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I often get asked about finding cofounders and I usually give the standard list of characteristics of what I look for in a founder. And I emphasize the value of a founding team with complementary skills sets – i.e. the hacker/hustler/designer cofounder archetype for web/mobile apps. But Jessica Alter, Cofounder & CEO of FounderDating, pointed out that cofounders did not mean two founders in the same room. She suggested that I was missing one of the key attributes of what makes successful startup teams powerful. She suggested that how cofounders fight was a key metric in predicting the success of a founding team. So I asked her to write a guest post.
I think about [cofounding] teams a lot – an insane amount. And, not surprisingly, I frequently get asked what to look for or what to think about when starting the process of finding a cofounder – a true partner to start your next company with.
Like second nature, I start to recite a list of important attributes: complimentary skill sets, common visions, the notion of not trying to make someone fall in love with your idea (because the idea will likely change and then where are you?). There are plenty more and they are important. But a few weeks ago after I sat on a panel about cofounders at Startup2Startup there was a small group dinner conversation to dig deeper on the topic. Garry Tan (Posterous, YC), in recounting his personal experience said, “success can cover up a lot.”
And it clicked in my head – one of the key things to pay attention to in a search for a cofounder is how you fight.
How you fight with your potential cofounder(s) matters for a lot of reasons, the simplest of which is that you have time to fight – meaning you’ve worked together long enough to hit disagreements or bumps. It’s one of the most common mistakes we see. I literally just received an email from someone (that I don’t know) asking to me to meet with them so that they can circumvent our regular process because, “I don’t feel like I have time for the regular FounderDating process.“ Quick advice to people that think finding a cofounder is a box to check and “don’t have time” – you won’t find someone and if you do the relationship is unlikely to last. You’re looking for an employee, not a partner.
We tell all our FounderDating members that we’re a great starting point to connect with amazing people all with high intent to start something. But in order to figure out if you can work together you have to (wait for it…) actually work together. That could be starting a side-project, heading over to a Startup Weekend or other hackathon, working full-time for a few months or some combination of those options. However you do it, you need to build something together. It doesn’t ultimately matter it if ends up being the right product, you will still have areas you disagree on throughout the process. Ask yourself: Have we had disagreements? If you haven’t, maybe you should consider a longer courtship period.
Consider what real startup life is going to be like. For a long-time (longer than you plan) things are not going to work and you’ll have to figure out what to do – together. If you do eventually reach a point where the company is making real progress, you’re still going hit crazy challenges on a regular basis that you’ll have to navigate together. This pressure – which is compounded by the sound of the ticking clock if you took money – will up the stress levels and hence the propensity to disagree.
If you don’t have at least a taste of what that’s going to be like, not only have you not done your homework, but also could be in for a rude awakening. So, let’s agree you’re going to fight. That, in and of itself, doesn’t mean anything. In fact, it’s quite healthy. What matters in real life is what are the fights like? Do they escalate rapidly or become knock down, drag outs? Can you recover quickly and keep moving? Entrepreneurship and early stage companies are about moving fast; if you’re caught in a disagreement for days at a time it means decisions are not being made and/or people are walking around feeling resentful. Either one will eventually lead to failure. Ask yourself: When we fight do we get over it quickly and respectfully?
What Are You Fighting About?
Finally, and this is insanely important, it matters what the fights are about. Are you fighting about whether a button should be green or blue or are you fighting about whether or not you want to raise money?
A lot of people approach finding cofounders as just a skill set need and believe once that box is checked, everything will be smooth sailing. Complimentary skill sets are important and if you’re fighting about one functional area (e.g. design, product) it might be a sign you have too much skill set overlap. But if it were just about complimentary skill set matching it wouldn’t be very hard.
What’s difficult is making sure you’re aligned on the softer side: Why do you want to build a company? What kind of company you want to build? What are your working styles? What are your values? What are your other priorities (family, etc.)? We don’t care if entrepreneurs want to build lifestyle businesses or go for IPOs, if they are tethered to their email or check out at 7pm – that’s a personal decision. But you better make sure you’re on the same page as your potential cofounder about those topics. These are the issues that break up relationships, not button colors.
