8 Things Startups Say That Are Usually Wrong, But If They Were True, They’ll be Millionaires

It’s very easy to believe that anyone can launch a startup and be successful.

To be a ‘growth hacker’, launching an app that goes from 0 to like a bazillion users overnight, selling for millions shortly thereafter to a Chinese dot com.

Sound crazy? Not really.

Every day there’s an explosion of content with case studies, growth hacks and optimisations shared on twitter, blogs and news sites. This is very valuable, for the right people. But for some, it’s easy to think that achieving digital success is easy. Surely, anyone can do it?

Sadly not.

A big thing that a lot of aspirational startup founders miss is that to be good at anything, takes about 10,000 hours of practice. Take 5 key elements of a startup, Product, Distribution, Execution, Funding, People. To be expert at all five will take about 50,000 hours. Even then – nobody knows it all.

So, after lots of conversations with startups and digital marketers over the years, here are 10 things I hear a lot that we’re trying to avoid here at my new startup Mailcloud.

  1. It’s going to be viral

Just like Gangnamstyle, right, right?!.

Remember this South Korean sensation?

There are very few things in this world that genuinely go ‘viral’ and certainly engineering ‘virality’ is super hard. A lot of what is billed as viral, actually isn’t.

For example, search ‘viral launch page’ in Google (every startup does, admit it) and you get this classic tech Crunch article about Hipster who ‘perfected the viral sign up page’. 

If you look at traffic sources, it clearly wasn’t users adding other users (virality), it was users being driven through different channels, en masse and in a concentrated time frame.

Virality is a data science, a process of optimization and even if you know all of the theory you have to be disciplined and patient to go through the process.

I recommend reading Viral Loop by Adam Pendleton to truly understand Virality.

  1. We’ll get our first 100k users from Tech Crunch.

No, you won’t.

If you’re lucky, you may get 10,000.

Actually, the best way to get your first 100k users is by doing things that don’t scale. Ryan Hoover at Product Hunt (YCombinator 2014) wrote a great post about how product hunt got its first 2k users. 

  1. Sequoia will lead our Seed Round.

They won’t.

They now really focus on Series B and above to deploy capital. Sure, they have written seed cheques in the past – but very few. You’re much more likely to raise your first capital from, in order;

  • Family (Rich uncle, mom, dad)
  • Friends (Bff are best)
  • Angels (Experienced in tech industry individuals)
  • Seed stage VCs (Those that specialize in early stage companies)
  • Growth stage VCs (Those that specialize in growth stage companies)

VC websites make it pretty clear what they’re interested in and so do the personal blogs of the individuals at different VC firms. It’s important to do your homework and know exactly which VCs and angels have specific sector, size focus and what is important to them.

Read Paul Graham of YCombinator’s blog on startup funding. 

  1. We’re filing patents to own this market

Patents don’t make you defensible.

Sure, once in a while Microsoft will be all in the news for losing a patent infringement case. But that’s because it happens so rarely. What makes you defensible is speed, execution and scale. Move faster and be more sticky than the competition. If you give your customers and users a great experience, it’s hard for others to take them away.

  1. The dev team in India are doing great

If you have a dev team in India then you’re on the wrong track.

I really can’t think of any successful startups that were tech focused that outsources their startup development to a team in another country. Sure, remote working and outsourcing can work well if you’re like a $100ml+ revenue business but in early stages, control, culture building, team dynamics, execution and communication are too important.

  1. We can exit with a sale to Facebook

Facebook and other large major tech companies don’t make that many acquisitions, relatively speaking. When they do, they are highly strategic and if they want to buy you, it means you’re onto a good thing where there is further growth (=value) to be had.

  1. If we get just 1% of the 100 million people in our market …

This is the wrong way to think, on so many levels.

Firstly, you really need to aim to get more than 1% of any market. 2, whilst market size is important, the best companies can increase the size of their market. There was a really great talk by Guy Kawasaki on this and the mistakes first time entrepreneurs typically make at Berkeley.

  1. We have this Rock star ninja developer

 It’s not about one person, it’s about the whole team.

It’s better to have a highly focused, motivated, passionate team of individuals who are not ninjas or rockstars than one guy who’s amazing in a team of mediocres. No matter what, you have to have a clear vision, purpose and drive as to why your product or service will transform the lives of millions of people (and how it will do this).

Just having a single ninja isn’t going to help you.

