Lessons in Business and Life, 12 Months After Techstars

As Founder and CEO of Routific (Techstars Chicago 2015), Marc Kuo is an expert on advanced route optimization algorithms and brings more than a decade of experience in the field of logistics. Previously, Marc was a founding team member at Axiom Zen, an algorithmic trader for UBS Bank in Hong Kong, and a consultant at Cap Gemini in the Netherlands. He graduated cum laude with a master’s degree in operations research from Erasmus University, where he majored in computer science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

This is the first post in a two-part series.

“What was Techstars like? What did you get out of it?”

I’ve been asked these two questions a lot since we went through Techstars Chicago last summer. I like to tell people that it was a “really awesome experience”, and “I would recommend it to anyone!” But that’s not very specific, now is it?

It’s been a year since our accelerator experience began. What did we learn? And how does it continue to shape the way we grow our business?

Reflecting upon these questions, we realized the experience has not only affected the way we do business. It has also profoundly shaped the way we live day-to-day. This is the first of two blogs about lessons learned – in business and in life – from our time at Techstars.

Part I: Business Lessons Learned

  1. Blogging for Leads

Jason Fried talked to us about his experiences as Founder and CEO of his company, Basecamp. He also talked about his life as a blogger, and the effectiveness of content marketing.

One of the best ways to increase organic leads is with blogging. While it’s definitely a long-term game – it took Jason over a decade to build up the audience that he has now – it pays off big time. Today, organic leads are pretty much the sole source of new customers for Basecamp. The same goes for our company, Routific.

When I asked Jason how he finds the time to produce so much quality content, he said he spends just 20 minutes per blog. It doesn’t have to be polished, he said, just get it out there. It took me way longer than 20 minutes to write this blog. I suppose blogging, like many other things in life, only gets easier with practice!

  1. Opportunity Cost of Time vs. Money

The scarcest resource a startup has is time – not money. You will always have a few dozen ideas or experiments you could run. But how do you know which one you should do first?

During Techstars, we were interested in running both a cold-calling experiment and one involving online ads. Ads can be expensive, while cold-calling didn’t cost us anything. Initially we went for the low-hanging fruit and tried the “cheaper” experiment. But Sam Yagan, co-founder of OKCupid, opened our eyes by introducing another dimension: the opportunity cost of time.

He helped us realize the importance of distinguishing between experiments that are cheap vs those that require little time of the founders. While the ads were expensive, they were very quick to set up, and we could run a dozen or more experiments at once.

Money is overvalued. Time is undervalued. Optimize for learning quickly.

  1. Prepare Every Meeting Meticulously With a Clear Goal and VERY Specific Asks.

Investors and advisors are busy people. When you are fortunate enough to have their ear, make sure you respect that time and use it as efficiently as possible. They genuinely like to help, but it’s your job to make it easy for them to help you. So, prepare very specific asks in advance and get to the point quickly. This framework is also useful for internal meetings. Defining goals at the beginning of every gathering gives us incredible focus.

  1. Avoid Vanity Metrics

Choose your KPIs wisely and honestly. Pick three at a maximum, and track the things you have a direct influence on. KPIs should serve as a measure of success for experiments. If you measure the wrong things, you’ll end up doing the wrong things.

Most importantly, avoid vanity metrics a.k.a “feel-good numbers”. For example, tracking “total pageviews” isn’t as useful as “total sign ups.”

In turn, “total sign ups” isn’t as useful as “new weekly/monthly sign ups”. Note the subtle difference of avoiding cumulative metrics. Cumulative metrics will by definition go up and to the right – it gives you a false sense of progress.

  1. Data Over Opinions

I’m sure at one point or another, you’ve found yourself in a meeting discussing low signup conversion rates. A designer makes a case that we should change the design for the signup button. A marketer thinks that the current design is good enough, and argues that the copy should change. Another designer jumps in and quotes from a reputable design blog with yet another version of the perfect signup flow. Maybe we are not attracting the right audience to begin with, and we should change our SEO strategy?

Opinions don’t matter. Let the data speak for itself. Nobody knows what will work for your unique case. The only way to learn, is to run experiments. The conversation should instead be one about priorities – what shall we try first? What can we try in parallel? What are the criteria for success?

Entrepreneurs already have an innate Just Do It™ mentality. We are here because of our bias toward action – so founders, make sure you don’t lose it.

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