Month: July 2011 (page 1 of 4)

Be hungry, be bold, find solutions

There are two pieces to the entrepreneurial puzzle.  The first is the lofty idea and vision that drives the company, and the second is the grounded and dirty implementation.  A lot of entrepreneurial texts take the idea as a given, perhaps refined through an ideation process.  From there, it’s all implementation.

This is the interesting part, as all evidence shows that success is execution-driven, requiring a whole lot more than an idea.  There are numerous ways of going about the implementation and execution process, such as the customer development model, but for me, it is something more basic, and Shervin Pishevar, speaking at our recent TEC gathering, really invigorated that emotion.

Being young, being in college, is a remarkable opportunity, and there are countless doors open.  This is a critical phase of development.  Incredibly smart, experienced people are willing to talk to you, advise you, give you a chance to try things.  It’s just a matter of asking.

Asking is tough, though.  Any number of obstacles present themselves.  Sometimes I am too unmotivated (read: lazy).  Sometimes I am busy doing smaller things.  Sometimes I don’t know what I want to know/do.  Sometimes I don’t know who I want to talk to.  Sometimes I don’t have a reliable access point.  And ultimately, there is that small internal fear of the interaction itself, which ultimately revolves around my relative insignificance.

Still, I believe that motivating myself to overcome these obstacles is invaluable; you never know who will listen to your ideas and offer you feedback, advice, and resources.  In my mind, everyone wants me to win, the entrepreneurs and creators who came before want to help the next generation.

All you have to do is ask…

Fireside Chat with Joe Fernandez of Klout

 

I chose to interview Joe Fernandez of Klout.  Klout is doing pretty incredible things to track influence across social media networks.  It’s not perfect but it’s an excellent way to get an idea of who you are influencing  on social media channels.  The vast amount of data and algorithms incorporated with Klout are incredible.  They have even employed semantics research to gauge what conversations are more influential and impacting on someone’s “klout.”  For example, if you tweet @teddy: want to grab coffee sometime?  You can assume based on the inquiry that the two parties closely influence each other.  Klout is growing and is up to somewhere around 45 employees.  If you have a chance, you should check out their awesome office here in San Francisco.  There is a Foursquare special when you check-in to their office to receive a free t-shirt but I think they were out when I visited. :(

My Klout Score, what's yours?

 

You grew up in Vegas but attended school on the east coast at University of Miami, how did you end up in Miami?
 It definitely was not strategic.  I think I went there for the warm weather.

 When did you know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?  Did you always know that you wanted to build businesses?
I started my first company at 13, buying and selling video games at school.  That turned into selling bootleg CDs in college.

I noticed that you had started Evalulogix before you started working at Onboard Informatics, how did that work?
Well, Evalulogix licensed a technology to Onboard so that’s kind of how that worked.

 You also started Klout while you were still working on Evalulogix.  How did you know that you were ready for a different venture?
I was really passionate about Klout and it was all that I could think about.  I sold my shares to fund Klout.  There was definitely a lot of things going on at same time.

 What has been your biggest challenge in your entrepreneurial ventures?
To keep pushing when you fail or when investors don’t like an idea.

 What suggestions do you have for someone my age looking to build a startup?
A lot of times, people are too worried about what they don’t know.   They want to learn the rules of game before they start playing.  They ask: should I get an MBA or work in a startup to get experience?  If you get an idea, go for it.   Don’t not do it if you think you can do it.

 What has been one of your more valuable experiences?
Starting a company and being able to live in New York City.  I actually started Klout in New York City.

How did you decide to move Klout from NYC to San Francisco?
 We decided that if we are going to build a company that layers over Twitter and Facebook, we’re going to need to be near them to make things work.

 Some people say that despite the startup growth in NYC, the Valley is still the best place to start a company. What are your thoughts?
 You can definitely start a company in New York.  There are big companies like Foursquare that are doing very well there.  San Francisco is obviously like a fantasy land though.

