Alex's Tech Thoughts

3 Tips In Building A Successful Satellite Office

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It is very hard to build a successful satellite office. While technology is getting better there are still tons of internet/bandwidth problems when it comes to communicating with multiple offices (i.e. Skype, hangouts are delayed or buggy). I’ve run a satellite office for two companies now and while I definitely got better as time went on, it was still very hard to move at startup speed when decision makers are all across the country or world. If you do need to have a satellite office, here a few tips to make it work.

Tip #1 Over-communicate

One of the things I didn’t do that well when I was the only employee in the US for Media/And and made sure to improve when I joined Dwolla, was to over-communicate with my superiors. This meant having a shared document with our COO and writing up all meeting summaries on a daily basis. This was a lot of work but it allowed my superiors the ability to know what was up.

In BD and Partnerships things take time early on. You need to talk to prospective partners, understand their needs. Maybe you have what they want/need. Maybe you don’t. If you do, great, deals might happen quickly. If you don’t, you need to go back and build it. Then deals will begin to come in. Long story short, it is very easy for your superiors to think you aren’t making progress early on, so over-communicate as much as possible to show them that you are.

Tip #2 Have A Full Team At Each Location

If you are going to have a remote team, make sure you have a complete team at the location. This allows you to move a lot quicker than if you have pieces of your specific team (i.e. API team, Design team, etc.) spread out.

Tip #3 Travel To HQ Often

Building a company is sort of like building an army. If you want to build a good team, you need to spend copious amounts of time with the team to build a deep bond. This is why if you are a remote team member, you need to travel to the mothership for a minimum of a week every 6 weeks. It doesn’t matter what your role is at your company; spending that time in the trenches with your teammates is priceless.

One last thought: Now that I’m a founder, I think I will be very hesitant to add any satellite members to our team for a long time. It’s not that it never works, it is more that it makes your job harder, and with all the difficult things that come with startups this just stacks another odd against you.

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Thoughts On Timing

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They say timing is everything. They are right.

Timing takes a bit of skill and a bit of luck. That equation equals success. Without timing you can have all the skill but you always just miss the boat.

Timing does come a bit from skill, but is also something some people get by understanding what is available now (technologically). This leads one to understand what they can do now vs. what they can do in 5 years.

A good friend of mine is working on an enterprise startup. She is one of the brightest people I know. The current project she is working on is not her biggest passion, but she is passionate enough to make it a big success. She told me that her biggest passion, what she really wants to work on, is not yet possible. The technology is not going to be available for a few years, so in the meantime she wants to build a useful and successful company so that when the technology is available to work on her big passion, she will be in a good position to do so.

Now, not everyone can see or properly predict the future. And, who knows, maybe my friend is wrong. Maybe the technology will never come. But trying to figure out what may come and spotting trends is something you need to understand, think about, and act upon. Timing is indeed everything.

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Thoughts On Hiring A PR Agency (For Startups)

When I was doing research for my Warby Parker article for Forbes, a few weeks back, I read on Quora about how they so quickly became so popular. For their launch, they hired a PR agency and got into GQ. Then Daily Candy picked it up for their nationwide email blast and orders poured in. Not a bad bang for your buck.

Some people and writers in the startup space have negative feelings towards PR people. For writer, they think they are too much of a buffer between the writer and founder, they want direct access. For startup people, sometime they don’t think they are getting enough value for the cost (which means they should either reset their expectations or find a new PR person). While hearing some of those arguments, I think when done well a PR agency can take a company to the next level.

A good example is the well-known PR agency in NY, Brew PR. They are the go-to PR firm for startups (go-to meaning that they decide they want to work with you, which is not easy :P). They are known for many things, but especially for helping Groupme grow and sell within a year for $80M+ (on the communications and public relations side of things). They perfectly managed and delivered unique stories to different outlets, keeping Groupme in the public eye at all times. I’m actually surprised no press outlet has ever written (to my knowledge) about how influential and strategic Brew was in the execution of public relations for them. Maybe it is too late to write about it now.

Anyways, I think that if the PR agency can facilitate proper communication to outlets as well as develop and deliver a broader strategy then they are definitely worthwhile for a startup. I do, however, think that if you can, the best would be to have that killer PR/communications person in-house. It might be more costly, but if done well, can pay off in a big way.