Ask yourself: What are we fighting about and why?
Make no mistake; I’m not suggesting you should manufacture a fight. But every relationship has ups and downs, the ones that last are able to bounce back from the downs quickly and respectfully and be better for it. So give yourselves permission and time to fight and reflect on how you do it before you take the leap together.
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How to build regional entrepreneurial communities has just gotten it’s first “here’s how to do it” book. Brad Feld’s new book Startup Communities joins the two other “must reads,” (Regional Advantage and Startup Nation) and one “must view” (The Secret History of Silicon Valley) for anyone trying to understand the components of a regional cluster.
There’s probably no one more qualified to write this book then Brad Feld (startup founder, co founder of two VC firms – Mobius and Foundry, and founder of TechStars.)
Leaders and Feeders
Feld’s thesis is that unlike the common wisdom, it is entrepreneurs that lead a startup community while everyone else feeds the community.
Feld describes the characteristics of those who want to be regional Entrepreneurial Leaders; they need to be committed to their region for the long term (20+ years), the community and its leaders must be inclusive, play a non-zero sum game, be mentorship-driven and be comfortable experimenting and failing fast.
Feeders include the government, universities, investors, mentors, service providers and large companies. He points out that some of these, government, universities and investors think of themselves as the leaders and Feld’s thesis is that we’ve gotten it wrong for decades.
This is a huge insight, a big idea and a fresh way to view and build a regional ecosystem in the 21st century. It may even be right.
Activities and Events
One of the most surprising (to me) was the observation that a regional community must have continual activities and events to engage all participants. Using Boulder Colorado as an example, (Feld’s home town) this small entrepreneurial community runs office hours, Boulder Denver Tech Meetup, Boulder Open Coffee Club, Ignite Boulder, Boulder Beta, Boulder Startup Digest, Startup Weekend events, CU New Venture Challenge, Boulder Startup Week, Young Entrepreneurs Organization and the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado. For a city of 100,000 (in a metro area of just 300,000 people) the list of activities/events in Boulder takes your breath away. They are not run by the government or any single organization. These are all grassroots efforts by entrepreneurial leaders. These events are a good proxy for the health and depth of a startup community.
Incubators and Accelerators
One of the best definitions in the book is when Feld articulates the difference between an incubator and an accelerator. An incubator provides year-round physical space, infrastructure and advice in exchange for a fee (often in equity.) They are typically non-profit, attached to a university (or in some locations a local government.) For some incubators, entrepreneurs can stay as long as they want. There is no guaranteed funding. In contrast, an accelerator has cohorts going through a program of a set length, with funding typically provided at the end.
Feld describes TechStars (founded in 2006 with David Cohen) as an example of how to build a regional accelerator. In contrast to other accelerators TechStars is mentor-driven, with a profound belief that entrepreneurs learn best from other entrepreneurs. It’s a 90-day program with a clear beginning and end for each cohort. TechStars selection criteria is to first focus on picking the right team then the market. They invest $118,000 ($18k seed funding + $100K convertible note) in 10 teams per region.
Role of Universities
To the entrepreneurial community Stanford and MIT are held up as models for “outward-facing” research universities. They act as community catalysts, as a magnet for great entrepreneurial talent for the region, and as teachers and then a pipeline for talent back into the region. In addition their research offers a continual stream of new technologies to be commercialized.
Feld’s observation is that that these schools are exceptions that are hard to duplicate. In most universities entrepreneurial engagement is not rewarded, there’s a lack of resources for entrepreneurial programs and cross-campus collaboration is not in the DNA of most universities.
Rather than thinking of the local university as the leader, Feld posits a more effective approach is to use the local college or university as a resource and a feeder of entrepreneurial students to the local entrepreneurial community. He uses Colorado University’ Boulder as an example of of a regional university being as inclusive as possible with courses, programs and activities.
