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Introductions and the “forward intro email”

Making introductions is one of the most rewarding things we do as backers and builders of startups, and as affiliates of Bloomberg — where we love bringing promising startups to the attention of a company we admire.

If you ask me for an introduction, I’ll introduce you to literally anyone I know if I believe it’s likely to be in their interest. (And I’m a fan of the opt-in intro*, where I ask the receiver if they’re willing before I introduce you.)

If you ask me to introduce you to someone, I’ll sometimes say:

“Please write me an email I can forward to them.”

You’d be shocked how often I get back something unusable (or, put differently, something unlikely to achieve your goal of connecting with the receiver of the intro).

To save us both time, here’s what I mean when I ask for a forward intro email.

First, why do I ask for this, specifically? (Compared to, say, “please send me a blurb about your company,” or “draft me an email I can send” or some other way to get things going?) It lets you do the things you’re best at — describing who you are, what your organization does, why you want to talk to the receiver, speaking in your own voice, etc. And I do only the things I’m best at — knowing the receiver, and sharing my opinion of you. It also optimizes for me spending as little time as possible, so I can make your introduction as quickly as possible.

When you send me this kind of forward intro email, I’ll literally hit “forward” and write something like “Hey James, I just met this founder and thought she was onto something — take a look at the below, do you want to talk?”

When the receiver replies, usually with a “sounds great,” I’ll just add you to the chain and it’s done (vs. having to then write yet another email introducing you both).

A good forward intro email…

  1. Says why you want to be introduced
  2. Includes its own context — enough about you or your startup so that the receiver understands what’s being asked. If it’s missing context (like what your startup does), then I’m spending time adding that (and possibly mangling it). Always helpful if it includes what’s special about your startup, increases the likelihood the person will want to meet you. Attach a file if you think it makes sense (a deck, or a longer summary, or a screenshot, whatever).
  3. Uses only as many words as you need — the receiver is going to glance at the email, and decide whether to talk to you. A recap of other things we talked about when we met distracts.
  4. Sounds like you — I really have zero preference about whether you’re formal or loose, so emoticon away.**
  5. Starts a fresh chain, with a fitting subject line, for each introduction — if you write a forward intro email as a reply to a long string between us (including, for example, us talking about whether it makes sense for you to speak to the receiver) that costs me time. I’m editing all that out, re-titling the email, etc. — delaying your intro. Subject lines like “Forward intro email for Karin” also cost me time to fix.

Here’s an example for one I just got that works well (I only have one suggestion, see after you read the email)…

————— Forwarded message —————

From: Alyssa Ravasio

Date: Thu, Jul 10, 2014 at 9:35 AM

Subject: Intro to Hunter Walk

To: Roy Bahat

Hi Roy,

I think Hunter Walk / Homebrew would be an amazing investor for Hipcamp. I love their emphasis on the bottom up economy. This resonates deeply with our mission and personal goals as well, since parks are engines of local economies.

Here’s a bit more about our company:

Hipcamp helps people discover and book campsites and cabins, a $3B market that has remained stagnant and fragmented since the 90’s. They are bringing the world’s public campgrounds online, unlocking access to private lands for camping, and ultimately, getting more people outside.

Dave Morin’s Slow Ventures is leading our seed round, we’re oversubscribed but can make room by reducing the allocation on Angel List. I’d love to connect with Hunter soon to explore if this is a good fit.

Thanks Roy!!

Alyssa  

(What’s the one suggestion? Fix the subject line. When that lands in Hunter’s inbox, it turns into something meaningless to him. “Hipcamp intro to Hunter” might be better. Otherwise, it’s letter perfect and, Alyssa, good luck with your raise.)

