I listened to Mark Suster speak at NYU last week. Suster is a General Partner at GRP Partners and writer of the very popular blog “Both Sides of the Table.” He made a lot of interesting points about how entrepreneurs should think about their ideas, their businesses, their teams, raising money, and an array of other challenges. I thought I would share a few things he described that really hit home. **Note: the following are a combination of Suster’s points mixed with my own impressions.
Solve Big Problems
Too many business ideas are not really businesses at all. They are merely features of other businesses that already exist. Don’t be just a feature. Look at problems that affect a large market and find some creative solutions to fix it. Just because facebook or Google could do what you’ve thought of doesn’t mean you need to find something else. If anything it means that you’ve discovered a problem and a market with real potential. Don’t waste time building features that the Mint.com of whatever will be adding to their own platform 6 months down the road.
Follow the Puck
When building products do not lose sight of your market. I’ve been interning at foursquare for just over a week now. The thing that has impressed me the most so far is how focused the entire team is on the product, and most importantly how their product fits into the market. The conversations that take place to make sure that everyone is on the same page in the roadmap are really what sets it apart from its competitors. Every employee shares the same long-term vision for the company, but keeps track of short-term goals and knows exactly the role they will play in its development.
Suster explained that one should always be conscious of the necessity to consistently network up the chain of command (hierarchy of influence, etc). It’s an interesting philosophy, which I agree with up to a point. My only issue is that networking for the sake of networking can be dangerous. Knowing a lot of people can be a great thing. But networking should be viewed as an even exchange between both parties. Reputation is always at stake. Failing to follow up, not returning a favor, or just simply using a person to get ahead is wrong and will almost always come back to bite you.
Don’t believe the hype
Stay off TechCrunch. Yes TechCrunch is on my BlogRoll. Yes I read it a few times a week. No I dont treat it, or any sites like it as if I’m going to discover the next big idea on it. TechCrunch is hype and it can destroy entrepreneurs who may have actually had real potential. Stories about getting a hundred thousand users over night after launch or raising millions of dollars from a few VC’s with only a minimum viable product make great news. And that is exactly what they are, Great News. The other thousands of startups that are struggling for attention, users, money, etc. are what running a startup is really like, but almost never depicted.
I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs over the past couple months. Some are really exceptional; true visionaries who leave you with no doubt that their company is going to be very successful. And then there are those who miss the mark entirely. I’ve realized while working at NYC Seed, the two most difficult challenges faced by every entrepreneur. To most, theoretically, both tasks are blatantly obvious. However, the actual accomplishment of these first two challenges is what sets a serious entrepreneur apart from the everyday dreamer
The Opportunity: Identifying new innovations that are right for a particular market is extremely difficult. There are essentially two frameworks for learning about a market/industry to identify problems or inefficiencies: work directly for a company or research. Both are time consuming, and neither is perfect. Working for an organization will give you a pretty good representation of the problems the employees and company faces everyday. It also validates you as a credible source; an industry “expert” of sorts. Performing research requires numerous conversations with industry professionals with the hope that they will shed some light on their needs. This approach allows for a much broader perspective of the market, but requires a certain level of skill in identifying real opportunities. Discovering opportunities cannot happen over night. It takes time. In fact, a serious entrepreneur never ends the search for new opportunities. Customer’s needs change too quickly. Successful companies adapt to what the market will hold. Focusing only on the product can be deadly.
The Team: Creating the right team takes a lot of hard work and patience. Finding partners that believe in your own capabilities as much as their own is undeniably a difficult task. The right set of co-founders will make or break a company. It’s the first thing any right-minded investor evaluates immediately after the pitch. The best duo, without a doubt, is one business minded, market oriented, sales driven guru and a technical co-founder. Teams that can build a product, sell it to a customer and repeat this process a thousand times over are serious entrepreneurs.
In a future post, I will dive deeper into some of my own experiences evaluating opportunities and seeking a co-founder. This post was not meant to provide too much detail on either subject, as there is clearly a lot to discuss.
I went to bed last night anticipating the release of foursquare 3.0. I woke up this morning and looked out my window hoping it would be snowing, for it indeed felt like Christmas Day. I opened up my freshly charged HTC Incredible (nothing short of its name) to find the fantastic new update for foursquare. Feeling like a 6 year old who just got a new Nintendo 64 (you all remember those days) I dove straight into it.
