You’ll Be Dead Soon – Carpe Diem

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Steve Jobs

Watching an entrepreneur fail is sad, but watching them fail from a lack of nerve is tragic.

Excitement
At the beginning of this year Bob, one of my ex-students was in entrepreneurial heaven. He had an idea for a new class of enterprise software insight-as-a-service based on big data web analytics as a Cloud/SaaS (Software As a Service) application.

Bob had taken to heart the business model canvas and Customer Development lessons. After graduating he put together a prototype and had quickly marched through Customer Discovery, iterating his product with the help of CIOs and Fortune 1000 IT departments.

I had made one of the introductions to a Fortune 100 CIO’s so I got to hear his progress from both him and the CIO.

Takeoff
After 90 days, things seemed to be moving at startup speed. Bob had a backlog of users wanting to try his application, and the corporate IT people who were trying his early prototype said, “It’s crude, we hate the user interface, it’s missing lots of features – but we’ll kill you if you try to take it away from us.”

I pointed a VC who followed the space to the CIO who was testing the prototype. The VC told me the CIO wouldn’t get off the phone. He kept telling him he couldn’t remember when he had seen an enterprise software product with so much promise. The VC checked with other IT users and heard the same reaction. It was a “gotta use it, don’t take it away, we’ll have to buy it” product. After a demo and lunch, the VC (who normally did later stage deals) wrote my ex student a check for a seed round.

Life couldn’t be better.

I followed Bob progress in bits and pieces from updates from the CIO, the VC and his emails and blogs. He seemed to be on the fast track to startup success. But pretty soon a few worrying warning signs appeared.

The first thing that I noticed was that Bob couldn’t seem to find a co-founder. I wasn’t close enough to know if he wasn’t really looking for one, but given the early success he was having, it seemed a bit odd. But the next thing really got me concerned. Bob started hiring second rate developers. At best they were B- players.

Stall
A month went by, and the product stopped getting better. The U/I still sucked, and new features had stopped appearing. The next month, the same thing. I got a call from my CIO friend asking, “what was going on?” He said, “It was a great prototype, we would have loved to deploy it company-wide, and I hate to let it go, but it looks like Bob company just lost interest in developing it. I’m going to dump it and look for a substitute.” So I called Bob and suggested we grab a coffee.

I asked him how things were going and got the update on how the earlyvangelists were using the product. As I had heard, they were ecstatic. But Bob said he was worried he hadn’t found the right customer segment yet. “I’m not sure I can get all of these guys to pay me big bucks,” he said. “That’s why I stopped coding, and I’m spending all my time out in the field still talking to more customers.” “What does your VC’s say you ought to be doing?” I asked.  “Oh, he hasn’t had much time for me, his firm almost never does seed deals. It turns out I was an exception.”  Oh, oh.

The conversation was starting to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Bob had gotten to a place most founders never do – his product was a “gotta have it for people with big budgets.” He should have been back rapidly coding, iterating and finding out what feature set would get him to paying customers.

Instead he had produced barely 3 weeks of progress in the last 5 months. His prototype was rapidly wearing out its welcome.

A Lack of Nerve
When I pressed Bob on this he admitted, “No I guess my engineers aren’t very good. But I hired guys who were cheap because I wasn’t sure if my hypotheses were right. Didn’t you tell us to test our hypotheses first?” Now it was my time to be surprised. “Bob, you’ve validated your hypotheses better than any startup I’ve ever seen. You found that out in the first month. You got customers begging you to finish the product so they could buy it. You should have been hiring world-class talent and building something these CIO’s will pay for. It’s not too late. It’s time to grab them by the throat and go for it.”

I wasn’t ready for the answer, “Steve, I’ve been reading all about premature scaling and making sure everything is right before I go for it. I want to be sure I get all of this right. I’m afraid I’ll run out of money.”

I thought I’d make one more run at it. “Bob,” I said, “few entrepreneurs get the first time response you have from an early product. At your rate you’re going to burn through your cash trying to get it perfect. It’s a startup. You’ll never have perfect information. You’re sitting on a gold mine. Grab the opportunity!”

I got a blank stare.

We made some more small talk and shook hands as he left.

Bob was in the wrong business, not the wrong market. He wanted certainty, comfort and security.

I stared at my coffee for a long time.

Carpe Diem – make your lives extraordinary.

Lessons Learned

  • Yes, premature scaling is a cause of startup death
  • Yes, you need to get out of the building and test your hypotheses
  • But, when an opportunity smacks you in the head for gosh sake grab it with both hands and don’t let go
  • If you can’t, get out of the startup game

Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

Scientists Unleashed

Some men see things as they are and ask why.
Others dream things that never were and ask why not.