This all said, if you get one or more of these right, chances are you’re on the road to millions, but only if you build a great business.

Time, effort, reading and learning will help you get to where you want to go faster.

Good luck.

My brutally honest Social ad, 5 surprising results

What happens when you’re brutally honest in your paid social ads?

Of course, for years we’re all used to seeing promoted tweets and sponsored posts in our social news feeds. ‘Buy these shoes, they’re on sale!’ or ‘Play the most intense combat game’.

So, whilst buzz testing for the launch of my new startup Mailcloud, I decided to try something new – a bit radical – telling the truth in a social ad. No, say it ain’t so! Well, the results were quite surprising.

A little background

I’ve been using social advertising intensively for the last 4 years, starting in 2010 for my previous startup Zaggora.com. Whilst we had an optimised content and paid marketing strategy, we actually ran most of our spend through Facebook. Partly because it was so effective. I became quite an expert, Facebook themselves say I might be ‘the most experienced entrepreneur in the UK at using Facebook ads’. I was so good at driving traffic through a feedback loop that we made $30ml in revenue in our first 18 months and I won the National Business Award for E-Commerce strategy in 2012 and was nominated for Entrepreneur of The Year.

Twitter began experimenting with sponsored tweets and promoted accounts in 2011. At Zaggora, we were an early tester in the UK and we ran a promoted trend for a day. We spent $10k and didn’t see a penny of return. It was a disaster. (Should be said the trend was #ilove – which was just silly.

Since then, Twitter have built our their advertising platform to support a variety of promoted content and is now much more sophisticated than it was, it’s even ‘self-serve’ versus the insertion order basis of a few years ago so anyone can run a promoted campaign on Twitter, much like on Facebook, for your own personal Twitter account.

Let’s be honest

So, after reading about Twitter’s earnings for Q2 in the Financial Times, I opened my Twitter app and there it was, an app install ad for a social game.

Twitter app install advert


I’d been used to seeing these on Facebook for over a year now, but now on Twitter too. Which got me thinking, most promoted social ads are selling something. A product, a service. From online dating to social games to weekend’s away, those shoes on sale. Frankly, it’s the only way to make paid social ads work – you have to be selling something and optimise to acquire new customers at no more than 25% of their lifetime value to you.

The call to action is to visit your app, website and buy something. Otherwise, you’re going to blow your brains out.

But, that of course means from targeted user perspective, 99% of the ads you see are selling something. Buy, Buy, Buy.

So, what if I ran a brutally honest ad that treated the targeted audience with respect, called a spade a spade, and just told them the deal?

My Twitter Campaign

I opened ads.twitter.com and created a campaign.


  1. Get high engagement
  2. Low Cost Per Follow


I decided to run a promoted follow account ad with the simple copy, ‘Follow me please, these Twitter ads are expensive!’.

twitter ads


Realising that digital people would probably appreciate the honesty (& humor?) the most I targeted men and women on mobile devices that follow Tech Crunch, Google Developers and growth hackers like Sean Ellis, Josh Elman and Andrew Chen. I also through in a handful of growth hacking accounts such as GrowthHackers_ and Optimizely.

twitter adverts


I went for all the majors, US, UK, Canada (Yes, a ‘major’), Ireland (love a Guinness).




Of a total of 2 million potential reach, I set a budget of £1k with a daily limit of £200 spend with a cost per follow cap at £0.70.

And then I went live!

Some context

So, to be able to evaluate the success, I referred to benchmarks of previous campaigns I have run on twitter where I achieved a Cost per Follow of around £1.10 with engagement at 2% and a Follow Rate of 0.25-0.5%.


People loved it!

Almost immediately I started receiving replies to my promoted tweet (almost never happens!). Here are a few examples.

twitter ad

promoted tweet


sponsored tweet


Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 09.57.10

All in all, these were the results on 46,334 impressions and 2,817 clicks.

Follows 473

Spend £174.10

Cost Per Follow £0.37

Follow rate 1.02%

Engagement Rate 7.27%

Retweets 21

Replies 56

twitter campaign


So, if my objectives were to get a low cost per follow and high engagement, it worked.

Of course, you could easily argue this was a silly exercise that doesn’t really prove anything. But then, I would argue that advertising is simply the pursuit of engagement with a target audience to generate a desired action. Target audiences are just people, and people respond to emotion.

In this case, the emotion was humor and surprise – and it worked.

Let me know if you’ve tried any honest strategies yourself.