What’s the next big thing for Klout?
We want to move from being an interesting startup and a novelty to becoming more mainstream like Groupon and Zynga. That is more of a broader goal for us.

-

Keep on a lookout for Klout.  They are forging new partnerships like crazy, including a recent stint with Spotify and True’s own About.me.

Launched! (finally……..)

After plenty of blood, sweat, and tears,  GetDataDriven.com 1.0 has finally went live. Since this is my first web project that I’ve built front to back and had a significant hand in design, I’m extremely ecstatic that I got to finally launch this web app. Let’s take a look at what I’ve learned in the past month and a half so far:

  • Design – I learned to quickly mock up designs in Balsamiq and work with a designer to refine the look of the web app before it is even built. I had tremendous help from Ian Main and Jason Collins, who refined my designs and made everything look beautiful in Photoshop.
  • Front-end: HTML/CSS/Javascript/jQuery – All of this front-end stuff is completely new to me. I was lucky enough to have an all-star front-end engineer and designer, Derek Collins, quickly teach me front-end and translate the amazing photoshop designs we had into HTML/CSS.
  • Back-end: Ruby/Rails/Sinatra – Although I had to scrap 3 weeks worth of overly complicated Rails source code, I learned a ton. The main lesson that I learned is that Rails will burn you if you don’t understand and follow all of its conventions. It’s great when it works, but good luck debugging it if you haven’t mastered Rails conventions. I chose to rewrite the code in Sinatra (a lighter, simpler ruby framework) and will eventually get back to Rails once I become a better ruby engineer and have a better understanding of the magic behind Rails.
  • Marketing and Customer Interaction: After launch, I learned how to optimize email subject lines using A/B tests and respond to feedback from users. There’s still plenty more to learn as I start getting to SEO, conversion optimization, virality optimization, and more!
The breadth and even depth of my experience at KISSmetrics so far has exceeded my expectations and I’m looking forward to finishing this site and making it a success.

Hustlin

“Hustlin: verb, Havin the ambition and drive to do everything and anything to make mad money.”

If you go to Urban Dictionary and look up hustlin’, the above definition is what you get, and nothing really captures sales better than that. At bloomspot, the crux of our business if built on sales. Unlike many other startups whose product creation and selling stage are more distinct and separate, at bloomspot, the crux of the business is built on sales. Every single day and the revenue it generates matters, and every month is a sprint. Whereas technically every single day matters for any startup, for bloomspot, every single day generates a high degree of revenue making it really a hustle. Consequently, the revenue of the company is entirely contingent upon the ability of our AEs (Account Executives) or the sales team and their ability to hustle.

This brings us to our quagmire: how do you build a first-class sales team?

Unlike Peter Thiel’s infamous most important question to ask a startup of “Why will employee number 20 join your company?”, with a startup where sales is the epicenter, the question is instead “Why will employee number 41, 52, 63, 72….nth join your company?. Every month, new AEs are brought onto the team leading to the current sales team to be somewhere around forty, fifty people if not more. Every single new sales person brought on board has to completely buy into the company vision. Discounting the difficulties that naturally come with size, how does a startup make every individual buy into the company vision? Furthermore, in the context of sales, it becomes even more difficult to make a senior and novice sales team work together. Providing incentives such as rewards and company perks are useful, but there’s a delicate balance between creating a cut-throat environment that incentives tend to bring and a collaborative environment that benefits the company.

Sales is always a mystery. Creating a world-class sales team is even more of one.

TrueU: Gettin’ Schooled

True University was a great success.  In two jam-packed days, I experienced an entrepreneurship bootcamp where I learned about topics including design, the early stages of a startup, engineering, and networking.   World class speakers came to “drop some knowledge” on the True family.  Vivek Wadwha was one of those speakers.  He presented new and exciting research on venture capital from the point of view of the entrepreneur.  If you know anything about Wadwha, you know that he is intelligent and very strong in his opinions.  One specific opinion that he expressed at the conference and has expressed in the past is his stance on Peter Thiel’s 20 under 20 fellowship.  Wadwha is vehemently opposed to the idea of the Thiel Fellowship and even wrote a post on TechCrunch titled “Friends Don’t Let Friends Take Education Advice From Peter Thiel.

