# Thursday, October 22, 2015

I recently recommended a friend for a PM job at a hot Silicon Valley startup run by another friend. The startup recently raised a big Series A and was looking to scale. I know the risk of linking up two friends in an employment scenario, however, my friend was more than qualified for this job and my founder friend really needed the position filled.  



While my friend was more than qualified, interviewed well, and the team loved him, etc, the founder decided to pass on my friend. The reason:  another candidate with the same skills and experience came along that they hired. The difference between the hired candidate and my friend? The candidate that was hired had the same PM experience but all at big companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google. My friend has spend his entire career at startups.

My question is: was this the right move? If you had the choice between nearly two identical candidates and one had all their experience at big successful companies and one had their experience at successful startups, isn’t it safe to choose the candidate that worked at the bigger companies? 

Put yourself in the founder’s shoes. You just raised a big Series A. You are being pressured by your investors to “go big or go home.” You have aspirations to be a big company. This is Silicon Valley, shouldn’t you hire the absolute best talent we can find? Shouldn’t you hire people who worked at Facebook and Amazon since you want your company to be big like them one day? 

PMs that only worked at companies such as Facebook and Amazon are super qualified PMs. Huge plus. They also know next to nothing about building a startup. Huge negative. People from larger companies bring the bigger company process, procedure, and culture with them. This leads to premature scaling of your business. The problem is that your startup is not a smaller version of a bigger company. As Steve Blank says, a startup is an experiment looking for a business model, not a smaller version of a larger company. Facebook as over 10,000 employees and billions in profits.  My friend’s company has less than 15 employees and no profits. Hire people comfortable working in that environment, who know how to bring a company from 15 people to 150 people. When your startup has 1000 employees and is super profitable you should start to hire PMs from Facebook. In between, you have to hire people who can not only do the job, but also help you grow the business, shape the culture, and constantly evolve the process. 

I made this mistake several times at my past startups. At one startup we realized that we needed an HR manager. Since we had plans to “go big” we wanted to hire an HR manager who came from a big company. Big mistake. We were a team of 12 but all of a sudden we were doing 360 reviews and had to fill out a form in order to take a day off. At another startup we wanted to enter the “enterprise” space, so we hired some “enterprise” software people from a large enterprise software company and gave them fancy titles. The problem is that people who work as executives at big companies usually don’t roll up their sleeves and build a product. Nor do they know how to scale a company, they know how to keep a big company big, but don’t know how to build a big company. In addition they wanted to fly business class and have personal assistants, things that did not jive with our startup culture.

Avoid premature scaling at your company and hire not only the candidates with the best skill set, but also with experience in working at and building a startup. Later on when you are bigger and more mature should you hire the people with bigger company experience. 

posted on Thursday, October 22, 2015 2:37:22 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Monday, August 10, 2015

Here in Silicon Valley, it is commonly said that it is “easy” to raise $1m in seed funding and $100m in Series C/D growth funding, but impossible to raise the $5-7m in Series A funding. This has been called the Series A Gap, or the lack of funds for startups looking to break out of angel and seed funding. 


There is no Series A Gap

Over the past year as a VC in Silicon Valley, I’ve worked with Fresco’s portfolio companies and met countless other startups looking for funding. I’ve seen good companies left for dead when trying to raise a Series A and some raise a Series A in just a few weeks. I’ve rolled up my sleeves and worked with the founders on their deck, valuation, strategy, and ultimately their pitch. Along the way in the trenches of Series A fundraising, I've learned something: there is no Series A Gap.

Pitchbook and other sources have confirmed what my gut has been saying for the past year: there has been a modest rise of Series A capital over the past few years, but there is a glut of seed funding in the market today-as much as 4x higher in the past 5 years. So it is comparatively easy to raise a Seed round creating more and more startups looking for the same amount of Series A funding. 

Startups have little problem raising seed funds these days. They string together $500k-$2m from many different people on an open source convertible note, typically $100k at a time. (AKA the “Party Round.”) Then they go out and try to find the right product-market fit and business model. Some make it and go on to raise a Series A pretty quickly. Most do not.

The Rise of the Second Seed Round 

The companies that don’t find the product market fit or develop their business model try for a Series A and fail. Typically they are competing against companies that have already found their business model and are executing against it. Eventually they run out of money. 

If you run out of money during your seed round and you can’t raise a Series A, in the past you had three choices:

  1. Fold the business
  2. Raise a “down” round
  3. Keep struggling along on nights and weekends

Now what founders are doing is going out and getting a second seed round. Typically more money than the first seed and almost always at a much higher valuation. Some people call these rounds “pre-A” and “super seed.” I’ve seen a ton of them, some that should be a down round but have a crazy high valuation. (I've walked away from two of them in the past month alone.) 

For example consider this funding for startup NewCo;

  • Angel funding $200k @ $2m cap
  • Seed funding $1.3m @ $7m cap
  • Seed funding II $2.2m @ $12m cap

NewCo now has 20 or more note holders and an insane valuation. If you have a $12m cap on your convertible note and you raised $2.2m on it, chances are your valuation at the Series A will be near $30m. The problem is that now your revenue and growth trends have to justify that $30m valuation. Unless the business model is really strong and the company is progressing nicely, raising a Series A will be all but impossible. There is no Series A Gap, but rather a glut of seed funding and a self-inflicted wound of raising too many seed rounds with little or no growth to show for it.

What to Do?

Founders are better off trying to raise one larger seed (with a lead!) and using the round to focus like a laser beam on finding the right product market fit while keeping the burn low. If you need a second seed round, try to keep the valuation under control and have very specific metrics as what you want to accomplish in order to position yourself for an A. 

posted on Monday, August 10, 2015 3:23:32 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Monday, July 6, 2015

Being an early stage investor, I see a lot of MVPs. I mean a lot. The problem is that most people don’t build real MVPs, but descend into building a prototype, then beta, then an actual product and still call it an MVP. Remember an MVP is your most important Customer Development tool. It is an experiment designed to test your value proposition’s assumptions by measuring a behavior and learning from the results. MVPs should be used for a short while in order to validate your learning and then help you develop the plan for the actual product. After you have built a few MVPs and measured the results, what are the top three signs that you are done with your MVP and can start building your real product?




Sign #1 That You’re Done With Your MVP: You are getting diminishing returns on your learning
Typically when you start doing the Customer Development/MVP process, it is pretty brutal. Your ideas are shattered when they come into contact with real people. It can be long, hard, and painful at times. But when you stick with it you usually go through three stages of MVPing:
  • Shattered expectations
  • Hearing the same thing over and over
  • Diminishing returns
Usually after your first round of MVPs, you go back to the drawing board a little and make adjustments to your Business Model Canvas and test your new assumptions. Typically you get into a zone where everyone is saying the same thing: this is good. After a while you adjust the MVP some more based on that feedback and the feedback and behavior you are measuring is only giving you a very small incremental gain. This is when it is time to stop MVPing and build an actual product. 
Sign #2 That You’re Done With Your MVP: You’ve been doing customer development for a really long time
I’ve met countless startups that were working on their MVPs for months or years. Typically a single MVP should last a few hours or a day. After that time, you process the data, apply the learnings, and then make another MVP that should only last a short time as well. In a perfect world, you would only be MVPing for a month or two at most since the results of all of your MVP experiments gave you enough data to build a product. 
If you have been MVPing on the same idea for over six months, you need to reevaluate what are doing. Some startups clearly have a product (see #3) and some clearly do not. If you have not seen traction in a long time and have been grinding away on the same idea for several months, it is time to ask yourself some hard questions.  
Sign #3 That You’re Done With Your MVP: You are actually making money
Sometimes I’ve seen startups that are still MVPing when they are actually making money on their product or service. Typically the startup doesn’t have a clear indication of what the pricing model should be or what the right customer segment is.  Once you have enough “validating revenue” (typically around $250k ARR), stop MVPing and start A/B testing and using other tools (typically sales tricks) to figure out the best pricing and customer segmentation.
As you start your next venture, think about these three tips when you start your Customer Development so you do it effectively, but don’t do it too long. Good luck!
posted on Monday, July 6, 2015 12:13:39 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Tuesday, June 9, 2015

I remember it like it was yesterday. My co-founder and I just left Yahoo!’s New York City office. It was October 31st, 2002, and we were happy because Yahoo! asked us if we would go exclusive with them on our yet to be released online service. At the time, Yahoo! was one of the largest players online (think Google today) and they were offering to resell our data on their site, potentially a lot of money that could possibly make or break our startup. We were at it for months with no revenue and without a salary and unable to hire some more talent, so this was a much needed shot in the arm. 

When we got outside, I called my mentor and our investor to tell him the good news. He said: “ Cool! What minimums did you negotiate?” Minimums I ask? As quickly as I was excited, I was now deflated. 


Breach of Contract

The Deceptive Value of an Exclusive Contract

The deal we had shook hands on with Yahoo! had the potential to pay well over $1m in six months. Not bad for a startup with no customers, right? Wrong.

My mentor went on to explain that if Yahoo! were to get an exclusive reselling deal, or even a non-exclusive deal for that matter, they needed an incentive to hold up their end of the bargain. If Yahoo! miscalculated the demand from their users, if their sales force did not engage with us and actively sell our product, or if market conditions rapidly changed, we could make nothing. That would force our startup to close its doors. 

In order to create some incentives for the larger party on the other side of any exclusive or non-exclusive contract, you should structure the deal where at the end of the term there is a minimum payment to be made if a threshold is not met. This way you are protected and the larger party has an incentive to uphold their end of the bargain. If the larger party won’t commit to the minimum, they have little faith that they can actually deliver the value that they are promising and that is a bad sign. Typically you should ask for and get a minimum of about 20% of the initial agreement. 

For example, let’s say that you negotiate a contract with a channel partner in India. They promise you $1m in sales per year and want an exclusive arrangement in India. Ask them to “put their money where their mouth is” and offer to pay a minimum at the end of the term if they don’t sell enough. If you stick to a 20% minimum, at the end of the year if they produced no sales, they still pay you $200k. If they produced $100k of sales, they would pay you $100k (the difference between the actual sales they produced and the $200k minimum.)  If they produced $250k of sales, they pay you nothing as they have reached the minimum. 

If the minimum is not enough to cover your costs or offset the opportunity cost of going exclusive, you should not do the deal. If you are a pre-revenue startup and the larger party wants to go exclusive globally for some time, you should also demand that they make an equity investment as well-to show that they are serious and have some "skin in the game". 

Did Yahoo! Agree to the Minimum?

My partner and I went back to Yahoo! and proposed a non-exclusive arrangement and a minimum. They agreed but took a long time to sign the paperwork and get started. In the interim we went to Monster.com, their competitor (we were talking to Yahoo!’s HotJob unit), and signed a similar deal, with a minimum. Within 6 months, we were earning about $1m in revenue from both parties! So glad that we did not go exclusive. 


posted on Tuesday, June 9, 2015 4:36:34 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, May 31, 2015

Not only is it hard to attract talent to your startup (know any free developers in the Bay Area?), as a founder you also have to set the proper structure. A common saying is that you need a “Hacker, Hustler, and a Hipster” on the founding team. In the earliest days that makes sense, especially when you are MVPing and hustling for your first customers trying to find a product-market fit.

Sometime after you have product-market fit and raise a round of funding, you need to hire outside of the core founding team. A lot of founders struggle with the right roles to hire and what the proper structure should be. Some founders hire too many engineers (typically non-technical founders) and some founders hire too many “business” or “marketing” people (typically technical founders), leading to being lopsided in one area. Founders run the risk of being engineering centric or marketing centric in their product development. In reality they need to be customer centric and embrace the Holy Trinity of Product Development. 

Lean product development

The Holy Trinity of Product Development: Dev Lead, PM, PMM

When it comes to product development, you need three distinct roles. Those roles are what I call the Holy Trinity of Product Development: Developer Lead, Program Manager (PM), and Product Marketing Manager (PMM). These three roles work together to represent the customer and build the business, ensuring that you are not too engineering focused or too marketing focused. The role in the middle of that fine line is the Program Manager.

Program Manager (PM)

The program manager, sometimes called product manager, is the most important role in the trinity. The PM manages the product definition by talking with customers and potential customers. A PM owns the UX and functional specs and is the chief customer advocate. A PM not only owns the product definition, but also its strategy, position in the marketplace, and if it is a new product, its go to market strategy. Internally, the PM has to coordinate the teams to get the product out the door. This means working closely with the PMM and business teams on what makes sense for the business. The PM can’t set pricing (that is the PMM’s job) but surely can influence it. At the same time the PM has to work with the engineering team to get the product built on time and on budget. While a PM is not required to have any technical or coding skills, the more technical a PM is, the better. At Facebook for example, all PMs usually can write a little Javascript code. This allows the PM to talk to the engineering team in their own language. 

What is amazing about the PM is that they have no power or authority over the PMM or dev lead, all they can do is influence the engeneering and marketing teams. It takes a unique skill set to get this done. 

Developer Lead

The dev lead has a difficult role to play insofar as they have to represent the engineering team to the PM and PMM as well as work on all of the “tech stuff.” The tech stuff includes: setting the development architecture, get their DevOps game on by organizing the build (doing things like Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment), coding, and choosing the right technology for the job (Rails or PhP anyone?)  The dev lead also needs to keep the engineering team together and motivated and make sure that the agile process is, well, agile.

The hardest part of the dev lead’s job is interfacing with the PM and PMM. The nature of startups is that they are resource constrained and always in a rush to get something shipped. That means an insane amount of pressure on the engineering team. It is the dev lead’s responsibility to work with the business (PM and PMM) in order to set realistic deadlines and proper expectations, all while not being the guy complaining about lack of resources. Not always an easy task..

Product Marketing Manager

While the dev lead represents the engineers and the PM represents the customer, the PMM represents the business. While the PMM is responsible for what all non-marketing people think of as marketing (ad campaigns, trade show booths, email blasts, product placement, media placement, etc), they are also responsible for the business model of the product and making sure that the product makes money (or reaches its broader goals if it is a loss leader.) This means setting pricing, and if this is a freemium product, that is far more complex than you can ever imagine. The PMM is ultimately accountable for the product making money.

The Right Balance

Some startups and companies are tempted to combine the PM and PMM role. This is bad! What happens when you combine these roles is that the focus usually becomes either too customer centric or too marketing centric; you need two people and two distinct roles to prevent this from happening. The right structure creates the right environment. The right people in the wrong structure is a waste of talent, they will not be able to use all of their talents, they will spend too much time fighting the incorrect structure. No amount of free massages, free lunches, and unlimited cookies will fix an improper structure. (Actually it is Google, Facebook, Linkedin, etc who have pioneered the Holy Trinity in Silicon Valley. They adapted it from the larger tech companies such as Microsoft in the 1990s.) 

The right people in the right structure/environment is where the magic happens. 

This may sound like a lot of overhead, however, you are probably doing this in some form already. Typically at the early stage, founders take on these roles and hire people to pass them off to. It’s a sign that your startup has matured and left the experimental phase. 

Now go and build awesome products!

posted on Sunday, May 31, 2015 8:38:46 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Everyone is talking about replicating and building the “next Silicon Valley” with the rise of Silicon “roundabouts” and Silicon “beaches” in several locations around the world.  While this is going on very few people are talking about how Silicon Valley is evolving: specifically that Sand Hill Road is now the Wall Street of the West Coast. 

140821071502 wall st vs silicon valley 620xa









The rise of the “Uber” Round

More and more tech startups are raising hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in later stage “uber” rounds. (I call these the “uber” rounds as a play on the German for “super” or after the company Uber that has raised well over $4 billion in Venture Capital.) As of this writing, Lyft has just closed a $680 Series E. According to Crunchbase, Lyft is one of 20 startups that have raised $1B or more in venture funding in the past 5 years.

Companies are going public later and later, a trend started by Facebook; instead of rushing to an IPO, companies are staying private longer and are taking more and more uber rounds. (Some people think that these companies should be going public as the investing public can’t participate in the later stage growth, allowing the rich to get richer.) The average amount of money that companies have raised before going public has been going up, more than double since the 2008 downturn.

What is Going On?

Most pundits think that companies are staying private longer to avoid the hassle and expense of going public as well as regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley. While those are all reasons to stay private, the real reason is that Silicon Valley VCs on Sand Hill Road have evolved to grow larger and focus on late stage massive growth. 

Typically an IPO is for massive growth. A company will get to a certain stage of maturity and then raise anywhere from $300m to over a $100b at an IPO. The IPO accomplishes a few things: allows early investors and employees to “cash out” and sell their shares to the public as well as provide much needed capital for massive growth. 

Today companies are delaying the IPO and raising the growth capital with their uber rounds. On the surface this looks crazy. But in reality, it is genius. 

Lean Startup and Uber Rounds

Let’s take a made up startup LeanCo as an example. Assume LeanCo already took a Series A ($8m) and Series B ($30m). Now they are kicking butt and are growing at the same rate as the other high performing startups. Say they have well over $250m in sales, expanding market share, healthy margins, and are expanding internationally. This is the textbook case for an IPO.

What would happen is that LeanCo would go to a big Wall Street bank and raise approximately $5-$10+ billion in an IPO. After all the costs and fees and the Wall Street bank’s cut, the company would have a lump sum of money, let’s just say $5b. Now the company has the war chest it needs in order to grow. Typically LeanCo will acquire smaller rivals, enter new markets, and build out new products and services. 

