Archive for March, 2007

71 Miles

Posted on March 13, 2007. Filed under: Uncategorized |

I’ve been hearing more people say they want to come out to visit me in San Francisco – both tech people wanting to check out the startup scene and friends who just want to see the city. If you’re in the lucky position of being out here on a vacation then make sure you check out some of the surrounding areas – there’s so much I wish I had time to do by way of day trips to places within driving distance of here.

Also thankfully there’s now a web site that actually lets you unearth all the hidden gems by way of daytrips – make sure you check out 71miles.com to plan what you want to do. Web stuff aside – the Bay Area is a fantastic place to visit.

And you thought all I could blog about was web stuff. Depth and breadth of character = me.

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The lessons I’ve learnt during Y Combinator

Posted on March 11, 2007. Filed under: Uncategorized |

So investor day is now a memory – it went well.  Our pitch went pretty seamlessly, I was happy with the way we presented and we have a fair few leads to chase up on over the coming weeks so that’s good.  It’s strange though, I wasn’t really quite sure how I expected to feel once investor day was over.  I wouldn’t say I had the level of stress/worry about it as I did for something like my final year exams but at the same time – there was definitely an amount of latent stress that had been built up over the past few months.  Even back in November when we interviewed for YC we knew about the infamous investor day so now being able to say I’ve gone through the process and ended up on the other side is kind of bizarre.  It’s had an unexpected effect on me – I’ve felt quite pensive/thoughtful/reflective the past couple of days.  We decided to take the day after investor day off to actually see some of San Francisco (we’d kept Alek and Tom in the apartment since they got here so we felt we owed them something) and just relieve some of the stress.  That’s when I just generally started thinking about the past few months on YC and I felt the urge to just list everything I’ve learnt since I started on YC.  Hopefully some of them will be useful for some people.