Both Thiel and Wadwha seem to take a pretty extreme position on the topic of education.  I wanted to talk a little about this because I have opinions that lie somewhere between Thiel and Wadwha.

Thiel’s group of 20 young individuals is a rather self-selecting group.  One winner left Stanford’s Neuroscience Ph.D. program, another matriculated at MIT when she was 14, another has worked for Microsoft, Stanford, and Mozilla… you get the point.  These are all highly successful individuals who probably will end up doing amazing things.  If you apply Thiel’s vision to the average college student, does it still work?  Can you give just any motivated student who wants try out their idea a large sum of money to just go for it?  I don’t think this is what Thiel is saying but I think this might be how Wadwha is interpreting Thiel’s vision.

In Wadwha’s research, his team found that a student from an elite university isn’t anymore likely to build a successful companies than a student from a “non-elite” university.  Thiel argues that we are amidst a higher education bubble where students and employees are overvaluing degrees.

I find it particularly amusing that two of the most vocal advocates of dropping out of college are Peter Thiel and Mike Arrington—both of whom completed Stanford Law degrees. College dropouts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are strong proponents of finishing your degrees. Even Steve Jobs talks about the importance of liberal arts education.  -Wadwha

So is Thiel saying that everyone should drop out of school and try to work on an impacting venture?  No, I certainly don’t think so.  However, he is saying that if you are a bright, accomplished, young individual like the 20 former-students that he selected then why would you postpone your venture?  Go for it and go for it with a full head of steam.  School doesn’t go away.  Maybe the venture fails.  Maybe there is another venture that follows.  Maybe not.  Regardless, the option of returning to complete your education is usually there.

 “Everyone thinks kids in inner-city Detroit should do something else,” Thiel says. “We’re saying maybe people at Harvard need to be doing something else. We have to reset what the bar is at the top.”

A commenter on a TechCrunch post, Peter Thiel: We’re in a Bubble and It’s Not the Internet. It’s Higher Education presented an interesting point:

And here’s what I think will change the game: alternative signaling and credentialing mechanisms. When universities no longer have a monopoly (or near-monopoly) on signaling/credentialing we’ll witness a sea change. I’d offer that this is already starting to happen in certain parts of industry. Would you rather hire an engineer with a lot of GitHub followers, a great reputation on Stack Overflow and/or someone who is a Y Combinator alum or would you rather higher a Stanford or MIT grad?

Are  we slowly approaching a crossroads where employers, on a wide scale, will hire based on true merit like Stack Overflow / Quora reputation or the quality of personal projects?  I think those types of qualifications will certainly become more and more commonplace. Does this mean that people shouldn’t go to school at all? Of course not. Often times, being surrounded by intelligent students in a university setting spawns ideas and builds networks for starting a venture.  But if you feel that you are ready to jump in and build something, why not take some time off?   That being said,  I think both Thiel and Wadwha need to take a less extremist view of education.  It’s a highly situational thing.  Some say Thiel is doing it as a PR stunt for himself, which may be true.  Regardless, I think you should go with your gut.  If you feel that you have a solid plan, go for it and go for it in a big way.  Don’t think of formal education as some omnipotent force that will grant you all of your wishes but at the same time, don’t underestimate its value.