Instead, the LeanCos are choosing to raise billions for growth before an IPO. Instead of raising $5b in an early IPO, they are raising $2-5b privately before a much later IPO (at a much higher valuation.) They are raising the money $400 or more at a time. Here lies the genius of this approach: LeanCo only raises what it needs, when it needs it in a private (closed) market that will provide a higher valuation than a public one. There are also other benefits to staying private during the growth stage, like not disclosing your financial health and spending to competitors. 

For the investors, this is actually a much more conservative approach. By only giving LeanCo the money when it is needed and doing it incrementally, LeanCo has to operate in iterative cycles similar to the Lean Startup and Agile Development. For example, if investors provided LeanCo with $5b in one lump sum, LeanCo may spend it unwisely feeling that they have a lot of capital on hand. If investors give LeanCo $400m or so at a time, LeanCo will have to take an incremental approach. If LeanCo were to go under after an IPO, investors would lose all of the $5b. If LeanCo were to fail after raising “only” $2b, investors lose far less money. 

The Post-IPO World

The VCs on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park have changed the game. I remember in the .com bubble, the largest Venture Fund was $1b and the largest deal was around $75m. Now the VC funds on Sand Hill Road are all well over a few billon each and think nothing of leading a $500m round. 

Eventually the startup companies are going public, however, that is only because at some point they have to in order for the VC investors to sell their positions and the employees to cash in their stock options. I’m sure that over time, Sand Hill Road will evolve past the IPO, where companies stay private forever and large East Coast financial institutions buy back those positions from the VCs and earn returns via dividends, etc. You are already starting to see the signs of this when large pension and investment banks such as Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, and Goldman Sachs are part of the last round of financing for companies like Lyft, Box, and Uber. In the future, you won’t be able to buy shares in a Facebook individually, but you will buy shares in a Fidelity “Silicon Valley" Mutual Fund. Silicon Valley is disrupting Wall Street. 

What Does this Mean for Startups in Silicon Valley

We all know that New York City and Wall Street is the IPO center of the world. Did a startup have a competitive advantage by being located in New York? As a native New Yorker who built three startups in New York City, I can confidently say no. Mark Zuckerberg proved that when he showed up to his Wall Street pre-IPO meetings in his hoodie. When your company is ready and has the right numbers, the Wall Street Investment Banks will work with you, no matter where you are.

What about tech startups located in Menlo Park, Palo Alto, or Mountain View, close to Sand Hill Road? (Sticking to the geographical description of Silicon Valley.) Same thing, when your company is large enough to take the uber rounds, it does’t matter if you live in Menlo Park or Montana, or Mongolia, the VCs on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park will work with you. You are already seeing this with startups being located in the City of San Francisco and not down south in Silicon Valley. The larger established companies such as Facebook (Menlo Park), Tesla (Palo Alto), Google (Mountain View), etc are down in Silicon Valley, but the young, early stage startups are up in San Francisco. This means San Fransisco is about the startups and Silicon Valley is about the money.

San Francisco is the new Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is the new Wall Street. 

posted on Tuesday, May 19, 2015 5:11:38 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, May 10, 2015

I’m super lucky to be from New York City and have lived in both Europe and Asia before settling down in Silicon Valley two years ago. I’ve also been lucky to work at a startup in Eastern Europe that grew to be so successful that many of my former co-workers there have become either Angel investors in the region or left to do their own startups. Of course, Fresco Capital is geographically diverse with 2/3 of the partners overseas. Because of this I get to meet a large amount of startups from outside of Silicon Valley, particularly from overseas. 

Typically when they come to Silicon Valley for the first time, I am their first visit. (Honored!) That said, they all ask me the exact same question: “Steve, we are about to raise our Seed round of $1m, can you introduce us to some investors that will put our round together?"

This is when I have to give the founder “The Talk."

 Silicon valley sign lg







The Talk(TM)

I say that raising a $1m Seed round in Silicon Valley is easy, just go to a Starbucks in Palo Alto and trip a few people and when they fall down, $100k will fall out of their hoodie. Aim for someone with a Facebook or Google hoodie and maybe $200k will fall out. While this is a (slight) exaggeration, the point is that most seed rounds that are not lead by an institutional investor are pieced together by wealthy Angel investors usually $200K or so at a time. While a foreign startup has the potential to meet Silicon Valley Angel investors on a two week visit, typically, you raise this money via a personal network. (Your’s or your advisor’s.)  If you are not from the Valley, you won’t have this network and would need to stay and network for months and months, burning cash and wasting time (that should be used to build your startup).

I Know Nobody in the Valley, What Should I Do?

I always suggest to non-local entrepreneurs to go raise their seed round locally in their home market where they have a network of potential investors. It will be easier and faster than trying to raise money in the Valley where you don’t know anyone. You can then come to the Valley for your Series A from a  position of strenght after you have nailed your business model. 

This presents a problem insofar of the level of sophistication of the investors in your home market. While I agree that most markets are not nearly as sophisticated as Silicon Valley, there are “Valley” type investors in all markets these days, you just have to go find them. The easiest way: build an awesome business. I was talking with by buddy Pascal the other day about valuations in Europe compared to the Valley. Startups outside of the Valley tend to have less of the valuation inflation that the Valley startups do. If you build a sustainable, repeatable, scalable business with funding in your local market at a competitive valuation, when you come the Valley later on to raise a Series A, you will find it easy to raise money!

Good luck. :) 

posted on Sunday, May 10, 2015 1:51:36 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Friday, May 1, 2015

In my role at Fresco Capital and as an advisor to several startups, I’ve seen it all with founders: disputes over shares, disputes over money, disputes over a new laptop, founders break up, a founder falling ill, founders get married, founders get divorced, founders get into physical arguments. Often this leads to one founder completely disengaged from the business and still holding a significant amount of equity or even a board seat. We’ve seen this at large companies such as Microsoft and more recently at ZipCar. Typically you need this equity to hire executives or attract investors. Worse, if the company is being acquired, you now have one founder who can hold up the deal if they are on the board and disengaged. That of course is a problem, but one that can be solved with a dynamic founder agreement. 


Love inc startups make











Founder Troubles 

Most founders settle the division of equity question with a static founders agreement. It usually goes something like this: 

Founder 1: 50%, vested over 4 years, 1 year cliff 

Founder 2: 50%, vested over 4 years, 1 year cliff

This solves a lot of problems, such as if a founder leaves after two years, they will still have 25% of the company but give up the second half of their equity. What happens if one founder is not “pulling their own weight” or contributing enough to earn the vesting (in the other founder’s eyes) but did not leave the company? What happens if they have to leave due to illness or personal emergency? What happens if there is misaligned expectations as what skills a founder brings and what role a founder will play?

I’ve seen this happen at one of my own startups. One of our founders was a lawyer and at the time we sold the company, he could not represent us due to it being a clear conflict of interest. While the legal fees were not all that bad (maybe $50k), to this day, almost ten years later, my other co-founders are still mad at the lawyer co-founder. This was clearly misaligned expectations.

This is what Norm Wasserman calls the Founder’s Dilemma, or the unexpected consequences of not spelling out the roles and expectations of the founders early on combined with the unintended complications of a founder leaving early or disengaging. He suggests a dynamic founders agreement.

The Dynamic Founders Agreement

The dynamic founders agreement is a way to mitigate the risk of an underperforming founder by changing the equity based on pre-set parameters. For example say I am starting a company with my friend Sam. Sam and I agree to a 50-50 split with Sam being the “business guy” and me being the “tech guy". The assumption is that I will be the coder of V1 and lead the development team after we get funding. But what if I need to leave the company due to family emergency? What about if I decide that I don’t want to code anymore, before we can afford to hire a developer? What if I only give 30 hours a week and consult on the side? 

A dynamic founders agreement is a big IF THEN ELSE statement that spells all of this out. IF Steve works as expected, his equity is 50%, if Steve has to leave the company, if he becomes disengaged, here is the pre-negotiated equity and if we have to buy Steve out, here are the terms. For example:


Steve works full time as CTO performing all the coding and technical duties of V1, his equity is 50%, vested over 4 years, 1 year cliff.


Steve works part time, is disengaged, or we need to hire developers sooner than expected, his vested equity is reduced by half and he forfeits his unvested equity. Loses board seat. 


If Steve has to leave the company because he needs a job or a family emergency:  if Steve built V1 then the buyout is a one time payout of $50,000 USD cash or 2% vested equity, if Steve did not build V1, the buyout is 0.5% vested equity. Loses board seat. 


Having a dynamic founders agreement won’t solve all of your problems, however, it will make the the process of removing a founder much less stressful. Sure some of the language in the dynamic founders agreement will be subject to interpretation, but the “spirit of the agreement” is much easier to follow or even if you have to litigate, more robust.  If you never need to use the dynamic founders agreement, but built one anyway, it will force a frank and open conversation about roles and commitment among the founders. This only strengthens the relationship between founders, increasing the chances of success. 


posted on Friday, May 1, 2015 1:59:24 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, April 26, 2015

All startup teams need help. The good news is that there is no shortage of “startup mentors” out there. The bad news is that there is no shortage of “startup mentors” out there. How you recruit and work with your advisors is critical as the right advisors managed properly can really have a powerful impact on your business.









Many startups that I work with like to build as impressive a list of advisors as they can. When talking with founders about advisors, I usually focus on two things:

  • Making sure the advisors augment the skills lacking in the current team
  • Formalize the relationship with the advisor and compensate them according to an objective standard

The Team’s Needs

Look at the needs of your business over the next six months to a year and then look at the skills of your team. You will have a lot of gaps. Start to think how an advisor can fill some of those gaps. Some teams will need help figuring out BizDev or do pricing of their products. Some will need help with higher level technology decisions-or someone to interview a CTO candidate/co-founder. Some teams have all the necessary parts but lack a little “gray hair” or folks with the battle scars of doing business a long time. Some teams lack the network to raise money and some teams lack domain experience. (Which I question why are you in that business in the first place.) 

You need to find advisors who can augment your team with skills, experience, and connections. If you are all PhDs in astrophysics and are building a related startup, you don’t need the head of your University’s Physics department or even a Nobel winning Physics on your advisory team. You will need some people with business and fundraising experience. Also, don’t try to go get famous people to be an advisor; I know that Mark Zuckerberg is not meeting with you monthly and won’t add much value except for the coolness factor. 

The good news is that there are a ton of people out there willing to give you advice. The challenge is keeping the advisors engaged.

The Dreaded Conversation: How to Formalize and Compensate an Advisor 

Your advisors mean well and want to help, but they are busy people. You need to set the expectations up front as to what kind of advice you need and how often you will be asking for it. If you don’t have this conversation with your advisor, you run the risk of some very misaligned expectations, leading to a bad experience for both sides. Typically for companies that I advise, we usually have a call once month or every six weeks. But when something comes up that I am uniquely qualified for, the frequency is higher. 

You also need to formalize your relationship with you advisors! This is important for several reasons, but the first is legal liability. If overnight your company is worth billions and your advisors have been informally advising you without a contract, they may think that they are due a large stake in your company and sue. Another reason to formalize your advisor’s relationships is that by formalizing it, they will take the relationship more seriously. So many companies ask me to advise them, but the ones I say yes to and have a formal agreement with, I feel more obligated to make the time for. An easy way to lock down an advisor is to use one of the standard Advisor Contracts. I have used this one several times

Lastly, you need to compensate the advisors in order to keep them engaged. If your advisors want a huge chunk of your company or a salary or stipend, they are not the advisors for you. Use the following matrix to determine how much to compensate the advisor with. First determine what stage your company is at: idea, startup, or growth. Idea is usually pre-seed, startup is usually Seed stage, and Growth is typically a Series A or later. (I explain the stages of funding here.) This is important due to the amount of risk your advisor is taking. Then determine what kind of advisor you are signing up: Standard, Strategic, or Expert. I know that these are kind of vague, but they usually line up pretty easily. Make a proposal and then use the equity number in the box. This should be a standard and non-negotiable. If the advisor tries to negotiate away from these numbers, don’t have them as an advisor. They should not be in it for the money/equity, the compensation is more of a “nice to have.” They should be advising you because they want to.

Screen Shot 2015 04 21 at 7 44 56 PM







Lastly, have a vesting schedule and a way to easily remove the advisor. Typically you have an advisor for a year or two, depending on the need of your team. For example, if you lack a technical team at the idea stage and engage with an advisor who is very technical and expected to help you recruit and hire an CTO within a year, you probably only need to sign that advisor up for a year or two. Then make room for other advisors in other domain areas. 

Advisory Board vs Board of Directors 

What is the relationship between a Board of Directors (BOD) and your advisors? Nothing. More importantly,  your board members are responsible for the governance of the company and legally liable for its execution, while your advisors are responsible for nothing and legally liable for nothing. Your directors have high engagement, often meeting in person several times a year. Your advisors are less engaged and often engaged via email and Skype. 

Screen Shot 2015 04 21 at 7 42 58 PM














You should update your advisors (and investors) with a bi-weekly or monthly email: explain the good, the bad, the ugly since the last email communication. At the end of the email put in the ask, or what you want your advirosrs to pay attention to or what you need from them. While your advisors may only skim over the updates as they come in, at your next call, the advisors can review those emails before the call and make the call more efficient. You won’t have to spend the first 10 minutes of the call updating the advisor on what happened over the past month. I love getting these emails, it shows me that the companies that I advise are organized and understand proper time management. 

 My Experiences Advising 

I’ve advised many companies over the years. I’ve been asked by many more than I’ve said yes to, I only say yes to companies that I can add value, are in an exciting space, and the founders are awesome people to work with. (Now that I am an investor, I say no to almost 100% of the asks to prevent a signaling issue. I did, however, recently agree to become an advisor to a company where my skills made me uniquely qualified to help.)

What was my experience like? Some companies rarely contacted me. Some contacted me randomly, usually when they needed some specific advice. Other’s scheduled a regular phone call. I’ve done it all: lots of general strategy, accelerator application advice, fundraising tips, team compensation, interviewing CTO candidates, make introductions, M&A advice, and sitting in-between founder breakups. 

Some of my companies have had exits, sometimes the money from my shares was great; one exit was small and paid for an awesome dinner and night out with the team. One company I advise recently shut down and I helped the founder find a new gig. All my experiences were worth the time I put in and lots of fun.

Lastly, I learned a lot advising, as much as I taught the founders! 

posted on Sunday, April 26, 2015 3:22:48 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, April 19, 2015

Only five years ago, getting into and completing an accelerator program was something special. That was when there were only a handful of Accelerators worldwide and the program, mentorship, and opportunity for follow on funding was huge. Today there are literally thousands of accelerators out there, diluting your experience, unless you go to one of only a handful of programs. Today going through an accelerator does not distinguish your startup. I mentor at a bunch of accelerators and have seen a disturbing trend: A lot of startups are going to multiple accelerators! This is a very bad idea. 

Startupaccelerator logorgb






Accelerator Hopping

I’ve seen several startups “accelerator hop” or join multiple accelerators. The top reason I have been seeing is that a startup has gone through a regional accelerator in their home country and then wants to use an American accelerator to “enter the US market.” For example, let’s say you are startup CoolCo from Poland and you go through the PNA or Polish National Accelerator. You’ve given up 6% for somewhere between $20k and $75k. After a few months at PNA you “graduate” at Demo Day with some initial traction and a small amount of revenue, but don’t necessarily have much opportunity to raise money in Poland. You know that your core customers are in the United States, so you need to enter the US market. PNA does its best to introduce you to some mentors and connections in the US, but you are pretty much on your own. So you decide to go to another accelerator, in the US, in order to enter the US market.

The problem with this model is two fold. The first is that you get diminishing returns going through a second accelerator. You already spent the time working on the “product market fit” working with mentors and learning the “lean startup.” You should be an expert by now. :) All those mentor meetings, Friday check-ins, demo day pitch practice, will be educational, but a distraction. That is time you could be actually working on your startup, specifically hustling to enter the US market! Ironically joining an American accelerator will slow down your US entry! In addition, the accelerator in the US, while located in the US, is not going to help you break into the US market, just like being an exchange student in Italy won’t make you an Italian citizen. US accelerators do not focus on US market entry, so you are better off hustling and entering the US market on your own.

The second problem comes down to economics. Your second accelerator will take another 6% stake for somewhere between $20k and $75k. So you will have raised approximately $100k for somewhere between 10-12% of your company. Your next step is to try and raise a Seed round and now your have given up too much equity in order to get the seed round. 

Another reason I am seeing in the accelerator hopping phenomena is funding. Some startups join one accelerator, can’t raise a seed round after Demo Day, and then join another accelerator, hoping that the second accelerator will introduce them to more investors. They fall in the same equity trap as CoolCo above. The problem is that no accelerator is going to magically change your chances of raising money in three months, only traction and customers will do that. You are better off not wasting the time in another program and spending all of your energy getting customers. Paying customers leads to investment, not multiple accelerators. 

The Middle Ground

I understand that once you have graduated an accelerator your startup may not be ready for a seed round. In addition, you miss the focus and push that an accelerator gave you. One possible compromise is to join an incubator program. Incubators usually provide space, business services, and a very light mentorship program without taking any equity. They are typically run by government development funds or other non-profit programs and last between six months and a year. A handful of incubators will also provide access to some non-equity grant money. Incubators are not perfect, but can give you the final push your startup needs before doing a seed round without diluting your equity or wasting your time. 

