Alex's Tech Thoughts

Save yourself: 8 reasons you should dump a startup

My post today is on VentureBeat. It’s about figuring out when you should leave the startup you are at. 

Check it out here!

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VentureBeat Guest Post
Hardware as Software and the Business Model Revolution

Jordan Kong is an Associate at Institutional Venture Partners, a late-stage venture fund in Menlo Park. She previously studied at Columbia University, interned at several NYC tech startups, and did a two-year stint on Wall Street. Jordan blogs regularlytweets frequently, and takes photos in her spare time. 

It’s clear that hardware startups are back on the rise. Bolt, a Boston-based hardware accelerator, launched its first batch of 7 companies out of an application pool of 850. Techstars partnered with R/GA to launched a new accelerator for startups focused on “connected devices” in NYC. Today’s hardware hackers have unprecedented access to capital through platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. And, if Coin’s pre-launch sale and Pebble’s early popularity tells us anything, it’s that today’s hardware consumer is more willing than ever to be an early adopter.

The folks at True Ventures recently outlined some key drivers behind today’s hardware revolution: ubiquitous wireless infrastructure, cheaper components, better prototyping tools… the list goes on.  I’m surprised, however, that emerging hardware business models have yet to receive as much attention as they deserve.

Here’s a couple I’m particularly excited about:

  • Kiwi offers a clear hardware value proposition: a WiFi-enabled wearable multi-dimensional sensor. The company’s vision, however, lies beyond just the product offering, and is focused on creating a platform where third-party developers can create unique apps for the Kiwi Move. In the same fashion that the iOS App Store created a software ecosystem for the iPhone in the communications space, Kiwi hopes to do the same for the quantified self vertical.

  • Shapeways is an e-commerce store that sells well-designed and quirky objects. Unlike a regular e-tailer, they hold no inventory and have no supplier contracts. Instead, by sourcing raw materials and producing all the items in-house, Shapeways leverages the creativity of the crowd to offer manufacturing-as-a-service.

  • On paper, Planet Labs is a satellite company — the company’s core competency is the impressive low-cost and low-footprint satellites they’ve created. In practice, however, Planet Labs is a data company. Rather than simply selling the hardware, or selling connectivity access to the satellites, the company hopes to provide up-to-date earth imaging data that will serve “humanitarian, ecological, and commercial endeavors,” including industries such as agriculture, energy, and mining.

  • Unlike the hundreds of traditional webcam manufacturers, Dropcam treats webcams as a subscription good. In addition to their flagship WiFi-connected two-way webcams, Dropcam also offers a cloud-based video recording and storage service on a monthly subscription basis.

As Paul Graham describes, investors tend to have a “deep-seated bias against hardware.” Traditional hardware companies face many challenges when pitching to VC’s – there is often a higher capital requirement and the decision can come down to just gross margins and supply chain efficiency.

Each of the companies I’ve listed above have realized that it’s no longer enough to just deliver a beautiful and functional product – a meaningful software and/or services component is required to thrive in today’s software-eating-the-world environment. As an investor, I’m very encouraged to see hardware companies evolve this way, because while today’s infrastructure certainly makes it easier to start a hardware company, it’s ultimately an innovative business model that will set a company apart.

Disclaimer: IVP is an investor in Dropcam; views expressed are my own.

 

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Guest Post Jordan Kong
The Future of Social Connectivity: Graphs and Platforms with Mutually Beneficial Personalized Marketing

Fred Clark is the founder of workswim, a socially driven home improvement marketplace for goods and services. He is a 2010 Fellow at the Systems Biology Center New York. He has authored/ co-authored two technical papers in Human-Computer Interaction, available through the ACM Digital Library. Connect with him on Linkedin.

Ok, we have found each other on the internet; in fact, we have found almost every person that we have ever interacted with, and some that we haven’t. Now what? There must be more utility in our new-found social connectivity than looking at each other’s baby pics (not to knock parenting), or reading each other’s 140 characters. The future of social connectivity lies in applying specific information regarding said connectivity, to specific problems in which said connectivity is a key variable.

The sciences have been analyzing networks that resemble social networks for years. Take for instance, bioinformatics, deploying graph theory to model the complexity of human cells. Graph theory, in short, is the analysis of networks which contain pairwise relationships. So in the case of social networks, an “edge” exists between two people, or “nodes,” if they are “friends.” The traveling salesman problem is utilized on a variety of different networks to yield different conclusions in each case. Effectively, the problem is about optimization; given a list of cities, what is the shortest route that visits each city once and returns to the point of origin?

