This is a talk I did in Nov of 2011 on building a business organically. About 250 people in the audience. Was a good time. I gave the same talk to a different audience at WordCampPHX 2012 a few months after this.
Archives For entrepreneur’isms
Things I am learning as I become a wealthy entrepreneur
I too built this model. I too was in awe when my Dad drove me about 1hour north of Salt lake to Hill air force base to see one for rea when I was about 12. [Read the article]
The quote below was from a book written by a pilot of an SR-71. It resonated with me. This is sort of how we do business at Page.ly.
One day, high above Arizona , we were monitoring the radio traffic of all the mortal airplanes below us. First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controllers to check his ground speed. ‘Ninety knots,’ ATC replied. A twin Bonanza soon made the same request. ‘One-twenty on the ground,’ was the reply. To our surprise, a navy F-18 came over the radio with a ground speed check. I knew exactly what he was doing. Of course, he had a ground speed indicator in his cockpit, but he wanted to let all the bug-smashers in the valley know what real speed was ‘Dusty 52, we show you at 620 on the ground,’ ATC responded. The situation was too ripe. I heard the click of Walter’s mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walter startled the controller by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet, clearly above controlled airspace. In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied, ‘ Aspen 20, I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground.’ We did not hear another transmis sion on that frequency all the way to the coast.
We sort of pride ourselves at Pagely for being the “first” in just about everything we have done.
The merits of the first mover advantage have been hotly debated if not outright dismissed. However Brad Feld says be a niche first mover.
Several people challenged this idea in the comments and there are many investors that like to invest in “fast followers” (I’m not one of them.) There’s also a well worn cliche that you can identify early leaders as they are the ones with arrows in their back. While I understand the convention wisdom around this, especially in the context of corporate strategy and general innovation theory, I take a different approach, especially in very fast moving markets like the ones I invest in.
On the opposite end is the Fast follower argument. Which essentially says while the first mover faced the challenges of innovation, customer education, and proving the concept; the Fast follower has the luxury of entering a warm market and learning from the mistakes of the first mover. There is also the advantage of being able to say: “We are just like X, but we do Y differently”. Being able to explain the gist of the business with a simple contrast is a luxury the first mover did not have during the market education phase.
If we were to do it again, I still think we would opt to be a first mover. Even with the extra challenges that go with it for 1 simple reason: Never having to say “Me too”. When your company is innovating in the space, you never get caught in the situation where you are forced to duplicate a feature or product to stay relevant. In the follower positon, companies do a lot of reacting to others in the space. The best efforts of the fast follower marketing team may present the new item in all sorts of gloss and sparkle, but the underlying message is “we now do this too”.
This is not the case across the board. Certainly many a 2nd-3rd or 10th entry into a space has out maneuvered the entrenched players and gone on to win the day: al a facebook, google, etc.
Recent happenings in our own space got me thinking about the Me Too’s. About this time last year we laid out plans for what is now our new API driven account and infrastructure management system. In June we relaunched our entire system and made our new Partner API available publicly a few days ago.
Company X in our space is working on a similar product, and they chose to mention our press to provide context for their Me Too pitch they made to the target users of the product a few days after our annoucement. This is the meat of slightly longer email sent out by another hosting company within a day or two of our Partner API announcement.
To Theme shop owner
We’re aware that there have been some announcements in the past few days about opportunities for theme marketplaces like yourself to partner with hosting companies and offer tightly integrated, white-labeled managed hosting to their customers via partner APIs.
We wanted to let you all know that, while we have not publicly announced this yet, [company X] has already developed a Partner API which we’ve been “bedding in” for a few months with a select number of partners in order to ensure stability.
… we’d hope there would be opportunity to speak with you about what we have going on over at [company X] in this space.
Now getting beat to market happens all the time in all spaces. We were working on a product that was to be an “app store” for WordPress plugins and themes.. before we got it finished and to market the WP App Store plugin launched beating us to the punch. We had a choice, push ahead and be the Me Too, or shelve it. We ultimately decided to adapt parts of it for something else, and shelve the concept. We just had no interest in getting out there and trying to promote a product that was 2nd to the game.
Being a first mover is hard. Being a fast follower is probably difficult too. Startups in general are an exercise in self torture some say. At the end of the day it just comes down to execution and how well you do it. Some of the followers in our space have executed on things amazingly well, some not so much, we have had our share of misses as well. Chances are good this other company will execute on their partner play well, and it will be fun to see how it shakes out.
For my personal taste I prefer getting out front, the target painted on ours backs be damned.
