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.


90 Seconds To Life – Suprising Lessons Learned Winning A Pitch Competition

thump thump….  thump thump…..  thump thump…….  My heart rate was starting to rise.

As I looked around the room I noticed it overflowing with people.  There must have been hundreds….

Was I sure I could recall the points I wanted to make as I stood on the platform?  

Was I actually going to make sense to these people?

Feet don’t fail me now…!

SURF Incubator recently held their launch party at the offices in the Exchange building on 2nd and Marion.  It was a great night with many lasting memories, the biggest being the pitch competition.  Ten different founders each took the spotlight and had 90 seconds to pitch their startup, with the audience voting at the end for their favorite, or the one with the clearest value proposition.

Turns out I won pitching my startup, Seconds!

All the participants deserve recognition and needless to say there will be some great stuff emerging out of SURF for years to come.  But as I look back on the experience that night, a few things become clear and I felt I needed to get them out before they fade away down stream like most other good thoughts tend to do nowadays.

I discovered those 90 seconds taught me more than I ever would have thought a small collection of seconds could.  Some of the lessons were clear as day in the moment, and some took a few days to really sink in.  Here’s what I found:


Back in high school I played soccer on a team (West Valley – Yakima) and for a coach that will both go down in history as one of the best.  We were nationally ranked, in the state championship game all 4 years and won 3 of those times.  It was an amazing dynasty and a truly talented team.  Whenever I think back on that experience, one of the main things I remember is our coach would have us 1) determine and publicly state on the outset what we will accomplish that season and 2) have us memorize and repeat certain statements throughout the season.

One of those statements was “I come through when I need to” and it has stuck with me to this day.

What does that statement actually mean?  My take is it’s a commitment to deliver in the moment.  There are certain times in your life you find yourself in a binary situation.  Either I deliver on this (whatever it is) and X will happen, or I don’t deliver on this and Y will happen.  Back then it was scoring goals and winning state championships.  But today as a CEO, it could mean company existence, other people’s jobs, millions of dollars and possible notoriety in the community.   As I stood up there last week it became crystal clear the difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is simply a matter of delivering when the time calls for it.

Speak with them in mind

Whenever you are talking to a group of people it’s probably a good idea to assume they know very little.  This is not a “I’m smarter than they are” comment (trust me, that’s not the case here) but more of a generalization of the crowd.  Even at the SURF pitch event, where the average person at least knows something about technology, it’s just a fact that getting technical is not going to come across well.

In this instance, the crowd was the judge so if winning them over is the goal you must talk from their point of view.  Clearly describing how your solution benefits their life goes a lot farther than a basic technical description of the product.

To all the engineers out there, sorry to burst your bubble but most people don’t want to know HOW it works.  They want to know WHY it works.  People are naturally emotional and mostly irrational.  They are very selfish inside and want to know how things benefit THEM first and foremost.  If there is no connection within, there will be no clear value proposition to them.

I realized this is as true in a pitch competition as it is in the overall business world.  Lacking a clear value proposition – one that can be quickly understood and easily shared with others – is the death of many startups.

Have fun

I don’t know about you but I have noticed a drastic increase in pressure, speed and intensity to my life.  That might be the startup roller coaster I jumped on last year but as I look around I see it with others too.  Are our mobile devices driving us insane?  Does the habit of swiping and checking if someone has messaged us or tweeted something useful really make us happier?  I have a creeping suspicion the always on, always wired, running around needing to do this or that lifestyle is truly messing with our psyche.

For those reasons and more I have really tried to embrace the have fun mentality.  I do believe you can build a great, successful startup and still have fun.  If you see me around you will probably notice a smile on my face.  This is not by accident.  I really try to bring myself to smile, say hi to people, shake hands and see the better part of life in others.  Life is just more fun that way.

The night of the launch party and the pitch event I noticed a lot of the other participants nervous, which in reality threw them off their game.  I consciously made an effort to acknowledge my ‘fight or flight‘ response, but rather than let it get to me I embraced it.  I let it in, leveraged it to help me be more in the moment.  I used it to show my passion and deliver on point.  I actually said to myself, “Nick, look around man… this is fun!”  (OK, a few beers didn’t hurt to calm the nerves either but I digress).

It’s amazing what you can learn in just 90 seconds.  I know these life lessons will stick with me forever and hope they might make a difference in your life as well.


Introducing Seattle’s New General Assembly: SURF Incubator

As a startup founder, not too many things are more important than where you and your team will spend most of their time building you world changing, billion dollar company.  Before you receive an influx of cash and are able to have your own office space, the choices are basically 1) toughing it out in your home, 2) hopping between coffee shops or 3) spend an arm and a leg for office space in a place you really can’t afford.

Although starting a company today is quite a bit cheaper than it was 10 years ago, square foot for office space is not so much. It’s actually getting more expensive.  And it sucks, especially for a young startup that is likely pre-funding and cannot afford much more than cloud hosting.

So what to do?

Well, I’m going SURFing.  Since the beginning of the year, SURF Incubator has been quietly building a network of technology focused entrepreneurs, mentors, investors, and corporate partners. On April 30th, the SURF community will come to life when it officially launches with fifteen incubating startups.  I am proud to say Seconds is one of them, and very excited to be a part of this burgeoning startup community.  Located directly downtown Seattle, this is perfect location for startups, as it’s 5 minute walk from Pioneer square, Westlake mall and a short bus ride to South Lake Union.

SURF has also been collaborating with various corporate partners to develop a robust benefits program to aid in the growth of our young companies.  By leveraging the support of service providers and larger technology companies, SURF is able to provide opportunities that reduce the costs to start a technology company in Seattle. Bringing down the economic barriers associated with building a technology company has the potential to significantly advance the growth of Seattle’s startup community. SURF has already received applications from entrepreneurs located from Vancouver, BC to South America.

This is exactly what Seattle needed.  There are a number of places for co-working and startup office space, but none that were this neutral and spoke with the most potent vision.  Most other spaces are in connection to an accelerator, investment or other ties to companies and investors.  Not SURF.  Their vision is to provide cost effective space (over 15,000 square feet) for innovation and collaboration between tech startups and greatly impact the general startup scene.

It’s crazy because I had this idea last fall and wanted to organize a handful of startups to make it happen, which as I got further into the planning I realized it was a quite a bit larger undertaking than I had time for.

Thanks to the support of some of Seattle’s most respected technology companies and service providers, SURF Residents will not only benefit from subsidized office space, but they will also have access to a suite of free or significantly discounted services. One of the many benefits associated with building a startup at SURF are the free educational workshops provided by corporate partners – covering topics on company formation, intellectual property, fundraising, various programming languages and more.

The monthly SURF membership fee of $300/month per entrepreneur, which nicely suits early startups comprised of 2-4 founders.  They even offer evening hours (which would be 5pm on) at $200 per month.

SURF and its network partners are making it dramatically less expensive to start a technology company in Seattle.  I now know where I am spending most of my time!

Some of the other startups include:

Shopobot – tracks price changes at major online retailers. Using this data, Shopobot helps consumers get the best price on books, cameras, computers, and video games. Name your price, and we’ll alert you when it’s reached. Shop Shopping in the dark!

BBC Easy – dedicated to optimizing the commercial lending process between banks and their borrowers.

Translational Software  – simplifies the logistics of genetic testing and transforms test results into actionable guidance for doctors.  The cost of molecular diagnostics is falling precipitously but genetic tests are not useful without interpretive information.

Knotis – helps consumers discover great deals from local merchants. Customers can find personalized, location-based offers – happening in real time.