It’s well understood that foursquare has a long road ahead of itself in its quest to grow to the likes of facebook and twitter with hundreds of millions of users. In my own view, sharing location, can be a bit daunting. Even if you are not publicizing that data, the very idea that someone else behind the scenes can track where you have gone may be too progressive for mainstream America. That said, simple gaming mechanics, virtual badges, and mayorships were clearly not enough to bridge the “security” issues and attract a larger network of users outside of the tech-savvy early adopters. Admittedly, even I stopped checking in for a few months because the value proposition was not high enough for me to pull out my phone everywhere I went to share my location. Alas, foursquare has certainly been focused in the past year on improving this experience. At approximately 2AM this morning they released foursquare 3.0. There are only two words to describe the new release. GAME CHANGER.
I’m not going to go into detail about all of the new features they have integrated into the platform, reason being that anyone with an account should upgrade immediately to try it themselves, and anyone without a foursquare account is at a pure loss. Anyone with a Blackberry should just throw their phones away now and save themselves the hassle of having to wait another few days/weeks. I will say that I found it quite refreshing to see a product delivered to its users whose features really touch upon the founders’ original vision; “making cities easier to use”. Foursquare 3.0 doesn’t just make cities easier to use, it makes cities more interesting. How often have you gone to the same restaurant or bar because you couldn’t think of anything else off the top of your head in a particular neighborhood? Gone are the days of repetition. The beautiful thing about the foursquare “explore” tab is that in a way it transcends the recommendations you find on any other service (yelp, google, urbanspoon, opentable, etc). In a way, it feels real. The things foursquare and other users are telling you to visit are personalized based on your own preferences, i.e. where you have checked in before. This is important for one reason. The incentive for me to to check-in has been multiplied. Knowing that the service is getting smarter to better help my ability to explore areas or venues I’ve never been to is really rewarding. I love services that get progressively better the more you use them.
Anyways, there is a lot more to say about foursquare 3.0 and I will probably write another few posts once I really start to use it in the next few weeks. In all, I’m excited, if not proud, that foursquare has stuck to its vision and delivered an exceptional service that is an amazing first step to changing the way we interact with each other and our city. To read more about the new release, I strongly encourage everyone to Dennis Crowley’s post on the foursquare blog.
I had the opportunity to attend Founders Meetup on Tuesday night (March 1) and listen to a few CEO’s speak about their technology, business models, milestones/goals, questions, and concerns. They included SeatGeek, HyperPublic, and RocketHub.
SeatGeek, an NYC Seed portfolio company, is a sports and concert ticket search engine that uses predictive algorithms to show you the best price for tickets sold on secondary markets (meaning not directly from TicketMaster or another large service). They also have spent an extensive amount of time mapping the configurations of stadium seating across America that way you can see exactly where you will be sitting during the show or game and make sure you are paying the best price on the market!
HyperPublic may be a little bit more difficult for me to explain correctly. On the surface, at the moment at least, its gives you a simple way to tag and search people, places, or things that they you everyday and then find and connect to those things by location. On the backend, they are creating really rich data layer from which other applications can be built. Cofounder, Jordan Cooper, described it as the intermediary between infrastructure sites like SimpleGeo and heavy user generated content sites like Yelp.com. Either way the opportunities that the dataset will provide to developers to build applications for local entities on the platform will be amazing.
Last one, since I really didn’t mean to go into a lot of detail about these companies.. RocketHub is similar to KickStarter, as it uses crowdsourcing to help people raise money for various projects. Whats most interesting is their partnerships with larger brands who also join in on sponsoring some of the projects.
One of the more interesting topics that was raised was customer acquisition, which includes the debate about time spent on marketing and PR for startups. By now everyone should have read Fred Wilson’s views on what it means for startups to spend time on different marketing initiatives. Anyways, I wanted to point out a really interesting comment made in the audience about an example of a company that came up with a very clever, and relatively successful way to acquire customers. The company is called Blingo (it still exists, not that anyone would use it) and they are a search engine owned by Publishers Clearing House. However they offered one distinguishable twist from all of the other search engines in the market. Every time a user searched for something they had the opportunity to win a prize at random. GENIUS. Blingo successfully acquired millions of email addresses at the cost of giving away a few inexpensive prizes each day. They also incorporated a social networking tool into it; users that recruited their friends to join would receive the same prize that any of their friends won. Blingo encouraged their users that it was best to use the service like they would use any other search engine on a normal basis. For the casual searcher, there was much more incentive to go to Blingo (which was using Google’s search anyways) because they had a chance to win.
