5 Tips for Startup Engineering Teams

This post originally appeared on Thoughts on Tech Startups and Venture Capital.

Every single company, and startups are no exception, depend on software. Software went from being critical to every business, to being THE business.

Software creation is an art, a craft and a process.

Building and shipping software is a marathon that lasts the entire lifetime of the company.

To ship software effectively, you need to establish cadence and a process. In this post, we discuss a lightweight framework and tips that startups can follow to ship quality software regularly and effectively.

1. Setup Sprints

To start, you need a light process for identifying what to build and how to actually build it. Teams that choose to ship without a process end up being chaotic, stressed out and ultimately not successful.

Here is a light process, called a sprint, that will help your team ship to production every 2 weeks.

The sprint starts with planning what to build. The features are organized into two lists – all features you want to implement and a subset of features you will actually implement in this upcoming sprint.

Before the beginning of the sprint, the team gets together and re-prioritizes all features. Once the ranking is complete, the top 3-5 features are moved into the list to be completed for the upcoming sprint.

Once the features are selected, they are LOCKED for this sprint. You can’t add new features in the middle of the sprint.

This is critical. Making changes in the middle of the sprint throws off the timeline and causes massive stress to your engineering team. Avoid doing this at all costs.

Similarly to having 2 lists for features, you will have 2 lists for bugs as well. Before the start of each sprint, re-prioritize all the bugs and move the ones that need to be fixed into the list for this sprint.

Here is a sample setup for your sprint:

  • Planning: 3 days before the start.
  • Fix Bugs:
    • Day 1: Wednesday
    • Day 2: Thursday
  • Code:
    • Day 3-7: Friday – Thursday, except weekends:)
  • Test:
    • Day 8: Friday
    • Day 9: Monday
  • Ship:
    • Day 10: Tuesday

There are a few tricks to setting up the sprint.

Never release into production on Friday or in the evening.

Why? Because things tend to break and then you might end up ruining your weekend or be stuck in the office all night.

The second trick is to always fix the bugs first before coding new features. This way you are making sure that you are building new features on a solid foundation.

If your sprint is 2 weeks, you have 5 days to code new features. This is plenty of time assuming you broke down your features into small chunks. In fact, this system forces you to do that. You are always making progress, improving the product and moving forward.

The last part of the sprint is testing and making sure you release quality software.

The last few days of each sprint should feel like a spiral.

You test, find bugs and fix them. The closer you are to the release, the less bugs you should find. Once there are no bugs found, you are ready to ship.

When you are in the home stretch of the release, it pays off for everyone to focus on specific bugs or features together. When everyone is focused together, you squash down a bug faster and then move onto the next problem. This strategy helps the entire team spiral down towards the release together.

2. Prioritize and Handle Emergencies

In addition to implementing sprints, get your team to always prioritize and stack rank features and bugs.

When everything is important, nothing gets done.

Create simple and clear language that everyone can adapt when talking about priorities. For example:

  • P1 – highest priority, business critical
  • P2 – important, needs to get done, but not critical
  • P3 – not important, nice to have

If there is a P1 bug that is found in production, and it impacts the business, you need to pause the release and push a fix into production. This situation should be rare.

If you are finding that this happens all the time, then you aren’t doing a good job testing and fixing bugs in the final stages of your sprints. You need to revisit how you are handling your spiraling down towards the release.

As you review your lists of features and bugs, re-rank and re-assign priorities. It is totally fine to have priorities change between sprints, just not during the sprint.

3. Pair Program and Test

Agile software development comes with a toolbox of methods to help build high quality software. My favorite two are pair programming and testing.

Pair programming is literally two engineers working together. One is typing the code and the second one is watching.

Pair programming may seem like a waste of time, but it is actually a more effective way to code especially critical pieces of your system.

Pair programming increases the quality of the code and establish awesome camaraderie between team members. You create clear and bug free code out of the gate.

Testing, and unit testing in particular, is another strategy to ensure quality code. It is actually pretty hard to write and maintain a body of tests for your code, but it is necessary and it pays off. After all, if you didn’t test something, how do you know it really works?

There are two types of tests that are particularly helpful. The first set of tests are for critical pieces of your software, things that just can’t break. The second are a set of tests that exposes the bugs you find. Whenever you find a bug, first write a test that exposes it and then fix the code. This way, you are certain that if the bug returns, your test will catch it.

4. Refactor Your Code

Like anything else in the universe, software decays over time. This may not be as obvious because we don’t readily see rust in the code, but it surely is there. Overtime, large-scale software becomes tangled and fragile and needs to be refactored.

The way to deal with it is to constantly refactor or improve your software. Much like how you go to dentist for a cleaning, you need to proactively clean your code.

Encourage the engineers to remove unnecessary code and constantly improve the software to make it better.

In addition, every 6-8 weeks schedule a cleaning and improvement sprint. In this sprint, instead of business features, the team is focusing on cleaning up the code, making it better and writing tests.

5. Create a Happy and Productive Engineering Team

It is really easy to grind down your engineering team, and most startups manage to do it quickly.

Startups thrive on chaos, but a chaotic approach to building software just doesn’t work. It is like trying to sprint through a marathon – you can’t do it.

Writing software is a highly creative and intellectually intense activity and requires a fresh brain, clarity and specific cadence. Software engineering can be either incredibly rewarding or incredibly stressful.

Setting up sprints and clear priorities is a great first step to creating a happy and productive engineering team.

By creating cadence, you reduce stress. By enabling your team to ship to production frequently, you are making the engineers happy. After all, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the code you created work and make a real difference in the world.

Please share with us the strategies and techniques you use for building software in your startup.

This post was originally published on Alex’s blog.




What is the API for Your Startup?

This post originally appeared on Thoughts on Tech Startups and Venture Capital.

I was recently chatting with one of the Techstars founders and found myself asking her – What is the API for your business?

This may sound like an odd question, but it actually is not.

Every single startup, every single business, has an interface that it offers to the world. Some of these interfaces are super simple, like Google – all you can do is search. Some are more sophisticated, like ordering things from Amazon – you can browse, search, add to cart, order, request a refund, etc.

Even if you aren’t an engineer or a product manager, it is really useful to think about the API that your business will offer to the world. Thinking about your business as an API allows you to get a lot of clarity of what your business actually does, and why.

API mentality forces you to be minimalistic and clear.