Please avoid confusing a forward intro email with similar-sounding things I believe are worse:

  • “Please draft an email I can send.” This is inevitably time-consuming and difficult for you to do well, because you have to guess at my voice, and at the nature of my relationship with the receiver. I’ll inevitably have to spend time editing it, which delays your intro.
  • “Please send me a blurb I can use.” This is a mini-version of the same issue, if it’s being sent in my voice I inevitably tweak it. And, if your blurb is complete enough, it might as well just be a forward intro email.
  • Reminder emails. I do sometimes ask for this, a quick one-liner to remind me I promised to make an introduction. I ask for this when I know you and the other person so well that I need no additional ammo and it’s just as fast for me to write the full thing myself.
  • Lists of introductions I need to make. Sometimes, I’ll talk to someone and agree to introduce them to more than one receiver. If I get an email from you that says “Hey great talking, thanks for being willing to introduce me to X, Y, Z” that creates a lot of work for me. Same with “Can you introduce me to some customers?” New chain for each introduction, edit out each person’s name from the other ones (especially if I am introducing you to two people who are competitors!), etc.

So now, when I ask for a forward intro email, you know what I mean. A lot of hoopla for a simple intro? I want us all to shave complexity off the process of knowing each other. And when you make introductions 5-10 times a day, you could be making thousands of intros per year. It adds up, and it’s important to get right. People are the currency of the realm.

.

.

.

* Fred Wilson popularized the double opt-in intro where both sides agree to take the introduction. In principle, I agree with him 100%. In practice, it’s rare that I proactively decide to introduce two people without already being in conversation with one of them — so one side has almost always already opted in.

** I am, repeatedly, surprised by the different work cultures on the East and West Coasts, and in technology vs. other industries; it even extends to introductions. California intros, and intros in technology everywhere, tend to be shorter, less formal. New York intros, or intros in other industries (or non-profits) tend to be more professional.




Communicating when you most must

Today we’re sharing that we invested in goTenna, which makes a device that lets you to use your phone to communicate with others when the phone network is otherwise down.

The product was born during Hurricane Sandy in New York. Daniela Perdomo, goTenna’s founder (along with her brother Jorge), was stuck during Sandy. She needed to communicate with others, and the WiFi and cell towers were all down.

Could there be a way to communicate, using your smartphone, even when you lack service? The idea struck for a solution — what if you could pair a radio antenna with your smartphone? Then you could communicate with others who have the same setup.

So she and her brother built it — along with an app that lets you use your goTenna to text with others who have one. They just released it for pre-order; you buy them two at a time. And it’s more than a product, it’s a way to build a network of your own.

When might this be useful? If you want to communicate in private, without the security risks of being on the open Internet. If you’re outdoors, hiking in a place with no cell coverage. If you’re at a concert or a sporting event where the regular network is jammed. Of course, if you’re in any kind of disaster where the cell towers and Internet go down. The list continues, and I bet some compelling uses emerge as people start playing with their goTennas.

You’ll carry a goTenna in your bag, it’s small and light enough to be stashed away when it’s dormant. Give one to others in your family, or get the office to buy one for everyone. Then, when the need calls, fire it up. It’s an insurance policy against the network failing, and a way to make a new network, on your own terms.

Why did we invest? At Bloomberg Beta, we back and build companies that better the future of work. We love exploring new ways people might communicate — especially during high-stress times like during a natural disaster, or when they need to be private. Daniela and Jorge are creating a service with a novel take, and we were infected by their bravery. The idea seemed a little out there, and “out there” is flame to us moths.

And there was one other factor. Even though hardware startups are getting easier, they are still, um, hard. The costs to serve each user are high, and it’s easy to gobble up lots of capital. Our investment in goTenna was our first in a hardware company. When we do invest in hardware, which we love to do, we strongly prefer services with a strong network effect — where the difficulties of being in the hardware business are balanced, over time, by the product becoming ever more valuable to each user as the number of users grows. Most of the outlier-success startups have a strong network effect — in this case, it’s literally a network as goTennas find goTennas to communicate. So, even as goTennas are immediately useful to their first customers, the service only gets better as it grows.

Today goTenna is available for pre-order here — go get a pair.


The trust thing

A year ago, we announced Bloomberg Beta — our fund to invest in and make companies, and (we hope) it is a fund built differently. For one, we are extremists on openness— and I want to explain why.

There have been some difficult moments this year, and some lovely ones.