Finally, he suggests engaging alumni for something other than fundraising – bringing back to the campus, having them mentor top students and celebrating their successes.
Role of Government
Feld is not a big fan of top-down government driven clusters. He contrasts the disconnect between entrepreneurs and government. Entrepreneurs are painfully self-aware but governments are chronically not self-aware. This makes government leaders out of touch on how the dynamics of startups really work. Governments have a top-down command and control hierarchy, while entrepreneurs work in a bottoms-up networked world. Governments tend to focus on macro metrics of economic development policy while entrepreneurs talk about lean, startups, people and product. Entrepreneurs talk about immediate action while government conversations about policy do not have urgency. Startups aim for immediate impact, while governments want to control. Startup communities are networked and don’t lend themselves to a command and control system.
Feld believes that the Community Culture, how individuals interact and behave to each other, is a key part of defining and entrepreneurial community. His list of cultural attributes is an integral part of Silicon Valley. Give before you get, (in the valley we call this the “pay it forward” culture.) Everyone is a mentor, so share your knowledge and give back. Embrace weirdness, describes a community culture that accepts differences. (Starting post World War II the San Francisco bay area became a magnet for those wanting to embrace alternate lifestyles. For personal lifestyles people headed to San Francisco. For alternate business lifestyles they went 35 miles south to Silicon Valley.)
I was surprised to note that the biggest cultural meme of Silicon Valley didn’t make his Community Culture chapter – failure equals experience.
Broadening the Startup Community
Feld closes by highlighting some of the issues faced by a startup community in Boulder. The one he calls Parallel Universes notes that there may be industry specific (biotech, clean tech etc.) startup communities sitting side-by-side and not interacting with each other.
He then busts the myths clusters tell themselves; “lets be like Silicon Valley” and the “there’s not enough capital here.”
There’s data that that seems to indicate a few of Feld’s claims about about the limited role of venture, universities and governments might be overly broad (but doesn’t diminish his observation that they’re feeders not leaders.) In addition, while Silicon Valley was a series of happy accidents, other national clusters have extracted its lessons and successfully engineered on top of those heuristics. And while I might have misread Feld’s premise about local venture capital, but it seems to be, “if there isn’t a robust venture capital in your region it’s because there isn’t a vibrant entrepreneurial community with great startups. As venture capital exists to service startup when great startups are built investors will show up.” Wow.
Finally, local government top-down initiatives are not the only way governments can incentivize entrepreneurial efforts. Some like the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps have had a big bang for little bucks.
Entrepreneurship is rising in almost every major city and region around the world. I host at least one region a week at the ranch and each of these regions are looking for a roadmap. Startup Communities is it. It’s a strategic, groundbreaking book and a major addition to what was missing in the discussion of how to build a regional cluster. I’m going to be quoting from it liberally, stealing from it often, and handing it out to my visitors.
- Entrepreneurs lead a startup community while everyone else feeds the community
- Feeders include the government, universities, investors, mentors, service providers and large companies
- Continual activities and events are essential to engage all participants
- Top-down government-driven clusters are an oxymoron
- Building a regional entrepreneurial culture is critical
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While statistics are weak on startup success rates, the worst one I’ve seen suggests that 2 in 1000 venture backed startups will ever achieve $100-million or more in valuation. Another stat puts that number at 2% rather than 0.2%. Either way, the “hurdle” for successful, scalable startups is high, and it gets higher every day as customer acquisition challenges continue to increase.
I’ve spent more than four decades founding, coaching, teaching and investing in startups, and nothing breaks my heart more than meeting a starry-eyed founder who says “we’re almost ready to show it to people.” The “it” is a physical or web product they’ve often been locked-down, pounding away at, for many weeks.
In my view, this is the nastiest of all startup sins: failing to involve customers and their feedback from literally the first day of a startup’s life, keeping the most vital opinions silent—those of the eventual customers—for far longer than necessary.
