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Bootstrappers. I’ve been seeing a lot of shady tactics in our midst lately and I’m calling them out. These aren’t good for you or your business long-term.

Some of these have already entered the zone of “conventional wisdom” but we need to push back on that. It really is possible to run a successful online business without stooping to these tactics.

Selling something that doesn’t exist

I recently signed up for a course that was $500. It has a great landing page on a topic that I was searching for details on.

More than just a landing page, it was a list of the exact course elements with all calls to action clearly marking it as available right now. Buy this and have your grubby hands on it in 2 minutes.

I purchased. When I got access, there was only 2 videos that already were given out for free on the landing page. That’s it. No other information, not even a notice directly presented that the course wasn’t actually done yet.

After emailing the owner I found out that they were going to work on it over the next year.

That’s great, but I have a problem today.

Being your lab rat isn’t fun for the customer. It’s not going to make the customer think highly of your product or service.

Yes, I know this is a popular technique to prove out the value of an idea.

But you know what, I think it fucking sucks.

Imagine for a second going into Wal-Mart. On your way down the cereal aisle you spot this great looking new box of Super Gummy Wheaties. You realize you’re dying for some Super Gummy Wheaties and snap it up.

You wait in line, pay your $2.89 and drive home.

When you get home you get out a bowl. Get out the milk. Wash your favorite spoon.

Sit down and open the box.

Inside is…. Nothing. Fucking nothing. No plastic bag. No cereal loose in there. Nothing.

You know what you’d do? You’d freak the hell out. You’d be on Twitter cursing up the Wheaties people and Wal-Mart for running this scam of a marketing trial on you.

When you went back to Wal-Mart you’d demand a refund.

It wouldn’t end there though. You’d tell everyone you know about it. “Can you believe there was NO FUCKING CEREAL IN THE BOX!!!”

And not just for a few weeks. Oh, you’d tell the story a lot in those first days, but this story would come up over and over.

Years from now, “Hey Jill, tell them about the time you got that cereal box at Wal-Mart and there was no fucking cereal in it”.

All this over a $2.89 box of cereal. If customers don’t like it with cereal, if YOU wouldn’t like it with cereal, how is this acceptable for a $500 product online? Why do we accept this because it’s easy to trick people like this online?

I say it’s not fucking acceptable. Don’t do it. If you are doing it, stop doing it. Find some other way to validate your damn product. Stop tricking customers, hurting your brand, and in general being a bad internet citizen.

And I’ll throw one more thing at you since some of you won’t give a hoot about being a good internet citizen. That is that this practice is almost certainly ILLEGAL.

Yes, you. You reading this. YOU ARE PROBABLY BREAKING THE LAW IF YOU DO THIS.

Don’t ask me, ask Jacoby and Meyers (you can trust them, we’ve all seen the ads on TV!).

False advertising is any published claim that is deceptive or untruthful. Misleading advertising is any published claim that gives a consumer an incorrect understanding of the product they are interested in purchasing or using. The false and misleading advertising by companies of any product may result in the consumer suffering a financial loss, or another form of damage to the consumer.

You see when you told me there would be cereal in this box and I purchased it thinking there was cereal in this box, I have the right to have purchased said cereal. Not just participate in some stupid fucking experiment.

This applies just as much to your SaaS app, your “content”, or your “productized services” as it does to anything else.

Alright? Alright.

Fake urgency

Oh I know you’re not going to like me picking on this one. You’re already mad from the last one! Well I’m killing all the sacred cows.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love creating urgency. Urgency is a powerful sales technique. But your fake urgency is rude.

Recently I signed up for a SaaS app and on the sign up page I was offered the chance to jump the queue by sharing a link about the app. That’s cool, I didn’t share it and moved on.

I then start getting emails about how the queue is super long, but share it and I’ll jump right to the top. I still don’t share.

Then, maybe 24 hours since sign up I get yet another email urging me to share. I don’t.

A few hours after that I get an email saying “Thanks for sharing” and I can now get into the beta.

