Some of you may have read a little TechCrunch news last weekend about our new startup, Tello. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to launch a startup in this era of “open” products that hook up to Twitter and Facebook feeds, mobile apps for iPhone and Android, Minimum Viable Product (MVP), etc. Back in the old Web 1.0 days, it used to be that you built your web site in private behind a password-protected wall, and once it was at a point that it was working, you get a select few people access to your alpha, beta, etc. You could remain undercover while you worked out your bugs, added new features, etc., and then when you were ready for the world, you’d change the home page and voila!–you were live.
Smart people like Chris Dixon tell you to tell everyone about your idea. My interpretation of Chris’ post here is “ideas are cheap, it’s execution that matters” so while I agree with that premise, I also believe there can be PR and promotional value to keeping a company under wraps until you’re ready for news to spread. As an example, I think Mike McCue’s Flipboard was a great example of using stealth to create great promotional value at launch.
If you’re building a consumer Internet/mobile service these days, you run into a number of issues that make you think twice about the definition of launch. For example, if you’re Gowalla or Foursquare, you need to write apps in different languages for every mobile platform, get the apps approved by Apple and Google, have check-in messages appearing in Facebook and Twitter feeds before you’re open to the public, etc. You want your early users to love your product, but you want to get it out there early to get feedback. In addition, you might be trying to get your alpha/beta working in advance of some launch event or conference, and want to keep it quiet prior to the conference in order to get some news when you open it up to the public. And if you “launch” at that conference, do you do a “closed” beta or “open” beta? Oh, and how long was Gmail in beta again?
So what’s a startup to do?
In the case of launching a consumer Internet/mobile startup in 2010, I don’t think there’s any single right answer. One approach is to be completely open–talk with anyone and everyone about what you’re doing in advance, and open up your service to everyone right away. Another approach is to go the Quora “private beta” route where you tell people what you’re doing and create scarcity value in the limited invitations that are available until you decide to open it up to a wider audience a few months down the road. Yet another is to keep things under wraps in private beta until you’re ready to launch more widely and tell the world what you’re up to.
Which approach will Tello take?
Stay tuned…and share your thoughts about approaches you’ve seen, pros/cons, etc. in the comments or send me an email.
One of the true tests of any startup team comes not when everything is going well, but when there are bumps in the road. Over the course of time, I’ve come to believe that the best entrepreneurs have an innate ability to deal with whatever adversity comes their way. When a challenge arises, instead of feeling self-doubt or casting blame or giving up, they seem to have a way to absorb the “body blow” and turn it into energy to move the business forward. In the words of Nietzsche, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
The best entrepreneurs see an obstacle in front of them, and don’t sit and think about the size of the obstacle in front of them. Instead, they immediately start thinking about how to go around, over or through the obstacle, without even worrying about the size. This tenacity is a really critical attribute of almost any entrepreneur. In fact, I think one of the reasons some of us like startups is that there’s a new puzzle put in front of you every day to solve. One day it’s hiring, another day it’s a partnership issue, but every day there are challenges and when you throw customers in the mix, the puzzle gets even more complex.
Startups are always a struggle. If it were easy, someone else would’ve done it before you. I find it’s important to celebrate the victories and learn from the defeats, but to not get too high or too low as you continue on your path.
It’s been over a month since my last post, and so much has happened in that time. We’ve setup shop in downtown Palo Alto and are working through all sorts of interesting challenges as we chart the right course. I’ve always found that there are just a zillion decisions in the early days of a startup, and time just seems to fly by.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons that I’m reminded of every day is the need to make decisions quickly and move on. Every day, I try to move the ball forward on numerous fronts, whether it’s operational infrastructure (lease, legal, insurance, etc.), product decisions (features, platforms, data suppliers, etc.), business model questions, recruiting, customers, partners, marketing, etc. You know that circus performer with the spinning plates? That’s the startup CEO running back and forth between the plates.
An old friend and co-founder, Ted Barnett, is really good at this. Back at when.com, he would gather the right amount of data, make a decision, and move on. I’ve always admired his “decision throughput” and I think the key point here is to embrace the speed and not be afraid of making a mistake (the old “analysis paralysis” problem). You’re not going to get every decision correct when you are moving at startup speed. But for the sake of your team and your business, it’s critical to make these decisions as rapidly as possible while still applying good judgment.
Equally important is the ability to say “I was wrong.” I know certain people who could never allow these 3 words to leave their lips in that order, but are happy to use 2 of those words in the phrase “you were wrong” (you know who you are). Being able to recognize you were wrong and say so is not a negative–in my book, it’s almost a requirement for any businessperson, especially the startup founder. Not that you are wishy-washy and reversing decisions every hour, but when presented with new or contradictory data, you’re wiling to be open-minded, step up and say “I was wrong, let’s make a change.”