Yesterday, we had a good one: LinkedIn shared they acquired Newsle, where we were investors. Slow clap for Jonah and Axel on a victory deserved. (We had our second exit a few weeks ago, our role in that one is still unannounced.)

Since launching our fund, we reviewed 1,606 companies, funded 28. We’re grateful to the founders who took a chance on us. Ask us in five years if we know what we’re doing. (Surprise: to mangle the saying, in investing, the days fly by but the years drag on… it’s a game where you make many fewer moves than you do as a founder.)

The hardest choices this year have been around the question of trust.

The investor-founder relationship is, by nature, out of balance. Founders are devoted to the most important (work) project of their lives; investors have the luxury of more than one such project at a time. Founders can do incredibly well personally, under circumstances where the investors may do fine though not great. Founders know much more about their company, investors know a little more about what’s happening elsewhere in the world (maybe).

The ingredient in the startup stew that balances the potential bitterness of these differences: trust. When founders believe their investors will do right by them, even when it may be against their narrow, short-term self interest, and investors believe the same about founders, it’s magic.

For people who do contracts with large corporations, or private equity-backed companies, they are often stunned at the simplicity of legal documents in startups. That’s because with trust, the paper means less. Everything is easier, less stressful. Without trust, the paper is worthless.

To begin to build that trust, we strive to be the most open fund — we published our full operating manual to Github, people who come in to meet with us have called us “shockingly transparent,” and we still feel the pain ourselves from our own experiences of how much investors’ lack of clarity cost founders in time and headache.

And we think hard about how to build trust with each and every founder. My new way of thinking about it: trust is an egg toss. We start close together, and try out little moments with each other: Will they call when they say they will? Will we make the introduction we promised to make? And then, slowly, we step further apart and keep throwing the egg. Will we keep our word on the terms of the investment? (An investor once broke a term sheet on me. It hurt.) Will they use their judgment to communicate important things with us beyond what’s explicitly required by our agreements? And then the furthest. Will they share when something has gone horribly wrong (as it inevitably does) and we need to fix it together? Will we make a sacrifice that’s in our shared long-term interest?

The egg toss is even harder, and more rewarding, when you’re playing as a team—and the five of us in Bloomberg Beta have been blissfully trustful. No dropped eggs among us.

In our fund, we like it when, early in the founder-investor relationship, each of us has opportunities to do the right thing—or not. If we do, then it’s a good way to tell how the rest of the relationship will unfold.

I’m trying to figure out how to tell if we are doing well at building trust.

We’ve been thrilled with the openness founders have shown toward us. Truth is, it’s probably easier to take advantage of us than of other firms. We avoid exploding offers. We narrate our level of interest honestly, whenever asked.

Yet few have taken advantage of us. (Sure, there have been moments, and our lesson from those moments is to avoid the temptation to lock down and tighten up—our lesson is the opposite, give founders more chances to develop trust in us, and for us to develop trust in them. It’s an inexpensive lesson when you work with someone if they drop the egg on the first or second toss.)

So, catch. We’re ready to toss you an egg.

When we, and founders, choose to do the right thing despite easy opportunities to take each other for a ride, we learn to trust each other. And trust is the thing.


When should startups talk?

A few days ago, Hunter Walk wrote about why most companies are keeping quiet on their seed financings — I agree with it word for word. Only about a third of Bloomberg Beta’s companies have announced their funding. I’d add that the same seems to be true of many later stage financings—or at least that they’re announced long after they’re completed.

I see another factor at work here, and it applies beyond just fundraising.

As a startup, or any organization really, when should you be talking about yourself? I believe it boils down to one simple thing. 

Talk about yourself only when you have something extraordinary to say. Something rare, or even unique. Sounds simple, yet often forgotten.

So many try to jam some news that is important to them into a press release (shudder) or a breathless blog post. I’ve probably been guilty of it myself. It’s about them, not about you.

Did you just take the biggest investment ever from a respected investor? That might be interesting. Does your product work faster or better than the leader in an established category? Do you reject an important piece of received wisdom? Great, talk about it. Words like “first” and “only” tend to be good signals of something worth talking about.

