Month: June 2012
I get asked some version of this question, often in the form of “I’m thinking about becoming an entrepreneur”, every day. It’s awesome to me that lots of people are asking this question but it’s really hard to answer with a simple, short response. I’ve been pointing people at a number of resources to help them get a feel for what being an entrepreneur is like and two that I’m involved in top the list.
The first is the book Do More Faster: TechStars Lessons To Accelerate Your Startup that I wrote with David Cohen in 2010. There are a bunch of reviews up on Amazon – mostly good – that capture the spirit of what we were trying to convey. Whenever I’ve aimed it at someone who asks what it’s like to be an entrepreneur or wants to learn more about what’s in the mind of an entrepreneur, I usually get the feedback that it’s useful. What surprised me early on was the feedback from early employees at startups who told me it helped them understand what the founders of their company were going through. I recently skimmed through it again just to make sure it still felt fresh to me and it does.
The second is Startup Weekend. If you’ve never done a Startup Weekend, it’s an incredible simulation of entrepreneurship. In 54 hours you’ll go through the experience of starting a company from scratch, surrounded by others doing the same thing. You’ll compress a lot of the activities into a weekend, especially dynamics around team, idea, and trying to get something out the door quickly. It’s valuable for existing entrepreneurs as well – if you are an entrepreneur looking for smart people who want to get involved with startups, it’s a great recruiting ground. I’ve known and supported Startup Weekend from the very first one that was held in Boulder in 2007 and joined the board last year to amp up my involvement.
While there is no substitute for jumping in the deep end and starting a company, I believe both our book and the experience of Startup Weekend are great ways to get a deeper perspective of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.
What are some of the things you point people at to answer this question?
Last week Startup Colorado hosted the Startup America Regional Summit which was a gathering of the leadership of over 25 different Startup State efforts under the structure of the Startup America Partnership. Over 100 people came and we had an awesome two days of discussions which was summarized wonderfully by Christian Renaud (CEO of Present.io and a principal of StartupCity Des Moines) in his post What I learned in Boulder.
After the event, David Mangum, the executive director for Startup Colorado and I were discussing what we had accomplished since launching in November 2011 and I asked him to write up a guest post to summarize. Following are his thoughts. Comments welcome – and if you want to get involved, just email me.
Startup Colorado publicly launched in November 2011, but we began the behind-the-scenes strategy and planning in August, which means that we’ve been going for nearly a year. As Startup Colorado’s Executive Director, I look back on our inaugural efforts with a few observations about what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what we hope to improve as we move into our second year.
We launched Startup Colorado as a movement to spur new company creation across the state, with first year emphasis on Colorado’s Front Range. Our mission has been to increase the breadth and depth of the entrepreneurial ecosystem by multiplying connections among entrepreneurs and mentors, improving access to entrepreneurial education, and building a more vibrant entrepreneurial community.
Four key principles have animated our efforts: (1) for our initiatives to be successful, they require entrepreneurs to lead; (2) we must think and act with a long-term view; (3) we seek to engage entrepreneurs at all levels of experience and success; and (4) the influx of talent is a cornerstone of strengthening a startup ecosystem.
Startup Colorado kicked off with a handful of tractable projects:
- Create an entrepreneurial summer camp in Boulder
- Expand new tech meetups and open coffee clubs in Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs
- Support entrepreneurial education in the Front Range
- Evaluate current barriers facing entrepreneurs, including an assessment of best practices within entrepreneurial communities around the US and world
- Engage larger companies in the entrepreneurial ecosystem through commitments to help entrepreneurs
- Build the Startup Colorado website to be a user-friendly, thorough database for information and connections
Perhaps our most promising project is the “entrepreneurial summer camp,” renamed Startup Summer. Startup Summer kicked off in late May with 14 college students/2012 college grads working in paid internships for Boulder-area startups. In addition to the full-time internship, Startup Summer offers its participants a variety of evening entrepreneurship events, most important of which is a weekly class on entrepreneurial topics taught by local entrepreneurs, founders, CEOs, and community leaders. Participating interns also will be given the opportunity to work with an area mentor to develop their own business ideas. Startup Summer required a lot of program construction, promotion, applicant recruiting, and company/intern matching and it would not have happened without ample support from Tim Enwall and our top notch Program Coordinator, Eugene Wan. Perhaps more than any other project, this one embodies our core principles: we have a range of entrepreneurial leaders teaching classes and working with the interns, and we are building the program as a way to seed the next generation of Colorado entrepreneurs and strengthen the talent pipeline into the state’s startup ecosystem.