What is an API?

API stands for an application programming interface. You can think of API as an interface or a contract through which a software component, a web service, or in our case, a business, interacts with the world.

In other words, an API is a protocol for communicating, sending requests and receiving responses from a software component, a web service or a business.

For example, take a simple Check Box, a UI component that we see around the web. The interface for Check Box allows you to check or uncheck it.

/check -- causes checkbox to be checked 
/uncheck -- causes checkbox to be unchecked 

A different example of an API would be, for example, launching 10 servers on DigitalOcean web service cloud. That API may look like this:

/launchServers?numServers=10 -- starts running servers in the cloud.

In this last example, the launchServers command allows the user of the command to specify the number of servers to launch. Most services allow this kind of customization or parameterization for maximum flexibility and reusability. It wouldn’t make sense to have a different command to launch 10 or 20 servers, since it is essentially the same command.

What is the Business API?

When thinking about your business API, it is handy to think about the key concepts of your business and the commands associated with them. What can the users of your business do? Here are some simplified examples of the Business APIs that you will likely recognize:

google.com/search?term=techstars

amazon.com/browse?category=books
amazon.com/buy?bookId=b&customerId=c

uber.com/orderCar?location=loc&customerId=c

twitter.com/postTweet?text=t&userId=u

facebook.com/friend?userId=u&friendId=f

Modern businesses run in the cloud, and the way we interface with them is using HTTP protocol. This maybe counter intuitive since most of us, as end users, see pretty screens and friendly apps, but the nuts and bolts interface, the actual commands, are sent over HTTP.

The reason this is important is because HTTP reminds us of the actual bare bone APIs of these businesses. These are raw, direct interfaces that ultimately define EVERYTHING we can do with these services.

How To Design Your Business API

Now let’s focus on your business. When you are starting out, you are doing a whole bunch of things – understanding your founder market fit, talking to customers, thinking about your unique insights and advantages, your go to market strategy and a ton of other things.

Building the API for your business should be one of the early activities you do.

Use HTTP protocol (it is not that hard!) and map it out. Way before you build your MVP, design your API.

The exercise of designing your API will help you get a lot of clarity about your business. You will make decisions about what you will or won’t do in your MVP. You will prioritize some commands over others. You will realize, by writing on a piece of paper, whether you are doing too much or not enough.

Make your API as simple and as elegant as possible. Don’t think about what to add, think about what to remove.

Your basic API will be an amazing tool for helping you communicate with your customers and with your team. It will also be a stepping stone to building your MVP.

Once you design your API and you are happy with it, implement it. One by one, get the raw API working via HTTP. That’s right, you don’t need fancy UX and pretty apps to start. You can get a feel for your business by implementing your API.

Evolving Your API With Your Business

As your business evolves and grows, so will your API. Keep updating it and making it better. Keep adding to it, but be stingy. The best companies have simple APIs.

Think about Google – it has an amazingly simple interface, but it does something incredibly complex inside. Similarly, Steve Jobs always pushed Apple to make the interface as simple as possible, something that just works. Apple products hide incredible complexity and engineering ingenuity beneath a simple interface.

You want your business to be as simple as possible, and the services behind the interface as valuable as possible.

As your business grows, different parts of your business will evolve their own APIs. You will have a public interface and internal interfaces. It is incredibly helpful to keep all your interfaces simple and clear. Push yourself to always have clean interfaces and use them.

Your own business should always be the first and the biggest customer of your own API.

As your business grows, so will the ways it can be accessed.

You will have a desktop and mobile site, text messages, bots, iOS and Android apps and dozens of other ways your business can be accessed online. All these things can be thought of as clients of your API, clients of your business.

We now live in the world of cloud services and automation. Every major web company, whether it is Google, Amazon or Facebook has APIs for services they offer.

In the future, every single business will be accessed not just through a graphical user interface, but programmatically. As AI and automation enter our world, more and more transactions and access will happen through web services and APIs.

As a startup, you can prepare yourself for that exciting future by simply starting to think about and writing down your own API.

What commands your business offer to its customers? What is your API?

Originally posted on Alex’s blog.




What To Do When Your Fundraising Is Not Going Well

One of the worst things that can happen to a CEO of an early-stage company is to be in the state of perpetual fundraising.

Here is how you can tell that it may be happening to you:

  1. You have been fundraising for a while
  2. You are fundraising and running the business at the same time
  3. You don’t have strong interest from investors
  4. Investors aren’t engaged / don’t ask a ton of questions
  5. Investors keep telling you it’s early / to keep them posted

The list can go on, but you get the point.

You are wasting your time because you aren’t prepared and the timing is likely off.

Please go and read my popular post about 9 seed funding gotchas and I will be right here when you come back.

Disorganized, prolonged fundraising is exhausting and harmful for your company and your personal brand.

So what can you do?

Here are some things for you to consider to help the situation.

Do the Gut Check

Be honest—are you really READY to fundraise?

Have you prepared enough, or are you going out too early? When you go to bed at night and think about it, like really think about it, are you really ready?

The best way to fundraise is not to go out early, but to first prepare and answer a whole bunch of key questions about the business and the opportunity.

Think about questions like: why are you the right team, why are you going after this opportunity, why now, how do you know this is needed, what are the early indications of product-market fit, what is the business model, what are the unit economics, how are you going to acquire the customers, what is the pricing, what will this business be like in three years from now, who are the right investors, why would they invest, how do you get in front of them, what will be important to them—etc, etc, etc.

The nerdier you get about fundraising, and the more prepared and disciplined you are, the higher the chance you will be able to get it done faster.

If you aren’t ready, pause, go back, prepare, read my posts on fundraising and particularly on building a deck and pipeline, and then go back to the market.

Build Investor Pipeline

Assuming you passed the gut check, and you really feel like you are ready, next assess whether you are able to get in front of enough qualified investors.

Like sales, fundraising is a numbers game. If you don’t have a strong enough pipeline, you can’t get to the finish line.

Every single NO should cause you to add 3-5 more prospects to the top of the funnel.

If you are early on in the process, particularly a first-time founder without a strong network, you will find that fundraising is taking a long time because you aren’t even getting that many meetings.

Your fundraising process is stretched over weeks and months, but you aren’t seeing a lot of investors. As a result, you obsess over every single opportunity, like a few conversations you are having instead of focusing on having a lot more conversations.

