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The roster at TechStars continues to grow with awesome people. In the past month, TechStars has announced Mark Solon as a general partner, Luke Beatty as managing director for Boulder and Ari Newman as Network Catalyst. I’m proud to claim all three as close colleagues.
Mark is a long time friend – we’ve invested in a number of companies together over the years including SendGrid, Orbotix, and Lijit. He’s been involved as a mentor to TechStars since the beginning and his endless positive energy and attitude was a huge inspiration for my Boulder Thesis. When he announced that he wasn’t raising another fund at Highway 12 Ventures, David Cohen started talking to him about taking a more active role with TechStars. Voila!
Luke Beatty was the founder of Associated Content (sold to Yahoo in 2010) and has mentored the Boulder program for years. I fondly remember a long conversation at one of the first events we were at together at a number of years ago where I keynoted some Colorado industry event either right before or right after Tim Armstrong. Luke brings an enormous amount of entrepreneurial experience, as well as mentor experience, to the TechStars Boulder program.
Ari was a part of the first TechStars program all the way back in 2007 and his company, Filtrbox, was acquired by Jive Software several years ago. They were the fourth TechStars company to have a positive exit (of 18 to date now). Ari is perfectly positioned to make introductions and facilitate action across our growing group of alumni.
We’ve got a lot of things planned for 2013, including more “powered by TechStars” programs like the one we just announced with Nike, additional TechStars cities, and a few completely new things we are going to try.
For everyone who had been involved in some way along the journey since we started TechStars in 2006, thank you. You are dynamite. And welcome Mark, Luke, and Ari to the full-time team!
We constantly hear about “product market fit.” But my post yesterday about The Power of Passion When Starting Your Company was about “founder market fit.” And I’ve come to believe that – especially among first time entrepreneurs – founder market fit is much more important than product market fit at the inception of the company.
I stumbled on the phrase a few times over the past year and it’s been rolling around in my head a lot since. The first time was on Chris Dixon’s blog Founder / market fit which led me to a guest post by David Lee of SV Angel on More Thoughts on What Makes Great Entrepreneurs Great.
I’ve seen this over and over in TechStars. Founders come in with something they are super excited about. As they get exposed to mentors and feedback, they quickly start moving around within the market (or domain) as they search for a clearer focus, which could be defined as product market fit prior to getting a product out there and doing any real testing. This search is usually qualitative – it involves real feedback from potential customers and users, but it’s not a measured, tested approach.
In parallel, there’s often a Lean Startup methodology going on that does more quantitative tests of the specific product. But in a lot of cases, the qualitative feedback at the very formative stages is just as, if not more, important to make sure you end up in the right zone to test.
Underlying all of this is the regular shift away from something the founders are passionate about. The Orbotix example in my post is a great one – it would have been easy for Adam and Ian to decide to work on something that had a better product market fit, like iPhone enabled door locks, instead of something that not only hadn’t been invented yet, but also wasn’t obvious what market would really want it (a ball controlled by your smartphone – ok – that’s cool, but who will buy it?)
They, and their co-founder and CEO Paul Berberian had a vision for who would want a ball controlled by a smartphone. And Adam and Ian were obsessed with the idea. The three of them had extraordinary founder market fit, well before they figured out the product market fit.
We’ve got lots of other examples of this in our portfolio. I can’t tell you the number of times I get asked “what would someone ever use a personal 3D printer for?” But Bre Pettis at MakerBot is completely and totally obsessed with bringing 3D printers to the masses. While product market fit is getting clearer with each new product release, the founder market fit in this cases was awesome. Or Isaac Saldana of SendGrid, who initially named the company SMTPAPI. He has a great chapter in Do More Faster where he wrote about how he “Looked for the Pain” as a developer, found it in sending transaction email, and created SMTPAPI (now SendGrid) to address it. Or Eric Schweikardt who is unbelievably focused on creating the next generation robot construction kit at Modular Robotics. Sure – the “market comp” in this case is Lego Mindstorms, but Eric’s vision for the market goes well beyond this, and the product follows.
I’m not suggesting that product market fit isn’t an important concept. It is. But at the very beginning, especially with first time entrepreneurs, founder market fit is even more important.
