After a recent speech I gave for startups, I was interviewed by Jennifer DesRosiers (love that name!) about tech startups. Here are my answers…
When did you first discover your love of technology?
>> When I was a 11 my brother built a homemade crystal radio. It was fascinating to see him assemble these inert parts and then hear sound come out. From then on I was hooked on technology and electronics.
What is your favorite part of your job?
>> The unknown factor, the challenge to create the future and make something grow from nothing.
What sparked the idea for NeoRay?
>> The original idea for me came from seeing people use their cellphones to buy from vending machines in Japan. Simultaneously Alessio watched his father create a PayPal competitor and he wanted to make something more futuristic for mobile payments; he then saw a WIRED article “Kill The Password!”. We compared notes and decided the timing was right for mobile payments without passwords leveraging advances in biometrics..
What in your opinion is the next big thing in technology?
>> The 15 Minute Website and Personal Website “Portfolios” – soon anyone will be able to build multiple personal sites with full e-commerce, payment systems, community, social networking, SEO, and big data analytics with no coding and very easy manipulation. Currently there is a barrier to this – you must know some coding to optimize this and it’s difficult to manage multiple sites. People and companies will have a portfolio of websites and not even think about it.. Most of the tools already exist but need a lot of refinement; it will take another 2-5 years.
What excites/interests you most about tech startups and what makes them successful?
1. What are people doing now because your product doesn’t exist, what is the pain you will solve?
2. What is it that you know about your specific niche that other companies do not?
3. How and when does this make revenue and profits? What is the growth graph?
Southern California Angels on Twitter and Facebook
Are you a southern California angel (or do you know one) who’d like to be on our list?
Matt Coffin (Los Angeles)
John Greathouse (Santa Barbara)
Sean Jacobsohn (Santa Monica)
Paul Kedrosky (La Jolla)
Brian Norgard (Los Angeles)
I started a new group 2 months ago in Los Angeles – Startup Workshops – #SUWSLA to teach startup success concepts and try to launch new startups.We have over 100 members now, have had a few meetings and are in the process of launching a new startup with some of the members. Below is my update to the group today. Please feel free to join (it’s free to join) even if you’re not in LA, you can get involved in the discussion and we travel to many other places. And if you are in So Cal, please join us for one of these events. The next one is a Happy Hour Thursday night in West Hollywood.
Message to group 5/14/2012:
This group now has over 100 members, with minimal exposure – pretty cool.
I never had a goal of maximizing overall # of members, just to provide tools that can be used immediately as well as a network where members actually help each other to start and grow startups. So far, so good – we have some pretty amazing people in the group and we’ve (almost) started a startup.
HAPPY HOUR – looking forward to this, 16 rsvps so far plus a few more I know of. The goal of this is to make connections and hear about the startup we launched together in April. There’s a lot of frustration in trying to get a business going, especially when it relies on technology to succeed, so please come if you can and bring a friend who is interested in the startup thing.
STARTUP #1 “LAUNCHED” – WE’RE STILL EARLY EARLY STAGE – Last week we had our second meeting, this week we’ll have our third, with home work assignments, so it looks we may be actually doing something here. It’s an experiment so stay tuned. We have a strong team, but we’re still looking for more development skills.
NEXT GENERAL MEETINGS – I’m getting ready to announce this, leaning toward Funding The Startup as a topic. I’m trying to finalize sponsors and the venue. Not sure if we should try to launch another startup after this one, what does everybody think? Starting to look like an incubator here. Also working on an Orange County meeting for late June, details coming. Also looking at Palo Alto, Scottsdale, Boulder, Austin from inquiries there.
Hopefully I’ll see/meet you Thursday night or soon after. @tomnora
The other day I met with a startup in Santa Monica, and noticed a giant etch of the word d e s i g n on the ceo’s glass office wall. Their company isn’t about design per say, but it was refreshing to see the discipline given such prominence. The word design is being kicked around in the startup world a lot more these days, and I think this is a good thing.
Design is the exercise of creating or adding elements of appearance to something. It is defined as “The shape or appearance given to an object, especially one that is intended to make it more attractive”. In the startup world it can make the difference between success or failure if combined properly with great business strategies. There are many examples of great design alone in a failing startup, but great design plus great engineering and business strategies often win. Also, many startups with bad/weak design but great strategies and engineering have been winners. But that seems to be changing.
To say that someone is a visual person is a little silly – everyone is visual. Colors and Shapes and beautiful Movement attract any human, often on a subconscious level. A simple attractive Design for a website or product will change its fate from yet another to the best in a category.