To solve the traveling salesman problem, within the context of a large social network, say, all consumers in America, is intractable, but if it were possible, marketers could pinpoint the precise people to target, in order to saturate the entire population with their message, for the most economical price.

This is, of course, assuming a certain amount of word-of-mouth. The essence of the traveling salesman problem is to look at the overlap in connectivity between nodes.

Marketing tech companies are popping up, building massive analytics tools; in a sense they are taking the pulse of social networks in real time. Who needs the intuition of Don Draper anymore? But the most innovative companies will not rely on this data to uncover customer sentiment; they will tailor their platforms to very specific areas utilizing existing social connectivity information. You don’t need to jump through hoops to find out what your customers think about a product or event, if by design your platform uncovers that sentiment in a way that is mutually beneficial to both the marketer and the consumer.

There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. We don’t need another Facebook, or someone to make “Facebook” for a specific industry. The “graph,” or connectivity matrix, if you will, has already been built, now the name of the game is finding innovative ways to apply this information, and to directly market to individuals, without guessing. I don’t mean by invading people’s privacy either. I am strongly opposed to gathering information on individuals. What I’m talking about is placing relevant purchasing options within natural processes.

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Guest Post fred clark
Should startups do PR?

Joel Andren has over 15 years experience in startup marketing and public relations. He was previously a co-founder at Bitcasa. His current startup, PressFriendly, is a PR automation service that is the middle ground between do-it-yourself PR and public relations agencies.

Early-stage startups tend to view public relations one of two ways. It’s often seen as the customer acquisition savior or a worthless distraction.

For most startups there are a number of reasons to do PR, but it’s important to evaluate why you are seeking press. Like all other activities it’s important to start with a business objective.

Customer Acquisition

The de facto #1 reason that most early-stage startups do PR is to gain more customers. For some startups getting tech press and then going “viral” is the totality of their marketing strategy. If only it were that simple.

Long gone are the days that a hit in TechCrunch was the path to startup success. Instead of publishing five articles a day, Techcrunch now publishes fifty. And now there’s a growing multitude of tech publications competing for eyeballs. Depending on the nature of your product, you can expect only few thousand visits from a TechCrunch article.

If customer acquisition is your PR goal, be prepared for the long haul. Build out a strategic plan with several concerted campaigns throughout the year. Be sure to look beyond tech press at trade magazines, print publications, speaking opportunities, and authored articles.

Fundraising

Fundraising is all about momentum and signal. Getting positive write-ups in tech publications can add to your story and show momentum. Positive coverage may not spawn inbound interest, but it’s a nice proof point. If you are raising, focus on publications that angels and VCs read on a regular basis.

Recruiting/Retention

Investors aren’t the only ones who look for proof points and signals. I’ve seen multiple instances where recent coverage increased the quality (and quantity) of applicants in the pipeline. The same goes for current employees, morale is improved when people recognize or comment upon their startup’s t-shirt when they go to lunch or when they’re able to post an article to their Facebook feed.

Site Candy

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Tech publications logos are ubiquitous on startup sites. They add to the cachet of the product/service and they aid conversion. Knowing that a startup appeared in The New York Times doesn’t really mean anything, but it does alleviate fears that many visitors may have with trusting a startup.

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Guest Post Joel Andren
10 Things I Learned Running a Tech Company in 2013

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Mike Salguero is the CEO and Co-Founder of CustomMade.com, a 40 person company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He writes about entrepreneurship, the Maker movement, and all things technology meets Makers. You can follow him or CustomMade @mikesalguero and @custommade.

1) Learning to let go is hard, but necessary.

As your team scales up in size, you can no longer manage everything. As the CEO, you must learn to “let go of the vine,” and let people flourish on their own. Great people do not need micromanagement; they need empowerment. Want to learn more about this? Go here.

2) A well functioning board and great investors can make a huge difference.

This year we raised an 18M round of capital from Atlas Venture, Google Ventures, Schooner Capital, and First Round Capital – that was vital for fueling ambitious projects to bolster our platform, as well as bringing on the talent we know we need to help deliver on our promise in the future. As we have grown out our team, the support of our board and investors has been absolutely critical. They are a great partner and sounding board.  When you are raising money, it is hard to remember that you are entering into a long term relationship, and you need to think carefully about the people around you.

3) A dollar raised is not a dollar earned.