Sometimes the news will be rare and important, and press may care. Sometimes it may be rare and only important to you, in which case you might write about it and only a few will pay attention (that’s you reading this now). Either is fine.

Bloomberg Beta spends significant time helping our companies with their plan for going to market (ironic, isn’t it, that the right plan for so many now is to be quiet). We’re often asking “what’s really interesting about that, though” and realizing that while a founder may believe something is meaningful, it may be uninteresting to others. Save your breath.

Some companies become so prominent that even ordinary things they do are important. You’ll say, “it’s important because the first time we’ve done this!” Chances are, you are not (yet!) meaningful enough to be inherently interesting. The hard truth is nobody really cares about what you are doing unless it is interesting to them. Remember that, and announce things when they are extraordinary. 

And, most important, as a startup, you only win by doing things that are extraordinary.

Thinking about what might be received by others (even if only your current users) as interesting might be a good way to check whether you are actually building something worth building… 


Something a little different

I had a difficult moment last week, where my son put up a mirror to me, and showed me how he sees my addiction to work. He even drew a picture of it.

As I started to write it out, my wife thought she had something to add, so we wrote a joint essay about it, and posted it here. 

In the name of openness and honesty:

https://medium.com/@roybahat/7dc650be8a90


Picking your first customers: the gradient of influence

At Bloomberg Beta, we often ask founders who they will target first to use their product.

Your choice of first customers is one of the most underappreciated, important decisions in the early life of a startup. It’s a one-way door, and one-way doors are expensive (it can be excruciating to turn back the clock once you start serving customers).

Palantir will always be known as a company that got started serving government security agencies. Facebook is a child of Harvard, now and forever. Bloomberg was used first by traders of US government bonds. LinkedIn’s first community will always have been the technorati. OUYA, where I’m chairman, is still known as a project born on Kickstarter.

Since Bloomberg Beta focuses on “day zero” companies that are just getting going, and we focus on helping our companies with going to market, this issue often comes up for our founders just after we invest.

How do most companies answer this question? Plenty of unsatisfying ways:

  • We’ll try a lot of different customers and see who bites (at least they’ll get data!)
  • We’re still trying to figure it out by interviewing potential customers (fair enough)
  • “Early adopters” (um… often true by definition)
  • We like these customers because they’re the most complex, and if we can figure them out we can get everyone else (often times a bad idea, since you fall over and may never end up succeeding with anyone)
  • We’re focusing on [industry X] because… (this is a start, at least it’s a hypothesis)

The “top 10%” answer is to think about the kinds of customers that (a) have greatest need for the product and (b) are easiest to attract and serve.

Yet this approach might be misguided. It works for maximizing the value of *those customers* to the company. It may fail to maximize the value of the company, though, because it neglects a critical effect: some kinds of customers have a powerful effect on the future customers you might get, a spillover effect. Others, less so.

One way to think of it: your first customers are your first hires as marketers. You want them to be as good at their job as possible.

Imagine all your customers as you did before (in terms of how valuable they’ll find you, and how easy they’ll be to attract). Then, consider that some of them have influence on others. You’ll find pockets where one kind of customer influences another, and some customer classes who are widely influential, or influential to several important adjacent customer classes.

Think of this as a gradient of influence among your customers.

You want to target a class of customers, at first, who are as high up on that gradient as possible — even if they’re harder to attract (as I imagine security agencies were for Palantir) or you make less money from them (as OUYA did from its Kickstarter backers, where it priced the product as low as possible before knowing the cost to serve each customer).

Often, the type of customer who will ultimately pay your bills is not the best first customer, and that’s counterintuitive.

Notice I’m describing customer classes vs. individual customers. Many startups overweight the value of that one Fortune 50 logo, vs. the value of being known for serving one class of customers well. Better to dominate some initial market and then expand, than to have dispersed pockets of usage where each customer is famous.

There are many ways to slice the universe of potential customers into classes:

  • Industry — “tech companies”
  • Function — Bloomberg got its start focusing on bond traders
  • Reputation — “Top 100 best places to work companies”
  • Community or event — Foursquare sparked a fire at SXSW

Think about it like this: what’s the class of customers most admired by the entire universe of customers you might have? Define that admired class as narrowly as possible, to make it easier to find and serve them, and to get critical mass in at least one market.