Either way, don’t delay and go out and hustle!


posted on Sunday, April 19, 2015 1:54:38 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Saturday, April 11, 2015

A lot of people misuse the term “MVP” or Minimum Viable Product. To be clear an MVP is not a beta, not a prototype, but rather an experiment designed to test your value proposition’s assumptions by measuring a behavior and learning from the results. 

Behavior Testing











Back in the day, Dropbox did an MVP as just a video and Buffer was just a landing page. Both were experiments to determine if Dropbox or Buffer should even exist. Instead of guessing and building prototypes, they build the simplest of things in order to measure a user’s behavior. Today startups are building functional prototypes and calling them MVPs. They are better off building something they can learn from. Typically the first MVP doesn’t even have to be anything on a device or computer. For example, I once advised a new travel startup that wanted to give you one click access to a daily itinerary based on a map. They assumed that people wanted a map with pin points on it and times to follow. I told them to go to tourist spots and give people real maps with real pin points circled and an analog itinerary to follow. That was an MVP, it was an experiment (map) that measured (how many as a percent of total) a user behavior (did they use the map or not). Let’s take a look at how to build a better MVP.

Getting Started: Customer Segment and Value Proposition 

The whole idea of an MVP is to measure an actual result against your expected result to prove or disprove your assumption. In order to do that you need data. The first place to start is to think about is your customer segment; you have to know who your target customers are going to be. Without knowing your exact segment (22-34 year old professional, urban women, single, living alone, earning over $75k), you won’t be able get the correct pool of users to test on.

After you define your customer segment, you define your value proposition. Too many people think that their value proposition is just the solution to the problem they are solving. That is incorrect: your value proposition is the delta between the current solution or workaround to the problem people are currently using and your solution. You measure your value proposition in terms of how much better your solution is compared to the solutions that exist today.

Let’s say you are solving a problem for buying movie tickets. Several solutions already exist; there are lots of web sites, apps, etc. Maybe your solution involves buying the tickets via SMS. Regardless, you have to think about what the alternatives to your solution are and compare them against that. One is simply buying the ticket at the box office. Here your alternative has value, but not tremendous value. Alternatively, let’s say you are developing a life saving cancer drug. The alternative without your solution could be death. In this case your solution would be incredibly valuable.

The Assumptions That Fuel Your Value Proposition

Underpinning your value proposition are your core assumptions. These are the things that would compel someone to buy your product or service. The job of the MVP is to test those underlying assumptions. The only way to successfully test those assumptions is by making a prediction of the result and comparing the behaviors that you measured up against your predictions. Your predictions should be based in fact, facts that would determine if you have a viable business or not. If you don’t make a prediction, then you will not have a way to determine success or failure of the MVP test. 

Let’s say you are building a landing page, Buffer style. Your MVP will be to measure how many people give you their email address after your landing page described your product. You will have to drive traffic to your landing page, most likely by taking out some Facebook or Google AdWords ads. You want to measure the conversion rate of people who clicked on the ad (since you pay for click) to providing their email addresses. For example, if 100 people clicked on the ad and came to your page, but only 4 provided their email address, your conversion rate is 4%. (Not bad actually in e-commerce.) 

Should 4% be your target? No. You need to determine your prediction based on facts and your business model. Let’s say you estimate spending $100 on Google AdWords to drive traffic to your MVP.  If you have a conversion rate of 4%, it will then cost you $25 to acquire each customer. $25 is your CAC or customer acquisition cost. You need to estimate what your Customer Lifetime Value (CLV), or the amount of profit you expect to get out of each customer over the course of their relationship with you, is. At this stage it will be fairly inaccurate, but you need to ground your assumption in reality. (Future MVPs can test pricing.) Let’s say you make the CLV to be $21, based on a lot of factors in your business model. (I talk more about your CLV and CVC here.) 

With a a CLV of $21 and a CAC of $25, you will lose $4 on each new customer you acquire. Or CLV ($21) - CAC ($25) = -$4. 

For your MVP test, you will need a higher conversion rate/lower CAC rate in order to make a profit. For the first MVP test make a prediction that the conversion rate will be 5%, bringing your CAC down to $20. Or CLV ($21) - CAC ($20) = $1. 

Interpreting The Results

Now with your assumptions based in some business reality, it is time to run the test. Typically the results are one of the three following numbers (remember you are aiming for 5% conversion):

  • 0.021%
  • 4.28%
  • 17%
Let’s take 0.021%. This is an absolute failure, you can safely assume that your assumption is invalidated. Safest thing to do is declare the assumption invalid and go back to your value proposition and rethink it. If you have other assumptions associated with your value proposition, you can do some more MVP tests to determine if the entire value proposition is invalid or not. Chances are you will have to iterate your idea and value proposition some more.
What to do if you are at 4.28%. Technically it is invalid since you need 5% conversion rate in order to make any money. Should you just give up and go home? No. You should try some new UX and new design or different language and run the test again. Don’t run the test without changing anything! If your future tests with minor changes are at or over 5%, then you can declare your assumptions valid and move on to test the next one.  
Let’s look at 17%. Woo-hoo, your assumptions are more than valid, you blew away your predictions. Verify that your test was fair and then declare your assumption valid and move on to test the next assumption. 
Thats all there is to it!  Only by clearly defining what success is and basing those numbers in a business reality is an MVP useful. Anything else is just a beta. 
posted on Saturday, April 11, 2015 8:27:51 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, March 5, 2015

If you have ever seen me speak at an Accelerator or startup event, I usually refer back to my experiences raising capital for my past startups. I’ve had experience raising money in four distinct eras: the “dot com era” circa 1999, the post dot com crash circa 2002, the post Google IPO-pre-Lehman collapse era (2006-2008), and the more current (post-Lehman) environment. While many of the rules of fundraising are the same, the stages, amounts, and terms have drastically changed over the years. Living and investing in Silicon Valley, I have observed the new pattern of fundraising, broken down to four stages.

fundraising stages

The four stages are:

  • Acceerator Round/Initial Capital
  • Seed
  • Series A
  • Series n


While there are all kinds of startups out there from pure software to BioTech to hardware, I’ll use the example of a typical software startup in the example below. The rounds and rules hold true in board strokes for most startups, but the dollars and sources may very. 

Accelerator Round/Initial Capital/Friends and Family ~$100,000 USD

This is the round where you move from idea to prototype, possibly to a first version you let people play with. Lots of experimentation, MVPs, and customer discovery. You use this round to get a sense of a “product-market fit” but not necessarily a business model. Typically you have two or three founders working on sweat equity and some money borrowed from friends and family. This is the stage to go through an accelerator or have a single angel investor. The average size of this round is about $100,000 USD, excluding the value of the sweat equity. Once you have demonstrated the ability to execute and launch a functional prototype and can extrapolate the results, you are ready for a seed round. 

*Note that if you are a hardware startup, your Kickstarter campaign, would typically come into play here. 

Seed Round ~$1-1.5m USD

This is the round where you obtain “product-market fit” and find your business model. You develop and release your product and start to measure the results. Your customers may not pay you a lot at this point, but you have built an audience or customer base. This is the round where you bring on your first non-founder hire and move out of the garage, typically to a co-work space. The range of this round is between $1m to $1.5 USD structured as a convertible note. The typical scenario is that you have 3-4 investors, one lead at half the round at $750k and the other 3 investors in at $200k - $300k each. It is important to have a lead that is capable of investing in your next round, possibly leading that round as well. As general advice, beware of an AngelList syndicate as your lead during this round, a lot of the time that syndicate is only good for the amount of the syndicate in your seed round and not capable to lead the Series A. 

Series A ~$3-7m USD

This is the round where you execute on your business plan and scale. You have paying customers, you know where to find them, and you just need to accelerate the process of on-boarding them. Typically with a Series A, you don’t need the money as you can grow organically, however, you raise a Series A in order to grow faster. Typically you use a portion of the funds raised for customer acquisition as well as some new hires in both sales and marketing roles. The range of this round is typically between $3m-$8m USD with some if not all of your seed investors participating. Sometime about now you think about moving out of that co-work space and into your own office. 

Series N… $25m-$1b USD

After a Series A, typically the later rounds (Series B, C, n…) are for massive growth. I like to use the analogy for a Series B as “rocket fuel.” For example, you found your product market fit in your seed round, you developed and executed on your business plan in your A, and you have a repeatable business that scales. You’re making money and have a great team. You know where your customers are and how to get them to give you money. If you grow out of revenues, you are going to get to the target (say 30% market share or $150m in revenues), but it will take you a long time organically, say 3-5 years. This is the airplane taking off and going fast, but hovering above the tree line. With a Series B, it is like poring afterburner rocket fuel on to your airplane and the goal is to get to the target in 1-2 years, not 3-5. Later rounds continue this trend and are also used for acquisitions to speed up the process as well as provide some capital to enter foreign markets. 


While this is not the exact path that your startup will take, it is the “textbook" course a startup will take. Use this information as a guide and as with everything in this business, your milage may vary

posted on Thursday, March 5, 2015 5:54:17 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Monday, January 5, 2015

Twenty years ago I quit the only “real” job that I ever had and started my first business. It was a pretty modest five person software development shop writing database driven applications and charging by the hour. My first exposure to Venture Capital and the high tech startup ecosystem was a few years later when the .COM era was in full swing. My consulting company wrote a ton of software for startups in exchange for equity. Then one offered to hire us full time; we accepted and I became CTO and my team of developers came with me. Then I flew out to Silicon Valley to raise Venture Capital on Sand Hill Road: Something I did not know anything about, but found exciting.


We raised the money, built a business, and I never looked back. The startup I joined didn’t go public as we had planned, but we did eventually have the “exit”. It was 2002 and I had my first taste of the entrepreneurship bug. Over the next thirteen years I got to be the co-founder or very early employee of four more venture backed startups, all lucky enough to have an exit as well.

Over the past few years I had the opportunity to be part of the entrepreneur support system by doing a few angel investments of my own, sitting on some startup boards, mentoring startups at various accelerators, and co-founding and running an accelerator. It felt good to help entrepreneurs. As Telerik’s acquisition started to move from a discussion to a reality, I started to think about what would come next for me. As I talked with my friends and colleagues, they all gave me the similar advice: Jump right into another startup. Apparently they all think that I’m good at it. I started to think about what kind of startups I can start or join.


Then one day this past summer, I went up to San Francisco and had breakfast with a partner at SOS Ventures, then met up for lunch with Peter Thiel and a bunch of the 20 under 20 fellows (I’m a mentor there), then made it back down to Palo Alto and had dinner with a friend who is a partner at a fund on Sand Hill Road. The next day it hit me, I literally had breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a different VC. I decided then that I had to change my seat at the table so to speak and move from being an entrepreneur to an investor. The experiences that I had over the past 20 years of being an entrepreneur could be put to use over a larger surface area than just one startup.


I couldn’t go work for just any old VC, I needed to find a fund that had the same values as me: Entrepreneur friendly, international and diverse. I also needed the fund to a bit of a startup itself: I like to build things. Lastly, I needed to really like the people I would be partners with. After I thought about it in those terms, it was obvious to me that joining Fresco Capital was the right choice for me.



I’m happy to announce that starting on Monday January 19th, I’ll be officially joining Tytus andAllison as part of the Fresco Capital team. I’ll be involved in all aspects of investment and operations with a specific focus on enterprise and IoT. Being based in Silicon Valley with two partners in Hong Kong reminds me of my last gig. I guess old habits die hard…

posted on Monday, January 5, 2015 12:45:16 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Monday, October 7, 2013


After running two successful batches of the mobile focused AcceleratorHK in Hong Kong, Telerik is announcing the Mach5 Accelerator in Silicon Valley. Mach5 will focus on startups doing HTML5 Web or Mobile development using our HTML5 framework, KendoUI.

The accelerator will be located in our office on University Avenue in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley. We’ll run from January 6th until April 11th, 2014. Applications are open until November 22nd for the first batch: apply here.

The batch will be small, only three teams, but the benefits are huge. Besides office space, you’ll have a great 14 week program complete with Silicon Valley mentors, up to $25k USD investment (in exchange for 4%-6% equity), and a customer development and MVP boot-camp.

Telerik resources are at your disposal too. In addition to the mentors from Silicon Valley, Telerik will provide a senior developer from our Professional Services team onsite for a few weeks of the program to help the teams get started. In addition to the techie help, our demand generation, community, and “growth hacker” experts will provide assistance to the teams. While you are in the Valley for the program, tap into our Silicon Valley staff’s vast network. Lastly, our Video Production team will assist with some high quality videos for the teams to use in their marketing and fund raising campaigns.

The best applicants are two person startups with one techie and one business person doing HTML5 development willing to relocate to Silicon Valley for 14 weeks and work on the startup full time. Applications are open until November 22nd for the first batch: apply here.

posted on Monday, October 7, 2013 10:34:24 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Tuesday, September 3, 2013

In case you missed AcceleratorHK Demo Day 2, the videos are now live. The entire video roll is here (about 1 hour) and the individual team links are below the break. Enjoy!

Individual team videos:


Gyaan Tel




Captain Planner

posted on Tuesday, September 3, 2013 4:42:25 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Last night in Hong Kong was the cohort #2 Demo Day! Over 150 people braved severe Typhoon Utor to make their way to The Good Lab for Demo Day 2. We squeezed about 120 into the main theatre and about 30 or so in the live streaming in the kitchen area of the Good Lab.


The teams were hard at work but we all gathered at show time and did a shot of Port compliments of the Portuguese team. I tried to say something motivation and semimetal, but all I could say over and over was “I’m proud of you guys.”


After a brief intro by Tony at the Good Lab and a photo slide show, I did a brief introduction. I fooled the audience into thinking that I made a typo on a slide with the wrong date, I had August 13 2012 on the first slide since one year ago to the date I began the Accelerator journey when my board approved the project. Quite fitting to have our second demo day on the one year anniversary.


The teams did amazing! Here is the rundown:

  • Verybite: healthy home cooked food delivery service
  • Gyaan Tel: mobile data analytics for emerging market retailers
  • dood! Our 100% local HK team with a photo sharing app that turns your photos into gifts
  • SoFly: second screen and TV show tracking
  • iceVault: offline storage for your online assets. Starting with Bitcoin.
  • Captain Planner: online travel at the click of a button (really.)


After the presentations we had a networking event and each team had their booths set up. Despite the looming T8 typhoon, I had to kick people out of the Good Lab after two and a half hours.


Of course we had the all-important after party in LKF. By now the Typhoon had hit in full T8 force, at one point we took to dancing in the streets in the typhoon’s monsoon rain.


Stay tuned for the videos and interviews to be posted here in a few weeks.

My journey at AcceleratorHK ends here. I’ll be moving to Palo Alto and running an accelerator this fall in Silicon Valley. Stay tuned as Paul and I figure out how to make cohort #3 of AcceleratorHK!

posted on Tuesday, August 13, 2013 11:36:37 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, August 11, 2013

We have just completed the final week of AccleratorHK, the hardest week of them all. Last week was the week where the teams had to run their businesses, review and sign all of the investment paperwork from Telerik, and prep for Demo Day!

For prepping, we have two mentors come in this week and work with the teams. In addition we had three members of the past cohort come in and work on the presentations. Finally we had our last Friday check-in where I got to weigh in for probably the last time on the presentations. All in all, that was at least six practice runs with structured feedback. The teams are ready for Tuesday.


Later in the week we had the Demo Day film team arrive and Gerard filmed each team’s interview. These interviews will be used by each team as they leave AcceleratorHK and take their businesses to the next level.


Lastly, we had Charlie Sheng from TechNode some in and interview all six teams for two stories, one that will be a write-up for startupshk and one for a story about Demo Day, AcceleratorHK, and the startup ecosystem for TechNode. Stay tuned…


posted on Sunday, August 11, 2013 4:53:20 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Saturday, August 3, 2013

This was the last “normal” week at AcceleratorHK, normal being that we have our scheduled program 1:1 meetings, mentor visits, Friday check-in, and other activities. The following week will be the final week to prep for Demo Day, which is on August 13th.

One more team released an MVP! Icevault, Offline storage for Online currencies. You can easily sign up: a bitcoin address will be generated for you right away - and the private key securely saved offline and encrypted for you.

We had a great mentor come in and visit us. Michele Leroux Bustamante came in and spent about an hour and half with each team over two days, plus sat in on the Friday check-in and provided valuable feedback to the teams on their presentations.


Michele had her original flights rescheduled due to a foul up in San Francisco so she extended her trip until Saturday and we all got to spend a little more time with her. That means she got to get down as the teams blew off some steam in LFK on Friday night. Smile


This coming week is the last week of the program! We will have five different people come in to spend time with the teams practicing their Demo Day presentations, all while trying to continue to build their products! It is crunch time to say the least.

See you all at Demo Day on August 13th!

posted on Saturday, August 3, 2013 11:33:25 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Saturday, July 27, 2013

As the program is driving to the Demo Day finish line, we had an action packed week at AcceleratorHK! All six teams have an MVP that is up and running. You can check out three of them here:

We also had Hristo Neychev come in and spend a few days mentoring with the teams. Hristo works at Telerik as the PM for Icenium and has a lot of mentoring experience with startups at Launchub, an accelerator in Bulgaria. He spend an hour or two with each team as well as extra time doing customer development of his own with the teams and other companies in Hong Kong using Icenium. Hristo also mentors teams on startup presentations, so he worked with each team on their presentations for 30 on Friday before Prototype Day.


