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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 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. 

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   

VLAB Event

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Last week I attended the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab (VLAB) 2009/2010 season kick off party.  For those of you who were unaware of this group up to now, such as myself, VLAB is the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the MIT Enterprise Forum. As a non-profit organization, VLAB's mission is "to promoting the growth and success of high-tech entrepreneurial ventures by connecting ideas, technology and people."

VLAB hosts monthly events at Stanford Business School and brings together an abundance of entrepreneurs, industry experts, venture capitalists, private investors and technologists who get to "network and learn about pivotal business issues, emerging industries and the latest technologies."

VLAB solely relies on volunteers to run all aspects of its operations and logistics.  In return for volunteering, you get access to the VLAB Google group, which provides a great forum for information sharing and networking along with access to many other affiliate and sister organizations in technology and private equity investments.  Our CEO; Fadi Bishara has been involved with VLAB for several years and currently an executive board member and a vice chair for volunteers.

At the kick off event, I clearly see how the VLAB folks were very passionate about what they were doing. It was also very encouraging to see how willing the executive committee members and current volunteers were in wanting the events attendees to get the most out of the experience.

As a volunteer for this coming year, I'm very excited to be involved and to gain insider knowledge on the latest goings for the next big thing.

The first event for this season is, Rise of the Machines: The Business of AI on Tuesday, September 15th at 6:00pm.  Go to to see how you can become a volunteer and get your ticket to the September event.

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