Essays on marketing and a meaningful life

Ada Chen Rekhi

Category: Startups

7 Things No One Tells You About Being a Startup Founder

When I founded my first company Connected back in 2011, I was really surprised by the intensity of the emotional rollercoaster. By then I’d already worked everywhere from large corporate Microsoft to tiny new startup and felt prepared. I was dead wrong. I remember describing it to a friend as, “After I started a company, everything became 10x more intense. The highs and lows filled with terror, sometimes all in the same hour. Everything else I’d done in my professional career fades in comparison.”

Four unSEXY Startup Lessons


Last Friday I attended the unSEXY conference, a one-day conference hosted by 500 Startups focused on the unsexy topics of distribution and money makin’ for startups. You can see the conference slides here.

My new startup Connected is contact management without the work

A new project

I’ve been so heads down working at my new startup that I’ve neglected to update my blog. Sorry guys!

A few months ago, I left Mochi Media and the world of games to start a new adventure with Connected, which provides contact management without the work. It automatically pulls in contact information from across your email, calendar and social networks and gives you the tools to proactively manage your network.

Why Connected? Because relationships are important

One of the key reasons for my original decision to join Mochi Media was because I just liked the founder and team, and could really see working with them. When I first met Mochi, they had just raised their Series A. I wouldn’t have been fortunate enough to meet them without an intro from my brother Andrew. That set the stage for the past four years. Relationships are important, and they touch every aspect of our personal and professional lives.

Our networks are global, and scattered all over the place

I’m excited about the contact management space because it’s a common problem, and only growing larger. We’re getting more and more spread out, and our networks are getting even larger through Facebook and LinkedIn.

I grew up in Seattle, went to school in Philadelphia and live in San Francisco. My network is scattered all over the globe. When you travel to another country, how do you know how to get around? Even worse, sometimes we don’t even know who we know.

Here’s a quick visual of what my global network looks like thanks to Connected.

Using information from Connected, we were able to reconnect with friends last summer from Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.

It’s a painful problem to solve

Connected addresses a problem that I’ve had for a long time. In college, I kept an Excel spreadsheet of important people called Seattle contacts, and used that as a reminder for who I should have coffee with each summer. In moving down to the bay area, I had another spreadsheet with a list of companies and contacts, and data for who introduced me to who.

After I made these contact lists, I never looked at them again. They’re painful to update, and how do you stay in touch for the long term? I just added them on LinkedIn or Facebook and did my best to stay in touch.

How Connected solves these problems

We’re still early with Connected, but I’m really excited about the product. We’re focused on taking all the pain out of keeping your contacts up to date by pulling information from across email, calendar, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Using Connected, I can maintain a list of important people and set custom reminders to keep in touch. It also sends me custom alerts for birthdays and job changes so I’m always up to date. For travel and recruiting, I can search across my network by geography or job function. It’s built for professionals like me who care about their relationships but don’t need / can’t manage heavy-weight CRM tools.

Try Connected

Please give Connected a whirl, and let me know your thoughts! Click here to get started.

Breaking Stalemates on Product Design Questions

One of the challenges of early product design is creating the initial product hypothesis on what the product actually is. Internally, products tend to be more easily described as a bundle of features, but it’s difficult to convert that into an actual description. Marketing and initial product design is often the realm in which everyone has an opinion, and it’s hard to judge which one is more valid. Should this button be red or blue? Is this the right message for the user, or should we phrase it another way? The answers to the questions, however, can be very important and fundamental decisions that have profound impact on the product. As Jason Fried says, copywriting is interface design.
The natural questions that follows is, how can we take the diverse opinions and create a constructive process with which to answer them? It’s important to be able to evaluate ideas and make decisions to break the stalemate:

#1. Implement a test

One way to answer these questions is simply by testing it. Set up a landing page or bucket a certain group of users into a test group, and measure the results against the key metrics that you’re trying to drive. Doing very small variations high up on the funnel can have great results.


With this approach, it can be tempting to design by numbers. However, if you’re not getting the qualitative feedback directly from the users, you may be missing important data about the decision. For example, a correlative increase in click-through might actually indicate that your copy is misleading rather than better converting. Another consideration for this approach is how hard running the test is. Even though ideally everyone should be able to set up a test, this can create an additional hurdle for non-technical team members to advance their ideas.


