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Month: December 2011

Being a Startup Leader and Hacker

This is one of the difficulties I’ve been encountering over the past 9 years since my first startup.

As a person who worked at high profile companies like this one and this one as well as a bunch of smaller startups I’ve learnt what makes companies successful in the long run. They never compromise on things they produce. They pay highest attention to every details in their products and services. Apple and Steve Jobs are no different so they became successful.

I’m a huge believer of iterate-as-people-use-your-product approach and I think it’s still the best way for startups to quickly adjust themselves to the demand from people. However, it doesn’t mean I’m okay with releasing a product that is being compromised and letting our users give feedback based on it. The amount of track records I’ve build over a decade simply didn’t allow it to happen so far.

For example, today I was working on trying to fix position of a header in the mobile app for our Startup Weekend project. I was reading this technical article from Twitter and at the end of the day I got it right in my own way. For those who ever developed web app for Mobile Safari you know it’s not a problem that has straightforward solution. Does it matter to me? The answer is yes. Does it matter to our users? The answer is absolutely yes.

I like startups like Quora, Asana, Path not just because these companies are founded by ex-Facebook folks. It’s also because they pay highest attention to every details even to things you won’t recognize unless you have the same mindset as they do. Are they ordinary startups with limited time and resources? The answer is yes. Are they unique and differentiated from others. The answer is absolutely yes.

I’m a startup leader but at the same time I’m a professional web developer who read Hacker News once in a while. I cannot agree with people trying to connivence me not to pay attention to details while promising me that they will work on these details later. From my experience one thing for sure is that these types of people NEVER work on the details even if they find time to do so.

There is a famous saying in Japanese. 神は細部に宿る (pronounced as kami wa saibu ni yadoru) means “God dwells in the details.” If you look at a Japanese sword KATANA, you will find enormous amount of attention paid to smallest details although its level of perfection is almost second to none in the same category. People believe that God dwells in these swords only if they are built perfectly.

In the digital age where we live in today there is nothing you can’t copy technically if it were created digitally. If there were such a thing that can’t be copied, maybe It is a thing you find in the details and perhaps philosophy behind it. In other words, if you don’t have that kind of mindset, what you produce will look no different from others because God is not there.

5 Tips to Verify Your Idea

As a person who makes a decision on regular basis I always try to verify my idea whenever possible using various methods. Some people say that sharing your idea and getting feedback too early just makes it difficult to foresee the right direction. I totally agree with that, but just in case you have enough knowledges and experiences about the subject that you are going to make a decision.

Here are 5 tips I often use before making any decision. These tips are helpful but not always applicable since there are many situations where you have to make a decision without asking anyone. But knowing these tips sometimes saves you from going wrong direction and some of these tips weren’t simply available until recently.

1) Use Facebook poll feature

For example, we are currently conducting a poll on Facebook to decide new brand name for our prize winning project. To be more precise, we are letting people choose a domain name for our service. I wouldn’t say there is no risk involved with disclosing your potential domain names especially when they are not secured and not purchased by you. However, in return you will receive a fair amount of reactions from people in your social graph about what they think it should be. This kind of quick survey wasn’t possible few years ago.

2) Post a question on Quora

Quora used to be a tech related Q&A site but now it is used for wide range of topics and discussions. Some people use Quora just to get the answers to a specific question. Others use it as a marketing tool to see if there is any potential or interest in the audiences they are targeting. Again, sharing your thoughts in open space like Quora cannot be free from risks. But most often you will receive very insightful feedback from the knowledgeable people.

3) Run a contest on Prizes

Prizes is the website where you can create a contest and get ideas from people. The website was originally created by the Slide team, whose company under the same Slide was acquired by Google in 2010. People use Prizes to get the ideas about a brand name, a logo, and even a name for their newborn baby. Use of Prizes does not exactly verify your idea, but rather helps you gather more options for you to choose from. You could’ve achieve the same thing using Elance or oDesk by outsourcing it to someone else. However, Prizes made it easier.

4) Ask your advisors

Although I never happen to be a member of Y Combinator or 500 Startups, I heard that the first thing you as an entrepreneur participating those programs are asked is to close advisory round of investment. Advisory round of investment basically means finding the angel investors who have decent experiences in the same field you are conducting your business and having these people as advisory members in your startup by receiving relatively small amount of investment from them. These people are there to help you in many ways, and they are particularly helpful when shaping your idea. This is strongly recommended.

5) Ask your team members

This is the last but not least option you can take. Your team members are always willing to give you a thoughtful feedback about your idea even if none of them has the same amount of entrepreneurial experiences as you. Don’t underestimate the inputs from your team members because they are often considered as the most valuable users who are passionate about your service or product. I always listen to them whenever they have something to say.

That’s all. I understand some of them are fundamental to those experienced entrepreneurs. However, I have seen many aspiring entrepreneurs being afraid of putting their ideas in front of people and ended up with spending countless hours or days thinking alone. At the end of the day ideas are just ideas. Execution is what drives a startup. So don’t be afraid.

