Force of Good

Advice For Good

Apr 03, 2014

Today Jeff Hilimire introduced Advice For Good, an idea that blossomed out of the time demands of offering coaching and counseling to budding entrepreneurs. Interesting concept. Pretty simple too.

You donate at least an hour of your time to a non-profit or other charitable cause and then blog about your experience on this site, and in exchange you get to meet with one of the Advice for Good advisors.

To fuel the charitable fire Advice for Good is also getting into the event business. A few times a year there will be event where advisors present at a selected non-profit’s location and after the talk all the attendees will spend a few hours helping that non-profit. The first event is kicking off on April 29th at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Sanjay Parekh and Ed Trimble are the speakers. You can sign up here.

It will be interesting to see if this gets legs. Color me a helpful and hopeful skeptic. 

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Posted in Networking, Presentations, Too Many Events

TechSquare Labs

Mar 31, 2014

So the big news last week in Atlanta was the launch of TechSquare Labs. Artfully announced in the Atlanta Business Chronicle TechFlash the day before one of it's founders (Paul Judge) gave the keynote during the VIP lunch at the ATDC Startup Showcase, the new effort became quite the buzz. The other founder, Allen Nance, cleared up any confusion on what TechSquare Labs is all about on his blog. 

Having known Allen and Paul for a bit it is pretty clear what they are doing. They are coming together and institutionalizing what they have been doing for a number of years. They formed a company to create companies. They formed a company to do the same thing they have been doing with the likes of Pindrop Security and Springbot.

TechSquare Labs. It's not an accelerator. It's not an incubator. It's not even a fund per se. It's not about the number of startups served.

It's focused hands on very early stage management to provide capital, coaching, product development, and team building expertise. It's for technical founders. It's for deep IP. It's to build big, meaningful companies. It's a welcome addition to the ever growing Atlanta startup landscape. 

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Posted in Accelerators , Angels

MBAs and Startups

Mar 27, 2014

From time to time the subject of MBAs and startups seems to raise its head and did so again recently by a few of my fellow inhabitants of Atlanta Startup Village. First John Melonakos mentioned how Business School is not Street Cred for Startups and then Kevin Sandlin followed on with why Getting an MBA is Stupid.

Personally getting an MBA was one of the best investments I ever made. My MBA enabled me to understand at a very deep level business in general, finance, and marketing. When I joined a startup that went into hyper growth mode I was able to apply this theoretical learning and build upon it in a very practical way. 

Regardless, most technology entrepreneurs seems to hate MBAs for good reasons. But what really took me aback was the quote John pulled from the article Could a Harvard Business School Degree Hurt More Than It Helps?:

"For venture capitalists who pray at the altar of pattern recognition, it would be hard to ignore how few massive tech successes have been founded by entrepreneurs with MBAs on their resumes."

The first two startups that I joined were founded by MBAs. Both had successful exits. One a billion dollar market cap public company. The other a $275 million acquisition. The above quote did not align with my personal experience. It appeared biased to me.

So I went digging around. A good place to start was the Harvard Hurt article itself. To quote:

"It’s possible to turn to research conducted by Aileen Lee for her viral list of ‘unicorns' – slang for the 39 tech companies founded since 2003 valued at $1 billion or more by private or public markets. Only 12 of those 39 companies had co-founders with MBAs..."

Only 12 of 39? That's 30%. I don't know how many MBAs there are in the USA but it is no where close to 30% of the general population. The degree is over indexed in the sample set. Seemed like a positive pattern.

So I decided to do a little more analysis closer to home. I went through Paul Judge's recent list of most valuable or promising startups in Atlanta. There are 25 companies on that list. I looked at the educational background of the current CEOs of these companies using simple internet searches and LinkedIn. 

I was not able to ascertain the educational background of three of the CEOs (at least one is a college dropout). Of the twenty two that remained nine have a masters degree in business and fourteen do not. Or but another way, 41% of the CEOs from the list of the most promising startups in Atlanta have a graduate business degree. There was no other degree held by this group of CEOs that was even close to this percentage. I was somewhat surprised to see that science and technology grads only account for six (27%) of the CEOs. There were four that have undergrad business degrees (bringing the total that studied business to nearly 60% of the total), two liberal arts majors, and one that studied law.