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Alternative Ways To Network

I am a big networker. Over the past three years, I’ve gone to and ran my fair share of networking events. They are a lot of fun and I always meet interesting new people. I enjoy meeting new people. But after a certain amount of time, physical networking can take a toll. Going to three or four events a week can cause you to burn out quickly.

I’ve put together a list of a few alternative ways to network.

Start A Blog
I started a blog almost two years ago and it’s been one of the best decisions of my career. Writing can be very therapeutic, but it can also be a great way to bring your ideas to the masses. By writing four times a week, I am effectively networking with the people who read my blog. More than once a week, complete strangers in the tech space reach out to talk to and connect with me because they’ve read something on my blog. I know that if someone is reaching out because of my blog it is someone I should connect with. It most likely means they like technology, startups, biz dev, or something else that I am passionate about.

Teach A Skillshare
I’ve been teaching Skillshare classes for the past year. I have three courses, Intro I, II, and Practical Business Development & Partnerships at Startups. Not only do I make a pretty penny from teaching, I also get to meet a ton of people interested in the business development world. I’ve taught over 30 hours to over 500+ students (although there are definitely duplicates, as many took all three classes). Many of my “students” end up becoming friends/connections/deals/etc. I teach three times a month instead of going to networking events, because it is a networking event to me.

Get Active On Twitter
I’ve met some great people in the NY tech space on Twitter before meeting them in real life. Twitter, being an interest network, is a great place to connect with like-minded individuals. Get on Twitter, get active, find your people.

Get Active In The Comment Section
There are pretty awesome communities in the comment sections of some of the best blogs on the web. A few great communities are AVC.com, Fred Wilson’s blog, BothSidesOfTheTable.com, Mark Suster’s blog, Uncrunched.com, Michael Arrington’s blog, etc. Comment and contribute something meaningful. You may just find you next co-founder or investor there.

Engage and Use Early Adopting Community Platforms
I’ve had some great success with meeting new people on early stage community platforms. I think I’ve told this story before, but when Turntable was on the rise I met a guy in a music room at midnight who ended up becoming a launch partner for something we were working on at Aviary at the time. One current cool early adopting community is App.net. I’ve already met a few cool people. This is another great way to network.

All of these ideas are just ways to help you amplify everything you are already doing. I’m not advocating stopping attendance at networking events but rather to diversify how you are meeting new people.

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When Helping Too Many People Becomes A Problem

Most people in the early-stage tech space have big hearts (at least in my experience in NYC). They want to help. There is a ton of camaraderie. It is all great until you hit a tipping point. This happens when trying to help too many people at the same time. Then it becomes a problem because you become less effective to the people who you want to be helping the most. You also become spread too thin and fall behind on things you need to focus on (like your actual job!).

Many people experience it and change is needed once you feel the onset of TMHPP (too-much-helping-people-problem). I think the best cure for TMHPP is three-fold:

1)   Take fewer meetings and push out ones you have for a month or so.

2)   Give yourself a few hours one day every two weeks for office hours. I try to do this on a Friday every two weeks or so.

3)   And lastly, empower the people needing help to help themselves.

These three are pretty self-explanatory, but I want to talk about the third one for a moment. 

There is a Chinese proverb and it goes: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” 

This applies for people looking for help in this industry. Instead of catching that one fish for them, try to help them understand how to go about catching fish. This could be by pointing them in the direction to the correct readings/thought leaders, events to attend, and people to connect with.

For example, I recommend anyone looking to move into the tech space to read everything written by Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz, Fred Wilson, and Chris Dixon. Just read it all and then come back (Fred Wilson’s AVC is probably the hardest to read all, but at least read the last two years of posts). These writings will give you insight on the thought process behind some of most prolific players in the startup space. If you aren’t obsessed with startups after this, then you probably shouldn’t be working in the startup place. 

I try not to tell them what to think, but rather how to think about things. This will help them in the long run and is a repeatable process to help streamline helping for all.

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Feeling Content About Your Work and Doing Partnerships

You should never feel content while forging partnerships. You’re only as good as your last deal. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy a hard-earned deal you close, you just need to have your eyes on the next big thing that can help move forward the business-side of your company.

This is one of the reasons why business development and partnerships is not as sexy and glamorous as some people make it out to be. To be continually successful at it, is to never feel content about where the current business is. Always think about things you can do to take it to the next level.

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Startup MBAs: What Are They Good For? Absolutely Something

There is a lot written about startup MBAs. How they are worthless. How they are not worthless. More recently, Ben Horowitz wrote about how it might be time for startups to hire MBAs.

