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I get demos every day. Multiple times a day. I don’t want to see a powerpoint deck – I want to play with something. I don’t want to hear a description of what you do – I want to see a demo. I don’t want you to tell me your background, where you went to school, or where your grew up. I want to see what you are working on.
I still remember my first meeting with Bre Pettis at MakerBot. I walked into the Botcave in Brooklyn and was confronted with a long, narrow Brooklyn-style industrial building where I could see people working away in the back. But before I got to them, I had to walk through a 1000 sq. ft. area of MakerBot Thing-O-Matics printing away. This was an early “bot farm” and it probably took 15 minutes before I walked the gantlet. They were printing all kinds of things, there were display cases of other stuff that had been printed, and a vending machine for Thing-O-Matic parts.
When I got to the back where people were working, I totally understood what MakerBot did and what was possible with 3D printing.
We are lucky to be investors in a bunch of companies creating amazing new products. One of them, Oblong, as been working on spacial computing since John Underkoffler’s early research in the 1990′s at the MIT Media Lab. For a number of years they were described the “Minority Report” technology (John was the science/tech advisor to Spielberg and came up with all the tech in the movie.) The following video is John showing off and explaining the core G-Speak technology.
The demo is iconic and amazing, but it takes too long and is too abstract for their corporate customers buying Oblong’s Mezzanine product. The short five minute “overview video” follows.
While this gives you a feel for things, it’s still showing the “features and functionality” of the tech, applying a general use case. For several months, I kept banging on them to set up a simple use case, which is the how I use the Mezzanine system in our office. I use it every day and it’s been a huge factor for me in eliminating all of my travel.
A few months ago, Oblong had a sales off-site to go through the progress they’ve made this year and to focus on the balance of the year. They’ve had a great year, with a strong quarter-over-quarter sales ramp for Mezzanine on both a dollar and unit basis. The customer list is incredible, their classical enterprise land and expand strategy is working great, and new high-value use cases are being defined with each customer. So I smiled when I the following slide popped up on my Mezzanine during our weekly leadership team call.
While a little abstract in writing (I don’t expect you to understand the first three bullet points unless you know how Mezzanine works), when it’s shown in the first five minutes of a demo it simply blows your mind. And you totally get all three of the core technologies that Oblong has incorporated in Mezzanine (spatial computing, pixel virtualization, and data pipelining.) Your next reaction is “I want one.” And then you are ready for the feature / function discussion, which can easily go on for 30 minutes.
There is endless talk about product development and getting “personas developed” while you figure out how to build your product for them. This approach is equally useful for demos, but it is so often overlooked. I can’t tell you the number of times people start just showing me stuff, rather than saying “here’s the problem I’m going to solve for you that I know you have” – BOOM – and then I’m totally captured for the next 30 minutes.
Try it. The first five minutes is the most important with someone like me. Don’t waste it.
Last week, in the midst of Denver Startup Week, we had a full day Foundry Group Exec conference. Ben Deda from FullContact convened about 100 execs from our 60 or so portfolio companies for the day. We had seven topics of one hour each, led by a different set of execs. The result was an incredible range of discussions across an amazing group of people.
One of the attendees was Jeff Malek, the CTO of BigDoor. Jeff is super passionate about what he does and mixes humor with intensity with math. Following is something from Jeff to kick you in the ass this morning and get you charged up.
Last year I put together a slide deck for what the FAAAC was all about. Amongst other things, it describes a start-upper’s most valuable core attributes: fire, ability, agility, adaptability, and clear, concise communication skills.
A couple of months later FAKEGRIMLOCK published his incendiary work BE ON FIRE. As I read this wonderful post, I got very positively charged up. I thought : what the FAAAC is up there, with FAKEGRIMLOCK? Yes, it seemed to me: it is totally up there with FAKEGRIMLOCK!
Was I somehow channeling the King of Awesome? Could I be some sort of supernatural vessel, carrying the same caliber of limbic wisdom as the great, giant robot dinosaur? After asking around, the consensus was “probably not”. Someone even mentioned that I might be confusing “vessel” with “vassal”.
Still, I felt compelled to reach out to Brad and pointed out this cosmic parallel. Brad asked if I’d like to write a guest post. I thought, “hmmm…lucky FAAAC opportunity…” and began a mental draft immediately, in tandem with other P0 efforts I had in the works at the time (e.g. sharding our database systems).