George Bernard Shaw

We’re in the middle of our National Science Foundation Innovation Corps class – taking the most promising research projects in American university laboratories and teaching these scientists the basics of entrepreneurship. Our goal is to accelerate the commercialization of their inventions. Our Lean LaunchPad class teaches scientists and engineers that starting a company is another research project that can be solved by an iterative process of hypotheses testing and experimentation built around the business model / customer development / agile development solution stack. It’s “the scientific method” applied to startups.

Although I typically don’t write about a class while it’s going on, I had to share this extraordinary reflection that Satish Kandlikar, one of the National Science Foundation principal investigators, posted to our Lean LaunchPad class blog.

Satish Kandlikar – The Spirit of Entrepreneurship
Satish Kandlikar has been a professor in the mechanical engineering department at the Rochester Institute of Technology for the past twenty-one years. His research is focused in the areas of flow boiling, critical heat flux, contact line heat transfer, and advanced cooling techniques

His team, Akara Lighting, wants to build a device for LED lights that gets rid of heat 50% better than anything on the market. This would result in LED’s having a higher performance at a reduced cost.

Here’s what he had to say about his experience in the Lean LaunchPad class ….

“It is quite an eye-opening experience to transition from an academic “PI” (Principal Investigator) to someone who wants to run a technology start-up. The change in the mindset is perhaps the important factor on the path to success…

The teaching team is simply phenomenal in identifying the pitfalls in our path and guiding us in finding the solutions. They have shown us the other side of the equation from technology to market acceptability. We have been extremely fortunate in having this kind of guidance and support.

A key finding I would like to report is that we just had another “pivot” two days ago when our mentor brought to our attention that we can succeed as a heat pipe company providing thermal solutions to various LED products as well as other applications. I visited two companies, one providing data center cooling solutions, and other providing control panel cooling systems. Key alliances are expected to occur through these initial, very positive, contacts.

One fundamental change that I see in my approach going forward is that I am looking at the research in a totally different way. It is no longer, in my mind, a means to publishing papers and simply graduating students. It means now, to me, how the research can be applied to make products that are accepted in marketplace. Making students understand the entire process, to whatever extent I can influence them, and inspiring them to aspire for transferring their knowledge to products is becoming an important thrust in my classroom interactions.

Another eye-opener was on understanding communications. While making presentations in academic setting, it was more of a paper-based research with extension of knowledge, without too much understanding of its application. Knowing the audience was really not a factor. Now after making “cold-calls”, and seeing that there is a certain way to get them interested in just a few opening sentences, was simply amazing. Knowing what their needs are is a crucial step.

Now it is becoming clear what Steve meant when he said, “get out of the building”. It is clear that the building referred to our mindset more than the physical act of going out or simply contacting someone outside.

The purpose of this posting was to document my beginning of the transformation process from an academician to an entrepreneur. And I am definitely enjoying it.”

Scientists Unleashed
Over fifty years ago Silicon Valley was born in an era of applied experimentation driven by scientists and engineers. Fifty years from now, we’ll look back to this current decade as the beginning of another revolution, where scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs were integrated into the fabric of society faster than they had ever been before, unleashing a new era for a new American economy built on entrepreneurship and innovation.

And scientists like Satish Kandlikar and the National Science Foundation will lead the way.
Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

Steel In Their Eyes – Why VC’s Should Be Startup CEO’s

A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.

Mark Twain

Venture Capitalists who are serious about turning their firms into more than one-fund wonders may want to have their associates actually start and run a company for a year.  Running a company is distinctly different from simply having operating experience – (working in bus dev, sales or marketing.) None of that can compare with being the CEO of a startup facing a rapidly diminishing bank account, your best engineer quitting, working until 10pm and rushing to the airport and catching a redeye for a “Hail Mary” close of a customer, with your board demanding you do it faster.

Today, you can start a web/mobile/cloud startup for $500,000 and have money left over.  Every potential early-stage Venture Capitalist should take a year and do it before he or she makes partner.

Here’s why.

——-

Venture capital as a profession is less than half a century old.

