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Frequently, I get friends from outside of Silicon Valley asking me for advice on how to come to the Valley and dive into the game of startups.

I thought I'd share my usual advice in this post. If you're a business professional looking to move to Silicon Valley and give your full energy toward building a great company, your best option is to start by finding a small startup where your skills will be valued most.

Here are the steps I recommend to find the best fit:

Start by asking yourself the following questions: 

  • What would be the ideal scenario for you?
  • What role do you envision yourself playing? in which market or industry sector? 
  • What size of a company do you prefer?
  • How much risk you're willing to take? 
  • Would you rather work with a pre-funded company or a funded company? 
  • Does your salary need to go towards something like a mortgage, or tuition your children? 
  • What type of people would you like to work with?
  • Where can you provide the most value and how can you grow the most?

Now that you've done some self reflection let's explore your options in more detail:

Option A: You want to work with a high growth company that is obviously taking a big piece of market share.

Option B: You want to work with an early stage startup that has some market traction and significant funding  ($2M+) that would offer you a salary that gives you slightly more cash in than cash out on a monthly basis to keep your life in order.

Option C: You're willing to join a company looking for a cofounder. This option has the most risk but also potentially the biggest reward.

Based on which option seems most appealing research companies that meet those criteria.  If you want to pursue option C and take take the highest risk you need to learn about the angel investors and seed investment funds that focus on a sector you're interested in (web/mobile/apps etc).

Find connections to some of those angels and reach out to them, preferably through a mutual connection. Offer something in exchange for their advice. This could be, for example, sharing the lessons learned from your experience growing a company in the European market.  Or it could be about your experience with a startup that had a fast growth curve, going from 10 to 100 people in one year, and what advice you could offer another company going through that experience.  You can offer many things in return for the investors' time, but the more relevant it is for them the better your chances of getting their time.  

Remember the old fundraising adage; ask for money and you get advice, ask for advice and you get money! Same would apply here, ask for advise and you may get a job offer, ask for a job offer and you're likely to get an advice.

If you think Option A or B realistically make more sense for you, then you should look for companies that have closed Series A or Series B funding.  There are several sources where such info is available for free. Crunchbase is one example, another one I like is PWC Moneytree for it's ease of use and ability to filter based on several variables.


How to reach out

The best way to reach out is through a strong personal relationship. Even if it takes a second or a third degree relationship, you're better off getting recommended by the people who know you best. Remember, it's not what you know, it's not who you know either, it's who knows YOU. That's what matter most.

The next best option is using a professional networking tool such as LinkedIn or Branchout, or through industry organizations and meetups like VLAB, Churchill Club, Tech Meetups and Mobile Monday.

If that doesn't yield results try cold calling the founder. But if you do so, you must be very tactful. Taking the right approach is critical. One word can be the difference between the founder swiftly hitting delete or replying to your email.

If you choose to cold call, your proposition must make sense to the founder even though he/she were not necessarily looking for someone like you. 

Here are my 4 recommendations for cold calling:

1) really understand the startup you're targeting, who works there and a potential gap you see from the outside.,Then demonstrate why you are the perfect person to fill that hole. Again, make sure your proposal is pragmatic and presents a clear value proposition, for example, you have good understanding of the startup general market space and have had experience working in mobile services that complement the current offering of the startup, or have strong relationships with partners in the market the would open a sub-segment that have not yet been targeted by this startup. 

2) Search hard to find mutual connection between you and the CEO or one of the startup's investors. You may ask for intro or you can also use a name that the reader recognizes as someone you both know, mention it early in the message. It's okay to do so as long as you can expect that the CEO will double check what you said and contact the person directly, so don't make stuff up. 

3) Your email should be no longer than 3 to 5 tweets! (400 to 700 characters). This is one paragraph, with no resume yet, and no rambling argument on why you're so awesome.

4) Always propose a convenient place to meet, i.e offer to buy lunch at a good restaurant nearby the startup or propose dropping by their office for a coffee mid morning or afternoon. 




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Copy What Works-

There is no invention created from nothing. Every creator has been influenced in some way by others, and this is a good thing. Smart entrepreneurs know the validity of studying the evolution and attributes of successful companies and to steal what they can. 

The story and characters in James Cameron's film Avatar were completely unoriginal with components copied from such films as Dances with Wolves, The New World and pretty much any story about the effects of colonization on a native culture. Even with a painfully predictable plot and cheesy dialogue, the film has grossed $77.3 million in the first weekend. And you have to admit you got a little teary eyed at those gushy "I've already chosen her" and "I see you" moments. 

