The Best First Round Review Articles for Early Stage Companies
As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I am quite possibly First Round Review’s #1 fanboi.
The combination of relevant, actionable, and true information, delivered in such a well executed package is unparalleled. And when you compare it to the absolute sea of bullshit self-promotional content marketing (both VC and vendor) that founders have to otherwise contend with when trying to get insights to tackle day to day problems, First Round Review starts looking less like a VC publication and more a community treasure.
That, and Camille Ricketts and Shaun Young are just absolute delights.
My Favorite Review Articles
So, the other day I was tweeting about how I seem to end up following up every startup coaching meeting I have with a handful of links to First Round Review articles that, if applied properly, will help solve the problem(s) the person I’m coaching has.
My friend Tyler tweeted back “Which are you favorites?” to which I responded snarkily with a Google search link to all the ones I’ve written.
After I let that hang for a sec, I started listing for him my favorites as I could remember them. Partway through, I realized that the right format for this is really a blog post, lining out my favorites. And specifically, lining out the ones that I keep coming back to when having these early stage coaching conversations.
First Round Review has great “Magazines” that they’ve pulled together that are focused on different topics - like Sales, Product, Engineering, Recruiting, Fundraising, Management, etc.
But some of those articles are more relevant to later stages companies (e.g., “scaling your hiring” - that’s really only relevant if you’re going to be hiring 10+ people over the coming year - early stage, you’re definitely not doing that.) And that’s great, because First Round Review wants to help folks across the spectrum.
But I spend most of my coaching time with very early stage companies who are just figuring out their problem space, proposed product, and early sales motions. So I wanted to pull together a list of the best Review articles for that specific audience.
The Best First Round Review Articles for Very Early Stage Companies
So here are my favorite First Round Review articles that I find most relevant for very early stage companies.
These are not about “How to manage a 100 person engineering team” or “Scaling through Hypergrowth with Ludicrous Speed” or “BlitzUnicorning from 0 to a Jillion” or other high class problems that folks like to read about / hear about at conferences, but don’t particularly have themselves. These articles are the ones you need right now to make sure your company doesn’t die, and you actually have a chance to scale, later (at which point, go crazy, read all about UniBlitzing and such).
Specifically they’re ordered from earliest to later, in that you’ll need the first ones before you need the latter ones.
I’m sure I’m missing some and welcome feedback, but these are the ones that I find myself coming back to continuously to email to folks. (And yeah, a bunch are by me. ; )
Customer Development: This is the stage at which you’re trying to sort out the problem that you’re solving, validating that people actually have it, and proposing and building minimum viable versions of the solution that fixes it.
‘Get in the Van’ and Other Tips for Getting Meaningful Customer Feedback - (Michael Sippey): This article is a fantastic overview on how to do early customer development interviews in the most effective way possible. - http://firstround.com/review/the-power-of-interviewing-customers-the-right-way-from-twitters-ex-vp-product/
Product Prioritization - (Tom Conrad): Early on you have very little engineering resources, and a jillion things you could make. This article is a good overview on how to think about feature prioritization and ordering. - http://firstround.com/review/This-Product-Prioritization-System-Nabbed-Pandora-More-Than-70-Million-Active-Monthly-Users-with-Just-40-Engineers/
Early Sales and Go to Market: This is my favorite section, because this is where I spend most my time thinking / writing. This is the time in your companies life where you need to take the above proposed and minimally built solution, and prove that it does indeed fix the problem you sought out to solve, and prove that someone will give you money for it.
Sales Mindset Changes - (Pete Kazanjy): An overview (excerpted from Founding Sales) of the things that are weird and new when you’re selling for the first time. Really helpful for first time sellers who otherwise would be tempted to put their head in the sand and avoid the exercise. - http://firstround.com/review/10-ways-you-need-to-change-how-you-think-and-talk-to-succeed-at-sales/
Sales Narratives - (Pete Kazanjy): A framework for baking the message of your offering in a way that is resonant to would be customers. (Excerpted from Founding Sales) - http://firstround.com/review/To-Build-An-Amazing-Sales-Team-Start-Here-First/
Positioning - (Arielle Jackson): A more general version of the above article, focused on the core positioning of your offering. - http://firstround.com/review/Positioning-Your-Startup-is-Vital-Heres-How-to-Do-It-Right/
Sales Decks - (Pete Kazanjy): An overview on how to take that Sales Narrative discussed above, and reduce it to visual and textual materials in the form a sales deck that will help you communicate that message to would-be customers. (Excerpted from Founding Sales) - http://firstround.com/review/building-your-best-sales-deck-starts-here/
Sales Email & Demo Scripts - (Pete Kazanjy): A sales deck isn’t the only thing you’ll need when you’re having these initial conversations with prospects. This article (an excerpted chapter from Founding Sales) is on how to reduce that narrative to email templates to get you meetings, and a demo script that shows off your product in the context of that narrative. - http://firstround.com/review/here-are-the-scripts-for-sales-success-emails-calls-and-demos-that-close-deals/
Customer Success: If you’re successful at acquiring those initial customers, you’re going to need to make them successful, lest they churn out / tell their friends your product stinks. These are some Review articles on that topic.
SquareSpace’s Head of CS on 1 - 100 CS reps - (Christa Collins): A good overview of Customer Success from basics to scale. http://firstround.com/review/lessons-from-the-woman-who-built-squarespaces-customer-care-team-from-1-to-370/
Eero’s overview on how to make Customer Success central to your org - (Dana Lindsay): http://firstround.com/review/the-case-for-startups-to-put-cx-at-their-core/
Hiring & Onboarding: Next comes hiring. You likely aren’t going to be doing much hiring before you’ve nailed the things above (unless you want to ramp your burn and fly your company right into the ground). But assuming you have the beginnings of that, these are some good articles to help you think about recruiting and onboarding.
Recruiters 101 - The different kinds of recruiters that can help you (and when to use which kind) - (Pete Kazanjy): Overview of all the different types of recruiters that can help you solve your hiring needs. - http://firstround.com/review/Ive-Worked-with-Hundreds-of-Recruiters-Heres-What-I-Learned/
Network Referral Recruiting - (Pete Kazanjy): A great architecture for proactively mining the networks of your existing staff to quickly hire high quality staff. Works well at earliest stage and later too. (now baked into automated software in the form of Teamable) - http://firstround.com/review/Mine-Your-Network-for-Early-Stage-Hiring-Gold/
Sales (and CS) Hiring - (Pete Kazanjy): This article (an excerpted chapter from Founding Sales) focuses on sales hiring, and the various sourcing, assessment, and interviewing techniques needed for success there. However, it can be easily applied to customer success as well. (Ignore the soft focus pictures…) - http://firstround.com/review/the-anatomy-of-the-perfect-sales-hiring-process/
Interviewing - (Kristen Hamilton): A good overview of structured interview questions that can be applied beyond sales and customer success. - http://firstround.com/review/hire-a-top-performer-every-time-with-these-interview-questions/
Sales Onboarding - (Pete Kazanjy): Sister article to sales hiring chapter above. All about effective onboarding of sales staff to get them productive as quickly as possible (can we used with CS staff too). (Excerpted from Founding Sales) - http://firstround.com/review/youre-losing-hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars-because-of-poor-sales-onboarding/
General Onboarding - (Carly Gurthie): Carly is rad and this is a great distillation of general onboarding best practices. - http://firstround.com/review/Employee-Onboarding-at-Startups-Is-Broken-Heres-How-to-Fix-It/
Management, Performance Management, Retention: I guess these could probably be a bit higher in the ordering, but these become more important when you get to 10+ folks, so I’m putting them down here.
Radical Candor and giving good, clear feedback - (Kim Malone Scott): This is the most shared article in First Round Review history because it totally hit a nerve. It’s all about how, as a manager or leader, to give clear, direct, but empathetic feedback that ensures staff are executing how they need to in order to be successful. Great stuff. And Kim is the bomb. And going to be a book here. - http://firstround.com/review/radical-candor-the-surprising-secret-to-being-a-good-boss/
OKRs / Operational Cadences - (Angus Davis): A great overview of objectives and key results management cadence. You don’t have to be into OKRs to take away insights of good managerial and operational cadences from this. And Angus is an execution machine. A good primer that isn’t hand wavy bullshit on “goal science” or whatever. - http://firstround.com/review/How-to-Make-OKRs-Actually-Work-at-Your-Startup/
Leveling & Performance Reviews - (Max Ventilla): Part of a successful operational cadence is reviewing performance of staff, and this is something early stage companies often do poorly. And one reason they do it poorly is because they don’t have a rubric for evaluating performance. This article talks about both. - http://firstround.com/review/altschools-ceo-rebuilt-googles-performance-review-system-to-work-for-startups-here-it-is/
Retention - (Carly Gurthie): Startups often obsess over hiring in that it’s the first thing you do when you have zero people. But when you get to 10 or 20 people, retaining folks is pretty important too. This is another Carly Guthrie joint on that. - http://firstround.com/review/This-is-Why-People-Leave-Your-Company/
Fundraising: This is last because lord know there’s enough focus fundraising as the key to early stage success. It’s probably actually the last, or second to last, after initially nailing those beginnings of success. (Maybe this section could be before Management. But maybe not.)
Fundraising Storytelling - (Oren Jacob): All about how to tell the story of the problem, proposed solution, and proof associated with your startup. - http://firstround.com/review/the-fundraising-wisdom-that-helped-our-founders-raise-18b-in-follow-on-capital/
Fundraising Pitch and Campaign Excellence - (Brett Berson, Bill Trenchard): This is a more serious distillation of the fundraising acumen that First Round has summed up from thousands of funded companies, and their Pitch Assist program. It’s serious stuff. - http://firstround.com/review/the-fundraising-wisdom-that-helped-our-founders-raise-18b-in-follow-on-capital/
That’s what I’ve got for now. If I missed one that’s particularly good for very early stage companies, hit me up and I’ll amend!