How we optimised to a 63% homepage conversion rate at Mailcloud

Here at Mailcloud, we’ve been trying to optimise our homepage conversion rate (CVR) over the last 2 months. We’ve read a lot of blog posts about how this can be done and we’ve been using quite basic techniques we wanted to share with you. This is not least because we haven’t heard of many homepage CVR over 50%.

Why optimise your homepage conversion rate?

Well, it should be obvious in that you should know what you don’t know.

And we know that what we think is a good design and structure/layout/call to action to converting people to signup to try Mailcloud - isn’t necessarily the one that people find the most enticing.

Also, by optimising you are in effect seeing if anyone cares enough about your value proposition to even give you their email address. There’s a nice talk on this by Laura Klein at Lean Startup conference.

Why optimise before you have an app?

It’s a very logical question as to why we would even want to optimise our website before we have a product built that people can download. There are 3 reasons for this.

1. Preparing for the traffic

Remember Noah? He build the ark before the flood.

2. Optimising value proposition, language, brand.

It’s also interesting to see how different value propositions, imagery and language effect conversion rate. The key thing is not to change too much at once. Really, it should be one element at a time.

3. Feedback, Optimisation and Audience – for the price of 1

So, if you want user feedback on a prototype, you can spend time and money on getting feedback at scale. Like doing a survey with Google or Survey monkey. But, you also want to optimise your site, and build up a base of people you can go to when you have a BETA.

So, this way, we get all three. We can optimise the site based on the traffic, signup people at Mailcloud.com to try the BETA and then strap on to their confirmation email a survey they can take to get their feedback. All 3, for the price, of one.

We call it Accelerated Lean Startup

We’ve adopted a lean startup model here at Mailcloud which means we’re executing all of the lean processes you would typically execute with an MVP, before we have an MVP. We’ve been doing this by testing with over 1,000 people a prototype of Mailcloud, before we even wrote a single line of code to understand what they wanted.

This optimisation process is similar, meaning we launched homepages we created in hours and are not particular proud of.

Who are you optimising for?

This is really the key thing. There’s an adoption curve.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 16.26.14

There’s also finding the people who are most interested in our product – revealed very clearly in the 1,000 responses we’ve had to our in person and remote surveys based on our prototype. Take this to the optimisation level, and your highest conversion will always come when you say the right things to the right people. The beauty of the last few years has been the revolution in social media and ad targeting that really allows you to deliver the right message to the right people (almost at the right time).

Last Week – 55% Average CVR at Mailcloud.com (GA)

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 14.54.03

We managed to get an average conversion across the week of 54% over 1,579 signups on 2,854 visits. You’ll see from Google analytics the top traffic sources were the Facebook ads we deployed, then organic (mostly Facebook ad spillover as people see an ad, then often open a new window and go to your website), then Twitter.

Our peak daily conversion rate so far was 63% across all devices at Mailcloud.com.

March – 34% Average CVR at Mailcloud.com (GA)

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 14.59.31

Compare this to the first week in March when we began testing our homepage CVR, where we only converted 640 people to signup from 1,856 visits (1k less than in May).

What did we do to improve our CVR?

1. Creative

We’ve actually been running ads on both Twitter and Facebook to Mailcloud.com – targeting the same people. in both March and May. We haven’t really changed the creative.

Let’s focus on our Facebook ads, since these resulted in the lowest Cost Per Conversion of around $0.70.

There are 3 things to focus on when using Facebook ads, you need to get all three right – and to do that you have to test;



-Bid Method

Facebook Creative and Targeting – Desktop

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 15.17.00

Our optimised Facebook ads have been targeting men , 25-55 in the US who like TechCrunch, Mashable or Venture Beat with the above, in news feed on desktop. This has been optimised to get an almost 1% CTR compared to earlier ads that were similar but were targeting a much broader base of men and women over 20, who like all sorts of tech titles, and more broadly technology. Also, Desktop has a marginally higher CVR than mobile.

After testing 5 different creatives, we focused on the one that had the highest CTR and lowest cost per CVR.

Based on Google Analytics campaign and demographic data, and cross referring with interest keyword performance from Facebook ads, it was clear who converted best on mixed landing pages.

Men, 25-50 who like Tech Crunch, with the right creative. This lowered our cost per CVR and also kept our CTR higher which meant Facebook kept delivering our ad on a CPC basis. We’re about to try optimising delivery for conversion away from cost per click to see if this improves.

