4 Things a Tech Startup’s Website Needs (And One Thing It Doesn’t)

15 Aug 2016

Dear Tech Startups,

We love you. You're a critical part of the economy and the community. That's why we’ve been building websites for some of you since 1999.

But we need to talk.

Here in Austin, Texas, we’re practically overrun with startups. Thanks to some lucky cosmic confluence of west coast venture capital, southern hard work, Ivy League technical know-how, and ex-hippie creativity, Austin has been churning out entrepreneurial initiatives for years.

But as the startup community has boomed (and busted and boomed again), we’ve been paying attention to your websites.

We’ve noticed how you talk about yourself, how you connect with your users, and the aesthetics you choose to represent your companies online—and we’ve come up with four website features you should adopt (and one you probably shouldn’t):

1. Unique Personality

Most startups’ websites are completely interchangeable. There is almost nothing in the site’s design that suggests unique thinking, a commitment to messaging, or a deep concern for their users.

The website is an after-afterthought.

To illustrate this generic approach to site design, David Ellis, a great designer and writer at NoVolume, sketched out the average startup’s homepage layout:

David goes on to explain why this cookie-cutter template is so popular: It’s simple, achievable, and (usually) cheap. His reasoning is spot on. We couldn’t agree more:

  • If your company is ordinary, your website should be ordinary.
  • If your product is generic, your website should be generic.
  • If your business model is a photocopy, you’d might as well Xerox your website from a competitor.

(Are you sensing the sarcasm?)

From the moment a startup is formed, it must fight and claw to get attention. After all, nearly 2 million tech startups launch worldwide every year—and 90% of them eventually fail (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor).

In other words, you need to stand out. Your startup needs a digital identity that is as thoughtful as your product—because your early users will likely encounter your website before they encounter your product. (Not to mention prospective investors…)

Designing a website for your tech startup from the ground up is wise because:

  • A custom website will be more effective in achieving your business goals
  • A custom website illustrates how you’re fundamentally different than your cohorts—a critical message to make in the early days of a startup’s life
  • A custom website can do more

It’s an investment of time and money, but it’s an investment that we can prove pays dividends.

2. Testimonials

I joke with our clients that the perfect website would be “nothing but testimonials and case studies.” But I’m only half-joking.

I keep thinking of Reading Rainbow, and how its host, Lavar Burton, would recommend a book, but then quickly follow up with:

… and then actual kids would talk about the book. As a kid, I trusted my fellow kids far more than adults. If my peers liked it, I’d probably like it, too.

“But don’t take our word for it” should become your company’s online marketing mantra.

Websites can do plenty, but they have a difficult time establishing real credibility. This is because of a basic tenant of human psychology: We don’t trust braggarts. If you boast about your own achievements, your audience is going to, at best, have some doubts. Especially if you fall victim to hyperbolic copywriting.

The quickest, surest way to garner trust in your audience is via testimonials. Fill your website with them. Put them in sidebars. Have an entire page devoted to them. Embed them in the middle of copy. Stick them into your marketing emails. Put them in your email signature, if you can. Having others speak, in specifics, about how your product saved time/money/their life is your best opportunity to illustrate that you’re legit—not some fly-by-night house of cards.

3 Testimonial Tips

  1. Ask! Simply ask your best clients if they’ll offer you a testimonial. It’s especially effective to ask at the end of a short customer satisfaction survey. Get them primed with good feelings, then ask for their quotable quote.
  2. Include the testimonial giver’s full name and some other piece of identifying info—e.g., job title, company name, city and state, etc. Generic or anonymous testimonials aren't nearly as persuasive. 
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for specific types of testimonials. For example, if you need some credibility for your Customer Support department, ask a trusted client, “What testimonial would you give about our customer service?”

3. More You, Less Us

When you fill your website with testimonials, you no longer need to rely on self-generated claims of awesomeness to make your case. You’re letting other people do that for you.

Now, you should turn the focus to the person who really matters: your customer.

Here’s some copy I nabbed from a random startup’s homepage. I’ve changed some details to protect the innocent:

COMPANY is on the leading edge of customer acquisition technology. With our commitment to developing digital sales solutions that redefine the space, “disruption” is our middle name ...  And our unwavering dedication to customer service is a result of the three core principles that guide our decisions: innovation, results, and purpose.

Classic “me-ism”—that nasty condition, pandemic online, in which organizations talk almost exclusively about themselves. They list features, benefits, and how many ping pong tables they have in the “rec room.” They extoll their awesome company culture. They sprinkle in buzzwords.

“Me-ism” is an understandable pitfall. After all, what does an organization know better than anything? Itself. And if we’re supposed to “write what we know,” doesn’t that mean writing about ourselves?

But that misses the point. You aren’t writing your memoirs; you’re trying to persuade people with content. Your startup isn’t about you. It’s about your customers—their needs, problems, expectations, desires, etc. You should aim your spotlight squarely on them.

Here’s how we might rewrite the copy above to be less me-istic:

COMPANY will deliver you the leads you need. You’ll have direct access to a state-of-the-art database of scorching hot sales prospects. And we’ll be your liaison at every step of the process, ensuring you get the data, customers, and support you want.

Ahhhhhh, much better.

4. Use People

Humans, generally, like other humans. They certainly like other humans more than they like cold, faceless, corporate monoliths (i.e., startups).

And if they’re considering doing business with your startup, humans would like to feel connected to the people behind the binary code.

So you should include more actual peoples’ images and names on your tech startup’s website. Humanize your company, warts and all. Show off the good, the serious, the silly. (Blogs are great platforms for this, wink wink.)  

“But, Andrew,” you’re saying, “I think startups already do this! Every startup’s homepage has a looping video of the staff doing stuff! Even TradeMark Media has this!”

True!

And this trend is encouraging. But I don’t think it’s gone far enough.

Place pictures, quotations, and stories about and from people everywhere online—not just your homepage and not just your “About Us” page. Let us see your customers, too. Let us see them actually using your product.

This is especially true for startups who are competing for attention from investors. Great investors all seem to say the same thing: They invest in people as much as products and ideas. Sure, you’ve got to make a great widget, but you have to be affable, hard-working, thoughtful people, too.

And dear startups, you are affable, hard-working, thoughtful people. That’s why we love helping you design your websites. And that’s why you should show off those pearly whites.

Avoid: The Pop-Up Subscription Form

Don’t have a “Sign up for our e-newsletter!” subscription form pop up 15 seconds (or 30 seconds or 3 days) after we land on your startup’s site.

Sure, you may capture a few email addresses (many of them from spambots and phishers), but you’ll lose far more goodwill than you’ll gain. It feels spammy. 

If you’re looking to build your contact database, try this instead: Generate great content, share it far and wide across the Internet, and make sure you have a working “Subscription” form on your site. No need to pop it up—or at least not on the first visit.

The email addresses you collect from these people will be far more valuable, engaged contacts than you’ll ever get from a pop-up.

Post Script

Well, our dear startups, we’ve reached the end. Thanks for making it this far. We know you’re busy. (As one startup founder told us, “The great part about running a startup is you can work any 100 hours per week you want!”)

The process of designing a great website looks a lot like the process of designing a business plan. So when designing a startup’s website, we’re often acting as business consultants as much as UX specialists and designers and marketers.

  1. More Personality.
  2. More Testimonials.
  3. More Customer-Focus.
  4. More Humans.

Four simple things you can do today to improve your online presence.

We hope these work for you. And we look forward to seeing what you’ve got up your sleeve next...

Andrew Buck

Content Strategist

Andrew is obsessed with words—and how to wield them for good.

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