This is the first article from Jason L. Baptiste, a new writer at OnStartups and local Boston entrepreneur. You should follow him on Twitter (@jasonlbaptiste) or say hi via email. Expect to hear a lot more from him in the future. He's awesome. -Dharmesh
On Saturday, MIT hosted Startup Bootcamp to provide a diverse group of lessons to hopeful founders and those teetering on the edge of jumping into a startup. The tagline for the event was actually "Starting a company is easier than you think." The videos will be online soon as well if you want to relive the experience. I thought it would be useful to sum up the important lessons from each talk instead of doing a direct play by play.
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Chris Wanstrath (GitHub) - Your Customers Are Your Best Sales Team
The story behind GitHub and how the team got there always amazes me. Github started out as a side project and morphed into a monster primarily by using their customers as a strong distribution+sales channel.
Let Your Product Help Customers Shine
If your product helps customers shine, they will attach it to their work and give you increased visibility. GitHub helps developers show their code off and have a better experience. Through this, hackers/founders share the product with others.
Build For More People
Build your product to leverage Metcalfe's Law (THE Metcalfe of Metcalfe's law also spoke btw), and grow in strength when more people are added to the system. The key to Metcalfe's law is the ability to GROW UTILITY when more people are added. Make sure you aren't DECREASING utility.
Spend Face To Face Time With Your Customers
It's always good to spend face to face time with your customers. Sure tweets and emails get the job done, but that's not personal enough. Go spend time with your customers. Body language and that open level of communication make for an understanding that can't be had through any other medium.
Mick Mountz - Seek Funding Through Your Customers (Kiva Systems)
We funded my first startup through the product stages via an actual customer. That's why I love the B2B space as a large market will often let you fund the company through early customers that are begging for your product.
Funding Through Customers Should Be Priority One
Funding through larger channels such as angel or VCs can come later on, but they are not a given. Funding through customers? That's called revenue and is the lifeblood of any company. By discipling yourself to raise money from your customers, you put yourself in a position of power from early on.
Customers Provide Benefits Outside of "Revenue"
Customers pay you, but they will also provide you other valuable information. They will tell you what works and what does not work. Don't over-engineer the first concept. Get to customers fast and let them give you feedback. That hour of feedback in the early days will be worth more than their LTV in dollars.
Ayr Muir (Clover Food Lab) - Know Thy Customer
I'm a customer development junkie. Listening to your customer and getting inside their head can give you insights to solutions you would have never seen before.
Get Inside Their Head
Ayr started working at a Burger King to fully understand the food business. I think this is the entrepreneurial version of method acting. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. It lets you truly understand their pain and understand what product they want.
Experiment, Fail, Learn, Repeat.
Ayr suggests that entrepreneurs should experiment on the cheap and be fast while doing it. Many things will fail fast and that's a okay. From there, the goal should be to learn as much as possible. Sometimes it's just as important to know what NOT to do rather than what to do.
George Bell (Excite/General Catalyst) - Build For The Long Haul
George's talk works really well in conjunction with Stephen Wolfram's. George is a VC at General Catalyst now along with being the former CEO of Excite.
Culture Helps You Endure
Building a great culture for the long term will help you endure for the long term as a startup. A strong culture makes an enjoyable environment that people grow attached to and will not want to leave behind.
Listen. Listen. Listen
Listen to your employees and build around them. You may have your own vision as a founder, but each company may have 3-4 founders maximum. Beyond those 3-4 individuals you need to build a company for hundreds and maybe even thousands time that. By listening to not only your employees, but the market you can position your company to endure time. Your original market will fade and listening can keep you prepared.
Bob Metcalfe (3Com/Polaris Ventures) - It's Not About You, It's About The Company
Bob is at Polaris Ventures now, but he is a legend by all standards. He invented Ethernet and founded 3COM. Not only is he a genius, but he is just someone that radiates love for the game. Even though I'm sure he gets praise all the time, the fact that he almost teared up at someone thanking him for ethernet says a lot.
Build A Synergistic Team of Geeks and Suits
We need each other and I'm glad a geek like Bob brought this forth to the crowd. As a geek, it's sometimes hard to realize you need someone with a good sales+marketing background. Without a good product, you have nothing to sell and without selling, your good product means nothing.