One year and fourteen pounds of irony later, I’ve completed my assertion of reasonable ridiculosity for the FAAAC.
Behold, the Fire in the FAAAC Proportionality Theorem:
Which can be read per line thusly:
- There’s a unit of awesomeness comprising fire, ability, agility, adaptability, and good communication
- A good start-upper exhibits unusually high, varying degrees of each trait.
- An impressive academic pedigree doesn’t predict startup awesomeness (although it’s always impressive)
- Fire is the most important aspect of them all, composing up to 80% of all the awesome. Fire can drive learning (ability), help you duck punches (agility), and get you off the ground when you’re hit (adaptability). This is all just paraphrasing what Edison said about perspiration, and what FAKEGRIMLOCK drew about bears, bombs and arrows.
- If fire is compensating for lower levels of the other traits, then to be a great start-upper you’ll need a proportionally large sense of humor to get you through acerbic code reviews, failed biz-dev deals, and communication breakdowns.
- That’s what the FAAAC fire has to do with anything and everything.
It may seem like I’m just pointing at the clear connecting lines between myself, Brad , Edison, and FAKEGRIMLOCK. Fishing lines, maybe even.
But seriously, we have a rigorous process at our startup that tests new job candidates for these traits, making it easy to determine whether they should be leveled-up to the next interview stage. It involves running through our sprint process on a compressed timeline, working with a hypothetical customer, in a typical solution space. After 30 minutes a ruleset is produced in English, and supporting code is produced within an hour. The whole point is to determine whether the candidate is someone we could work with, and whether they have fire, agility, adaptability, ability, and good communication. I don’t care if someone can figure out why manhole covers are round. I want to know how well they’re going to perform in the context of our team, and our business. The best candidates rock these qualities out, just like the most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met do the same.
I’ve written before about hiring for cultural fit, and about the importance of prioritizing cultural fit over competence when hiring at startups. I started thinking about it again when I saw this Dilbert comic, because it pokes fun at the culture of startups and their propensity only to hire people who fit into them. But what are we talking about when we talk about cultural fit, anyway?
You’re probably familiar with some of the stereotypes around startup culture (free massages and dry cleaning, craft beer, cool art on the walls and dogs at the office, pulling all-nighters to ship on time) and the kinds of people who work at startups (according to Dilbert, “self-conscious hipster” types with “an earring and headphones.”) Stereotypes like these give you a picture of what startup culture might look like to an outsider, but they don’t reflect the intrinsic values that define startup cultures.
Gnip CEO Chris Moody explains this distinction really well when he talks about values vs. vibe. He defines values as “the guiding principles or code-of-conduct” that inform a company’s daily operations, whereas vibe is “the emotional side of the company … highly influenced by outside factors.” To figure out whether an aspect of your startup culture is a value, he says, try asking yourself these questions:
- Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?
- Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?
- Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?
- Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?
So, for example: riding your fixi to the office or playing foosball between coding sessions are vibes. Treating people with respect or being passionate about your work? Those are values.
Your company values should be clear, accessible, and pervasive – take, for example, Zappos’ 10 core values. Having clearly defined values is important because they drive your company culture, not the other way around. It’s also important when you’re hiring for cultural fit, because without clear company values you run the risk of making poor hiring decisions: hiring people because they look or act or talk like you, and not hiring people because they don’t.
Here’s an example: Businessweek says hiring managers are now asking candidates questions like, What’s your favorite movie? Or, What’s the last book you read for fun? If you’re asking interview questions like these at your startup, you need to make sure you’re screening for values and not for vibe. Just sharing your love of The Big Lebowski doesn’t make someone a good cultural fit for your company: in fact, it’s often the people who give unexpected answers who end up being your company’s most creative problem-solvers.
I chair the board of directors for the National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT), whose Entrepreneurial Alliance works with startups to help them recruit and retain more women in tech roles. There’s strong ROI for including more women on technical teams: women improve collective intelligence, make startups more capital-efficient, and bring the perspectives of half the population. But if you’re a “dude brew” startup, you may not even know why you don’t hire more technical women, and you might need help from NCWIT removing gender bias from its portfolio companies’ job ads.
