They say timing is everything. For specific roles at startups, they would be correct.
I’ve noticed that a big piece of whether someone is a good fit at a startup depends on the timing of their hiring. Sometimes companies are not ready for specific roles. This makes sense. But also, one person could be saying something really smart for a long time, make no progress, leave or be let go and then someone else can come along say the same things but this time action is taken. I’ve seen it happen time and time again at a range of startups and it just seems that is the way things are.
Hiring at startups goes hand and hand with success. If you make the wrong hire it will kill your company or at least slow it down a handful of months (the process of hiring, bringing up-to-speed, firing, finding someone new, bringing up-to-speed, etc., is a long one).Bottom line: Startup hiring is tough. Timing is a big piece of the process and if you aware of it, you can use it to your advantage (i.e. not hiring roles too early, etc).
Now that I’m a founder, I have put some thought into bringing on official advisors to help the company. Michael and I are clearly not experts in many parts of company-building and having a few good people help out is tantamount to success.
At the same time I’m in the middle of becoming an official advisor to one or two companies and have some thoughts on that.
1) Don’t have too many advisors
Too many cooks in the kitchen syndrome can happen very quickly when having too many advisors. If you have a lot of advisors, make sure they each help you with one specific task (i.e. press, fund-raising, product, design, clients, etc.) and that is all.
2) Make sure they prove themselves first
If you have one or two conversations with someone you want to bring on as an advisor and they haven’t done anything to help your company, hold off from making them an official advisors. Wait till they actually help you with whatever their specialty is. Be very upfront about the fact that you want to start dating before you get married (euphemism) and if they have a problem with that, then they probably won’t be very good advisors.
3) Advisor compensation
From friends I’ve heard that 0.1-0.25% in terms of stock options is appropriate for an advisor. I’ve also heard that you should give someone as much as you want them to be involved (this can go from 0.5-1%). If someone is looking to be your advisor and wants 5% of your company, don’t do it, they clearly are out of touch with proper advisor grants.
4) On becoming an advisor
There are two companies I’m helping out more than the just occasional intro or product feedback. I don’t think I have enough time to help any more than one or two companies at this time. The two companies need help in understanding and executing on building out a killer API platform strategy (something I’ve done for the past four years at Dwolla and Aviary). I’m at the stage with them right now that I am just trying to show value by helping them with hiring, raising, product, partners, etc.
All of these points are simple and maybe even obvious. I think they are important things to stop and think about when becoming an advisor or bringing on an advisor to your company.
I spent most of last week in SF. I enjoy visiting. I get to see friends, meet with other tech people, and generally have a good time.
I have been to SF a handful of times in the past few years and developed some thoughts on the main difference between the SF tech ecosystem and the NY tech ecosystem.
I think both are great, but at very different stages in their maturation. If the SF tech space is in the bottom of the 5th inning (of a metaphorical ballgame) then the NY tech ecosystem is in the 2nd inning. This means not all of the batters have gotten up and there is still a huge opportunity for a player to emerge (i.e. a startup or individual).
When you spend time in SF, everyone around you is in tech. The billboards are about tech companies or startups. The conversations overheard at coffee shops is about the cool new app they are working on. Whereas in NY, save a seamless, venmo (shout out to Lucas) or Oscar Health ad in the subway, the billboards are major brands. If you go to certain restaurants you’ll overhear people talking about apps, but usually not ones they are working on. Mostly the city is filled with more than struggling entrepreneurs; it is struggling artists, Wall Streeters, and more.
The bottom line between SF and NY, in my opinion, is that if you are part of the NY tech scene you have a unique opportunity right now. It is a chance that you can be one of the first batters. In baseball you have 9 innings. If no one gets on base, it takes about 3 innings for every batter (9) to bat. If NY tech is really in the 2nd inning, we still have at least 1 inning for some of the best and brightest to bat. What I mean by all of this is that if you start a company or get involved in the tech scene in NY right now you can still be one of the biggest players in the NY tech scene. Whereas in SF, unless you build the next Airbnb, Dropbox, or $10B+ company, the bigger company executives and founders generally won’t take major notice of you.