On Friday we had our second (and last) “Prototype Day” when the teams make their Demo Day presentations to a group of mentors and have live Q&A on their business model. This is different from each of the Friday check-ins that we do when the teams may present on what they have done the prior week or practice their investor or potential customer pitch that they may be doing that week. We had five awesome mentors come on in to listen to the presentations and provide feedback:


The teams made pretty solid presentations and got a lot of feedback. Demo Day is only 2 weeks away and the teams should all be ready! Unfortunately Friday was Paul’s last day at AcceleratorHK. Sad smile After Prototype Day we went out for a few drinks to wish Paul well in his new life in LA.


Demo Day is August 13th, register here! See you all there…

posted on Saturday, July 27, 2013 9:58:39 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Saturday, July 20, 2013

We had another action-packed week at AcceleratorHK this week. Early in the week one team released their PhoneGap based cross-platform MVP and they win the award for being the first team to have an app on my phone.


Another team had their MVP launched this week as well, we are starting to really move along now.

Next we had mentor and angel investor James Giancotti come in and spend a lot of time with the teams. James has a large amount of experience advising early stage startups and was very helpful with the teams who are looking for funding (just about all of them Smile.)


The Portuguese teams re-emerged from their near two week long code-fest to come by the Good Lab and, well, code.


Paul did a going away farewell address to the entire Hong Kong Startup community. It was a complete sellout (standing room only!) and a great time.


Members of cohort #1 and several mentors showed up and also got their tee-shirts. Smile


Paul also got several Hong Kong startups to commit to launch date, revenue, and other key deliverables in front of the entire community. Nothing like peer pressure!


Lastly, we had a rooftop party at IFC for Paul’s sendoff. I used DooD!’s MVP to have some fun:


This week we have a week long mentor visit, two more MVPs to play with, and Prototype Day #2! Stay tuned….

posted on Saturday, July 20, 2013 8:06:36 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, July 14, 2013

AcceleratorHK is moving right along. We are just over 4 week away from Demo Day! The teams are hard at work with their MVP, prototypes, and betas.

This week we had William Liang: co-founder at Grabbit and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Poly U, come in and spend 30 minutes with each team mentoring. William always has great insights and this visit was no different than his visits to the past cohort and bootcamps.


It was also a great week insofar as our long awaited tee-shirts have arrived! We had some AcceleratorHK branded “I go both ways” tee shirts as well as the Icenium logo shirt.


I ordered 100 of each shirt, so of course we have extra for our mentors, as well as for our past graduates, as shown here.


We are sure to have some left over at Demo Day if you come early. Smile

This week is a busy week with mentor visits and session by Paul about the Hong Kong startup ecosystem. We will also announce the logistical details for Demo Day later this week. Stay tuned!

posted on Sunday, July 14, 2013 4:29:47 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Monday, July 8, 2013

Last Friday a team representing the startup community of Hong Kong went to the appWorks Demo Day in Taipei, Taiwan.


appWorks is a venture firm that also has an incubator program of six months where 24 teams start out and get free co-work space and mentors. At the end of the six month period, there is a demo day. For this batch (Batch #6), twenty teams each did a five minute pitch in front of almost 700 people.


The teams had a range from offline retail of organic dog food, urban street tee-shirts, women's health, politics, bio hacking, customized baseball gloves, and much more. The first team to go (urban street tee-shirts) started with a break dance. What a way to start a Demo Day!


As opposed to traditional accelerator demo days, which tend to have more early stage companies, this demo day had quite a few teams with a lot of traction. In addition, the investment climate in Taiwan is only strong for hardware, so the teams tend to go for things that have revenue as soon as possible. You can see the investment climate’s effect on the startup ecosystem, very few taxi and other “instagram” mass consumer style apps, but rather more practical, more local, and less “big swing” companies.  It was a great event to watch.

After the Demo Day, the HK team went to Taipei 101, the second tallest (for now!) building in the world and got some dinner.


We met up with the Cubieboard guys (similar to raspberry pi) and I became the first paying customer of their second generation board. I realized they were not kidding when they took photos of my money and sent it to their investor. This is a great device, duel core computer the size of an old PCIMCA card complete with an SD card, USB ports, Ethernet jack, infrared sensor, all for <$60 USD.


Then we headed over to appWorks offices where the HK teams pitched the Taiwan teams and some other Taiwan teams that did not participate in Demo Day did the same. It was all done over beer and pizza, the fuel of startups.


The co-working space is open only to the incubator startups and there is an additional floor where the graduates can rent out at below market rates.


It was a great trip and we hope that by mixing the Taiwan and Hong Kong startup ecosystems we’ll open new markets for each other.

posted on Monday, July 8, 2013 6:51:01 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, July 7, 2013

Last week was our mid-program week of no program activities, just “get the hack out of the building” and do customer development. One team took that literally and traveled to India to test their app with their target customer base. They also had time to take in the Taj this weekend. Smile


Another team is working on some pretty bleeding edge stuff so they decided to take over the inactive local meetup dedicated to the topic and hold an event. There was a great turnout with lively debate and lots of customer development.


Lastly, while we had no mentors and meetings planned this week, we did have one optional mentor visit Saturday with Paul Harris, an American based in Manila, who has been working and developing deep relationships with a large number of Philippine based startups from idea to mentorship and funding. Since it was a low key week, Paul held court at one of our local bars and the teams came in and bought him beer and spend 30 or so minutes with him each. Then the rugby came on TV and that was the end of any business talk (it is a British bar…)

2013-07-06 17.32.18

All the other teams were hard at work, but Friday we had a BBQ to Celebrate the 4th of July. (Yes we celebrated it on the 5th, kicked off the weekend!)

Unfortunately I missed the BBQ as I was speaking at the Scrum Gathering Shanghai on Friday.


Back to the normal program this week!

posted on Sunday, July 7, 2013 6:02:04 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, June 30, 2013

Can’t believe that we are halfway done! That means we are halfway to Demo Day! We are ready to announce that Demo Day is scheduled for August 13th at 6:30pm at The Good Lab’s main theatre. Mark your calendar.

Everyone recovered from our field trip on Saturday to Shenzhen, and had a great week at AcceleratorHK. We started off the week strong with a mentor visit from Jochen Kleef on Monday. Jochen has extensive experience in China and of course customer development and has always been a great supporter of the entrepreneurship ecosystem here in Hong Kong. Jochen held a round table discussion where he talked with the teams about his experience as well as had a Q&A. Then he met with the teams individually.


We also had our last round of Pecha Kuchas on Tuesday. We had some great talks about life growing up in Indonesia, Malaysia, Indian mythology, and many  more. I did a pecha kucha on trekking to Everest Base Camp.


One of the teams released a public MVP and some others are pretty close. Other teams were out speaking to potential customers and partners. Very good discipline in going out and doing customer development.

We changed up our Friday check-in a little bit. First the elevator pitches were only given 20 seconds, instead of the usual 1 minute limit. For the 5 minute presentation, we made a big deal on changing the presentations up so we had the teams submit the slides early. But we fooled them and had them do this week’s presentation with a white board, no slides, no projector. The results were pretty awesome.


This week is “customer validation” week where we have no scheduled check-ins, 1:1s, or mentor meetings. Just the teams working hard on “getting out of the building” to talk with customers.

posted on Sunday, June 30, 2013 10:00:06 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, June 23, 2013

The intensity at AcceleratorHK is cranking up. This week was action packed and eventful. On Wednesday we had a trip to visit the offices of Hong Kong startup Frenzoo. At Frenzoo, founder Simon Newstead walked the teams through the early days at Frenzoo, its customer development process, and what it was like being in an accelerator himself. It was great going to visit a living, breathing startup in Hong Kong and “get out of the building.”


On Thursday, we had Roland Yi, director & General Counsel at Gilkron Limited as well as a law professor at HKU, come in and spend time with us on intellectual property (IP) rights and laws. We talked about patents (avoid!) and trade secrets, copy rights, and trademarks. Very informative stuff for the teams.


On Thursday night we had a rooftop pool party to wish one of the team members well as he is headed back to the US.


On Friday night I did a presentation about raising money for startups. We covered angel investment, stock options, vesting,  dilution, valuation, venture capital, liquidation preferences, and lots more. This session was open to the public and despite being on a Friday night, we had a great crowd (and lots of beer.) Of course it was a PowerPoint-less presentation!


On Saturday we had a big day. We got up early and traveled to Shenzhen, China and visited the component markets in Huaqiangbei. These are the component markets for the global supply chain and they are something to be seen.


Here is a photo of some of the teams inside of SEG Plaza, one of the most famous of the component markets.


After a few hours at the component markets and adjacent consumer electronics markets (lots of phone cases, batteries, chargers, bluetooth speakers were acquired…), we headed to an evening of teambuilding with the staff of Social Agent, who’s founder, Mike Michelini is a mentor at AcceleratorHK. We went bowling, played pool, and ping pong with the staff and had a great group dinner and drinks before heading home to Hong Kong.


A great week and more to come next week. Stay tuned…

posted on Sunday, June 23, 2013 4:55:15 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, June 16, 2013

It is hard to imagine that we have already passed the one month point! After five full weeks at AcceleratorHK, most of cohort 2 is starting to move past customer interviews and into serious MVPs. Paul and I keep reminding the teams that they are still testing assumptions with the MVPs and not building “beta” releases for “feedback.” (The classic mistake that leads down the road to tradition product development.)

On Friday we had our first “Prototype Day” or when the teams make their Demo Day presentations to a group of mentors and have live Q&A on their business model. This is different from each of the Friday check-ins that we do when the teams may present on what they have done the prior week or practice their investor or potential customer pitch that they may be doing that week. While Demo Day is a full two months away, we want to get everyone started and get feedback on their business from more folks than just the cohort and Paul and myself. During the course of the program we have two Prototype Days, usually around the end of the first month and at the end of the second month. (Prototype Day #2 is July 26th.)


We had four rock star mentors show up:

The six teams made their presentations and the mentors gave them tons of feedback. The mentors really challenged the teams to think through their models and underlying value prop. The most surprising thing to the teams was that they had the “curse of knowledge” since sometimes the mentors had no idea what the team’s value proposition was all about. Some mentors even provided feedback on the team’s logos. Smile It was great for Paul and myself to take a week off from providing all the constructive criticism.


The teams soaked up the feedback and after a few hours of presentations and Q&A, most of us went to the local Japanese place for lunch.

After Prototype Day, we had a scheduled rooftop party, however, it had to be postponed due to rain. Instead Team Portugal and I went to a MVP dinner and got to play with an “Appcessory” or rather a device that turns your iPhone into a pinball machine.


We have a big week coming up, two mentor visits, the last public class for the “Early Venture Survival Series”, and of course all the regular 1:1s and check-ins! Stay tuned…

posted on Sunday, June 16, 2013 7:23:42 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Saturday, June 8, 2013

We are four weeks in and the teams are progressing nicely. We had another week focused on Customer Discovery where the teams have been talking to a lot of potential customers and continuing to refine their segments. MVPs are getting built and several teams are moving into Customer Validation. One team flew to India to meet with potential customers for a few days and also dropped in on Telerik India!


We had two mentors come in this week, one was a talk by a local entrepreneur who decided to walk away from his business after his partner and investor changed the terms and would not negotiate. His only course of action was to walk away from the business and the story was very powerful. We also had Steven Kopec from Turner Broadcasting Asia come in and work with the teams 1:1.


We also had the third installment of Paul and Steve’s “Early Stage Venture Survival” talk at the Good Lab, which was open to the public. Paul spoke for two hours on the value of metrics to a startup. (And how to avoid vanity metrics.)


We also did our first batch of Pecha Kuchas, one team member even did one on Austrian Economics. Smile Paul has also started to pronounce Pecha Kuchas properly, giving up his futile attempt to change the native Japanese pronunciation of the word.

On Friday we did our weekly check-in and changed it up by having people do an elevator pitch for a team that they were not a member of!


After our checkin we went to a BBQ hosted by one of the teams on the rooftop of one of our mentors.


Next week we start to take a look at the MVPs, and we have some mentors coming in for the +30. Prototype Day presentations. (Can you believe that we are at this a month already?!?!) Stay tuned…

posted on Saturday, June 8, 2013 5:49:44 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Saturday, June 1, 2013

Another great week for the teams at AcceleratorHK. This week at the 1:1’s Paul and I started to push for the teams to build MVPs around a core assumption or two. We also brought in technical mentor and Telerik customer advocate, Dhananjay Kumar (DJ), to talk about hybrid apps and also give an overview of Icenium and Everlive for the technical co-founders. DJ stayed a few days and worked 1:1 with several of the teams. (A team from cohort #1 even came up to visit DJ as well..)


We also had some agile training with a session I delivered at The Good Lab. I talked how rule #2 of the “Customer Development Manifesto” by Steve Blank is to pair agile development with customer development. I told lots of stories how I screwed things up when I did my startups. That seemed to work well. Smile


We then went on a field trip to visit Makible, a Hong Kong startup that is building the Makibox, the world most affordable ($200 USD) 3-D printer. I bought a Makibox for the cohort to play with and we should have a beta version to play with in a week or two.


We also had a great round table with Makible’s founder Jon Buford about startups, funding, and early revenue.


From there we had the first outing to Happy Valley Racetrack!


While we had some doubters in the house (Team Portugal), most of the cohort followed my winning strategy on horse betting. As usual I walked away a winner. Smile 

It was a super hot and sticky night in Hong Kong but we were able to have a ton of fun. Two of the local HK guys in the cohort had their first Happy Valley visit, it takes an Accelerator to get them to Happy Valley!


The next day, the teams wanted to relax somewhat and they took advantage of the Good Lab’s awesome bean bag area. Looking at the guys in this photo you can tell that we are in a mobile accelerator!


As usual we had our founder talks and Friday Check-In. We also finished the week with a Friday afternoon mentor visit from Mike Michelini who worked with the teams on their social media strategies.


We have another action packed week up ahead, stay tuned!

posted on Saturday, June 1, 2013 6:34:15 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, May 26, 2013

This week was “Get the Hell Out of the Building” week with a focus on Customer Development. Most teams went out and started to talk to potential customers about their offerings. We had a mentor, Joel Semeniuk, come in and spend all week with the teams to work on customer development and their business model canvas. He spent a few hours with each team working on how they can go out and do customer development.


In addition angel investor Tytus Michalski came in to mentor the teams this week as well.


After hours we had a social event on Thursday. The entire cohort attended the launch party of a cohort #1 team, SurroundApp. Earlier in the day, some teams got to meet with Remi Caron, a mentor, but also the CTO of SurroundApp.


This was a lot of fun because most of cohort #1 was in attendance. When the drinking went late into the night, the cohort #1 folks started to warn cohort #2 of what happens when you come unprepared for the Friday Check in the next day. In addition as the night progressed (and the beers flowed) we had everyone come up and do their elevator pitch, even the guys from cohort #1. Always be prepared!

The team from Portugal, started to mingle with the locals. Smile 


On Friday we had our first “Friday Check In”. At this meeting we have each team do an elevator pitch and we all evaluate it as well as give pointers. The group took the constructive criticism very well. We also did a “scrum” where each team spoke about the week behind and the week ahead as well as committed to the dates of their weekly mentor email.


Lastly, each team did their 10/20/30 pitches. Yes, we do them starting on Week #2! (Now you will appreciate how much work goes into demo day!) We had two mentors in the room (Joel and Marcel) giving feedback as well as Paul and myself (and the other cohort members.)


This week we have a technical mentor coming in, a field trip visit to Makible (a HK startup building the Makibox, a $200 3-D printer), as well as some agile training (which is open to the public). The week will continue to focus on customer discovery and validation. Stay tuned…

posted on Sunday, May 26, 2013 4:13:47 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, May 16, 2013

I can’t believe that after the months of the planning and reviewing of applications the Accelerator has already started up again. I also can’t believe that week 1 is already over! The next 13 weeks are going to just fly by.

We have a total of six teams doing cross platform mobile development. The teams are working in the following spaces:

  • Media/Second Screen Applications
  • Micropayments
  • Travel
  • Logistics
  • Social Media
  • Virtual Currency

Week one was great, we had orientation and discovered we have team members from four continents and born in the following countries: Argentina, France, Portugal, Malaysia, Indonesia, USA, UK, China, Canada, HK, and Russia.

After Paul’s overview of customer development, we broke up the teams into four groups and gave them a startup weekend style assignment to work on a business model and customer development exercise in the following four categories:  mobile health, language learning, dating, and fashion. We split up each team so no co-founders are on the same team. After two days or so of doing customer development we had the teams come in and make a presentation in front of a panel of judges (made up of four mentors of the program.) One team had projection problems so we made them “be agile” and present without slides. Smile


The winning team won an expensive bottle of Sake and chocolate. (The only judging criteria was which team did the most customer development.) I kind of guilted the winning team to share the spoils with everyone. Smile


After the mini-startup weekend/customer development exercise, Paul hosted a customer development seminar at the Good Lab. This was open to the public and some members of the previous cohort came by for the seminar as well.


We also had our first mentor come in and visit us! Vinod Menon came in to speak with the teams today. As the founder of Knowledge Works, Vinod runs an Accounting as a Service (AaaS?) company and spoke about the ins and outs of incorporating in Hong Kong.