Loving Risk

Recently, I read a Techcrunch article by Michael Arrington about the risk profiles of entrepreneurs. Arrington makes a very interesting point contrasting the traditional human risk profile against the risk profile of an entrepreneur. Normally, people are considered risk averse and thus need to receive premium compensation for taking on risk. Entrepreneurs, says Arrington, are “all screwed up” in that they don’t need any compensation for taking on risk – the risk itself IS the reward. This flies in the face of almost all economic, social, philosophical theories, most of which model human beings as inherently and incurably risk averse. And whereas it might seem absurd why anyone would get a kick out of risking bankruptcy or even divorce, risk makes sense when seen as adventure. Theodore Roosevelt eloquently points out the nature of the risk-taking entrepreneur in the following quote:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The truth is that if entrepreneurs did not love risk, they would never have been entrepreneurs in the first place (and here I talk about loving the risk ITSELF, not the higher rewards that come with risk). Why? Because entrepreneurship is probably one of the worst jobs in the world. If we look at expected outcomes, entrepreneurship offers terrible monetary compensation, abysmal hours, laughable work-life balance, absolutely no job security, no glory, no fame, and no prestige. A family friend, an entrepreneur himself, once said to me, “Kid, don’t do entrepreneurship. It is torture. Only do it if you know that should you NOT do it, you will be kicking yourself on the deathbed.” Entrepreneurship is torture; for true entrepreneurs, it is also the greatest thing in the world and the only thing that they could ever imagine doing. Arrington compares entrepreneurs to 17th century pirates and points out the fact that pirates almost always met their fate by hanging, drowning, or being shot. The chance of actually finding a large sum of treasure was dismally small, and “living on a small ship with a hundred other guys must have sucked, even for the captain.” But the possibility of treasure was not the reason why people became pirates, argues Arrington. “The potential for riches was just an argument for the venture. But the real payoff was the pirate life itself.” The real payoff was the pirate life itself.

Aye, it’s a pirate’s life for me.

The Future of Tech

At the present rate of progress, it is almost impossible to imagine any technical feat that cannot be achieved – if it can be achieved at all – within the next few hundred years. -Arthur C. Clarke, 1983

Fundamentally, technology, at it’s crux, is about progress. It is technology that drives humanity and civilization to greater productivity, greater advancement, and greater achievement. And for startups, the creation and utilization of technology is inherently tied in whether it be through the development of disruptive business models on existing platforms (cloud, enterprise software, mobile) or developing new technologies (Sifteo). Consequently, the emergence of new technologies eliminates previous barriers resulting in the birth of new companies. Puneet Agarwal elaborated on this within the context of True’s goal of being disruptive to the venture capital landscape.

With the past decade, disruptive innovations both in terms of technology as well as business models have enabled former barriers to the enterprise/infrastructure, hardware, and mobile industries to be eradicated leading to the emergence of countless new companies. For enterprise/infrastructure, the emergence of Amazon’s cloud services, and the consumerization of IT have enabled entrepreneurs to take advantage of developing enterprise-based startups. For mobile, the unification of a platform that enables third-party development through Apple and Android’s smartphones have resulted in an array of startups. Likewise, the ability to now outsource and create small orders of components have enabled entrepreneurs to iterate even with complex hardware components.

To further consider the opportunities for early-stage investment, Puneet pushed us to think of new markets. Some interesting ones that came to mind were:

Healthcare/Biotech:

As an industry, healthcare is worth somewhere around in the hundreds of billions . Startups have previously had a difficult entering the healthcare market due to large bureacrcy and overhead. However, the increasingly cheap and widespread consumer technologies will be able to disrupt the industry as startups and investors take advantage of developing medical tools in conjunction with iPads and smartphones. Some examples include Agile Diagnosis which takes advantage of the iPad to develop a professional diagnostic tool for doctors and nurses. Another company is VaxTrac which has combined cheap consumer technology in the form of a basic cellphone and a plug in fingerprint scanner to create a vaccine tracker for the children in the developing world. Biotech and pharmaceuticals also have huge potential as a future industry for early-stage investment. New business models, such as Thiel fellow, Alex Kiselev’s idea of creating open-source laboratory equipment at a fraction of the current cost of existing equipment, could provide interesting investment opportunities.

