I spent the day at startup bootcamp, which was an excellent opportunity to hear from startup founders and VCs about startups. As someone without a lot of experience in this field, it was wonderful to hear a bunch of different (at times conflicting) viewpoints on the startup world. I took notes on all but two of the talks, and put them here to read if you are interested.

Adam Smith: Xobni

How to execute well

  • Hire good people who are self-sufficient
  • External deadlines are useful and force progress
  • Keep onus on action
  • Expect/hope ¼ of products to fail
  • Focus on the user, no other diversions
  • Run experiments, but use them helpfully–don’t scratch an itch just for kicks
  • Hire outside contractors for specific skills–designers, etc.
  • Look for partners/employees that are /unlike/ you, to round out weaknesses

East vs. West

  • More enterprise software on east coast
  • More resources, relationships for startups on west coast

Recommended Reading

  • Book: Founders at Work
  • Book: High Stakes No Prisoners
  • Paul Graham’s Essays

Alexis Ohanian: Reddit

“Only your mom will use your website”

Look for organic traffic, no need for advertising or PR firms.

  • Seek evangelists willing to tell others to use it
  • Before being bought by Conde Nast, budget for advertising was a $200 for stickers
  • Wufoo sends handwritten notes to longtime customers to add a personal touch
  • Reddit gives free t-shirts to visits to HQ and gives them a story to go along with the shirt
  • Zappos delivers in 1 day even though they promise 5-7 day delivery: promise low, deliver high

“Facilitate Serendipity”

Being good is insurance for when you f*** up

Cofounders: pick someone you trust w/ everything

  • non-programmer founders job is to make sure programming cofounder has nothing to think about except programming
  • once you launch, non-programmer deals w/ all user/business issues

Ken Zolot

“Who Cares?” Make sure your message answers who cares about your technology, not just how cool your technology is

Don’t wait for something to come your way

  • Do something
  • Sense what reaction is
  • Reflect
  • Change what you do

Dan Theobald: Vecna

People matter, so businesses should be ethical, socially responsible, etc.

Vecna pays employees to do community service for 10% of their work time

Don’t hire people unless you are ready to become a manager

Don’t do bargain-hunting in hiring

  • Hire smartest people you can find, and take good care of them
  • Good employee = 10_medium employee = 100_bad employee

Avoid “other people’s money”–outside investors are only good if you absolutely need them to scale

Read “On the Folly of Rewarding for A, while Hoping for B” by Stephen Kerr

Vecna does profit-sharing based on share of points awarded by colleagues each quarter. This makes each employee feel invested in the company

Vecna bootstrapped from IT consulting

  • Retained intellectual property in contracts
  • Have customers fit into your roadmap for a more generically applicable product

Kyle Vogt: Justin.tv

Startup Productivity Hacks

  • Buy catered lunch–more efficient employees if they don’t spend an hour walking around looking for a place to eat. For 10 employees, catering lunch saves you hiring an 11th employee. (didn’t mention how much it costs)

  • Use Google Apps for stuff you don’t want to administer yourself

  • Use data-driven (A/B) development

  • Use hiring screeners (applicants send you code solving some problem) to test skills programmers must have–cheap way to ensure they can write code.

  • Keep on-site job interviews short, and push more discovery into hiring screeners

  • Don’t hire a PR firm–they just guide you to do work on your own anyway. If you need skills, hire in-house marketing staff if necessary

  • Put one person on funding, pitches, finding investors

  • Work from home (if you live with cofoudners)

  • Use hosted servers (don’t build technology yourself unless you’re a hardware company or want to dedicate MANY resources to it)

  • Listen to your users /the right way/. Users are good at loudy identifying what doesn’t work. Can learn a lot from watching users use your tool.

  • Buy a .com domain name

  • Be transparent w/ employees about data regarding company. They will trust you more, and even suggest ideas.

  • Don’t outsource core technology

  • Hire specialists when necessary

  • Hire people smarter than you, don’t settle

  • Have a plan for actually making $ (eventually)

Angus Davis

Youngest employee at Netscape

Started Tellme, which was bought by MSFT

Rest of talk was decided by a poll: presented ~16 ideas, and had users text msg./tweet the topics to expand on!

When you hit dicey situations as a founder, remove emotional attachment by thinking of yourself as a large shareholder and making decision that way.

