I counsel a lot of job seekers looking to get into the startup world. Very quickly, I lay out the fact that getting a job comes down to two very simple things:
1) Do you know what you do?
2) Does everyone else?
If people had a clear concept of what value you bring to the table and lots of people understood that value, all you'd have to do is tweet that you were a free agent and the opportunities would come to you.
The only problem is, people don't like self promoting--and that's what they see the second part as. Tweeting, blogging, speaking on panels--as much as, ironically, you're reading this blog post and don't seem to have a terrible impression of me, you associate terms like self promotion and personal brand building as a narcisistic, somewhat douchy exercise that involves a lot of chest pounding and boastfulness. It's not how they want to talk about themselves.
Well, it doesn't have to be.
Your blog doesn't have to be like that. Your voice won't be seen as full of hot air--if you stick to what you know and self edit your tone. Can't you do that?
If Forbes wanted you to write a weekly column on the professional world around you, wouldn't you take it? So why is a blog any different?
There are lots of interesting opportunities out there, but it's incredibly hard for a startup team to go from not knowing anything about you at all to making you employee number five. It's exponentially easier when they're imagining who would make a great head of customer service and they think of you right away because you write this neat blog about the tactics of making customers happy.
If you really want to do what you love--let everyone know you love it. Be a public student of your craft. Show others what you bring to the table by writing down what you learned and what's hard about what you're still in the process of learning--and what's changing all around you.
Otherwise, you're leaving your job satisfaction to the randomness and inefficiency of having a resume speak for you. You wouldn't hire a wedding photographer without an online portfolio, so as a knowledge worker, where's your online portfolio? How do people understand what you and your brain bring to the table when they search for you online?
Check out Medium and start writing what you know to be true and what questions you think your next employer needs your help to answer.
Two things ain't nobody got time for:
2) Keeping track of all of the various criteria and foci of the hundreds of potential co-investors you could have in a seed round.
Especially not as a one partner fund.
Given that I often help my companies finish fundraising by introducing them to other investors, I wind up making a lot of intros. Keeping up with who does extra stage, what defines too early, who will only do B2B, consumer, etc., is a huge pain in the ass.
Granted, sometimes it's really clear that a deal is right for one particular co-investor, and that person or fund has done a great job branding that they want to see those types of deals, most VCs will look at a lot of different things and do things by exception all the time. Plus, they're always shifting around or refocusing on certain things.
So I've mostly given up.
Instead, I've started circulating a private list of things I'm working on--as well as a note about when some of my companies might be raising. I've also thrown in a few notes about good people I know who are looking for opportunities.
You want to know what deals I'm doing? Here they are. Knock yourself out. It's actually what SV Angel used to do back in the day, before the days of Angel List.
I've taken to calling it the #vcbcc list. Every month I send out a BCC note to about 190 investors who I know well, have done deals with, or who have asked me to keep them in mind for deals. I've sent out about three or four of them now and I'm thrilled to say that the list has now sourced over a million dollars of co-investors. Moreover, it gets me deals back in return--because sometimes it's just a matter of being top of mind for someone.
The best part is, a lot of the interest has been from VCs I wouldn't necessarily have thought of for that particular deal.
Do I worry about other people crowding me out of these deals? No... because if I try to make sure I build good enough relationships with the founders so that I can anchor my position in a deal when we send it far and wide.
Do I worry that these investors might be in competitive deals? No... because if the mere fact that someone is fundraising is enough information for a competitor to crush you, then you've got other problems.
Why not make this list public? Because the world of customers and media doesn't need to know who is raising. PR happens when stories are carefully crafted, and sometimes fundraising takes a long time, even for the best companies.
If companies struggle to fundraise, won't it look bad that they're still out there? Actually, the last company that just raised off my list has been out there for six months--and I've posted it to the list a couple of times. Why it tipped this month, I have no idea.
So there you have it. A VC hack of the week. If you're an investor and you'd like to be on the list, let me know at email@example.com.
Forming a board... It's what the best performing companies do once they take on outside investors. Board members can provide useful feedback, help to focus the founding team, and provide a network of contacts.
Unfortunately, many companies don't get financing--because they don't get any of the above. They don't get the feedback they need, especially around priorities.