I think startup MBAs make sense for a few specific use cases and for others it would be a waste of time and money. 

When MBAs make sense:

  • You’ve worked 5 years or more in any industry that you now want to move from
  • You are looking to be tied to a ivy league school network (think Harvard, Columbia, Wharton, Stanford)
  • You want to have a senior management position at a bigger startup (50-100+ people)

When MBAs don’t make sense:

  • You want to work in early-stage companies and you want experience 
  • You can’t afford it without going into crazy debt
  • You have only worked 2-3 years in an industry that you don’t love and want to move to an early-stage company
  • It’s not a Tier 1 business school (sorry, but it’s true)

Talking about having (or getting) an MBA can be a sensitive subject in the startup world. Often people who haven’t gotten their MBA go off on current MBA students about how stupid they are for spending the money on an MBA (to their face actually; which I may or may not have participated in at one time in my life).

There are definitely benefits to having an MBA; the problem is that if you plan on staying in your industry you will be taking yourself out of the game for 2 years. That can be industry suicide. 

Bottom line: I think the best situation is if you do a part-time MBA. NYU and Columbia have pretty good programs in NYC. This way you stay in the game and get the MBA you want/need. But even the part-time MBA is sort of irrelevant for a large chunk of startup people.

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Given The Opportunity: Should You Do TechStars or YC?

There are a ton of accelerator programs out there, but in terms of name brand the top two are clearly TechStars and Y Combinator

These programs are very different from each other. Y Combinator is obviously the more successful one with multiple companies of over one billion dollar values, whereas I don’t believe TechStars has had one company over a $500 million dollar valuation (not even sure if any are over $100M, maybe Sendgrid). That being said, I think the organizations aren’t directly competing for the same type of companies to be in their respective accelerator programs. I think the makeup of the companies that should be applying to each is at quite different stages of maturation. 

My experience has been with TechStars NYC, so I’m not sure this also holds true for Boulder, Seattle, and Boston, but the most successful companies that enter TechStars are product ready and looking for biz dev/partnerships to grow the business. They have their product, probably have found product/market fit, and would like to use the TS network to take it to the next level- to accelerate their business.

In my experience, YC is the right accelerator if you are still in the product development stage. They make bets on high potential teams. Teams come in with one idea and those ideas evolve. Some companies are not even ready by demo day- but the lifetime success rate for those individuals is very high. You are typically not focused on partnerships or distribution deals- you and your team are heads down focusing on building a killer product.

While I’ve never been in either program, I do have many friends that have and this is the sense I get.

I think that both accelerators are great and amazing for the startup world. One thing I’m still waiting to see is the first company that starts off in YC for product acceleration to then go to TS for business acceleration :) :) :)

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True Colors and Motivations

There are certain events in an entrepreneurs career when things will happen that demonstrates other people’s true colors.

I remember reading a blog post (somebody find it please!) about when you are raising money you should have some sort of adverse situation to see how the prospective investor will respond to it. This will show you how they will respond when things get tough in your business (which they will).

Other situations in business where you see true colors include quitting a job, having to fire someone, and more.

When you quit a job you will see how your boss responds. Is he/she happy for you? Upset? Supportive? Their reaction and subsequent actions should be noted.

Having some sort of stress event allows you to cut through the bullshit and really know what type of person you are dealing with (and what their motivations are).

If someone could find the blog post I mentioned above, that would be awesome. 

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What To Do When Someone Asks You For A Favor That May Be Awkward For You

UPDATE: This blog post is not in response to anyone recently. This has been in the blog drafts for a few months. Just got around to writing it. This blog post is not about anyone in specific- just general.

There are times when someone asks something of you that you don’t feel comfortable doing. For me, it doesn’t happen often, but it does happens. You’re not exactly sure how to respond to the request but you do know that it is not something you’d want to do.

There are various scenarios of awkwardness: sometimes it is that you don’t know the person they want to be introduced to very well (eventhough you are somehow connected on Linkedin). Other times someone is asking you for something that is entirely inappropriate, and you are shocked that they had the guts to ask. I’ve found three main ways to deal with all type of requests.

Be Completely Honest

Whatever the situation is, there is no harm done when telling the truth. Be nice about it, but be honest. Some things you can say:

“I don’t know that person well”

“I don’t feel comfortable making the introduction” 

and even the most awkward one, “I don’t know you well so I’m not comfortable connecting you with that person”

While all of these are for when you’ve been asked for introductions- the honest truth in an uncomfortable situation can be used for any type of favor.

