# Thursday, 21 June 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, 21 June 2012 03:08:56 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, 14 June 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, 14 June 2012 00:31:34 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Sunday, 10 June 2012

On Monday Joel and I will be doing Agile Estimation at TechEd in Orlando . It is loosely based on my recent Pluralsight course, however, Pluralsight won’t let me make fun of Joel, while TechEd does. I have attached the slides below, however, we plan on using Excel as our main presentation tool. (If you have not seen this before, it is fun.)


Making Agile Estimation Work
Breakout Session
Primary Speaker(s): Joel Semeniuk, Stephen Forte
Speaker Assistant(s):
We’re agile, so we don’t have to estimate and have no deadlines, right? Wrong! This session reviews the problem with estimation in projects today and then provides an overview of the concept of agile estimation and the notion of re-estimation. Learn about user stories, story points, team velocity, how to apply them all to estimation and iterative re-estimation. We take a look at the cone of uncertainty and how to use it to your advantage. We then take a look at the tools we will use for Agile Estimation, including planning poker, Team Foundation Server, and much more. We then take an alternative approach and look at using real metrics to limit the guesswork in estimating and still run a team that produces predictably and reliably. This is a very interactive session, so bring a lot of questions!
S210A Monday, June 11 3:00 PM - 4:15 PM

posted on Sunday, 10 June 2012 11:52:47 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, 10 May 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, 10 May 2012 08:21:39 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Monday, 23 April 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, 23 April 2012 08:51:19 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Monday, 16 April 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, 16 April 2012 21:01:15 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [0] Trackback
# Thursday, 12 April 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, 12 April 2012 05:28:25 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [2] Trackback
# Tuesday, 10 April 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, 10 April 2012 06:27:04 (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Comments [1] Trackback