Sometimes, the founders lack focus to the point where they don't even get to the point of company formation. They get caught in a sea of too many problems, too many opportunities, without a good idea of what to do first to coalese their ideas into a single vision.
A lot of friends and potential founders come to me with tons of ideas, or none at all, or half of one--but with the will and drive to create something, making it all extremely frustrating for them. What do they do first? How do they pick out their idea?
It's hard for me to get too involved, because committing time to help is a slippery slope. For advisors, there's a real gap between one coffee and joining the company. You want to help, but your time is limited.
That's how board participation can help an advisor scale. You're on the hook for a finite amount of meetings and the meetings are structured in such a way to prioritize the discussions that create the most impact on the company.
So why wait until you have a company to set up a board?
Most people have a fair number of people willing to help, but they get stuck in trying to figure out how to get the most help out of them.
Setting up a simple board before you've even got a company can help you get into the practice of collecting feedback and getting nudged back into focus. Going through the discipline of being accountable for your time, setting and sticking to goals and simply talking through problems with others can bring clarity to chaos.
I'd recommend that if you're going to get something off the ground, there are three people worth talking to on a monthly basis in person, with maybe a bi-weekly, midway checkpoint in between.
First off, you want someone who is generally knowledgable about business--someone the dollars and cents are going to make sense to. They should understand concepts like profitability, contribution margin, time value of money, opportunity cost, etc--so they can help anchor the conversation around high impact financial opportunities and cost effective ways to take advantage of them.
Second, you want to talk to someone who understands the problem set you're going after--an industry expert. Who is going to help point you in the right direction of who to talk to, or who can speak from the perspective of the customer? Sometimes, just knowing who might have tried similar ideas before can be helpful to guide your research.
Third, I'd seek the honesty of a peer--someone on your level who you can trust to tell you when you're going down the wrong path, someone who can relate to what you're going through and provide emotional support as well.
Over time, you'll create a real board of directors composed of investors looking out for their fiduciary interests--but for now, when you're in the stage of turning a spark into reality, a board before the board can take you a long way.
I'm incredibly excited to announce Brooklyn Bridge Ventures' investment in Plum Print. Plum Print turns your kid's artwork into buyable merchandise like coffee table books, and soon note cards, framed prints, and calendars. While other apps store art for future printing, Plum Print is different because it doesn't require large amounts of time for you to do it yourself. You throw everything in a box and Plum Print does the hard work for you, returning the art and a completed keepsake. So, yes, they're conceding the market of parents who have enough time to scan hundreds of pieces of artwork a year.
I don't think that's a big market. :)
I'll talk more about my investment in another post, but what I really loved about their announcement today was how great the article in Techcrunch was. Sometimes, you send some info over to a reporter and they do what needs to be done, but the result is the same kind of story you see everywhere else. Yes, I'm accusing tech journalists of barely rewriting press releases.
And you know what, why shouldn't they?
You sent them the same pitch you sent everywhere else. If they bang something out in twenty minutes, you'll link to it, you'll get some traffic back, they'll get traffic--it's transactional. If you treat PR like a transaction, that's the way press will treat you back.
So when Meg and Carolyn wanted help on their announcement, I knew the right person to cover it from the tech side--Sarah Perez from Techcrunch. I met Sarah in person at Techcrunch Disrupt in NYC a few years ago. We had connected by e-mail about Tinybop and I knew she was interested in kids apps and companies. She's a mom herself and her family is a big part of why she lives down in Florida. So, she knew why I was sending her the Plum Print story and I, just as importantly, I knew why I was sending her the Plum Print story.
It's comprehensive--it covers all the major points about their new upcoming product line, the fundraising partnerships they're striking with PTAs, it's got great photos and it really gets to the value proposition while fairly noting what else is out there.
We didn't get a ton of press out there about this seed round as it turned out to be a very busy funding story day, but I'd rather have one great story like this than a dozen reprints of a press release.
Thanks, Sarah. It's a great reminder for me to be a lot more thoughtful about who I'm sending which stories to and treating journalists like humans rather than distribution centers.
Why do startups fail?
They run out of money, of course. That's an oversimplification and actually it's more the result than the root cause.