Ignore The Request

Ignoring the request is not ideal, but it gives you at least a few more days until you might receive a follow up. In that time you can either grow the balls to tell the truth or try to come up with an alternative solution for them.

Offer An Alternative Solution

While offering an alternative solution doesn’t always work, I’ve had some success when people ask for a specific introduction at a company. They may want to talk to X, the founder, and I’m closer with Y, the person in BD. The alternative solution should be helpful and can turn a potentially awkward situation into a win for everyone.

Editors note: The advice here is mostly for when a request comes in an email. Responding to an in-person request is obviously more difficult situation and an entirely different ballgame.


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Evangelizing Your Company

Last week I went to lunch at Gezunte Bagel on 19th street between 6th and 7th avenue. I spoke with one of the managers and told him about Dwolla. He was really interested and said he would go home and create a Dwolla account and start allowing people to pay with it. 

I told the Dwolla team at the next team meeting and our COO, Charise, told me that was how it started in Iowa. At every place they went to eat, or drink, or buy something - they asked if they could pay with Dwolla. They evangelized during every day activities.

If you are ever in Iowa and go within a 5-10 mile radius of the main office you can essentially pay with Dwolla everywhere. It’s pretty awesome.

It has inspired me to live and evangelize in a similar way in NYC. So take notice - if I eat at your store or buy something for you…. I will ask if I can pay with Dwolla :P

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Can Developers Really Be Bought Off To Build At Hackathons?

I was at TC Disrupt this past weekend and was talking to a ton of developers asking them what they were working on. It seemed like every other person I spoke with was building off of Mobli’s API. I found that a bit odd as Mobli is not super popular. I soon found out that Mobli was offering a $10,000 prize to the best use of the Mobli API. $10k is a lot of money and it all made sense- Mobli was buying off developers to use their API.

I’m singling out Mobli, but there were tons of companies giving out incentives to hack on their platform. I haven’t seen a single company give out quite as much money before, but offering prizes to use an API is nothing new. It’s a great thing for both companies and developers.

I think it will be interesting to see: 1) Will people continue to use the Mobli API once this hackathon is over? Does the big cash prize carry over post-hackathon? 2) Will anyone build anything meaningful on Mobli that lives on for more than a week or two?

Who knows, my gut tells me no, but you never know.

I guess the real question is whether developers can be bought off to build at hackathons and if this is a worthwhile route for companies to take or just a waste of money?

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Balancing Work And Love Life

Here is my latest Forbes piece: http://onforb.es/JigUPP 

Let me know your thoughts!

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Continue Thread Vs. New Thread

I’ve been thinking about proper follow-up correspondence protocol for biz dev recently. While everything ends up being situational, I thought it would be worth sharing some thoughts on the benefits of continuing a thread versus starting a new thread.

I almost always continue a thread if the correspondence has been a good flow of back and forth. Once someone responds to an email, I try to stay on the thread for as long as possible. Even if it is months apart. It makes sense to go back to an existing thread if you have had a good rapport.

I sometimes start a new thread if I am looking to discuss an entirely new subject. This just allows for a fresh conversation. Another reason I would start a new thread is if the old thread is not getting any love. This happens occasionally and I try to re-ignite accordingly.

How do you deal with continuing a thread vs. starting a new one?

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When Getting A Yes Is Actually Worse Than A No

I had a post last week about what you should do when someone says no. In the comments section someone mentioned that there are times when getting a yes is actually worse than a no. 

The comment:

Completely agreed on the insight about hearing no when trying to partner. A bit of pure sales experience at some point in someone’s career is important to learn that ‘no’ could just mean ‘not necessarily for me at this time’, and learning how to maneuver those situations.

One random point would be how to deal with a “yes” in looking for partnerships. I can’t count the times that in a meeting someone said ‘yes’, but actually completing the deal took a tremendous amount more effort (bureacracy / approvals, etc.). Just as you shouldn’t get too discouraged by a no, that initial yes should also not make you think you’re already the king. 

- ranjanxroy

I totally agree. Getting an initial yes is a great feeling, but if you don’t take the proper steps to get the partnership live then it is actually worse than getting a no. 

Once a company says yes, I like to map out the proper next steps to the promised land.

It usually comes down to three things:

What do we need to do?

What do they need to do?

What is the timeframe for both sides?

If you can map this out right after getting a yes, than you should be good to go.