One advantage of this approach: it makes it easier to avoid having to launch. Yes, freedom from launching is an asset — “launch” is another expensive, risky, often-unnecessary one-way door.

If you start to see gradients of admiration among your potential customers, it might prompt you to think differently about where to begin.


When a hobby riff turns into a professional production
It’s out that we invested in Jason Hirschhorn’s REDEF, the creator of the addictive Media REDEFined service — here’s why.

First, what is REDEF? Let some of its readers tell you:


Maybe you’ve heard of some of these REDEF users. I first discovered REDEF when I got to know Jason at News Corp. a few years ago. He had this manic habit of speed-reading a story, and flagging it for his “little newsletter.” He had some Rube Goldberg machine of RSS tools, editing software, and email distribution that he had cobbled together to enable him to do what he wanted: sharing interesting finds with people he respects and enjoys.

He was inspired by DJ culture, to remix ideas, stories, videos and create something new. With REDEF’s own unmistakeable rhythm (if you sign up, you’ll get his daily rants which are equal parts inexplicable and must-readable), Jason is a fanboy’s fanboy, and his service breathes deep respect for the people and ideas that he curates. Originally delivered as an email newsletter, it’s now expanding to more platforms (yes, an iOS app is coming… and lots of other goodies).

What Jason neglected to mention back then is that the CEOs of many global media and technology companies, prolific writers, film directors, and all kinds of creative folk were addicted daily readers of his list. It’s a club, where the membership requirement is affection for the topic at hand, whether they agree with Jason’s point of view or not. Like the influencers of LinkedIn influencers…

So when I moved over to investing in startups at Bloomberg Beta, where we care about services that are useful to people at work, Jason mentioned he wanted to turn his project into a business. We talked about it for a few months, and he already had many others who’d asked him to invest for years. (The list of co-investors with us is a who’s who of some of Jason’s fans…The Chernin Group, Upfront, Advancit Capital, CODE Holdings, Greycroft, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Mark Cuban, Blake Krikorian, Troy Carter, Casey Wasserman, James Murdoch, Andrew Anker, Bob Pittman, Jean Pigozzi, Brett Ratner…)

When he decided to pull the trigger, because he wanted to begin to professionalize REDEF and make it lasting, we helped him structure something. This is the first money he’s raised (which is when we prefer to invest).

One theme here: We love investing in hobby projects that go pro. (Not to mention investing in ever-so-slightly-crazy founders, a bill that Jason fits. :)

The good news in these situations… you know the user affection is real. Lots of scratches have been smoothed out over years. There is a feeling of hearing about a song that’s already a hit. 

That said, the hobby-to-business transition has challenges. How do you keep the allure while professionalizing the business? How do you evolve your leadership style to focus on creating a growing and successful service? How do you enlist a team? (Jason is looking for a head of business right now, by the way.)

He’s already taken an important step in launching a new content area: fashion. (And while those who know me can attest that fashion is one many subjects about which I know nothing, apparently folks in the know are excited about REDEF’s approach here.)

We’re honored to be there as Jason and the REDEF team continue to spin ideas that get your mind moving.

A go-to-market object lesson: Palantir

Palantir gets a lot of airtime — known to have one of the strongest technical cultures in town, fascinating clients, it tops it off with that air of Lord of the Rings-induced mystery.

Talking with founders, I find myself bringing Palantir up often, on another subject: how startups should think about going to market. How to bring your service to its users is an issue that obsesses us at Bloomberg Beta, and Palantir seems to have had one of the most successful introductions in memory.

(Sure, they had glittering backers — though plenty of other companies have had that and more and gone nowhere.)

What do I mean by a successful introduction? When, by the time your potential customer (or partner, etc.) hears of you, their impression is wildly favorable. That often ends up being more important than how widely known you are. Startups tend to focus on promotion (volume), vs. being focused on impression (quality).