Sum Of The Parts Is Greater Than The Whole
It's about building a company with smart people that share the same vision as a whole. Bob has taken roles at 3Com from marketing to engineering. Don't lock yourself into one role and gain experiences so you can hire people smarter than you for those roles. Don't have an ego and don't think you're above a role.
Bill Clerico (WePay) - How To Endure
Startups are not for the weak at heart. Everyone tries to do attribute startup failure to business forces or some other error. I personally think the biggest reason for failure is due to the fact that it is just tough. Not everyone that tries to be a Navy Seal makes it through training. Not everyone that tries to be an entrepreneur makes it through until the end. Bill shared some good lessons on enduring as a startup founder.
Think About the Bigger Picture
Bill brought up the fact whether or not you would regret doing the startup 50 years in the future. Jeff Bezos says the same thing with his regret minimization framework. I also noticed an underlying desire to focus on creative things / quirks in order to forget about the abyss in front of your face. For example, they have a company dog in order to keep them going every day.
Roll The Dice
They gambled their last dollars to make up for the rent they were $500 short on. They ended up making $600 and enjoying a good dinner too. Rolling the dice is risky and not always something you should do, but sometimes it's all you have. If you aren't about taking risk then the startup game probably isn't for you.
Product Changes The Game
Product changes absolutely everything. Until you have a product that users can play with and hopefully pay for, you are fighting a completely uphill battle. Don't worry about raising money or other things until you have a product that the market can play with, even if it is "ghetto".
James Lindenbaum (Heroku) - Be a Machete
Heroku is a beast of a company with a ton of users and a large number of paying customers as well. When looking at the live stat counter I think it caught James off guard as it increases so much everyday he didn't know what the exact number was. Very candid and very inspiring moment.
What is a machete?
A machete is a simple straight forward tool that allows you to accomplish and be many things while staying simple. The same could be achieved with a swiss army knife, but that's bloated and really 50 things crammed into one. A machete is really one thing that can serve AS 50 things. What can you discover from your product and through customer development?
Throwing Things Away
In order to be a machete, you have to be ultra lean and able to stay simple. In order to do this, you need to be able to throw things away that aren't necessary to your customers. Don't have too much emotional attachment to a product or feature.
Alexis Ohanian (Reddit/YCombinator) - The Time Is Now
This was by far my favorite talk of the day. Alexis has seen things from both sides of the table as a young 20 something entrepreneur and now as an angel investor via Das Kapital Capital / YCombinator.
Angels Are Everywhere
The recent influx of super angels and costs to get a startup off the ground have made capital widely available to smart entrepreneurs. With ideas costing a fraction of what they used to and more angels available, the number of startups in the wild should be able to increase dramatically. I suggest raising revenue over raising capital, but if it's needed, there is more of it at the early early stage level than ever before.
Live Cheap And Go Far
For the most part, the audience was filled with current college students and some recent graduates. Instead of taking super big salaries from traditional jobs like wall street, you should go start a startup. Now is the best time as the burden of responsibilities are just insanely low. Your standards are also low as well. The difference between ramen profitable for an out of school entrepreneur and an entrepreneur with a wife, mortgage, and 3 kids is vastly different.
Entrepreneurs Are Superheroes
This last point has motivated me a ton over the weekend. Alexis' last two slides referenced the fact that startups can save our country. I truly believe this is the case and in some ways entrepreneurs are like superheroes. We have a higher calling and civic duty that can help save the world. We can create new jobs, provide a rewarding life for our team members, and solve the problems of the real world. We also have a higher tolerance for pain than the normal human. You have to be able to have a high threshold as an entrepreneur, the same way Wolverine has regenerative powers. Get up, get out, and create a company. Now is the time and the world needs you.
Stephen Wolfram (Wolfram Research) - Control Your Destiny Without Funding
Many startups focus on raising capital and putting themselves on a timer to be primed for an exit of some sorts. Sadly, that exit often comes in the form of a small M&A acquisition instead of building a long term enduring company. Wolfram showed that it was possible to control your destiny and build a company that can last for decades.
It Starts With Something You Understand
Wolfram started Mathematica after having a deep understanding of the field and the need for its existence itself. When you create a startup that you want to see in the world, you grow a certain attachment to it. This attachment is akin to something a fanatical customer might feel. You're less likely to throw the company away on a "flip acquisition" due to your attachment and caring for the product with the hope that it won't go away.