We also have made considerable progress in developing a stronger network of meetups in Colorado Springs, Denver, and Fort Collins. Jan Horsfall and Chris Franz, in conjunction with Peak Venture Group, have invigorated the Colorado Springs meetup system, going from a meetup of 15-20 people last fall to, most recently, 175 people (https://www.meetup.com/PVG-Pitch-Night/). They also are spearheading an open coffee club. In Denver, Erik Mitisek, Jon Rossi, Andrei Taraschuk, and the various meetup organizers have been pushing for greater meetup coherence and organization, including at the Denver New Tech Meetup. Jon Nordmark also has been leading an open coffee club in Denver. After several months of false starts, we also have had exciting progress in Fort Collins with Christine Hudson, who is tackling the Fort Collins New Tech Meetup.
Another exciting project in the works (and not one originally planned) is the Startup Colorado Legal Roundtable, where a handful of local law firms will give free legal advice to a select group of startup founders and CEOs. If you’re a startup entrepreneur interested in this offering, please email me at email@example.com.
Other projects have been more challenging, though we have not given up on anything.
One project that may yet take flight is the entrepreneurship education project. Over the past year we talked to many high school teachers and other education non-profits, but did not find a clear project leader to take things and run with them. Steve Halstedt and Dan Caruso recently stepped up with an interest in getting more involved at individual high schools, and we may try to support each of them with teams of MBA and JD students to help run logistics and execution. Our current view is to develop a “startup entrepreneurship” curriculum to be taught afternoons or weekends for high school students, supplement the classes with mentors, and encourage students to develop their own business ideas.
Two other projects that have been harder to get off the ground are engaging bigger companies to help startups and building the Startup Colorado website to be a central resource and connector for entrepreneurs and mentors. Our bigger company engagement project could use more assistance both in connecting to more companies and in helping to manage existing offerings from companies like ViaWest (free hosting for startups). For the website, we have a few ideas for content improvement, including a regional spotlight on what’s happening across the Front Range, entrepreneurs interviewing other entrepreneurs, and more.
Overall, the first year has gone as we expected: some projects would gain traction quickly, some would be a bit wobbly but viable, and some will require more effort. The most important feature of individual project success has been the willingness of multiple people to step up and volunteer a meaningful amount of time to help.
We expect to amplify our efforts to ensure that the next Startup Summer is even better than this year’s. We also aim to continue working to strengthen the individual meetup communities across the Front Range. Other projects may take a few more months of execution before we know their ultimate status, but we are optimistic that with a refined sense of how to work (with project leaders and better delineated ownership) and a renewed vigor for our mission, we can make Startup Colorado’s second year even more impactful than the first.
If quadcopters can play a James Bond song, it’s not far fetched that tens of thousands of them could become an autonomously controlled weapon controlled by software that simulates the intelligence of weaver ants. Toss in some perfluorocarbon tracers to simulate a pheromone matrix, a bunch of guns, face recognition software, and bad guys and by page 267 about all you can say is “fuck!”
I love Daniel Suarez – I think he may be one of the best “near term science fiction writer” alive today. His previous two books – Daemon and Freedom(TM) were superb, but Kill Decision really nails it and takes you to a much more real, and completely terrifying place. He’s got new characters, better action and dialogue, deep science that is well explained, and very scary scenarios that play out in a “I can’t put this book down” way.