  1.  The first stage of any web idea should be building a product that works i.e. taking the idea and making it something real.  Anything else is seriously irrelevant.  With boso in the early days I spent way too much time worrying about getting the marketing and sales teams in place and getting PR.  I left the actual building part of the site to Tom who put something together very quickly using some old code and we launched it after a couple of days- which was totally the right thing to have done but it needed to be followed up with continued iterations of the site.  The time I spent drumming up press should have been sent on asking people how the product could be improved.  That’s what we’re doing with Auctomatic now and I see now why it’s so important.  By asking users how to improve your product you gain something more important than just a better product – you give the users ownership of the site.  That’s the first step to building what I think is the hardest aspect of any web product – a real community.
  2. It’s not a coincidence that almost every successful tech founder could code in some capacity.  There really is no excuse for not taking the time to teach yourself the basics of building the product if you’re not a hacker.  You don’t need to be a master hacker – you just need to be able to understand the processes involved in building a product.  It’s much less frustrating for you as you actually appreciate why things take longer than expected.  That applies even if you have a tech co-founder, you’ll get along much better if you have a basic understanding of what’s going on in the product side.  After all in the early stages it’s really only the product that matters – if you can’t contribute to that you should ask yourself what can you actually contribute?
  3. The benefits of being around other startups and founders simply cannot be described properly in words.  If you are stuck somewhere trying to do things by yourself without any other startups you only have one choice. Move.  Yes there is always the chance you’ll get uber lucky and launch your killer startup and suceed from Alasaka but why make it so hard for yourself?  Why not have the statistics work for you rather than against you?
  4. Do not react to competition negatively – in a perverse way you need it to suceed.  I remember in the early days of boso having a near neurotic approach to potential competition.  I saw every competitor as a threat and expended far too much energy digging into every detail about them and worrying they were going to overtake us.  This time with auctomatic we’re entering a market where there is probably an overload of similar products but now I see it as a positive because 1) having competitors who can display some moderate success/user uptake validates that there is a real problem to solve 2) you can learn from competitors – ask their users what mistakes they’ve made and make sure you don’t 3) having competition forces you to up your own game.  I have a strong competitive streak in my personality and I’m never more focused than when I make it my personal mission to take something on directly.  Also when you’re in the Valley, competition is a fact of life – if you’re doing anything remotely interesting there are just too many people out here for someone to not go up against you.  You have to deal with it and move on.
  5.  Respect the advice mentors/people you look up to give you but don’t mindlessly follow it.  You need to do what you think is right because ultimately no one knows your company better than you do.  You’ll gain more respect from mentors by taking your own path and following it through than just doing what you’re told.  I think there is some element of taking the pressure off yourself here – if things don’t work out you can always turn around and say “but X said to do it like that” right?  Sure you can – but you may still have killed your startup when your gut was telling you to do something different.  This is much harder to do than it sounds, especially when your mentor is a hugely respected personality with bags of charisma, but it needs to be done.  If for no other reason than to enjoy the real benefit of doing your own startup – namely being your own boss.
  6. Recruiting the right people is more important than anything else.  This is often thrown around as a piece of advice so Im not offering anything new and it’s pretty obvious but I just can’t express how fundamental it is.  And what makes it worse is that the best people ALWAYS have other options.  In fact be suspicious of any candidate who seems to have no other options than joining your startup.  If no one else wants them then why should you do?
  7. Investors can smell desperation and it will make them run a mile.  When we raised our first round of angel funding for boso – we had pretty much reached breaking point.  Kul had emptied out his savings account and I didn’t have enough money for lunch so I was making my own (disgusting) sandwiches.  But we never let our investors know this, we always kept up the front of being eternally optimistic and in control.  When negotiating terms we made it clear we wouldn’t be walked all over (when in reality it was far from clear if we’d be able to survive any longer without funding).  As soon as you let an investor know you’re desperate for their money you dramatically reduce your chances of getting it.  In reality money is a commodity – with a bit of selling raising cash is not hard, especially not in the Valley.  What’s more difficult is getting good money from good investors – once you realise that you’ll be less desperate to accept the first cheque put in front of you and investors can sense that.
  8. Don’t think you know what you’re doing because you don’t.  Just focus on getting anyone and everyone onto the first launch of your product and iterating it like hell – let users do the hard work for you.  Your product might be barely recognisable in a few months time from what it launched as (we’ve gone from student marketplace to online auction tools) – just accept that.
  9. Level out the highs and lows.  Im offering this piece of advice but I’ve still been unable to achieve it.  Sam Altman says he has finally been able to get some sense of detachment and not let the highs carry him away or the lows drag him down.  I’ve not been able to get there – I’m still on this ridiculous emotional rollercoaster which see my views of how we’re going to do swing around on a daily basis.  Thats just startup life and you have to deal with it.  For me this is the toughest part of startups because I find it emotionally draining but I also appreciate that right now I’d find it incredibly difficult to return to a “normal” life.  I’m hooked on this way of doing this now.
  10. Finally – visualise the qualities you think you need to be a good founder and let them creep across into all aspects of your life.  For me I felt like I needed to project a greater air of confidence when talking about my startup (hiding the highs and lows going on beneath the surface) and that has now come from just generally acting more confident about anything.  Personality traits can be faked – decide what you need to be in order to be a success and just become it.  There is no such thing as not being a good presenter/a morning person/technical/assertive/socialable.  People are generally stupid, they can be fooled into believing you are whoever you tell them you are.

Ok I think I’m done, I’ve probably missed a load of stuff – there have just been too many great speakers and people at the YC dinners for me to recall everything I’ve picked up from them.  Most of the stuff I’ve learnt along the way should be covered in my other blog posts.

Time for bed. Over and out.

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The Big Week

Posted on March 5, 2007. Filed under: Uncategorized |

It’s actually been a while since I properly blogged about what’s been happening with us in SV and as we’re about to enter the biggest week of our YC experience, I figure now is a good a time as any to pick up the slack. As I write there are currently four people staying in our apartment – Kul and I (obviously) but also Alek and Tom. Alek is the second hacker we employed back in London and Tom is a graphic designer who has been working with us remotely for the past couple of weeks (the incremental redesigns on boso are his work). Alek is here for the week (he’s natively Bulgarian but studies in Boston) to help us gear up on the boso side of things for investor day this Thursday (the climax of YC – each company presents to a roomful of the biggest investors in the Valley). Tom is going to relocate here more permanently and will be waiting for us when we sort out our visa issues and get back out here to carry on with the momentum we’ve been building so far.