2. Landing Page

The next to test, once you have an optimised funnel of traffic that you can try and keep consistent to your destination page, is to change that destination page. So, we bursted traffic in 100-400 visit increments, spending $100-150 a day to test.

We tested the improvement in conversion rates by using Visual Website Optimizer which is a really great tool.

These were the homepages we tested over the past 8 weeks and their equivalent peak conversion rates over 7 days. (Some we’re not very proud of).

You’ll see we also used Qualaroo to get on site feedback from people to see why did they come, better helping us tailor the ad creative and on site messaging.

You will also see a variety of messaging and imagery.

Version 1 – 19%

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 16.38.08

Version 2 – 27%


Version 3 – 34%

Mailcloud app

Version 4 – 48%

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 14.23.42

Version 5 – 54%

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 14.22.00

The most important thing to recognise, is that there are a lot of ways to optimise and A/B test. I fully expect comments on how this process can be improved / made more significant. Yes, I  know, we don’t seem to have controlled for variations in weather, time of day etc. Also, we didn’t have identical traffic sources (although similar enough for me).

However, even the smartest data science nerds must recognise when you are looking to make progress fast, you have to move fast and not overly labor on testing.  So, for me, it’s good enough to see the difference on over 1,8000 visits in a week in March and May the increase in homepage conversion from 34% to 54% on pretty similar traffic.

I’d say that’s #winning.


6 Best Business Books – You’ve never heard of..

Here at my startup Mailcloud, we all believe in learning.

Of course, in our day jobs we’re learning new things every day in engineering, marketing, product development, UI and UX (to name but a few). We’re learning by doing. And yet, we also love to learn from others – to benefit from the achievements, failures and optimisations.

To this end, we watch you tube videos once or twice a week of founder talks at Stanford, Harvard and Berkeley. Some of our faves are actually from Y Combinator’s Startup School. We also read blogs and books.

I though I’d share my favourite 6, that have taught me a lot but aren’t on the usual best business book lists.

In no particular order.

1. Managing Startups, Best Blog Posts by Thomas Eisenmann

On a recent trip to Harvard Business School I was flicking through a few of the prominently placed books at the entrance to their Baker Library. This one stood out, not least because it had a bright red cover (I know, never judge a book by it’s….) but also because I’d never come across it before – despite being published in May 2013.

Curated by HBS Professor Thomas Eisenmann it contains over 75 (short) chapters from blog posts about startups. Everything from marketing to strategy, hiring, management and product development is covered. Posts are by a wide variety of successful entrepreneurs and managers from startups you will recognise. The easy readability and profound insights it contains must make it one of the best business books.

2. Will It Make The Boat Go Faster by Ben Hunt Davis

Ben Hunt-Davis won Olympic Gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 as part of the Men’s Rowing Eight. How did he do it? By focusing only on those things that ‘made the boat go faster’. Make time for things that matter, and ditch the things that don’t. Of course, first you have to figure out ‘what does make your boat go faster’?

The book is divided into 11 chapters, each of which is split into 2 halves. Firstly, Ben provides a narrative, recounting an episode from the eight’s journey to Gold, and shows the team using the methods in action.

Then comes the analysis, explaining why and how the crew did what they did. Simple and chatty, the book is a warts-and-all authentic account of a journey to success that will show you how you can succeed in whatever you want to do. Nice ☺

3. The Box: How The Shipping Container Made The World Smaller & World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson.

Whilst this sounds quite quirky, perhaps a specialist title for a warehouse manager – I actually discovered it from Bill Gates’s holiday reading list a year or two ago.

In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. The Box tells the dramatic story of the container’s creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerization brought about.

Of course, it’s actually a tale of innovation and invention – and how one very simple idea, can change the world.

4. Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works by A.G. Lafley

If you subscribe to the Harvard Business Review or recently did an MBA at the Business School, this will be a very familiar title – written by the former CEO of Procter & Gamble on business strategy – something which is often mis-understood.

Playing to Win is a noted Wall Street Journal and Washington Post bestseller, outlines the strategic approach Lafley, in close partnership with strategic adviser Roger Martin, used to double P&G’s sales, quadruple its profits, and increase its market value by more than $100 billion when Lafley was first CEO (he led the company from 2000 to 2009). The book shows leaders in any type of organization how to guide everyday actions with larger strategic goals built around the clear, essential elements that determine business success–where to play and how to win.