As I’ve said many times recently, the machines have already taken over and are just waiting patiently for us to catch up with them. I’m optimistic about the machines – they won’t emerge in a terrifying terminator future hell bent on exterminating us. Instead, we – the humans – are the problem. We’ve been trying to kill each other since the beginning of time and when the biological (in this case software based on weaver ants) merges with the machines (quadcopters with guns) bad shit happens. And once again the humans created all the bad shit.
As my first book of summer, this was a great place to start. I finished about half of it last night and Amy said I whined in the night with bad dreams, so it did it’s job. Daniel – wow – awesome.
One of the super cool things about self publishing is that it’s really easy to make updates and release a new version. I released – with HyperInk‘s help – the first version of Burning Entrepreneur on April 11th.
Last week we released v2.0. We’ve fixed typos, clarified a few things, added tweets and comments to the body text, and added a few more chapters. We also updated the title to simply “Burning Entrepreneur” although the subtitle “How to Luanch, Fund, and Set Your Startup on Fire” is still around.
I’ve gotten plenty of positive feedback on this book and I’m excited about the updated version. If you haven’t read it yet, go grab a copy and tell me what you think. And – if you’ve read it – toss up a review on Amazon if you feel like it as every one of them helps.
I love Paul Graham’s Maker vs. Manager schedule concept. At Feld Technologies, we used to call this “programmer time vs. phone/meeting time” and my partner Dave Jilk and I spent a lot of time figuring out how to make it work since we each had programming work throughout the life of the business but an increasing amount of phone/meeting time as our business scaled up. Near the end I was in almost 100% phone/meeting time, which I hated, but at least I knew why.
As a VC, I’ve created a very tight approach to dealing with my manager schedule. I get up a 5am every morning, read/write online until Amy wakes up (usually between 630am and 7am), go for a run, and then switch into manager mode until 6pm. I try to schedule everything (including phone calls) – I use 30 minute increments so I have lots of “air” in my schedule since many things never take more than 10 minutes. At 6pm, I either go out to a business-related dinner, hang out with Amy, or lay on the couch and catch up on email and other random stuff.
For the points in time when I need to be on a maker schedule, I go away for a week or two. To the outside world it often doesn’t seem different, except I’m not available to get together physically and I’m not traveling anywhere. But I still blog, do email, and spend time on the phone with companies we’ve invested in. However, I control the schedule tightly, usually giving myself a several hour block of time in the afternoon for this.
I’ve decided to spend the entire summer in maker mode. The first five months of the year have been intense – tons of travel, lots and lots of stuff going on, and very little time for me. I fucked myself up by doing the 50 mile run so I was more emotionally drained than normal and I didn’t really give myself time and space to recover from it. On top of it, I don’t feel like I’ve spent enough time with Amy the first half of this year, nor do I feel like I’ve had enough me time as I feel like I’ve been spending too much time doing things for other people rather than spending time on things I want to spend time on.
Through labor day, I’m not going to travel at all, except for a few marathon weekends and a few trips to Boulder for a few days. Amy and I are holed up at our place in Keystone and I’ve decided to only have a manager schedule between 1pm and 4pm each day. That leaves me from when I wake up until 1pm to be on maker time, followed by 4pm until when I go to bed.
This rhythm starts tomorrow. It’ll be interesting to see if I can hold it for the full summer given all of the other pressures on my time. It’ll also be interesting to see the external perception of my responsiveness changes at all.
Either way, I think the only real way to learn about this type of thing is to experiment, so the experiment begins now.
An hour ago I received a phone call from one of my closest friends who has been a hugely influential mentor of mine that his wife had passed away. She was a close friend also and they’ve had an enormous impact on my life. She’s been ill for a while so this isn’t a surprise and when I saw her about a month ago I knew her time was coming. But it’s still incredibly hard to process, especially knowing how close they were as a couple.