We’ve been investing in our Glue theme and Protocol theme for a long time – well before we started Foundry Group. Many of our Glue investments and our Protocol investments are growing quickly and becoming integral parts of the Internet and web software infrastructure.
It made me smile to see a recent post from Promoboxx titled We’re Powered by TechStars Companies. It’s a great post about focusing on what matters for your product while leveraging great technology infrastructure from other companies. Several of the companies we are investors in are mentioned, including SendGrid and FullContact, each which are TechStars companies that we invested in after they finished the program.
For as long as I’ve been involved in writing and creating software there has always been a deep philosophy of creating building blocks that you can leverage. Something magical happened around this with the web and in the past five or so years there have been a number of amazing companies created that are easy to quickly integrate, either through a little bit of code or an API. It’s part of thing that has changed the dynamics of creating and launching a web software company, dramatically lowering the price of just getting something out there so you can start getting real feedback from users and customers.
When I reflect on this year’s Glue Conference, it feels like we’ve finally reached a tipping point where this concept is ubiquitous. I expect we’ll talk about it at Defrag and Eric Norlin’s post from yesterday titled The 20 Year Cycle hints to some of the deeper ideas about how this affects enterprise software and corporate IT, in addition to all the obvious consumer implications.
It’s a great time to be building software – the innovation curve is speeding up, not slowing down, and I expect when we look back 20 years from now we won’t recognize what we were doing in 2012.
Last week we announced our investment in Awe.sm. It’s squarely in our Glue and Protocol themes and is similar to investments we’ve made in SendGrid (for transactional email infrastructure) and Urban Airship (for push notification infrastructure). Oh – and the founders – Jonathan Strauss and Laurie Voss are – well – awesome.
We love things that wire the web together and believe Awe.sm is the company to do that for the construct of “sharing.” Specifically, Awe.sm’s goal is to become the key infrastructure provider powering quantitative performance marketing across the social sharing channel.
If you are a developer of a web app, take a look at how Awe.sm’s platform can help you.
Fred Wilson had an excellent post up this morning titled Social Media’s Secret Weapon – Email. I completely agree that email is the key communications channel for social media and have written about this before in posts like 100% Click Through Rate, Email – The Original Social Graph and Email Is Still The Best Login.
I’ve been investing in email related stuff for over 15 years going back to Email Publishing, my very first Boulder-based investment which I believe was the very first email service provider (ESP) and was acquired by MessageMedia which was then bought by Doubleclick. Fred and I are both investors in Return Path which he calls out in his post as the category creator and market leader in email deliverability. I love Return Path as a company and am incredibly proud of what they’ve done as a business.
My partners and I have continued to invest aggressively in what we believe is social media’s secret weapon which we refer to as the comm channel in a hat tip to the TV show 24. In Fred’s post, the comm channel is email. Our investment here is in SendGrid, a company that came out of TechStars Boulder 2009 and is one of the white hot companies in Boulder. They directly address the problem Fred describes which every software developer knows is a pain in the ass, uninteresting, hard to do well, but needs to be done right. Every web app sends transactional email – rather than build all the code yourself, just let SendGrid to it. They are now doing it for over 24,000 companies, sending out over 60 million transactional emails a day, and just sent their 10 billionth transactional email.
But email isn’t the only comm channel. Everyone that uses apps on a mobile phone is likely experiencing push notifications as an increasingly important as a form of engagement. While mobile phones used to only really work effectively with SMS, you now have SMS, email, and push notifications. So we invested in Urban Airship who does for push notifications what SendGrid does for email. Like SendGrid, they are growing like crazy, are in use by over 10,000 customers and have sent over 3 billion push notifications.
My message to all web developers – if you are serious about what you are doing, focus on your app. Don’t waste precious development time on all the activities around the app. You likely no longer sit around with a screwdriver setting up a server in a datacenter – instead you are using a cloud provider like Rackspace or Amazon. Don’t spent your time coding up an email notification infrastructure – use SendGrid. And if you are a mobile developer, don’t waste your time writing a bunch of code for push notifications – use Urban Airship.
Most importantly, don’t ignore the thing that will actually make your web app get adoption and retention – comm channels!