What you need to do is to pause and focus on filling up your pipeline with 20-30 new investors. Just keep filling the pipeline, but do not take the meetings. After you have the pipeline filled up, THEN go and pitch everyone. This strategy will help you get a real signal and have a chance at creating momentum in your round.

Understand Investor Feedback

Assuming you have enough in your pipeline and you are meeting a bunch of investors in a short period of time, you really need to understand their feedback. What is the reason that people are saying NO? Do you not have enough traction? Is the space not interesting? Is the opportunity too small? Is it something else?

Whatever it is, your job as a founder is to avoid happy ears, parse the feedback you are given and really take it to heart.

If you are early and don’t have enough traction, then you need to understand the milestones people expect and go build the business until you hit them.

Investors may tell you that they don’t believe in the market size, or in unit economics or in your customer acquisition strategy—whatever feedback they give you, whatever the signal is, go back and address it. Understand the pushback, do research, get data, execute and come back with a fix.

Also, know that there are more subtle things that people won’t necessarily tell you about. For example, investors may not believe in the founding team and don’t see strong founder-market fit. Investors may not like the space. They may have issues with well-funded competition. If the issue is more subtle, try to really figure out what it is.

The bottom line is whatever the feedback is, no matter how tough it is, go back and address it.

Pre-seed Fundraising Strategy

Now let’s look at specific strategies for types of financing.

Your pre-seed round is truly an idea stage. You don’t have a product and you may not have your team fully assembled. You are super, super, super early. Read this other post I wrote first.

If you are a first-time founder, focus first on your friends and family, people who really know you and already think you are great. Get at least a little bit of their capital, and maybe even your personal capital so that you aren’t at zero. Being at zero is the worst state.

Don’t spend any time with VCs at this stage; you are WAY TOO EARLY.

You can raise capital from angels, but the key things are to a) get a little first from friends and family, b) target the investors correctly, and c) figure out milestones.

To build a correct list of potential investors, talk to other founders and ask them who the pre-seed stage firms and individuals were that funded them. Research, research and research some more to build the right list, otherwise you will be massively wasting your time.

Only specific funds and individual angels invest so early, so your job is to find investors whose strategy it is to fund the companies at your stage.

Next, think through all the tough questions you will be asked. Do the gut check—do you know the market, the customers, competitors, etc.? The more fluent you are in the problem and the business, the higher the chance you will get the check.

Lastly, clearly define milestones you are going to hit with the pre-seed round.

A typical milestone at this stage would be shipping the product. A better one would be shipping the product and getting a few early customers. No investor wants to give you a check to support your burn.

Investors want to fund you to the NEXT MILESTONE.

In the case of pre-seed, the key question an investor needs to answer is what milestones will enable you to raise a seed round. That’s really the meat of getting the pre-seed check—articulating milestones and metrics that will get you to the next round.

Seed Fundraising Strategy

Everything that we said for the pre-seed applies to the seed round as well.

Keep in mind that the bar is now higher in the seed round. You can’t be pre-product; you need to know your customers and you will likely be expected to have early traction. The game overall is upped significantly compared to pre-seed.

In addition, since the amount of capital you are raising is larger, you need to spend more time on identifying more relevant investors and getting introductions to them.

In terms of targeting investors, start with angels and micro VCs and try to get a few hundred thousand committed. Don’t spend a ton of time early on talking to venture firms, as they take longer and most of them would still think you are early.

By getting several hundred thousand committed on the round, you will be able to create momentum and will have better chance of getting larger checks.

Start with small checks—get to 1/4 or 1/3 of the round then shift focus to larger checks.

Also, how much capital are you asking for? 1.5MM – 2MM may be too high. Review your financial model. Can you make things happen with 1MM? If so, revise your model to be more capital efficient.

It is always better to start lower and then, based on the demand, over-subscribe vs. starting high and never getting there.

Series A Fundraising Strategy

It’s really tough to raise series A if you don’t have strong metrics. Some founders raise on a story, but they are either repeat founders or working in the hyped-up spaces. Most founders will need really strong metrics.

There are exceptions, but if you are already generating revenue, you will be judged by your a) MRR/ARR and b) MoM Growth. However, strong metrics alone won’t get you a check. Not in this market, anyway.

The dance to raise series A involves identifying the right firms and identifying the right partners, then getting to know them and letting them get to know you. It will also involve a lot of guts and luck.

Clearly assess how much appetite there is on the market. You should have a gut feel.

If the demand is not there, cut the burn (you should do it anyway), and go back to building the business.

Focus on getting to profitability.

Get feedback from the investors on what your metrics need to look like and keep them posted every eight weeks or so. Assuming you are growing well and hitting profitability, the investors will likely be open to another conversation.

In conclusion, fundraising is stressful, complex and needs to be done thoughtfully or else it is extra painful and takes way too long.

A lot of founders get fundraising wrong.

Do not fundraise randomly and perpetually. By doing so, you are literally harming your company and your personal brand.

As the CEO/founder, have the strength to listen to feedback, understand that you are not ready, pause, regroup, improve, and go back to the market.

And lastly, get help! Read up, connect with other founders and get 2-3 key advisors on board. You don’t have to do this by yourself.

 

Originally posted on Alex’s blog.




7 Calendar Tips for Startups

I once had the pleasure of hearing Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, speak. Something he said stuck in my head: “Never let anyone own your schedule.” It’s simple, it’s obvious, yet it’s genius.

Over the years, whenever I didn’t follow this advice, I was stressed and unproductive. Gradually, I learned that planning and following a routine makes a huge difference in how I feel and what I get done. Here are some of the things that help me manage my schedule that you may find helpful:

1. Create a routine

No matter what you are working on, create a routine. Block times for specific activities and stick with the plan. Turn your calendar into a bunch of blocks, and put activities into those blocks. Whatever is not planned, you don’t do. If you want free time / exercise time / reading TechCrunch time, plan it all.

Your routine may change throughout the year, but at any given time it’s better to have a plan. For example, if you are working on launching a company, and need to do customer discovery, coding, and hiring, then prioritize and block specific times for each activity.

Here is a sample calendar I made that illustrates some of the concepts and ideas from this post.

