How I Spent My Summer Vacation

My summer has circled around serendipity and three presentations I’ve given.

Full Circle from Yosemite
Nine years ago I took my young daughters on a 7-day pack trip riding mules at 10,000 feet to the Yosemite High-Sierra camps. Granite mountains and alpine green meadows during the day, unblinking stars in the frigid August nights. At a campsite almost two miles high our daughters adopted a young couple, and over the campfire I found out they were Stanford MBA’s and entrepreneurs. Instead of ghost stories they were the first to hear the ideas of what would become Customer Development.

Fast forward to today. One of those students, Shawn Carolan, is now a partner at Menlo Ventures. When we were looking for funding for IMVU (the company where Eric Ries first implemented Customer and Agile Development and where the Lean Startup was born,) I thought of Shawn. He became the first venture investor and “present at the creation.” If you’re doing Customer Development/Lean Startup, Shawn is a great guy to have as an investor.  He’s lived it and gets it.

Recently, Shawn invited me to share the Customer Development story at Menlo Ventures annual CEO conference.

(I’ll show you the slides a bit later in this post.)

Let’s Get Together Every 15 Years
About a month ago I got a phone call from Alan Patricof of Greycroft Partners who saw the article about Lean Startups in the NY Times and invited me to talk at their CEO conference. After a few minutes on the phone, Alan and I realized that we had met 15 years ago when his firm looked at investing in my last startup, E.piphany.

It’s kind of hard not to know who Alan Patricof is. He built APAX Partners into one of the largest VC firms on the East Coast and in Europe. He started a new venture firm when he realized that that the rules had changed for the venture business – VC’s could no longer expect the same kind of returns they got in the past through an IPO. Instead, he realized that most VC-backed startups would exit through a merger or acquisition- at a sale price of $20 to $100 million.

One of the benefits of speaking at this conference was getting to know VC’s on the east coast and LA. The Greycroft team and Mark Suster of GRP Partners provided lots of local color. (Mark had an amusing summary of the conference here.  Mark is the guy I would call if I was doing a deal in LA and his blog should be on your reading list.)

You are Here
When I was in a startup, I remember being so focused on my daily tasks of getting customers and running the business that I had no time to consider “why” I was doing what I was doing. I had even less time to consider how to differentiate what were the right things to do in startup versus a larger company. The talk I gave to the startup CEO’s at both Menlo Ventures and Greycroft Partners was a big picture perspective about how startups differ from large companies and where customer and agile development fit. The talk integrated a series of posts I’ve written since the beginning of 2010: “What is entrepreneurship? The Four types of entrepreneurial organizationsInnovation and entrepreneurship in large companies and The role Pivots play in Customer Development.

18-Hour Flight for a 45 Minute Talk
Truth be told, I went to NY for the Greycroft conference because I was already heading east to Tel Aviv for a 45 minute talk. While flying 18 hours to give a 45-minute talk might not seem rational, in fact it provided the rationale to visit a part of the world my wife and I had never seen. I turned the 45-minute invitation into a three week trip. New York to Cairo, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Luxor, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tiberias and Jerusalem.

As a country, Israel has the highest ratio of scalable startups per capita. A high percentage of Israeli startups are founded by entrepreneurs who served in Unit 8200 and military intelligence. They are agile, resourceful and aggressive. In the dot-com bubble Israel had more technology companies listed on the NASDQ exchange than all of Europe. Today Israeli companies solve technology problems then typically sell out to a larger U.S. firm.

While this is an enviable track record, my talk observed that solving just the technology problems and selling out meant that Israeli companies did not become adept at understanding customer needs. (And in Israel you can’t just get out of the building to understand customers, you need to get out of the country.) Given the current Israeli economic and venture climate having great technology is no longer enough. I observed that this may be the time for Israel to take entrepreneurship to the next step and teach their startups the skills needed to grow from flipping technology startups to building enduring companies.

I used the metaphor of fighter pilots (who have to constantly adapt in real-time) versus military intelligence (who have time to analyze and debate the right answer.) John Boyd of OODA Loop fame got a starring role in the talk.

It went over like a lead balloon.

(Slides 43-49 and 81-89 are the ones that differ from the Greycroft presentation.)

BTW, the schedule of my future talks are now on Plancast.

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6 Responses

  1. Glad your summer world tour went well Steve. I’ll sort through your slide decks when I have time later this week.

    Enjoyed your hiking story of meeting Shawn, and how he later invested in Eric Ries at IMVU. You’ve built a wonderful network of friends and associates. That alone is incredible.

    Sorry to hear about the Tel Aviv talk sinking, hehe. You can’t please all the people all the time.

  2. Lol. Any idea why the story went down so badly? You’d assume it would have worked perfectly… Weird!

  3. Steve…I also go to the past to link to the future…amazing story and contents! My next SVST is on the way to start: I guess when you will have 1 hour for our group of 20 grads and undergrads of 5 Italian Universities. We will be in Stanford August 23 in the morning but we can be there also late afternoon, and in Berkeley August 25 , afternoon, by Alberto Sangiovanni Vincentelli ( founder of Cadence and Synopsis, he doesn’t know you, you have to meet! ) Could one of these 2 days comfortable for you??….moreover I have to involve you in our Int School of E. in Torino Politechnic ( feb- june 2011)…i think we have to talk ( my Skype paolomarenco)

  4. feedback on your book:

    1. Great.

    2. New market concept could be explained a bit more. The chart in innovators… made a good job in explaining that a product can be partly in a new market and partly in existing etc.

    3. Use more “internet ventures” as examples. Selling software to big companies, one at a time is a bit boring. Maybe more fun for old people.

    4. More info on how to measure product/market fit.

    5. If I could repeat the message in your book, in one sentence, I would say “run your start up like a tight poker player. Only bet when you see that you have a strong hand.”. Ok, 2.

    The problem is that it cost to test ideas in time and money, (risk of running out of blinds).

    I read somewhere that only 1 in 1000 star ups make it. Not sure if its true. But if you wanna play along then you have to have enough money and time to start 1000 start ups..

    Maybe a discussion about this in the book.

    6. I recently planned to buy a big portal/community/forum site and use it to sell a service branded under the sites name. This has worked for me before in other areas. And my gut feeling said it work in this area as well.

    I cancelled the deal becuase of your book. Becuase I hadnt tested my gut feeling. The problem is that I cant test it. The owner wouldnt let me. And if he did, he would probably not sell it afterwards.

    What should you do in situations like that? Maybe something about that in the book.

    Should I just say fuck it, and bet on a 10-10? Or fold and risk of running out of chips due the blinds?

    I dont expect any answers. But there seems to be alot of smart guys reading here. If Anyone could tell what they would do in the situation in point 6 I would be very greatful. :) Dont worry about looking stupid.

  5. Thank you Steve. Jennifer and I didn’t realize how lucky we were to be at Lake Merced the night you and the girls rolled in on those mules! You’ve been an incredible mentor to me.

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