Over time Venture firms realized that the partners in the firms needs a variety of skills:

  • People skills (ability to recognize patterns of success in individuals and teams)
  • People skills
  • People skills
  • Market/technology acuity (patterns of success, domain expertise)
  • Rolodex/deal flow (deal sourcing/ability to make connections for the portfolio)
  • Board skills (Startup coaching, mentoring, strategy, operational/growth)
  • Fund raising skills

Some of these skills are learned in school (finance), some are innate aptitudes (people skills), some are learned pattern recognition skills (shadowing experienced partners, hard won success and failures of their own), and some are learned by having operating experience. But none of them are substitutes for having started and run a company.

How to Become a VC
Early-stage Venture Capital firms grow their partnerships in different ways, some hire:

  • partners from other firms
  • associates and put them on a long career path
  • venture/operating partners to get them into new industries
  • an executive who had startup “operating experience”
  • rarely a startup founder/CEO

In surveying my VC friends, I was surprised about the strong and diverse opinions. The feedback varied from:

  • “.. because culture is such an important part of who we are, we will probably never hire a partner from another firm. The idea of bolting on someone from another firm is somewhat antithetical to who we are. We think that our venture partner role is the most likely path to general partner.”
  • ..we have a partner-track associates program.  We want to find someone who has a lot of consumer internet product experience as either product manager, founder, VP Product, etc. with 3-7 years of experience.”
  • “…we do not even try to train new partners. We bring people into our firm who have learned how to be VCs at the partner level somewhere else and have demonstrated their talent in boardrooms alongside of us. We completely and totally punt on the idea of “training a VC.”  It’s an ugly and painful process and I don’t want to be part of it.”
  • “…if they don’t have operating experience  the odds of them knowing what they’re talking about in a board meeting for the first five years is low..”

Carrying the Cat By The Tail
When I finally became a CEO it was after I had spent my career working my way up the ladder in marketing in startups. I did every low-level job there was, at times sleeping under my desk (engineering was doing the same.) By the time I was running a company, having some junior employee tell me why they couldn’t do something because of “how hard it was” didn’t get much sympathy from me. I knew how hard it was because I had done it myself. Startups are hard.

What running a company would do is give early-stage VC’s a benchmark for reality, something most newly-minted partners sorely lack. They would learn how a founding CEO turns their money into a company which becomes a learning, execution and delivery engine. They would learn that a CEO does it through the people – the day-to-day of who is going to do what, how you hold people accountable, how teams communicate, and more importantly, who you hire, how you motivate and get people to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Further, they’d experience first hand how, in a startup, the devil is in the details of execution and deliverables.

My hypotheses is simple:  what most VC’s lack is not brains or rolodex or people skills – but hands-on experience as a startup CEO – knowing what it’s like trying to make a payroll while finding sufficient customers while you’re building the product.  Sure, a year as a CEO won’t make them an expert, but it will change them quicker than 10 years in the boardroom.

Does it Matter?
There’s a school of thought that says the skill set of a great early-stage VC – awesome people skills, curiosity, likable, etc. – versus the attributes of a great entrepreneur – pattern recognition, tenacity, etc. may not have much overlap. Early stage investing is not a spreadheet, quantitative driven exercise, nor is it about technology – it is a deal business and people drive the deals. And while having experience as a startup CEO may make you a better board member, it may not substantively contribute to your career as an early stage investor – which depend on many more important skills.

Steel in their eyes


Ten years ago starting a company required millions of dollars and first customer ship took years. Now it’s possible to build a company, ship product and get tens of thousands of customers in a year with less than $500K. For venture firms who want to groom/grow associates or operating execs into partners (rather than hiring proven partners), here’s my suggestion:

  1. Have them start as an analyst (search for deal flow and people, due diligence)
  2. Then take a year as a product manager in a startup in the firm’s portfolio
  3. Then come back as an associate for a year – shadowing board and partner meetings
  4. Then take a year and $250-500K to start and run a mobile/web/cloud company. See what it’s really like on the other side of that boardroom table
  5. Then return as a partner

This process will create a new generation of venture capital partners, ones who have been battle tested in the trenches of a startup, hardened by hiring and firing, tempered by making a payroll and losing orders, and will never forget it’s all about the people.

These VC’s would return to their firms with steel in their eyes. They’d be relentless about accountability from board meeting to board meeting with laser like focus on the one or two issues that matter. They would understand the CEO-VC-board dynamic in a way that few who hadn’t lived it could. They’d be ruthless in their choice of people and teams, looking for those few who have natural curiosity, a passion to win, and who won’t take no for answer.

Lessons Learned

  • Venture Capital is still a “craft business”
  • Early stage VC’s should have startup CEO experience
  • It can now be gained cheaply and quickly
  • It will give them perspective and edge that would take a decade to learn 

Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

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