I had a longer post queued up today but it’ll have to wait for tomorrow. For now, I’m going to just let my emotions be whatever they are, feel love for my close friend, send him as much good karma as I can, and remind myself to live every moment of life as though it could end tomorrow.
We describe Foundry Group‘s behavior as “syndication agnostic.” When we make an investment, we are completely agnostic as to whether or not we have a co-investor. This is true at early stages but also true at later stages. We make our own decisions to invest, or not to invest, independent of what other investors are thinking. As part of this philosophy, we’ll lead follow-on rounds for companies we’ve already invested in, including those making great progress where we will lead an up round that we price. We aren’t looking for outside validation from other investors of any sort – either positive or negative. Because we are syndication agnostic, we are delighted to work with great co-investors and welcome and encourage the interaction and partnership. But we don’t have any dependency on it for our decision making.
I saw two important posts this morning – one by Fred Wilson titled Social Proof Is Dangerous and one by Hunter Walk titled The Death of Social Proof. Both are worth reading along with the comments. Naval Ravikant, the co-founder of AngelList, also has a thoughtful comment on Hunter’s post, although I disagree with some of it.
For me, the essence of the conversation comes back to making your own decision as an investor. As an angel investor, I invested in many things and passed on many things. As a VC investor, I invest in a few things and pass on many things. When I look at what drives my decision to invest, it’s the entrepreneurs and the product. It’s never the existing investors, even if I like working with them. When I look at what drives my decision to pass, it’s the entrepreneurs and the product and occasionally the existing investors if I simply don’t want to work with them.
Within Foundry Group, we use a qualitative process to determine whether we are going to invest in something. Once we are actively engaged exploring an investment, all four of us independently interact with the company (although this may happen in groups of us.) To get to this point, it’s going to be a company we likely would invest in. However, we can only invest in about 5% to 10% of the company’s we see that reach this point based on the size of our funds, our tempo, and our deal flow. So we pass on 90% – 95% of companies that “we’d like to invest in, but for some reason don’t get there.”
The reason is almost always qualitative. If the sentiment from one of us trends down during the evaluation process, we immediately pass. This sentiment is driven by our individual interactions with the entrepreneurs and their product. But we each make our own decision, and a single qualitative negative trend causes us to pass. We make mistakes often – there are plenty of companies we pass on that in hindsight we would have liked to be investors in, and in some cases we get a second change and invest in the next round (Fitbit and SEOMoz are two that immediately come to mind.) We always offer to be helpful to the entrepreneurs if they get to this point – some take us up on this. But regardless, we aren’t looking to other investors, or “social proof”, to drive, or even influence our decision making.
This is especially powerful for follow-on rounds. We leave it up to the entrepreneurs whether they want to go find a new investor or not. We express our opinion early in the process and are supportive with whatever the entrepreneur wants to do. If we are going to invest regardless, we’ll make a commitment before the fundraising starts so the entrepreneur knows it is there, even if he isn’t able to attract an outside investor. And, if for some reason we aren’t going to invest, we are clear about it upfront.
I’ve found this interaction to be fascinating with other VCs who are our co-investors. Some are very comfortable with this approach and, as a result, we are attracted to working with them over and over again. Others aren’t, but aren’t offended by our approach, and, since we don’t need them to commit to co-invest along side of us for us to follow through on our commitment, tend to be thoughtful about what they want to do. And some don’t like this approach, although we rarely find this out until we’ve worked with them at least once. When we encounter this kind of situation, we tend not to seek them out as co-investors in the future.
All along the way, we try to be painfully clear with the entrepreneurs that we are making our own decision, independent of the behavior of other investors. This has come from many years of seeing “the investor syndicate” make bad decisions either in the case of a successful company (where they don’t lean in) or an unsuccessful company (where everyone keeps dragging each other forward to “one more round.”) We’ve evolved a deeply held belief that we need to make our own decisions, independent of everyone else, communicate them clearly, and move quickly one way or another.
