entrepreneurship

The Keys To (Revelevant) Local Commerce Are Now Within Reach

So since we all now know daily deals aren’t the holy grail of local commerce, it begs the question “WHAT IS the holy grail of local commerce?”

I’ll throw in my hat and suggest a real-time product and service discovery platform within your local community would be a strong contender.  Imagine if the right information hit your mobile device just at the right time, suggesting (or urging) you to make a purchase or buy a product from a favorite merchant of yours, who happens to be right in front of you at the moment.

keysIt’ll happen.  And OfferSavvy is already treading in these waters.

I spoke with Justin Boggs, one of the OfferSavvy founders about the future of commerce, where he sees it going and how they are looking to roll out their product discovery platform.

A few years ago Boggs started to think about how Groupon, LivingSoclal and other daily deal sites were taking huge cuts from each deal sold but not adding much value to local commerce.  He thought “how do we track offline transactions, and do it better and in a more healthy way for the local economy?”

After going through Bizdom, an accelerator in Cleveland where they got advice and connections, they are now headquartered in Long Beach, CA and rolling out their first version of the product as we speak - a personalized product discovery platform with CashBack incentives on any purchases through the system.

Ideally, they aim to build out this commerce platform and offer it to brick and mortar companies to establish a full blown local product recommendation system, akin to what Amazon does on their properties.

The goal is to create something meaningful for business owners and local consumers, with cash back incentives for both if they opt for social sharing.

I sure hope they succeed, I cannot wait to get relevant deals and offers from a system that actually knows who I am, knows my interests, knows my favorite local merchants and understands my purchase history.

You can read the entire back and forth conversation below.

What is OfferSavvy?

OfferSavvy is a social commerce marketplace where people come to discover, share, collect and buy their favorite products. We incentivize social activity and reward users with CashBack Offers on Products and Social Bonuses when their social activity leads to sales. Users can elect to have their earnings deposited into their bank account or they can donate those funds to charity AND OfferSavvy will match that donation.

We believe we have figured out how to truly create social engagement around the shopping experience in a meaningful way. Most importantly, our goals are to present each user with a personalized experience and a wall of relevant offers. So with our advanced recommender technology, artificial intelligence machine learning software, graph database, and natural language processing capabilities, we can acutely monitor a users interaction with our website and people on the site, and then begin to customize the experience for each user. Thus we help people shop for fun and with purpose.

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What’s the vision?  And what problem is OfferSavvy solving?

OfferSavvy is shopping evolved. People love to window shop, score great deals, and tell their friends all about it. OfferSavvy delivers that experience in one place, and we help people earn some extra cash based on their social connectivity. Moreover, the best form of advertising is word of mouth. Big brands and marketers know this. You probably realize this too, as your friend’s opinions are more important to you than some paid advertisement.

So, we encourage our users to be social and share offers that they discover through OfferSavvy. And each track every link that is shared. Therefore, when any social activity leads to new signups and sales through OfferSavvy, we give a little Social Bonus to the user for being the catalyst to that activity. Every user now has the power to earn dollars just for being social. Plus for the millions of American’s that need their dollars to stretch just a bit further, every product on our platform has a CashBack offer attached to it, so you can find the products that you really want- and earn CashBack in the process.

Our longterm vision for OfferSavvy is to build out the commerce rails to allow any business to actively engage with us and make Offers through our platform. This will give our users a unified experience, and allow them to stay on our website rather than be redirected third party websites to buy products. In addition, we have already written card linked offer software, as a means to close the loop for offline redemption in store. So, when I am able to build out this vision, OfferSavvy will be a grand catalog of CashBack Offers, both online and offline, to your favorite brands and merchants. We will be able to serve up real time, geo-located, personalized, mobile and cardlinked offers for our users. This way we can help people earn rewards off of every transaction they make each month. If you think about all the money you spend each month, how meaningful would it be in your life to get 5-15% of that back… we can truly impact lives here, while building cool technology.

How do users discover and use OfferSavvy?

We just went live last week, so we have started contact all of our friends, family, and connections directly. So people are coming to the site mostly through a direct link to the site. In addition, the website is built on the premise of social shopping, which means that each of us spends time using the product, creating collections, and sharing products with friends through social media. This has lead to promising traffic from Pinterest and Facebook, and a couple of visits from Tumblr and Stumbleupon.  As time goes on, traffic in large part will be through natural search for products, and given are large catalog, we can compete for page rank.

What’s the story behind OfferSavvy?  Any lessons to share?

The initial thoughts and ideas were came to me a few years ago, since that time I have continue to iterate and cultivate what is now OfferSavvy. Officially, the company was started June 2012, when we got some initial seed funding.

Some things I’ve learned from building startups is that nothing happens unless you do it, and you can truly never expect anybody else to be invested in your ideas the way you are. So you really need to be passionate about what you are doing, and love working, because for the first several years, work life balances shouldn’t exist- if you want to build something truly impactful.

Another interesting thought is just how startups are a lot about “hurry up and wait”. You have this grand vision for what this thing could be, and you want it tomorrow, but come to find out that it is going to take quite some time to build such a thing.

Also, as the founder, remember that you don’t have to be the best at everything, instead try to be the maestro, and get the right and best people for each role of the orchestra.. the genius is witnessing the music as your group plays in concert, in harmony.

What is the company’s current status? (funding, beta, users)

We have raised a little over $300k in seed funding thus far. We now have a live product open for consumption, and watching intently as users begin to interact with our platform. Ideally we want to use data and user feedback to shape this into the product that people truly want to use. And we can take the evolution in development and modifications in stride as we have structured release cycles in agile development. This allows us to be nimble, and redirect development efforts quickly as users begin to tell us, and show us the right way to go. We are also looking to raise additional funding that would give us a 9-12 month run rate, so we can focus on user acquisition and engagement on the website.