While it seems obvious, I think campaigns like this could be applied to a number of platforms today whose largest priority is singing up millions of new users. Foursquare is a great example. Merchants that are willing to give out special offer are the most valuable for the platform because they keep users engaged. Here’s the question: Is it possible to make it required for merchants to offer a special to a minimum number of customers on foursquare every week at random? That would be such a huge incentive for current users who never receive anything to keep checking in and for people not currently using the service to sign up for an account.
*Note I got some information from wikipedia. It’s credible enough in my mind. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blingo
Facebook invented the Events page. Arguably one of the biggest attractions to the platform besides sharing pictures, the ability to tell friends about upcoming events is invaluable. But, through all of facebook’s growth and development over the past 5-6 years, it seems that the Events section has not seen any major improvements. Instead, the right hand corner of our home screens have become a haven for unsolicited parties and meetups and has slowly, but surely rendered itself useless. The system is officially broken for what I would think is a large number of users. Sharing events among a close network of friends is vital to any social network. The traditional mechanisms to get a group together on a particular night are completely outdated. Unfortunately, Facebook Events can also be added to that list, along with snail mail, email, and mass text messages.
Presently, on facebook the types of events we receive usually fall into a few distinct categories: birthdays, planned parties, promo events/benefits/concerts, community meetings, and lost cellphones (if that can even be considered an event). I usually have a range of 12-16 events in my list on facebook, of which there are 2 that I will respond to if I remember in time. This is a problem that needs to be replicated, and I don’t think facebook will be the one to do it. If a large technology company like Facebook won’t or can’t do it, it is definitely an opportunity for a startup. I think event planning online needs to be made a bit more spontaneous, allowing for organic growth of “attendees” rather than forced pressure (ie facebok messages, which I also think are useless). There should be a dedicated application separate from email, facebook, and twitter that helps users manage the types of events they receive from their friends, the timing that you receive the event (for example, birthdays i would like to know way in advance, regular parties i would like to know about the day of or the day before), and the number of events currently in the “inbox”.
Anyways, I think it would be an interesting side project and I might just take some time to experiment with it. I have a few ideas about how to best go about getting the data to build an personal event manager. If anyone is interested in joining or has some advice please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your comments below.
..Or Call it A Side Project.
The thought of running a successful company can be overwhelmingly daunting. I believe many first time entrepreneurs suffer from a common problem; the idea of starting a successful company gets put on a pedestal. As new entrepreneurs begin to think about their idea, assemble a team, create decks, and reach out to their network they get caught up in the hype of creating a startup. All of the sudden, it becomes a big deal to take an untraditional path and run your own company. Founders become more aware of the risk of failure, the time commitment, and the thought that maybe their idea isn’t worth the next five years of their time. As soon as an entrepreneur puts their company on a pedestal, they are destined to fail. Excuse after excuse, they get caught up doing everything but what needs to get done; building a prototype and getting it to users or customers to test. There is no reason to open a bank account, incorporate the company, or even to spend time alerting friends, families, and even potential mentors or investors until it is absolutely necessary. All of this acts as a waste of time. Time that could have been spent testing the product, talking with customers, and figuring out the next iteration.
To this problem, my solution is the side project. Having a side project means that one is also spending time on one or more things simultaneously. The benefits of having a side project outweigh the benefits of committing 100% of your time to a single idea.
Here’s five reasons why:
- Dedicating 5-25% of your time to a side project forces you to focus on the most important aspects first, like building a prototype and speaking to customers.
- Side projects can change by week, month, or year. This keeps things interesting and allows you to explore different opportunities without committing all of your resources at once.
- The risk of failure does not appear as daunting, especially to a first time entrepreneur because there is always something else to fall back upon.
- Side projects teach you how to manage your time more efficiently to get things done quickly. Having a lot of things going on at the same time doesn’t leave room for procrastination and keeps you engaged.
- Side projects are great conversation starters and generally make you look more interesting. They are a great way to meet new people with interests that parallel whatever you are working on.