If you’re focused on marketing copy or testing a simple value proposition, one free solution to this is Google Website Optimizer which lets you test completely different pages or do multivariate tests of multiple page elements. Optimizely is another useful tool geared toward providing non-technical ways to test landing pages. If you’re looking for deeper analysis like funnels, there are many tools like Kissmetrics, Mixpanel and Kontagent available.

#2. Conduct live user testing

A second approach is to speak directly to potential customers and show them the interface or ask them questions to test the different hypotheses. A version of this might range from from conducting a survey, posting on your community forums, screencasting with Skype, or all the way to visiting someone at their home or place of work.


The benefits of live usertesting is that it allows you to unearth information and responses through interaction with users. Watching and engaging with users can be insightful. However, generating live usertests can be quite expensive in terms of time or money to determine the answers to qualitative questions. In addition, you run into the problem of sample bias. Depending on the nature of your business, the user sets which you receive may not necessarily be representative of your audience.


There’s some simple ways to put this into practice. The first version is taking your customer email list and emailing them. A similar option is posting a Craigslist ad that leads to a Wufoo survey form. Present a quick message about your product and what type of user you’d like to see respond (with a time commitment), and then push them into a Wufoo survey which asks qualifying questions to determine whether or not they’re a candidate for you. After that, you’ve got a list of potential customers to interview in-person or on the phone.

The second version that I use and recommend is They provide a great service where you select the type of user you’d like to interview, provide a list of tasks and essay questions, and connect you with the user for a small fee. In exchange, you receive a short essay answers to these questions and a video screencast of your user completing the tasks and verbally answering the questions in their native browser environment. This is super important for consumer web because you can see the experience of your product on their browser in their home environment. The benefit of this approach is that it’s incredibly easy. However, the drawback is that it’s a less interactive audience and these users are potentially less representative of your actual userbase.

#3. Create a customer advocate group

The third way that I’d suggest answering these questions is by creating a customer advocate group. Ideally, this is a group which is composed of the top customers or potential customers of your product which everyone in the company agrees is the real customer. For a B2B company with 20% of the customers providing 80% of the revenue, this would be the council of your 20%. For a consumer company, this may be some of your highest ARPU users or top posters.


Creating a customer advocate group can have the benefit of removing the problem of the vocal minority. These are the engaged users who may complain the loudest, but aren’t necessarily representative of your top users. It can also be a great way to establish and cultivate great relationships with your top customers.

The idea of a customer advocate group is particularly powerful because it dispels the argument that “This isn’t representative of our customer base” when the answers surfaced aren’t convenient to the product direction. By creating this group, you have a very targeted and accessible set of users to run these qualitative questions through. Once this group is established, it should be pretty easy to get them on the phone, email them a few paragraphs, or even throw together a few Balsamiq mockups to show them. I think creating this is the preferred and ideal method, but it takes more work on the front end to set up.

One potential downside to this method is that customer advocate groups do need to be maintained. You should constantly be asking, Is this group currently representative of the customer we are targeting? As your product or customer group evolves, it’s important to regularly revisit this question and redefine or augment the group.


If you have an existing customer base, find a way to get to the set of top emails that you agree as a team represent your customers to contact them. A great way to do this is to ask for an interview or even create a more formal program for them to be involved. If you don’t have an existing customer list, scour your network, Google Blogsearch or Twitter and look for the most knowledgable and potentially representative group of users for your product.

5 Ways NOT To Make Product Design Decisions

I’ll close by thinking through five ways not to make product design decisions.

  • Don’t copy what competitor X is doing, but make the effort to understand what or why they’re doing it.
  • Don’t make decisions in a silo. Have conversations with your customers and have a clear reason why you’re doing it.
  • Beware of the loudest voice in the room, because the strongest opinion might not be the right one.
  • Avoid creating “maybe useful” product features.
  • Don’t forget to talk to your support or community staff. Pay attention to those who are closest to the action.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

Lessons from designing a product in less than 24 hours

Last weekend, Sachin Rekhi and I did as a little hackathon project for the Cloudstock Hackathon. I’m proud to report that we were a finalist for the event and even made it onto Techcrunch!
If you’re not familiar with it, Cloudstock is a small event offshoot off of the larger Dreamforce conference designed to bring developers and cloud technologies together.