What’s next?

We have some fun hacks under way as we speak that is truly ground breaking. In the next few weeks you can expect to see the release of some social products that are completely unique to OfferSavvy. One such hack will allow users to not only make comments on products or collections, but respond with hashtags.  You might say, “Hashtags” aren’t new? To which I reply, ‘what if’ every hashtag pulled the top user generated tweets & Instagram Pics in real time into the thread?  People would not only be discovering new and interesting products, but they would find additional rich social content surrounding that product.

So with a hashtag system in place you could not only read what people think or how they feel about the products, you can see the latest tweets about the product from all over the web attached to that hashtag, and you could see the most recent Instagram Pictures that people snapped with that product or brand with that hashtag. Check out our “Featured” section today to see this in action in a slightly different way, but it will give you a good idea of the direction we want to go socially.

Founders RAW: Startups Are A Lot Like Surfing

This post was originally posted on GeekWire.

Seaton Gras started a tech incubator because he wanted to help entrepreneurs more easily create companies.  He named it SURF Incubator — an acronym for Start Up Really Fast.

But If you prod a bit more and ask him about the name, he might just dive into an analogy of how startups and surfing are quite similar. SURF is a great name since founders are constantly working against resistance to get a business up and running, he says.

Bromium founder Simon Crosby brought up that same analogy during one of my recent Founders RAW conversations.

He says:

“So you’re in the waves… and you got a board.  And your board is your ‘idea’.  And one thing you quickly realize is you cannot control when the waves come.. you have no ability.  When the wave comes, you gotta get on the board and you gotta surf… and there’s reefs and other dangerous things under you.  So you cannot control time, you’re in a very precarious situation at all times… and it goes up and down a lot, sometimes several times a day.”

New startups are being created at a fever pitch — and we’re coming off Seattle Startup Week where we crawled, sang, danced, learned, lived and breathed startups. But it’s important to remember: Not everyone surfs.

And they don’t for very good reasons.

It’s dangerous.  It takes time.  It takes patience.  It takes learning the ins and outs of the environment  so you can start predicting what’s going to happen next.  It’s not as glamorous as most make it out to be, sometimes it’s cold, it’s always wet and a mouthful of salt water doesn’t usually sit too well.

See the similarities?

Let’s not forget it takes lots of hard work and dedication to build great and lasting companies.  Here’s to hoping you paid attention this last week, made some great contacts and discovered your next steps to take. I know I did.

Now, it is time to act on those next steps.  Make a promise that your excitement and energy of wanting to be a part of the startup movement doesn’t get washed away just like the “NICK WAS HERE” signature I place in the sand of every beach I visit.

Below is the short clip of the surfing analogy from my conversation with Simon.  You can catch more of Founders RAW here.

 

Who Inspires Me?

You might wonder who inspires me as an entrepreneur and a writer.

There are many, but one person is Mark Suster.  He is a previous two time entrepreneur – sold his last company to Salesforce – and is now an investor and has been with with Upfront Ventures for about 6 or 7 years.

He’s great because he views startups from both the investor AND the founder perspectives, hence he writes at Both Sides Of The Table.   His straightforward tone and no BS attitude is something I have taken to my own words.  Like him I feel truth, honesty and controversial topics should be embraced by an influencer.  Ya’ll deserve it.

To get an idea of who Mark is, here’s a recent interview with Sarah Lacy of PandoDaily.

If you are an entrepreneur I suggest sitting back and taking some notes.  It’s long, but chock full of gems.

5 Tough Questions To Ask When Starting Your Company

So, you want to start a company?

Awesome.  That’s a very exciting decision but first you must make sure it’s the right decision.

Startups are hard and have been referred to as “a full contact sport” by others so deciding to be a founder is only the right decision if you are ready and willing to except what comes with founding a startup.

Coincidently I am going through this same thinking process right now.  Even though I have started a few companies before, I find myself at the starting line once again evaluating a new “dent in the universe” idea with a fellow co-founder.  Here are five questions I am asking myself right now to help determine if it’s the right decision.  I believe they can that help you too along your path to starting your next company.

thinking-manAm I really an Entrepreneur?

Risk is the heart of entrepreneurship — which is defined as “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” Your relationship with risk is the sole determinant whether you will succeed or fail as an entrepreneur.

Are you ready to take a risk?  I encourage you to think of yourself as an entrepreneur in the adjective form, not a verb.  What do I mean?  Well, during my first startup I struggled – a lot, and for a long time – and it really bothered me because I didn’t really know why I was struggling.

Then it finally hit me.

It all changed when I re-thought what the dream actually was.  I realized my dream wasn’t about what I was working on at the time, but more about the person I was becoming in the process.  The dream is about being an entrepreneur – the adjective – not the noun.

Entrepreneur – noun.  A proprietor who owns their own business.  A title.

Entrepreneur – adjective.  A person who embodies the qualities of being Courageous. Risk Taker.  Innovative.  Persistent.  Agile.  Intelligent.  Savvy. Strong.  Personable.  Creative.  Excellent. Fighter.  Winner. 

Once I realized all I needed to do is change me perspective of who I was, everything changed.  Also, I realize being an entrepreneur was all about how I viewed and embraced the world of risk.

Fellow entrepreneur and billionaire Sir Richard Branson follows a principle called “protecting the downside,” which means that by looking at any situation and determining all options before making a decision, one can identify the worst case scenario and work backwards from there to find the optimal route forward. Protecting the downside is really just identifying and understanding risk.

