Archive for January, 2007

And then there were three

Posted on January 28, 2007. Filed under: Uncategorized |

So the third week has gone by at the same kind of blurry speed the previous two did. Feels kind of strange – in another week we’re going to be a third of the way through the Y Combinator programme (and we’re only a few weeks away from investor day – where all the YC companies pitch to a room full of VC’s and Angels) and we’re starting to feel the pressure a little. The tough thing I’m fining about the startup life is that there’s no way of knowing (at least in the eary days) whether you’re headed in the right direction. Not all startups are going to be a facebook and explode overnight – your average startup puts a lot of hours into the daily grind and hopes that when their product launches, people will want to use it. This week when we had a chat with Paul Graham about startups in general, he told us that in his experience “there is no difference between digging 100 miles away from the treasure or digging a few metres away – in both cases you end up digging dirt”. I thought that was a pretty cool way of looking at it, it makes sense that the big hits are the ones that are able to adapt their business models and persevere with them – if you keep digging you’re likely to find your treasure eventually (assuming of course there is treasure to be had i.e. you’re building something that people actually need/want).

So this issue of persistence has got me thinking a lot and it was a big theme of our YC dinner this Tuesday. The guest speaker this week was Joe Kraus, the founder of Excite (sold back in 1999 for $6.7 billion) and more recently Jot Spot which has now been acquired by Google. It’s quite rare to find someone who’s gone down both routes of taking a company public (Joe took Excite to an IPO) and also built a smaller company that’s been acquired. The one thing he continually stressed was that you have to be persistent and never give up on what you’re doing, he said there were times when he made massive fuck ups with Excite but carried on going anyway. I really don’t think you can understate the value of that advice – anyone who has been involved with a startup knows that it’s one hell of an emotional rollercoaster, some days you think you’re going to be a billion dollar company and the next you wonder what the hell you’re doing and that inevitably results in a pretty stressful lifestyle.

Why is persistence such a big issue? Well when you lay down the facts of how many startups actually suceed, it’s pretty depressing viewing. Joe said it quite emphatically, the majority of people in that room (YC HQ) were not going to suceed with the project they are currently working on. The fact of the matter is that the odds are against startups not failing, in a way you’re kind of crazy to even try and build a startup – if you’re doing anything interesting the chances are that in some way you’re competing with a much (MUCH) larger company, be it Microsoft or Google, who already have a massive user base and more funds to spend on development/marketing than you could ever dream of. So why even bother right? Well the reason I’m loving it out here is because I’m surrounded by crazy people – people who know they’re competing against the odds but they do it anyway because it’s what they want to do. There’s no tougher way of living than this, you don’t have sit down meetings with your boss every month who either pats you on the back and says “good work” or gives you exact numbers on how below your annually targets you currently are. You have to blank out all the statistics and just get on with it and that’s what YC is all about.

What I’d be interested to know are the stats for how your chances of success increase with each startup you do. You always hear about startups failing but how many times do you hear someone say “that’s my tenth straight start up and they’ve all failed”. Well for one you’d be unlikely to meet someone who had the determination to work on his tenth startup after the previous nine failed but that’s the point Joe was making (least that’s my interpretation of it) – with every startup “cycle” you learn so much. You can’t learn this stuff anywhere, it’s like riding a bike – you can read all the books you want but you can’t ride it until you actually do it for real. With every cycle you go through, you probably increase your chances of success exponentially (ok that’ a guess but I bet it’s not that far off) and if you have the persistence to carry on despite failing, sooner or later surely you’re bound to get somewhere. Now looking at that objectively, it’s one hell of a risk – you can’t tell if your startup is going to work after a few weeks. Building a company is tough an it could take a few years before you realise you’re not going anywhere. But that’s another reason why I think Silicon Valley has built its unique ecosystem. Failing is seen as a natural part of the process, I read somewhere it was described as a “badge of honour” out here. When you get a bunch of people together who are going to keep building companies until they suceed, is it really that big a surprise when you a generate such a phenomenal economy like the Valley? Only by reaching that level of persistence will you be able to recreate this place and that’s going to be tough.