While MBAs are not for everyone (I have advised many proteges to skip the degree and get their learnings in more practical and potentially lucrative endeavors), a good percentage of the people that run high potential startups have the degree. Getting an MBA may not be stupid at all. It's fine. Just don't be an MBA. What matters is what you do with the degree. That is what will earn you street cred.

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Posted in Business, Entrepreneurship, Startups

How To Pitch Workbook

Mar 25, 2014

A while back I wrote an article inspired by a Canaan Partners SlideShare deck on how to pitch. Having recently been asked to help out a few startups in the TAG/Venture Atlanta Business Launch Competition, I revisited the article only to discover that the embed was bad. 

Seems Canaan updated the deck. It is below. 

Once again the outline provided starting on slide 10 is golden and a great format. It is basically what I used to help two startups make it to the elite eight of the business launch competition. Might be worth taking a look at if you are in pitch mode.
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Posted in Entrepreneurship, Presentations, Venture Capital

Startup Genome Survey

Mar 20, 2014

Today in the Atlanta Tech Village newsletter (sign up here) the Startup Genome Survey was mentioned. Startup Genome and the Kauffman Foundation have teamed up to conduct research on the Atlanta startup community. Taking the survey is quick and easy. At the end there is a link to this nifty startup map that is quite interesting if you play around with it.

So go ahead. Take the survey.

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Posted in Accelerators , Entrepreneurship, Startups

Startup Defined

Mar 19, 2014

Google "what is a technology startup." When you do this article I wrote back in 2009 will most likely show up as the second result right below the Wikipedia entry. The Wikipedia entry is a little more interesting to me at the moment than what I wrote five years ago. This is what it says:

"A startup company or startup is a company, a partnership or temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. These companies, generally newly created, are in a phase of development and research for markets." 

The first sentence of definition was authored by Steve Blank. I have the utmost respect for Mr. Blank. His book The Four Steps to the Epiphany literally launched the lean startup movement. His bookThe Startup Owner's Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company and Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers by Alexander Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur are required reading for anyone looking to found a startup for the first time (and maybe certain serial entrepreneurs as well). I am a fan. However I strongly disagree with the above definition of a startup.

Here's why. It does not pass the reasonableness test. If you were to ask members of a startup community if certain companies were or were not startups they would more often than not classify companies that have repeatable and scalable business models in place as startup companies.

For example as I write this I am sitting in the offices of SalesLoft at the Atlanta Technology Village, a building specifically built to to support and inspire technology entrepreneurs. Salesloft participated in TechStars in 2012. Just a year ago Salesloft had no revenue. Now it is seeing high product demand. The company is growing fast. Both revenue and people. They have found a business model and a market. By the above definition they are not a startup. 

Does Salesloft sounds like a startup to you? It sure does to me. The CEO and all the employees think they are a startup. But by the above definition they are not. The definition is wrong. The definition intentionaly excludes execution. That makes it too narrow. All successful startups execute. They execute to scale.

And this all may be a matter of semantics within Mr. Blank's own diagram of the startup process the act of scaling the company is included in the startup cycle.

Scalable Startup

Going back to my Salesloft example they have conducted customer discovery. They have customer validation. They have a repeatable business model. They are in the process of creating customers and scaling the company. They are a scalable startup but not as defined by Wikipedia.

When it is all said and done I think the Wikipedia definition of a startup just needs a little wordsmithing to something like this:

"A startup company or startup is a company, a partnership or organization designed to search for and scale a repeatable business model.

Moving around a few words enables the definition of a startup to include companies such as Salesloft (which it should). It makes the definition of a startup include early execution (which startups do). It makes the definition of a startup pass the reasonableness test (which it must). 

This refined definition defines startups better. And that would be a better thing.

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Posted in Entrepreneurship, Startups

Update: Most Interesting Atlanta Startups of 2010

Mar 13, 2014

Yesterday Micheal Tavani started a conversation on Twitter about this list of 20 most interesting Atlanta startups. The list is over three years old. I thought it would be interesting to go in and provide an update. Here it is.