Gnip recently told NCWIT that they added three women to its engineering team. They credited this in part because the VP of Engineering, Greg Greenstreet, attended every local women-in-tech networking event, recruited on campus, and talked to as many female candidates as possible. But fundamentally they succeeded in hiring more women because, like Etsy, they made diversity a value. Gnip assigned strategy, money, and resources to their recruiting efforts, and factored diversity into evaluations of cultural fit.
Every startup is going to have a company culture, by design or by default, so you might as well design yours with values that attract and keep the best possible talent. Once you’ve distinguished between your values and your vibe, hiring for cultural fit won’t just be easier; it will give you better – and likely more diverse – employees.
If you’re interested in more information about joining NCWIT’s group of startups, let me know.
Chris Dixon had an important post over the weekend title The Idea Maze. He starts off with a very strong juxtaposition of thoughts around the importance of “the idea” to a startup.
Ideas_Matter: The pop culture view of startups is that they’re all about coming up with a great product idea.
~Ideas_Matter: In response to this pop culture misconception, it has become popular in the startup community to say things like “execution is everything” and “ideas don’t matter”.
Ideas_Matter’: But the reality is that ideas do matter, just not in the narrow sense in which startup ideas are popularly defined.
The argument around whether or not the idea matters in a startup is getting tedious and I think Chris does a nice job of dropping a bomb in the middle of it. But I don’t think the puzzle pieces get put together quite right.
I don’t agree with Chris’ assertion in Ideas_Matter’. My view is that a startup is a continuum of ideas. The initial idea may bear some resemblance to the idea at any future time, but the actual instantiation of the idea can vary dramatically over time based on the learning that happens along the way. The notion of the Idea Maze captures this construct, as does the work of Steve Blank and Eric Ries.
But that doesn’t mean that “the idea matters.” I believe that it means a different construct is needed other than “idea.” I accept that the answer isn’t just the “execution of the idea” since that misses the point also. As a result, I think we need to blow up the construct of “ideas vs. execution” since it’s both and neither.
Chris does a nice job of laying out how to navigate the Idea Maze using history, analogies, theory, and direct experience. That’s how I approach investing, and how Foundry Group uses our themes to guide what we invest in. If you think hard about what Chris is suggesting, it’s the path through the idea maze for most entrepreneurs that is the important thing.
Here’s a specific example from my own experience. I’ve always loved books. About ten years ago I started thinking harder about being a writer as part of what I do. I’ve used history, analogies, theory, and direct experience to help me figure out how I think about the publishing and content industry. I self published some content (my blog) and contributed to traditional print and online media. But rather than self publishing a book to start, I decided I needed to understand how the publishing industry has worked for the last 100 years by participating in it. I had a theory that over the next decade there would be a radical change in how the publishing industry worked, but in the absence of being a content provider (known as an “author”), I wouldn’t really understand the process. So I wrote several (now four) books with a publisher (Wiley). Hence – direct experience. I’ve also studied the history of the publishing industry and talked to many other authors about their experiences. And I’ve got many analogies about how other information based industries have been massively disrupted by technology. And now I have a very clear set of ideas about how the publishing – and content – industry is going to change and how I’m going to participate in that change as a writer.
My important idea wasn’t “disrupt the publishing industry.” Nor does that particular idea matter. But the continuum of ideas I’ve had over the last decade that emerged from this thought is incredibly powerful. And the emergence of that continuum in a startup has the potential to be very powerful. Or fail. Which is, of course, the nature of a startup.
Following is a guest post by Zack Rosen, co-founder and CEO of Pantheon. Pantheon is building “A big badass platform that will run 30% of the Internet.” They are making it easy for professionals to build, launch, and run websites. Pantheon is one of the Silent Killers in our portfolio – and I’m immensely proud of the progress they are making and excited about their future.
This post was an internal email to the Pantheon team following a major feature release (Multidev). When I saw it, I asked Zack if I could post it on my blog as an ode to all startups. Many of you are out on the frontier, and I thought Zack captured the essence of it in his message to his team.
From: Zachary Rosen
To: Pantheon Staff
Date: Thursday, July 18, 2013 2:19:42 AM
Subject: Welcome to The Frontier
The Frontier Thesis was a theory advanced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 that American democracy was formed by the American Frontier.