Sample Calendar

2. Group meetings and calls into blocks

Group meetings and calls into time blocks. For example, if you need to have outside meetings, block two 1/2 days a week for those meetings, and go to the outside meetings only during those times. Do the same thing for in-office meetings. This way you are not only creating a chunk of time for meetings, you are also creating other blocks of time that you will be able to focus on important P1 work. Do the same thing with calls – book them all back-to-back.

3. Optimize time for different meeting types

Personally, I am now a big fan of 30-minute meetings and 10-minute calls. I think 10-minute calls are a great way to initially connect with someone or give someone quick advice. You can do a Google Hangout or Skype if you prefer to see the person instead of just hearing them. The reason 10-minute calls work is because people skip the B.S. and get to the point. Try it – 10 minutes is actually a lot of time, if you focus. I prefer to do these calls on Fridays, when I am usually working from home.

I am not a big fan of introductory coffee meetings, lunches and dinners. I am a huge fan of coffee and meals with people I already know. Those meetings are typically productive and fun, but the first time you are meeting someone, it’s more productive to do a call, or an actual 30-minute meeting in the office.

Here are the types of meetings you might want to book:

  • 30-min meeting in the office to get to know someone or catch up
  • 45-min meeting outside of the office, allow 15-min travel time
  • 10-min call to help someone who needs advice
  • 15-min daily standup – great for startups / engineering teams
  • 30-min weekly staff meeting

Whatever meetings you do, group them into blocks depending on your particular schedule. If you feel like a particular type of meeting needs more or less time, then adjust the block accordingly.

4. Use Appointment Slots

There is a great feature in Google Calendar called Appointment Slots. It allows you to book a chunk of time and then split it into pieces. For example, I can book 3 hours of outside meetings and then split it into 3 meetings – 1 hour each. Or I can book 1 hour of calls and split it into 6 calls, 10 minutes each. There is also a bunch of specific tools, like doodle, that do that too.

The next step is to create bit.ly links for different blocks of time. You can have a link for your outside meetings, another link for 30-minute inside meetings and yet another one for 10-minute calls. You then share these links with people and they can book the time with you. I’ve done this with Techstars candidate companies and it was amazingly effective. It minimized the back-and-forth on the email and saved a ton of time for me and the companies.

This won’t work with everyone, because some people may find this rude. I personally don’t find it rude at all when someone sends me their availability. In any case, if you are not comfortable sending the link to someone, then you can use your own Appointment Slots, suggest a few meeting times, and then book the specific slot yourself.

Btw, if you are asking someone to meet, always propose several specific alternative times such as Tuesday at 4:30 pm, or 5:00 pm, or Wednesday at 11:00 am, or Friday at 4:30 pm.
David Tisch gave a great talk that covers scheduling meetings and many more basics of communication.

5. Block time for email

This is the most important tip in the whole post. Email will own you unless you own it. To own your email you must avoid doing it all the time. To do that, you need to schedule the time to do your email. It is absolutely a must. In fact, it is so important that I wrote a whole entire blog post just about managing your email. Go read Inbox 0.

6. Plan your exercise and family time

Unless you put it on the calendar, it won’t get done. Well, that applies to your exercise and time with your family as well. Whether you go in the morning, afternoon, or evening; whether you do it 3 times a week or every day, put the exercise time on the calendar. My friend and mentor Nicole Glaros, makes it very clear that her mornings, until 10 am, belong to her. She hits the pavement or the gym, depending on the weather, and rarely deviates from her routine.

I have been guilty of not having regular exercise routine because I am adjusting to my new in-program schedule, but I am jamming exercise in whenever I can, 4 times a week, and actively working on locking in my specific exercise schedule. Without regular exercise, I can’t be productive at running the fast-paced 13-week marathon called the Techstars NYC program.

Same thing goes about planning time with your family and significant others. If you are a workaholic like me, you will end up stealing time from your family, unless you book it in advance and train yourself to promptly unplug. Many people in the industry have talked about planning family time. My favorite is Brad Feldwho talks about it a lot.

7. Actually manage your time

I think about my time a lot. I think about where it goes. I think about where I can get more of it and how to optimize it. When I was running GetGlue, I had an assistant who was managing my time. She was awesome, she really was. But when I joined Techstars, I decided that I will manage my calendar myself. I have to confess that I am super happy about this decision.

I find myself thinking about what I am doing, who am I meeting with and why a lot more. I meet with a HUGE amount of people every week. My schedule is particularly insane during the selection process. Yet, because I manage my calendar, follow a routine, plan meetings in blocks and use Appointment slots, I find myself less overwhelmed and less stressed.

Taking ownership of my calendar and planning my days and weeks made me a happier and more productive human. I hope this post helps you get there too.

And of course, I would love to hear your productivity tips. How do you manage your time? How do you handle your calendar? What tools do you use? Please share in the comments below.

Originally posted on Alex’s blog.




Why Founder Market Fit is So Important

Josh Kopelman, co-founder of First Round Capital, one of the most iconic and successful venture firms, just posted a must-read Tweetstorm.

Josh’s insight is that founders need to be even better pickers than VCs.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 11.00.41 AM

Previously, when asked about First Round’s investment strategy Josh shared these two insights:

1. We think that founder-market fit is very important. I’ve lost a ton of money investing in founders with years of enterprise experience who now wanted to pursue a consumer idea — and vice versa.

2. An initial, compelling and unique insight. We want to understand what about your thesis is contrarian (i.e, why do you think the existing players are wrong) — and why you think a startup (and yours specifically) will win.

So what exactly is Founder-Market Fit, and WHY is it so important?

Founder Market-Fit is literally an indicator of a match between the founder and the problem they are going after.

What compelled the founder to start the business?
What experiences this founder has in the space?
What unique insight does the founder have in order to win?

The reality is that most founders start businesses in the spaces they don’t know much about.

For example, when you ask someone what business they’d start if they could? Most people say they would open a restaurant.

Opening a restaurant is a terrible business idea for 99% of people. Restaurants business has razor thin margins, and a high failure rate. Just because you eat food and love food, doesn’t mean it makes sense to open a restaurant. Most people don’t have founder-market fit to start a restaurant, they don’t get how hard it is to win in this business.

Similarly, we meet a lot of young founders that are thinking about starting a business that helps young people discover nightlife in big cities. The logic is that they had trouble finding what to do, and so did their friends, and therefore it makes sense to start a business helping people discover what to do.