Being a short week (Friday is a public holiday in HK-The Buddha’s Birthday!) we had our founder talks and Friday check-in on Thursday. We learned a lot about each other this week.


We also all went to a local HK meetup, TDHK for our first social. It was suggested that we do the founder talks next week at a bar, to get better stories.


Now time to get cranking on the projects! Stay tuned for the next update….

posted on Thursday, May 16, 2013 7:55:03 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, April 4, 2013

Similar to collage application season, it is accelerator application season with many major accelerator’s deadline looming. (AcceleratorHK’s own deadline is April 15th.) Since Paul and I run two accelerators, we get bombarded with questions from people applying to accelerators with the same question: “what do you look for in an application?” Here are five things to think about.

Criteria 1: The Optimal Team Size and Dynamic

Yes, you have to be be a “rock star” or a “hacker” to succeed. That is a given, however, when I see an application with only one applicant, I usually stop reading it.  Too many times I see a tech guy who stumbled across a cool piece of IP and thinks that they can “build it and they will come.” Or a smart “business guy” who underestimates the technical aspects of the problem and thinks that they can just outsource the IT (big mistake, see my opinion here on why you need a tech cofounder.) You can’t do this alone.

The optimal team size is two, one tech guy and one business guy as equal partners. The working relationship between them should be ideal, and they should like each other and be able to joke around with each other. Lastly, and equally as important, they should be passionate about the problem space that they are in. If you don’t have two awesome cofounders that compliment each other and work well with each other, don’t even bother applying.

Criteria 2: “Fund for the Pivot”

The reason why we like good people and solid teams is that you most likely won’t be working on the same project when you leave the accelerator then what you have applied with. So don’t try to convince me that you are the next Facebook, show me your 5 year financial projections, and god forbid, your patents (immediate rejection.) The whole purpose of an accelerator is to put you through the process of customer development and have you via MVPs/prototypes and rapid iteration from feedback build something that people actually want, not what you think they want.

First you need to have smart and talented people that are open to coaching and changing their offering. Second you need them to be in a hot space with huge opportunity.  If the original idea fails, but you are in a hot space, most likely you will “pivot” into something really awesome. As Paul Grahm of Ycombinator famously says “fund for the pivot”, so sell yourself and your space, not necessarily your idea.

Criteria 3: Demonstrate That You Will Take the Program Seriously

Accelerator programs are full time, not nights and weekends. If you can’t commit 100% of your time for 14 weeks, don’t bother applying. When I see the note on an application that says only one member can come to the program full time and the other guys will “drop in from time to time”, I usually stop reading. The value of the program is the time you spend in it. I get it that you have friends, family, and other obligations, but if you wife is due to have a baby three weeks into the program, you may want to consider sitting this round out and applying next year.

Criteria 4: Rock Your Elevator Pitch

I have watched hundreds of application elevator pitch videos. You have to rock it. Again, don’t sell the startup; sell your ability to sell the startup. Show me that you can sell snow to Eskimos. Be creative. One team filmed their elevator pitch in an actual elevator! I still remember one video where one team sat at a table and introduced themselves, the coder never looked at the camera and only  looked up when called on to say “I code” and the biz dev guy said that he also did pyrotechnics (and a funny explosion animation triggered.)

Skipping the video, producing a piece of crap, or focusing just on the product is an almost automatic rejection.

Criteria 5: Demonstrate the Ability to Execute

At the end of the day, can you do the job? You have to demonstrate your ability to execute. Also make sure you are not in love with being in a startup (a vanity entrepreneur) and actually want to run this business forever. We all want to be the next Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, so remember they also stayed at their companies for 20+ years. (Steve even came back after he was kicked out.) Mark Zuckerberg has been working at Facebook for almost 10 years. Don’t do this because it’s cool, do it because you want to change the world!

posted on Thursday, April 4, 2013 8:18:49 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Back in February, Accelerator HK cohort #1 had its Demo Day. As promised, here is the entire Demo Day video where the six teams made their presentations. Enjoy.

posted on Wednesday, March 20, 2013 1:08:51 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Friday, March 15, 2013

Earlier this week we opened the applications for the second cohort of AcceleratorHK, a startup accelerator I co-founded here in Hong Kong. As I broadcast the information out into my network, some former colleagues who never really liked me replied back smugly: “oh you are doing an Accelerator too? I heard there is an accelerator bubble.” Even the guy who I talk to at the gym told me that there are “a million accelerators out there.” Businessweek ran a story today about how the Accelerator bubble is going to pop.

While there is a proliferation of accelerators, there is no accelerator bubble. According to Wikipedia an economic bubble is:

An economic bubble (sometimes referred to as a speculative bubble, or a market bubble..) is "trade in high volumes at prices that are considerably at variance with intrinsic values". It could also be described as a trade in products or assets with inflated values.

The .com era was a bubble. Crazed investors pumped tons of money into speculative companies and inflated their values to levels not justified by true market conditions. Ditto the US and European housing markets last decade. But accelerators? Not so much.

For starters accelerators are cheap to put together (compared to raising $100 million to start your own Venture Capital fund) and usually done with your own money. (Note, no investor money was used to start AcceleratorHK, it is 100% funded by its parent company, Telerik.) Maybe people are referring to the companies going through the accelerators, that the proliferation of accelerators is drastically raising the valuations of all those companies that go through them. The standard practice of an accelerator is to invest $15,000 for 8% of equity, making the book valuation of these early stage companies under $200,000. Far less inflationary to valuations than a “friends and family” round. Actually the proliferation of accelerators are driving down the valuations of early stage startups! Considering that all accelerators operate on the same terms, we are more of a price fixing cartel than a speculative security in a bubble.

A few weeks ago I was speaking at Hong Kong’s Barcamp on the topic of the New New Startups Economics. My thesis is that the cost of starting a new business is about 20x cheaper than it was 15 years ago. The cost of going from business plan/idea to your first paying customer is measured in the thousands of dollars, not the millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars. I argued that accelerators are starting to replace the early round of seed capital such as “friends and family”. Since it is less risky and cheaper to start a company and there are more people willing to jump in, the combination of education and capital that an accelerator brings to the table is really the superior model. We have lots of inexperienced, but passionate people out there wanting to start a business in all parts of the world. As Eric Ries says: entrepreneurship can be taught. Accelerators teach entrepreneurship by doing. The best way.

Then someone asked me if there are too many accelerators and if I see any contraction coming in the space. I said “No way! We need more, not less accelerators!” Accelerators are like startup entrepreneurship universities. The world needs more of them. More accelerators mean more startups which mean more disruptive technology.

Will some crappy accelerators start to pop up? Sure. But they won’t survive and the market will self-correct. Maybe someone should do a “Zagat for Accelerators.” Winking smile

PS, applications close on April 5th for AcceleratorHK.

posted on Friday, March 15, 2013 1:26:19 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, March 14, 2013

AcceleratorHK, the world’s only startup accelerator focused on cross platform mobile development with HTML5 and Phonegap, has opened its applications for cohort #2 to be based in Hong Kong. The 14 week program runs from May 13th until August 16th, with Demo Day the week of August 12th in Hong Kong.

The application is here and will remain open for three weeks, until April 5th. The short listed companies will be lined up for interviews in early April and the final selected companies will be notified by mid to late April. As explained in our “About” page, we will be making a $15,000 (USD) investment in each company in exchange for an 8% equity stake as well as be providing co-working space for the 14 weeks in Hong Kong as well as a program in Customer Development.

The best applications are teams of two co-founders, one “business” and one “technical”. The team should have an idea and be ready to do customer development on that idea-even be willing to start over if that is what the results of their customer development tells them.

Hong Kong is an awesome place to customer development and validate your mobile app. The place is mobile crazy and everyone has a smart phone.

The first cohort of AcceleratorHK graduated on February 6th at their Demo Day. Take a look at how much fun it was preparing for Demo Day. Smile

AcceleratorHK Demo Day Prep from Stephen Forte on Vimeo.

posted on Thursday, March 14, 2013 1:07:37 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, February 7, 2013

Last night the first AcceleratorHK cohort had its “graduation” Demo Day at the Time Warner Center in Hong Kong.


An accelerator is meant to speed up a startup’s progress over what they would have done on their own. Studies show that accelerators double or even triple the progress you would have made on your own. The goal is that if you are in a 3-month accelerator you should accomplish what you would have done in 6-9 months. Our teams in AcceleratorHK did exactly that, working on their Business Model Canvas for weeks (specifically on their segments and value proposition) and starting to build out their offering.

After 14 weeks of the accelerator program, the teams were ready to show the world what they had accomplished last night at Demo Day. Some teams had a “demo” of their app, some were just getting started and showed off their progress and discussed next steps. This is because some teams took longer to refine their idea (perfectly ok, exactly what an accelerator is suppose to do.)

We were oversubscribed and about 175 people crowded into the Time Warner offices and we had to have an overflow room with live streaming. Paul and I kicked it off with a short introduction as to what AcceleratorHK is, how an accelerator works, and what Demo Day is all about. Then the teams started their presentations.

First up was Taxiwise with Jean-Marc Ly as the presenter. Taxiwise is an app that allows you to make advance bookings of taxis in Hong Kong. Today you can do this offline, but it is painful to deal with the dispatchers, especially if you only speak English. Their app is driver specific and it creates a great experience for the user (us riders!)


Next up was PayAllies with Carlos Grajeda aka “Carlos 2” as the presenter. This was Carlos’ first presentation in English! PayAllies is from Mexico and is solving the unbanked problem since only 17% of Mexicans have credit cards and 34% have bank accounts. They are like a debit/gift card/Google Wallet meets the Octopus card for Latin America. PayAllies is AcceleratorHK’s first success story, immediately after graduation they are headed to the Chilean incubator, Startup Chile for six months.


Our third presentation was SurroundApp with Jeffrey Broer as the presenter. Surround solves the problem of English speakers wanting to engage with Chinese social media (half a billion Weibo users!) What is pretty cool about SurroundApp is that they can even translate slang into its “street” or common usage.


After that was  Dynamino Lau Kok-hwa aka “Special-K” as the presenter. Dynamino is a new marketing campaign creation app that allows people to spread their campaigns by word of mouth.  In their testing they found out that they were equally as effective as Facebook ads but 23x less expensive!


The penultimate team was 100 Village with Nick Wang as the presenter. 100 Village is a social venture that is focused on the Reggio Emilia approach (REA) to early childhood education. Nick gave a very passionate and inspiring speech about how schools are killing our kids creativity and how something as simple as playgroups can make a huge difference with the kids’ development. 100 Village’s app is “meetup for moms” where it helps facilitate the organization of REA style playgroups.


Last, but not least was GOnnect with Furuzonfar aka “Foobar” as the presenter. GOnnect is an app that helps you find, make, and keep connections at an event. They solve the problem of who you should talk to at an event by matching you up with someone to network with and making it easy to connect with them later on via LinkedIN or something similar. Finally we can do away with business cards!


After the presentations, we had a reception for the audience to come and meet the teams at their booths. In order to force the audience to mingle and network with the teams, we provided cold beer at each of the teams’ table. In addition, each team had a drink and food from their home country. The teams were mobbed!


Carlos Rivera aka “Carlos 1” had to head back to Mexico to get his visas for Startups Chile so he could not attend, but we Skyped him in all night. Here he is talking to potential investors.


I was surprised by the amount of investors, media, and government officials that attended. Maybe they just wanted the free vodka that Team GOnnect provided. Winking smile 


We’ll be opening up the applications for cohort #2 in a few weeks with a start date slated for mid-May. Stay tuned if you want to apply. :)

posted on Thursday, February 7, 2013 4:22:55 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, February 3, 2013

In November, six new startups entered AcceleratorHK, Hong Kong's first startup accelerator -- and the world’s only accelerator focused on hybrid mobile development. I can’t believe how fast it all went by! After 14 weeks, the AcceleratorHK cohort is graduating at Demo Day on Wednesday 06 Feb.


The format for Demo Day will be as follows:

7pm (sharp!): Introduction by Stephen Forte and Paul Orlando, program organizers.

7:10pm: Presentations by the six startups, seven minutes each. No Q&A by the audience.

8:15pm to 9:30pm: Meet and greet each team. Each team will be in a conference room where you can go and ask questions, get a demo, and of course, get a drink! Each team will be serving a drink from their home country and AcceleratorHK is providing beer and soda in the conference rooms as well.

Please arrive early! We only have 85 seats in the main room, all late comers will have to go to the live streaming overflow rooms (we have room for 75 more people there.) Since we are being hosted by Time Warner Asia, the live streaming will be in super quality HD, CNN lent us a high tech splitter!

The location is at (MTR Quarry Bay Exit A: turn right, go up the stairs over the overpass and walk through Taikoo Place all the way to the end to Oxford House):

30/F Oxford House
979 King's Road, Taikoo Place
Quarry Bay
Hong Kong SAR China

See you Wednesday!

posted on Sunday, February 3, 2013 5:32:47 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, January 31, 2013

As the AcceleratorHK cohort teams are rounding out their Demo Day presentations, I am proud to announce that Paul and I are running a new (semi) Virtual Accelerator focusing on Win8 App development.

The focus of the accelerator is early stage startups who are willing to work on their business full time.  As always our preference is for a two person (or more) team that has at least one techie and one business co-founder and is willing to work on the project full time.


The selected company will receive a $30,000 (USD) investment (for 4%-8% equity) from Telerik and be put through a 14 week program starting with an intense week onsite in Hong Kong alongside the next AcceleratorHK cohort working on customer development. (We’ll pay your airfare and housing for the week in Hong Kong in addition to the investment.) After the week in Hong Kong the team will return home (or decide to stay in Hong Kong, but it will have to come out of the $30k Smile) and do the customer development process with guidance from the Accelerator virtually. At then end we will help you launch your product to the world and have your business take the next step.

The application is here, apply today! The deadline is March 15th. The world famous Robert Scoble is helping determine the company that is accepted.


Update 04 Feb 2013

Originally I wrote that there was no equity taken, that was my mistake, we take between 4% and 8% equity for the $30,000 investment. Sorry for the confusion.

posted on Thursday, January 31, 2013 8:15:33 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Wednesday, January 30, 2013

During the past two weeks, the AcceleratorHK cohort has been hard at work finalizing their offerings and building their Demo Day presentations. Paul and I have been meeting with some teams two or three times a day working on everything from the their MVPs to their slides and presentations.


We had a lot of mentors come in including Tytus Michalski, Richard Campbell and Remi Caron. The mentors were helping the teams out during the “crunch time”.

During all of this excitement, we had a visit from Telerik! Three of the four co-founders of Telerik came in to visit the accelerator last week as well as a number of VPs and BizDev folks. The teams got some awesome advice from the group and one even challenged the CEO of Telerik to ping pong (and lost!)


Lastly, the cohort and 18 people from Telerik blew off some steam at Happy Valley Racetrack for a social. I won $500! Smile


Next week is Demo Day and the end of the formal part of the program. Stay tuned for an update on Demo Day!

posted on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 10:29:09 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [2] Trackback
# Saturday, January 12, 2013

After two weeks off for the holidays, the cohort at AcceleratorHK was back at work this week. We started the week off right with the 1:1 meetings. The teams are starting to spend more time building the apps and preparing for Demo Day, which is going to be held on Wednesday February 6th. Less than 4 weeks away!!

We also had a great visit by mentor Jochen Kleef. Jochen has vast experience as an entrepreneur as well as an investor so the questions asked to Jochen were vast.


We also had a social where we went for Korean BBQ and raced the taxi team to the restaurant on an overcrowded tram.


The tram team won. Smile 


We rounded out the week with the first attempts at Demo Day presentations on our Friday presentation day. The teams are starting to get the format down and the message that they are trying to deliver.

I walked them through the flow of a prefect presentation for Demo Day: one that has contrasts (between what is and what could be or between good and evil, etc) as well as a clear start, middle, and finish (call to action)  with clear turning points. This is called a sparkline of a presentation. We had the whole room try to guess each presentation’s turning points as well as their call to action (last part). The presentations are getting there. Smile Stay tuned…

posted on Saturday, January 12, 2013 5:46:27 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Monday, January 7, 2013

During the holidays AcceleratorHK shut down and some of the cohort went back home to visit family or just get some well deserved rest. (Others went to Macau for the New Years, enough said..) Everyone starting arriving back in Hong Kong on the 1st so we decided to stretch the legs and get some good fresh air before we went back to work hard core on Monday. A bunch of the members of the cohort went for a scenic 25km/15m hike in the Sai Kung region of Hong Kong on Saturday.

We started off with an easy 10km hike to Long Ke beach, a very secluded beach, even in the summer. The only way to get there is by boat or to hike in.

This is where we decided to start the Hong Kong chapter of the Polar Bear club. The Polar Bear club jumps into the ocean each year on January 1st, even if there is snow on the ground. Usually the water is very cold in the winter and the polar bears members are hard core. Since Hong Kong is a sub-tropical island, the outside air temperature was about 65F/18C, but we stripped down to our underwear anyway and jumped in. Yes it was cold!


We then walked for another few hours and had some of the most amazing views that Hong Kong has to offer of the Sai Kung peninsular.


Finally we descended onto Sai Wan beach and had a well deserved lunch. 25km of hiking makes you hungry!


