Friday, July 19, 2013

10 Internet Startup tips from the Silicon Valley trenches (Last part but not least)

10. Have fun, that's what can make you win

Those who have experienced the unique flows of positive energy dynamizing the startup ecosystem and what it is to act on a vision should relate. There is nothing like living and breathing in each moment of an Internet startup venture. Especially, when you can do it in the amazing orchard of relentlessly sprouting innovation, the Silicon Valley.

Along this journey, at least before you get funded, you don't have much and finding ways to multiply creative thinking possibilities can go a long way. As you build the team, seek to continuously challenge your thinking and come up with new ways, fun can take you to unexpected heights.
It's well known that disruptive innovators are highly visual leaders. Leonardo Da Vinci used to draw a lot of inspiration from stains on walls. I would encourage you to find new, fun interactive ways to engage with your team, in-person and through immersive remote collaboration video experiences, through fun visual activities that get your team to actually "touch" the future.

Yes, I mean it. Touch the future.
Gamestorming is an interesting avenue to explore but I challenge you to define what is the best way for your team to spawn boundless creative thinking. Think about the impact for stakeholders to "touch" it.

In that sense, I'll leave you with this final thought, most startup pitches that win make the target audience at least visualize, better, touch how what your startup solves is going to change their life forever.

Startup life changed mine forever, I am forever grateful I did it!

Don't think twice and don't read these tips twice, just do it.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

10 Internet Startup tips from the Silicon Valley trenches (Part III)

7. 100% "committed as one" when you have to raise funds and even when you don't

As you have decided that raising funds is key to getting your startup to the next stage of growth, you must be 100% of your time on it. And so should all of your startup teammates.

That's the reality, investors do not invest in part timers, they look for solid returns on investments (typically 10x in less than 5 years) from solid, high perfoming teams of united talents who know how to work together and be continuously adaptive to relentless startup changes.

"We have to work together, that's the only way..."

My take on this point that I have confronted with some of the brightest minds I have met along this journey is that you also need to be 100% committed to your startup even if you are not looking for funds. It is extremely complicated, no matter how smart you are, to create and scale an Internet/Mobile startup for growth, regardless of where you are operating from.

Being one, 100% of your time, is top important if you want to win and hope to sustain the win.

8. Be cognizant of the bullshit revolving around design and live with it

Let's face it, if you are solving a huge problem on a poorly designed site, you can at least get to major startup traction and start scaling.

I have asked the question to many, many leaders at well known startups and high growth tech companies, no one is able to quantify in any way the relative importance of design to the hundreds of other decision influencing levers that the startup CEO has to push and pull.

Closer to my personal experience, I had the honor to be exposed to one of Steve Job's executive leaders who has now become a VC in the Silicon Valley. We had opted to co-create the design of our site with our target maket directly (principle of co-creation to reduce product/market friction), the resulting design was not trendy as per the Silicon Valley current design standards. However, we had had hundreds of extremely positive feedback from our target market, the lifeblood of shareholders' value to any startup.

When I asked this executive the following question: "Do you design to align with investors' current tastes or for your target market?", the executive said "If you want to build a great company, you indeed design for your target market".

I'll leave you with this as food for thoughts, there is a lot of subjectivity around design and I encourage you to be aware of the latest UXD best practices (design including user experience, you cannot separate the two, design is a way of thinking, a way of delivering value for the target market) and seek to work with the best talent out there. Besides, you can engage with amazing talents through crowd-sourced platforms (99 designs, eLance, odesk and the likes) at a fraction of traditional cost but before that...

9. Solve something or you are nothing need to make sure you are solving an unmet need, a real something otherwise you are nothing.

This tip should be last on the list to grab what is left over from your dimming attention after this novel but I decided to put it here because even academic programs geared towards "entrepreneurship" will mention that to you upfront.

That's the fundamental of startup venture, to change the world you need to solve a big problem.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

10 Internet Startup tips from the Silicon Valley trenches (Part II)

4. Shape your startup's perceived value through stellar entrepreneurial relationships building

Building a business, its brand, and down the road its reputation, starts with working on its perception, building the key stakeholders' perceived value.

By and large, contrary to a lot of inexperienced startup CEO thinking that I have encountered, it is much more rewarding and beneficial to all startup CEOs to think inclusively and not exclusively. In other words, I believe it is of prime importance to build solid entrepreneurial relationships with other CEOs as opposed to seeing them as competitors, competing for the same venture capital money for example.

This cross-pollinating approach allows the startup ecosystem's leaders to navigate the turbulent startup grind waters in a more serene fashion.

First, cross-pollination allows to avoid many obstacles through the common "knowlege base" of startup life (E.g: avoid those who do business on the startup dream), and second, it helps tremendously shape perception.

As you connect in the ecosystem, you will meet inspiring entrepreneurs from well known startups who broke through the IPO stage to become your official advisors in exchange for a small amount of equity (1% post seed round is a good order of magnitude but check out, or their competitors to see benchmarks).

You will gain invaluable insight to scale your venture and will boost your intangible value in key stakholders' eyes (investors, clients, new teammates etc...) many folds.

5. Embrace our sharing economy

As you operate like most Silicon Valley Internet entrepreneurs on a lean budget, you need to find creative ways to stretch every penny. One great fairly new way to do that is to make the most of the advent of our sharing economy.

On airbnb, you can find homeowners who do not have the time to manage their property to run their bnb buisness in an optimal way. Do it for them. That's what I did on several occasions (it's easy, changing sheets, responding to prospective clients requests, doing the check in/walk through) in exchange for an even cheaper rate per night that defided any competition in the Valley.

On top of that, airbnb is also an amazing entrepreneurial cross-pollination hub.