I came across it in the Harvard Business Review recommended list and I enjoyed it most because it actually discussed in detail what strategy really is and what it isn’t and how it is best applied to real business situations.

5. The Ultimate Question 2.0 by Fred Reicheld

Are your customers or users happy with your product or service? How do you know for sure? It amaze me how many companies can’t answer this question quantitatively – with real data, that tracks satisfaction over time. Well, Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a way.

In the first edition of this landmark book, business loyalty guru Fred Reichheld revealed the question most critical to your company’s future: “Would you recommend us to a friend?” By asking customers this question, you identify detractors, who sully your firm’s reputation and readily switch to competitors, and promoters, who generate good profits and true, sustainable growth.

You also generate a vital metric: your Net Promoter Score. Since the book was first published, Net Promoter has transformed companies, across industries and sectors, constituting a game-changing system and ethos that rivals Six Sigma in its power.

6. Startup CEO by Matt Blumberg

A definitive book for any CEO—first time or otherwise—of a high–growth company. While big company CEOs are usually groomed for the job for years, startup CEOs aren′t—and they′re often young and relatively inexperienced in business in general.

Author Matt Blumberg, a technology and marketing entrepreneur, knows this all too well. Back in 1999, he started a company called Return Path, which later became the driving force behind the creation of his blog, OnlyOnce—because “you′re only a first time CEO once.” Now, more than a decade later, he′s written Startup CEO . As the fifth book in the StartUp Revolution series, this reliable resource is based on Blumberg′s experience as a startup CEO and covers a number of issues he′s faced over the dozen years he′s been a CEO.


P.S.Let me know if you think any should be added.


Why Startups Need $307 of Swag!

Mailcloud founder Malcolm Bell talks about why he ignored advice from tech legend Mark Cuban, and made $307 of Mailcloud Swag. 

I have to admit, it wasn’t until I visited Facebook’s Dublin office had I heard the term ‘Swag’.

One of my favourite sales girls at Facebook said, ‘When you come over to Dublin you’ll have to get some Swag’. This, I automatically thought, was some kind of new Irish beer. Shame on me for my prejudice against the Irish as a nation of drinkers. Of course, when I got there, Facebook kindly gave me a hoody, a mouse mat and other Facebook branded kit, including a t-shirt for my baby boy. This was ‘swag’, branded goodies that make you part of Facebook, part of the team, the club and of course, the phenomenon.

Swag’s Back! 

For a long time, certainly the years from 2002 til 2010, it seemed most startups avoided swag. Not least because a lot of the .com’s had their swag embarrassingly trading on ebay long after they died. In fact, you can still buy that rare ‘talking sock puppet’ made by super fail startup Pets.com on ebay for $24.99. Or how about the special promotion set of 6 ‘floaty’ webvan.com pens – just $35.00. The list goes on.

Failed startup swag on ebay is what every founding entrepreneur dreads. So most have avoided it.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 13.47.34

And then, Super unicorn startups like Facebook and Twitter brought back Swag, big enough and secure enough to be sure their swag wouldn’t end up on ebay long after they failed. In turn, a lot of newer startups followed. In particular, I read a great piece by Ryan Hoover over at Product Hunt at the weekend based on a presentation he did in Memphis about building a community at Product Hunt which included branded swag. Here’s his presentation.

And that’s one of the best things about swag, building a community, an identity, even if its in part helped by a nice selection of T-Shirts. I love these from Product Hunt.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 13.56.34

Falling Cost of Swag.

Whilst tech legend Mark Cuban talks of running for the hills when he sees a startup spending money on swag, it’s not as much as it used to be. In fact, with awesome sites like Teespring.com, it’s never been easier or cheaper to kit out the team with swag to make them feel part of something. In fact, here at Mailcloud we were able to get everyone in the team (8 including Ted the Mascot Bear) their own polo for $307.

Teespring lets anyone create a design for a T-shirt. Then, simply share your design, set a price and if enough people buy it, they’ll make it!

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 14.09.49

The 4 Benefit’s of Swag 

1. Identity 

For Startups to be successful, it’s important they know who they are and what they are building, for who. Having swag helps create that identity and bring to life the code you’re typing on your screens all day long.

2. Community

It’s about being part of something bigger than yourself, with others. You’re in it together. Having something to wear reminds you of that.