Importance of Securing Your Right Leg

When you build a startup, you think of a market where you will conduct business in the future.

Some entrepreneurs choose the existing market established by other companies and frequently it’s already a bit congested. Others choose to cultivate one by themselves so that there is no one else to compete, which I believe rarely the case especially for the Internet related businesses.

Whether you choose the existing market or not, you will have to find an entry point where you think your startup can outperform others from the beginning and later stick one of your legs there.

This leg is thought to be particularly important not just in the beginning but also when your startup decides to pivot years later if not months. Without securing a leg, there is a good change that the startup will fall when it actually tries to pivot. This often means leaving the entire users, lack of tractions, or simply a company going nowhere.

I’ve seen many entrepreneurs ended up with this situation and I know from my experience this is the case to many startups that could not survive. If your both legs are detached from the ground, anything you do is pretty much same as pushing a yarn in the air. You will get no reaction regardless of what you do.

This is why identifying the right entry point is very crucial to all startups because that entry point eventually becomes the place where you will decide to stick your right leg later. Many entrepreneurs tend to follow the market established by some pioneer companies and they soon find out there is no place left to secure their leg. Photo sharing, social commerce, all sorts of social games are good examples these days.

I don’t mean following trend is necessarily a bad thing. But it becomes difficult to find the right entry point if you follow it. My advise is as discussed earlier to focus on actual needs but not just problems. And you have to be super passionate about the problem you are trying to solve. I believe this is the only way for aspiring entrepreneurs to find the right entry point that leads to securing their leg.

Venture Finance Intro

When I co-founded my first startup, I had almost zero knowledge about venture financing but I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about it for past 5 years.

So what is venture financing anyway? For those who read TechCrunch, Mashable or any other tech news websites you’ve certainly heard of a phrase like “Company X raised Y million dollars from VC firms A, B and C.” You are seeing it as the result of company that executed some kind of venture financing.

While it’s obvious to anyone above phrase indicates a company in question did raise some amount of money from investors, many things behind the scene that made the deal happen are still unknown to most people.

Let’s take an example of valuation. Valuation is the value of company and it is often used to determine what percentage of your company you want to give away for how much money when taking investment from someone. If the valuation is $10M and you are getting $2M investment, basically you are giving away 20% of your company.

However, in venture financing world a word valuation really means two things, namely pre-money valuation and post-money valuation. A former is the value of company before the event of investment and a latter is the value of company after it.

These two things sound similar but their outcomes are very different so an experienced entrepreneur always ask his investor a question “Do you mean post-money valuation?” in order to make sure the investor is referring to the value of company after the event of investment, not before it.

This is just one of the fundamental things you as an entrepreneur have to be knowledgeable about when raising money and we are just scratching its surface here. If you want to gain these kinds of knowledges and understand how venture financing works, I would recommend that you read a book called Venture Deals written by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson.

I also recommend that you read both authros’ blog websites. Not only their blog articles are valuable to those aspiring entrepreneurs but also the comments from other entrepreneurs are considered to be pure gems. I’m personally a big fan of both authors and their websites.

This book is still valuable even if you decide to bootstrap your own startup so get it and read it.

Presentation: Slides vs Speech

One of my students whom I’m mentoring right now gave me an idea of new web service today.

According to him this new web service can enhance look of existing presentation slides by applying fancy visual effects so that the result slides will look more appealing to the audience.

There are already such web services in this field and the companies like Prezi does exactly that. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of these services, or rather say I don’t rely on the slide materials when I give my presentation.

While people might argue with impact of visually rich slides, my theory is that as the slides become more dynamic, fancy and eye catching, then people start to lose their focus on your speech. In other words, people’s attention goes to your beautiful slides instead of messages you are trying to deliver. As a result, you become sort of invisible.

If you look at my presentation (starting from 1:10 onward) during Startup Weekend event, you will notice that I’m using fewer slides than any other teams that participated the event. A reality is that I wasn’t even using the slides at all. They were just a bunch of web pages displayed in my browser.

Other teams prepared visually rich slides. Some came up with more than 10 pages of slides. A few of them even produced a nice looking movie clip explaining their product, which I’m totally amazed. But I still won the grand prize and I only used 3 to 4 web pages (not slides) during my presentation. How come?

This reminds me of a Speech & Communication class at the University where I received my degree. This class taught me how to speak in front of relatively large number of audiences about various topics given by the professor. But it did not teach me how to create visually attractive presentation materials, not even once. A whole class was just about speech (and lots of American jokes, of course.)

So if I were to give one advise to those aspiring entrepreneurs, I would say one thing. Don’t pay too much attention on your slides or other materials because you will be the most important material during your presentation. Use your materials as a complement but not as a requisite.

Whether your presentation will be successful or not depends on your ability to tell the story to your audience, which I will discuss some other time.