I’ve tried to scale this personally to my whole life. I don’t really care what other people think – I just try to do my best all the time and learn from everything I do. I describe that as being intrinsically motivated by learning. Sure – I listen to all the feedback I get, but am mostly looking for content, especially content that I can use to improve what I do (and learn from). Praise and validation go in the same bucket as social proof for me – I appreciate it but ignore it.
Are you making your own decisions?
I love software wrapped in plastic. So it warmed my heart when I heard that Cyril Ebersweiler and my long time friend Sean O’Sullivan were starting an accelerator in Shenzhen, China called HAXLR8R as part of their Chinaccelerator initiative, both which are part of the Global Accelerator Network.
Following is a guest post from Cyril about the program along with a link to their Demo Day event in San Francisco on June 18th.
Three months ago, what seemed to be a crazy idea became reality: HAXLR8R gathered 9 startups from the US, Europe and Asia in the electronics mecca – Shenzhen, helping entrepreneurs to kickstart their ventures based on physical devices.
Coming from various background (hackers, makers, academics, business) this new breed of pioneers took advantage of the convergence of several factors which have been playing in their favor across the last few years. To name a few: the ever growing computing power (and corollaries in the fields of vision, audio, and sensors), the cost drop for parts and prototyping, the higher quality in mass manufacturing, the increasing effectiveness of the logistics involved as well as the other benefits coming from the digital space such as crowdfunding (e.g. Kickstarter), communities (e.g. Thingiverse), collaboration (e.g. Upverter) and the natural viral effects of the social web. This fostered a new wave of entrepreneurs building products which were unthinkable a few years back.
But building and selling a complete hardware product is still hard. Really hard. The team needs to be composed of superstars who have a remarkable sense of market timing and vision in terms of product. The first iteration of a hardware product and its final version will have few in common, as new constrains (quality, costs, and time) are discovered by just witnessing the magic of ‘how it’s made’. Getting things done in China ensures that those needs are taken care of very early in the process, while providing a relative peace of mind to entrepreneurs after leaving the country as they now have a perfect understanding of their product but also a long-lasting relationships with their local partner.
The remaining traps to avoid are in the fields of logistics, distribution, financing and fundraising, among others. The HAXLR8R program aims at answering those very practical questions which – for the most part – have been dealt with hundreds of times by previous entrepreneurs, now turned into mentors. And they were many to come across the HAXLR8R office: the founders of MakerBot, Pebble and Sphero, an entire team from IDEO, Bunnie Huang and plenty others who have nurtured a group of people working in robotics, toys, connected devices, IOT, energy, appliances, self-quantified and medical.
The HAXLR8R team will hit San Francisco on June 18th for their Demo Day, which will be hosted at Autodesk on Embarcadero. If you are an investor and interested in witnessing a new leap in technology, I’d suggest you take a look and drop an e-mail to makeit [at] haxlr8r.com in order to register.
My friend Chris Moody, the COO of Gnip, has another guest post up today titled Startup Culture: Values vs. Vibe. He’s written about this in the past on his blog, but we both thought it was worth reposting. Enjoy – and comment freely, especially if you disagree or have constructive feedback.
I hear some form of the following question frequently from founders that are starting to have early success:
“How do we hire a bunch of new people and grow the company quickly without losing the culture we’ve worked so hard to establish?”
I’ve been fascinated by different company cultures for as long as I can remember and I love asking entrepreneurs to describe the culture of their companies. Over time I’ve come to realize that when you break down culture descriptions you’ll often find a mix of two components: values and vibe. Although each component can have a significant impact on the overall feel of a company, the way you establish and manage the two should be different.