“American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Sarah Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.”
You may have noticed me acting slightly more neurotic or animated lately. There is a reason for that. Apologies if I am bugging you out—it’s going to get worse.
I am very, very excited to be back here, on The Frontier.
I’ve been here before.
Then one day I messed up, clicked the wrong button, and ordered hundreds of dollars worth of non-refundable, esoteric, nerdy used books…and over-drew my bank account. I remember thinking when they arrived, “Well, I guess I may as well read all of these stupid books that bankrupted me.”
I’m very glad I did.
That summer, this bumpkin/badass former governor from Vermont running for president (Howard Dean) had found this guy Joe Trippi to run his presidential campaign. It became clear to me that Joe had read the same books I had, and that he intended to see if the shit in the books actually worked.
I had to be there. The summer of 2003, I started an open-source (Drupal-based) project for the campaign (Deanspace), got a job in the campaign HQ in Burlington, VT, dropped out of school, and had about the most profound professional experience one could at age 19 in 2003.
I spent a year on the Dean campaign Web Team during the presidential campaign of 2004. We lost the campaign badly, but we won a major battle on The Frontier of Global Politics in the age of the Internet.
The Dean campaign Web Team proved a very simple but important idea to the world that year. We proved that you could challenge the political establishment and beat them at their own game (fundraising) by appealing directly to supporters via the Internet. That idea—which our team made work—has changed the world.
Barack Obama would not be president today without the path the Dean web team blazed. Knowing this has permanently altered the way I view my work.
Friends from the campaign went on to run Obama’s Internet operation. You’d have a hard time making the case that Obama could have won without their help.
That experience set the bar for me in my career. Ever since then, if my work is not on that scale, then I feel like I am wasting my time on this planet.
I’m at home back here on The Frontier.
What it’s like on The Frontier
For me, launching Multidev put Pantheon clearly on The Frontier. We’re doing new shit the world has never seen before.
Here are a few of my thoughts about our time here:
1. You know that quote from Margaret Mead? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The Dean campaign Web Team was 20 people, about the same size as Pantheon is today. Small teams can do huge things.
Accomplishing huge things is not easy. On The Frontier, there’s no rule of law and there are no guarantees. There are consequences if we get it wrong. We won’t be destitute, but we’ll always wonder if we could have done better.
On The Frontier, we know this, and we still go after the big problems, six-shooters blazing.
2. There are not very many people out here on The Frontier. It can be strangely quiet and peaceful. Everyone has so many opinions when you make your journey out! “Well, what will you do when X happens?” “That won’t work.” “I don’t get it.” Or, my favorite, “I’d do it this way.”
But when you get out here, you get to see what will really work and what won’t. You survive by your wits. You learn to listen to and trust your gut.
How many other people are out here working as hard as we are to fundamentally fix website tech? …. *crickets*
3. What we are doing will look obvious in retrospect. “Duh, you can raise a ton of money for a presidential campaign online” is now common knowledge, but in 2003, we were looney. “Duh, websites are developed, launched, and run in the cloud” will be common knowledge soon enough.
The biggest ideas are usually the simple ones. They seem so confusing and hopeless before, somehow, all of a sudden, they are taken for granted.
Before any big city, there was once The Frontier.
4. We are blazing the path for everyone else. We are the leaders in our market, and they will follow, after we’ve found and laid the path. The entire world will follow us after we’ve found out how to make building, launching, and running websites easy.
Notice the other paths laid by other teams out here on The Frontier. This work is holy. When you pass another team blazing their path, tip your hat. This shit isn’t easy. Be gracious on The Frontier.
5. This is a special experience. We’re not saving the world directly. We aren’t surgeons in the O.R., or soldiers in harm’s way. We’re engineers laying down foundational tech that others will build on top of. Most will never see our work. But, through our work, we have the opportunity to shape what’s possible in the world around us.
With Multidev we set a bar for the software industry on what is possible when custom software is built, launched, and run in the cloud. The other leaders in our space are behind us. We are the ones who have built a cloud platform with such deep (full website stack) and broad (dev -> deploy -> scale lifecycle) capabilities, so we get to be the ones who discover what is possible.
You will remember this work, your time on The Frontier, for the rest of your life.