So your first step is all about asking if you can handle a world full of risk.

Am I ready?

Once you determine you are cut from the entrepreneurial cloth, you must ask yourself if you are actually ready.  Is it the right time to embrace a life of high risk and high reward?

Question yourself on things like: Do I have more important responsibilities, such as family obligations, debt to repay, volunteer work, coaching youth sports, or things that require your time and energy?

The reality is startups take pretty much all of your time and energy.  They are like rockets going to space – it takes A LOT of energy to take off but based on physics it takes less energy to keep going as it gets higher and farther away from earth.

Step 2:  sideline some of these major responsibilities if you are to start a high growth company, and  then pick them back up once things really get going.

Am I passionate about the idea?

Once the commitment has been made and you believe you are ready to take the plunge, you should ask if this is something you are really interested in, passionate about, and willing to give it 5-10 years of your life.

This is somewhat of a controversial topic.  Some say founders need not be passionate about a startup, simply because only possessing passion for a subject does not guarantee success.  And I agree.  Just being fanatic and uber-excited about something is not a shoe-in for startup success.  But consider the opposite: if a person is not particularly interested in a subject and not emotionally driven to solve a particular problem in the world, will they be able to make it through the trough of sorrow?

I think not.

Step 3 requires asking yourself if you posses energy, curiosity and passion about what you are doing so you can withstand the inevitable challenges and be able to push through the hardships you will face.

Is it a big and growing market?

Startup fact: Investors are looking for home runs, not singles.

One of the biggest mistakes first time founders make is not evaluating markets correctly and picking a market with low potential for growth.  Most investors and potential acquirers evaluate startups on the recipe of future potential.  A founder who desires a successful outcome for their company should look for solutions to problems in growing markets.

What is a growing market?

Growing markets are ones with an accelerating rate of competitors, users, revenue potential, and aligned with emerging technologies/platforms.   Founders should build their solution with forward thinking perspectives on technology and societal norms.  (ie: mobile usage vs desktop usage,  network platforms vs non viral sites, portable vs non portable tech, etc…)

Even if a founder is not planning to accept outside investment and wants grow from a bootstrapped position, it still makes sense to look for market that is big and growing.

Step 4 requires one to ask themselves, “no matter the size of my ambition, am I building for tomorrow, not just today?

What are my unique gifts?

Startups are difficult and require one to utilize their unique talents and gift in ways they may have never imagined before.  When a founder starts their company, it’s important they take some time and take into account their naturally gifts.  Are you uniquely technical and have the ability to quickly whip together a simple prototype?  Or are you more social, amazing with people, a natural salesman and can easily work a room full of investors?  Are you a visionary or an operations person?

This is probably the hardest question of the bunch, but the most important because the answer to these questions will point to your next phase of the company – recruiting others.  If you are non-technical and (most likely) better with leading people, you will need to find a technical person to balance your founding team out and help you build products.   If you are highly technical and can easily hack together websites and mobile apps, you will need to find someone who is less technical but more gifted in the business and people operations.

The last step pulls you inward to understand yourself, what your talents are, and who you should look to bring on and join you in your new venture.

Asking yourself these 5 tough questions should not only help determine if this decision is a good one, but if it is the right one for you at this time.

Here’s All You Need To Know About Conducting Customer Interviews

LIFFFT, an awesome startup here in Seattle, has put together a great presentation on everything you need to know about conducting customer interviews.

Discovering your customers and the exact problems they face is something you, as a founder, cannot predict.  So you must go and talk to them directly.  Here’s how you do it.

Founders RAW: Cameron Wheeler And The Crazy World Of China Manufacturing

In a recent Founders RAW conversation I spoke with a good friend and fellow founder Cameron Wheeler.

You may be familiar with Cameron and his company as I covered his startup ZappBug earlier this year.  Yes, they manufacture ovens to kill bedbugs:

The idea was to develop a bed bug oven that could use heat to kill bed bugs in luggage and other personal belongings, saving peoples belongings in the end. “We chose to begin with this product because we had the technical competency to do it. Heat treatment is a proven way to kill bed bugs. The product could be used for both prevention and extermination and would be a great revenue generator.”

 Although Cameron is a good friend of mine, I have to say I am very impressed with him and believe he’ll be extremely successful as an entrepreneur.  In my opinion he just “has it” and you definitely sense it when you sit and chat with him.

What’s “it” you say?

A deadly combination of: Smarts.  Intelligence.  Technical know how.  Social intelligence.  Persistence.  Understanding of markets.  Knowing where to innovate.  Youth.

Go ahead and watch the conversation.  From meeting Elon Musk to spending time in China, it’s a fascinating conversation.

What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

I remember it was a rainy, cold and downright depressing winter day in Seattle. The gray skies, piecing wind and nasty looks on people’s faces didn’t help what I was dealing with at all.

That was the day I realized I didn’t know what to do.

I had worked my ass off for almost 2 years on my mobile payment startup Seconds, but too no avail.   The writing was on the wall.  Yes, we had customers and yes we even had revenue.  But no, we weren’t growing and no we weren’t able to raise money to continue forward as a team.

The thing was I didn’t know what to do.

Do I simply shut it down completely?  Quit cold-Turkey?  What about our existing customers?  What about our reputations?  What would others think if we “failed” at our startup?

I was also broke.