That's because we can all relate to this universal epic, and no matter how desensitized you are, you cannot deny empathy for the hero who overcomes greedy imperialism to save human life (or alien life, in this case). Cameron knows what gets to us, and why tamper with that formula?

What he did reinvent, and brilliantly, was the delivery. He raised the bar so high on his cinematic vision, that he had to wait 15 years before filming for the technology to be able to manifest it. The same strategy can be applied when creating a succesful startup...stick with what works, and change the game by how you present it.
 
Learn From History-

More important than studying what other companies have done right and copying that, is learning what they've done wrong and avoiding that. Americans truly are amnesiacs when it comes to learning from our foibles in the past. It's hard to watch Avatar without a pang of guilt for the illumination it makes on our foolish pattern of national imperialism. 

Colonists wiped out an entire Native American culture with superiority complexes so overblown they justified genocide. It's tough to deny elements of that in the way we invaded Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Not that we are the only nation state with these narcissistic tendencies, it seems an inherent flaw in our human makeup. Yet history loudly proclaims the indecencies and consequences of these actions, though these redundancies of self-entitled domination continue.

Instead of living vicariously through our fictional protagonists in films like Avatar,  why not walk the walk by acknowledging our sordid history, and do the opposite?

As an entrepreneur, you could try not dominating the world, or your market, with your agenda, and instead create a product that makes life better for all...you may even be called revolutionary. In fact this simple approach is so novel a concept, that companies like this have been termed conscious businesses, and are still the minority. At the end of the day, it's a win-win situation to not take from others in order to gain for yourself, so break the mold and serve your community .

We Are All Connected-

Just as the Na'vi can plug into a vast electromagnetic network via tentacles in their braids, most people on earth are logging into a global web of computer networks Pres. Bush likes to call the internets. 

The world is shrinking quickly in this age of globalization; allowing people to connect and exchange information instantaneously beyond physical boundaries. And it's not hard to imagine this transnational circulation of ideas becoming so tight knit that it will feel like we are tapping into one consciousness. Some theorists even claim this it's already happening on our planet ecologically the same way the botany on Pandora interacts; called the gaia hypothesis. 

To whichever degree you believe this system of interconnectivity exists, it cannot be denied that community is essential to the success of a company and the network has become the lifeline of most thriving startups. 

So better to hook into this concept now, and build a company that honors the profound interconnectivity of not only our human community, but our interdependent relationship with our dying planet. 





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TRUST

People need people, and that's a fact. The home you live in, the food you eat, and the money you make are all possible because of other people. Even if you lived on a deserted island and could hunt for food and build a shelter, you would likely go insane because you had no one to connect with, hence Tom Hank's volleyball friend in "Castaway". 

In any startup, your users ultimately determine the profitability of your product. How you form the relationship between your product and other people determines the customer, and without the customer your product would cease to exist. So at the end of the day, a successful business is all about relationships. And all positive relationships are built on the foundation of trust. 

At LeWeb this year, Chris Brogan, author of "Trust Agents", talked about the inherent role of trust in any successful startup. He believes that trust is a currency and that establishing an exchange of trust is ultimately what brings value to your product. This in a way makes the actual product you are selling less relevant than the type of relationship you are creating with your network of users. 

This may seem like an obvious concept: create good relationships with the people you need. But the way you establish and manage these relationships makes the difference between a person who buys your stuff and a person who buys into you. Getting people on board with what you are about, beyond your product of the moment, comes from understanding the principles of relationships based on trust:

Don't Sell:
There is nothing more contagious than passion paired with belief. If you believe in your product and speak about it with genuine passion then you will never need to sell to anyone.

Have integrity: 
Integrity is more than just being truthful and well intentioned. Integrity is about being true to yourself, representing yourself in the world and in business in a way that is a direct reflection of your deep purpose. People are great bullshit detectors, and when who you're not in synch with what you're pitching, then they are going to be turned off by your insincerity.

Give First:
The best way to establish trust when you meet someone is to open yourself up and give something. Say hello and give a compliment, or your help, or give them your ear and actually listen. Don't go around thinking about what you can get from people to make you successful, think about what you can give to make others succeed. 