I think of values as the guiding principles or a code-of-conduct upon which a company was founded and which it operates on a daily basis. If you establish the right set of values early, these principles won’t change with time. Values establish your company’s view of the world and determine how you treat others including employees, customers, partners, and investors. Most importantly, values serve as the foundation on which tough company decisions are made. Values are 100% controlled by the company and should be unaffected by competitors, market conditions, and industry trends.
The people you hire will come with their own set of values. Every person you hire should have personal values that completely align with the values of your company. 95% isn’t good enough. In fact, if a team member violates a company value, the violation should result in removal of the individual from the company. Here are some other things to consider around establishing and maintaining company values:
- Document and talk about your company values with your team all the time. Consider publishing your values, and talking about them with customers, partners, etc. to add an extra level of scrutiny to your commitment.
- I believe a set of five or less documented values is ideal because you want all your employees to have them top-of-mind when making decisions. If you have too many values, people simply won’t remember them.
- Determine a set of tough “trade-off” questions that you can ask during the interview process that will help you determine if a candidate’s values align.
- Good values require tough decisions to be made in order for the values to be upheld. If you establish values that are never challenged, these values aren’t serving any real purpose.
This last point is particularly important. Watered down or generic values might be easy to uphold, but they also won’t establish a strong culture. Companies with unique cultures tend to have values that are unconventional and sometimes controversial. A famous example of a unique value is Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” (I believe the actual company published version is “you can make money without doing evil”). I’m guessing “don’t be evil” is discussed at Google hundreds of times of day when decisions are being made, and I bet it is surprisingly hard to stay true to this value even though the premise seems fairly simple. The fact that Google allowed this value to become public knowledge has resulted in a huge audience of observers that are constantly scrutinizing Google’s actions to see if they are staying true to their values.
Vibe represents the emotional side of the company. Like all emotions, vibe can be fairly volatile and is highly influenced by outside factors. For example, think about the vibe of a company on the night that the first product is launched vs. the vibe of the same company when Apple announces they are launching a competing product or service. When it comes to vibe, management can certainly set a tone and lead by example, but the reality is the vibe of a company will naturally change with time as the company grows and the products/employees mature. The biggest influence on vibe is typically success. Most companies that are doing well tend to have an overall positive vibe.
In the last few months, I’ve talked to two different startups that described one of their values as “Work hard. Play hard.” Is this really a value? Perhaps this statement actually describes the vibe at a certain moment in the life of the company. If an employee is no longer willing or able to play hard but is still producing at a high level, is this person no longer valued by the company? Working and playing hard together might be an important part of the company in the early days, but will it be a necessary component for all 300+ employees when the company has been around for 10 years?
As a leader, there are aspects of vibe that you will naturally want to try to control. However, you have to ask yourself a few 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?
If you answered, “yes” to all of the above, congratulations: you’ve just identified a new potential value. However, it can be fairly liberating to realize that the foosball table in the middle of the office is nice, but it isn’t crucial to the long-term success of the company.
I know this won’t be a popular statement, but I don’t think maintaining culture (as defined by many entrepreneurs I’ve encountered) is important. Instead, I think it critical to focus on establishing strong values early and hiring people that have aligning values. Maybe it is all just semantics on how you define culture, but I believe you shouldn’t sweat the vibe part. You’ll have an overall positive feel if you are successful and that is the only type of vibe that really matters.
If you are in Boulder, are a CTO, are into changing the way email works, and are looking for a hot young TechStars company to join, take a look at OkDidIt. They are looking to add a CTO to their team to augment one of the technical founders (who is the CEO) – the job description is up at Careers 2.0.
The skills and requirements follow:
– CS degree from a top school (or equivalent experience)
– minimum 7 years experience building real-world systems software
– proven ability to be the technical team lead
– prior startup experience as a founder or very early employee
– in love with agile development
– proficient developing on Unix-type platforms (no Windows dev experience required)
– proficient developing in Python
– experience using co-routines/Greenlets/gevent
– experience using MongoDB
– experience developing/supporting platform APIs