We learned this lesson a long time ago, but it was underscored this year. My cofounder always says, “A dollar raised is not a dollar earned.” What does this mean? It means that when you close a big round of funding, and people start congratulating you, and financial planners start excessively contacting you, it doesn’t mean you should let it get to your head. You were given capital (often from pension funds and endowments through a VC) because you are expected to grow a company worth many more times the money deployed. Don’t forget that!

4) When people tell you to focus on what kind of culture you want to build, they really mean to determine what traits you are looking for in the people you hire.

I wish I learned this one earlier. I never understood what people meant when they asked me to describe the culture I wanted. With a minor in anthropology, I have always viewed culture as a living and breathing thing. This year, I learned that I needed to gather my senior team and write down on sticky notes the traits that made our best employees tick. Once you have established these traits, hire slowly and continue to test people against your cultural values (both at the time of hire and during the review process). Need some ideas? Our traits: Customer Obsessed, Drive and Endurance, Teamwork, and Results Driven.

5) A company’s home base is an important part of its culture.

In April of 2013, Boston experienced an extreme tragedy when bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. This is an event my wife and I attend every year and one that my employees and their families and the entire city of Boston truly love. Despite the horrors of the day, and the next day when the city was shut down, it was amazing to see how closely united my team, and our city, became in the face of such tragedy.

6) Having your entire team work at your company forever is impossible. 

My cofounder and I have always been enamored by the idea of working with a bunch of people from the inception of our company all the way through to the closing table. But emerging companies change quickly and I’ve learned that rather than trying to figure out, “How do we keep this person forever?” it is more important to answer the question, “How do we make this person’s experience at CustomMade the largest personal and career growth opportunity they have ever had?” My goal is that every single one of my employees leaves the company (if they have to leave) better off than when they started.

7) User experience is not just about your website, it’s about every touch the customer has with your brand.

Your users have multiple touch points with your brand, and you need to focus on all of them. This year, we focused a good deal of time and attention to improving our support team, empowering makers to hone their skills, interacting with customers, visiting makers in their shops, and holding multiple user tests. It has made a huge difference in our approach.

8) It means more when it’s made for you.

This one seems so simple, but it took us five years to discover. Remember getting that handmade card from a loved one on Valentine’s Day?  Didn’t that mean much more to you than the store bought one? That is a universal emotion and technology has empowered the consumer to be able to find literally anything he or she wants to have handmade.

9) There is a resurgence of makers and handmade goods in this country, and it’s not going away. Customers are demanding it.

Consumers are increasingly moving away from the mentality of shopping exclusively at big box retailers, and artisans are responding to this need. In 2013, an important question arose for the first time. Could the maker movement bring about a new American industrial revolution? I think so. Not only do customers desire more personal, meaningful products, but artisans themselves are becoming empowered to take control of their lives and become entrepreneurs simply by using their hands and following their passion.

10) The rise of the organic food movement has paved a way for makers.

The “buy local” and “buy organic” movements have fostered a renewed interest by consumers from all walks of life in understanding how the food on their table got there, and the impact that process has on the world around them. This mode of thinking about transparency in production has taught me to talk about my business in terms that resonate with the wider world. If you want to know the origins of the food on your table, what about the table itself? How was that created? Was it factory-pressed and shipped thousands of miles on an anonymous container ship? Do dozens of other people on your block have the same model from a big-box store? These questions matter, and my commitment is to provide access to the craftspeople that help average consumers buy local on every level.

 

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Guest Post Mike Salguero
Worlds Colliding: Fitness, Technology, and Charity

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Nicole Cook leads Strategic Partnerships at Dwolla, focusing on partner integrations in the government and financial institutions sectors. Prior to attending Wharton for her MBA, Nicole most recently worked in various investment and corporate banking roles at BMO Capital Markets in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. Nicole is a proud Iowa native.

I love it when worlds collide. Of late, that typically comes in the form of one friend searching my LinkedIn profile and asking me for an introduction to another connection. I find it very rewarding when the two can mutually benefit from that introduction.

In the summer of 2012 I learned of the mobile app Charity Miles, started using it immediately, and haven’t looked back. It really couldn’t have come at a better time in my life. Let me tell you how this app causes my favorite worlds to collide: fitness, technology, and charity.

Life has gotten a bit more hectic over the past two years, but there’s one thing that I don’t cut out of my schedule entirely, and that’s running. Running keeps me sane (and it’s cheaper than therapy). In addition to time constraints, I’ve been strapped for cash, and unable to make charitable donations to the degree that I previously enjoyed.