I spent the better part of the last 3 years building our 3rd business from revenues and sweat. We went from an idea to sustainable, growing, and profitable business. It was not easy, nothing ever is. At times we flirted with taking funding, had offers on the table, and sought out a few commitments. Even had 2 larger companies approach for us for an early acquisition. Ultimately though we chose to stay independent.
During this same time a close friend of mine left a huge internet company, founded a new startup, raised 10′s of millions in VC, folded that startup in what they call a ‘soft landing’, and started another one. He was convinced he needed funding for the new project. I doubt my words made any real difference but I tried to steer him away from it. He did the math and ultimately decided to tell some of the biggest names in the angel and VC world he would forgo their cash for few months to see if this idea had legs.. and was met with utter contempt.
With VC you gain cash, and the ability to spend it. You do not gain the assurance of success. And all along you have to deal with other people telling you how you should conduct your business. Meh.
As bootstrapper you have earned the freedom and independence to make your own mistakes, revel in your own success, and work you ass off. The success or failure is 100% yours.
Why is this important to me? It allows me to build the company I want to see. One that does not push useless upsells on their customers to maximize profit, one that can operate from a mindset other then win at all costs, one that has integrity and character. Sure a few extra 0′s in the bank would come in handy from time to time. But I also like knowing that every 0 in there was a result of choices that were made with our values in mind. The soul of a business runs through every aspect of it. Your customers, your employees, and the public at large sees it for what it is. Good and bad, motivated by greed or passion, acting like asshats or elegant problem solvers.
When did “funding” become a mark of success? The argument could be made it is the direct opposite. Yes, we all see the big IPO’s, those 1 in 1000 that make it. The other 999 would likely have been so much better off either flaming out early, or working through to a real solution to a real problem and making real revenue. We live in the age of the zombie startup. It should be dead, but instead just pivots with every dilution.
I have a hunch that the majority of startup centers in the nation lean left.
SF, Austin, NYC, Boston, Boulder.. predominantly vote blue in presidential elections.
Infrographic: Graph the last 5 presidential elections and the number of startups, or successful startup exits, or successful startup IPO’s by city. We know tech is an easy one, but what about finance, energy, or bio tech. Are certain types of startups more red or blue? Is it based on geography or industry?
I have a feeling liberals are better (high paid knowledge economy) job creators over the last 20 years.
This came thru the GangPlank backchannel today.
We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to remind you that it’s okay to “Be Dangerous’.
The warning signs of defending the status quo
When confronted with a new idea, do you:
- Consider the cost of switching before you consider the benefits?
- Highlight the pain to a few instead of the benefits for the many?
- Exaggerate how good things are now in order to reduce your fear of change?
- Undercut the credibility, authority or experience of people behind the change?
- Grab onto the rare thing that could go wrong instead of amplifying the likely thing that will go right?
- Focus on short-term costs instead of long-term benefits, because the short-term is more vivid for you?
- Fight to retain benefits and status earned only through tenure and longevity?
- Embrace an instinct to accept consistent ongoing costs instead of swallowing a one-time expense?
- Slow implementation and decision making down instead of speeding it up?
- Embrace sunk costs?
- Imagine that your competition is going to be as afraid of change as you are? Even the competition that hasn’t entered the market yet and has nothing to lose…
- Emphasize emergency preparation at the expense of a chronic and degenerative condition?
- Compare the best of what you have now with the possible worst of what a change might bring?
- Calling it out when you see it might give your team the strength to make a leap.
“But it takes time to reach product/market fit. Founders have to choose a market long before they have any idea whether they will reach product/market fit. In my opinion, the best predictor of whether a startup will achieve product/market fit is whether there is what David Lee calls “founder/market fit”. Founder/market fit means the founders have a deep understanding of the market they are entering, and are people who “personify their product, business and ultimately their company.”
not to toot my own horn too much, but this has worked well for Sally and I
To get accepted to these programs you have to apply.
I was introduced to David Cohen of techstars through a close friend and was able to engage David in a conversation which led to him suggesting we apply to techstars, and why wouldn’t we. Techstars has a great reputation and seems to be a solid-gold hit machine for churning out hot and ‘successful’ tech startups. Ycom shares this reputation as well.
Why didn’t we apply to what seems like a necessary program to launch a startup these days?
I replied to David that I felt we were a little too far along for the program. We are post revenue, re-investing with monthly cashflow w/ comfortable margins, just hired a 6 figure DevOps guy from revenue, and growing 60-70% by quarter. This does not seem to be in line with the ‘typical’ early-stage startup applying to these programs.
Moving to Boulder,CO for 13 weeks to couch surf or live in a studio apartment while I ‘work on my idea’ in trade of advisement and mentorship, seed funds per founder less then a weeks current earnings and signing over 6% of my company just didn’t sound like a good idea. I’m 33 not 22, married not single, an extroverted tinkerer not a red bull fueled ruby hacker.