Connect:
According to Brogan, you live and die by your network. So honor the relationships you form with everyone and maintain them with meaningful interactions. Be a great connector and people will trust your reputation. Be available and people will trust your loyalty. Be consistent and people will trust your integrity. Keep meeting new people and remember that you never know who could end up being the most valuable connection you have.

Sometimes the most obvious concepts of relationship building get lost when money comes into play. However, the most successful startups keep it real, and understand that it is a people business. It's as simple as people buy from people they like, people invest in people they trust.
 
  





employee-happiness.jpgThe Frameworks of Happiness

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, believes the key to maintaining a positive company culture in the workplace is to inspire your employees to be happy. To define what this looks like, Hsieh has divided Happiness into four motivating factors.

  • Perceived Control- Although control may be somewhat of an illusion, the perception of control can make you function better in life. People who 'feel' in control are more confident, calm and effective. When you believe you can make your life better, you will attract positive experiences to confirm that belief.

  • Perceived Progress- People perform better in life and work when they are acknowledged and validated. Zappos used to award promotions every 18 months until they realized that giving employees smaller promotions every 6 months gave them a sense of ongoing success and made them more productive.

  • Connectedness- Humans have the innate need to connect. We feel more secure and more supported when we are part of a community that shares the same values and purpose. Creating a team environment is essential to make employees feel that they belong in this company and can trust the people they are working with.

  • Meaning/Higher Purpose- Nothing makes people feel more valuable than being part of something that matters. Enlisting employees into the company's greater vision and allowing then to make a difference will inspire them to reach their potential. Because at the end of the day, happiness comes from contributing yourself to something that is greater than yourself.


Zappos is about delivering happiness and that's what has made them so successful. Happy employees equal happy customers. So motivate your employees by inspiring them to be better humans and follow your example as a happy person who cares about his team at a core level. This way the boss becomes a mentor, and a job becomes a calling, and a customer becomes loyal.





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COMPANY CULTURE:

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, has reinvented the meaning of customer service. Instead of hiring customer service reps and training them off a script, he's made the entire company a customer service ashram. This is not fabricated servitude; Zappos employees have a genuine air of happiness that is almost cultish in its sincerity. 

People are actually pleased to work there and believe in what they're doing. For a company that just sells apparel, this is quite an accomplishment. Hsieh doesn't do this by incentivizing his employees to act caring to customers. He does it by making people happier; by making Zappos a place where people feel inspired to do good.  Which is why Hsieh's biggest priority in running a successful startup is Company Culture.

Everything at Zappos is built on the foundation of its core values around company culture. Employees are hired and fired by whether or not they are a culture fit. Instead of funding a marketing department, Hsieh makes Zappos a place that fosters positivity, meaning and purpose in his employees lives, which customers will naturally be drawn to and talk about. And any good business person knows that viral marketing is the most effective way to increase sales. Hsieh believes in the ripple effect that if employees are happy, customers will be happy, and if customers are happy, your business will profit, and much more than companies where employees just see it as a job.

Creating a company culture based on principles of happiness will organically attract all the things a startup wants: excellent customer service, branding, viral marketing and ultimately revenues. Zappos believes in this so deeply that they've created a company culture book and follow it religiously. And obviously it's working; Zappos was acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billon in November of this year.

 

Stay Tuned  for the Next Post On "The Frameworks of Happiness"

http://techventure.com/blog/2009/12/the-heart-of-the-startup-part-3.php





The Heart of the Start

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6b0d7be5e34206e0608b5aaaf6962e17.jpgLeWeb was all about heart this year. Words like 'spirit,' 'caring,' and 'happiness' seemed to be flying out of just about every panelist's mouth. Love was in the air, as it should be in a city like Paris, two weeks before Christmas, amongst a group of some of the most inspiring people in the world of tech.

The question wasn't new: "What makes startups successful"? However, the perspective on how to get there seems to have shifted into a place less about numbers and analytics to a place of feelings, motivations and intentions. "Chase the passion, not the money" as Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, put it. 

Sometimes it takes the passion of Paris with the inspiring words of great leaders to remind us to come back to our core values. 'Tis the season to open our hearts and rekindle our thoughts with what matters in life . . . and ultimately find a way to translate that into business.

Stay tuned to the next post for "Principle I: Company Culture" based on the advice from LeWeb panelist Tony Hsieh.

 http://techventure.com/blog/2009/12/principle-i-company-culture.php




I had the chance to go up to San Francisco last week and check out the Art Institute's graduate portfolio show and chat with a some of the new grads, and while I assume they're well coached by the Art Institute, I felt inspired to give some tips to these grads as they embark on their professional careers in design.  