With Charity Miles, when I go for a run, walk or bike, I choose from 25 charities and a corporate sponsor will donate up to $0.25 per mile on my behalf. It’s brilliant. I get to exercise while contributing to causes that I deeply care about, simply by bringing my phone with me (which I already do to listen to music).

All I need is a cellular connection and Charity Miles tracks my navigation and mileage. At the end of a run, I accept the sponsorship and there’s a social component to share my accomplishments and contributions with others through Twitter and Facebook.  

I knew I was contributing to the charities I chose to run for each morning, but it wasn’t until September 2013 when I received a personal email from the Coordinator of Community Engagement at Pencils of Promise that it hit me: every mile truly matters as they say at Charity Miles. Whether I was running one mile or 20 miles (yes, 20 miles … I was training for my second pass at the Chicago Marathon in October 2013), I used the app. It turns out that I had been one of the top contributors to PoP through Charity Miles. As a way to say thanks, they invited me to join their NYC Marathon team. I was blown away!  

As the New Year is upon us, I would encourage anyone who walks, runs or bikes a mile or more on a fairly regular basis to download the Charity Miles app (it’s free) and make your miles count!

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Guest Post Nicole Cook
How To Get More Done

This week I’m bringing back Alex’s Tech Thoughts with a few guest posts from people in the tech industry. Next week I’ll be back with my regular posts, but I thought this would be a nice bridge. Enjoy!

James Armstead grew up developing software (12 was when I made that sweet Dragon Ball Z site), but turned Product Manager when he didn’t quite understand the reason he was building features. Now, working everyday to deliver the right features to customers in the leanest possible way. Find him on the twitters at @armsteadj1.

This may not be the post you are expecting or wanting, but it is my view of the world.

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photo from DigsDigs

"It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is." - Bill Clinton

Most company’s definition of “more” is: ‘build more features, they want things to go “faster.”’ The simple fact is when you believe your company needs a million features to be successful, it’s probably time to take a step back and re-visit your product.

Build less. Build less crap. Build value.

I have been reading (listening on Audible to) Marc Eckō’s book "Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out" which talks through his journey as an innovator. In his book, his company is broke, debt up to their ears, backs to the wall, and fighting their way out. How did they dig out? He went back to Eckō Unlimited’s core, t-shirts and sweatshirts. He didn’t try and create 10,000 new products to save his ass, they didn’t go farther into debt to get out. They fixed their core, re-structured, made better decisions, and dug deeper.

What Marc talks about in his book isn’t some random manufacturing insight we should ignore because we don’t sew t-shirts. It applies to technology in a way not many see. It is overlooked as it is so much easier to toss out a few lines of code than to do world-wide clothing manufacturing.

If your product is staggering, plateauing, underperforming, then don’t automatically jump to the next shiny thing that may save your a**. All this will do is create more code, more product, more blogs, more FAQs, more help, and MORE TO MANAGE. The more you have to manage, the less time you have to focus on what will make your company valuable.

Take a step back and understand why your core competency isn’t working. What are you doing wrong with your core product that makes it so insanely impossible for users to use?

  • Make it simpler

  • Make it faster

  • Make it cheaper

  • Make it easier to understand

  • Refine your pitch

  • Provide them value, cut the crap

  • last ditch, pivot your core.

Are you and your company having a hard time stepping back from all of the shiny features? Limit your throughput. Make the hard decisions on what will provide value, understand why it will make you money, and go do it. It will save you money while you are strengthening the core of your company. Even if that means adding Pink Polka-Dots to your house.

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Guest Post James Armstead
Five Of The Biggest Mistakes Startups Make (Guest Post On NY International)

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Today’s post is on NY International. The article is about some of the biggest mistakes startups make. 

I think it’s a pretty good piece, so check it out here.

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Guest Post Startups Lessons
Taking the Leap: From Banking to Tech

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This is the first guest post on Alex’s Tech Thoughts. It comes from a good friend, Ellen DaSilva. I met Ellen via an introduction by our mutual friend Adam Levin, formerly BD at Meebo, and now VC at Crosslink Capital. Ellen was at Barclays at the time and was looking to make a move to the tech world. She did everything right and now works at Twitter doing awesome things. Her advice here will definitely help anyone looking to move from banking to tech. You can find her blog, The World According To Ellen, here.

 

My story is not particularly original. Having attended college at the end of the decade, I knew little else than to follow the footsteps of previous graduates toward the world of investment banking. Despite my degree in literature, I was lucky enough to land one of those seemingly coveted spots in a post-recession analyst class at one of the bulge bracket banks. I was under the impression that after a few years, I would have the skills I needed to do anything. But there is very little room for creativity at these companies: stability and re-creation of work are among the most highly prized virtues in that industry. Business acumen come much later in the game.