When I shared this POV with David he mentioned it was a common objection he hears and pointed me in the direction of 2 blog posts of others in a similar (no longer a startup with a MVP, but not a 10 person funded company either). Here they are.
After reading those it seems that the value of the ‘connections’ you make at these programs is worth it the price of admission. That is a fair argument.
Is it really necessary for a startup to go through a program like these to be successful?
In our case and those of further along startups it seems the primary benefit of programs like this becomes less about the seed capital, or time to flesh out your business and becomes primarily about Access and Valuation.
Access is something hard to quantify. Washington politics it is ALL about access.. the revolving door between lobbyists and political staffers is a well known flaw in our system but that is how it is done. So in this context, does access to investors and the who’s who of the tech industry carry the same benefit? Tech investors are typically tech users and are in order of magnitude easier to communicate with over twitter, facebook, email, their own blog, than it is to say get a 10 minute meeting with a Senator. Tech investors talk about deal flow, and having access to the best deal flow, Startup accelerators like Techstars and Ycom could be seen as an instrument of vetting deals and ensuring quality deal flow to those on the other end. Access to tech writers who gush over hot YC/TS companies as well is valuable unto itself.
People are lazy, if YC and Techstars are vetting deals, investors don’t have to think about/perform their own due diligence investing in them, they just do. Why would an investor take the time to learn about your no name company if they have vetted and certified “graduates” deal flow at the ready. So to this point, startup programs seem to certainly gain you access to these pools of investment funds, making introductions and meetings easier.
Some investor recently wrote that a college education is overvalued. From outside looking in it seems the accelerator programs are essentially doing the same thing. Startup X is a YC09 graduate. Letters after a name is a mark of expertise in some field. How is that any different from being Yale MBA class of 08, or University of Arizona CIS PHD class of 09? So in essence it appears that on one hand they say a college education is not worth what it used to be, but they use a diploma from startup accelerator (YC10) as a way of judging a startup. This is perpetuating the same cycle.. that you have to go to the best ‘school’ to get the best job.
Valuation of a company seeking funding seems to be affected by this phenomena as well and David mentioned it as a selling point of Techstars.
…both [recent graduates] will raise significant series A on much higher valuations than they might have otherwise been able to achieve, due to TechStars.
If you goal is to raise an A, and future B & C money, a higher valuation is likely a good thing. What if your goal though is not to raise after a seed round? David told me that another raise is not always the best outcome and they don’t push companies in that direction should it not make sense. Can startups now expect a 5% 10% even 20% on valuation for adding YC10 to their about page? Is this a good thing overall? Personally it does not sit well with me as it seems to discount the hard work and effort of startups not in the program.
Could you get meetings through other means? Yes. Could you still get a good founder-friendly valuation, Yes. Could you still build a network of smart influential people, Yes. Will it be harder and more difficult, probably. Are Techstars and YC acting as gatekeepers? No. From all apparent sources they have seemed be similarly aligned with founders after the same things, successful companies. If this trend continues of more accelerators, and more startups applying to them, and the primary benefit becomes out of reach of non participating companies, then it would likely have the opposite effect.
It appears though that it is becoming more and more necessary to participate in these programs and pay the price of admission to gain entrance to the club. The cycle is starting to feed off itself with more accelerator programs popping up, and more startups adding Class09 to their about page as a marketing angle. The tech press is enabling as well washing these new graduates in press, and last I checked they were not expanding coverage of their “bootstrapped and not based in SF, Boston, or NYC tech startup” news beat.
After further conversation with David, I agree with him that the network effect of these programs is real and I am likely underestimating the value of it. I have over time built my own network and value all the connections within it. Certainly adding to it would be a good thing. It is evident by our conversation that he is still accessible and approachable irregardless of whether or not we apply. Kudos.
So we were not accepted to any of these programs because we did not apply. I fully get though it has worked and is working for others and wish them all the greatest amount of success.
Feeling like we have to ‘move to SF’ or ‘apply to YCom’ to be successful by the current measure of the industry just goes against my non-conformist nature. These programs can help, but hopefully remain an option and not become ‘the way’.
Oh wait, we will be in SF this summer.
From this article in Vanity Fair
With youth unemployment in America at around 20 percent (and in some locations, and among some socio-demographic groups, at twice that); with one out of six Americans desiring a full-time job not able to get one; with one out of seven Americans on food stamps (and about the same number suffering from “food insecurity”)—given all this, there is ample evidence that something has blocked the vaunted “trickling down” from the top 1 percent to everyone else.