The first time I remember folks talking about Palantir was three years ago, when this Businessweek profile by Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone appeared. I’d vaguely heard about the company, though I was running an online media company at the time and it wasn’t really in my field of vision. (Apparently Palantir was created 10 years ago this month — I’m in the dark on that backstory, though of course there are likely many lessons to draw from it. My understanding is that they started on a mission to protect civil liberties, among other great goods they continue to pursue.)

Since then, the narrative of Palantir’s success has continued to unfold steadily and successfully. (Set aside what you think of the NSA for a moment.) They’ve evolved from serving governments to serving a wide range of business customers.

Why is it that they were able to establish themselves? I see three elements that combined:

1. The right first customers. Your first marketers are the first customers you choose. Startups often focus on The One reference customer to rule them all, when really you become known for winning a class of customers (Bloomberg and bond traders, Palantir and security agencies). Those customers must embody what is extraordinary about you, and be admired by future customers you might attract. (More on this in a future post.)

2. Reputation for being unique. From the caliber of the backers, to the founder’s personal story, it was clear, when you first heard about Palantir, that they were a best-in-class company — in some class. Even if you didn’t quite yet know which.

3. The curiosity provoked by a little bit of strange. Mystery, in this case induced by a fantasy warfare patina on all things Palantir, made what in other hands might have been an enterprise data company into something… more. That nagging sense of wonder encourages those who hear about Palantir to want to turn the next page. There is a sense that the story is still being written, and you want to read along.

Then, as you dig deeper, there seems to be rigid internal consistency to Palantir’s approach uniting these three elements — all around solving the hardest and most valuable problems. The customer choice reflects that, the recruiting reflects that, as does the idea of a fantasy quest. The shroud of a Lord of the Rings motif fits (in a way that it wouldn’t for a company more dedicated to openness, like Github).

It isn’t even 100% clear from the outside what Palantir really does and, for the purpose of their go-to-market strategy, that works fine. Maybe it’s even a positive. Clarity on the “what” of a company’s product can be an order of magnitude less important than clarity on the why. Of course, I imagine Palantir’s actual customers knew exactly what they were buying.

When we look at startups at Bloomberg Beta, this go-to-market approach is one of the reasons we prefer enormous growth in modest markets to modest growth in enormous markets.

And now, we get to see where the story goes next. Palantir has apparently begun to expand into adjacent terrain of new customers (as Bloomberg once did when it moved from bonds to equities). Let’s turn the page…

(Note: I’ve had almost zero actual interaction with Palantir, Bloomberg Beta has no business relationship with Palantir, and this is all based on my impressions from the outside. I have no idea how much, if any, of this was intentional.)


A professional network to talk about news

Our secret-until-just-now investment in Quibb, the news discussion community, is out. We’re thrilled Sandi MacPherson decided to raise money from her users alongside funds like us — she’s using the fundraising process to reinforce Quibb’s values, of a community-led service.

We’re also getting in the habit of telling the backstory of why we invest, so a few observations about Quibb:

It’s surprisingly hard to meet new people online. (Setting aside right-swiping type of meetings, I mean for contexts beyond dating — though that may be hard, too. I met my wife in the era just before all that.) 

Quibb created an excuse, discussion of news we care about, to see and get to know some new voices.

Communities are also hard to form in a way that feels real. (They’ll be even harder to grow in a way that strengthens that feeling.)

Quibb has created a way for you to get to know people in your industry, in a low-pressure and genuine setting, using news discussion as a pretext. Sandi invited some Quibb members to a dinner we hosted for the service, and it felt natural, warm, and truly interesting. How often does that happen? We’d like to encourage more.

If you imagine everyone might have the same camaraderie at work that many of us are fortunate to experience in the technology industry, you can see the power of a new channel to learn from each other and get through the day. That channel also spreads influential ideas and voices. This excites us.

Last, Sandi. I signed up for Quibb a long time ago, and as soon as I did she reached out to get coffee. This was before I was an investor, I was just some dude clicking a sign-up link from my friend Hussein Kanji. (Today I’m just some dude writing a check.) I had the sense she was somehow doing this with *every user* and she was avoiding an “I serve you from behind the counter” approach to building a community — she was stepping out. I have watched her steadily nurture this community at its pace, so when she raised her hand and said she wanted to raise her first money, we got right in line.