Meet our project:

The premise behind is simple. Send your business card with one text.

Even though we’re living in this world with social networks and online profiles, many of the existing applications are dependent on both people having something common installed. Unfortunately the assumption that you’re both on the same network isn’t reliable, so most networking reduces to the business card. The business card is the lowest common denominator way to share information. The problem is that there’s only so much information that you can cram onto one small business card.

What if there was a better way to share your contact information with others?

A novel solution to solve this problem is the iPhone app Bump. But when was the last time we used Bump? The biggest issue with Bump is that it requires both individuals to have the application installed.

Instead, uses a simple push method to reduce the friction of sharing your information. After signing up to create your virtual card, you can send that card to anyone you want via their phone number, email or Twitter handle.

You text’s number with the other person’s cellphone, email or Twitter account. Right after you text the app, the recipient will receive a text, email or tweet with a link to your virtual card.

Lessons learned from designing

This was my first hackathon, and I wanted to share quick thoughts on the experience of creating

Timeboxing is a great way to reduce an idea down to its essence

We had a lot of great ideas on what to build, but the constraint of creating a one-day project helped us refine these ideas to simple values. We set 3 rules:

  • Achievable within 24 hours
  • Useful enough that we would use it
  • Uses one of the APIs included in the conference

The interesting thing was that many of our ideas failed the second constraint, which is products that we would use. Instead, they tended to fall more into the class of technical toys. It’s great to prove that we were able to complete something with an API, but difficult to explain how we’d use it. We finally decided on the idea of because it’s a simple idea with clear usefulness.

It’s better to be positive about ideas than to reject them

Once we generated a great list of ideas, we went from brainstorming to the evaluation phase. One observation from this process is that it’s way better to call out the ideas you like rather than the ones that you don’t. Rejecting ideas seems to diminish our creative momentum and slow us down.

It’s important to change the question from “Is it a feasible idea?” to “Is this a useful idea?” It was easy to reject many ideas because they were too big, rather than because they were useful and interesting. If you dig deep enough into an interesting idea and what makes it interesting, you can start refining it into a minimum viable product.

Simplicity takes work

Creating simple and easy to use experiences is a lot of work. In my experience, products often benefit far more from what you take out than the functionality that you add. Making the whole user flow functional and simple to use was a big challenge and just about as much work as the technical implementation.

After we decided to work on the idea of, we set up a basic user scenario that we’d want the user to work through. We spent quite a bit of time discussing how to make this simple. We were able to reduce the user sign-up from four screens to just two, but creating even the simple user flow, front page and messaging was a significant amount of the work involved in putting this app out.


I had a lot of fun working on this weekend hack! Getting a fun little product like out is a great exercise of trying to be creative within constraints. Try it out and tell us what you think!

Roundup: Ongoing Gamification Debate

Gamification as a buzz word seems to be picking up steam and there’s a lot of conversations going on about the topic these days. After my recent post defining gamification and giving examples of it, I’ve pulled together a roundup and quick summary of the topics.

To start off, the web can’t seem to decide whether or not gamification is a real word. Wikipedia deleted the word from its index and since then it’s reappeared again. There also seems to be a disagreement about whether it’s spelled gamification vs. gameification, and it looks like a pretty even heat. Trying to decide by the number of Google search results shows 33,100 results for the former and 46,600 results for the latter.

The term gamification also seems to inspire some vehement dislike.

On a related thread, there’s a disagreement about whether or not gamification is even a legitimate topic or even the right word. There’s a discussion on whether or not it’s actually just badgeification or pointsification. Whatever the semantics, it seems at least the concept of game mechanics is here to stay. This particular debate seems to be a narrower interpretation of gamification as simply adding as simply inserting a points/badge system on top of everything.

Then finally, imho one of the most interesting and polarizing discussions on gamification is whether or not gamification in products is actually a good thing. After all, why put a game into a non-game context? It seems to me that the advice on whether or not to gamify your product stems from a fear that the result of gamification is a thin veneer of game mechanics slapped onto your products and service. The logical conclusion here is that products must still create underlying value and content, and game mechanics have to make sense in the context of the product.