Data:

While the 1999 bubble left the groundwork and hardware for Web 2.0 to build upon, the (potential) bubble of today will leave behind a vast network and cache of data for startups and entrepreneurs to innovate with. In retrospect, the amass of data is truly astounding. Facebook and Google+ records our photos, status updates, and social interactions with our multiple networks, Twitter captures our minute thoughts, Google captures our search histories, trackers such as FitBit, MyFitnessPal, and Ibwie amass data on our daily eating and exercising habits. The aforementioned does not even begin to discount the amount of data cread as infrastructure ranging from banking to the military become increasingly reliant on the Internet (see Steve Blank’s analysis that the internet is going to kill us all)

Data is the new industry where we gain invaluable insight into human and societal behavior, and the former barriers of “private” data are slowly become obsolete as illustrated by opening up databases such as Data.gov (the US government’s database). Furthermore, data as a whole is highly capital efficient and easily adaptable to the Lean Startup model. One interesting iteration is OPower which taps into household energy consumption data to create home energy reports to motivate customers to reduce consumption by charting their consumption against their neighbors.

Greentech

Greentech as an area for early-stage investment may be a bit more tricky considering it’s inherent nature of being capital intensive due to the high costs of developing solar panels, wind turbines, etc. However,disruptions to the industry are slowly but steadily expanding through new scientific breakthroughs in nano materials which enable the development of materials such as solar paint that captures solar energy. However, even discounting scientific advancement, there is room for early-stage investment in greentech through two means. One, through joint investments with the government subsidies that often exist for green tech companies, thus enabling earlier investment. Secondly, with web 2.0, there are opportunities for early-stage, and capital efficient investment in startups that are helping develop the supply chain process for the clean energy industry. As greentech as an industry is in a relatively infant stage, there is numerous opportunities to help develop the  One example that comes to mind is PV Power that streamlines the process for solar panel installers and contractors.

The aforementioned industries are just a small sample of potential future industries and markets to invest within. What other new emerging markets can you think of?

Importance of User Feedback

A couple of weeks back, I joined a few fellow TEClings on a trip to the offices of a True portfolio company where we provided some feedback and product testing on one of the company’s popular apps.  The session was recorded and later viewed by their team.  It’s hard at first to be brutally harsh about some things but if you put yourself into their shoes, the harsh advice is likely the most valuable.

It has always been clear to me that companies value user feedback in the development of their products.  However, my experiences so far with TEC have exposed me to how incredibly crucial it is for startups to evaluate their users’ experience.  A lot of times, it comes down to deciding which user requested features to implement.  They have to decide whether those features fit their vision for the product even if it’s a widely requested feature.  It has been interesting to see the number of ways that companies evaluate what users want in the ideation stage (and even later) and how they eventually gauge the quality of their experience.

 

 

 

Surveying your target demographic seems to be the most effective way to pin down some ideas in the early stages of your company. How do you do this effectively though?  You can go out into the “field” and talk to people on the street.  One company that came in to talk to us did exactly this, using iPads to lure passing strangers to conduct a survey.   They mentioned that a lot of people simply enjoyed playing with the iPad and as a result went ahead and took the survey.

 

 

Alternatively, you can do all the surveying by buying targeted traffic and sending it to a survey or a landing page with some type of A/B test.  Funneling targeted traffic in this way  may also help you pick a logo or design or even a name for your product in your earliest stage.

Often times with a newly launched product, you see a feedback tab tucked into the side of the design of the site. Personally, I’ve never used those tabs, not because I don’t have any feedback but simply because it’s inconvenient for me.  I think that feedback requests should be integrated into the flow of the product in a non-intrusive way (easier said than done) rather than passively sitting on the sidelines.