We’ll get back to Customer Development, MVPs, prototypes, raising seed capital, demo day preparation all on Monday…

posted on Monday, January 7, 2013 8:27:21 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [1] Trackback
# Friday, December 21, 2012

We are already at Week 7 at AcceleratorHK! The teams are hard at work building their MVPs and doing Customer Validation before we take a two week break for the holidays. All the teams are staying in Hong Kong over the holidays and are continuing to work, there are just no scheduled Accelerator programs. The clock is ticking until Demo Day on February 6th!

We started off the week right. On Monday we had a great mentor, Viresh Bhatia, come on in and spend a lot of time with each team. Viresh is an experienced entrepreneur as well as the chair of the Telerik Board of Directors. Viresh was also impressed with the mobile adoption in Hong Kong as well as Samsung’s market share in Hong Kong (specifically the popularity of the SIII and NoteII).


We continued our 1:1s on Monday and Tuesday as most teams are now building prototypes and MVPs. Two of the teams apps are already on my phone!


We had an additional mentor, Peter Burton, come in on Thursday. He only had a short amount of time and met briefly with a few teams and made some connections to people they all should talk with. We also convinced Peter to flash his old Samsung Galaxy S to Cyanogen Mod 10.1 and Android Jelly Bean 4.2.1. He proved his geek cred by coming in the next day with his flashed phone.

Note: A lot of the cohort members, including Paul and myself, run Cyanogen MOD. If you are in a mobile app accelerator, you may as well be flashing phones! Smile 

In addition to all of the hard work we also had a little bit of fun exploring Hong Kong cuisine. One day at lunch we got to see the Mexican team use Chinese chopsticks for the first time.


We had a social dinner one night where we trekked over to the the other side of town and had HK clay pot rice dishes. This was a crowd pleaser. Smile


Lastly, we had our elevator pitches and 10/20/30 presentations on Friday. We decided to have our own AcceleratorHK Christmas party complete with cookies, cake, hot wine, beer, and of course tequila.


See you in 2 weeks!!

posted on Friday, December 21, 2012 8:04:03 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Last week marked the halfway point in the program at AcceleratorHK. All teams have progressed nicely and most are now doing full fledged Customer Validation complete with MVPs and prototypes. I even have one Icenium built and deployed app on my phone! One team took their app public and tested their MVP at a real live event in Hong Kong.

This was a “working” week that was light on meetings and mentor visits, however, we did have two very important events this week. The first was the HK Startup Bootcamp Demo Day. Bootcamp is also run by Paul and has 7 teams that pay for startup coaching and a three month program. The program is structured very different than an accelerator, but has some similarities, the most important being Demo Day.


The cohort got to see what a Demo Day is all about; the excitement and buzz at Demo Day was amazing. Hopefully the cohort is now less nervous. Smile

In addition to Demo Day we also had mentor Patrick Lee, the co-founder of Rotten Tomatoes, come on in and talk to the teams about building a business in Hong Kong.

CoCoon Entrepreneurial Series: Patrick Lee- Co-Founder of Rotten Tomatoes

This week is the last week before we take a Christmas break. Stay tuned for more updates..

posted on Tuesday, December 18, 2012 8:42:52 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, December 13, 2012

On Monday I spoke at Open Web Asia held on beautiful Hainan Island in Mainland China. The event, in its third year (year one was held in Korea and year two was held in Malaysia), was organized by Gang Lu of technode, a popular tech blog in Asia.


I was asked to speak on two panels, one on “The Golden Age of Mobile” in Asia, where I made the argument that it has always been a golden age for mobile in Asia, Japan and Korea led the world in mobile a decade ago and the NTTDoCoMo iMode phone was the hot hop must have phone in 1999-2001 that lead the world in innovation. Hong Kong’s very own Yat Siu made some great points about WeChat (200m users) and Weibo (400m users) explosion due to the migrant workers in China needing to stay in touch with family and friends back home.

I also spoke on an investors panel about the startup investment situation in Asia. I was asked what was the #1 criteria when selecting the companies to invest in for the AcceleratorHK program and I said the team. All the other panelists agreed, I was glad that I was asked first. Smile 

In addition to other great panels, there were startup pitches by 10 hot Asian startups. We had startups from Korea, Japan, HK, Singapore, and Malaysia presented. I loved a team from Malaysia, however I was still a little biased towards the Hong Kong startups.


Lastly, the best part of the day was when the community leaders from 9 Asian countries did a presentation about the startup ecosystem in their home country then had a panel discussion. They represented very diverse countries at different stages of economic development: compare Japan to Vietnam to Indonesia to India for example. What was fascinating was that while each country was different and had unique challenges and opportunities, they all wanted the same thing: more entrepreneurs. I think we may be entering the golden age of Asian entrepreneurship!

The community leaders where:

Lastly, what would a conference be without a party and what would a party be in Asia without a Gangnam Style dance. Here is Daniel, James (from Korea!), and Casey getting down:

posted on Thursday, December 13, 2012 8:20:36 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [1] Trackback
# Monday, December 10, 2012

Last week was Week 5 at Accelerator HK. I can’t believe how fast it all is going, before we know it, it will be Demo Day! The teams last week worked hard at Customer Validation and have been narrowing down their segments and value propositions. They have been starting to develop MVPs of various shapes and sizes. Some of the developers have been hacking away at PhoneGap and have sent Telerik feedback on Icenium and KendoUI. We had two mentors  with specific skillsets come in to spend time with two different teams as well.

In addition to Customer Validation, we had the opportunity to attend a Pecha-kucha night in Hong Kong. We were lucky enough to have the founder of the global phenomena of Pecha-kucha nights, Mark Dytham, in town to MC. It was an interesting night complete with arguments over how to pronounce Pecha-kucha, two Macs crashing in the middle of presentations, and topped off with someone in the audience fainting. Despite all of those setbacks, the night was a great learning experience for the cohort.


On Thursday most of the cohort was at the SME Expo in Hong Kong doing customer validation interviews and MVP inspection. After the long day at the event, we had a Hot Pot social diner.


Friday was our typical elevator pitches, Friday check-ins, founder talks, and our very own Pecha-kucha talks. Then on Saturday we went up to Shenzhen to the massive component markets to see how hardware startups operate. Since we are a hybrid mobile accelerator, two teams bought their first Android phone at the gadget markets.


We then chipped in and bought Paul some jeans. Next step, tee-shirts…


We caught up with some friends in Shenzhen and the cohort went to late night Karaoke as well as some more customer validation on Weibo.


Stay tuned for news from Week 6!

posted on Monday, December 10, 2012 12:55:20 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, December 2, 2012

This past week was the 4th week of the Accelerator HK program. We are already 1/3 of the way through the program!

This week we had mentor Michael Michelini, founder of Weibo Agent come in and speak to the teams. Mike is an American living in Shenzhen, China and working on his own startup called Weibo Agent. Weibo Agent is a graduate of the accelerator Chinaccelerator in fall 2012. Mike came in and talked Social Media strategy and about his experiences in an accelerator.


Later in the week we had Cory Kidd, co-founder of Intuitive Automata come in and speak to the teams. Cory is an American living in Hong Kong and running a startup that is building a robot to be used as a weight loss coach. It is always awesome for me to listen to Cory speak since he runs a hardware company and I think hardware is the new software.


Cory also took advantage of some Hong Kong government grant money for startups and explained how to take advantage of those.

This Friday at the Friday check-in we worked on presentation skills with many presentations and demos going on. We even challenged members to deliver the 1 minute elevator pitch for other startups in the cohort! Now that most of the cohort have done the “Founder Friday” talk about themselves, Paul and I were able to give everyone feedback based on the skills we saw them demonstrate in their personal speeches.

Paul of course was dressed down again for Friday Hoodie Day (where we channel our inner Zuckerberg). Smile We will see if he buys a pair of jeans this weekend.


Lastly, most of the cohort attended the Agile Tour Hong Kong all day seminar on Saturday. We had five speakers from around the world talking about DevOps, Scrum, Distributed teams, Agile Estimation, and TDD.


Week 5 is also a busy week, stay tuned for more progress.

posted on Sunday, December 2, 2012 5:46:14 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Last week was our third week at AcceleratorHK and the teams are starting to really get the hang of Customer Development, specifically Customer Discovery interviews. A lot of the teams have taken the feedback that they got on their customer discovery interviews and started to build MVPs and prototypes to do the next round of customer discovery (and some are thinking about moving to Customer Validation soon.) Even though it is early, it is exciting to see the early stage prototypes. (I can’t help the application developer inside of me.)

One team treated some of their interviewees to a Hong Kong Hot Pot dinner. What better way to get a captive audience? Smile


We also focused on presentation skills at our Friday meeting. We had some founders give presentations about themselves and some do a Petcha-kucha.

 Carrie Founder FridaySoren PK

Lastly, we finally got our program director, Paul to loosen up and started a brand new Accelerator HK tradition, Friday Hoodie Day.

Paul dressed up2

This week is a big week with mentors coming in, demos, and more customer discovery/validation. Stay tuned.

posted on Tuesday, November 27, 2012 7:03:05 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [1] Trackback
# Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Last week was our second week at AcceleratorHK and things are starting to fall into a good cadence. On Monday, we had our first of the weekly 1:1 meetings and Paul and I worked directly with the teams on the issues that they face. We also had two amazing mentors come in:

First was Salim Virani, the creator of Leancamp. He talked to us about Customer Development and took a lot of time out of his vacation time in HK to spend with the teams on how to ask the right Customer Discovery and Customer Validation questions.


Later in the week we had Mikaal Abdulla, co-founder of 8 Securities, a Hong Kong startup success story, come in and tell us the story of leaving a well paying secure job and going out and starting a new business in Hong Kong, along with the war stories of raising money and some secrets to their brilliant marketing campaigns.


On Friday we did our first Friday all-hands meeting and was able to have an update by each team on their progress, practice their elevator pitch (next week I am going to put some of them in an actual elevator to practice), and ask the cohort for any help. We also gave out some Telerik tee-shirts. Smile We have a strict attendance policy, so one member had to phone in via Skype who was home sick. (Notice we gave him his tee-shirt anyway.)


On Friday night we went out for some beers after a long week at the Accelerator doing Customer Development. The teams are still focusing on Customer Discovery and Customer Validation and will be in Week 3 as well. Stay tuned…

posted on Wednesday, November 21, 2012 6:50:02 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Wednesday, November 14, 2012

This past weekend was the 3rd Startup Weekend in Hong Kong and I was lucky enough to return again as a judge. This year it was huge with 14 teams competing!

 2012-11-10 16.49.13

As usual, I was very impressed by the ideas, hard work, and execution. They stared on Friday night with lots of pitches and team formation. The group worked all day Saturday and Sunday at the CoCoon co-working space in Hong Kong (the same co-work space AcceleratorHK is using). A few AcceleratorHK cohort members as well as program director Paul Orlando were helping out as mentors.

2012-11-10 18.35.38

On Sunday night we all gathered to a different venue where we heard all of the 14 pitches. Myself and four other esteemed judges listened to the 5 minute presentations and lead the 3 minute Q&A session.

 2012-11-11 17.23.48

The teams came from all walks of life as well as had ideas and teams that were in a variety of domains including: social, conference networking, kitchen rental, shopping, car sharing, film location scouting, and creative ways to use your free time. After the deliberation, which was close, we choose “FilmScout” as the winner. FilmScout was a team that built a solution for filmmakers and film students to find film locations to shoot in. While a niche market, they were a 100% solution to a market segment and demonstrated that they followed the Customer Development process over the course of the competition (which accounts for 1/3 of the judging criteria).

After the event there was some networking and I was interviewed on local Hong Kong TV about the startup scene in Hong Kong, AcceleratorHK, and of course my role as a judge in Startup Weekend.

2012-11-11 20.47.49

posted on Wednesday, November 14, 2012 8:49:55 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Last week was the first week of the AcceleratorHK program. We have six teams that make up this cohort coming from: Hong Kong, Silicon Valley, Mexico, and Malaysia. The teams are just starting out but are in the following domains: social, location based, and community.

We started out with an introduction to Customer Development by program director Paul Orlando and then broke up the teams and gave them a Startup Weekend style assignment : go out and work on project for 48 hours with new teammates with a focus on Customer Development. The results were…interesting.

We had two mentors come in and work with the teams. John Bristowe came in from Australia and spoke about HTML5 and Phonegap (since we are a mobile accelerator) and then provided technical training on KendoUI and Icenium.

2012-11-08 10.18.00

Shanghai based, Spanish investor Oscar Ramos also came in and did a great mentoring talk on Visual Thinking and how to use it as a tool in your customer development process.

2012-11-08 17.16.26

We even had time to hit the racetrack at Happy Valley on Wednesday night for Oktoberfest night for a cohort social.


On Friday we had our first check-in to see how the teams were doing and each team did their elevator pitch. (One team included their winnings at Happy Valley as their first revenue. Smile)

A great start to the Accelerator. Stay tuned for more updates.

posted on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 8:35:09 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, October 11, 2012

On Tuesday night I visited and delivered a talk to the cohort at Launchub, Bulgaria’s first software startup accelerator. Launchub is financed by a seed fund made up of private and EU money. Launchub is hosted at a great co-work space, betahaus, in downtown Sofia. It was great visiting betahaus and meeting the teams. I quickly noticed that the Bulgarian accelerator is the exact opposite of AcceleratorHK; in Bulgaria, the teams are engineering heavy, while in Hong Kong, the teams are business people/designer heavy. Too bad we are too far away for a merger. Smile

I delivered a talk titled: “Lessons Learned From a Career in Startups.” I spoke about raising money, how a business partner is like a wife/husband, how to align staff’s expectations with your own, and then some general customer development (pivots, mvps, and all the current popular lingo.) My bosses at Telerik are involved in the accelerator and are mentors, so I told some jokes about them too.

At the Q&A time, Lyuben Belov, the program director, wanted me to put a team on the spot and have them do their pitch. I turned the tables on him and first asked Lyuben to pitch to me to invest in Launchub. (One of the lessons was to be ready to go now!) Lyuben did a fabulous job and then we picked one team, Useful at Night, to pitch. (It is also cool since this team also applied to the AcceleratorHK, but they are already in Launchub. I invited the team to come to HK for a week and spend time with the AcceleratorHK cohort.)


Evelin Velev from the team did a great job with absolutely no prep time.

To round out the evening, I put one of my Telerik colleagues on the spot when asked about the future of hybrid development. Hristo Neychev is the director of BizDev for Icenium, so he best be able to do this. Smile He did not disappoint and we had fun, I was making slides on the fly for him.


After the talk and lively Q&A session, we went to a downtown bar and had some food and drinks and talked all night long about startups, technology, and why I joined a Bulgarian Startup when I came to Telerik many years ago.

posted on Thursday, October 11, 2012 5:28:45 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [1] Trackback
# Sunday, October 7, 2012

As people realize that the economics of startups have changed and more and more people are willing to jump to a startup, accelerators are popping up everywhere to support them. This includes China. Chinaccelerator based in Dalian, China, is the gold standard of accelerators in China. I am a mentor there and last week went up to Dalian for a visit. The cohort at Chinaccelerator is working out of an awesome office in Dalian with epic views of the bay.

2012-09-19 18.28.41

Chinaccelerator had me do a two hour talk to the group about my experiences in raising money over the years. I called it “Lessons Learned from Raising Venture Capital.” I went through several lessons I have learned over the years ranging from how much money to raise, how to approach investors, and how to determine valuation. We then had an awesome exchange and Q&A session.

After the talk I had one on one meetings with six of the teams and was very impressed with each of them. I suspected that all of them would be targeting the China market exclusively, however, only a handful were, the rest were global in their business plans. I left Dalian inspired by all the teams’ passion and energy.

It is great seeing accelerators pop up all over the world to support startups. This week I visit one in Sofia, Bulgaria.

posted on Sunday, October 7, 2012 9:43:27 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I often get the question, “why the focus on hybrid development for your accelerator?” This question has come up more and more as Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s focus on HTML5/hybrid development was a mistake.

As I argued over a year ago on this blog, it is mistake to bet exclusively on native or hybrid since some Apps will call for a native approach and some will call for a hybrid approach. Projects that need maximum performance and hardware interaction will require a native approach (medical scanning/rendering apps and some games come to mind) and projects that require larger reach and very fast time to market require a hybrid approach. Each approach has its limitations and trade offs.

If I advocate both approaches in a developer’s toolkit, why would I be starting the world’s only Hybrid Accelerator? The reason is that a startup should never, ever, go native. The very nature of a startup is that you have no money and require a super fast time to market. Just last week at a startup networking event in Hong Kong two super cool startups showed me their native apps on their iPhones. They then asked me what I thought of the app. I said: “your app sucks since over 75% of the smartphone market can’t use it, myself included as an Android user.” They countered: “we have no money, so we choose one platform to build the prototype on.”

My advice for them and most startups: For your prototype and V1 release you should go hybrid. You will have a much broader reach and won’t have to maintain two or more codebases (and double the programmer staff.) You’ll save time and money. Once your company matures and you have lots of users and the money to spend on the development, then you should consider going native if you are bumping into the limitations of hybrid development (chances are only a small percentage of apps ever will).

