A Slightly Vague (Yet Definitive!) List of Startup Website Commandments

Nov. 11, 2020
Otto Pohl

There are only 4 commandments to remember…or is it 5?

Building a website for a startup is hard. Let’s up your game.

You typically lock down your URL long before you have a good idea of what to put on your site. At some point you post a “coming soon” page with just a teaser amount of information, and then you either get distracted with the million other things you need to do, or you take some amount of pride in the stealth cover an unassuming, misleading, or even amateurish website brings. But at some point it’s time to get real. You’ve got customers to acquire, investors to woo, and potential employees to impress. If you’re at that point, read on. Please note, this article is not optimized for e-commerce companies, but rather for startups using their website as a customer-acquisition or branding tool.

I. Thou shalt target your website at today’s customers with today’s product.

Unless you’re still in super-early stealth phase and only trying to impress the stray investor or mislead the nosy competitor, your website should be optimized to get you new customers, and encourage your existing customers to stick around, deepen their relationship with you, and be proud to share your URL with their friends. I know you’ve got big plans to dominate the world with your amazing new product/service. And I know that your beta product feels puny, limited, and kludgy compared to the big shiny vision. But your website needs to embrace the current version of the product and sell it like it’s all you ever plan to do. Steve Jobs didn’t pitch the iPhone 2 when he launched the first iPhone. Just because he would soon put a million songs in your pocket, he still sold the idea that you could put a thousand songs in your pocket as revolutionary. Your website should do the same. I recently spoke with a founder who ultimately wants to sell into the business community but is launching her beta version in the education market. She told me she was nervous to target the website at educational institutions because she didn’t want to have investors pigeonhole her business as “only” an education company. Big mistake. When Jeff Bezos launched Amazon, he made the website all about books. He knew he was going to be selling diapers and tennis rackets soon enough, but first he needed to crush it as a bookseller. Any investor worth having was going to talk to Jeff and hear his full vision. And most importantly, if Amazon had been unsuccessful in selling books, the diaper thing never would have worked out. The most important data point is success, so your website needs to help you succeed TODAY. Your investors will fall into place. If that Amazon story doesn’t convince you, think of the last time you walked into a store (like a million years ago!): was the store trying to sell you the awesome stuff on its shelves today, or was it pitching all the better, cooler products it was going to sell you next year? Some founders get nervous about limiting their appeal. If their job listing site is going to ultimately target all job seekers, isn’t it limiting future success by presenting itself today as a service targeted only at Ivy League grads seeking math-based jobs? Here’s the thing: no one cares about retroactive consistency aside from you. Sell today’s product, hard. If you have clearly different customer segments, feel free to have separate sections or pages on your site targeting each one of them. If you feel the need to address investors or employees, do that in the About Us or Careers section. Be brief, and invite them to reach out to you directly with more questions.

II. Thou shalt tighten the top.

Your website needs to hit your strongest value proposition in the fewest words possible, right at the top. Your sharpest, single-best selling point might be obvious, or it might require a lot of careful thought. Either way, put in the required amount of time to nail it.

III. Thou shalt reinforce benefits

Once you’ve made your best argument, carefully prioritize product benefits as you go down the page. Think through where you imagine your prospective customers are coming from, what objections they may hold, what their biggest pain points are, etc, and then carefully address each of those issues in the order of importance.

Number 4, I know you heard this before – Never get high on your own supply

Whoops, that’s from Biggie’s 10 Crack Commandments. How did that slip in? Still, he makes a good point—even as you sell sell sell your business you need to remember to also be your own greatest skeptic. Listen to what your customers and the marketplace are telling you. Are people really using the product the way you envisioned? Do they appreciate the same benefits you are pitching? Has the competitive landscape shifted since you first dreamed up the idea? I’ve met founders who get so used to regurgitating the same pitch message that they forget to incorporate new information. A very few founders can get away by creating a reality-distortion field strong enough to impose their vision on the world (Steve Jobs, Elon Musk), but in most cases the status quo is a relentless force. Jujitsu it. Don’t get high on your own supply, indeed.

V. Thou shalt ensure that everything about the site is to SELL the next level of engagement.

Your website is a tool, and its purpose is to sell. This is what all of the other commandments are leading to. Think of your website as part of the customer acquisition funnel. They heard about your product or service and ended up at your website to learn more. What do you want to do with them at that point? If you have a B2C business, maybe your customers just read an article about you, or learned about you on social media or via influencers. They’re coming to your website to learn more and read reviews. Does your product lend itself to an immediate sell? Do you imagine they’ll need more first, like reading detailed product information, enrolling in a trial, or taking a survey? If you are a B2B business, perhaps you have a smaller set of target customers who heard about you from a webinar, at a conference, or read an article in a trade magazine. If your sales cycle is longer and more complex, perhaps the goal from visiting the site is to sign up for a call with a sales specialist, or perhaps read a case study? A good idea is to provide several options to provide a choose-your-adventure opportunity. If they want to read a case study, grab an email address and send the document. If they want to talk to a sales agent, provide a calendar link. And if they’re ready to buy, give them that opportunity. You should try to get something out of everyone, even if it’s just signing up for a newsletter. This is particularly important if you have a niche B2B business—you might not have a large target market set and correspondingly small web traffic, but that makes every visitor that much more valuable. You should never have fewer than one clear Call To Action (CTA) button per web page, but often having a clear CTA per section as you scroll through pages is the right answer. Sign Up. Learn More. Book a Time. Buy Now. Never miss an opportunity to sell the next level of engagement.

The Results.

As Biggie would say, Follow these rules you’ll have mad bread to break up If not, 24 years on the wake up… Gotta go gotta go, more pies to bake up, word up     If you thought this article was valuable, please sign up below to receive new articles direct to your inbox.