The first two solutions are expensive but indefinitely important.  After all, you are building the product for the user.   As a user, product testing is actually kind of fun.  Getting people to be honest and candid is obviously important and likely often challenging.  It seems like the hardest and most expensive part is getting that user through the door to offer their 2 cents.

True University: A True Success

As I drove to Berkeley on Tuesday night, I thought about what my next two days would be like. Words that popped into my head included “exciting,” “crazy,” “challenging,” and “fun.” Each and every one of these words accurately represented my experience at True University – and for that reason, I consider TrueU (yes, the hashtag should have been #trueU) to be a “True” success.

EXCITING

Yes, excitement is a bit overrated; however, in the case of True University, it was awesome. A number of speakers took time in their presentations to address emerging markets, and the opportunities they are creating for entrepreneurs. One of the speakers even talked about “Big Data” and mentioned a number of Loggly’s competitors, which was quite entertaining. What could be more exciting than hearing Vivek Wadhwa reveal tantalizing secrets from his recent research about the venture capital industry and its players to a group of venture-funded startups?

CRAZY

Well, I think you’re crazy
I think you’re crazy
I think you’re crazy
Just like me
(Gnarls Barkley)

We’re all crazy, in our own way. Entrepreneurs are inherently crazy, and True University reinforced this belief. The buzz created by a group of startup engineers in a room discussing ideas for how to create a server with over 96GB of RAM was astonishing. Why push the limits? Oh, that’s right: because we’re entrepreneurs, and as Stephanie Zolayvar (a fellow TEC-ling) put it, “we can do anything.” If we can find a better way, we will (and we’ll probably play far too many video games in the process).

CHALLENGING

At an event with almost 200 extremely intelligent entrepreneurs, how could I choose who I would talk to? The challenge presented itself, and I fought back: I came up with a system. If someone wasn’t involved in a conversation already, I would start one with them. I started conversations with people I would normally have walked right by, and I think that True University was probably one of the only places where I felt that everyone was networking during the entire event. I have been to trade shows before, but never to an educational event, and it blew me away how open people were to discussing extremely sensitive details related to their companies. I heard about hiring, firing, success, failure, and much, much more – but only through the right questions asked at the right time. I feel like networking is an art, and True University was an event begging for mass-networking. It worked.

FUN

Somehow, in the midst of a flurry of activity (including running back and forth between rooms, fixing AV problems, never answering “I don’t know,” and making sure that everything went as planned), I stopped for a moment and realized how much fun I was having. I had just eaten lunch with Wade Roush on the first day of True University, and had a discussion about the state of Silicon Valley, as well as localization (and how far people would be willing to travel for an event). What could be better than lunch with a reporter from the industry that I will be working in within less than a year?

I can’t wait for next year’s True University – and I hope that I’ll still be able to attend, hopefully as an employee of a True-backed startup, or possibly even as the founder of my own!

Heading Towards Something Good

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past few weeks in the Valley, it’s that I love the startup environment too much to do anything else with my life. So while I don’t know how exactly things are going to work out a year or two down the line, I’ve begun to lay some groundwork for my future full-time activities in this industry.

In order to succeed and seriously be able to contribute in a startup you need to be really good at a certain thing, and not just be okay at a bunch of things. While I’ve picked up a lot of basic knowledge in my time on the web—design, front-end & back-end development, server administration, and content curation to name a few—there is not one thing I can point to and identify myself a master of that field. So over the next few months, as I head back to school for my senior year, I will work on honing some of my skills. I will build on top of existing knowledge and practice my craft until I reach a level of proficiency I’m happy with. I’ve also begun to create a network of really cool people that can help me reach my goals, and it turns out meeting these people has been a lot easier and more fun than I had imagined. I’ve bumped into tons of interesting folks at parties that I truly enjoyed talking to, and will continue to keep in touch with.

The last few weeks of this TEC program have been jam-packed with awesome activities, and this coming final week will really be intense, but the feeling of having made it through something so big will make it worthwhile.

Older posts