FUCK THAT.

I didn’t share your app. I’m not going to use your stupid app. I don’t want to share it and your email sequence has exposed you as a complete fraud who didn’t even bother to build or buy the system to reward the people who actually shared and instead you just send everyone the thanks for sharing email a few days after sign up.

That sucks for the people who did share and actually received none of the extra value that they were promised. Nobody wants to be treated like that.

You’re just using a trick you read about on the internet. Does it work sometimes? Sure. That doesn’t mean it’s right to do or that it has no consequences if/when it goes wrong.

Oh, and I suspect this is also illegal in some implementations under the false advertising laws discussed above.

Injecting your company into other companies twitter “conversations”

We run a job board over at LaraJobs. When someone posts a job we tweet out the details with some hash tags of the tech used in this job.

Recently, a job board in the Angular space started tweeting about the companies who posted on our board. Even including us in the tweets under some shady guise and making it confusing for the customers who then thought they were associated with us.

Don’t do this.

Don’t freaking do this!

If you were at the Apple store and you were talking to one of the blue shirts how would you like it if a Samsung rep just jumped in front of you and started talking? Just out of nowhere, boom Samsung rep?

It’d be completely unacceptable. Not something Samsung or any company would ever do in person. We don’t have to do this online either.

Must you sacrifice your own morals and common decency to run a successful online business? As someone who’s avoided them for 12 years I can assure you the answer is NO.

“Follow up” emails

Hey, I’ve sent emails that probably have irked people. They haven’t heard from me or my company in a while and bam, there’s an email.

I get it. I really do. It’s a very fine line here.

What’s not a fine line?

Emails that you constantly send to your potential customers with subjects that reference fake emails or calls.

Emails that have fake reply headers in them from a previous fake conversation.

Anything that says “sorry I missed you” in the subject.

We all know these. We all hate these.

Yes, you might catch some people in this net but point me to the company that made their business on these techniques?

Do you personally get a lot of these from Basecamp or Fog Creek or Slack or Twitter or Apple or Amazon or Google or Microsoft or Typeform or Github or Moz or Rackspace or Linode or Dominoes or Tesla or Honda or Spotify or Stripe or Discourse or Pixel & Tonic or Ellis Lab or Facebook?

No you don’t. This technique might help a sales person pad their quota. Maybe get you a few more bucks in your pocket. But it’s NOT WORTH YOUR SOUL.

Oh yeah, it probably goes without saying at this point but these emails are probably also illegal. Not that anyone cares about illegal emails….


We’re all focused on selling more.

Don’t forget WHY you’re doing that. Is it to take care of yourself, your family, and you’re employees? Of course. But it all starts with the customer. Your business is done in service of your customer first. Without them you don’t have a business and you can’t help anyone.

Help your customers succeed. Don’t let money blind you to why you started your business. Don’t sacrifice your personal or business reputation for what is unlikely to amount to more than a few extra bucks on the bottom line.

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6 comments on “Shady Tactics in our Midst

  • I really enjoyed this. I’ve done the “it’s not ready yet but if people buy it, I’ll make it” thing before and it went beautifully. WHY? Because I told them up front exactly what was going on and I was able to make it better building it with existing customers. Lying to them is both unethical and totally unnecessary.

  • Cue the sound of that single handclap growing into a standing ovation and overwhelming applause!

    THANK YOU for writing this. Because not only do these tactics need to stop, but people need to stop advocating them as effective ways to test out idea or “MVPs”. People need to learn that deceiving others is not a shortcut to validating a business – however sweet a shortcut it may seem. Do the work. If you can’t get people to give you an email address for early access – whenever it’s available – don’t try to convince them that you have a fully-fledged product instead!

    Amen. Time to spread the word!

    • Thanks! These things just creep in as normal and then all the sudden it’s acceptable when it shouldn’t be.

  • Love it… Frustrates the shit out of me too… I make sure to punish those offenders anytime I can…

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