This is not a great business idea and there is no real founder-market fit here either. Yes, this is indeed a problem, but it is not a unique problem, and there is no specific insight that the founders have.

A bit more subtle problem is when you have experienced founders going after the spaces they don’t know much about. As Josh Kopelman said, just because you were successful as a founder of b2b company doesn’t mean you will be successful as a founder of a b2c company. This is exactly what happened to me – I sold my first b2b company to IBM and struggled with my second company, which was a consumer facing startup.

Domain experiences and insights really do matter.

If you are starting in a business in the space you don’t already know, you are literally spending money and time to get educated. It is literally like going to school, except instead of your parents it is your investors who are paying for your education. And the investors typically don’t like that.

Experience is particularly important in b2b space, where domain knowledge is critical. Without strong understanding of the space you can’t identify real gaps and real opportunities.

Founders that start businesses in the spaces they don’t know about typically struggle.

On the flip side, if you do know your space, you can identify real opportunities, go fast and build a great business. Here are some of the examples of Techstars founders who have a great Founder Market Fit:

DigitalOcean is now the second largest hosting provider in the world. The company was started by a team that worked in the hosting space for 10 years and knew it inside out.

GreatHorn is a security company focused on preventing spearfishing attacks. GreatHorn is founded by Kevin O’Brien who was previously part of five security startups.

The founders of ImpactHealth, a direct-to-consumer health insurance company, have over 10 years of experience in the healthcare and insurance space.

Rahul Sidhu, founder of SPIDR, a company that is focused on modernizing police intelligence, was previously a law enforcement officer in a Los Angeles area.

Bora Celik from Jukely, a Netflix for concerts, spent over a decade as a concert promoter.

These founders know their markets and because of that, they are able to identify real opportunities, go faster and build the business.

What about you? Do you have founder market fit? Why are you doing what you are doing? What unique insights do you have that will help you differentiate and win?

Originally posted on Alex’s blog. 




What’s Your Next Goal, Milestone, Task?

We spend a lot of time talking to Techstars founders about focus. We talk a lot about saying ‘no’ to things that don’t matter. We talk a lot about not chasing too many things at once. We try to give founders tools for deciding what’s important. We try to give them a framework for how to get things done.

For me personally, it boils down to three things – my next daily task, my next milestone and my big goal. Let’s call them GMT. Here is what they look like right now:

1. My next task is to send semi-weekly update emails to Techstars mentors. This is something that I do every other weekend during the Techstars program to keep the mentors posted on what’s going on in the program at large.

2. My next milestone is to have a great Demo Day. Not only are Demo Days the culmination of the Techstars program, but they are also significant milestones for me as a Managing Director at Techstars. Demo Days are the stepping stones to my bigger goal.

3. My next big goal is to become great at my job, to become a great investor in New York City. My vision is to help founders create great, transformational, lasting businesses in NYC, have fun along the way, and make a lot of money.

Being really clear about your next big goal, next milestone, and next daily task helps you keep your head straight.

If someone asks you what they are for you, and you don’t know, that’s not great. It likely means you don’t have clarity, and may not be working on things that are important.

Pick your goal first, and then work backwards from the goal while measuring progress along the way.

Work Backwards from the Goal

In my case, the goal is to become a great investor. To do that, I need to keep finding and investing in great startups. The way I do it is to fund them in batches and run them through Techstars program. To have Demo Days as milestones is natural, because the Demo Days are the culmination of the program and the start of the fundraising for most companies.

What makes for a great Demo Day? A bunch of things, but first and foremost, great companies (check out Techstars NYC Winter 2015 class).

Techstars is a mentorship-driven accelerator. We connect each company with a group of great mentors who work with them during the program to help accelerate the business.

The semi-weekly mentor email is just one small task on my list to make sure mentors and the companies are connected. It is a small but important task that is a step towards a great Demo Day.

The daily tasks add up to a milestone, and the milestones add up to the goal.

GMT: One Goal, One Milestone, One Task

If you can stick with the system, it works.

First, you set your goal, and figure out the milestones. Then you are down to the tasks, and it actually gets harder, because there are a bunch of tasks you need to do over time to get to a milestone.

On any given day, I try to be very clear about the single most important task I need to get done. If it’s not in my head, I don’t think I am focused enough. I then go to my to-do list and look through it to get back into the groove.

If you always have your top task in your head, you know exactly where you are going and why.

It’s okay for some days to be muddy and disorganized, but most days need to be pretty clear.

What works for me is a weekly routine. I know what I need to do on Monday, on Tuesday, and all other days of the week. For example, I know that every other Sunday, I send mentor updates. Having a routine really helps me stay organized and keep executing.

The routines can change from month to month, but I use the calendar to chunk my times during the week and that helps me set a rhythm. And that, in turn, helps me focus, prioritize, and know what my next task is.

Don’t Do Stuff that Doesn’t Matter

When you have clarity about your goal and milestones, you also have clarity about what doesn’t matter.

Prioritizing and deciding becomes a lot easier. That’s why for me, if something doesn’t contribute directly to having a great Demo Day, I won’t prioritize it. For example, a lot people want to meet with me, but I can’t take a ton of these meetings before the Demo Day. I am busy helping the companies. So, I explain it to people and ask them to follow up with me after Demo Day.

Also, I have a bunch of tasks and projects related to broader Techstars ecosystem that I will get to after the Demo Day. I simply don’t have the time to do them, and they are not included in my next milestone. This system of Action and Idea lists is helpful for staying organized.

Use KPIs to Measure Progress to the Milestone

I use KPIs and data to measure progress towards the milestone. Using numbers to measure progress is important, because otherwise you can’t tell if you are getting closer to the milestone.

One of the ways that investors, myself included, measure progress is by looking at the value of their portfolio. It is difficult to do for early-stage companies, and by no means is this an exact science.

Still, as long as you have some sort of consistent measurement, it works. For example, I know that the 2014 batch of Techstars NYC companies have raised over 20MM in funding, and I know that this stacks up pretty well historically against other NYC and Techstars classes. While this does not mean that I am becoming great at being an investor, a lack of financing of the companies would imply that I am not doing well.

I also use other KPIs to help me check that I am heading in the right direction. For example, we ask the founders during the program and afterwards to rate my performance. High ratings mean that founders are happy with our help. When they graduate, this would lead to a positive word of mouth, and they will recommend the program to other founders, and that would help me invest in more great companies.