Arguably you can have one or more side projects at the same time. Building a website, running a blog, doing volunteer work, or taking online classes, are just a few types of side projects. Of course, everyone is always busy working on a thousand different things at once. The lesson for myself and other first time entrepreneurs is that its dangerous to think about things as being absolute. So call whatever you’re doing a side project. Put your mind in the right place and your work and time will be better spent. Failure is just an excuse to focus harder on something different.
Courtesy of Dmitry Gudkov
For those that don’t know, #bikenyc represents a quickly growing twitter group, tweeting and sharing everything bicycle related in New York City. #bikenyc is a combination of petitioners, community builders, bicycle enthusiasts, commuters, bloggers, and if you hadn’t guessed by my title, tech nurds who ride bikes.
The first #bikenyc tech meetup was hosted at pivotal labs, current home of TechStars and organized by Noel Hidalgo (@noneck), Lara (@bicyclehabitat), and Michael Green (@bikeblognyc). I happen to be interested in both the bicycling and tech communities in NYC. Little did I know there were others like me. The intersection of these two communities at #bikenyc is a great step towards using technology to make NYC a safer, more social place to ride. Here are some of my thoughts regarding the future of the meetup and what I hope to see come out of it. While I’m not a programmer, I hope to do my own part contributing through idea generation, business development, my network, etc.
- In order to build great products, programmers need great data. The bike infrastructure in NYC can only be enhanced with the release of city data through open API’s. Obviously, getting the Bloomberg administration to release this information will be a slow and painful process, but I think it should be made a number one priority. We could hold our own version of Big Apps competition, inviting programmers to participate in a hackathon specifically for cycling infrastructure in New York. The innovations that come out of these programs could help put pressure on the government. Proof of use cases with the data will certainly increase the argument for open API’s. Moreover, we need to recruit other groups that would also have a strong use for city information. Joining forces with other transportation startups like Roadify will help apply pressure in critical mass. From my own perspective, interning at NYC Seed, it would be tactiful to organize the large venture capitalists in NYC to apply pressure for open API’s as well. They have a lot to gain, as many of their portfolio companies could benefit from the increased amount of data. As Silicon Alley grows, east coast VC’s can wield a certain amount of power over local government. It is their companies that are supplying jobs as they grow. Our economy relies on startups for these very reasons: innovation and employment.
- There seemed to be somewhat of a division between the #bikenyc technologists and the #bikenyc community not-for-profit organizers. At its heart, the #bikenyc tech meetup should exist to facilitate communication between these two parties. Those interested in enhancing the cycling community through initiatives like group rides, community board meetings, etc need to state clearly to programmers what their problems are and how they could be addressed by building online platforms and applications. I believe the majority of #bikenyc tech meetups should be focused on bridging this divide. We may try to model our meet-ups on the fashion 2.0 conferences. One or two questions could be proposed prior to the meetup to align everyone thinking about the same topics. Although classifying whose an “expert” in this field may be difficult, we could invite entrepreneurs from other startups to come speak and offer their own input on how we can help them, and vice versa.
- Following the notion of proposing specific topics each meeting, we need to decide on a long term goal. Whether that means increasing the number of bike lanes, getting more cyclists on the road, reducing the number of vehicles, saving bike lanes already built (PPW), or getting data from the city. Establishing some long-term goals will help put everyone’s thoughts into perspective about what is and is not realistic to accomplish right now.
I expect a lot will come out of the #bikenyc tech meetup in the future. There is certainly a ton of room for improvement when thinking about New York becoming a safe, friendly environment to bike. The reasons for supporting these initiatives are simple. Biking makes people healthy, social, and above all happy. If we can use the internet to progress this thinking, we will have done our part to make our community that much better. Until then, ride on #bikenyc.
Oh, and shout out to my photographer/friend Dmitry Gudkov whose #bikenyc portraits you can find on his blog or by clicking the image above. He has done a great job bringing the #bikenyc community together through his photography. And feel free to hit him up for your own picture as spring approaches!
Posted in #bikenyc, Entrepreneurship, Random Thoughts
Tagged bicycle, Bicycle Safety, bicyclists, bike, bike lane, bike nyc, bike ride, bike safety, bikenyc, Cityspoke, entrepreneurship, fashion2.0, NYC, roadify, scott amenta, startup, tech startups, technology