Beautiful design exudes success and confidence, care about details. And most importantly – originality. great design comes from within a person or organization, not copied from outside and implemented. It’s more difficult, but imperative for long term success. Simple beautiful design is proliferating on the web – lots of white space, a small number of large font words, big open boxes for interactivity, cool icons. All of these things enhance the user experience and make them want more.
A recent great experience for me was trying out Codecademy. It has quite thoughtful design elements, many of them not actually visible, but so important to its almost seamless usability.
Style, similar but different than design, is more the process of following great designs, using existing aesthetics. Sometimes this works fine, but it’s not the same as amazing original design. Just look at the continuous march of Apple over the past 34 years. Great design plus engineering plus strategy. Accessibility, simplicity, completeness. They created the template for many other products’ style and design.
UX/IA is also an important part of all digital design now. First introduced in the late 1990s, it’s replaced and expanded on UI as the critical relationship people have when using products. Often it’s a pre-design process, trying to guess how people are going to use things, then use design to optimize the experience.
The new biography on Steve Jobs is a must read for any startup founder. It has the added benefit for readers of discussing in great detail Apple and NeXT design processes, justifications and investments. It also reveals that most of the design ideas were not Steve Jobs, but rather came from several design and marketing gurus he surrounded himself with.
Like I said, it’s great that Design is becoming central to the engineering-heavy world of tech startups, because ugly design sucks. @tomnora
So you and Rich Murray became friends? how long did he last at NMCC?LOL
Hey Tom Baby!!! Im HERE!!!Patsy
Lets get together soon
Loved this message!
Tom,Thanks for the thoughtful note. We miss you and look forward to seeing you soon.The NM Green Chamber of Commerce wants a ‘buy local’ app. Does such a thing already exist?Would you be interested (or know someone) in creating it? Alex works with the chamber and I know the folks involved.
Don’t get shot out there.
Sent wirelessly via BlackBerry from T-Mobile.
yeah very good friends. he runs the poker game! Not long with Jarrett. He barely remembers him.
I missed the excitement of the real business world and the water.
I made amazing friends out there and enjoyed small town life very much, but needed to plug back in and wanted to launch a startup here.
New Mexico is a weak startup location – missing many parts and move too slowly. The best of both worlds is to have both, but I can only live in one place at a time.
Napa is probably similar to Santa Fe in many ways, I could see you living there. Hope all is well for you, have a glass of wine for me.
Tom: Congrats on your move, I wish you the best.
Enjoyed our discussions and adventures. Hope we can stay in touch and please let me know when you get back this way.
Best personal regards,
yeah just say when. lunches are pretty open. will you have a car?
Yes I’m interested, building up a strong little team here of app developers. Tell me whom to connect with.
Also interested in Teres Kids progress. Did u guys get funding yet?
I’m sure 9/11 was a thoughtful day for you. Take care.
Tom,Wow, what a great letter, what a great way to catch us all up on your move.
As someone who still hangs on to her LA area code, I love your new city and consider it still “my city” even though after seven or eight years here,
I have to admit I’m not living there anymore.
I’m going to be out there in early October to attend Indiecade…do you have a free couch?
You should see my paintings! I am making major progress!
I wish you all the possible best in your new environs and really do hope to stay in touch.
Note my new phone number and I cc’d you on my go-forward email address after I leave EPIC in January.
Good luck Tom, thanks for staying in touch.
Hi Tom. Thanks for your soulful update. Gotta get tough if you’re gonna stay in LA though! Just remember, compliment everyone on everything and you’ll fit right in. – JB
yes i’m back in the groove, moving faster, no mo “manana”, headed to Arrowhead today to catch up with OC friends.
Good luck, Tom. Let’s try to keep in touch.
I had a great weekend in San Francisco and I’m trying to figure out how to get back more often.
Need to start generating some income so I can afford a small apartment in the city.
Trying to figure out how to schedule a trip to India with my new partner in our social enterprise.
Anyway, give me a call when you get a chance. Enjoy the urban life.
Thanks for the official welcome – i’m stuck in town this weekend but could go next wkend if ur still painting. Are u painting walls or canvases?
Heather: Now that Tom is living in Los Angeles, it would be a real favor to my friend if you would drag him along to some events there so he
can get integrated into the social media and tech scene there.Stewart
wow. Life changes, the one thing we can always count on. Back in LA, must feel strange in some ways,
exciting in others. . . curious Tom, as we haven’t talked in awhile, what prompted the move? And, did you rent a u-haul?
