Startup Founders Must Trust In Something

Together with most people, I was deeply saddened by the loss of Steve Jobs. He inspired so many and set a very high standard for anyone looking to innovate and create products. Even in his death, he inspired us through videos and articles that everybody posted after hearing the bad news.

Perhaps most famously, Steve Jobs said in his Stanford graduation speech: “trust in something”.  How does that apply to startups and their founders? A startup is almost always a leap of faith, by a group of people that truly believe that they are creating the next Apple or Facebook.  So, what should they trust in to have a chance at making it?

It’s just two things:

The Problem
Startup founders have to truly believe that they are solving a real and a really important problem. Almost always, in order for them to truly believe that, it has to be personal.  They must have experienced the problem first hand, and then set out to solve it. That feeds their passion which is critical to success.  When the problem is personal, the founder is much more determined to keep working on it after a setback. That passion and the resulting perseverence is what enables a startup to be successful, because invariably they will hit a number of roadblocks, one after another, before becoming an “overnight success“.

The Team
The founders have to believe in each other’s capabilities and motivation.  They have to trust that collectively they will be able to solve the problems they will encounter along the way, because they have the combined skills necessary. They also have to trust that each of them passionately believes in what they are doing – solving that one very important problem.  Many non-technical founders fail because they start their journey with a CTO who doesn’t care enough about the problem they are solving. Worse yet, they start with an outsourcing firm that almost never cares about it.  Oftentimes, they don’t have the right skills. Only personal experience working together between the founders prior to getting involved in a startup can ensure this vital trust.

If you are a CEO or a founder of a startup, you have to believe that the problem you are solving is really important and that the people you are working with are both capable and dedicated to solving it. If you have any doubt, then it is time to ask “why” and take action.

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Old-school Industries Embracing SEO

Found an interesting site with lots of content about sealcoating and paving of roads, parking lots and driveways. Lots of good content here despite the fairly old-school industry with companies like this having very little online presence until recently.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

4 Steps To Finding Your True Voice

The idea of starting a blog appeals to businesses and individuals – over 170 million are doing it – yet it is difficult to settle on a good topic for it.  When I started this blog, I wrote that I will talk about web apps and provide advice to their creators.  I have been building web-based products as a developer and a product manager for over 13 years, so it seemed like a logical choice.  Was it the right one?

As I continued to generate blog ideas and think about what I wanted to write I realized that there was a disconnect between my stated mission and those ideas.  The things I was inspired to write about were not quite fitting into the mold I had created.  As a result, the things that I actually ended up writing about, did not really fit my blog’s stated theme and purpose. Worse yet, I ended up not writing about most of my ideas.

I read countless articles and blogs about writing.  Almost all of them state that one of the key things is to “find your voice”.  Unfortunately, most don’t talk about how to do that.  It’s tempting to define your voice as something you know a lot about or something related to your job.  It is logical and most people do just that.  However, you can’t really “define” your voice, as it is already defined and part of who you are.  It is not possible to change it simply by stating what it ought to be.  You have to find it.

After much soul searching, I was still stuck.  The key breakthrough occured after I read an article about how “your title does not define who you are”.  Soon after starting to talk about myself as a web product geek as opposed to a product manager, I made the connection to the blog: I wanted to write about business issues founders of web-based startups face as they create new products and get their companies off the ground.

Thinking back, here is a simple exercise that what would have helped me find my true voice much more quickly:

  1. Write down 10-20 one-sentence blog post ideas.
  2. Tag each idea with 5-10 keywords that either describe it or associate with it.
  3. Count the number of times each keyword is mentioned
  4. Check for patterns among the most frequently occurring keywords.

After step 4 it should be clear what you truly want to write about.  If not, you may need to generate more ideas and keywords, and iterate until it becomes clear.

I hope this helps the people similarly conflicted about their true voice.  I would love to hear how well this works for others and how it could be improved.  Happy blogging!

Posted in blog, startups | 1 Comment

Easy Transition From FaceBook to Google+

Trying to free your friends from jail a.k.a. Facebook?  Not so easy!  Facebook makes it very hard to export anything, presumably to keep people from leaving. After all, re-creating a list of hundreds of people on another social network is a significant undertaking. The recent release of Google+ made me wonder how to copy Facebook Friends to Google+ Circles. Here is your get-friends-out-of-jail-free card:

  1. Log in to a Yahoo account (create one if you forgot your credentials from 1999 – I did)
  2. Go to address.yahoo.com
  3. Click the Facebook icon
  4. Enter Facebook login credentials
  5. Click “OK” when prompted to share your contacts with Yahoo
  6. When finished click “Done”
  7. Click Tools -> Export
  8. Choose a format.  For a generic format, choose vCard single file
Voilà!  You just downloaded all of your Facebook contacts, including names and email addresses.   You can now import them into any program.