When I hear this comment, as I do far too often, I switch to pleading mode: “Please. Take a week. Get some feedback. Does anybody really care, or are they giving you polite nods and little more. This generally leads to the second biggest reason too many startups suck: they’re solving a non-problem.
Does anybody care? Many Startup Owner’s Manual readers ask why Steve Blank and I are adamant that Customer Discovery happen in two separate, distinct phases: “problem” discovery and, later, “solution” discovery. There’s just no other way but, as Steve Blank has said for a decade, to “get out of the building” and talk to the only folks who matter—your customers.
Building a solution to a problem of moderate or lukewarm interest to users is a long-term death sentence for startups, where founders will almost certainly commit to 20,000 hours of their lives(or 5 years of 80-hour workweeks) in order to “beat the odds” and deliver a breakout success: a sustainable, scalable, profitable business.
Why, then, are so many founders so reluctant to invest even 500 or 1,000 hours upfront to be sure that, when they’re done, the business they’re building will face genuine, substantial demand or enthusiasm. Without passionate customers, even the most passionate entrepreneur will flounder at best. Dropbox is a great example. It scaled like lightning by solving an urgent, painful problem for millions of consumers. The product is so good, helpful, and easy to use that it literally almost does its own marketing organically through the product’s viral nature, just as Hotmail and Gmail have done since inception.
What’s the honest trajectory? There can only be one Mark Zuckerberg, and at last look he’s young and healthy. Can every startup skyrocket like Facebook or Square or Google? It’s downright impossible. The solution: understand your startup’s “honest trajectory” and align objectives of the founding team and—importantly—its investors to define and agree about what “success” looks like. Thousands of entrepreneurs would be a lot happier if their focus was a solid, growable, defensible niche business that might never go public or be worth $100-million. There’s a ton of money to be made “in the middle,” a broad swath between struggling or gasping for cash and ringing the bell at the NASDAQ.
Find the right trajectory for your business and focus not only on reaching it, but on assuring that the result is a sustainable, repeatable profit engine that can perform and grow healthily over time. Use Customer Development to identify and refine the potential profitable niche and stay in close contact with customers as you build, to be sure you’re building something they’ll want to have…and keep.
Stand Out in the Crowd: If you’re solving an important problem, make sure your solution stands out in the crowd. Hundreds of entrepreneurs I’ve met never spent an entire day Googling their industry, other ways to solve “their” problem, and few have spent time “playing consumer,” trying to find “their” own product, or one like it, and creating a “market map” that assesses all the competitive solutions, their strengths/weaknesses, and where the new product fits clearly and distinctly in its competitive environment. If you can’t figure this out on your own, and relate it to customers succinctly, it’s a certainty that your customers never will.
Going Forward is NOT About Standing Still: Another of my high-frequency “sad” moments happens when visiting with a team that is consistently “flatlining,” or delivering minimal or trivial user growth week after week or worse. Clearly, something’s horribly wrong, and everyone just keeps showing up, doing their jobs, without attacking the core problem that’s almost always a lack of palpable customer enthusiasm. What’s the point? What are they waiting for? It’s time to bring the leadership team into a room, dissect each key element of the business model, and identify pivots that are worth exploring smartly—where else—with customers.
Going Forward Is Often About Going Backward First: Entrepreneurs pride themselves in their problem-solving abilities, tenacity, and willingness to run through brick walls to make things “go.” More often than not, the DNA strand that makes entrepreneurs great is the one that’s their undoing when confronted with “flatlining” user adoption, growth, referrals, or frequency. These entrepreneurs need to switch smartly out of “do” mode and return to the earliest “discovery” steps to find a distinctive, exciting solution to a seriously painful customer need or problem.
It’s the only way to make a startup not suck.
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Now you too can take this course.
I’ve worked with the Udacity, the best online digital university on a mission to democratize education, to produce the course. They’ve done an awesome job.