First, I wanted to mention briefly a 2 part blog post on Javaworld about "How to make HR Dump a Programmer's Resume" and "What HR Professionals Look for in a Programmer's Resume."   I agree with a large portion of what the other recruiters surveyed said.  Though we are more focused on the individual here at techVenture and don't use an automated applicant tracking systems, it is important to consider including certain buzzwords, have your resume in a readable format and leave out relevant skills.  For designers, however, the requirements are a bit different.  

I'll be honest in saying that recruiting for designers is probably my favorite part of what I do here at techVenture.  I love design, branding, advertising and all things visually pleasing. I pride myself in being able to quickly discern someone who gets it from someone who does not, and I am brutally honest regarding those opinions. 

Design is not only fun, but essential to a user's ability to navigate your website or application.  As someone who screens potential candidates, I thought this might be a good time to give some tips to designers out there who are looking for jobs. 

1. Always include a link to your portfolio when applying to a design job.  No "ask for samples" or "I'll send you a DVD."  If I receive a designer resume that does not link to work samples, 98% of the time, I immediately pass.    Why?  Because work history and experience are important, but they are secondary to your style. Don't give a reason to be weeded out early. 

2. Have a resume that looks like time and effort has been put into it and showcases the specific talent as a designer.  Even though the resume is less important than the portfolio, I hate seeing obvious template resumes coming from someone who claims to be a designer.  Check out some awesomely visual and creative resumes here.

2. MAKE SURE YOUR LINK WORKS.  Self-explanatory?   One point that the Javaworld post I referenced earlier stresses is, "Submit a résumé in .doc rather than .docx or Open Office's .odt. If a recruiter can't open your file, I was advised, she's not going to try very hard to find a way to view it."  The same goes for a broken link; if it doesn't work on the first try, I'm probably not going to go out of my way to find the site that does work. 

3. Update, update, update!  If the last time you updated your portfolio site was three jobs ago, don't apply to a position until AFTER you updated it.  Read: Do not put a link to a website that is "under construction" on your resume! 

4. If you're not a web specific designer or artist, don't try to design your own website!    Far too often, I come across a dream resume--great art school, right skill sets, interesting work history and I go to the website and leave within 5 seconds.  It frightens me when I go to an artist website and see out of date designs, poor resolution and impossible navigation.  To me, it makes me question their eye for design.  Ten years ago, this might have been acceptable, but today, there are so many free or paid portfolio sites for artists to showcase their work.  There is no excuse for a poorly designed website.  I'd MUCH rather see a link to a template portfolio site that clearly showcases the art than someone trying to design something that detracts from the art.  Go to KropBehance.netCarbonmadeCoroflot or DeviantArt if you'd like to see awesome examples.

5. Remember, even great artists and designers don't always match the style of the company, so don't get discouraged if you don't get that dream job right away!




How do local businesses stay connected with their customers online? Some have their own websites, but how functional are they? How are they able to drive traffic? How do they compete with larger stores with greater capacities?

There really is no substitute for my local corner store, sandwich place, pizza shop, or nail salon! They know me by name, ask me how my day is (they know what I actually do!), and genuinely seem to care.  

It's a great first step to have a website, but how do local businesses optimize the Internet's potential to reach out to the community, expand their clientele and stay competitive against giants such as Wal-Mart?  Now, I'm not opposed to big business (I like a bargain as much as the next person), but I also LOVE my local spots and want them to be up-to-date with technology so I can get the convenience as well.

One company that is assisting our locals is MerchantCircle. They are the fastest growing and largest online network of local business owners in the country. Founded less than 3 years ago, MerchantCircle is also in the top 10 out of the 150 fastest growing US websites.

MerchantCircle's goal is to help local businesses get more customers quickly, easily, and cost-effectively. They currently have more than 900,000 businesses using their services. MerchantCircle has "developed local business social network where business owners can promote their business by uploading pictures, writing blogs, publicizing events, creating coupons and newsletters, and connecting with other merchants, all for free."

Other online companies serving small businesses include:

Redbeacon - this top winner at this year's TechCrunch50 is a service that allows your local customers to "Compare prices and book an appointment" at their local establishments.

Workstir - This service will help your customers find you based on the services you provide and the reviews you receive.

Geolocal - Helps your local business to generate local leads.

