Think Different, But Get Out Of The Office

There is a bit of a rebellious streak that runs deep in startup culture.  A desire to “Think Different”, and a disregard for the pace of life that society attempts to dictate.

We see it in the stories of college dropouts who go on to found billion dollar companies.  In the long hours that look brutal to outsiders but are relished in a startup.

Like many other staunchly independent communities, our separation becomes a point of pride.  It can be all to easy to feel disengaged from friends or family who don’t share our passion.  We dismiss those who aspire to mere “corporate” jobs, and we assume every one of our friends should be an early adopter of the latest cool tech.

But this isolationism is a dangerous thing.  With the growth of a robust and enthusiastic startup community comes the tendency to withdraw completely into the jargon and lifestyle of the entrepreneur.  Its easy to forget what a remarkably tiny segment of the population we represent.  For entrepreneurs building consumer oriented products, this can be especially dangerous.

Thats why I am such a huge fan of the greater emphasis on “getting out of the office” and testing your product with real potential users.  Just today, one of our Techstars companies was hanging out in Union Square, asking complete strangers to test their product.  I love this because not only does it take guts (ever tried asking a stranger for anything on a NYC street?) but it also shows foresight and a dedication to the user that will help the company tremendously in the long run.

Appreciate and engage with the phenomenal startup community that we are lucky to have- but always be ready to walk out into Union Square and put your product in front of the real world.

Build Globally, And Do It Now (Featured In PulsoSocial)

Note: This is a repost of an article I wrote for PulsoSocial. Check out the original here.

One of the best lessons I have learned from working in New York is to “think big”.  It sounds cliche’, but there is something about being thrown into this vibrant entrepreneurial community that dramatically expands your perception of the world and its opportunities. Everyone is hustling to build around concepts that have never been tried before, and “Can it scale?” is a question heard every single day.

What I have also learned is that there is no reason why every other entrepreneurial community should not be built around a similar “big picture” vision.  The tools of the modern Internet mean that any startup can be bootstrapped to profitability while maintaining a similar global long term strategy.  Rather than building localized versions of existing companies, or struggling to keep up with well funded competitors in crowded spaces, Entrepreneurs should build products focused on immediate profitability but geared towards a broad long term vision.

The Lean Startup methodology provides an excellent framework for this kind of thinking. (Anyone who is unfamiliar with Lean Startup should check out Eric Ries’ excellent blog)  Although it  has seen broad adoption among US Entrepreneurs, I believe the Lean Startup approach can be most valuable for entrepreneurs working out of emerging markets.  Using Lean Startup style customer development, companies can build an understanding of their customers from anywhere in the world, and they can do it extremely cheaply and efficiently.  A basic outline of the process could look like this:

  • A founder or team creates an early hypothesis for a product
  • The team creates a simple landing page and drives traffic to it to measure interest in the hypothesis
  • If the market response is positive, the team should build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) in order to further test the hypothesis.  This is an early version of the product with the minimal feature set needed to gather customer feedback.
  • Based on the response to this MVP, the startup can either continue with development, or “pivot” and adjust their hypothesis and start anew.

This is a bare minimum explanation of the Lean Startup concept, and I strongly encourage any aspiring entrepreneur to read as much Steve Blank and Eric Ries as possible.  However, even at a basic level, the concept remains the same: using tools like Google Adwords and a simple landing page generator such as Unbounce, a startup can be testing receptiveness to a product in a just a few hours and for less than $100.

An excellent example of a startup following this methodology is current Techstars NYC company Onswipe (formerly known as Padpressed).  The entire Onswipe development team was working out of Latin America, and they were able to prove traction and validate their concept before closing $1 Million in funding.  Onswipe’s story almost perfectly parallels the Lean Startup Methodology:

  • The Co-founders recognized there was an opportunity to make content more visually appealing on tablet devices
  • The team created a simple WordPress plugin working with their development team in Mexico
  • The market response was very positive, and their hypothesis was validated by the acquisition of a sizable number of paying customers
  • Based on the response to this MVP, Onswipe was able to raise financing and move forward with the next iteration of their product.

The barriers to entry in the web ecosystem have become so absurdly low that there is quite literally no reason why any individual with an idea for a startup shouldn’t take the steps to explore their early hypothesis.  If early feedback looks promising, a company can bootstrapped quite easily while pursuing further validation.

The startup journey will always be a challenge, and being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart.  However, the old fallacy that only US based Entrepreneurs with access to venture capital can build successful Internet companies is dead wrong.  As the Internet continues to achieve near global ubiquity, it is my hope that the next generation of entrepreneurs will have a similarly global flavor.

Why I Love My Mother, And Why I’m Terrified Of Overhead

I have to say it first- I Love my Mom.  Without a doubt, she is the most awesome, inspirational person in my life.  I got the chance to have a long phone conversation with her today (something that doesn’t happen nearly enough), and we talked for well over an hour about her plans for starting a business.

See, my mom is truly an Entrepreneur at heart.  For a lot of my childhood,  the realities of being a single mother trying to raise three children meant that she was unable to pursue her entrepreneurial ambitions.  She is now finally transitioning into being able to pursue her first big entrepreneurial venture, and I couldn’t be happier for her.

Mom has a passion for education, having been a teacher for many years.  She thinks (rightfully so) that our education system is broken, and wants to focus her first venture on the education space.  I completely agree with this goal, but in our discussion on the different ways to approach the market, I quickly became aware of the incredible generation gap that has shaped the way two fundamentally similar people approach the startup challenge.  We both agree that education is broken.  We both are searching for a way to get involved in the market while exploring growth opportunities.  Where the generation gap manifests itself is in our approach to market entry.

To my Mom, starting an education business means crafting a business plan, renting a building, buying materials, marketing to families, and starting an after school enrichment/tutoring business.

To me, approaching the same problem would mean taking a completely different route to market.  I would likely use the Lean Startup methodology to develop an exploratory web based business, hopefully one which could scale based on the sale of an information based product.  I have an intense fear of businesses that require large amounts of capital investment before engaging a single customer, and just the idea of signing a lease gives me cold sweats (if there is a phobia related to non-bootstrappable businesses, I have it).

This isn’t at all meant as a criticism of the “real world” way of building a business.  Quite the opposite actually: I think many of today’s entrepreneurs would do well to take a page from the old way of doing things, when you built businesses that provided a valuable product or service that people would pay for from day one.

Instead, I want to draw attention to the ways that the resources of the internet age allow entrepreneurs to experiment while dramatically decreasing the cost of failure.  A startup today can test and vet a number of products, business models, and sales processes at an incredibly minimal cost.  Experimentation is cheap, and failure can mean the loss of a couple hundred dollars and a few weeks of time (instead of thousands of dollars and months or years of effort).

What all this means is that there is absolutely no reason for us not to be raising a generation of entrepreneurs right now.  The barriers to entry have been slashed so dramatically that literally any young person can explore the thrills of creating their own business.

My Mom had to postpone fulfilling her startup vision because of the fundamental limits of a pre-internet era.  My hope is that the this generation of entrepreneurs will never be prevented from pursuing their dreams and ambitions- The pressure is on us to educate and provide mentorship so that this hope can become a reality.