For import to Google+, things are even easier:

  1. Log in to Google+
  2. Click on Circles
  3. Next to “Find Friends” label, click on Yahoo
  4. Enter your Yahoo login credentials (if asked)
  5. Click “Agree”
Voilà (again)!   Your Yahoo contacts are now available to be added to your Circles.  Drag them to the Circles of your choosing as you did with other contact suggestions.  Enjoy!  
If you need a Google+ invite, drop me a line @grublev.
Posted in apps, Facebook, Google+, social, tools | 1 Comment

Google+ Runs Circles Around Facebook

Lots has been written about Google+ but I haven’t seen a good explanation of Circles. It’s a revolutionary development for mainstream social engagement, and I think it’s worth explaining it a little better.

Let’s compare Circles to Facebook Friends. Most people on Facebook are connected to hundreds of “Friends”, but they don’t know majority of them well, and some of them they don’t know at all. Now, imagine if your “Friends” were only your close friends and family, people you talk to at last once a month. How much more would you post? How much easier would it be to post something personal? OK, not everything you post is personal, so what about the rest of the “Friends”? Well, let’s think about who they are.

  • People from your High School that you barely remember
  • People from college you used to party with
  • Former co-workers
  • Recruiters you worked with
  • Parents of your kids’ classmates
  • People with common interests e.g. tango dancing, chess club, running buddies
  • Current co-workers (most people don’t add them to Facebook since they are afraid to post something embarrassing for a professional setting)
  • Last but not least, random people you don’t recognize

Google Circles creates a social structure of your “Friends” that resembles reality, rather than lumps them together. Once all of your former “Friends” are split into Circles such as: Friends, Family, Professional, Co-Workers, Acquaintances you can tag each of your posts with the appropriate Circle. You can create your own circles based on your interests, e.g. KidsSchoolParents, TangoDancers

  • Family vacation details: Family
  • Kids funny pictures: Family, Friends
  • Your blog post on politics: Family, Friends
  • Your picture at a conference: Family, Friends, Professional
  • Your blog post on industry trends: Everyone
  • Pictures from an office party: Co-Workers
  • Complaint about your boss: Family, Friends
  • Complaint about a family member: Friends
  • Complaint about a friend: Family
  • Your mood today: Family, Friends
  • Post about walk-for-hunger: Everyone
  • Pictures from school play: Family, Friends, KidsSchoolParents
  • Amazing tango video: TangoDancers

A corollary to how you post is how you view. Start by viewing only the news from your Friends and Family, before you look at the updates from everyone else.

Some might say: Facebook already supports these features, to which I say: bullcrap. It is the same as saying your bicycle supports a trip from Boston to San Francisco. It is most certainly possible to cycle cross-country, but most people would never do it.

Google Circles will enable more sharing and more engagement and is a huge leap forward for social networking. Facebook might be in trouble and unless it does something VERY quickly, it will see a critical mass of people switching to Google+, if they haven’t already.

If you need a Google+ invite, drop me a line @grublev.

Note: there is an easy workaround to copy your Facebook Friends to Google+ Circles.  