3. Promotion

Drew Houston at Dropbox wore a ‘Dropbox’ hoody or t-shirt in the first 2 years of Dropbox pretty much anywhere he went. Soundcloud founders and others did the same. When you’re speaking at events, in person or being filmed, wearing swag is frankly free advertising. So why not.

The moment you’ve been waiting for, more shots of Pawel and Aymeric in our Mailcloud Swag. 

photo 1


What’s the value of a .com domain? Mailcloud knows.

The traditional startup thinking for the first 15 years of the internet (1995-2000) was very much that the ‘top-level domain is king’.

The mighty .com.

However, in recent years, an increasing number of startups have opted for newer extensions such as .io (very much a trend now) as well as others like .me. This is as much out of desperation as it is branding, since so many of the .com names have been taken, either by real companies or an explosion of domain sitters who occupy a domain waiting to get bought out. It’s actually now even a business,

One question startups have struggled with is ‘What really is the value of having a .com domain name?’ 

Here at Mailcloud.com, we know. It increased our conversion rates c.25%.

In the early days (by that I mean 7 weeks ago in our Week 3), we were using mailcloudapp.com. This was after choosing Mailcloud as a name, somewhat assisted by over 350 people who took our early surveys and selected this as the best out of Spark, Mind, Shelf, Wizzmail and Mailcloud. We registered mailcloudapp.com in lieu of having the available mailcloud.com or mailcloud.co.uk or mailcloud.co which actually ranked number 1 in google for ‘Mailcloud’ searches. However, our plan was always to capture the top level domains, as well as the social assets @mailcloud on twitter and fb.com/mailcloud.

Twitter @mailcloud

First, we looked up @mailcloud on Twitter.

We spoke to our buddies at Twitter to see if, since the handle hadn’t been used for over 2 years, we could have it. Done.


This was owned by an Irish chap who at one point had an email marketings service called Mailcloud. However, there hadn’t been any blog posts since 2012 and similarly no tweets. So, we tracked him down in WHOIS, emailed him and agreed a deal for the domain. Of course, we were clever as to how we did this to get the best price! This was an important one for us since it ranked so highly in Google. 1 down, 3 to go.


Of course, this was the one we really wanted. Why? For all the same thinking that has led to the ‘top-level domain’ being the one that you should really have. Principally, its the domain extension people think of when they think ‘internet’. The dot com, or .com. If there are 5 firms each with Mailcloud as a domain name, the .com stands out. Of course, since Google have made many iterations of their search and ranking algorithms over the years, it’s not as important as it once was.

We also thought that if people came to mailcloud.com, we’d have a higher conversion rate because of the implicit trust that comes with having the .com.


So, in early April, after 6 weeks, we got it.

We tracked down the owner who hadn’t used it, ever, after Graduating from Stanford. He’d registered it as a Sophmore when he had an idea, but then went on to pursue other projects. He had forgotten he even had it. After we changed the DNS records and applied the domain to our site, forwarding mailcloudapp.com and keep the cononical structure, we ran some test traffic. Consistently, over the next few days we saw a jump in our conversion rates.

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 14.36.26

This was recorded in Google analytics. To make it clearer, we put it into an excel chart.

Without changing the targeting or marketing creatives or website, we saw an increase in our average conversion rates into the mid to high 40%, from the low 30%s we were getting previously.

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 14.15.47

Separately we wrote about our conversion rate testing here.

So, if you get the chance, get the .com – although don’t be afraid if you can;t, plenty of great businesses have built on not having the .com For instance, instagram actually had the domain instagr.am for their first months before they got big VC funding.

How to manage a startup

You would have thought that after successfully building my last startup Zaggora.com as CEO for 2 years, I would know how to manage a team. After all, we went from $0 to $30ml in sales in 18 months, scaling to over 650,000 customers – without any investors, or a penny of debt.

Management genius? Think again.

The first time around, there was a lot of things I’d never done before as a ‘first time CEO’. Not just in terms of ‘getting things done’ operationally (supply chain, logistics, production and marketing) – but actually managing a team that grew from 0 to 60 people within 18 months. This isn’t of course unique for a first time CEO. Drew Houston at Dropbox talks about his in the awesome documentary ‘Startup Kids‘ where he says in a startup, ‘you have to do things daily you’re barely qualified for’

There was a lot of things I didn’t do properly, or I did them half-properly, too little, too late when it came to managing people.