I had gone 15 months without pay, barely living off credit cards and other things I scrambled together.  It was terrible.  Some days I didn’t have enough money to eat.  Some days I struggled to buy a ferry ticket home and so I slept on a floor in the office.  I was riding the ferry to and from the office each day because I had no way to pay rent,  so I chose to stay with my sister and her family – an hour and half away across the sound from Seattle.   Graciously, my family and friends helped out when they could which to this day I am ever grateful.

I was definitely worried for myself, not “OMG will I ever be successful” worry but more like “holy crap, I am really on a sinking ship here.”

I didn’t want to admit I needed to jump ship before it sank, I wanted to ignore the holes and guide it to smooth waters.  Why?  Because that’s what “winners” do, right?  But I knew the holes needed patching, and meant getting another job.   I just couldn’t admit to myself the dream was over.

But I just didn’t know what to do.   Then it finally hit me.

It all changed when I re-thought what the dream actually was.  I realized my dream wasn’t about what I was working on at the time, but more about the person I was becoming in the process.  The dream is about being an entrepreneur – the adjective – not the noun.

Entrepreneur – noun.  A proprietor who owns their own business.  A title.

Entrepreneur – adjective.  A person who embodies the qualities of being Courageous. Innovative.  Persistent.  Agile.  Intelligent.  Savvy. Strong.  Personable.  Creative.  Excellent. Fighter.  Winner. 

Once I realized all I needed to do is change the horizon I was gazing towards, everything changed.  I removed myself from the echo-chamber of my head and finally understood, “YIKES, YES THIS BOAT IS SINKING AND I NEED TO GET OFF!”

So I jumped out, found something part time that would plug the hole (support me finically) and was able to live another day.  I started to understand entrepreneurship is a life-long game and to win you need to embody the adjectives, not the nouns.  Once I took that heavy financial burden off my shoulders everything started to get better, my head got clearer and my smile got wider.

I got my mojo back.

Being an entrepreneur is not a title, it’s a person.  Or a persona.   Or a set of characteristics that allow you to dig out of any shitty situation you’ll inevitably find yourself in.

When I found myself in a situation where I didn’t know what to do I simply changed my mindset, which allowed me to see the world in new ways.   Sometimes simply looking at things from a different perspective is all it takes to change your own world.

Pricing Is A Tricky Thing

6a00d8341c03bb53ef014e606f4675970c-800wiI was recently asked my thoughts on how to approach pricing digital products aimed at the local Small and Medium Business.

Actually, the exact question was:

Basically, I’m looking at how new startups decide on a pricing structure when they’re selling to SMBs. Essentially, you’ve got your product/platform/system, and you’ve pinpointed your target customers—now how do you determine how much to charge? Obviously market research is important, but what specific recommendations do you have in terms of how to pinpoint the right pricing for a new digital marketing/hyperlocal platform? 

My answer:

Pricing is a tricky thing.  Price too high and you put yourself out of business because no customers will pay that high of price for your product.  Price too low, and you run the risk of giving away too much for free and struggle to keep the doors open – again possibly going out of business. Digital or not, a startup needs to be able balance the need to generate revenue with the opportunity to attract as many customers as possible.

I think it comes down to doing a few key things really early on.  First, study the current market to determine who is offering what and at what price points.  You should be able to look at the market and see the high end/low end products and their associated prices.  You then look for the holes in the market – where’s the point where customers are paying too much for not enough value?  That’s where you can bring something highly valuable to the table at a more affordable price and undercut the market.

Second, it’s really important to determine what problems you are solving and what value you are actually providing.  If it’s just the same as others on the market then it will become a price war with competitors – which you probably don’t want since it usually is a race to zero.  Ask yourself how can you do something new and innovative that hasn’t been done before, and then you’ll have more freedom on the pricing structure.  McLean Reiter, CEO of hyperlocal startup Knotis, echo’s my thoughts.  He says “Most SMBs have less than $1,000 to spend on marketing, annually, so it needs to be affordable and if possible, monthly, to help them manage their cash flow better. So It all comes back to value – what do they get in exchange for what they are paying for. You need to price yourself according to the market and your overall objective, while also maintaining profitability.

Lastly, it’s truly impossible to determine your exact prices before you go to market and interact with customers.  Smart entrepreneurs engage with their customers early on, ask them about price points and adjust/iterate as they continue forward.  Founders should also use these customer interactions to uncover the hidden needs of customers, which becomes the real value of your product and thus helping to determine a pricing model.  People pay higher prices for things they really need and can’t get elsewhere.  And ultimately, companies should A/B test certain price points (offer variable pricing to random customers through marketing and study the results) to see which convert better and then optimize from there.  

 Pricing can be tricky.  So agree to understand you will not know what your pricing will be out of the gate, you will only learn what it should be over time.

Will AngelList Help Or Hurt Startup Fundraising?

Fall 2013 will be looked back on as the turning point in fundraising for early stage startups.   The JOBS Act, along with the acceptance of  “General Solicitation” has indeed changed the game for founders looking for startup capital.

Although changes in government regulation will have an impact on startup funding, I believe the biggest impact will come from innovations in the private sector – more specifically the Seed/Angel community.

AngelList has emerged as a black swan in the investment community and is opening up funding channels founders never dreamed of even just a few short years ago.   It allows well known entrepreneurs, advisors, and angel investors a digital network to follow startup activity and quickly jump into investment deals with new hot companies.  This makes it quite a bit easier for startups to close a round of seed funding.   The days of hitting Sand Hill road in hopes of simply getting your project off the ground are over.

And more recently, AngelList announced a new feature called Syndicates, where Angels can basically become “leads” and pool capital from other Angels (or Syndicates) to quickly create their own mini-fund.  They then use this to deploy into early stage companies on AngelList, with the transaction happening all through the AngelList platform.