What about a company with 1 billion users, over $1b in profits post-IPO, and a super slow API in the first place? Yes, Mark Zuckerberg proves my point, hybrid development helped Facebook get to market fast with its hybrid mobile app. It was not a mistake for Facebook to go to market fast and cheap with a hybrid app. The mistake Zuckerberg made was not deploy some of those profits to build a better hybrid or go native years ago.

posted on Tuesday, September 25, 2012 2:07:22 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [4] Trackback
# Thursday, September 13, 2012

As Paul and I are starting to review the first batch of applications to AcceleratorHK, we have stressed that you can’t apply for the accelerator program with only one founder. The optimum team make-up is two people: one “business” co-founder and one “technical” co-founder.

The most frequent question that I get from potential applicants is: “Why do I need a technical co-founder?” The question alone tells you something since it is not: “Why do I need a business guy co-founder?” This tells me that there are TONS of excited non-technical people willing to take the plunge and start a business, but not enough techies. This is a problem.


I answer this question by saying that first you can’t do it all alone. Very few tech companies today were founded by one business guy. Second, at such an early stage (and by definition if you are applying to an accelerator you are an early stage), you will be doing a lot of Customer Development, MVPs, and “pivots.” It is critical in this early stage that your tech lead is part of the Customer Development process. If your tech lead is not a co-founder, at best, they will not understand Customer Development and want to do product development, and at worst, they will resist the process every step of the way. Only by constantly meeting with potential customers, doing Customer Development, and “having skin in the game” will a programmer be able to deliver on the vision of the company.

I’ve witnessed quite a few early stage companies enter an accelerator with a hired gun (consultant) as the “technical co-founder” in order to satisfy the two co-founder rule. The founder and the consultant have an agreement that the consultant would build the MVP and prototype and get the company to demo day in exchange for some equity. Never have I seen this work out; most have had disastrous results. In just about every case the consultant “co-founder” is in consulting mode and complains that “all those Accelerator meetings get in the way.” By forcing the startup into product development mode, the consultant negates all the benefits of the accelerator, since all accelerators are built around the Customer Development methodology. This also shows the level of disengagement, an accelerator cohort is for the entire team, not hired guns. I have seen one company recently lose their technical consultant “co-founder” halfway through the accelerator when he got a better gig. He used the first pivot as an excuse to bail. (At least he returned some of the equity.)

Usually, the non-technical founder is held hostage by the development team’s schedule and often times, the development progress is slower. Since the same level of passion is not there, the consultant just chugs along doing what he is told, leading to a misallocation of total work. You have founders working 16 hour days sleeping under their desks and the programmers pulling some overtime grumbling that they are losing money on this gig.

The only exception I have seen to this is a founder who had a team of guys in another country as full time developers lined up. He applied to an accelerator and was told he needed a technical co-founder, so he brought the lead developer to the accelerator for the duration of the program. While this worked out well, the company already had enough cash on hand to lock up the development team, so this is probably not the case for most other early stage startups.


If you are thinking of doing a startup, remember you can’t do it alone. If you are non-technical, you can’t outsource your core intellectual property. Besides if you can’t convince a techie with a well paying and stable job to quit and work at your high risk venture for free, then well, you probably don’t have enough sales skills to convince customers to buy your revolutionary new product. Smile

posted on Thursday, September 13, 2012 9:21:32 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Over the past year I have been a mentor at an accelerator called Haxlr8r. Haxlr8r, based just north of me in Shenzhen, China, is a unique accelerator since it is the only accelerator to focus exclusively on hardware startups. The targeted hyper-focus of the cohort paid dividends as everyone is in the same space and learned from each other and shared their experiences.

That got me thinking, why not do the same for software!?!? Over the past few months,  I’ve been helping organize the first ever early-stage startup accelerator in Hong Kong. This accelerator is not like any of its kind. It is the only accelerator to focus exclusively on startups doing hybrid mobile development. Why the focus on hybrid? Gartner predicts that by 2015, 80% of all mobile applications developed will be hybrid or mobile-Web-oriented. Just like at Haxlr8r, the laser beam focus of the cohort on hybrid mobile development will only enhance the experience. Why Hong Kong? There are two mobile phones for every man, woman, and child in Hong Kong. In a country of 7 million people, there are 7 independent 3G mobile phone providers with coverage everywhere, even in the subway and on top of the tallest mountain. Facebook penetration in Hong Kong is one of the top per-capita in the world. Hong Kong is not only all over Twitter, but Weibo as well. This is one mobile crazy town, the average taxi driver even has 2 phones. Hong Kong is a great place to validate your mobile app and one of the top places in the world to do business.


The accelerator runs from Nov 5th to Feb 8th and we are going to to provide mentors, investment ($15k USD), lean startup education, co-work space, demo day with investors, just like the gazillion other accelerators out there. In addition, we will also add a little on software development best practices, provide access to free developer tools (Telerik’s Icenium and KendoUI), do agile development training (I think accelerators forget about item #2 in the Customer Development Manifesto), and include free Pluralsight subscriptions.

I think that this represents the next stage of accelerators; laser focused with a little extra love for the tech team.

Want in? Apply today, we close out the cohort applications in a few weeks.

posted on Wednesday, September 5, 2012 7:21:32 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, August 30, 2012

Last week I traveled up to Shanghai, China to speak at the 10x10 event: bringing in 10 tech “pioneers” to speak for 10 minutes each to a crowd of entrepreneurs. I put pioneers in quotes, since there were 9 pioneers plus me speaking.

It was a great way to connect with the startup scene in China. The event was sponsored by Chinaccelerator, an early stage startup accelerator that has 10 companies in a cohort right now. I met with most of the 10 companies and was very impressed; most, but not all, were doing mobile or social media startups. People in the West understand that Facebook and Twitter are banned in China, but forget that there are local (but censored) alternatives.

The home grown Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter are booming. The most popular being Weibo, which is the “Chinese Twitter.” There are just as many Weibos as there are Tweets and most of the companies in the accelerator are trying to leverage that. (Just a side note, my Weibo account is: SteveForte.)

Some of startups consisted of only Westerners, some were only local Chinese, and some were a mix. I am mentoring one company that has a local Chinese co-founder and an American co-founder.

2012-08-24 14.33.46

The sessions were great. One of the speakers said that Silicon Valley is about making money and that China is about acquiring users. While there may be 500 million internet users in China, most don’t have a credit card and only access the internet on their mobile phone or at an internet café. I find the similarity in the rush for users in China to the thinking of the startup and investment community in the USA in 1999 striking. That said, it is great to see so much action going on.

I did my talk on the “New New Startup Economics” which was about how it costs much less to start your business today than it did a few years ago and an order of magnitude less than 10 years ago.

Here are my slides:

posted on Thursday, August 30, 2012 4:35:33 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Friday, August 17, 2012

While I was in London last week, Telerk’s UK Country Manager and I took some time to visit the Google Campus, a massive co-working and startup incubation space. There are six floors of co-working space where you can apply to be a resident if you are a startup based in London and an awesome cafeteria/coffee shop where anyone can come in for the day. On the top floor is Google’s offices. Even though Telerik has a London office, we registered online and spent a day working at the co-work space, mostly to get a feel for the co-work space and check out the scene. (Also, Telerik’s KendoIU was featured at Google I/O 12, so we figured we should give Google some love.)


The co-work space was very cool. From the moment we walked in there was a buzz of energy. Lots of meetings going on, people nose down doing work, and of course playing fuzz-ball.


Besides the co-working space, Google is also deeply engaged and helping build a startup community in London by providing mentoring programs, speaker series, networking events, and all other types of startup support, open to the public. It is great seeing a large tech company helping build a startup community, I hope to see more companies do the same. (Hint Hint Google, Microsoft, Apple in Hong Kong. Smile )

If you a startup person and are passing through London, make sure you drop by. My favorite thing: the Android “Player.”


posted on Friday, August 17, 2012 3:36:59 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [1] Trackback
# Friday, July 13, 2012

I’m a software guy. While I am more than comfortable rooting and flashing a custom ROM onto my wife’s Galaxy S III, I need help setting up a printer. Lucky for me, my career’s arc also coincided with the rise of software.

Back when I graduated university oh so many moons ago, software was literally rocket science. I entered the industry at the cusp of the transition from the mainframe/minicomputer eras to the client/server era. When I started coding at a Wall Street firm in the early 1990s, software was controlled by “men in white coats” in the mainframe room. I use to send jobs to CICS via JCL (not a Java class library for anyone under 40) and had to wait for approval, then for execution time. Software was complex to build, expensive to produce, and had way too many moving parts. In short, software sucked and only NASA and big banks invested in custom software development.

Lucky for me, that quickly changed and the client/server era, followed by the .COM era liberated millions of software developers like me. The last twenty years have seen a revolution in the ease of building software and the economics of software development, changing the lives of just about everyone on the planet. Software’s liberation from the men in white coats in the Mainframe room has made entrepreneurship far easier (and cheaper) as I have described here.

Over the past few months I have realized something, just as I thought that the software revolution was only catching its stride after 20 years of liberation, I noticed that everyone around me was building something physical. Maybe this is because I live in Hong Kong and the high tech manufacturing center of the world is a 30 minute train ride away in Shenzhen, China. Or maybe it is because my mentor is obsessed with 3-D printers and has had a 3-D printer the size of a washing machine in his basement for a decade. But no, something else is happening: Hardware is the New Software.

My eyes started to open on a day trip to Shenzhen earlier this year to the Huaqiangbei Electronics market. My friend who brought me to the market made it sound like a giant Frys or even Best Buy, however, what I encountered was astonishing. This is how I describe Huaqiangbei to people: imagine the largest shopping mall you have ever seen. Picture it filled with just a single component of motherboards. Then picture an identical one next to it containing just the internals of a USB port. Then picture an identical one next to it filled with just WiFi radios. Then one for cell phone screens, wires, LED displays, etc, etc. The place is enormous and supports the supply chain of the large contract manufacturers in Shenzhen, like Foxconn building your iPad.

The side effects of the radical growth of consumer electronics and its suppliers ecosystem are huge. Hardware has gotten cheaper and componentized. Hardware has been liberated!

Earlier this year I was helping out and mentoring a company in an accelerator in China. This was no ordinary accelerator, it was the first ever hardware accelerator, HAXLR8R. HAXLR8R took in a cohort of ten companies and had them spend three months in Shenzhen building their prototypes and had the final “demo days” in Silicon Valley. The company that I helped mentor put their project on Kickstarter and raised the required $200k in less than a week and have raised well over $350k in three weeks.

Earlier this week, I was judging the Imagine Cup, an international software competition for university students. After well over 200 teams from 75 countries was narrowed down to six finalists, here was the breakdown:

  • 3 teams were a hardware solution that was supported by custom software that they wrote
  • 1 team built a piece of hardware and connected a Kinect to it
  • 1 team was a software solution that had a Kinect component to it as well
  • 1 team was a pure software solution

Five out of the six teams incorporated hardware, and four of those built their own hardware! For a software competition! By students!

Just as software was once hard to build and expensive to prototype years ago, as recently as three years ago, hardware was difficult and expensive. Just as software was liberated 20 years ago, hardware has been liberated, thanks to componentized supply chains, the economies of scale, and open hardware facilitation co-work spaces in many cities such as Dim Sum Labs here in Hong Kong and SEED Studio in Shenzhen.  Now just about anyone can rapidly and cheaply prototype their hardware solution and seek a first production run by an eager factory in the developing world funded by putting the prototype up on Kickstarter. The DIY (do it yourself) revolution has begun!

The software revolution changed the world in some pretty dramatic ways. The hardware revolution will be even more dramatic.

posted on Friday, July 13, 2012 3:45:24 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [1] Trackback
# Friday, July 6, 2012

The Imagine Cup is a worldwide software design student competition sponsored by Microsoft. Students are given a theme at the beginning of the school year and form teams in their university to build a project that is they can bring to market. The competition is about business viability as much as using the latest super cool technology. So students have to be the right blend of entrepreneur and geek. The competition has students compete in regional competitions and then have to win the right to represent their country in the worldwide finals. Last year the winner was “Team Hermes” from Ireland and they went on to start a business based on the project. The Imagine Cup is truly a transformative thing for those who participate.

This year there are 350 finalists from 75 countries on 106 teams. The finals start today in Sydney, Australia, and I am lucky enough to be one of the 56 judges evaluating the teams. I spent the afternoon Friday at the venue with the teams and fellow judges and attended the opening ceremony and am equally excited as the students. I’m even more excited since I was a judge at the first ever Imagine Cup ten years ago in Barcelona, Spain.


The first Imagine Cup was a truly inspirational event. The excitement of the students was amazing. Since the Imagine Cup was very small back then (only 15 finalists), it was held the day before TechEd Europe, so the students attended TechEd as well.  I got to know them well during the week at TechEd and always wonder how many of them stuck with entrepreneurism. I always look back and say that Imagine Cup 2003 was the single most rewarding community event I have ever volunteered for.

In the past 10 years a total of 1.65 million students have participated from 194 countries. I wonder how big it will be 10 years from now (and if they will ask me to be a judge again. Smile )

Let the competition begin!

posted on Friday, July 6, 2012 8:01:50 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [2] Trackback
# Thursday, June 21, 2012

I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to talk with entrepreneurs all the time. There are tons of brand new startups here in Hong Kong and around the world. Entrepreneurs take me out for coffee all the time to pick my brain and seek advice.

Many founders mock up a few screen shots, cobble together a proof of concept, go to town in PowerPoint, then have lots of meetings with people like me asking: “do you like my idea?” and “how do I get money?”

As I said last week on this blog, the economics of a startup have changed, yet again. Since it takes less and less money these days to get a venture off the ground, my advice has been consistent to new entrepreneurs: don’t spend any time in the early stages looking for money.

Startup founders who spend most of their time meeting people and looking for money before they write a single line of code are wasting their time. This is precious time that could be used building a prototype and then going out and validating that prototype with potential customers. What Steve Blank famously calls “Get the hell out of the building” and doing Customer Validation. We all know that almost all startups go through the proverbial “pivot” and the faster we get there, the better.

Alternatively, if the startup got money right away, we all know what would happen, they would be nose down building their product and trying to sell it. The problem of course is that the idea would not be properly vetted and validated. It would take longer to “get out of the building” and eventually pivot, wasting your investors money in the process.

My advice is to scrimp, save, work nights and weekends, give away sweat equity and don’t go for any seed funding until well after your second or third prototype was validated by potential customers. Once you’ve done that, you’ll find that funding is much easier to obtain anyway.

Good luck.

posted on Thursday, June 21, 2012 3:08:56 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, June 14, 2012

While speaking on a panel last week at the BizSpark European Entrepreneurship conference in London, I mentioned how in 1999 we raised $36m of Venture Capital at Zagat in order to get from idea (expressed in PowerPoint) to paying customers. I asserted that back then in the stone ages, you had to: buy lots of servers (usually at overcapacity if you had some peak and valleys in traffic), hire lots of expensive people, and spend a ton on marketing to reach the masses.

Then I asserted that how those numbers started to change due to the cloud and the infrastructure around it (Skype, outsourcing, etc). I talked briefly how I started a successful company in 2002 for only $300k of investment and another in 2007 for only $100k of investment. I also recently invested in a company where the total raise was only about $25k and in less than six months went from idea to revenue generating customers.

The panel moderator, David Rowan (Editor, Wired UK), then asked another panelist, Bernard Dalle a longtime VC from Index Ventures, if his fund is seeing a slowdown in investment. He mentioned his recent investments in Path and Flipboard raised millions of dollars. Is there a disconnect between what Bernard and I said?

Another panelist, Rob Fraser, CTO of Microsoft, mentioned how the cloud does change everything. Rob, Bernard, and I went on to explain that you still need to spend a lot of money, but the big, game changing difference is that you don’t need to spend it all up front.

At Zagat in late 1999, I spent well over a million dollars on infrastructure (server farm, switches, priority based load balancer, etc, etc) in order to be able to “scale” when we hit the millions and millions of users when we launched a few months later. As I “scaled” from 100 simultaneous users to 1000 simultaneous to 5000 simultaneous users over the course of a few months, I was still running on the multi-million dollar infrastructure. Since we had a spike in traffic at lunch and dinner times (go figure) and after Super Bowl ads, etc, we had to have a large server farm. It took us a year to start adding more servers to the farm to accommodate the nearly billion monthly unique page views.

Contrast this with today’s startup economics. Today everything is cheaper and better. You can augment your staff with programmers in far away places and keep in touch via Skype, etc. But most importantly, with the cloud, you only have to pay as you go with the server infrastructure.

In order to get started today, it is virtually free. Just sign up with one of the incubator programs at AWS or Azure and you are ready to go live. Once you grow out of the simple startup incubator phase (and you will pretty quickly), you start to pay only for the bandwidth/compute cycles that you need (and can peak and valley as you like.) You can start out with only a few thousand dollars and slowly increase your infrastructure spending over time as you grow.

Our point on the panel is that you may well wind up spending the same amount of money as I did in 1999, but not all at once, most likely over the course of several years. This drastically changes the economics of startups: you no longer need to go to VCs for lots of money in order to get from idea to customers. Now you can get to idea to at least beta testers on your own dime (or a small amount of Angel Investment) and go to the VCs later on. If you never get to that later stage, you never would have had to spend that $20-$36m in VC.

Welcome to the new new startup economics.

posted on Thursday, June 14, 2012 12:31:34 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, May 10, 2012

On Monday, Mark Zuckerberg showed up to pre-IPO roadshow investor meetings wearing his signature hoodie. Wedbush Securities managing director Michael Pachter commented on Bloomberg news yesterday that Zuckerberg should show the investment community some respect by ditching the hoodie in investor meetings and wearing it is a sign of immaturity.