The course includes lecture videos, quizzes and homework assignments. Multiple short video modules make up each 20-30 minute Lecture. Each module is roughly three minutes or less, giving you the chance to learn piece by piece and re-watch short lesson portions with ease. Quizzes are embedded within the lectures and are meant to let you check-in with how completely you are digesting the course information. Once you take a quiz, which could be a multiple-choice quiz or a fill in the blank quiz, you will receive immediate feedback.
Why This Class?
Ten years ago I started thinking about why startups are different from existing companies. I wondered if business plans and 5-year forecasts were the right way to plan a startup. I asked, “Is execution all there is to starting a company?”
Experienced entrepreneurs kept finding that no business plan survived first contact with customers. It dawned on me that the plans were a symptom of a larger problem: we were executing business plans when we should first be searching for business models. We were putting the plan before the planning.
So what would a search process for a business model look like? I read a ton of existing literature and came up with a formal methodology for search I called Customer Development.
That resulted in a new process for Search: Customer Development + traditional product management/Waterfall Engineering. It looked like this:
This meant that the Search for a business model as a process now could come before execution. So I wrote a book about this called the Four Steps to the Epiphany.
And in 2003 the Haas Business School at U.C. Berkeley asked me to teach a class in Customer Development. With Rob Majteles as a co-instructor, I started a tradition of teaching all my classes with venture capitalists as co-instructors.
In 2004 I funded IMVU, a startup by Will Harvey and Eric Ries. As a condition of my investment I insisted Will and Eric take my Customer Development class at Berkeley. Having Eric in the class was the best investment I ever made. Eric’s insight was that traditional product management and Waterfall development should be replaced by Agile Development. He called it the “Lean Startup.”
Meanwhile, I had said startups were “Searching” for a business model, I had been purposefully a bit vague about what exactly a business model looked like. For the last two decades there was no standard definition. That is until Alexander Osterwalder wrote Business Model Generation.
This book was a real breakthrough. Now we understood that the strategy for startups was to first search for a business model and then after you found it, put together an operating plan.
Now we had a definition of what it was startups were searching for. So business model design + customer and agile development is the process that startups use to search for a business model.
And the organization to implement all this was not through traditional sales, marketing and business development groups on day one. Instead the founders need to lead a customer development team.
And then to get things organized Bob Dorf and I wrote a book, The Startup Owners Manual that put all these pieces together.
But then I realized rather than just writing about it, or lecturing on Customer Development, we should have a hands-on experiential class. So my book and Berkeley class turned into the Lean LaunchPad class in the Stanford Engineering school, co-taught with two VC’s – Jon Feiber and Ann Miura-Ko. And we provided dedicated mentors for each team.
Then in the fall of 2011, the National Science Foundation read my blog posts on the Stanford version of the Lean LaunchPad class. They said scientists had already made a career out of hypotheses testing, and the Lean LaunchPad was simply a scientific method for entrepreneurship. They asked if I could adapt the class to teach scientists who want to commercialize their basic research. I modified the class and recruited another great group of VC’s and entrepreneurs – Jim Hornthal, John Burke, Jerry Engel,Bhavik Joshi and Oren Jacob – to teach with me.
We taught the first two classes of 25 teams each, and then in March of 2012 trained faculty from Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan how to teach the class at their universities. Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan faculty then taught 54 teams each in July of this year and will teach another 54 teams in October.
We then added four more schools – Columbia, Caltech, Princeton and Hosei – where our team taught the Lean LaunchPad. We also developed a 5-day version of the class to complement the full semester and quarter versions.
And now we’ve spent weeks in the Udacity studio putting the lecture portion of the Lean LaunchPad class online.
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We Sleep Peaceably In Our Beds At Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready To Do Violence On Our Behalf
Everyone has events that shape the rest of their lives. This was one of mine.
I’ve never been shot at. Much braver men I once worked with faced that every day. But for a year and a half I saw weapons of war take off every day with bombs hanging under the wings. It never really hit home until the day I realized some of the planes didn’t come back.