I will not dive into details of Syndicates, please go here if you want a full description of how it works.  I simply want to touch on where this is going and why AngelList’s innovations are game changing to the larger startup community, for better or for worse.

The big question is how will this affect founders and the overall startup community?  Is it all good?  Or will there be unforeseen consequences which inevitably come with drastic changes?

Since I am not the expert I looked around to others and researched their take on the changes happening with Syndicates.

The innovations around AngelList are clearly going to benefit founders – namely to speed up the fundraising process.  Mark Suster believes it’s a net positive for the industry.  “The most obvious, syndicates can move faster in early-stage deals than rounding up 40 individual investors.”  Good, we don’t need to heard cattle as much anymore!

But what about for the angel investors?  Although it might be better deal flow, it seems market dynamics and economic factors are going to come into play on the investor side.  Hunter Walk sees interesting changes coming for angels, “My guess is there are also some angels who were popular when they represented a $25k check but won’t be as sought after if they try to push $300k into a round.”  The nuances here are not obvious and only time will tell if this is good for the angel community or not.

 Fred Wilson also believes this is good for founders.  “Angel List Syndicates are turning angels who have traditionally been followers into leads. That’s a good thing in many ways. The more folks who can lead a round, the better, at least for the entrepreneurs.”   But he goes even further to describe how it will force the investment community to grow and work harder.  “It also means that they will have to learn to lead and lead well. They will have to step up before anyone else does. They will have to negotiate price and terms. They will have to sit on boards. They will have to help get the next round done. Essentially they will have to work. That’s why they are getting carry from the syndicate, after all.”

So maybe it’s too early to tell how AngelList will affect the ecosystem but questions loom.

Is this actually going to flatten the playing field for all of us founders looking for seed capital?  Or is it just going to make it even easier for “highly connected” founders to close a deal even quicker than before?  You only get discovered on AngelList if you can float to the top by “trending” on the network.   What does “trending” mean on AngelList?  And how do you achieve that if you are not in in the Bay Area, in 500 Startups or a part of YCombinator?  Is AngelList inevitably the web 2.0 version of the Old Boys Club?  Or is it the fundraising mecca all of us founders have dreamed of when we say to ourselves “if only we had access to more angel investors!”

We shall see!

In the end,  AngelList is a new beast and we don’t know what the effect will be on the industry as a whole but I am fascinated with the direction things are going.  My hope – easier access to angels and seed capital for all qualified startups no matter their location.

In a recent Founders RAW conversation I asked Duxter founder Adam Lieb his thoughts on AngelList.

Great Founders Learn To Toe The Edge Without Falling Off The Cliff

19_20120115feet-cliff032That statement emerged from a conversation I was having recently with a founder friend of mine.

This individual is struggling in their current situation – not far enough along to support themselves with their endeavor but not wanting to let go (if only slightly) to do other work which would pay the bills.   They said it feels like being between a rock and a hard place, and it’s painful.  I felt it was more like a cliff.

I simply said:  “Great Founders Learn To Toe The Edge Without Falling Off The Cliff “

I know this spot really well because I was there for quite a while and I remember almost falling off more than a few times.

What I learned through the process was how to toe the line – balance on the edge if you will – without falling off the cliff.  I realized entrepreneurship is balancing the risk of great rewards with the risk of detrimental actions.

How do you know which is which and what to do when you find yourself getting weak knees as you get pushed towards the cliff?

You have to look deep inside yourself and ask “what do I gain from staying here?  Do I really only have one option, which is to stay here and not evaluate my other options?”

Notice I said “gain” not “lose”?  There’s a big difference between those two perspectives.  When you are standing on the edge looking far down the cliff, you have much to lose.  So much in fact it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what you are doing and why.  Founders face so much challenge and adversity they can easily lose their perspectives and clarity of thought.

I told my friend he needs to look inside and ask what he gains from staying there.  He needs to look out for himself first and foremost.  He needs to take care of his basic needs – be it money, food, shelter, stress relief, relationships – and only them will the company stuff  work itself out.

I said, “trust me, it won’t get any better if you don’t step away from the ledge.”

Stepping away from the ledge is exactly what I did and I am so much better for it.  Yes, I had to swallow the pill and realize my “first” attempt at building my company wasn’t going to end like I dreamed it would just a few short years ago.  But as I backed away from the ledge and got my priorities/basic needs back in order, things started happening I never thought possible.

You would be amazed what happens to your business life when you remove self inflicted pain and stress from your personal life.

It’s That Time Again! The Seattle Startup Crawl 2013 Is Happening Oct 18th At 5pm

We are kicking off this year’s Seattle Startup Week festivities with a Startup Crawl on Friday October 18th in Pioneer Square. The Seattle Startup Crawl 2013 is part of Seattle Startup Week, Oct 18th-25th (www.seattlestartupweek.org).

Here’s your chance to mix some of the best things known to man – Beer, Technology, Entrepreneurship, and Seattle – all together in the same event.  The Seattle Startup Crawl 2013 will be a great opportunity to gather together the startup community in Seattle for an evening of socializing and learning a little more about each other as well as see inside the walls of a few staple companies in the tech community.

It will be in the form of a progressive party, with each host providing their choice of snack/beverages.  We will start at approximately 5pm.

RSVP Here!