This dislike of gamification as an idea actually reminds me Chris Hecker’s GDC talk “Achievements Considered Harmful?” where he questions whether or not the proliferation of extrinsic motivators such as achievements and rewards (hello Zynga) are actually hurting games.

Like I said in my earlier post, the concept of gamification is not new. The term is new, but the idea of incentivizing customers through reward and loyalty programs has been around for a long time. Gamification is simply another lense with which to examine customer engagement. The distinction here is that we’re not talking about actually making products into games here, but how we can incorporate elements from game design into products to make them more engaging.

What do you think? Is gamification just a buzzword, or a real topic that is here to stay?

Gamification Related Blog Post Round-Up

Gamification Companies

What is Gamification and Real World Examples of It

What Is Gamification?

Gamification is a new vocabulary word lately, and there’s even a summit about it. What is the definition of gamification? The word gamification is used to describe companies integrating game mechanics into their non-gaming product or service to drive user engagement. These companies are “gamifying” their products and services by adding light game mechanics on top of them.

What does that actually look like? While the term is relatively new, the tactics aren’t and have already been in play for quite some time. Here are some examples of gamification in action.

Real World Examples of Gamification

Collecting Friends on Facebook and Twitter, and the LinkedIn LION Phenomenon (Game Mechanic: Collection)

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are great examples of users who are collecting a list of friends, or thumbnails of friends. Twitter is a particularly good example, putting the number prominently at the top and picture collection of all the people you’ve follow at the bottom.

My Twitter (@adachen)

For LinkedIn, the desire to collect people has created the peculiar phenomenon of LinkedIn LIONs. LIONs are “Linked In Open Networkers,” individuals who are open to connecting with people whom they have had no prior business relationship with. This is a somewhat unintended result, since LinkedIn would naturally want to keep social graphs accurate and this goes against that. These LIONs have even evolved to create a website complete with leaderboard (TopLinked 50 Leaderboard) for the top LIONs.

Collecting Badges in Foursquare (Game Mechanic: Collection, Achievement)

Foursquare is both a way to collect and record locations that you’ve visited, but has layered on mayorship and badge collection. Through Foursquare, checking in the most in the last month for a restaurant can make you mayor of that location. A contender for the position can trigger a competition for mayorship. Foursquare also allows their users to unlock badges based on their check-in activity.

One clever facet of badge collection is that they are not linked to particular places, but instead particular types of places. The Gym Rat badge, for example, can be earned by checking in 10x a month at any gym, not just one gym. This creates a common language and context for people to relate with one another, regardless of whether they are next-door neighbors or across the nation from one another.

Leveling Up in My Starbucks Rewards (Game Mechanic: Points, Achievement, Leveling, Rewards)

Starbucks has a rewards program called My Starbucks Rewards. Basically, it starts with a Starbucks gift card pre-loaded with cash, but the game mechanics kick in as soon as you’ve registered your card. After registration, Starbucks shows a progress bar and points in the form of stars to track your progress. Stars are earned for every purchase with your registered Starbucks card.

Once you’ve earned 5 stars, you advance to the Green level. This level rewards you with free refills on coffee and tea, free syrups and milks, and access to select trial offers. Get to 30 stars, and you get a free drink for every 15 cards and a personalized gold card.

Earning Points in My Coke Rewards (Game Mechanic: Points, Collection, Rewards)

My Coke Rewards is a rewards and loyalty program for consumers of Coca Cola products. Each product has a unique alphanumeric code printed on the label, and these codes can be collected and redeemed at the website for points. The points from the codes can be redeemed for sweepstakes entries and rewards like electronics and retailers.

Travel Leaderboards in (Game Mechanic: Competition, Collection) is actually one of my favorite services. I love how simple it is to forward my trip itinerary to an email, and instantly gain access to a clean itinerary on my iPhone. Tripit also allows you to connect with other users of the service. One fun way they’ve gamified their site is by introducing travel leaderboards and personal statistics.