Eventually I became disillusioned and like many of my colleagues, toiled to find opportunities that I felt would take advantage of my energy and excitement for change. And that’s when I decided that the world of tech, with an eye toward social media, would fulfill me in a way that banking would not. It wasn’t easy. It took me about 6 months of networking, flying around the country and familiarizing myself with the industry landscape, but it paid off.

Over the past year, I have spoken to countless peers, predominantly in the financial services industry, looking for a way to break into tech. Introductions come from friends, people who reach out to me via LinkedIn and everywhere in between, who think that the luster of the tech industry holds promise that makes finance seem antiquated. Here are some pieces of advice that I give to those looking to get jobs at startups or other tech companies with a background in finance.

1) Make sure you know what you want to do and and why

I speak to people from the financial services industry who say that they want to work for a “technology company” or a “startup,” but have no idea what that means. For starters, tech is a massive industry that spans many different categories.

It’s crucial to hone in on the type of company you want to work for: are you interested in education technology? Startups with fewer than 10 people? A large social media company? Know what you want and go get it, but if you’re too general, no one will believe your story.

2) Use the product, and be passionate about it

People in tech who have contributed to building a product are extremely passionate about it and only want to hire people as passionate as they are. This is likely the reason that bankers get passed up for positions in favor of those with product experience.  The best way to avoid that trap is to make sure that you are a user and really understand how the product works.

Many bankers use the excuse that because it’s blocked at work, they can’t use it. That’s no excuse! You can find time during breaks or on the weekends, and should at the very least have signed up for some of the basic features. You are extremely likely to be asked your opinion about that product in your interviews.

3) Be humble and work hard

Just because you’re a banker, doesn’t mean you know the first thing about tech. My work was with technology companies when I was in banking and I still didn’t know anything. Go in with an open mind and be prepared to be a sponge all over again.

Use the fact that you worked all of those crazy hours to your advantage. Stick with the same work ethic and you will catapult into success very quickly, plus those hours do not go unnoticed.

4) Don’t get blindsighted by the words “business development”

BD is cool – don’t get me wrong (I am obligated to say that for you, Alex), but it’s certainly not the only job one can take with a background in banking or finance. Quite frankly, a background in sales is likely more important for business development than anything else.

Use your skills to your advantage and don’t be turned off by roles that may seem to have nothing to do with your prior skillset. They come in handy eventually, trust me.  Instead of focusing on buzzwords, think critically about roles that will help you fine-tune some of the skills you want to have and allow yourself to mold the job you take rather than vice-versa.

If you have experience in the financial services industry with no background in software (or hardware) engineering, other types of jobs to consider are in corporate finance, corporate development, investor relations, analyst relations, operations, sales, or a variety of other corporate strategy-type jobs.

5) Don’t discount the benefits of working for a larger, more established company

I recently read an article about the glaring lack of HR at tech companies contributing to a “brogramming” culture. It’s easy when working at a large corporation to take for granted some of the benefits and services that a larger company can offer. Just because a 10-person company has the luster of being fresh and new, remember some of the drawbacks that come with having 9 coders and yourself in an office.

Often, the transition from banking to tech can be smoothed over by moving from one established company to another. My advice is to aim for a company with more than 300 employees to ease in.

6) Stay up-to-date on the industry

Know what’s going on in the world from a perspective that isn’t the WSJ: read blogs like TechCrunch and Mashable. One of my favorite interview questions is to ask people who don’t work in tech what companies are attractive to them at the time.  Bonus points if they can work in their understanding of finance to tell me why the company might be attractive from an investment standpoint.

7) Tap into your network

I simply would not have a job today if I didn’t take advantage of my network. Tech is not an industry in which you can submit your resume online and hope you get picked. There are probably 1,000 other qualified people who have submitted their resume to the same system. If you aren’t an engineer, you need someone to refer or vouch for you.

The best way to do this is to stay active on LinkedIn and keep your connections current. Don’t be shy about asking friends to introduce you to other people in the industry; definitely don’t be shy about reaching out to people blindly. If someone has a job you like, send him or her a message on LinkedIn or Google (or guess) his or her email address. Most people respond, despite what you might think.

Advice is free and I’m happy to offer it. Reach out to me @ellenjdasilva.

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Guest Post Ellen DaSilva Breaking In Banking