Apply This to You and Your Startup

How can you apply this to you and your startup? Actually, this system works equally well for individuals and startups.

For a startup, you need to start with your Vision. What does the world look like according to you? What does the world look like when you are a successful business?

The Vision leads to the Milestones. What do you need to achieve the Vision? How do you get there? For most startups, the first few milestones are about traction and funding. Typically, the first milestone is to prove that your product is needed, to prove that there is a demand, and to get early customers.

The second milestone is typically funding. Once you’ve proven that your idea has potential, it is easier to raise funding.

You set KPIs and drive to the milestone. Build the product customers want. Do things fast, have hypotheses, test stuff, iterate, be organized and chaotic all at the same time. But at any moment, be clear about your next task – what are you working on and why? What milestone are you trying to hit? What is your big goal?

So let’s try this out.

Do you know what your goal, milestone and next task are? Please share it with us.

This was originally posted on Alex’s blog




The Top 4 Secrets to Success for Early Stage Founders

The following post was originally posted on Brunchwork.

Seasoned entrepreneur and investor Alex Iskold recently spoke at brunchwork. If you are involved in the startup scene, especially in New York, you probably already know Alex from his position as a Managing Director of Techstars, the leading accelerator. Before Techstars, he founded and sold two startups: Information Laboratory, which was acquired by IBM in 2003, and GetGlue, which was acquired in 2013.

Now an investor in over 40 different companies, Alex shares his advice for early stage founders:

1. Know your market.

Entrepreneurs should be well equipped with expertise in their industry. In fact, founder/market fit is one of the main criteria that companies need to be selected by Techstars.

“Don’t start companies in the spaces that you don’t know anything about. Your parents are willing to pay for you to learn in college. Investors aren’t willing to pay for you to learn something you don’t know.”

If you don’t have the necessary expertise and are still itching to create your own business, attach yourself to other early stage companies, learn from them and gain the experience needed.

2. Think about revenue early on.

The mistake that many early startups make is that they are wrapped up in the problem and their solution. However, they don’t have the numbers to support them as a viable, revenue-generating business. These numbers are paramount to investors.

“The definition of business is revenue that can support itself. The best dollars are not venture capital dollars. They are customer dollars.”

3. Be strategic about what metrics and KPIs you track.

Big data allows businesses to keep track of practically everything, but that doesn’t mean that they should. In fact, Alex said, “When you have too many metrics, it is as good as having zero metrics.” Entrepreneurs need to focus on and understand “which numbers drive [their] business and why.”

“There are no universal KPIs, but there is a universal system of applying KPIs to every single business.”

At Techstars weekly KPI meetup, companies are organized into groups depending on their business model.

4. Start pitches with a hook.

A common mistake founders make when pitching is they begin by talking about the problem they are solving.

“People want numbers, data, some sort of facts to latch onto.”

Entrepreneurs can grab investor attention by first highlighting their expertise in the space, their number of paying customers, or their existing investors. When companies lead with the problem, “people tune out and that is because, unless they know that you have some sort of traction or you are qualified, it’s just abstract words,” Alex said.

As the Managing Director of Techstars NYC, Alex Iskold has helped dozens of young entrepreneurs and businesses develop their strategy, build their brand, and receive the funding they need to realize their potential. He is also an avid blogger, so if you want to learn more valuable insights about starting a business, check out his blog here.

 




How to Absolutely, Positively Get Seed Funding Every Single Time

Only serial founders with strong domain knowledge, track record and traction get funded quickly. For most founders, raising a seed round is a lot more work, but there is a method to the madness.

We often write here about raising capital. Capital allows startups to go faster and generate growth. However, raising capital is not simple, at least for most founders.

Let’s start with what is probably the worst case scenario – you are a single founder, right out of college, with an idea in a space where you have no domain expertise. That is, you have no team, no product, no traction, no experience in general, and no experience in the space specifically.

This extreme case illustrates the reasons why investors are skeptical – this is a very risky investment situation. That is, you may be brilliant, and you may pull it off and build a massively awesome business, BUT this is clearly a very risky bet.

Investors, particularly angel investors, look for ways to reduce the risk when they are funding a company. That’s why the founders who get funded the fastest are the ones that REDUCE INVESTMENT RISK.

Below we discuss the profiles of founders that investors gravitate to and tend to invest in.

1. Serial founders

You already know this, but I will say it anyway. The world is not fair.

Serial founders who’ve been successful are MUCH MORE LIKELY to get funding.

I’ve met many investors who simply would not fund first-time founders. They are not bad people. It is just not part of their fund strategy.

When these investors raise money from their LPs (limited partners, i.e. investors who give money to investors), they promise them in their decks to only focus on serial entrepreneurs. This is no different from an investor saying they will only focus on healthcare or they will only invest in NYC companies. It is fund strategy, and while I personally do not believe in investing that way, I recognize that it is a perfectly legitimate strategy.

Investing in serial founders with domain expertise makes sense.

First, serial founders avoid making silly mistakes in just about every single aspect of the business that first-time founders make. Serial founders intuitively know what NOT to do.

They know what WON’T work. Because of that, they tend to execute better, grow companies smarter, and get to revenue faster. Not always, but that’s the perception of the investors.

2. Founders with domain knowledge

When you are starting a business in a space you don’t know much about, you are at a MASSIVE disadvantage.

Think about it, when you don’t know something, you have to study it. For things like physics or international affairs, you go to college. You spend years learning, and you have to pay for your learning.

When you start a business in a space you aren’t familiar with, investors feel that they are paying for you to learn the business. That is, you aren’t executing right away—first, you are learning.

Investors aren’t your mom and dad; they don’t want to pay for your education.

Investors are attracted to founders with domain knowledge. Investors talk about so-called founder-market fit.

Why are these founders doing this business? The answer investors are looking for is—the founders know a ton about the space and have identified an opportunity. The founders know that there is an opportunity based on their strong domain knowledge and years of experience in the space.

3. Founders with Traction

While your business is just an idea, investors will come up with 1 million reasons why it won’t work. But if you keep growing week-over-week, month-over-month, and grow your revenues and customers, eventually all objections go away.

Investors can’t resist funding growth. Investors can’t resist funding traction.

Growth and traction are indicators of a product market fit.