BLiNQ Media
Sold to Gannett. Depending on your source it was either $40 million or $92 million. I know the number. Take the average and you are close enough. 

BrightWhistle
Raised a total of $3.2 million, graduated from ATDC, and moving into their own digs off Piedmont Park.

Clearleap
Most recently raised a $20 million Series C and seem to have found traction delivering their TV everywhere platform.

ClipZone
Out of business (OOB).

Cloud Sherpas
Continues to grow revenues like Kudzu. Added Salesforce and ServiceNow capabilities. Spun off technology into BetterCloud. This is going to be a big winner.

CRESecure
Have not heard much from this hosted PCI solution since their $3 million raise in 2010. Appears to be dead.

Endgame Systems
Endgame raised a $29 million Series A and $27 million Series B from folks like Bessemer and Kleiner Perkins. The company is now headquartered in DC and the founders have all moved on. I am fairly confident they consider the venture to be successful and are on to bigger and better things.  

MailChimp
According to their ads on NPR they have more than 5 million customers. Moving to fancy new digs in Ponce City Market. A privately held tech anchor.

RentWiki
Another company that has been pretty quiet since raising $2.4 million in 2010. Seems to have changed name to RentAdvisor which was acquired by Apartment List.

PlacePunch
Acquired by Silverpop. 

PlayOn
Raised a $7.2 million Series C in 2011 and a $26 million Series D in 2013. PlayOn has teamed up with the National Federation of State High School Associations to launch the NFSH Network. It literally is the high school sports network. Their tagline says it all. High school lives here.

Preparis
The company has been a little quiet since graduating from ATDC in 2012.

Regator
The site remains active. It seems the team has moved on to new ventures.

ScoutMob
While everyone loves the app and the brand ScoutMob is successfully managing a pivot to a curated ecommerce experience.

Solidfire
Dave Wright has raised $68 million for his solid state storage system. He also moved it to Boulder to gain access to more domain knowledge. Win for Dave. Loss for Atlanta.

SoloHealth
SoloHealth has raised $24 million. While they seem to have a solid retail presence a recent boardroom shake up and change of strategy to focus on wellness plans for major employers raises some questions.

Twitpay
From all appearances the company is OOB.

Vertical Acuity
Raised $5 million than sold to Outbrain.

Vitrue
Acquired by Oracle for a sum north of $300 million.

Wavee
OOB.

The way I see it that adds up to five companies with successful founder exits, three that had "meh" exits, seven that are too soon to tell, and five that went out of business. I am pretty sure that four of the too soon to tells are going to be winners. That would put my successful startup identification rate in the 45% range. 

Maybe I should be a VC. 

Before I do that I am going to make a new top 20 Atlanta startup list.

Who should be on it?

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Posted in Startups

More Is Good

Mar 06, 2014

If you have been reading FoG for a while you know that I firmly believe that density matters. Denisty is extremely important for startup communities. And with all its sprawl Atlanta has a startup density issue.

The reason I bring this up is that Urvaksh Karkaria set off an Atlanta startup firestorm on Twitter last Friday with his article on how the downtown Flatiron Building could be redeveloped into an entrepreneurship hub. Urvaksh followed up on that article today. Evidently real estate in the technology section creates page views.

My initial take, inspired by a NPR interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson on the new Cosmos series and the gravitational forces acting on Europa, was this. Potential energy is decreased by the distance between gravitational masses. It's just a scientific fact.

Having startup hubs located in Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead is not optimal. They are too far away from each other to create the kind of density Atlanta technology startups need now. I say this from a somewhat unique viewpoint.

These days I spend about a third of my time in Tech Square working out of the offices of BLH Ventures/KontrolFreek. I took Kyle Porter up on his offer and also spend about a third of my time working out of the SaleLoft space in Atlanta Tech Village. I don't mix Tech Square and Village days. At six miles they are just too far apart. But there are great things going on in both places. It is interesting to see a startup start out in one location and then end up in another. It happens quite often. But once a startup gets settled in one of these places it is seldom that I see it at another. The Atlanta startup hubs are fairly distinct in population.

While on a micro level Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead are too far apart, on a macro level something very different is happening. A stronger gravitational mass across the city of Atlanta has the ability to increase the pull of other startup resources in the direction of the city when taken as a whole. Resources from other industries. Resources from other parts of the country. The Atlanta technology community is becoming more interesting to those that are currently not involved in it. It is creating more gravitational pull.

Sometimes more is more. In this case more is good. 

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Posted in Accelerators , Current Affairs

Takeaways From Georgia Angels Meeting

Feb 26, 2014

Yesterday I walked down the hall at Tech Square to sit in on a few sessions of the Georgia Angels Meetup. I had a particular interest in the deal flow panel that included Stephen Fleming, Jennifer Sherer, Jennifer Bonnett, Michael Blake, Sanjay Parekh, Katie Elizabeth, and Allyson Eman. Quite the group. And so were the folks in the audience and on the other panels. 

Here are my takeaways.

1. There are a lot of startups in Georiga. The Atlanta Technology Angels (ATA) had 413 companies apply for funding in 2013 and there are currently 470 ATDC member companies. Add in the 175 or so that are members at Atlanta Tech Village and that is a lot of startups!

2. According to Stephen Fleming Georgia Tech alone is producing over 100 startups a year.

3. Due to the tremendous growth of the Atlanta startup community the original mission of StartupLounge has been acheived. Michael Blake, one of the StartupLounge founders, declared mission accomplished. To quote, "there is plenty of Series A funding to go around." I agree. Michael seems to think the issue now is getting a Series B. He also thinks it is a much more complex problem to solve.

4. The ATA funnel looks like this. 413 startups applied for funding. Of those that applied 79 were screened. About 20% made it to the screening. Twelve investments were made. Approximately 3% of the companies that applied to ATA were funded. 

5. Due diligence matters. The rate of investor return increases dramtically when they invest more than 40 hours in due diligence.

The meetup was a good one with more capital in the room than I care to count. Hundreds of millions of dollars looking to find a home in Atlanta startups. Good stuff.

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Posted in Angels, Venture Capital

Time For A Facelift

Feb 25, 2014

Force of Good has been an active blog going on eight years. It started off using a standard Typepad template. In 2008 Paul Stamatiou moved the design from three to two columns and Blake Perdue created the custom design template that is currently being used. With the exception of the move to Disqus commenting in 2011 the look and feel has been pretty much unchanged in six years. 

It's time for a facelift.

While I still love the relatively clean design of the blog I have managed to clutter it up over the years. Moreover the site is not optimized for mobile and visitors that are accessing FoG via mobile is growing rapidly. I intend to move to a single column design to address this change in audience behavior.

I can provide pretty good creative input and design direction. Wireframes even. I lack technical design skills and need some help with that work. Blake is a bit too busy at the moment to lend a hand. If you are a reader of FoG, have design skills, and are looking for a fun quick project I would love to hear from you.

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Posted in Networking, Web/Tech

Do Your Own PR

Feb 21, 2014

So I am spending more and more time these days advising concept stage and seed stage startups. And I had an interesting conversation with a pair of entrepreneurs the other day about press releases and marketing. They had reached a significant milestone and put a release on the wire. They were waiting for coverage.

I had the break the news that you don't really get coverage from putting a press release on the wire. You have to work it like this.

Somewhere along the way it came up that they had dropped a low four figure amount on a PR agency to help them with their release and to create a list of potential writers to contact. I love using an agency at the appropriate time but for companies without funding or revenues getting attention is a core competency that someone on the team needs to develop. It will both save you some money and people that write about startups prefer to talk with founders over flacks.

While we were having this discussion one of the founders started having a bit of a text exchange with a writer for a national news website focused on information technology companies from startups to Fortune 1000 firms. Seems he had networked his way to the writer. Hot space. Got same day feature coverage.

Do your own PR.

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Posted in Marketing, Startups

Sources of Startup Ideas

Feb 13, 2014

I have been reading and thinking a bit these days about the sources of startup ideas. How ideas that are worth turning into technology startups come to life. The best work I have found on this is by Daniel Gulati who actually conducted some primary research on the matter and wrote it up for the Havard Business Review. Good stuff but I don't think he has it totally right. As I have thought about this it seems there are two primary categories that serve as sources of startup ideas; those that occur naturally and those that are manufactured.

Natural or organic startup ideas just happen in the course of your life. It is almost by accident. The aha moment when you experience some pain, could not find something to fix it, and have a sudden realization that you should go out and solve the problem yourself. This is how Charles Brewer came up with the concept for MindSpring and David Cummings created Pardot (Pardot was a pivot). I believe this the best source of startup ideas. It's just kinda hard to plan an accident.

Another natural situation that occurs is when you are working at a company and discover a customer need  that no one is addressing and for whatever reason your employer does not wish to address that particular market. The most obvious of these in Atlanta was ChoicePoint, which was spun out of Equifax. Endgame came out of ISS in the same fashion. ScoutMob actually got their start when EarthLink shut down its municipal WiFi network and some of the laid off employees founded SkyBlox.

The second large category of startup idea sources are those that are manufactured. The most prevalent manufactured startup idea is created of necessity. It is also known as a pivot. The original startup concept is not as successful as desired so the team has to figure out some other model. Examples abound. The aforementioned SkyBlox pivoting into ScoutMob. The Sunday Paper becoming Half Off Depot. Viture moving from a walled user generated video service to a social platform. CipherTrust was a pure message transfer agent before becoming an email security company. I could go on.

Finally there are purposely generated startup ideas. While I have an ongoing list of startup ideas that I think about, just sitting down and coming up with good startup ideas is incredibly hard. It's so hard that I am extremely hard pressed to give examples. I agree with Paul Graham (and his Ideas for Startups and How to Get Startup Ideas are most reads). The best way to get startup ideas is to look for problems. Problems where you have some domain knowledge. Problems where you know other people that might be able to validate them. Problems that you could potentially solve. While problems to solve abound not many of them meet the criteria for evaluating startup ideas.

The catch-22 around startup ideas is that in some ways purposefully generating them seems more challenging then stumbling upon one. Startup ideas are best generated if you are working on something else than trying to generate startup ideas.

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Posted in Entrepreneurship, Startups

Lens For Evaluating Startup Ideas

Feb 04, 2014

One of the things that I have been pondering lately is how I can evaluate startups and startup ideas more systemically. There is good reason for this; I am looking for my next venture. And as I was contemplating how to go about this a thought popped into my head. Evaluate them in the same manner that investors do. Which took me back to a lesson I learned from Merrick Furst, the founder of FlashPoint.

Merrick taught an undergrad entrepreneurship class at Georgia Tech. I sat through some of them. During one Merrick explained a venture risk framework that most investors used even though they generally don't talk about it. The framework included management risk, market risk, product risk, and funding risk.

From an early stage investors perspective all startup milestones should be focused on reducing management, market, technology, and funding risk. And if you are going to be investing the most precious commodity in the world, your time, it is not a bad lens for an entrepreneur to use as well.

Looking at startups and startup ideas through this lens leads to a host of questions to ask to evaluate the risk inherent in the opportunity. You need to get to a point where you can decide if the idea is something that could become a real company. Below are some of the questions to ask. 

Market Risk

  • Is there extreme need/pain being felt by an individual or group?
  • Do they have money to spend?
  • Are there enough people feeling the pain, or put another way is the market intuitively large enough to create a meaningful company?
  • Is there any potential potential impact of government action?
  • Is management team passionate about the market?

Management

  • Can a team of A players be attracted to the startup (many of which are asking the same type of questions listed here)?
  • Doe the team have experience in the space with deep domain knowledge.
  • Does the team have the ability to leverage personal networks to build the business.
  • Does the team have strong past professional relationships built on mutual respect and trust.
  • Does the team have shared values and work ethic.

Product

  • Can a product be created to address the market need with the team that can be assembled?
  • Can a compelling step function improvement unique selling proposition be created? 
  • How can long-term sustainable differentiation be created?