The other thing that really struck me from Joe’s talk was the concept of luck. He admitted that his position had a great deal to do with luck – he happened to be interested in computers at a time when the Internet bubble was in full swing and he made a lot of money as a result. Not everyone is going to have that luck and ultimately I suppose you just have to accept that. But I think it’s like rolling a dice, every now and then some lucky sod is going to roll a six on their first attempt. Others will get it on their fourth while others might take ten – the point is sooner or later you will roll a six as long as you keep on playing.

Something else Joe was adamant about is people – you cannot build a successful company without the right people. It’s strange but from running boso I think one thing I’ve realised is that when running a startup, there are a load of different distractions that seem like they’re going to make or break you. For us it was probably worrying that we hadn’t raised any investment yet or got enough PR/marketing to generate awareness. The thing is that without a solid base of talent, those things are kind of irrelevant. There is a bit of circularity here I suppose – getting good people can be easier when you have investment/PR/users but unless you’re in the lucky position where you’ve started out with a group of amazing people (going to be quite unlikely if this is your first startup, more likely if this is your second/third) you need to get those people sooner rather than later. Joe’s words were “Hire slow, fire fast – don’t ever compromise on someone because bad/mediocre people will drag your company down and kill it”. On that theme we’ve had some good news on our personal front – we’re now working with one of the guys from YouOs to build our new product. It fills the biggest skills gap we had i.e. product development and we’re excited about how it’s going to pan out – his name is Srini and he’s ex-Stanford and Oracle (but more importantly for me, he’s got experience of a startup). We’ve waited a long time to bring someone on board but now we have, we’re delighted and we’re glad we didn’t compromise (in hacking terms Srini would be an uberhacker). He actually started out giving Kul and I hacking lessons (we’re determined to learn the basics so we understand all aspects of our business) and we took it from there.

So moving away from general startup musings into more what’s gone on in my week in the Valley. Well on Wednesday I met the lead developer on Flock (social web browser) who popped into the Obvious offices. It’s funny because I use Flock as my primary web browser and he was quite surprised to see someone doing that, we had a chat and when I mentioned a few bugs I’d been having he made sure I sent him emails with more details. In his words, getting reproducable bugs from users was invaluable and it’s something we’ve seen from boso this last week. Traffic has really picked up at Brighton University after the head of technology there made it the de facto marketplace for the university and she has sent us a lot of emails this past week highlighting all the problems/quirks with the site. That kind of information is like gold dust – even having focus groups or staged beta tests do not compare to having someone go through your site of their own free will.

Then on Friday we met up for some drinks with Chris Sacca, head of special initiatives at Google. We first met Chris at an event in the Oxford Business School back in November (they do a Silicon Valley comes to Oxford event each year) and he asked us to keep in touch when we came out here. It was a great night and we ended up (bizzarely) playing old Atari games and drinking beer until 2am. From a blogging perspective though, what was really interesting was the fact that here we were with a guy who has a high level position at Google having a very open chat over drinks and we’d only met him once before. I have to say I’m just not used to that level of openness/friendliness from back home – to put it quite bluntly back home I could never imagine meeting up with a high level exec from any UK company after a brief convo at an event a few months ago. It just wouldn’t happen, maybe their PA would reply with a 15 minute timeslot they had available but beers at their apartment on a Friday? I think not. You can hold all the “networking” events you like, hell hold them four times a day every day, but you’re never going to get the same network effect as there is in the Valley until you have that kind of openess. Sometimes you just have to say fuck it, those guys seem kinda interesting and I’m going to find out more about what they’re doing at some point. Maybe they’ll turn out to be duds and it’ll have been a waste of my time but unless you have that mentality it’s tough to build networks that have any real meaning/purpose.

Ok I think this post is already far too long. I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who’s emailed me saying they’re finding the posts interesting, the number of readers seems to be growing daily so I’m glad/surprised people are actually reading this ridiculously long things!

Over and out.

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The Second Week

Posted on January 22, 2007. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Woah it feels weird blogging about the second week already, it’s gone by at such an incredible rate I feel like we’re in some kind of hyper drive time warp. That’s the intended effect of the Y Combinator so it seems as though we’re on the right track – we still have a few higher gears to hit in terms of work capacity so things are only going to get more intense, which is actually pretty damn exciting.