Be Weary Of Managers That Are Hired
Wolfram has done a number of startups and some came before Wolfram Research. His biggest mistake was hiring managers that weren't in the same stage of life and/or on the same wavelength as him. This created a disconnect in product vision and his desire to stay with the company. Surround yourself with peers that you would want to spend time with for a long time.
You Can Do Cool Exploratory Things When You Own The Company
WolframAlpha may have never existed if Stephen Wolfram did not control the company himself. It is a big undertaking with huge capital and human resources being required. By controlling the company you will want to stay with the company for the long haul as the possibility of incubating and creating "startup-like" projects can be done.
Kevin Hale (Wufoo) - Awesome Customer Support Is Your Secret Weapon
If you haven't seen Kevin give a talk, then you're missing out. I originally saw Kevin give a talk at BarCamp Miami back in 2009. I made sure I was back from the break early not to miss his talk as I had a hunch it would focus on the overlooked, but very important aspect of customer service for startups.
Build As If You Had To Support It
Thinking about adding a radical new feature with crazy complexities and absolutely amazing effects? With those crazy new complexities and absolutely amazing effects will come an onslaught of customer service inquiries. Think about the customer support funnel and how that will be impacted by the features you are adding.
Measuring emotion is critical when asking a customer to fill out a support inquiry. Wufoo added a box that asks a customer to identify how they are feeling when submitting a support inquiry. They didn't think too many people would fill it out, but over 80% did. This was on par with how many people filled out what browser they were using.
Adding a Personal Touch Goes a Long Way
Wufoo team members still write thank you letters by hand to customers that have been with them for a short while. In a world where the expected customer service experience is usually something negative, a small personal touch can go a long long way. Surprise your customers with a personal touch. I'm aware Wufoo does this, but seeing it again always blow me away.
Ric Fulop (A123 Systems) - Focus On The People.
Ric is a hardware guy, which is often foreign territory for web app entrepreneurs like myself. He was previously the co-founder of A123 Systems. From day one you should be focused on the people involved with your startup.
Plant The Seed With 1-2 People
Every startup begins with 1-2 other people. Building that team at first is the key to the long-term DNA and product of your company. You're not doing this to be a small company for the long haul and you can scale up your organization later on.
Find Relevant Advisors
Hardware startups are especially difficult. How do you break into the hardware side of things or any other difficult territory where credibility is a must? Find advisors who have relevant domain expertise and credibility that you can borrow. Once you have that credibility, it can then be used to provide momentum to the business as a whole.
Focus On The Person Making The Investment
Money is the common denominator when raising capital. All investors have it and all dollars are green. What really matters is the person at the firm and their relevant domain expertise. I don't have any plans of doing a hardware startup, but if I did, Ric would be on my shortlist of people to approach. Your startup is solving a very specific problem and the investors on your side should be able to bring access to relevant domain knowledge and other people inside the sector. This is the true definition of "Value Add Investing"
David Cancel (Compete/Performable) - Data Provides A Reality Check.
David Cancel of Performable closed out the show with a useful, but well needed reality check for hopeful entrepreneurs. Too many times we come away amped from reading a press article about startup success or going to a conference with successful speakers. This energy can often make us forget to listen to reality itself and take a look at objective facts. When your energy is high, you often feel as if nothing else matters. Here are the key things that matter:
Business Plans and Demos Are Useless
BPlans and Demos are controlled environments with no customer interaction. They can't survive in the real world and will never work out there. No one cares about them and neither should you.
You don't want to be stuck in the emotion and get hit with "that's interesting" from an investor. You want customers, investors, or any potential partner to be fired up with emotion.
Listen To The Data
Stop reading TechCrunch and listening to the end-game / feel good stories. What should really get you amped up is the data coming in from your customers. Have a company-wide dashboard, measure your analytics, and get to know your funnel. Want to test something? Listen to the data, not the praises or hatred from the press.
I hope the summaries give some motivation and insight into starting a company for hopeful entrepreneurs. As entrepreneurs we are lucky and very fortunate. Right here, right now is the best time in the history of civilization to start a company. More on that soon.