They are indicators that the business is really working. Whether you’ve done a startup before or whether you know the space or not no longer matters. Growth and traction mean that you have figured it out and it is working, so the investors want to jump on board.

4. Founders with Experience and Network

If you aren’t a serial founder and don’t have a ton of domain expertise or traction, you can still get funding, but it is A LOT HARDER.

There is a pattern in the industry where founders coming out of top tech companies like Google and Facebook get funded. If you spent years and proved yourself in a product or engineering role at one of those top tech companies, potential investors tend to take you more seriously.

This is because you are likely to come recommended from a strong network of alumni from those places who can vouch for you and introduce you to the investors. For example, you worked with a founder whose company got acquired. When this person is introducing you to their investors, the investors will be paying attention.

In a way, this dynamic is not very different from graduating from a top-tier school. You lean on a strong network and leverage your connections to get an introduction to investors.

5. Mission Driven, Intellectually Honest Founders

Some founders clearly stand out from the rest. You can tell how obsessed they are. These founders won’t go away and won’t give up no matter what. Investors often refer to these founders as mission-driven.

In addition to being mission driven, these founders are deeply self-aware and intellectually honest. They are socratic and introspective.

Mission-driven founders are on a journey of discovery. They have a true north, but are flexible about the specific path that gets them there.

They radiate power and awesomeness, and although they may be young and inexperienced and early, they manage to convince investors with their mix of enthusiasm and knowledge. Mission-driven founders have infectious energy that attracts investors. Investors decide to roll the dice alongside these founders.

When raising capital, think about the types of founders that tend to get funding. Which one of these founders are you?




7 Ways to Get the Most Out of an Accelerator Program

So you decided that an accelerator is appropriate and helpful to your company. You read 10 Reasons to Join (or not to join) an accelerator post and decided to go for it. Filled out the application, researched different kinds of accelerators, applied, and got in.

Congrats! Now the work begins. Here is how you can maximize what you get out of the program.

1. Work Backwards From Your Goal

Most companies join accelerators to catalyze the funding, grow and build their network. Whatever your goals are, work backwards from the goals. Set the goals (or even better just 1 goal) for the entire program, then for each month, each week and every day. See my post about GMT on how to do this effectively.

Recognize that unless you work backwards from the goals, you may not achieve them. Accelerator programs are known to be noisy, chaotic, serendipitous, competitive, and often distracting.

There is a lot going on and there can be a lot of noise. To stay the course and avoid being pulled into different directions and wasting time, decide on the goals and make them your true north.

2. Go Fast

The Techstars mantra coined by Brad Feld and David Cohen is Do more, faster. The idea is to accomplish in 3 months what typically would take years. During Techstars programs, we accelerate companies by pairing them with amazing mentors and letting them tap our network. The feedback from the mentors, their experience and advice, allows the companies to go faster. By tapping into the network the companies are able to shortcut biz dev, funding, sales intros — all the things that typically take weeks and months only take days during Techstars.

But in addition to the mentors and the network, it is the rhythm; the culture of doing things quickly that defines an accelerator. Realize that you are on the clock. This means you can’t afford to waste time. Don’t write extra code.

Don’t waste time chasing customers that take too long to close. Instead, quickly decide what is important, prioritize and go fast.

Read my post on Action and Idea lists for how to prioritize and execute effectively.

3. Look for Shortcuts

This is a simple tactic for going quickly – try to always ask how can something be done faster. Look for a shortcut. Do you really need to build the app to test the market or could you test it using a text message? Do you really need to have the full database in place or can you just enter a few rows. Do you really need to build the product before you get your first customers? Why not sign them up in advance, sell them on the concept?

Shortcut mentality can help you go faster during the program. Always ask — is what I am doing simple? Can I do this faster? Am I making it too complicated and grandiose? Am I doing more than I need to do? More often than not, you find a simpler, better and faster solution to test a hypothesis, to get to a customer, and to validate the market.

Since you are on the clock during the program, doing the least amount possible for maximum results is what makes sense. Note that in no way am I advocating that you compromise the long term quality of your product. Quality is absolutely important, but if your MVP is successful and sticky, you will get funding and the chance to refine and make your product better.

4. Focus on Growth & Revenue

The most important thing you can do help financing is to find a product that resonates with the customers/users and generates revenue/growth. The whole point of acceleration during the program is not to accelerate your financing, that’s not really possible. What gets accelerated is your business, which in turn leads to acceleration of financing.

If you already have some initial product market fit, then your goal is to grow as much as you possibly can during the program. You set up KPIs (key performance indicators or metrics) and work hard to drive them up and to the right.

Ideally, your number one metric is monthly recurring revenue (MRR). That would make your company the most attractive to prospective investors. If that’s not possible, then growth in beta customers and/or users is another good metric. Basically, if you are not growing during the program, it means that there is no demand for your product, and in turn it means there is no product market fit (PMF), and that in turn signals to investors that you don’t have proof that your business will work.

On the flip side, it is hard to argue with revenue and customer growth. Techstars companies are known to make a lot of progress and grow a lot during the program, and that typically results in successful fundraising around Demo Day.

5. Iterate & Pivot

Next, let’s talk about Pivots. To me, fail fast has become a cliche that some people take too far. The point is that, yes, you do want to pivot if your business isn’t working. But you need to also give it a fair shot. The thing to do during the program is to iterate weekly, where each week you are trying to grow. Initially, you are iterating and refining your original concept. And then you measure, does it work or not? If you feel that week after week you can’t generate growth, then it may be time to pivot.

Once you decide to change direction, apply the same idea of iteration. Before you write a lot of code, or any code really, go and validate that the market is there.

Do customer discovery, make sure you test and and learn as much as possible using all kinds of unscalable tactics and prove that the new idea will work before rushing to write a lot of new code.

6. Maximize the Mentor Whiplash

Most accelerator programs are known for their Mentor Whiplash. This happens when founders get conflicting advice and feedback from different people. It is a really frustrating and mind twisting experience (as many founders told me). The key thing is to turn this into a positive, an increasing returns and acceleration experience for your company.

To do that — open your mind, listen, take notes and say thank you. Remember, you don’t have to do anything that other people tell you. This is your company, and you will not be measured or judged based on how much advice you did or didn’t take. You will be judged and measured based on your KPIs, revenues and growth of your business.