A lot of times, it comes down to failing to produce results, and enough of them. What I've realized recently, though, is that smaller, faster results are key--and it doesn't always matter whether those results are good or bad.
I know a few startups that are struggling with their execution and it strikes me that they don't have any enough small victories. Their goals are all or nothing, like big product releases. For months, they're building the next thing, and there's little for the CEO to accomplish in the meantime.
Similarly, they get stuck in trying to negotiate with a huge customer for months on and end it ties up their resources.
Even in the beginning, some founders can't move forward until they raise their seed round. All you ever hear from them is whether they raised their seed round or not--and the company just seems dead in the water.
There are no small victories.
Having small victories isn't a function of winning and losing--it's about the design of your goals and your approach to them.
Language is incredibly important here. It starts with your team's disposition around new goals.
When your team decides that enterprise users should be able sign themselves up, that's a big project. That involves automating a ton of things that aren't automated yet and untold headaches for your tech team.
What's the reaction when the CEO says "I've gotten feedback from customers that they want to just try the product out themselves, and the setup and support team is already overloaded...what would it take to allow people to set themselves up?"
If the first reaction from an already overloaded tech team is a face palm and an "ugh", that's a problem that goes deep. That means the people involved are only thinking of the end goal and nothing in between--and not positioning themselves to allow for small wins. Each new challenge feels like a burden that will have no near term payoff.
What if the answer is more about what they can do right now?
"Well, the easy part is setting up just the basic account--name, ID, password, etc. We do that on our end and we could have an interface up by the end of the day for them to do at least that. There are some parts that would obviously take longer, but let's make a list of what they *could* do within a week or so and then we'll decide if that's enough. I can have that list by tomorrow morning after talking with my team."
Getting to a result, faster.
That's the kind of conversation that excites everyone. It creates a culture of a can-do attitude. It also gives everyone across the team something to shout about. Maybe you create some kind of self signup that isn't nearly full functionality, but it's actually more than your competitors have. That's the kind of small victory that allows for you to have something to announce as PR *every week*.
It excites board members and potential investors. That's because you appear to be moving faster, when in reality you're working just as hard and fast, but just breaking up projects by results-based tasks.
Results are just things that people can point to. They're completions. They are the answers to what you accomplished today. If all you did was work on something, and tomorrow you work on that thing, and the day after, it's going to feel like you're living out Groundhog Day. What did you actually accomplish today that you can share and feed good about?
"Today, we let users change their screen names without creating new accounts."
It's a thing you can point to. Every day, you should have results--if nothing else, for your own sanity.
A lot of the hidden value in moving to a results focus is market and customer feedback earlier. Turns out that customers wanted to create their own accounts for some other reason that you never even realized--and the functionality they needed in the short term wasn't really the big project, it was the small thing.
We have a lot of systems like this in place for product management, but they should be present in everything the company does.
You decide you want to hire, so a Tweet and a few emails should go out almost immediately, before you fully fleshed out and approved the description and job requirements.
A result. Faster.
You want to start talking to customers in a new industry, so a page goes up on your site the same day with some text about what you could offer to them. It's not the fully built out marketing plan for that industry--but it's a start.
A result. Faster.
You're going to start fundraising for your next round. Don't make the only thing a two week long project to built out a deck. Just make a quick list with your investors of who might be interested. You can do that right now--and what you might realize is that they come up with someone you already know pretty well. You could probably grab coffee with that person this week just to float the idea of raising even before you have a deck. Now you're fundraising and getting a meeting with an investor is a result--and you just did it faster because you focused on smaller, quick victories.
What about your sales process? Is there a trial offering you can get people into at the end of the very first meeting? If your product requires a lot of custom work is there a version you could at least get people into that helps make the custom work easier later? If the only possible result in the sales process comes in six months, the whole thing is going to feel like a slog--both to your salesepeople, the board, and the industry. Everyone involved wants to hear about wins, big or small, every week.
So the next time you build something, get asked to do something or have some opportunity think about what the earliest possible result you can get to might be. Get your team to think this way. What can I do *right now*? What can we get done *this week*?
You'd be surprised at how much you could get done so soon.