NY tech is in a really interesting inflection point and I’m excited that I’m building a company in NY right now.
"The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint. The greats were great cause they paint a lot."
- Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – Ten Thousand Hours
I love this song. I love this line. It is also very true. To become the best, to become great, you need to do whatever it is you want to be the best/greatest at, a lot. It needs to be on your mind 24/7. Every waking hour you need to focus your attention on becoming the best. It is not easy and this applies to all fields and all types of work.
Whether you are an athlete, programmer, rapper, or something else, becoming the best is no easy feat. It requires 10,000 foul shots, 10,000 pitches, 10,000 verses spit. And even then you may never see greatness, you may never become the best.
The Ten Thousands Hours song is a good reminder that people are rarely born with greatness but rather need to work hard to achieve it.
There are generally two schools of thought regarding timing when approaching companies for partnerships. One is that you can go whenever and just make sure you communicate effectively. The other is that you only have one shot and should only go when you are ready.
I think both make sense, but it depends on your relationship with the person on the other side. There are times when I go to a prospective partner early on and use those meetings to better understand what they really want. There are other times when I hold off going and only approach when fully ready to engage.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For example, there was a big brand we almost had for the launch of SocialRank. We were missing a key feature and didn’t have time to include so we lost the partner for launch. We have since added the feature but the partner has yet to re-engage with us (after a few back and forths). Going early sometimes works against you.
I think there is one last thing to remember when approaching a potential partner too early. Sometimes when you get a warm introduction from a friend to a prospective partner you can forget that the person you get connected to isn’t that close friend. Some people only give you one shot, so be wary of falling into the trap of thinking someone is closer to you than they really are and plan accordingly.
I went to breakfast with a friend last week and we got to talking about product and company launches.
One of the things we agreed on was that if you do a blowout launch, or what we called “The Blitz,” it can be the best thing or the worst thing for your company. The Blitz is basically doing press everywhere (usually with someone like a NYT or WSJ leading the charge. Think of a company like Brewster’s launch).
If you do it right it can turn you into the leader in your business space overnight. But if you do it wrong, it can be deadly for your startup.
I have a few companies in mind that have done it right and some that have done it wrong. The point of this post is: you need to consider carefully whether you want to perform the blitz when you launch (and anyone can do this either by themselves or by hiring a PR agency). It may be to your own detriment.
Last week I wrote a post about Startup Options and how there are a lot of things startups don’t tell you about getting stock options. One of the things that stuck out for a few people who emailed me was the last paragraph:
“I’ve been thinking about startup hiring and how it is mostly selling the dream, but also moderately a very misleading situation. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard friends and colleagues say that they joined a company to find out things are not as they seem. Growth is not what the management was saying in the interview, a pivot is in the works, and much more.”
I have thought a bit more about due diligence when joining a company. I think there is an unspoken piece about joining venture-backed startups and that is that if they have raised money from top investors things must be going amazingly. This is hardly the truth. After being around the early-stage startup world for the past 6 years, I’ve found that just because a top-tier investment fund has invested in a company does not mean they are doing well in any capacity (this is not company-specific, but a generality).
Some of the best investors strike out big all the time. You have no idea what was pitched to the investors and how things have changed from the time of investment to the time you decide to come onboard. This is why you need to do your own due diligence when joining a company (and not rely on public signals that may be outdated). This means asking hard questions. If the question is too hard for a company to answer or if they won’t share certain information (when late in the stages of considering employment), you need to reconsider whether you should be joining the company.
The Due Diligence Farce is real and I think one of biggest reasons why there is employee turnover at startups.