Date: Friday October 18th

Time: 5pm and later

Cost: $5.00

5pm: EnergySavvy 

159 S Jackson St‎ #420
Seattle, WA 98104
 

6pm: BlueKai

720 3rd Ave suite 2300,
Seattle, WA ‎
 

7pm: SURF Incubator/Founders RAW

821 2nd ave,
Seattle WA 98104
 

Founders RAW: Find Problems. Create Solutions. Scale Quickly

As founders sometimes we dive so far into our own product we get lost, making everything more difficult than it needs to be.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

In a recent Founders RAW conversation I sat down with Adam Lieb, founder of gaming social network Duxter.  Early on in the conversation he brought up something I thought was interesting.

Wait…  Not interesting.  Actually, it was genius.

He basically said “find a problem, create a solution, and scale quickly.  It’s that simple.”

Wow, you would think we all figure that out.  But unfortunately we don’t.

What happens is we tend to 1) under-think the problem by not taking the time to talk to the target customer, thus missing the opportunity;  2) over-think the solution we provide and convolute our concept to the point of confusion; or 3) under-think the solution by simply copying another company.

Any way you slice it, the tendency for founders to veer off course is easy and happens often.  I call what Adam said genius because I am now convinced the real geniuses in our world are the ones that can take something complex and turn it into something simple for the masses to grasp.  People part with money only for things they understand.  Everything else, to the laymen, is gibberish.

From what I gathered during my conversation with Adam, he has seemingly nailed it with Duxter.  They do a ton of customer development.  They listen to what those customers are saying.  They then zeroed in on a problem, created a simple solution and then worked to scale it quickly.

Remember founders, it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

You can find more short clips of useful conversations at Founders RAW.

Doing More Than One Thing At A Time

Should you work on more than one project/company at a time?

Is it good to wear numerous hats at once?

These are the thoughts bouncing around my head right now as I evaluate what comes next for me.  Many of you know I have a number of things going on right now – from Seconds (mobile payments) to Callin’it (the sports prediction app) to Founders RAW to my writing and to other startup ideas I have.  This doesn’t even include the work I do on a weekly basis to keep a consistent income and pay the bills.

It’s good then that I finally figured out a time structure that works for me.  Basically, just get the #^$% done is how I operate.  It doesn’t matter if it takes 30 mins or 10 hours, I just need to get the deliverables – delivered.

And it’s working.

The point of this post – and the questions I opened with – is  I think doing more than just “one thing” at a time works.  For some of us.  I recently noticed myself bouncing from one thing to another after short bursts of energy given to a particular project/company.

It seems to work for me and my personality.

Similar to a workout, I give high intensity attention the particular activity for a short time and then move on to the next thing during the day that needs attention.  During a typical day I might work on 2 or 3 different companies/projects/products but in the aggregate it seems to work.

It’s refreshing to move onto a totally different company and project right after completing a task with the first one.  For me, it means progress since I am starting to see the exponential impact these projects are having on my life.

And it’s a hell of a step in the right direction after the challenging year I had last year, where I felt stuck in the mud.

This might not be sustainable long term, as in trying to run the next big company I decide to start.  Once you have  structure, employees, and a more natural cadence to the daily efforts of the company some of my side projects might need to cool down for a while.

Then again, Virgin Group founder and billionaire Richard Branson pretty much lives the exact lifestyle I am describing above.  So I think the lesson is in finding the right cadence and level of appropriate ADD that allows you to maximize effectiveness in as many things as possible.

If that’s just one thing – great.   If it’s many, you are probably one of the few.

You Can Now Listen To Founders RAW on iTunes As A Podcast

Founders RAW can now be listened to on the go as a podcast accessed via iTunes.

At this point we are only offering full conversations, in the form of their RAW audio, as the Founders RAW podcasts.  Soon, you will be able to hear conversations with:

Itunes_podcast_icon_300Myself and Nate Martinez - co-Founders of Founders RAW

Michael Grabham - Founder of Startup Grind Seattle

Patrick Henley - Founder of AMP

John Cook - co-Founder of GeekWire

Bob Crimmins - Founder of MoonTango

Adam Lieb - Founder of Duxter

Simon Crosby - Founder of Bromium

… and all others full conversations we have going forward!

Talk To Enough Successful People And Patterns Emerge

I am truly grateful for what have the opportunity to do each and every week.

We started Founders RAW a few months ago and are almost to our 10th full conversation with entrepreneurs here in Seattle.   For those who aren’t aware, Founders RAW is a new multimedia property where we showcase videos of casual conversations with other startup founders.  When I realized I was having great conversations with my founder friends at local startup events I decided we need to record this stuff and push it out to others.  Maybe you can learn something as well.

Check it out for yourself >  Founders RAW.

I typically sit down with one person each week, grab a beer and dive deep into what it’s like to start a company.  One of the big things I have taken away thus far is how patterns emerge during these conversations.

Founders RAW behind scenes

Sitting with Simon Crosby during our Founders RAW conversation at the WTIA TechNW event in Seattle.

What do I mean by patterns?

By patterns I mean in how these founders identify the challenges they face and how they dealt with and overcame them.  Not to say all entrepreneurs experience the same things, but as I peer deeper into my conversations and read between the lines, certain characteristics or principles seem to be emerging.

The founders also seem to allude to similar experiences of company near-death and despair – yet they continued forward when all seemed lost.  So yes, no one is immune to the inevitable challenges and tough times ahead.

Benind scenes 2

Sitting with Carlos Guestrin during our conversation at the WTIA TechNW event in Seattle.

Vision

Each founder I talk with embodies a strong sense of vision – they know where they are going and what they want to accomplish.  Vision is what sets them apart from their competition and allows them to navigate changing waters when their market matures and shifts with the times.  John Cook had a vision of digital media even when he was working  as a reporter for a traditional newspaper.  Amazingly, he pitched them on rolling out a whole new concept involving the web and digital properties, only to be shot down my management.  So he left and started it himself!