Funding

  • Is the business model capital efficient?
  • Can it get to revenue within one year and a repeatable sales process within two years.
  • Can the team fund it to cash flow positive or further investment?

You also need to ask yourself if the startup is one where you can have an impact. You have to look at it through the lens of your own personal experience and the value you can bring. For example when I personally evaluate startups or startup concepts I look for a business to business SaaS or SaaS like Internet company with a consumer element where sales and marketing are key drivers to business success. I know I can have a significant impact on these type of businesses.

Your lens is likely to be much different. Know what it is and focus on it.

Look at startup concepts and startups through the lens of investors and your personal experience. If you do you are more likely to find a winner.

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Posted in Entrepreneurship, Startups

Startup Naming

Jan 28, 2014

Tonight I am giving a presentation on naming and positioning at Founders Institute Atlanta. In prepping for it I uncovered an old draft article on the subject of naming. It was part of a series of posts on startup marketing that I published back in the summer of 2009.

While a number of articles have been written on startup naming by the likes of Guy Kawasaki, Jason Calacanis, and Dharmesh Shah, I but together my own simple five point framework for startup name characteristics. I hesitate to call them requirements because in today's day and age if you are going to meet all the requirements it would take a pretty good chunk of change that concept and seed stage companies can not afford. 

I will also say this, I am not sure if the company name really matters. If might give you an edge but it may not be a big issue. It is an subject that deserves some serious cycles but if you take a peek at the winners in the Atlanta tech space it is hard to discern if the name matters at all on ultimate company success.

1. Memorable

This is the most element to me. A startup name needs to be memorable. To be memorable it needs to be brief. Four syllables or less. Less is good. Think eBay, Google, Netflix, Twitter, and Yahoo!. All two syllables. Two syllable names also seem to have the best verb potential. Dropbox it to me.

Part of the reason is that you don't want the name to become too long is that people will have a tendency to cheat on your name. A great example of this is Internet Security Systems. Great descriptive name, but so long people just called it ISS.

A bigger part of the reason is that you want the brand and word of mouth effects that a memorable name provides. Having a memorable name greatly increases word of mouth marketing potential. 

The name needs to be memorable not only to people but to machines. Machines such as search engine crawlers. You want to be sure it is unique enough that you can own it via SEO. 

2. Easy to spell and pronounce.

You want someone to be able to spell and say your company name correctly unprompted after hearing it one time. This, along with shortness, are the two most important elements in my book. If it is not obvious know to spell you will spend the rest of your time with the company dictating the letters over the phone every time you talk to someone for the first time or they ask for your email address.

If it is not obvious how to say the name you are going to have a much harder time building a brand. And this may sound a little out there but people have to like the way it makes them feel when they say the name. Xobni does not exactly roll off the tongue with pleasure. You want your name to make people smile.

No hipster buy a vowel names allowed.

3. Reflect product capabilities or be evocative.

Some of biggest brands on the Internet today have names that do not reflect their product capabilities but are evocative. Amazon, Google, eBay, Yahoo. 

Some of the biggest brands on the Internet today have product capability names. Facebook, LinkedIn, NetFlix, The Weather Channel. 

While I prefer product capability names I will also say this. If you go down the road of your company name reflecting product capabilities it can create issues if you have to pivot. More likely than not you will pivot.

4. Trademark clear.

This might seem obvious but you have to ensure that you can get rights to use the name for the purpose you want. Simple United States Patent and Trademark Office searches are a good place to start but are not definitive. If you have the money a CompuMark search can be undertaken.

The key to the mark being clear is if it has the potential to create confusion in the marketplace. You find a trademark clear name you should start the process of registering it as soon as you use it in commerce.

5. Able to secure web properties.

You want to be able to obtain the .com domain and the company name on the big three social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) if appropriate for your market. The .com has to be available or available for a price that you are willing to pay, now or at some time in the future. Successful companies cheat on this all the time. Twitter was Twittr. Delicious was Del.ocio.us. Do what you have to do to grow the company and then getting the right web property in the future seems to be a enough common practice that you can pursue it if you have to do so.

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Posted in Marketing, Startups