Of course, like everyone else I tried to learn as I went along. When I decided to leave Zaggora in October 2013, I decided I would spend 4 months researching the startup successes and failures of others, noting the managerial and operational tactics – to apply them to my new startup Mailcloud.

I wanted to share some of the most interesting insights I discovered whilst reading blog posts, books and talking with highly successful startup founders, CEOs and CTOs over a few months and also how I’m applying them at Mailcloud.

The founding team of 8 here at Mailcloud (including Ted). We have Focus, Process, Motivation. 

Top left to right, Malcolm Bell (Me), Aymeric Flaisler (Data Insights), Pawel Borkowski (Engineering). Bottom left to right. Robin Osborne (Engineering), Mark Baker (CTO), Wojtek Turowicz (Engineering), Stephen Nelson (Design & Development). Bottom. Ted (Office Bear)

founding team


Will it make the boat go faster?

Remembering my Zaggora experience, at the early startup phase you’re at your most creative. Both individually and as a team. Assuming you know what problem you are trying to solve, validating it and brainstorming the creative ways the problem can be solved, is really the most fun part of a startup. You don’t have any issues you will face in time like your site is down, you’re late shipping your product, there’s no more red bull, the database is jammed.

After the first few weeks, and you focus on building your solution, it’s very easy to develop inertia and get caught up in the daily run of things. Even as a small team. You forget to test assumptions, that you have to build something people want and to keep asking people what they actually want or need from your product or service.

In short, you get comfortable.

You end up doing things that don’t in any way, make the ‘Boat go faster’. This is named after the great book I read by Ben Hunt-Davis who won Gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 as part of the Men’s Rowing 8.   His book talks about the success of the team. During preparation and training, they focused only on those things that made their boat go faster (ergo, faster than others and winning – the key objective). If something did’t make the boat go faster, they dropped it.


In startups, making the boat go faster is undoubtedly an analogy for reaching product market fit, the faster the better, by knowing what your startup offers as a product or service, which problem it’s solving and for who.

At Mailcloud, our goal is to help people work easier and faster by providing organization. That’s our one thing. So, to make our boat go faster, if something isn’t going to help people organize, work faster and easier or improve their user experience, we move on and focus on the things that do. Is this conversation going to make the product faster, easier, better? No. Then move on to one that will.

Daily huddle

This was actually introduced to me by our awesome CTO Mark Baker, who had been running these daily in the engineering teams at Live Nation and Wiggle for a few years.

The concept is simple, every day you spend 15 minutes as soon as everyone is in, to talk about what each person did yesterday and what they are doing today. Each person takes their turn, with a limit of around 2 minutes. Some people say more, others say less, but everyone has to talk meaningfully about what they are doing.

Not as a ‘this is what I did at school today daddy’ but as a ‘This is what I’m doing and how I’m adding value to make the boat go faster, is it conflicting with what anyone else is doing’ .

Obviously, this is easier in a smaller team (less than 20) than a larger team.

It really works in 3 ways.

1. It keeps people focused on the task at hand, coordinated with others.

2. Everyone is individually accountable for their work, taking responsibility in the team.

3. It reminds you there’s a team, in which you play an important part, and it isn’t just you on your own.

Will there be donuts? – Proper Meetings

Another great book I read was ‘Will there be donuts? by David Pearl. In it, he talks about how most people in the world of work spend their lives in meetings, meetings about meetings. Instead, he advocates a structure to have proper meetings that are meaningful and useful.

No Donuts at Mailcloud :)


At Mailcloud, we avoid meetings with each other.

We have our daily huddle in the morning, communicate using Hipchat during the day and talk to each other one on one. If we do have a meeting, its capped at 15 minutes, with a structure on the purpose of the meeting and what do we want to get out of it. Then, we go back to getting things done.


Communicating with Hipchat

Every startup should define how the team will communicate, where will files be stored, and how things will get done. I read a great story about Facebook in the early days and where most of the engineers would communicate with instant messenger – even if they were sitting next to each other.

At Mailcloud, we are often plugged in coding, so we decided to use;

  • Hipchat – Conversation internal
  • Email – Conversation external
  • Dropbox – Files personal
  • G Drive – Company docs and files
  • Trello – Work process.

This also allowed us to work with existing tools to develop an intensive, deep understanding of their benefits, limitations and produce a list of things we think could be better. This is working nicely. We are also testing a lot of products from newer startups that we consider to be developing ways to work easier and faster.