I know you like Nascar and all, drive fast and all, but somehow you and Frieda in a u-haul? Nah. . .
I may be in LA to look at some projects there, so maybe we’ll connect.
Texas is unreal, even for me, but here I am.
Brazos y besos
Iim at district 13 right now u gotta check it out.
Gonna miss you! I had no idea that you left to the bigger city. I do get out there as my sister lives near you, in the West Hollywood area and my son, is enrolled at Claremont McKenna College.
So, I’ll be sure to give a call when in the area. Let me know when you are visiting NM and I’ll make a point of taking you for drinks.
Have fun and make a difference out there! Lillian
Wow I had no idea you were moving!!! We are definitely going to miss seeing you and hearing about all your entrepreneurial experiences at our events.
Best of luck in California and next time you are visiting in NM let me know. J
Take care! Shandra
Tom, please feel free to email or call me. Social Media Week LA is happening right now and I believe there’s some events
(looking into it). If not this week, there’s a few good events every month. Would love to connect.Heather
I had dinner recently with a former colleague and good friend, let’s call him Al, who has recently transitioned from CTO to CEO of an early stage company he founded; he’s struggling with every aspect of his new job. Al was originally the de-facto leader through his first funding round, then at the urging of many around him recruited an experienced CEO to “take it to the next level”. Potential investors, former bosses, and current shareholders felt this was a critical step in for them to invest more time or money. The common line was “You’re not a CEO”. The new CEO was performing well, hitting milestones, preparing new funding and building the business, but he and Al couldn’t get along.
So now Al is now back in charge. This happens often in the early stages, sometimes because the new CEO is a bad match, but that’s usually just an excuse. Usually the CEO leaves for good or bad reasons, or the founder can’t let go of control of the company. In this case it was the latter. Als investors and employees are quite unhappy and he’s not sleeping much.
In hearing his frustrations I figured out his main problem – he’s having serious problems making decisions and sticking with them, which is why he brought in a professional CEO in the first place. He has no reference point for many key decisions so lacks the confidence to execute decisions. His frustration is that this doesn’t happen to him in technical matters – he’s brilliant at those decisions. Technical leaders frequently underestimate the job of the CEO or business leader in a fledgling startup. They use the logic – hey, I’m extremely smart, so marketing, sales, and business development can’t be as hard as developing an entire software platform. This is a big mistake, and a common reason why startups never get out of the gate.
I’ve been the incoming CEO several times in early stage startups, taking over for the founder. This transition is difficult to pull off, but necessary for many companies to scale. Emotionally it’s very hard for a founder to “let go” and trust an outsider to care as much as he/she does about their baby. There are also others around the founder that can feel ownership and impede the new CEO – a spouse, other early employees, a displaced senior manager who thought he/she had a shot at the job. I’ve experienced all of these situations, but I’ve also had many good experiences where I did have sponsorship and support, and succeeded.
In Al’s case, he never really committed himself to stepping aside, even though he said the words. He admits that now. In his actions he inadvertently sabotaged his new partner, changing the CEOs decisions without discussion, etc. He felt that the new CEO was making “too many” decisions. He obviously wasn’t ready. I realize that he still isn’t ready.
The reason for our meeting was to see if I was interested in the job – he feels that our long term relationship would provide the foundation for a successful transition, but I know it wouldn’t work. I explained to him what CEO means to me – the final decision maker in a company, answerable to a real Board of Directors, of which the founder is a member but not the only member. The E in CEO stands for execution, making things happen, responsible for the results. The CEO must communicate clearly to everyone involved what he/she is doing, especially if taking over the reins from a founder, but should be supported by all as the final major decision maker. If that process works, the company works. Without that authority they become ineffective quickly and are only doing portions of the job, and can’t take full responsibility; then they leave and you have to start all over.
I explained to Al two reasons why I wouldn’t join his company: 1) With all due respect, I don’t feel that he’s any more ready to let go than he was a year ago, even though he respects my abilities and has comfortably worked for me before, and 2) the company is distressed now, unhappy employees, unhappy investors, delays in both the business and technical initiatives, messy equity stakes and a decrease in trust all around. Like I said, a Big Mistake. I told him his best chance is to try to learn how to be a CEO or merge his company as fast as possible. But this one is most likely kaput.