Finally, let’s not confuse speed with sloppiness. Speed is about making decisions and focusing on what matters, but that is not an excuse for poor quality. I’ve worked with teams who use speed as a crutch to say that poor quality is OK. Not in my book. Sometimes compromise is necessary–for example, having something partially working for an important demo–but the quality should always shine through even when features are missing. Move quickly, get tons done, prioritize, but keep the bar high.
Starting a new company is hard. To be successful, you need to come up with a good idea, get others excited enough to join you, get it funded, build a product, find a revenue stream, grow a business, etc. Definitely not trivial details, and I’ll be sure to cover them all at some point. But at the very earliest stages, there are just a ton of details that need to get handled in order to get the company off the ground. As I’m going through the process again, I’ve been noting some of the things that have come up in the hopes that mentioning them here might be helpful to others. In the interest of time, I’ll just cover the basics vs. go into a ton of depth, but if something is missing, feel free to comment or contact me about any of this. In no particular order, here are some things to be aware of as you get your new company going:
1. A good lawyer. Lots of people think lawyers are evil, expensive, etc. The best startup lawyers are certainly expensive, but I think of them as great startup advisors who happen to have J.D. degrees. The advantage of startup lawyers is they’ve seen hundreds of times more term sheets than you, they’ve negotiated hundreds of times more business deals than you, and because of this volume, they know what’s “market” and what is not. This is true for convertible notes, equity financings, leases, etc. The best firms will defer some amount of their fees until you get funded if you convince them you are credible and/or working on a good idea, so in a sense, they are willing to take a risk on you. I suggest getting someone on board right away to get you incorporated, get your founder agreements setup, etc. I’m a big fan of Scott Dettmer and Mike Irvine at Gunderson Dettmer, Mitch Zuklie at Orrick, and Mike Sullivan at Pillsbury.
2. Incorporation. I recommend incorporating as a Delaware “C” corporation. Delaware is much more startup-friendly than California from a logistics perspective, believe it or not. For example, if you need to modify corporate documents, the turnaround time for California can be days or weeks, whereas with Delaware, it’s typically hours. And if you’re ever going to raise venture capital, LLCs and “S” corporations are most typically converted into “C” corporations at that point. Once you get going, you’ll need a Federal EIN (employer identification number) for most things like lease applications, payroll, etc. and all of this can be taken care of by your lawyers.
3. Founder agreements. One of the biggest mistakes made by founders is to fail to have the hard conversations about how to split the equity and what happens if things don’t work out. This most likely happens because a) the founders are friends and don’t expect hard times to test their relationship, and b) these conversations are awkward and difficult. I can tell you that even experienced entrepreneurs don’t like to have these conversations, and it can lead to ugly situations. Bite the bullet, be an adult, and have these hard conversations. I call it the “Founder Pre-Nup.” You both (or all) owe it to yourselves to think through how you’re going to split the equity up front vs. down the road. Sometimes it’s an equal split, but I would say that more often than not, it is not an equal split because of someone’s experience level, IP contribution, reputation contribution, cash contribution, etc. There are no hard and fast rules of thumb here. You should also think about vesting schedules, vesting cliffs, what happens if one of the founders leaves, etc. It might be tough, but you’ll be surprised how relieved you are when it’s over and everything is understood between founders.
4. Salaries and benefits. This varies by situation, but I’d suggest making some progress on the product or fundraising before putting this into place. If founders aren’t willing to bootstrap and invest a month or two of time in getting something off the ground, imagine what happens down the road when times get tough. Some people who have a paying job will need to keep it while getting the new company going nights and weekends. Most people can continue to keep their COBRA coverage from a previous job, and once you get funded, it may even make sense to just reimburse people for their COBRA vs. the time/expense of setting up benefits right away. Of course, by the time you get to 5-10 people, you’ll need to set this up, but defer it as long as you can.
5. Banking. I recommend getting setup with Silicon Valley Bank right after incorporating. While you can choose to work with any bank, SVB is setup to work with startups, and knows the issues that come up all of the time.