I don’t really have a planned structure for these blogs so I’ll just run with whatever pops into my mind and hope it makes some form of interesting reading (thanks for those of you who let me know you liked the first post). So picking up on the Silicon Valley/UK contrast theme in the last post – one thing that has really struck out this week has been the amount of experience there is floating around here. It seems as though whoever you mention your project to, they have at some point worked on something that is in some way related to it. Perhaps we’re in a slightly fortuitous position as we had a ready made network via Y Combinator and working in the Obvious networks, where there was always bound to be a load of experienced people in close proximity, but when you consider how many startups have come from the Valley it stands to reason that there was always going to be a wealth of experience here. It’s also a driving factor behind the so-called magic of the Valley – this experience is fed back into the new startups to ultimately increase their chances of success (there is a big difference between “that sounds like an interesting idea and “I worked on something kind of similar to that a couple of years ago, we learnt not to do X, Y and Z).

Another thing that really struck out this past week is the way that startups and entrepreneurship are cultures that are embedded directly into the fabric of this place. So we went for dinner with the Reddit and Kiko guys last week at their place in North Beach. It ended up being more like a house party (if you replace red cups and booze with fantastic food cooked by Michael from the Justin.tv team and a bunch of people working on their web startups) and it was a real eye opening experience. These are all guys my age and every single one of them fell into one of three categories 1) Their first startup had been acquired 2) They were going for a second (big) round of financing 3) They’d moved on from their first startup and were now working on their second/third one (in my view these are the people you can learn the most from). And there I was thinking I’d done well to have turned down a safe career in law to work on my company with one round of funding. Compared to these guys I was pretty much at the bottom rung of the ladder, whereas back home Kul and I were being showcased by the government as “successful” young entrepreneurs as part of enterprise week. That’s not intended to be a dig – we all have to start somewhere and Silicon Valley is a unique place that has gone through generations of booms and busts so it’s not fair to compare it to back home – but it does show just how different the two places are. Things are changing though and the growth of organisations like Zenopy is proof of that.

We also went out to Stanford to meet someone we were referred to as a potential hire (it didn’t work out because of timings and his course but he was a great guy so hopefully something will happen in the future). When it came down to that nitty gritty of discussing salaries/equity I got a response I was totally unprepared for: “Harj: So we’re thinking in the ballpark of $XX,000 a year”, “Stanford guy: Ermm I’m not really too interested in the salary, I need enough to live on but it’s kind of irrelevant. I’m really interested in the equity – if I wanted to earn a good salary I’d accept the offers I’ve got to work at Google or Microsoft”. Kul and I have lost count of the number of times we’ve ended up haggling with potential hires about what salary they should have – our experience has been of people seeing equity as some kind of add on that doesn’t really mean much. We’ve now got our pitch for why a lower salary + equity is a better deal down to a tee so we were fully expecting to unleash this upon the Stanford guy. It’s good to know that we’re not the only ones out there who value the potential upside from equity above a salary.

So what else? Well in terms of the business we spent a good percentage of last week just researching the opportunity for the new direction we’re headed in. It’s pretty refreshing doing things the second time around with the experience of the first time under your belt – amazing how much faster you can get it done. I’ve personally started spending the bulk of my time learning how to code, after much discussion we’ve decided that right the most important thing is to get the product out there so it can be tested and until we find our technical co-founder, we’re going to do it ourselves. You don’t really have the luxury of just doing the things you’re the best at/have most experience of when you’re working in a startup so sometimes you just need to suck it in and get on with it. It feels a bit like doing finals all over again with the intensive learning/cramming but it’s a pretty good feeling to write a load of code and then see a working application.

Right I’m going to sign off for this week, can’t think of anything else major but drop me an email if you have any questions about what we’ve been up to.

Adios.