We know now who had the vision and who was stuck in the past.

Strength

The founders I have spent time with all have the quality of strength, meaning they are able to endure and deal with the challenges ever-present in entrepreneurship.   Whether it be dealing with co-founder issues, standing up to advisors and investors when their business model is challenged, or when push comes to shove they determine to out innovate the competition.  Adam Lieb, founder of gaming social network Duxter, displayed a strong sense of character as he detailed out his experience raising money from angel investors.  It’s not easy for startup founders to raise money, especially here in Seattle vs down in the Valley.   The lesson I took was investors want to invest in strong, vision oriented founders, not weak leaders who will bend at any sense of difficulty.

Flexibility

Lastly, as market forces change the tech landscape founders must be flexible and change with it.  Advancements in technology are only speeding up and drastically influencing how we build our companies.  Just a handful of years ago AWS/Amazon was nowhere to be seen.  Now, because startups can now host in the cloud using services like AWS and Heroku, startup costs have dropped dramatically and thus have allowed a founder to launch a company in under $5K initial investment.   Bob Crimmins made a huge point regarding this as he spoke about what he is seeing with the TechStars companies he mentors.  “They act quickly, test frequently and iterate often.”  That is why the successful ones are growing – the lowered cost to start and grow has allowed for more/quicker iterations of web products and services.

It’s been fun thus far and I can’t wait to see what happens next.  And I think you should do this too!  No, you don’t have to record your conversations like we are but I think Mark Suster was onto something when he says you should take 50 coffee meetings this next year.

John Cook

Chatting with John Cook of GeekWire during our Founders RAW conversation.

Thinking Without Interruption

By chance have you noticed how often you are interrupted each day?

I am sure every minute or two you are dinged or buzzed with a new text message, IM, email, phone call or Facebook message.   If you are not dinged you are probably grabbing your phone incessantly and checking it yourself, thus breaking from the normal pattern of thought.

In a one word, it’s annoying.  I know life has to continue and we need to communicate with each other but the ever increasing pace of interruptions is definitely becoming more obvious.

I wonder if this Is this good or bad for us humans.

I recently read how Paul graham viewed this phenomenon, as he tied it into the larger addiction conversation.  He ends by saying:

I used to think running was a better form of exercise than hiking because it took less time. Now the slowness of hiking seems an advantage, because the longer I spend on the trail, the longer I have to think without interruption.

…We’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to.

photo 2

I fully agree.

I recently went on a weekend excursion into the Cascades with a group of friends, spending 3 days with my hiking boots, pack and tent.  We hiked 10 miles into glacier lake and set camp for two nights,  We hiked a total of 26 miles in 3 days – all without checking our phones once!

It was refreshing.

I believe we need to schedule into our lives a few days/weeks every so often to be off the grid, just so we can remember what it’s like to not be interrupted every few minutes.   And just so we can be taken back to what a long, winding and challenging conversation with another person feels like without grabbing a device a solving the argument by “googling” the answer. I cannot tell you how great it was to be on the trail, talking with my friends about anything and everything we wanted, without interruption or having to pause because one of us was responding to a text or grabbing a quick phone call.

Remember, technology is there to augment our real world relationships, not replace them.  The nuance is in how we gracefully use technology to enhance our world, not negatively impact it. I was beautifully reminded this on my weekend backpacking trip and then again today as I read Paul Grahams words.

Do yourself a favor and plan off-grid experiences, your health and sanity will thank you later.

photo 1

photo 3

Who Are You?

“The time to worry about your reputation is before you have one.”

What a great thought.  I ran across this the other day and felt it hits on exactly what I have been thinking lately.

If you want to be thought of as a solid, reliable pillar of your community when you’re fifty, you can’t be an irresponsible, corner-cutting exploiter at twenty-five. . . . The time to worry about your reputation is before you have one. You determine your reputation by deciding who and what you are and by keeping that lofty vision of yourself in mind, even when you’re having a rip-roaring good time.

These thoughts /words might make you uncomfortable but if you don’t pay attention to them they just might hinder progress in your life..  Thinking about your personal reputation is not selfish or self-serving, since in reality it’s all about how you come off to others.  In the end, your reputation is centered around how others perceive you.

Although not frequently talked about, people tend to want to be around – and trust- others they like.  The reason people “like” others is because that person puts them at ease and makes them feel better (safe) when they are around them.  The easiest way to get others to like you is to be honest, authentic and caring.  Simple enough, right?

So who are you?

What function or place do you hold in your greater community?

Can people count on you?

Do people actually like you?

Do your stories line up when talking to others?

How do you treat people?

Are you honest with people?

Do you really care about them?

Do you look them in the eye when you talk with them, and listen intently?

Would they call you on the phone (not just text) when they need some advice?

Would they want to work with you or approach you about a new project?

I have recently become more aware that treating people with honest, authentic respect goes a long way to gain new friends and acquaintances – and success in business.  The secret to people liking you is to simply like them first.  Re-reading those last few sentences at face value,  it seems blasphemous.  But unfortunately I have come to realize lots of people don’t actually go about life interacting with others with these principles in mind.  I hope that changes.

Just a few things to consider over the weekend as you go about your life.

Fear – It’s Just Part Of The Process

If you are a founder – or thinking about starting your own company – a really important lesson is to realize fear will always be present with you.  There’s no way around it.

You will question your ability.

You will wonder what is going to happen to your company tomorrow.

You will be scared to talk to investors, customers and potential new hires.

You will be worried as to what the media will write about you and your idea.