Through the travel leaderboards, I can not only collect my own record of travel achievements, but see how I compare against my friends. As you can see, not doing so good compared to other jetsetters.

Gifting membership through Netflix (Game Mechanic: Gifting)

Part of Netflix’s user acquisition strategy is the free trial and then converting the trial users into paid subscribers. They occasionally send out emails inviting their existing subscribers to invite their friends and family.


Cleverly, these free trials are described as a gift to treat your friends and family, while they are basically an invite to trial the service.

Personalization and Self Expression through NIKEiD (Game Mechanic: Personalization, Self Expression)

While many retailers take advantage of limited edition and designer edition shoes to allow consumers outlets for personality and self-expression, NIKE has take it one step further with their NIKEiD shoes. NIKE allows full personalization through their ability to create on-demand customized shoes for each person. Through their NIKEiD site, you can fully customize the colors, materials, sizing, and fit of your very own special Nike shoes and they will ship it just for you.

In Conclusion

The practice of gamification is commonplace and well-practiced. My pile of rewards cards shows that companies have been on to the idea of motivating users through points, levels and status for a long time.

However, while many of these companies have been using these strategies for a while, they are likely not thinking of this consciously as gamification.Viewing these tactics through the lens of game mechanics and psychology prompts deeper analysis around effectiveness and engagement. Are they optimizing the virality of gift invitations, or figuring out how to tune their rewards systems to be fun? There’s a lot of psychology and science underpinning why basic game mechanics can be so effective in motivating consumers to engage. Hopefully, as gamification becomes more mainstream, the result is that products will be more fun and engaging!

Any big examples I missed? How are you thinking about gamifying your product?

Why Startups Should Care About PR

One of the common questions that startups ask is whether or not they should bother with hiring a PR agency. PR agencies are fairly expensive for small businesses to work with, often thousands per month on a retainer basis. The most common complaint I hear is that they’re pricey, and difficult to measure the return on investment. So when does it make sense to hire a PR firm?

How PR Can Help Startups

  • SEO: Getting links from news outlets can significantly help generate inbound links from top-tier publications and help your company move up the search engine rankings.
  • Credibility: Many startups get initial coverage from news outlets and having articles in search results helps establish credibility to potential consumers. Many small companies also use the logos linking to the articles on their website for the “As seen on” sell.
  • Business Development: If you can get coverage from a targeted outlet, this can be a great source for business development from readers that see a good fit with your business.
  • User Acquisition: If your business requires network effects or is solving a relevant and compelling consumer need, PR can in some cases be a great avenue for user acquisition through targeted media outlets. or BillShrink trying to get news coverage during an economic recession are great examples of relevant news for journalists to write about. The key is to ensure that the media outlets that you seek out target your actual user base. Unfortunately many startups end up targeting the tech press, which in many cases is not your target customer or doesn’t expand your reach beyond the audience which you already likely have strong penetration.
  • Investment: If you’re an early-stage startup seeking funding, getting coverage in one of the mainstream tech blog can be a great starting point for meeting investors and regular news posts can be a proof point to establish credibility.

Four Questions To Ask Yourself Before Hiring a PR Firm

How do you decide whether or not you can go down that path? Here are some considerations to think through.

Do you have the resources?

PR firms cannot be effective without significant level of executive sponsorship within the company. I’ve met PR firms that are unwilling to work with startups unless they have an executive as a day-to-day contact. Without visibility into product roadmap, deal pipeline, shifts in company priority and goals, your PR firm is operating blind and cannot be effective as a strategic partner. If you treat them like an outsourced vendor, they’ll perform that way. Also, PR teams often require significant rampup to understand your product, your customers and your space especially in many of the fuzzy developing markets that startups operate in. If you don’t have someone at your company who is committed and capable of managing this relationship, it can be very hard to make it effective.

Do you have a story to tell?

PR is a way to establish your brand and credibility to the external community and centered around outbound communication with the rest of the world. Make sure you have a story worth telling to the rest of the world, and do not expect magic. If you don’t have relevant, interesting news or a willingness to share data that people want to hear about, no one will write about you no matter how hard your PR firm pitches.

Do your goals match with the channel?