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First Week in “Frisco”

Posted on January 15, 2007. Filed under: Uncategorized |

We’ve now been out here for a week so it’s a good time to blog about what has happened so far. It’s been an intensive week – in terms of general sightseeing/getting to know SF there really isn’t anything especially interesting to tell as we haven’t ventured outside of the office much, so apologies in advance for the lack of local tips in this post 🙂

After we settled in to the apartment we went to check out the Obvious Corp offices (also known as Obvious HQ) in South Park which is where we’re based. They are seriously cool – spacious with meeting rooms along the side of the top floor and a big open plan central space where everyone works from. We worked out that using our old set-up, we could probably fit about five people onto the desks we each have to ourselves now. It’s amazing how much difference having a good work space set up makes. Moving on from talking about the furniture – the people in the office are just awesome. Everyone knows about Evan Williams, founder of Pyra Labs which created blogger.com – the first serious piece of blogging software which he sold to Google (yes I appreciate the irony of talking about blogger while I’m blogging from wordpress but then life is full of these little unexpected twists and turns) and he’s a hugely respected figure out here in the Valley. At first it felt kind of weird working in the same office as a guy with that type of track record – I suppose back home I’m not really used to seeing many big names (partly because their aren’t many and partly because even the ones that are around tend to charge you stupid amounts of money to “network” with them) but the attitude over here is just completely different – people are just incredibly friendly and the open/laid back vibe of the office makes it a great place to work.

I’ve never really spent much time in America (to be honest I’ve not really travelled very much generally so working in a new country is a completely new experience for me) but the one thing that sticks out is just how friendly everyone is here. People seriously make an effort to show an interest in you – and I’m not just talking about the guys/girls in the office, I mean literally everyone. I’ve probably already had more conversations with random people walking past me on the street/looking at the same stuff as me in a store/generally while I’m walking around in this past week than I had in the past year. There is a really pleasant vibe around here where the norm isn’t to come into work, sit down and get on with your stuff (something I’ve been very guilty of this past week but I intend to put right this week) it’s to strike up conversations and generally take interest in what people around you are doing. This definitely doesn’t mean everyone sits around chatting all the time – these guys work seriously hard and they love what they’re doing – but it does make it an incredibly relaxed place to be around.

So moving on from general America talk, on the business side of things there have been pretty big developments. Kul and I have been talking about taking boso in a different direction for a while now. Although it’s still growing organically (we took the foot off the gas on the marketing side as we needed to focus on the actual product) it’s not showing the big levels of growth we’d initially expected it to. For a lot of people that would probably be seen as a bad thing but over here in the Valley, that’s supposed to be a very positive sign. The thinking here is that your initial assumptions are usually always wrong and the successful companies are the ones that can adapt and react in time (Google’s original business plan was licensing their search software and selling it to Microsoft – who had the chance to buy it for a few million but apparently “no one was interested in search”).

We had a big meeting with Paul Graham and laid out all of our concerns about how to take things forward in the best way. One thing that struck me was that for once we were talking to a guy who has actually been there and done this. He’s built a startup and he’s sold it to Yahoo for a lot of money – he is not someone with a promising idea, or who claims to have years of experience as an entrepreneur even though no-one really knows what he has done and everyone is too embarassed to actually ask what his real claim to fame is. We’ve become so used to getting our advice from people who haven’t actually had any real startup success and seeing how the quality of conversation/discussion was on a different level to the ones we’ve had in the past really rammed it home just how different this place is. In the Valley people seriously live and breath startups, it’s literally like a whole way of life unto itself. There is no sense of launching a startup being the unusual option or something that should only be done when you’ve got some years of commercial experience behind you. They don’t need Enterprise weeks or other government backed bullshit to convince young people to start up companies – over here it’s just what you do. We went to a house party last weekend and it was strange seeing all the consultants being almost embarassed to say what they did – they went through the typical process of forming rationalisations as to why it was the best thing for them to be doing right now. I found it slightly surreal, my experience has always been of feeling like an outcast/eccentric/weirdo for wanting to start my own company straight out of university and I’ve often had to make arguments for why it’s the best thing you can do if you want to invest in yourself. Being surrounded by people who see that as the norm has taken a little getting used to.

So after our meeting with Paul we came out with an idea for a new direction to take boso in – it’s quite dramatically different to what we’ve done so far and we’re both pretty excited about it. I always hate it when people say they have a cool idea but then refuse to tell you what it is, as though having other people know your idea gives them any form of advantage. The reason I’m not going to talk about our new direction just yet is because we haven’t really researched it enough depth to be certain just exactly what the direction actually is. All sounds a bit cloak and dagger but I’m not going to hype it up as the next big thing – it’s just something that we find interesting and that’s really what this is all about.