So with all that in mind, here are my 5 Tips for small local businesses to gain an online presence:

  1. When setting up a website, try to utilize search engine tools - nothing is worse than wanting to find basic info (hours of operation, phone number, etc) and not being able to find the information on Google!! Some great tips can be found at these blogs: Small Business SEO: How To Launch That Web site By Lisa Barone and Before You Launch that Local Small Business Website, by Rae Hoffman
  2. Depending on the service - allow people to buy products/set up appointments online for those of us who don't always have time to make calls or stop buy during the work day.
  3. Try to build a community - add a fan page on Facebook, get people to review you on Yelp, write a blog about your services/products.
  4. Increase your revenue potential by selling ad space on your web site - to keep you rolling in dough to stay competitive against bigger chains.
  5. Use sites such as MerchantCircle to enhance and supplement your services. This will keep you up-to-date and stay in the online spotlight for your local customers. 

If you're interested in being a part of these companies making an impact in local communities, check out our current opportunities.




AI: Rise of the Machines

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Last night (September 15, 2009) the MIT/Stanford VLAB hosted another sold out event, AI: Rise of the Machines, at Stanford.

The focus of the event was how businesses are adopting AI-based applications to...der der der....replace us humans!!! Sounds like the prelude to the Matrix (or Terminator for us who are more old school)!

The panel was moderated by Sven Strohband (Partner, MDV), and the panelists included:

  • Dag Kittlaus (Co-founder & COE, Siri)
  • Paul Rhodes (CEO, Evolved Machines)
  • Steve Cousins (President & CEO, Willow Garage)
  • George John (CEO, Rocket Fuel, Inc)
  • Rob Haitani, (CPO, Vitamin D)

One of the coolest products on the panel, for me, was Siri. Siri's application is the equivalent to having a virtual assistant. Siri is available as an iPhone app and you just tell it what to do and it gets it done. Siri believes that "Virtual Personal Assistants (VPAs) represent the next generation interaction paradigm for the Internet." As opposed to just old fashioned scheduling and manual planning you are interacting and conversing with your devices. The technology behind VPAs "corresponds to the essential qualities of an assistant: conversational interface, brokering to multiple services, and personal context awareness," according to Siri website.

The core of this idea sprouted from the SRI's CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes) project, who claim to be "leading the development of new software that could revolutionize how computers support decision-makers." CALO's sole goal is to create a VPA. Attendees of this event got a cool demo from Siri's CEO, Dag Kittlaus, who gave great insight to the product and his take on the future of AI and stated how "the definition of AI means different thing to different people."

The entire panel was very involved in what and how AI will shape technological advance for the present and the future, and this is defiantly a space to pay close attention to! 




I discovered a recent publication outlining the demographic and sociological make-up of the average Entrepreneur and how it may differ from what most of us identify as the "typical" stereotype. The publication is The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur: Family Background and Motivation (July 2009, Vivek Wadhwa, et al.). They interviewed 549 company founders and asked probing question to try and discover why and how people end up starting their own businesses, in hopes of discovering how to harness and cultivate this trait to create new businesses. 

The stereotype seems to be the young, single, very intelligent, fresh out of college workaholic, who came up with something in the computer science sector (which I believe holds true for the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs). However, despite computer hardware and software still being the largest industry in this report, the dynamic make of the average entrepreneur was a bit skewed to what you may otherwise have perceived. 

Top 10 Factors that give you a better shot at being a successful Entrepreneur:

  1. You are married with 3 kids ... wow maybe some people can do it all!
  2. You were in the top percentiles in high school .. smarty pants! 
  3. You pursued higher education ... that's why they tell you to stay in school kids!
  4. You are from a middle-class family ... even the average Joe can get in on the action.
  5. You are better educated than your parents ... that's unfortunate for your kids!!
  6. You have likely worked for an employer for about 6 years before launching your own start-up ... working for the man.
  7. You are the middle child ... see its not all bad being that kid.
  8. You are the first in your family to start a business ... expect to employ your siblings.
  9. You were born in the USA ... lets get populating people! 
  10. You began the start-up to build wealth, own your own company, and to capitalize on a business idea you came up with ... all good reasons in my book.

So I guess the point of it all is that if you have a great idea, with the determination and drive to see it through (it probably also helps to live in the valley) then you can make it happen. I mean if a 'mature', parent of 3, regular geek, with a bunch of student loans can do it - so can you J   

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