P.S. One note on announcing funding… Before I started investing, I (mistakenly) assumed almost all startups announce their fundraising reasonably quickly. At least at Bloomberg Beta, as a "day zero" investor (often alongside friends and family), I’ve found the opposite: more than two thirds of our investments are still private — because that’s what’s best for them. If telling the world about your fundraising helps you, as Quibb’s announcement did for it, great. Go for it. Otherwise, why waste your breath — focus on making.


Why Most Demos Confuse

Imagine you walk into that customer meeting, or come pitch us at Bloomberg Beta, and it’s time to show off what you’ve built.

So you start, where else, at the homepage of the site, or the home screen of the app, often using a demo account of a user enjoying the product… and chances are, if you’ve done your job well, that site or app is compelling.

Problem is, we’re already lost.

Why?

Because we’re people before we’re investors, or customers. And that means we’re imagining how we would experience your product, as a real user in the wild.

You, who have thought about this service 10,000 times more than we, arrive at that homepage with all kinds of context. You know why everything is there. We, seeing it for the first time, are usually just overwhelmed.

Demoing a product by starting with the home page (or, actually, starting anywhere on the website or in the app) is like a realtor showing you a house starting in the living room. What is this place? Why am I here? What is that funky sculpture?

This way of demoing seems backward. (Maybe we should rename home pages to something more accurate — they’re for experts, not beginners.)

Consider, instead, walking through the front door — having come from somewhere, paid attention to the neighborhood, the cars on the street, the front porch.

Start with the first moment a user might learn of your product — maybe it’s an email invite, or a text from a friend, or a notification of a forced install from their IT department, or they heard about the app from someone. Then show what that first-user experience looks like.

Better yet, invite us ahead of time so we can see it for ourselves. Let me explore, and in our demo ask me questions, delight me with elements I’ve missed, or tell me about other users doing cool things.

Yes, like a cooking show, you’re entitled to can some things to save time (example: skip the sign-up mechanics or, if you like, or show off your craftsmanship of an elegant sign-up flow).

If you think about the demo this way, you’ll gradually open the eyes of your audience so that when you do arrive at the actual service, they’ll be more likely to have that ah! moment.

And this goes beyond just the demo: most of us think of the entire product as what’s really only the “interior” of the house — the features, look, and flow of your site or app. We might be better served thinking of the product as including the “exterior” of how users will encounter it in the course of their day (the recommended text for sharing on Twitter, the email invites, etc.). We often think of that exterior as merely marketing, something to be added after.

One of our portfolio companies had this realization recently, when thinking about their daily email to users summarizing the insights produced by the service — something they’d created, as many emails are, to get you to click over to their website. But users love the emails so much they may never need to visit the site at all. As the founder said, “it turns out the email is the product.” [Update: This is ThinkUp and, in their continuing openness, they had shared this themselves.] Newsle, a personal news service in which we’re investors, focused almost exclusively on email at first and is only now really tapping their web presence.

Everything a user experiences about your service, inside the walls of your app or out, is part of the product. Put differently, the product isn’t the features you’ve built or code written, but the experience the user has with it. Some people would, correctly, simply call this “good design.”

To be clear, many products suceed despite an awful first-user experience or invitation flow. League of Legends, a beloved (if difficult!) PC game, tortures you before you get to play (interminably long download, etc.). Yet gamers have heard so many good things before they start that download that they’re willing to tolerate pain. So, your reputation with potential users is part of “the product,” too.

If you come in to demo to us, I hope you’ll consider walking us through the front door. Essays like this are part of how we create a context for you before you arrive, as is Bloomberg Beta’s full internal operating manual posted in public. The person who introduced you to me did the same for you. Why not give your product the same treatment…

P.S. While I was drafting this, my wife was sitting next to me. I asked her to look it over, and handed her my laptop. Before she started reading, her first question was “where will you post this?” She knew the reader’s context would differ depending on whether this piece was hanging in the living room or the front hall.