Moving back to general San Francisco talk (this has turned into a pretty mammoth post now so thank you if you’re still reading) we had our first YCombinator dinner on Tuesday evening. At first I kind of felt a little out of my depth – I met more startup founders in the first 10 minutes than I probably had in all of last year (though no doubt that’s partly down to my total lack of networking in London) and they were all experienced and talented web coders. Bearing in mind that at this point we were still uncertain what direction we were headed in as a company, it was a little tough to keep up the enthusiasm but as I got talking to people that all vanished. As Paul Graham said, the dinners are “a carefully crafted simulation of a social event” and in reality they are more about showing everyone else what you’re doing and bouncing ideas around. It really is like a bootcamp for startups, there is no better way to explain it. The idea is to accelerate the process of getting your company from the idea stage to the live stage and making sure you’re at least ready to show investors something come March. Hearing words of advice from the past YCombinator fundees was also great – always good to know that other people have/are going through the same stuff as you.

Ok I’ll probably wrap things up there. This is already my longest post by a mile and I’ve probably bored enough people by now. I’ll post again on Sunday about what happens this week. When I think how much has changed in this past week, it’ll be pretty interesting to see where we’re at in another weeks time.

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Touchdown!

Posted on January 6, 2007. Filed under: personal |

Just a quick note to say we have landed in San Francisco!  Everything has been awesome so far, the apartment is great, the weather is awesome (apparently it’s cold but these guys really should check out London in the Winter time – so far we’ve had perfect blue skies and 15 degrees celsius), we’ve unpacked and boughr groceries and thanks to our uncle it’s been an incredibly hassle-free move.

Right we’re off to run some errands and finalise getting settled in, drop me an email to let me know what’s up.

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The night before the adventure begins

Posted on January 4, 2007. Filed under: personal |

This post will be a bit different to the stuff I usually blog about it – tis rather more personal than general web/tech talk (it’s also the first post I’m writing from within my new browser, flock – it’s seriosuly cool).  Am hoping to look back at this in three months with some fondness!  Tonight is the last night before I leave for San Francisco for the big American dream.  It’s been a strange past few days.  For the past few weeks I’ve been incredibly hyped and excited about going – it’s the best opportunity of my life and I seriously can’t wait to get out there and see the Silicon Valley magic first hand.

However it seems that I completely blanked out the downside of moving to the other side of the world – leaving friends and family behind.  My mum has been pretty sad recently and so has my sister so I’m definitely sad to be leaving people behind.  It’s one hell of a motivational factor though – I don’t want to put the people I care about through this for no reason so Im seriously pumped to make sure we make something happen when we get out there.

The whole adventure has come at just the right time though.  Things have been tough recently on the business front.  A lot of experienced entrepreneurs have a theory that the most value from the first few months of running a startup is to show you how your initial assumptions were wrong.  We’re definitely at a point when we’re questions some of the assumptions of our business model and we have a ton of ideas on how to tweak things in a slightly different direction. 

What we need is to discuss them with someone we trust and who has real experience so we can just pick one, get our heads down and go all out on executing it.  That’s where the real value in YCombinator lies – having Paul Graham (for non webbies he’s a very big name in the world of internet startups) and his Viaweb team and Jessica behind us will be an incredible boost.  I can’t wait to just get started.

So what am I expecting to happen in the next three months?  I guess there are some tangible goals like bringing in two more co-founders who are natural teccies to complement the skills Kul and I have and probably getting ready for another round of investment. 

But on a more fundamental level I think what I’m really looking forward to is just the chance to work solidly without distractions.  Boso has been around for a while now but in terms of what a real entrepreneur would define as a working day – it’s not been around very long at all.  For the first version of boso both Kul and I were at uni so there was no full time work on it.  When Kul left Deutsche I was still doing finals so there was only one person working full time.  And even the past few months, it’s been great (and necessary once we started hiring people) to have an office based in London but that also meant a long commute in for both of us.  When you’re travelling for 3 hours a day it’s tough to get any serious momentum going.  The set up in SF will be the polar opposite – we’re living 5 mins away from our office and we are hungrier than ever to make this a real success.

Ok I’m going to sign off now, the next time I write I shall be on the other side of the pond.  It’s strange thinking I’m going to be reading this 3 months down the line and right now I have no idea what position I’ll be in.  Weird.

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