Hemant Taneja: Venture Capitalist at General Catalyst Partners

GCP is in Harvard square, $1.7B, 75 companies (consumer, I.T., Energy)

Touched on social media/mobile applications, which are some of their focuses

Interesting idea on energy: there are two problems

  • clean energy
  • cheap energy as demand grows

See 1500 entrepreneurs/year, invest in 2 or 3. Startups they love

  • Brilliant founders
  • Solve hard problems
  • Address very large markets
  • Are ahead of the curve
  • Are capital efficient

Should you raise VC? Only if you have to

  • Webapps are easy to bootstrap. Still helpful to get funding, but only once you have data on what your growth needs will be
  • But energy experiments require serious capital to even try an idea Chosing a VC?
  • Smart, good listener that’s not going to be swayed by biases
  • Easy-going
  • Has bandwidth to help–not on too many boards
  • Transparent
  • Have a relevant network
  • VC firm has stable funding

What is a good termsheet?

  • Enough capital for significant milestone you are funding
  • legally simple–doesn’t restrict you too much in the future
  • Balance ownership for VC, founder, and management–don’t worry about specific values, just everyone’s vision in the coming years
  • VC is not focused heavily on the downside/insuring themself
  • Board of directors has domain experience Angels are good for funding consumer intenret market, but not necessarily for bigger investments such as energy market, etc.

Dharmesh Shah: Hubspot, OnStartups.Com

Likes bootstrapping, fast liquidity.

First time startup founders: maximize odds on seeing a modest return

Your idea stinks, so don’t make it better in a void–launch early so you can get the better idea

Output messaging is about pushing messages out to millions and hoping they will stick with someone. No longer succesful, as people are good at filtering out extraneous messages

Inbound messaging (Hubspot) is about pulling people in. It’s cheaper and more effective for startups.

Tools for marketing

  • Google–focus on SEO, not adwords.

  • Write a blog, not a business plan (no one reads business plans)

  • Facebook page for buying ads gives you the best demographic tool on the market: for a bunch of different demographic information, will dynamically tell you how many people on facebook fit those criteria.
  • Twitter is mainstream now, so if you prefer short form to long form, use it! TwitterGrader.com

Robin Chase: Zipcar

Everyone you come into contact with is a free consultant. make sure you learn from people’s questions.

Intellectual Honesty–If you know your business model is broken, don’t blindly keep selling it, since you’re just hiding something that will grow into a bigger problem. Learn how to fix, change it, and suffer consequences earlier than later!

Start light–become a learning organization. Mistakes are OK, but not learning is not OK.

As a small organization, you are the stories you tell.

Goal #1: become sustainable/profitable. Get there with intellectual honesty, good team, good plan.

Don’t forget Luck: you get to where you are when preparation meets opportunity, but you won’t get lucky or unlucky all the time.

View on big problems–climate change is the biggest. See problems as business opportunities.

Partnerships with large car companies didn’t help, but since she was already in talks with them, she used it as a marketing opportunity with others: “I’ll talk to you after my meeting w/ Volkswagon!”

Aaron Swartz

Started infogami, merged w/ reddit

2 kinds of organisms:

  • r: make tons of children, and DNA will transfer by the numbers (cockroaches). e.g. delicious
  • K: have small # children, raise them carefully (humans). e.g. github

Hollywood launch–teaser, blow up the idea in peoples minds, and have a humungous lauch

Swartz is skeptical of this approach: doesn’t mimic software

  • Kills you with traffic jump
  • Killer bug destroys you immediately
  • Hollywood bases good movies based on initial launch…software is iterative!

So what’s the alternative? GMail launch

  • Have users from day 0: What’s the smallest usable piece?
  • while (users not happy) {fix/add features;}
  • As people are happy, let more in (using invite codes, or just opening up once enough people are happy)
  • Then, once everyone is happy, do a marketing launch (maybe)

Some stories

  • reddit: when they worked hard on features, no new users. when programmers went away or slacked off, traffic rose
  • recent project: he quit when traffic was flat. a few months later, looked at google analytics, saw spike in traffic

What to draw from this? Don’t assume that because you can measure something, you can control it. Sometimes, you need to give things time to spread, and hopefully if you strike it big, you can help the people following in your footsteps.

Announced boldprogressives.org–progressive change campaign committee