Life in a War Zone
In the early 1970’s the U.S. was fully engaged in the war in Vietnam. Most of the fighter planes used to support the war were based in Thailand, or from aircraft carriers (or for some B-52 bombers, in Guam.) I was 19, in the middle of a hot war learning how to repair electronics as fast as I could. It was everything life could throw at you at one time with minimum direction and almost no rules.
It would be decades before I would realize I had an unfair advantage. I had grown up in home where I learned how to live in chaos and bring some order to my small corner of it. For me a war zone was the first time all those skills of shutting out everything except what was important for survival came in handy. But the temptations in Thailand for a teenager were overwhelming: cheap sex, cheap drugs (a pound of Thai marijuana for twenty dollars, heroin from the Golden Triangle that was so pure it was smoked, alcohol cheaper than soda.) I saw friends partying with substances in quantities that left some of them pretty badly damaged. At a relatively young age I learned the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.
What a great job
But I was really happy. What a great job – you work hard, party hard, get more responsibility and every once in awhile get to climb into fighter plane cockpits and turn them on. What could be better?
Near the beginning of the year when I was at an airbase called Korat, a new type of attack aircraft showed up – the A-7D Corsair. It was a single seat plane with modern electronics (I used to love to play with the Head Up Display.) And it was painted with a shark’s mouth. This plane joined the F-4’s and F-105 Wild Weasels (who went head-to-head with surface-to-air missiles,) and EB-66’s reconnaissance aircraft all on a very crowded fighter base. While the electronics shop I worked in repaired electronic warfare equipment for all the fighter planes, I had just been assigned to 354th Fighter Wing so I took an interest in these relatively small A-7D Corsair’s (which had originally been designed for the Navy.)
He’s Not Coming Back
One fine May day, on one of my infrequent trips to the flight line (I usually had to be dragged since it was really hot outside the air-conditioned shop), I noticed a few crew chiefs huddled around an empty aircraft spot next to the plane I was working on. Typically there would have been another of the A-7’s parked there. I didn’t think much of it as I was crawling over our plane trying to help troubleshoot some busted wiring. But I started noticing more and more vans stop by with other pilots and other technicians– some to talk to the crew chief, others just to stop and stare at the empty spot where a plane should have been parked. I hung back until one of my fellow techs said, “Lets go find out what the party is about.”
We walked over and quickly found out it wasn’t a party – it was more like a funeral. The A-7 had been shot down over Cambodia. And as we found out later, the pilot wasn’t ever coming home.
An empty place on the flight line
While we were living the good life in Thailand, the Army and Marines were pounding the jungle every day in Vietnam. Some of them saw death up close. 58,000 didn’t come back – their average age was 22.
Everyone shook their heads about how sad. I heard later from “old-timers” who had come back for multiple tours “Oh, this is nothing you should have been here in…” and they’d insert whatever year they had been around when some days multiple planes failed to return. During the Vietnam War ~9,000 aircraft and helicopters were destroyed. Thousands of pilots and crews were killed.
It’s Not a Game
I still remember that exact moment – standing in the bright sun where a plane should be, with the ever present smell of jet fuel, hearing the engines of various planes taxing and taking off with the roar and then distant rumble of full afterburners – when all of a sudden all the noise and smells seemed to stop – like someone had suddenly turned off a switch. And there I had a flash of realization and woke up to where I was. I suddenly and clearly understood this wasn’t a game. This wasn’t just a big party. We were engaged in killing other people and they were equally intent on killing us. I turned and looked at the pilots with a growing sense of awe and fear and realized what their job – and ours – was.
Captain Jeremiah Costello and his A-7D was the last attack aircraft shot down in the Vietnam War.
Less then ninety days later the air war over Southeast Asia ended.
For the rest of my career when things got tough in a startup (being yelled at, working until I dropped, running out of money, being on both ends of stupid decisions, pushing people to their limits, etc.), I would vividly remember seeing that empty spot on the flightline. It put everything in perspective.
Entrepreneurship is hard but you can’t die.
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