Pachter’s comment:

"Mark and his signature hoodie: He’s actually showing investors he doesn’t care that much; he’s going to be him. I think that’s a mark of immaturity. I think that he has to realize he’s bringing investors in as a new constituency right now, and I think he’s got to show them the respect that they deserve because he’s asking them for their money."

Predictably the tech elite attacked Pachter; Pacther was even called a “doofus” by Kara Swisher of All Things D. To his credit Pacther is taking it well, even suggesting on Twitter that Mark wear an executive pinstripe hoodie.

As a guy who proudly wears jeans and tee shirts to formal events, you would expect me to attack Pachter as well. While I don’t completely agree with Pachter, he does have a point.

Founders represent the heart and soul of a company. They set the company culture and lead by example. The problem with founders is that they sometimes forget that their company has grown up and they are still acting like the company is a small upstart. This disconnect between the company’s size and maturity and the founder’s attitude and behaviors can cause problems, sometimes major ones.

As startups start to mature, their founders have to mature along with it. As the company moves from startup to challenger, to market leader, the founder has to make adjustments along the way. Behaviors and policies that were appropriate for a small startup may not be appropriate for a company that is public.

For example when Bill Gates rallied the troops by saying that they were going to “cut off Netscape’s air supply”, Bill was guilty of acting like Microsoft was the tiny underdog when in reality it was a huge publically traded market leader and Netscape was the tiny upstart. Gates’ comment became a major piece of evidence in Microsoft’s anti-trust trial.

I’ve made this mistake many times as well. Zagat went through several phases while I was CTO in the dot com boom and my playful behavior that worked so well in the pre-IPO/VC dot com environment of late 1999 did not go over well in the post-crash/layoff environment of 2001. We had brought in a new CEO after the dot com crash and my enthusiasm was misinterpreted by the CEO as not being serious. Unfortunately this reflected poorly on the entire IT staff. I was guilty of forgetting that the company had changed and it was time to keep the same spirit but change some tactics and behaviors. Once I did, things picked up nicely.

Founders also make the mistake of thinking like a startup when larger company decisions are needed. For example, it took Microsoft something like 20 years to buy a corporate jet, Google and Facebook had to get sued to start acquiring patents, and Yahoo! turned down a lucrative offer from Microsoft since they still thought of themselves as a Silicon Valley rebel instead of the blue chip big media company in the trouble it was in.

At Telerik, our founders have had to make adjustments over the years. When I met them Telerik was a scrappy 30 person company. Now we have teams that are larger than that and over 600 people worldwide. The founders have scaled and adjusted their behavior accordingly, all while keeping true to themselves and the company culture. They wear jeans and tee shirts to the office, collared shirts to board meetings, and suits and ties when accepting the Red Herring 100 award.

I’m not saying the Mark Zuckerberg should ditch the hoodie and wear a suit to work everyday. However, he should realize that going public requires some behavioral changes, not just in financial accounting, but also in his leadership style.

The techie rebel in me applauds Zuckerberg for standing up the the man and wearing his hoodie on Monday. The experienced MBA side of me also cringes knowing that Zuckerberg is bound to make several Bill Gates style mistakes, mistakes that could cost Facebook dearly.

posted on Thursday, May 10, 2012 8:21:39 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Monday, April 23, 2012

On Tuesday 24 April, I’ll take the train on up to Shenzhen, China to speak on startups at the Startup Tuesday group run by the Shenzhen Marketing group at the Chai Huo Maker hacker space.

The topic will be about exits: IPOs, mergers and acquisitions, liquidity events, and the like. We’ll talk about the process of an exit, how a deal is structured,  as well as how the money side of it all works (including earn-outs, stock payments, and incentive payments.) Should make for a fun evening!

While I expect this to be predominately Q&A based, here are the slides:

posted on Monday, April 23, 2012 8:51:19 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Monday, April 16, 2012

Last week I wrote about communication struggles at startups and small companies. Since Telerik is the largest company I’ve ever worked for, I’ve asked my sister, Caroline Forte, to write a guest blog post. Caroline has worked at large companies for a long time and is also responsible for several aspects of corporate communications in her current role. Take it away sis:

I’ve worked in communications at a large company for longer than I’d like to publically admit. During that time I have supported many different facets of the business, yet the communication challenges seem to be very consistent. No matter how much information you try to provide there are always two camps – the “you must be holding some information back” camp and the “I don’t have time to read this” camp.

As a divisional or departmental communicator you are competing with the corporate messaging – intranets, memos from leadership, electronic newsletters, messages from HR, internal blogs, message boards and …well you get my drift. How do you prevent your leader’s voice from getting lost in the shuffle? Now throw in the global perspective of language, culture and time zones. And the icing on the cake was when I supported manufacturing where more than half of the audience did not have a dedicated pc.

Basically as a communicator you are always competing - competing with the employees’ time and interest, competing with how the external media skews your internal news, competing with the internal message blogs where employees get to rip apart your messaging.

Readers are fickle – especially the younger workforce. If you don’t grab them in the beginning, tell it to them straight and answer the WIIFM then you’ve lost them. I’ve read somewhere that communications is one of the most stressful jobs – right up there with air traffic controllers. Scary thought, eh? Maybe I’ll try that on for size when I retire.

A few quick tips:

  • Communicate when there is new information - be timely
  • Don’t hide behind corporate jargon
  • Mix it up – experiment with different communication vehicles
  • Open the door – let the audience respond and seek out if the messages resonate

So why do we even bother, other than the fact that most of us are a bit quirky and we enjoy the insaneness of the job . Because knowing that each day you have answered someone’s question, pointed them in the right direction, clarified an issue and increased transparency then you can go home thinking, I guess I can do this all over again tomorrow.

posted on Monday, April 16, 2012 9:01:15 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, April 12, 2012

I’ve spent my entire career at start-ups. I’m use to small. I once worked at a big table with everyone else employed at the company, resulting in pure bliss. One company that I started with three other guys got up to eight people before we were sold to a company with close to 7,000 people in 40 countries. I am most comfortable working side by side with my colleagues; unfortunately over the last 10 years it has not really worked out that way.

Ten years ago I started Corzen with my partner Bruce. Our first office was the Starbucks on 6th and W 57th street in Manhattan. We got geeky pretty quickly and moved to meeting in my apartment so we can huddle around my desktop (this was before Starbucks had free WiFi). A few months later we took up space in what was probably the first (and at the time only) co-work space in Manhattan down in Union Square.

Very quickly we hired Bob, our sales, marketing, production, ops, product, project manager, and all around nice guy. Overnight we went from Bruce saying “Steve, the web site should have more blue over here and here it should be more red” to “let’s have a meeting and discuss this with Bob.” We went from one communication interface to three.

As you increase the number of people you work with, you increase the number of communication interfaces pretty quickly. As you increase the number of communication interfaces, things start to get bogged down, since the human brain can only keep track of seven things at a time. So the optimal size of a company is apparently four, since there are only six communication interfaces. (You can calculate the number of interfaces by taking the square of the total number of people minus the total number of people divided by two.) You are not going to build the next billion dollar business with only four people; even Instagram had 13 people, with a communication interface of 78.

In year two of Corzen things expanded rapidly (it didn’t hurt that we were mentored by the future rocks stars Fred and Brad over at Union Square Ventures.) We hired some programmers in New York with five more in Pune, India. After another year we had added a few more people in Cairo, Egypt. Altogether the company was around fifteen people, not only having 105 communication interfaces, but also multiple locations in three time zones.

A tiny company of fifteen people had some of the same communication problems of a global conglomerate. We had to learn on the fly. What did we do?

  • Every Friday the whole New York office went to lunch together. Even though we all worked at the same co-work space, it gave us time to clear the air on any issues and then talk about whatever was on our mind. Was also a great way to catch everyone up on your last trip. We also talked about non-work stuff too. (Usually baseball, politics, the attractiveness or whoever new started to work at the co-work space, etc.)
  • Monday morning New York staff meeting. We did not do many meetings at the company, however, we did do one staff meeting once a week.
  • I traveled to Pune and Egypt. A lot. I went to Egypt so much I was put on the TSA watch list. I learned a lot about doing business overseas, other cultures, and a distributed environment. For example I had three young, Muslim, female programmers working for me in Cairo. I had to have multiple meals with each of their families before I made any progress. (Lucky for me, the food was delicious and their families would try to “force feed” me.)
  • We did a tremendous amount of on-site, customer visits. We sometimes brought everyone in the office. We shared the results with the remote teams.
  • We instituted Agile methodologies, since Agile, and Scrum in particular, stresses communication.
  • Skype, Skype, Skype. More Skype.
  • Any document that we created was shared on Google Docs
  • We had an intranet and internal Wiki about many things (and posted funny photos of co-workers)
  • Stressed the importance of face to face meetings as part of our culture

While we still had some communication issues, we did pretty well as we continued to grow. A few years later, we were acquired by a company based in the French part of Canada with about 50 people. Overnight our communication interfaces went from 105 to 2080! (Plus I don’t speak French.) Luckily for me, the acquiring company was impressed with what we did both with Agile development as well as with our remote offices (the buying company was all located in one office), so they put me in charge of leading this effort during the transition. After about six months and going to Quebec City more often than any American should have to, eating too much poutine, and countless meetings and sessions, we all were very happy with the new combined company’s communication.

As you start your new business, or are working at an established company, big or small, make sure communications are part of your corporate strategy. You’ll be better off for it.

posted on Thursday, April 12, 2012 5:28:25 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [2] Trackback
# Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The news today is buzzing with the announcement of Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram for $1billion.  Instagram co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, literally had a billion dollar idea. The idea for Instagram was also Systrom and Krieger’s Plan B.

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger raised $500k of seed funding from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz while working on Plan A in early 2010. The original idea for Instagram was called Burbn, a check-in app that competed with Foursquare and allowed you to check-in to locations and add photos and videos to your check-in. Burbn’s focus was suppose to be a mash-up of Foursquare and Mafia Wars (where the name Burbn came from.) Burbn (Plan A) did not really take off and after a lot of minimum viable products, several months later Systrom and Krieger pivoted, and released Instagram (Plan B) as we know and love. The rest, they say, is history.

Instagram’s story of pivoting is a great reinforcement for anyone starting a new business today. I’m sure that Systrom and Krieger loved their first idea (Burbn), but they did not fall in love with it and keep sticking to it. This happens too often when a founder keeps hacking away at a bad idea over and over without pivioting. The truth is that most great companies today are the result of a Plan B, or even Plan C, or Plan D. So when starting your business, don’t fall in love with your idea, accept that fact that you will most likely have to pivot and get to Plan B. It just may be a billion dollar idea…

posted on Tuesday, April 10, 2012 6:27:04 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [1] Trackback
# Monday, April 2, 2012

Over the past few months, I’ve judged both the Startup Weekend and ServiceJam in Hong Kong, attended pitch nights, and spoke at some start-up networking events. Almost all aspiring entrepreneurs who I talked to at these events struggled with when was the right time to release V1 of their product. One guy even told me that he was sitting on an idea, an idea that he thinks can be bigger than Facebook, for almost 12 years waiting for patents!

My advice to each all of these entrepreneurs is the same: start small and start now. Your best bet if you are thinking about something is to just do it. Many people think that they can’t do it or that their project is too big. No problem! Start small and test your theory out. We’ve all heard about MVP or minimum viable product, but my advice goes even deeper: minimum viable idea (MVI).

What is a minimum viable idea? It is the smallest version of your idea that you can test and get meaningful results. If you are unsure of your idea or want to validate your idea, you have to build the minimum viable product of your minimum viable idea and compare the results against your assumptions and expectations. Then as the saying goes iterate or exit.

For example someone recently came to me with a social networking idea. They had a big grandiose plan to build their own platform with all the bells and whistles. The idea was good, but would it fly? I just don’t know if their assumptions are valid. They complained that they had to wait a few months for their first MVP to be built so they can start testing and validating their assumptions. I told them why months? You can build a super small version of the idea as a Facebook app, share it with some friends/testers, and gather the results. A minimum viable idea’s minimum viable Facebook app would probably take a HKU student one or two weeks to put together.

Another friend wanted to build an elaborate social media powered electronic display in a drab public place, requiring government approval. (The goal is to increase happiness as well as make some money.) What would be a MVI? Ask for permission to paint the drab public some happy colors with a painted easy to remember link for people to +1 or “like” or comment and display those comments as an RSS feed. No difficult software to build and a much easier conversation with the public works department. (Or maybe this can be accomplished just by buying advertisement space, no need for any approval!) The results that come back will help validate the idea!

The best way to get started is to actually get started. Go out there and find a fast, cheap, and creative way to test your idea (MVI) before you even start to think about the MVP of your true offering.

Good luck.

posted on Monday, April 2, 2012 5:02:32 AM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [2] Trackback
# Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Twenty years ago when I entered the high tech industry, every aspiring young entrepreneur dreamed of building the next Microsoft and being the “next Bill Gates.” News articles told us that the next Bill Gates would probably come from Eastern Europe rather than from Silicon Valley (or Seattle where Microsoft is located). Ten years ago when Google got big and went public, every new entrepreneur wanted to be the “next Larry Page.” News articles told us that the next Larry Page would probably come from India or China rather than from Silicon Valley. As Facebook eyes its IPO next month, today young entrepreneurs hope to be the “next Mark Zuckerberg”. News articles now tell us that the next Mark Zuckerberg will come from Brazil, rather than from Silicon Valley.

While I am generally optimistic that the environment for entrepreneurship will only get better all over the world in the coming decades, it is important to realize that there are a number of things that make Silicon Valley unique and for that reason, it is more likely that the next Gates/Page/Zuckerberg will come from the Valley.

There are many things that a location needs in order to support entrepreneurship and its startups: access to capital, awesome infrastructure, a large talent pool, a world class education system, rule of law, contract enforcement and property rights, transparency/free media, tax structure, modern labor laws, and an underlying geopolitical system that supports all of the above. You can’t have a successful startup if the local government is going to tax you too high, can’t enforce a contract, or is unstable and about to be overthrown in a revolution (though a revolution is probably good for entrepreneurship in the longer term!)

Most of the places in the world today are moving in the right direction. Some developing nations support all the items above in my list. Unfortunately, that is only the entrance ticket to a startup culture.

Many places that meet the above criteria have a startup community, but lack a startup culture. A startup community is just that, a community of lots of startups who help each other, have regular meet-ups, co-work spaces, pitch nights, and even attract capital. What is lacking is the startup culture.

What is a startup culture? A culture that celebrates failure, a culture that encourages people to take risks, an ecosystem of startup support that will work on equity only or super reduced rates that range from office space, legal services, accounting services, design, advertising, PR, and so on.

Most importantly, you need a talent pool that has had several generations of people who have been through an “exit” or acquisition or IPO. These people serve as both the inspiration for new local startups (“I can’t believe that Bob from the neighborhood made it big at that local startup!”) but also as their mentors and even Angel Investors.  The second and third generation folks are willing to work for equity/reduced wages and inspire others who have not had an exit to do so too. This includes not just the founders and developers, but every position in the company. The more people in your location that has been through an exit, the easier it is to build a new company.

My beloved home town of New York and my adopted home town of Hong Kong both have vibrant startup communities, but are years away from building a proper startup culture. Why? They are both very expensive cities to live in and all the money is in the finance or real estate industries. So if you are starting a new business in New York or Hong Kong you are competing with the banks for not only your developers  and marketing people, but also for office space, accountants, and lawyers, etc. Only after several generations of startups reaching the exit will the floodgates open and the ecosystem will form.

Silicon Valley is one of the few places in the world where this ecosystem exits. I am watching as other locations are trying to build this ecosystem prematurely. Unfortunately, it will take time, potentially decades in some places.

Will the next Mark Zuckerberg come from Silicon Valley or somewhere else? I hope that he or she will come from somewhere else, however, my money is on Silicon Valley. Does this mean you should move, that your startup is doomed unless you are in Silicon Valley? No! All it means is that the odds are stacked against you, but with entrepreneurship the odds are always stacked against you anyway.

The company where I work, Telerik, started almost 10 years ago in Sofia, Bulgaria. At the time (sorry guys!) Sofia was an European backwater that was known more for its corruption and mafia than high-tech entrepreneurship. Telerik has defied the odds and has “made it” and has been selected as a Red Herring Global 100 company. How? By changing the culture and consistently earning the best place to work in Bulgaria award. The odds were stacked against Telerik too.  

posted on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 4:17:48 AM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Comments [1] Trackback
# Monday, June 30, 2003

No no I can't tell you that yet, it is secret. EMEA VP Jean-Philippe Courtois will announce the winner of the Imagine Cup tomorrow at the Keynote. I saw all 15 teams and it was great. I am tired, I had to get a 20 minute demo from each team from 10am until 5pm.

I will be quoted tomorrow in the MS Press Release on the Imagine Cup, so look for that. Keeping this to myself is KILLING me. :)

What I liked is that the UK team were 1st year Java students and used .NET for the Cup. Now they are CONVERTS. This is a big win for Microsoft, getting .NET in front of students, if only University CS departments were not so biased. This is a big problem, Universities pretend that Microsoft doesn't exist and like it or not, Microsoft is a huge player in the Real World. The Universities are doing their students a real disservice. All I am asking for is a more balanced curriculum!


posted on Monday, June 30, 2003 12:04:22 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [11] Trackback