I’ve been writing a post every few months about a few companies I am excited about. Sometimes they are new. Sometimes they are not (but I have only recently started using). If you haven’t seen Part I, Part II, Part III or Part IV you should check them out.
Boxed: I heard about Boxed a few months back, I think through my mom (which is always a good sign for a startup). Boxed is a simple mobile app that lets you order wholesale from your mobile phone. It is basically Costco for your phone. I have heard good things and my wife and I are starting to use it.
Hotel Tonight: I’ve known about Hotel Tonight for some time but I am about to use it for the first time when I go to LA next week. I’ve been playing with it and the discounts and prices look awesome. I’m not worried to have no place to sleep in LA until the morning of. I think Hotel Tonight is a genius concept and hope it does well as a company.
Charlie: I met the founders of Charlie a few months ago. They are building a really simple product to help people prepare for meetings. You sign up for Charlie, they pull in your calendar and you get an email with key things you should know about the people you will be meeting each day. They are still in beta, but I’m excited about what they plan to put out soon.
EnagageInbox: Still in beta but EngageInbox is simple deep linking in emails. Allowing users to choose items and checkout all in your email. I think if they build a killer API, I don’t know a company that wouldn’t add it as a way to increase conversion.
Product Hunt: Not a new product, but Ryan Hoover is doing some really good things with Product Hunt, a daily leaderboard of the best new products. I can see it becoming a Hacker News-like site, specifically focused on products. If you launch a new product and don’t put it on Product Hunt, you are doing it wrong.
Startup stock options are confusing on purpose. It is in the company’s best interest for you not to understand a) how much they are worth b) what it really means to get stock options c) how to actually make money on them, and everything in between. It is in their best interest for you to forfeit potential salary in the hopes of landing a golden ticket to Google/Facebook/Twitter IPO-land. Employees usually don’t know that they will need to buy their options if they leave a company and that cashless exercise is few and far between. That you have to pay AMT taxes on paper gains, even though you have outlayed money to buy them and have not seen any real profit, because there is little to no liquidity in the private markets.
It’s not any company to blame, their goal is to get good talent in the door and tell the talent that their stock may someday be worth 10-30x what it is worth today. And you can get some of that if you can accept a salary 5-10k lower than what you need to live comfortably.
Now that I’m a founder and looking at hiring in the next few months, I’m thinking about these things. I want to do good by my future employees, but also want to be smart about things (from a company level). I’ve been thinking about startup hiring and how it is mostly selling the dream, but also moderately a very misleading situation. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard friends and colleagues say that they joined a company to find out things are not as they seem. Growth is not what the management was saying in the interview, a pivot is in the works, and much more.
I don’t have any answers for this right now, but what I do know is that ESOP (employee stock option plan) needs some disruption.
It has been a month since we launched SocialRank. It’s been a wild month and I wouldn’t change it for the world. While things are looking really good, we have definitely made some mistakes along the way. Here are a few (which we’ve since fixed):
1) Not explaining certain terms well.
One of the biggest questions we received when we launched was what does ___ mean? The ___ was Most Valuable Follower (MVF), Most Engaged Follower (MEF), and Best Follower (BF). We had a definition but it was hidden in a little “i” button (i for information), which was nearly impossible to see.
A good friend said that we should make it painfully obvious what each thing means. So we decided to put it in plain text above each section. Now when you go into each section (MVF, MEF, BF), it tells you exactly what it means and what you might be able to do with the information.
2) Not capturing all emails
Michael and I wanted the most smooth experience possible when logging into SocialRank. We followed the Minimal Homepage Theory, which is getting your users to come in and do one thing only. This was to log in via Twitter. While your report was being generated we allowed users to put their email address in. But if your report went very quickly, you wouldn’t have enough time to type out your email address.
Anyways, this meant that we didn’t get emails for each user. We got for most, but we definitely missed some. Being on Twitter allowed us to be able to DM or tweet at them from our notification account, but it was still a major mistake. We now ask users to finish their account and enter their email address (and have been working on ways to get the people we missed).