All this will be there, don’t fool yourself otherwise.  The best thing for an entrepreneur to do is come to grips with the fact that your fears will persist.  The next best thing to do is to find ways to deal with those fears, and to grow through them.  Finding advisors, talk with other CEO’s or founders, reading others thoughts about starting companies.  All these things help us get through the challenging times of starting our companies.

Or go to Founders RAW and watch what others are saying!

Pedigree Is BS, You Must Work Harder And Smarter

I read an interesting article about Silicon Valley and its everlasting issue with founder bloodline/pedigree and their increased likelihood of success.

Indeed, the notion that anyone with smarts, drive and a great idea can raise money and start a company is a central tenet of the Valley’s ethos.

Yet on close inspection, the evidence suggests that the keys to success in the start-up world are not much different than those of many other elite professions. A prestigious degree, a proven track record and personal connections to power-brokers are at least as important as a great idea. Scrappy unknowns with a suitcase and a dream are the exceptions, not the rule.

Do I disagree with the general theme of the article?  NOPE.  Actually, it’s pretty much what I have been saying for quite some time now.  In fact, one could point to my clear lack of “pedigree” as a reason why I wasn’t able to secure seed capital for my startup Seconds, leading to Startup Death Valley.

But that is not what want to cover here.  There’s no reason to complain about the pedigree issue at hand – it makes logical sense just as breeders/gamblers look for strong bloodlines in horse racing.   Venture Capitalists are basically gamblers, and they will indeed bet on the person who has a leg up on the competition.  “He comes from money so he can support himself during the early times while they are working on the product.”  “He’s more connected so he’ll have an easier time attracting talent.”   He worked at Google!”

It all just makes sense.

Today I want to talk about what the other 95% of us out there need to do in the face of these realities.

Pedigree is BS.  If you are sitting here today with a less-than-steller history,  you cannot do anything about it now.  What’s done is done and you drew the short end of the lucky sperm club stick (whatever that may be…)

So forget about it.  Life is not fair and we all need to get used to it.

Yes, the pretty girls get asked out more often.  The good looking guy with nice hair and muscles gets the girls.  AND the Stanford grad that happened to get hired at Google has a better chance at raising money and attracting talented developers than you or me.

everest

So what to do?

You need to get to work.  You need to work harder than others.  You need to work smarter than others.  You need to GO AND DO SOMETHING so that you IMPROVE your pedigree.

The thing about “pedigree” is it’s fluid.  It can change based on your performance in life.  You are not a predetermined soul in this world, destined to one outcome or another.  Existential and uber-religious arguments notwithstanding, you are free to make your own decisions and completely change your “pedigree” in life.  You can climb up into other classes/pedigrees.

I am sure you think pretty highly of someone like  JK Rowling, who is responsible for the Harry Potter series and now worth almost a $1 billion.  But, you may or may not know she came from modest means and actually struggled mightily in adulthood.  From wikipedia:

Seven years after graduating from university, Rowling saw herself as “the biggest failure I knew”.  Her marriage had failed, she was jobless with a dependent child, but she described her failure as liberating:
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

During this period Rowling was diagnosed with clinical depression, and contemplated suicide.  It was the feeling of her illness which brought her the idea of Dementors, soul-sucking creatures introduced in the third book.  Rowling signed up for welfare benefits, describing her economic status as being “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless”

Surely you know the rest of her story.

Pedigree is BS.  You simply must work harder and smarter than others if you want respect and the attention from important people.  You need to be willing to do what others aren’t will to do or haven’t even thought of yet.

1) If you don’t know anyone, make it a habit to get out and meet people.  Go to events, shake hands, book meetings often, and generally do good things for people.  They will start to know you better.

2) If you aren’t known for anything, START SOMETHING.  Also, start writing or creating media of some sort and start pushing it out on social platforms.  Trust me, if it’s unique and good in any way people will pay attention and start recognizing you.

3) If you aren’t from family money, BE GLAD.  The bulls-eye is not on your back.  Use this to your advantage and be stealthy in what you do.  And when YOU DO SOMETHING, you will come out of nowhere and surprise people.  Then they will start looking you up on LinkedIn and want to connect with you.  You will be the next “up and comer”.

4) Embrace a work ethic.  Since you don’t have a solid “pedigree” behind you, you will need to instill a strong work ethic into your life which will pay dividends later in life.   A strong work ethic is one of the best attributes you can have in life, and not being born into silver spoons allows you to develop it and take ownership of it as you mature into adulthood.

I recently read where Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList, said something to the extent of “build for the longterm, no one really understands what the compounding effects of 10-20-30 years will do to a business and a career.”  Well said. I believe NOT coming from means plays into ones advantage because they are not part of the  “rich and lazy” bunch and thus will continue to work hard once they summit the first big mountain of success in their life.

Now put your boots back on, grab your ice pick and keep working.

Image courtesy of Flick chriscom.

Don’t Emulate Steve Jobs, His Lesson Is All About ‘Finding’ Yourself

Michael Arrington interviewed Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff recently at TechCrunch Disrupt.  It’s a great conversation, including a few touching stories about Marc’s relationship with Steve Jobs.  You should watch the entire conversation if you have a chance, there’s some truly wise observations from Benioff.

But what emerges is one of the best things I have ever heard regarding Steve Jobs.  Marc describes how we shouldn’t look at Jobs as an example of leading by being an asshole, visionary or anything like that, but in understanding Steve Jobs showed us the way through self actualization.

Actualize Yourself.  Look at the world from the inside out.”  Benioff says Jobs was successful because he was not afraid to take the journey towards self actualization.  “We all need to all be working on actualizing ourselves.”