So take all the feedback that comes your way – the good, the bad and the ugly. Synthesize and process it. Combine it, distill it. Hear mentors out and then decide for yourself and execute. Don’t be neither too rigid and stubborn, nor too twistable and flexible.

The point is to realize when a lot of people are telling you the same thing — pay attention, don’t ignore. At the same time, have the gut to follow your vision when you really believe it and have data to back up your belief.

7. Network, Network, Network

Regardless of whether you take someone’s advice or not – be super thankful, respectful, always shake hands and connect. Become a networking machine. Other founders, mentors, investors, customers — all of them should become nodes in your network. Obsessively collect people and connections. The network will help accelerate your company after the program. It will help you with this business and all your next businesses. It is your resource and your set of shortcuts around the business world.

If you don’t obsessively connect, you are missing out. You will literally be at a disadvantage compared to other founders who are doing this correctly.

Networking is the basics of the business since the first business was conducted, and an accelerator program creates a very fruitful soil for you to rapidly build out this amazing professional asset.

Follow these 7 things and you are likely going to get the most out of the program. Remember that funding is not guaranteed and doesn’t just happen. An accelerator is not the end but the beginning. Other people have good ideas and experiences. Be thoughtful, make the most out of the program and win.

Originally posted on Alex’s blog.




9 Seed Funding Gotchas

‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ – Louis Pasteur.

One of the objectives of the companies going through Techstars and other accelerators is to secure financing. Most companies are coming in focusing on accelerating their business and then securing capital to continue to accelerate growth. As the common shareholder in the company, Techstars is completely aligned with these objectives.

The reality is most startups need to raise funding to grow and to become real companies. It’s not typical that you or your accelerator can make money if you don’t fundraise, and certainly very unlikely that anyone will make any money if your company does not grow.

So we love it when companies get funding.

But we’ve seen a clear pattern with the companies that rush into funding too early — they actually have more difficulty closing the financing. Why? Here are the 9 gotchas of seed funding that will help you understand what goes wrong.

1. Lack of Preparation

To be ready to fundraise, you need to have strong knowledge of the problem you are solving – why did you start this business; your business ecosystem – customers, market opportunity, competition, go to market, distribution channels, pricing, burn, and many other things. You are going to be asked a whole lot of questions and then some by potential investors. If you are not prepared it will come through and will be a big turn-off.

2. Lack of Traction

Very few companies get seed funding without some kind of traction. Unless you are a team of successful serial entrepreneurs, and even then, investors expect customer/user traction. This does not mean perfect product market fit. It means early evidence that there is a problem and your solution / product is going to have a shot at addressing it.

3. Being Pulled Into Fundraising

So you weren’t thinking about raising money, but you met a bunch of investors, and they said that you really should. Other founders around you said you should do it too. You then decide what the heck, I will give it a shot. It is a mistake. You are not ready – you didn’t prepare, you didn’t plan it. Don’t fundraise on other people’s turf and time. Control your destiny by preparing, checking the boxes and then going out and raising. No one is going away, and investors will not say no to a meeting with you later if you said no to them when you were not ready.

4. Chasing the Wrong People

This is a big one, and it is bad. All investors are different. They like different verticals. They write checks of different sizes. Just because they are an investor does not mean they are the right investor for you. Doing research, understanding what a particular investor likes and why you might be a fit is important. It is equally important to get an introduction from someone who knows you and knows the investor.

5. Not Pitching Angels & VCs Correctly

Angel investors, micro VCs and VCs are all very different in terms of their objectives and styles and consequently how they need to be approached and pitched. An angel investor who writes 25K-50K may want a couple meetings and a micro VC that writes 100K-250K checks will be engaged for a month and may or may not lead. VCs take the longest, write the biggest checks, and like to lead rounds and take board seats. If you don’t understand how to engage each category of investors correctly, you will waste time and may not get the desired result.

6. Not Having An Overall Strategy

Even if you know who you are going after and why, you still need a strategy. A strategy would entail planning the entire fundraising process, who to meet with first, and who to meet with later. Do you start by raising a few hundred K from angels first, or do you go straight to VCs? Making the right decisions about your financing strategy, especially if you are a first time founder, is really important. Not having a plan increases the chance of not raising the capital you need to grow the business.

7. The ‘I Am Special’ Problem

But of course you are! Me too. Aren’t we all 🙂 When you go to a casino and gamble, you think – all these poor suckers around me, they are going to lose, but me? No, no, no. I am a winner. And this is sad, because as an entrepreneur you actually are special. All of us are. We are this crazy, courageous, relentless, unstoppable breed. But the reality is that it is not a good bet to make when it comes to seed funding. You are better off being prepared and winning because of that.

8. Not Realizing You Are Running A Race

When you are fundraising, the word travels around. Investors are people, and they talk. Not because they are bad or against you. It is natural to compare notes in any industry, and VCs are no exception. When you are going out to raise, you need to do it quickly and get all the conversations aligned. Once you start raising, you have to run the race until you are done or you decide to stop because it just isn’t coming together. Realize that this is the race before you enter it.

9. Running Out Of Bullets

It may be a funny analogy, but it makes sense. In the beginning of the process, you have a loaded gun and you start firing shots and have all of these great conversations. Then at some point, especially in a smaller ecosystem, you find that you’ve talked to pretty much everyone. There is no one left. You just fired all your shots, and your gun is now empty.

The bad news is if you already met with all of the investors, and they didn’t write you a check, then you can’t go back to them next month and try again. The good news is that you actually can go back to them in 6 months, show progress, and if you are crushing it this time around, you will get the check. It takes awhile to reload the gun, and the only bullets allowed on reload are the real traction bullets.

How and When to Fundraise

So how do you actually win this and get funding? Two things – preparation and traction. Get all your things in order. Your deck, your pitch, your funding strategy, who you are going to talk to and why, get the intros, etc. Be prepared.

But even if you are prepared, it may not be enough in this day and age. We see less and less people funding ideas and decks. Investors want to see early traction. Some sort of indication that not only is your idea great, but that you talked to customers, built MVP, and have some kind of traction – proof that you can do it and it may work.

And if you find it too daunting and complicated, get help! Talk to fellow entrepreneurs who’ve done it before. Apply to Techstars and we can help you accelerate the business and raise funding. Really think through the funding. Prepare. Be thoughtful. Win.




Pin It on Pinterest