I would say that I have learned even more from meeting other startup CEOs on airbnb than from my official advisors with C-level experiences at well known startups including Pandora and eBay.

Don't hesitate to venture out into the sharing economy of other under-utilized assets such as cars (Lyft, Tickengo for social rides, zipcar, getaround or their competitors for carsharing), and I am sure, many more to come in this rising, distributed, value cloud society of ours.

6. To win your new startup should rise in and with the value cloud

Being a bit more exposed every day to our new sharing economy, we get a feel as consumers for a much stronger phenomenon that is gaining momentum with the new breeds of digital startups emerging from the Silicon Valley. Namely, the distribution of value in a societal "cloud".

High-growth startups in the Silicon Valley, more and more, seem to have understood the value stemming from a distributed, cloudsourced, far-flung organization.

Startup life is about achieving business growth results in the realm of extreme uncertainties on lean resources. As such, finding the right balance that unleashes each teammate potential to fully resonate with the business goals is key, and certainly not easy.

My tip here is to challenge your thinking with the way you interact as a team. I would advocate for a blended approach where a tested mix of in-person and immersive remote collaboration is permeating the startup's operational processes.

I am not sure this has been figured out yet by anyone.  Even well known large high-tech organizations are still trying to crack the code, and I believe there is tremendous potential yet to be unraveled here.

We actually took this approach to the extreme in our startup, using a behavior-based gamification layer to discover the best social e-commerce talents out there, think "remote experts", and hire them based on the shareholder value created through purely far-flung remote collaboration, or co-creation to highlight a favorite HBS term. We had astonishing results and were able to drive key behaviors at no cost but we didn't strike the right balance of traditional/remote organizational design so far to claim that we cracked the code. We feel the code will be discovered by this new breed of extremely agile Silicon Valley digital startups very soon.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

10 Internet Startup tips from the Silicon Valley trenches (Part I)

For 17 months, I haven't posted anything on this blog primarily because of the startup grind.

Long story short, in June of last year, I went all-in to execute full-time on an idea that I had when I was twelve years old.  After getting started in an hybrid mode for months, where I was still holding a leadership role full-time at a Fortune 500 company, while being a dad of two inspiring daughters who are now three and seven years old, I just took the big plunge -- all-in.

Based on my achievements so far, I believe I have yet to deserve the title "startup entrepreneur"; however, I have been through an amazing startup journey that started in Florida, took me to Boston before flying me out to the Silicon Valley for months, and eventually, relocating me there. 

I believe there will be some value added to the startup community sharing the key highlights of this entrepreneurial adventure as it could help some aspiring and active startup entrepreneurs move along their way to successfully scale their dream faster, and in a smoother way.

1.  Don't waste your time with traditional early stage fundraising if you don't need to!

Traditional fundraising (Early VC, Angels) is a full time job for the leader of the startup.

There is only one leader in a startup, the co-CEO workaround that you may see/have seen at a few startups is generally not well accepted by most early stage investors who make a clear point of the necessity that one guy/gal on the team (max three founders) makes the call to move the venture forward when decision making stalls.

This leader will have to be the one pitching the startup.  He/she will have to get up to speed on the pitch requirements and be fully involved with advisors, and potentially, pitch coaches to deliver the pitch in the way that best resonates with the target audience (traditional investors: most common formats are 1-minute and 2-minute pitches).  There is no eye rolling here, it's a full time job that will take a lot of the focus away from the key product buildout and distribution activities in the startup's early stages.

Why do you need to raise money at this point in the game?
What are you precisely going to achieve with the amount you are looking for? 
Are you crystal clear on that?
Do you have enough traction (minimum user base month-over-month growth over 20%, hockeystick revenue growth) for early stage investors to have any interest in backing you up?

Ideally, challenge your assumptions on traditional external financing. 
Are you still in a very early stage (Minimal Viable Product buildout phase) where you should be able to validate your concept with minimal amounts ($5k - $10k ballpark) that could be raised through crowd-funding (legislations seem to be changing fast from a year ago when this solution was not recommended), consulting cash or friends and family bootstrapping?

2.  You need a CTO from the mobile cloud era from the onset

The principle of singularity profoundly applies here.  Technology is extremely volatile, it's an ever changing business value delivery channel and you need a nimble mind aware of the latest in mobile and cloud if you want to scale, and/or raise money for your Internet startup.

It's a must.

3.  Get accelerated by the right program if you can and only if it makes sense

The best thing that can happen to you as a startup entrepreneur is to be challenged  in your entrepreneurial journey so you can fail as fast as possible.  By as fast as possible, I mean that you want to get to the point where you can see if you can make your startup fly towards the skies of sustainable growth without having jeopardized or wasted too many assets.

In that sense, many startup entrepreneurs actively look to join a startup acceleration program (to be distinguished from startup incubators that generally are real estate businesses looking to achieve their return on asset objectives on the back of lean startup founders).

I learned the hard way that you have to be very clear on the adequation of your personal situation with the requirements and props offered by such accelerators.  Most accelerators (execept the Y combinator which is awesome apparently and very straight forward) have a lengthly selection process that is going to take away a lot of your valuable time (time to convince the right people, plus the time to get to the "active window" of the program), energy and not necessarily be of much added value in relation to what you can garner from active networking in the Silicon Valley.

My piece of advice: make sure to have kickass traction first, then consider joining Y Combinator as a priority.

Having said that, if you are knocking it out of the park in terms of traction (user growth, revenue) you may not even need acceleration if the CEO knows how to sell the current win (if external funds are required to get to the next stage of growth).

Stay tuned startup entrepreneurs, Part II coming soon (with the next scrum ;-)