In about 4 days, we’ll only be using our own Mailcloud to do all of the above, which is really awesome!.


One of the great things about Hipchat is that you can integrate a Bot.

So, we built our own ‘MrBot’ that can perform a lot of those repetitive database tasks you perform as a team on a daily basis, automatically. Things like querying conversion rates, adding and removing items to the database, managing deployments etc. This means engineers can focus on building the product, rather than constantly having to admin the database querying to distribute to others in the team. It’s efficient.

We also use it to fetch images and animations from the open web. Nuff said :)

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 14.17.20

Planning and workflow in Trello

One of the first things we decided was that we would have to have a comprehensive, lean and iterative development process with a flexible testing methodology so as to operate an accelerated lean startup model. Our CTO Mark wrote a nice post on this here. I followed up with some thinking behind our ‘accelerated lean startup’ method here.

We use both Trello and our wall to Kanban all of the things we are doing. Trello easily allows teams to create cards of things that need to/be done, to manage them in columns like ‘To do’ or ‘Doing’ or ‘Done’. Each person has their own board as well as process boards that allows us to be sure everything is being done. These are managed by CTO Mark, to be sure the engineering team is always working on the right things, running QA on their work.

This is our wall, where we mirror some of the Trello process.

Mailcloud dev process

O.M.G Meetings

One thing I learnt at Zaggora is that it’s important for people to be able to vent frustrations.

I say that because it’s something we didn’t really provide a forum for, either as a team or individually, on a regular enough basis. It’s important because let’s face it, we all feel better after a good moan!

So, every Friday we have an OMG Meeting, for ‘Oh my God’. It allows us each to identify those things they think can be improved in the office after that week. Whether it’s a process issue, a tech issue, an environment thing or generally anything they think can be done better. We also highlight the things we think we’re doing well we want to keep on doing.

The OMG Wall, post-its stay until the wall is full.

Mailcloud post its


So, here’s how it works;

1. Each person writes out 4-5 post-it notes for good things and bad things.

2. We take it in turns to put the post its on the wall.

3. Nobody is allowed to interrupt.

4. Nothing personal, individuals cannot be singled out. They are process based.


Yesterday I wrote about the awesome process of a premortem. Imagine you’re dead, what went wrong? Make sure it doesn’t happen. You can read about this here.


This is probably the hardest to achieve, as if the others aren’t hard enough. It certainly helps that we all are working to build something we, ourselves, want to use. We all think managing emails, files and work conversations can be easier and faster, especially on mobile. But, how to achieve rolling motivation – especially knowing things will get tough?

Team is everything

If you’ve hired the wrong people, there’s nothing you will be able to do to build and keep motivation. Sorry.

So, let’s assume you’ve hired the right people. By that I mean, you really need in a startup people who individually have these top 10 characteristics.

1. Specialist experts in what they do.

2. Take a pride in their work

3. Are naturally curious, reading extensively around their skill sets.

4. Naturally motivated, they’re excited when they get out of bed in the morning.

5. Know how to work in a team.

6. Have a passion for problem solving.

7. Are generalists, good at lots of things, not just one thing.

8. Keen to learn new things

9. Like working a lot

10. Comfortable with uncertainty, relishing a challenge. War-time, not peace-time.

Learn from others

To keep ourselves motivated, we like to learn from the best. Twice a week, we watch you tube videos of Y Combinator Startup School, Stanford School and other presentations by successful founders of great tech companies. This helps us realise constantly what we’re doing isn’t a unique struggle, it’s one all startups have to go through and that it’s possible.

This was an awesome Talk by Ben Silberman of Pinterest we watched today.

Meet new people

To relish the uniqueness of a startup, and what a privilege it can be to have the freedom of thought, creative working and team spirit, we invite people from all industries to come to the office to talk about their business, work. We’ve had people come and talk to the team, mainly friends of mine, from;

  • UBS Investment Bank
  • Skyscanner
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Paypal
  • Google

Have fun!

Working in a startup can be intense. Especially when you’re coding all night.

Here’s Pawel the morning after sleeping in the office following a 20 hour code session til 4am yesterday.


So, we have an Xbox, a fridge stocked full of red bull, water and diet coke. We eat together, take breaks, tell jokes and ask MrBot to animate all sorts of weird and wonderful images from the open web. Nuff said.

So far, I’m really happy with our progress and I can’t wait to see what people think of our BETA soon.

Good luck!