Posted in apps, Facebook, Google+, products, social, strategy | 1 Comment

9 Red Flags We’ve Seen During Dot Com Boom

This is a great time to start a new company.  If you have traction – chances are you will get funding.  I love the diversity and the passion of the new startups I am discovering, latest being Boundless Learning, Smarterer and Zaarly.  I also enjoy surfing this wave as a director of product at NetProspex after having raised 5.5 million in December and seeing significant growth in every aspect of the business.  Yet we should not ignore clear signs that some things could be going wrong.  I couldn’t possibly be as thorough as Steve Blank and Ben Horowitz, however I can point out a few “Red Flags” that we’ve seen before.  Let’s see is if we can draw some parallels between now and the dot com boom 12 years ago.
  1. The stock market is up, and up big – same level as the peak of the dot com boom.  It is a tide that that lifts a lot of boats and creates a lot of money that needs to be parked somewhere.
  2. VCs and Angels are investing a lot of money in a lot of companies.  It is certainly not a bad thing, yet it is an indicator of excess supply of money, and that is what we saw 12 years ago when a lot of companies got funding despite the fact that they had no profits and questionable business models – not to mention outright fraud.
  3. There are lots of big-time IPOs of companies that don’t make money.  They don’t make money and that is a very bad sign.  Period end of story.  We saw this in 1999-2000 and it did not end well for most of their late investors.
  4. Companies are inventing new metrics and measures of success.  In 2000 it was all about eyeballs, not cash flow, profits or even revenues!    Now we have ACSOI – sounds more like a new kind of Asian lettuce rather then an investment metric.  Can Groupon really exclude customer acquisition costs from regular expenses?  This begs the question of what are the underlying issues in the businesses that resort to these alternative metrics to justify their stratospheric valuations. 
  5. Companies are playing accounting tricks.  For example, DMD is depreciating payments to its writers over 5 years, as part of amortization of “intangibles”.  Does anybody remember Worldcom and the big scandal over a similar issue?
  6. Companies claim to be part of a “new paradigm” and that is used to justify new ways of looking at their business activity, rather then draw parallels with the past.  It is tempting to buy into this argument and if you haven’t invested thousands or millions into eyeballs during the dot com boom, and haven’t lost it all, you may in fact go with the flow.  However, if you look back at the dot com bust, that is exactly how outpost.com, ValueUsa, Beyond.com and the many, many, many companies doing eCommerce, B2B, web hosting, telecom equipment and other “Internet Stuff” justified their poor financial and business performance.  It didn’t work out well for their late investors.
  7. One has to ask: is value really, truly being created, or is it simply being moved around, or worse yet, destroyed.  If value is not created, then the company’s business model can not be sustainable.  Seems like some companies do create it, but others don’t.  For example, compare LinkedIn and Groupon today, with Ebay and Outpost.com 12 years ago.  LI is truly one of a kind business, with unprecedented participation, unbelievable stickiness and has real revenues.  That is very similar to Ebay, which in early days had the same characteristics.  Now, take Groupon: lots have been written here, here, here and here about how Groupon is actually destroying value and seems awfully similar to OutPost.com and ValueUsa.  However, to make matters worse, Groupon and it’s clone LivingSocial command valuations much higher then the early eCommerce plays, so it seems the bets are even higher this time around.
  8. Biased analysis from trusted sources.  During the dot com bust we’ve seen lots of biased advice and several disgraced analysts went down in infamy e.g. Henry Blodget.  New disclosure rules were born as a result, e.g. RegFD.  Today, we see things like the excellent debate in the Economist, cited above.  Blank, arguing that the bubble is happening again is a retired enterpreneur and a professor and seems fairly unbiased.  Horowitz, arguing that there is no bubble, has recently invested hundreds of millions in unprofitable companies that are part of the current wave, e.g. AirBnb and FourSquare.  Seem unbiased? 
  9. Last but not least: TV commercials! Both now and then we’ve seen some bizarre commercials.  Take a look at this one from Outpost.com and this one from Groupon. Enjoy!

So, are these red flags, yellow flags or just unrelated observations?  Would love your feedback.

In the meantime, let the party of innovation continue in full force.

Posted in investing, startups, strategy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Check me out of geo-local-mobile apps

Smart phones and GPS technology enabled a new generation of apps, geo-local-mobile (GLM), most notably FourSquare, Whrrl and Gowalla.  I heard them mentioned by various people, verbally and in my LinkedIn activity stream, and at a certain point I had find out: “What is this check-in thing all about?  How do I too become a mayor?  Give me badges!”  As I found out, these apps are addicting at first.   They gave me a way to tell my friends what and where I am doing, and make a game out of it.  However, all suffer from three fatal flaws:

  1. As with any network-based idea, the value to the user is dependent on the size of the network.  None of these apps achieved the critical mass of having enough of my friends engaged, so the incentive to post for the purpose of keeping in touch is not there.
  2. There is nothing that these apps offer that most people would pay for.
  3. Once the novelty wears off, the user has no reason to use the app.  Game mechanics can only take you so far, and the rewards offered by the apps simply aren’t compelling enough.
To make matter worse, both Yelp and Facebook added seamless check-in capabilities.  Given their vast existing networks and their incredible user engagement, it seems that the GLM apps are destined to fall by the wayside along with the Facebook also-rans.  Although, given todays tech investment climate, the founders might still get nice exits!  
————————————————————————-
IfYouBuild Checklist
 – Will they come?
Check.  Novelty and “me to” are drivers here.
 – How will they know about it?
Check.  Viral apps and lots of press.  Great combination!
 – How will they get to it?
Check.  FaceBook and LinkedIn streams serve as reminders.
 – What will they say?
Check.  Game mechanics make this fun at first.
 – Will they stay?
Check.  Game mechanics keep the user engaged for a while.
 – Will they pay?
Fail.  No reason to pay, not much reason to even tolerate ads.
 – Will they come back?
Fail.  Not for long.  Network effects aren’t strong enough and apps have no intrinsic value.
 – Will they tell others to come?
Check.  Word of mouth and social app integration are major drivers of user growth.
Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments