product, it’s going to lead to better trafic and loyalty.

These all seem like really obvious things to do, but many sites (including my own) don’t have them perfected.  By incorporating all three aspects efficiently, you might be able to create a product with users as loyal as Dukies.  Also, if you have the chance to attend a Forever Duke Send-Off Party, DO IT.  The Duke Alumni Association is doing a great job putting these together, you’ll meet really cool people, and you might just gain some business insights.

-CRV

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The Power of the Pitch

Yesterday, I spent a few hours watching the majority of the 500 Startups pitches during their demo day at Microsoft.  The pitches were all incredible and I think many of these companies are going to be really successful.  Over the summer, I’ve attended quite a few pitch events and have seen some great pitches and some not-so-great pitches.  Here, in no particular order, are the important points that have stuck out to me for creating and delivering a solid pitch.

Personalize: Almost every pitch I’ve seen has clearly addressed a significant problem.  However, often times, these problems are pretty complex and are hard to explain well with a one sentence tag line.  During some of the best pitches I’ve seen recently, all of the presenters talked about the moment in their life when they conceived their idea.  Every time they do this, the product becomes instantly clear because it’s put into a context that I can understand.  For example, instead of pitching my company, FlightPin, as a social-travel-recommendation-deal-finder, I tell people that, when I left for Duke, the vast majority of my friends stayed at colleges close to home, on the west coast.  I always want to visit them, but airline tickets are expensive and finding the best deals takes time.  With FlightPin, I can just enter who I want to visit and what I want to spend, and I’ll be alerted as soon as a ticket matching my parameters is available.  Most people have a much easier time understanding what a company’s value add is when a real world example is used instead of a buzzword mashup.  Additionally, telling the audience how you came up with this idea connects you with them a bit more and turns your pitch into more of a story.  Of all the content you’ve listened to, do you have an easier time remembering pitches or stories?  If you’re like me, the answer is stories (or great pitches that were delivered as stories).

Designer Deck:  Alex Kvamme, of SeatMe, made a great point when he spoke to our group a few weeks ago.  Have your designer make your deck.  If you don’t have a designer (I currently don’t) then make sure you put a significant amount of time into the aesthetics of your deck and get feedback before you pitch on both content and design.  This point seems really obvious, but many of the pitches I saw, before the 500 event yesterday, had ugly or boring decks.  All of the 500 companies had great looking decks that inspired me, as a viewer, to actually read the information that they were presenting.  If you think about it, we spend a ton of time (hours upon hours for me) designing the front end of a website so that users will take the extra second to click a button or read a description.  Why wouldn’t you put similar time into making your deck a pleasurable viewing experience for your audience?  General rule of thumb for decks after viewing a lot of these pitches over the past few weeks: keep it simple.  Say what matters, don’t crowd the slide.

Memorize Content, NOT a Script: Every audience is different.  Each audience you pitch to will have different reactions.  A single audience can have different reactions depending on when your pitch is lined up in the event.  Because of this, memorizing a script is not a great approach for captivating an audience.  If your pitching and the crowd has been dead the entire event, it’s probably not the right time to try every one liner you’ve thought up over the past week.  On the other hand, if you have a lively crowd and you seem scripted, you’re going to come off a bit flat. Bottom line, know your audience and tailor your delivery to them.

Delivery: Stemming from the last point, your delivery is key.  Record yourself pitching multiple times and watch the footage.  You might be shocked with the amount you fidget or the pace of your speech.  The audience will notice these things, so make sure you do too!

Always Be Closing: Ryan Spoon has a great blog post about what it takes to bootstrap a startup.  In that post, he mentions Alec Baldwin’s famous “Always Be Closing” speech.  This concept is really important with a pitch.  You want the audience to remember you and finishing flat is not the way to do that.  Tell the audience what you want (why you’re pitching) and leave them with something to remember you by.  This can be a joke, an incredible stat from your company, or really anything. As long as your last words lock your company’s name and what you want into the audience’s memory,  you’ll be in good shape.

In reality, even a terrible product can be pitched incredibly well.  Inversely, great products are often pitched terribly and may not get the publicity, funding, or recognition they deserve.  The pitch is something that can be tweaked and mastered, however, so there is never a reason to bomb.  If you need some inspiration check out the demo day videos from some of the major incubators online.  The vast majority of these videos are great pitches for great products and a lot of insights on delivery, design, and content can be taken from them.  Best of luck with your next pitch and don’t forget, coffee is for closers.

-CRV

Battle for the Weekends

Last week, during our group chat session, we began discussing the topic of Work-Life balance.  I was surprised to see the difference in the weekend life styles of many of the program participants.

One of the constant struggles that we have encountered during this program is what I like to call, “The Battle for the Weekends”.  The Battle is pretty simple.  In one corner we have work.  In the other corner we have life.  Finding a balance between the two can be really tough.  Let’s take a look at both opponents.

Work:

We have all been given amazing opportunities to be in Silicon Valley for the summer.  For me, this amazing opportunity includes incubating my company, FlightPin.com, at Dogpatch Labs in Palo Alto, California.  Work, at least for me, is enjoyable but the hours are pretty rough.  I never feel that I am completely away from work due to the heavy stream of emails and other forms of communication that are now routed to my phone.  In addition, I feel great after I’ve fixed a bug, or implemented a new feature to the product.  There are, however, some definite downsides.  I don’t see my friends in the bay area much at all.  When I do go out with friends, I have to put up with constant harassment because I’m always responding to emails from my phone.

Life:

Silicon Valley has some of the best culture and outdoor opportunities in the United States.  Yosemite is only a three hour drive away, wine country is only one hour away, and San Francisco is less than an hour by either train or car.  Additionally, I have many friends in the bay area that are out here for internships, studying at Stanford, or have graduated and are starting their careers.  I always have a great time when I choose the play option.  I am far less stressed, get to spend time with people that I choose to be with, and generally get to have new experiences and meet new people.

The Secret Mix:

Obviously, this is different for everyone.  Even for individuals, this mix varies based on the week, the stage of your company, etc…

Personally, I started my time in Silicon Valley with more focus on Life on the weekends.  I had just gotten into town, had many friends that I wanted to catch up with, and usually spent at least one day on the weekend being with friends and relaxing.

As the program has progressed, however, I feel that I am moving more towards a Work centric mix.  FlightPin is progressing, and that’s really motivating.  Any day that goes by where the majority of my waking time isn’t spent on FlightPin feels like a let down for me.  I have a hard time enjoying myself when I do go out with friends on the weekends because I am constantly thinking about the things I need to be accomplishing at work.

To many, this work centric balance may sound less than ideal.  “Someone who is unable to break away from work isn’t living a healthy lifestyle” –  The problem with this rational is that working actually makes me happy.  When I’m at work, I’m not worried about anything.  I’m excited to be creating something and ecstatic that I’m doing it in Silicon Valley.

However, even the most work focused person still needs to take some time off.  I’ve got friends and family that I want to spend time with and who (I hope) still want to spend time with me.  The best way that I have found to keep these people as close as possible is to spend time with them on the weekends, but first set specific parameters.  For example, if I want to hang out with David on the weekend, instead of telling him, “Hey, we should hang out Saturday.” I set up a specific event and ask something more concrete like, “Dave, are you free for brunch on Saturday?”  This way I still get to hang out with David, but I don’t have to worry about spending the entire day figuring out what to do or when to meet up.

Also, pitch your friends and give them updates on what you’re doing.  Not only will this let them know why you can’t always hang out, but it will provide you with some feedback (obviously biased) and word of mouth advertising.  Any time one of your friends is engaged in a conversation and a topic that is addressed by your startup is brought up, they WILL mention your name and company.

If you’re not sure about your balance, spend all day Saturday working and all day Sunday with friends.  Make sure to think about how you feel at the end of each day.  On Monday, you should have a general metric for what’s more important for you and what will make you happier to devote your time to.

When it comes down to it, I think the easiest way to determine if your work-life balance is correct is just to ask your self if you’re happy.  If you’re not, then there’s something not quite right. Remember, especially when working on a startup, that your current work-life balance is NOT going to last forever.

You will have to make sacrifices regardless of which aspect you decide to make time for.  The great thing about life, though, is that you get a chance to change that work-life balance any time you want.  Think of each week as a new way to test your personal Battle for the Weekend.

-CRV

The Problem with Perfection

Over the past few weeks, I’ve struggled very much with something that I’ve never really had a problem with before: Perfection.  Let me preface this post by saying that I would not consider myself to be a perfectionist at all.  Whether it’s in my academics or other pursuits, I usually know my own limits and work to the level that I am happy with.  More often than not, that level is NOT perfection.

However, since the beginning of this program, I have been striving for perfection with FlighPin.com, and that is completely WRONG.

Huh? How can striving for perfection in anything be the wrong thing to do?

Well, in everyday life, I’m not sure that there is a problem with striving for perfection.  Sure, some people may struggle with perfectionism or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and other issues that rise from needing that constant perfection in their lives, but on the whole, I can’t think of a reason why setting perfection as your goal is wrong.  I can even see the argument that, in most professions, striving for perfection isn’t a bad thing.  Achieving perfection might be the difference between winning and loosing, or signing a client and losing that client.  But, in the world of startups, attempting to achieve perfection is one of the WORST things anyone can do.

So why is perfection such a killer?

Well, I’m glad you asked.  There are many problems with perfection, but one of the largest is that perfection takes TIME.  Time (and, in most cases, money) is something that startups do NOT have enough of.  If you’re waiting to release product because you don’t think it’s perfect yet, you’re either going to lose the interest of your customers or  someone else is going to sweep in and take your marketshare like free samples from Costco on Saturday afternoon.

Also, perfection makes you self conscious.  No matter how many times I try to convince my self otherwise, putting up a product on the web is very revealing.  Your product that (hopefully) millions of eyeballs are seeing is completely your brain child.  Regardless of how incredible it is, someone WILL hate it.  And that person, with all the courage provided by emailing in comments instead of having a face to face conversation, will berate you for making the worst gadget he or she has ever used.  Now, no founder should ever listen to one person’s critique too intensely, but whether or not you have been striving for perfection makes a HUGE difference in how well you shake off negative feedback.  If you know that this product is not the best thing out there but are committed to building something great overtime, you look forward to this kind of feedback to help make your baby better.  However, if you’re convinced from launch that you’ve created the perfect product, hearing that kind of feedback can be devastating.

Finally, the problem with perfection in the pre-launch startup is that you have no idea what perfection is.  Regardless of how smart you are, your customers will, inevitably, want something other than what you initially offer.  As my favorite television doctor puts it, you will always be wrong.  But that’s ok, in fact, that’s great.  Getting feedback that you’re wrong tells you that you’re pushing the bounds enough.  You’re trying new things and, with the help of feedback from everyone who thinks you’re wrong, will eventually create a product that people want.

Where do I stand?

Well, I was definitely striving for perfection with FlightPin.  Over the past month, I have completely scrapped two nearly ready MVPs thinking  that they weren’t the perfect product.  At the end of the month, I realized that I still had just my opinion on what I though was the perfect idea and no real user feedback.  Thus, the MVP I’m finishing up now will be the last I make for FlightPin.  It will be launched, I will collect real user feedback, and I will iterate from there.

It seems, at least to me, that the only way to solve the perfection problem is to further embrace failure.  Look forward to failing because, only when you have a product that someone really doesn’t like, will that person tell you how they really feel.  And only when you know how someone really feels, can you make something that they will love.

-CRV

125 Pitches

I’ve been lucky enough to witness some pretty incredible sports moments in my life.  Austin River’s buzzer beater against UNC this past year, and Duke’s come from behind win at home against UNC, last year, are a couple of the most memorable ones.  However, last week, I was just as excited as I was during either of those two epic rivalry games…at a baseball game.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love baseball.  I’ve witnessed grand slams, homerun saving catches, bench-clearing brawls, and I’ve even caught a game ball before, but never have I felt the pure adrenaline and emotion at a baseball game that I experienced when Matt Cain tossed his 125 pitch on June 14th, 2012.

Cain’s final pitch of the night sealed the first perfect game in the San Francisco Giants’ fabled 129-year history and only the 22nd perfect game ever thrown in the history of the MLB.

The DSVIP group was lucky enough to pick this game, against the Houston Astros, as the one game we would go to as a group over the course of the summer.  Looking back at this decision, the odds are incredible that we witnessed a perfect game.  For two program participants, that evening’s game was their first baseball game ever.  I almost feel bad for those two since, odds are, they will never personally witness anything like that again.

Thursday night’s game was definitely incredible because of Matt Cain’s right arm, but one Duke alum made the night even more memorable.  Bill Schlough, the CIO of the Giants, came to chat with us after the game was over.  We were all incredibly excited because of what we had just witnessed and our excitement only grew when Bill brought out a World Series Championship ring for us all to drool over.  Bill didn’t stop there though.  He proceeded to take us down to the field, where he showed us some of the really cool technology AT&T Park has implemented over the past few years.  Leave it to one of Silicon Valley’s baseball teams to have the first entirely WiFi enabled venue in Major League Baseball.  In addition to WiFi connectivity, AT&T Park has the first automated camera system that tracks player movements to record fielding stats.  AT&T Park is completely cutting edge and Bill is doing a tremendous job.

As we left the park, we bumped into the President and CEO of the Giants, Laurence Baer.  He was even more elated than we were about the perfect game (if at all possible) and took the time to chat with us about our time in Silicon Valley.

All in all, definitely worth the long train ride home to Palo Alto later that night!

I apologize for the lack of updates on my startup but don’t worry, all is well!  Look to my next blog post for some exciting developments I’ve been working on.  I just figured that witnessing history required an entire blurb of its own.

-CRV

More about the Rain.

As I walked to my car on Monday morning, my first day working in the office space at Dogpatch, I could not believe that I was witnessing a miracle.  I was in Palo Alto and it was raining….in June.

Being from New Mexico, I love the rain because I don’t get to see it much so this was a great way to start my summer experience.  I’m working on FlightPin.com, a social travel startup that allows users to connect with Facebook, name their travel budget and travel dates, then see which of their friends they can afford to visit.

Already in the first week, I’ve changed FlightPin’s concept a bit, bought at least 5 more possible domain names, done some A/B testing using a great resource called pickfu.com (check them out!) and completely redesigned the front end of the soon to be released minimally viable product.

On top of regular work on my company, I was also able to attend the Duke GEN Angel Pitch event in San Francisco, which was filled with cool companies and cooler people and was part of a discussion session our group had with three prominent Silicon Valley Dukies about their companies, experiences, and suggestions for our time out here.

I’m really excited for the current week, as I’m finally over a cold that I caught as soon as I got to Palo Alto.  On top of feeling better, tonight we’re going to the Giants game and meeting the CIO, another Dukie.

I hope to have an MVP of the newly designed and conceptualized FlightPin (name subject to change) up for public use within the next few weeks.  Until then, it will be lots of hours in the office for me!

-CRV