6. Office space. Some people think that getting an office is a waste of time, that everyone can work virtually from home and be as productive as they would be sitting in a room together. While that approach might work for some, I am not a fan. I am all for being lean and frugal, but I think there is something special that happens when a team is getting together daily in their own “place” to solve tough problems together. It’s a bonding experience that forges them together. They’re working together in groups and individually, and eating lunch together. I’m not saying that this can’t happen if you meet over Skype or in a Starbucks every day, but I think it’s more difficult. For me, some of my fondest memories of the startups I’ve been involved in are the earliest days of the company with just the founders in the first office. I think back to S3 and Bunker Hill Lane in Santa Clara. When.com and Broadway Street in Redwood City. Presto and Sand Hill Road. Those of you who were there with me know what I’m talking about. I think it’s worth the $1000/month to get a small office and get people together almost daily. Try to get a month-to-month or 3 month lease, and be sure to put the lease in the name of the corporation and not your own name. Buy some cheap desks at IKEA, and spend your real money on decent chairs since you’ll be sitting a lot (there are great deals on used Steelcase Think and Herman Miller Aeron chairs) and nice computers/monitors for the development team. Being located in downtown Palo Alto is great because the Apple Store is nearby, and if you use Apple equipment, be sure to sign up for their business account since you get a variable discount depending upon the volume of purchases. Craigslist is your friend for both office sublets as well as used office furniture. LoopNet.com also has good commercial listings. I can tell you anything you want to know about the sublet market in downtown Palo Alto, so just ask! Don’t forget some whiteboards/markers (or this clever whiteboard wall idea that’s cheap and easy), a fridge, a microwave, a decent color printer, maybe a fax machine, some garbage/recycling cans, snacks and drinks (I recommend either Safeway or Costco delivery service if you’re ordering drinks by the case). Skip the phone system and use your cell phones. If you’re reading this, you probably know how to do domains and emails…get a temporary company domain (like startupseven.com!) and start using it with people–it makes you look more credible. Setup with AT&T DSL or Comcast Internet, or you can even go with the Verizon or Sprint Mi-Fi devices if time is critical. If you do get an office, you will need to get an insurance policy as well (more details to follow as I’m setting this up now).
I’m probably missing a few things (let me know if I am), but this is a good place to start. All of this can be accomplished in under a month part-time while you’re working on the product and meeting with potential customers. With legal fees deferred, and the founders using their current computers, all of this can be accomplished for about $1500-3000 up front. Not a steep price to pay for the next Google! Don’t let it take a ton of time. Meet a few lawyers and pick the one you like best who has good references. Look at some offices, and go with the one that’s most flexible on terms with the best price and location. Keep a few balls moving every day and you’ll be setup in no time!
I’ve been meaning for a while to setup a blog in order to capture thoughts that are longer than the 140 characters Twitter allows. As I embark on my next startup journey (this will be startup #7 for me), I thought there is no better time to get started than now.
Those of you who know me know that I’ve been thinking about starting another company for a while now. After 6 startups full-time (Integrated Systems, S3, Books That Work, When.com, Roku and Presto), and a bunch of others less than full-time, you might wonder why I’d be crazy enough to dive back in again. The answer comes down to this: “do something you love.” Startups aren’t just a job for me–they are a way of life. I think it’s in my blood, as my grandparents came to the U.S. from Italy, and settled in Chicago where they opened a tavern. That tavern eventually turned into a restaurant that was run by my dad and uncles for over 50 years. My earliest lessons in entrepreneurship came from hearing stories about the restaurant and eventually working there with my family.
I also worry about the state of the economy right now, and think it’s time for entrepreneurs everywhere to step up, create new companies, and hopefully in the process, create some new jobs as well. I realize that small businesses everywhere have it tough right now, but it’s risk-taking at times like these that can result in great outcomes. In some small way, I feel like I’m doing my part by starting a new small business.
Starting a technology company is a creative process. There is nothing like taking a blank sheet of paper, and crafting a new product and company out of thin air. Working on startups, I get to exercise both the analytical and creative halves of my brain. I get to work with great people and build a team, a product and a company all at once. In the past, I’ve likened the startup process to building an airplane as it’s already heading down the runway. You just hope you get enough of it built to get airborne before you run out of runway! Who says that aerospace engineering degree doesn’t come in handy once in a while :)
I’ve had a bunch of great startup experiences, and some failures as well. In my 20+ years in Silicon Valley, I’ve often gotten to work with great teammates and investors. These are people who are great at what they do, extremely supportive and I’d go to war with any day. I’ve also seen the dark side of the startup world–the arrogance and pettiness of ill-informed, holier-than-thou investors who think they know best and end up ruining companies…the greed of those startup executives who take advantage of others. I learn something new every time I’m involved with a startup, and the game continues to change on an almost daily basis. It’s this controlled chaos and constant evolution that makes Silicon Valley the place that it is. I’m lucky to have found my way west many years ago.
One of the things I love most about Silicon Valley is the spirit of giving back and mentorship that I see almost every day. I was lucky enough to have worked with a number of great leaders and mentors over the years, and have spent countless hours having coffee or chatting by phone with students and young entrepreneurs seeking guidance as they move forward with their dreams. It’s part of the Silicon Valley fabric to learn from people and then turn around and pass those lessons on to others. As I embark on my latest adventure, it’s my hope that I’ll be able to chronicle some of the events here that can someday act as a reference for those who come down the same paths in the future. While we’re going to keep the specifics of the company quiet for now, I suspect we’ll encounter a number of situations and decisions over time that will be worth discussing here. Time will tell.
I welcome your thoughts and feedback as I navigate my way through my rookie season in the blogosphere. And as I move forward on this entrepreneurial adventure, the words of the Blues Brothers somehow seem appropriate here:
Elwood: It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.
Jake: Hit it.