You can basically consider PR as another channel for your marketing team to use, focused on outbound brand building activities. It’s a long lead cycle, and pays off by market awareness, business development inquiries and your general “perception” in the space. If the primary focus and expectation is on transactions, generating revenue and other channels, it may not necessarily be the right fit (although there are exceptions to this). Consider carefully what you’re hoping to get and make sure that matches to the channel.

Do you have the right agency?

Agencies typically specialize in certain company sizes and industries. Many agencies have specialized rolodexes where they focus on a specific industry and have close relationships with journalists in those trades. It may be a difficult fit if you’re outside of their standard range, since they’ll be establishing relationships for the first time as opposed to existing relationships. It may also increase the cost of ramping them up to your product. The easiest way to assess this is whether they have related (but not competitive) companies within their portfolio, and then looking at what press they’ve secured for them. Size can also be a consideration — the larger agencies might be focused on their large accounts, so your small business might not be the most important to them.

Mochi Media Acquired by Shanda Games for $80 Million

Last night my company Mochi Media announced our acquisition by Shanda Games for $80 million. I am THRILLED about the deal and am really honored to be part of this experience.

It’s been nearly 3 years since I joined Mochi Media, and it was one of the easiest decisions for me to make. I practically begged Jameson to sign me up and move out there. At the time, I was leaving Microsoft and headed to SF with my now-fiance Sachin Rekhi. Throughout my search, I ended up speaking with over 20 companies including Jameson thanks to my brother Andrew Chen. Mochi was a stand-out company even as only a handful of people on a couple of IKEA desks 🙂

As founders, Jameson and Bob are both genuine, passionate people who are truly building their business because they believe in the opportunity and love the games space. It’s rare to find people as authentic and committed as they are, and it really shows in the quality of team and company they have put together.

Congrats to the whole team and thank you to everyone who has helped us get to where we are today!

Are You Internet Illiterate? Sux 4 U

I recently finished reading Proust and the Squid

by Maryanne Wolf, a fascinating book about the biological and cognitive development behind the simple act of reading. The initial reason to pick up the book was an equally interesting article read in The Atlantic during a plane trip: ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’.

To summarize the ongoing debate, the idea is that Google is ruining our brains. The need to quickly process information bites from Wikipedia and Twitter is driving humanity into a state of ADHD where they simply cannot read an extended book. Why do you need to read a book when the answers are only a Google search away? A humorous example of this is Twilight 10x shorter and 100x more Honest.

In a society where communication is so fundamentally integral to success, the ability to comprehend and communicate via written language is crucial. In her book, Wolf rather neatly explains the premise that the ability to read does not come hard-wired into us, but instead stems from a combination of hard work and the amazing adaptability of our brains. After all, we’ve only evolved so far and our physiological equipment hasn’t changed for thousands of years.

The parallel that springs to mind is the difficult challenge of Internet literacy (aka “tech savviness” for some). It seems like instead, tech literacy should be treated as a new language, an adaptation to the way that we comprehend and process information. This extends not only to the way that we access knowledge — the adaptation to using certain interfaces — but also the ability to process and comprehend large amounts of it.

Have you ever seen an Internet-illiterate person try to use an app? Try handing a 50-year old man an iPhone, and see how much more quickly they understand dialogs, radio buttons and menu UI. Give the same phone to a 16-year old and comprehension seems nearly instantaneous.

Obviously, internet literacy by no means is an indicator of intelligence. Neither was literacy in the first place. We’ve all heard the stories of CEOs and professors stubbornly clinging to their executive assistants for All Things Online. The real implications of this idea, I think, is that Internet literacy has gone far beyond placing your wpm onto your resume. Instead, it is about having the sort of Scoble-esque brain that can read a firehose of information and content. Rather than bemoan the ability to deep read and comprehend War and Peace, we should place new emphasis on the ability to quickly absorb, process and refine ideas from a large number of data sources. The very trend that many of today’s intellectuals has become a critical element to success in the massive world of information.

You can probably get a good sense of your Internet literacy by:

  • How often do you check your email and do you have a mobile phone?
  • Do you use a service like Twitter and how often do you check it?
  • How often do you use the search bar or keyboard shortcuts?
  • How many feeds do you have in your Google reader?