3) Not optimizing upgrade to premium
When we launched SocialRank we did not optimize the conversion to premium. The premium page was a mess with a very confusing layout and spelling mistakes. We also only had Monthly billing, not including a yearly option at a discount at launch. It’s amazing that a bunch of brands actually upgraded, not because of the product, it is well worth less than $1 a day, but more because it was just all over the place.
We have since fixed things, showing what you get by upgrading very clearly, monthly + yearly options and just generally a more coherent premium page. It still needs a bunch of work, but the conversion is much better.
This post isn’t supposed to show that we’ve fixed every issue that we have at SocialRank. There is a lot to do in terms of improvements and advancements. It is more to just show that nothing goes perfect when launching a product. You need to continue to focus to make it better if you want to take your product and company anywhere. We are happy to have the opportunity to do so.
I’ve been thinking about serendipity for the past few days. Maybe it is coming home from SXSW, the most serendipitous event in tech. Maybe it is this tweet I saw from @semil a week ago:
Q: In a work context or your career, what’s been the most serendipitous thing that’s happened to you?— Semil (@semil)March 5, 2014
But serendipity is real and putting yourself in a position for good things to happen is a form of serendipity.
I’ve had my share of serendipitous moments, but I think one set my current professional path in order. So here is my story of serendipity.
In 2010 I was working for an Israel-based startup called Media/And. I had graduated in 2009 and was running US operations for this startup. I was fairly sure I was ready to move on and was silently looking for the next thing to do. I went to a conference called the #140conf run by Jeff Pulver at the 92Y. During lunch I went across the street to a kosher pizza restaurant. I sat down next to a girl who looked like she was at the conference. She wasn’t at the conference but her name sounded familiar. Her last name was Koyfman and I asked if she knew Mo Koyfman from Spark Capital (who I had met once or twice before in the scene). She said he was her brother. Small world.
Flash forward a week or so later I had made the decision that it was time to move on and I reached out to 2 or 3 people that I thought could help me find a good role as a junior BD person. My chance meeting with Mo’s sister led me to reach out to him to see if he had any companies in his portfolio that might be a match.
This was his response:
The rest is history…
What’s your serendipitous story?
Michael and I both became our own bosses on January 11th when we started our own business. Being a boss has its ups and downs. Lots of responsibilities but also lots of freedom. I think there is one major pro and one major con to being your own boss, and they are the same thing.
You control your own destiny.
As hard and smart as you work will be as far as you go. There are other factors, and you will need a little luck, but most things are in your control.
You control your own destiny.
If you need some downtime (like a vacation), it will impact your job and output. Your livelihood is at stake and that can be a scary thing (which in turn might make you run yourself into the ground over-working yourself).
The best and worst thing about starting and running your own business (with no employees) is just the different side of the same coin.
It is common to call the monthly progress of a startup the heartbeat of your company. What this means is that every month you want that “beep boop” sound that continues to push your product/mission/vision forward.
Usually this consists of a combination of growth, new feature/product releases, press, and fundraising, some public and some private. For Michael and I at SocialRank, we are already working on some of the biggest features that brands have been asking for to release in the next few weeks.
Keeping that heartbeat drumming is paramount to your company and traction.
Anything you ever do publicly will lead people to give feedback, whether solicited or unsolicited. Feedback is great. It makes you better and stronger. But feedback can also slow you down and make you second guess everything you are doing.
I think there is a good balance of digesting feedback from a variety of people and trying to filter by the source of feedback. For example, there is a big difference between getting feedback from a paying customer and a friend or investor that thinks you should add X, Y, and Z.
There is a quote, I’m not sure from where, that goes something like ‘every startup founder should listen to everyone and no one at the same time.’ To me this means you should stick to your convictions about where to go with your business but listen to everyone and cherry-pick things you think will help it improve.