There’s a recent phenomenon in the startup world, the quickly built startup, where as few as 1 or 2 engineers can hatch an idea in code and deploy a new web-based company within a few days or weeks. Also known as startup-lite, startup-in-a-box, the 90 day startup, hackathon, etc., the proliferation of these quick startups are the result of many converging milestones in high-techdom – advanced simplicity in web design, “little or no-programming” visual technologies, extremely low cost of entry, an explosion of micro-funding and some shining examples of dream-come-true companies/people like Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg.
Groups like Techstars, Y-Combinator and several others are fostering this trend with “summer camp” like gatherings to help young entrepreneurs get a new company up and running, with a team of world-class mentors, paid lodging and often funding, in less than 3 months. Techstars alone graduates 30-40 companies per year in 4 different cities. What a concept!
The advantages of this trend are obvious – democratization of the process (anybody can do it), low barriers to entry, minimal overhead (a laptop and free dev tools), almost instant revenues, easy leverage of the social graph for push-button marketing. This new bridge between the haves and have-nots, or techs and tech-nots is inspiring many to start their own web/app companies as never before. Any undergrad at Stanford or Harvard or any other college must be constantly thinking about this – “What company am I going to start?”. There are countless people in their early 20s these days that are on their 3rd or 4th startup already. Mark Zuckerberg was on hs 4th (Synapse, Wirehog, Facemash) at 19 when he started Facebook.
So it’s clearly easier to build and easier to discard one that doesn’t take off and move on to the next. And the next. Amid all this excitement, what is the long-term track record of these mini-companies? How many survive after 12 months? 24 months? How many never achieve revenue at all? There is a naturally high failure rate in startups that we know about, ~90%, so is this new generation more or less likely to make it long term? There are no proper records for the many unknown startups that never make out of the bedroom or off the living room couch, but the throw away rate is probably very high. Techstars actually keeps statistics of its graduates on its website – alive after 12 months, 24 months, funding, acquisitions <$2 million and >$2 miilion, etc. But remember, Techstars rejects over 500 companies every year. How are those accounted for?
Does it matter? Maybe not, this is almost more experimentation, practice than pass or fail – Zuckerberg still holds all night hacking sessions at Facebook to stay sharp and connected to the keyboard, to promote discovery. There are hackathons, hacker spaces and other informal Internet company formation vehicles everywhere you look. The world has clearly changed.
But back to Scalability… are these entities scalable over time? In most cases, probably not.
Let’s measure the Idea plus the Implementation:
- The more amazing and unique the idea, the more likely it will grow into a sustainable company. Most quick-Internet company ideas don’t have much longevity.
- The faster (i.e. very few engineering hours) something is put together, the lower its barriers to entry for others to knock it off.
- The personal investment and passion are typically much less in a quickly built site.
There are exceptions to these rules of course (twitter), but generally it takes a lot of work to design, build, implement, adapt and polish something into a must-have application for the masses.
An Exception to these rules
A great example of an exception to this rule is Twitter. The first Twitter (Odeo) interface was by design extremely simple, and drawn on a piece of paper by Jack Dorsey:
And the rest is history. It turned out to be an extra-amazing idea that grew enough as a name brand before it could be knocked off. Although some people still aren’t sure what to do with it, Twitter is clearly now a must-have for 100s of millions, myself included. A fairly simple idea, quick to implement (it took 3 months). But an amazing addition to our world.
When tech entrepreneurs hear the term “scalability”, they get excited, and rightly so.
Scalability is a worthy subject, arguably the most important parameter in startup success, especially long term. Controlled growth is the primary ingredient for survival in the highly competitive startup world. But what exactly is “growth”?
Is it measured by quarterly revenue? Eyeballs/Users? Buzz? For early stage companies, it is mostly revenue, especially if the company is pre-revenue. Revenue is the fuel that propels the company, allows hiring of great people, decreases dependence on investors and thereby preserves equity for founders and employees. For most startups, first revenues and continuing revenues seem like magical milestones; before they are reached there is no sure way to know if/when it will happen. I know, I’ve been a pre-revenue CEO many times.
But there is much more to scalability than revenue. Revenue injections are like oxygen, and strong measures and reassurances that your company is real, and that you have a chance to become a long term enterprise. The resulting cash flow, cash on hand, and recurring revenues give a warm fuzzy feeling like no other. But revenue alone doesn’t ensure scalability. Many other factors are critical in building the right foundation to construct a strong, integrated enterprise down the road.
This blog will hopefully explore many of those other factors, and help early stage management teams to make the right decisions as they create or encounter and then manage growth.