Alek and Tom are both great of examples of how sometimes things just work out without you trying. When we first raised Angel money back in August/September we went on an interview spree to find good coders – we tried recruitment agencies and interviewed more candidates than I can remember. None of them worked out. Alek randomnly replied to a speculative ad we posted on Craigslist – the CV looked impressive, Google funded his project for their summer of code so we thought let’s give him a shot. When he finished his two hour tech test in less than an hour (only one other person ever managed to complete it and they used the full two hours) we knew we were onto something.

Then there’s Tom – again another speculative response to an ad we placed on the 37signals gig board. The CV looked good but he was based in Paris so we didn’t really follow up on it. Then we decided to give him a shot and asked him to build a boso landing page for when users first sign in – the stuff he came back with was amazing. Then we worked with him remotely and continued to be more and more impressed (boso looks better than it’s ever done) so we asked him to fly out here and join us. It’s all a bit spur of the moment/generally chaotic but it shows just how small the world is – people from Paris and London, who have never met, join together in Silicon Valley to work on a tech startup. I have a good gut feeling about Tom and I’m learning more and more that when it comes to startups, your gut feeling is probably the best tool at your disposal most of the time.

So what’s been happening on the business side of things? We finally launched our eBay selling tool – it’s now live at auctomatic.com. It was a totally different experience to launching boso for a few reasons:

1) This time it wasn’t a student side project and we have all the experience from boso this time around

2) I’ve been learning more and more code and have been very closely involved in the actual product, coding all of the views and some of the back end stuff. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to feel like you’ve been a part of building something which is something we never really had with boso. More importantly, I have full access to all aspects of the site and can do bug fixes myself as and when I see them. It takes me a while to figure out what’s happening and a lot of the time what takes Srini five minutes will take me more than a couple of hours but I have to learn at some point and there’s no better way to learn than by just doing.

3) With auctomatic we’ve really stayed very very faithful to the idea of launching early and continually iterating. It definitely feels like we launched too early as there is not much functionality on the site but I heard a podcast from Reid Hoffman recently where he says “if you’re not embarassed by your first release of your product, you launched way too late” and I see now why it’s so important. Getting something out there early and receiving feedback from actual users (in our case eBay powersellers) is like gold dust. We could have spent years on the site and we wouldn’t have been nearly as perceptive as actual users are. They tell us what they want, we build a better product and they feel a sense of ownership. It’s pretty much a win win situation. Also once stuff is live, there’s no hiding and it’s one hell of an incentive to never let up the pace. There’s no point trying to build the perfect product without users, let them do the hard work for you.

I’m feeling excited about auctomatic, we’ve already had sign ups and positive feedback about the site. There’s a long long way to go but it’s definitely solving a very real problem and it’ll be interesting to see how it goes. Learning about subscription based business models/businesses is also another good experience and piece of knowledge to have. Once we start charging users I’m sure it will feel like a whole new ball game once again.

So as I mentioned this week is the big week in terms of YC. I’m feeling quite confident about the pitch itself but there’s plenty of time for things to change. Emotional rollercoaster is a term often used in connection to entrepreneurship but I can’t express just how true it is. I’m not sure how I would cope with a regular existence any more – I’ve become so used to one day feeling on top of the world and the next day wondering what the hell I’m doing that it feels as though I’ve almost become dependent upon it. No matter how hard I tell myself to stay emotionally detached and not get carried away by the highs and lows I can never manage it. So sod it, I’m going to enjoy the highs and work through the lows. Probably not good for my blood pressure but that’s just the way it goes.

I feel on a high right now because even though having Alek and Tom working remotely was going well – there’s never any substitute for working in person with someone. The apartment feels like a real startup environment right now and it actually feels good to have the feeling of being in charge and responsible for making sure things go slowly. Working/leading a team is definitely one of the things I enjoy the most and this next week should be pretty awesome.

So on the speaker front our last YC speaker was Ron Conway – the most prolific angel investor in the Valley (which probably makes him the most prolific in the world). He gave a great talk with some great tips for founders looking to raise investment. Things that stood out for me:

– He has an index fund approach to investing i.e. he invests in as many companies as possible and often his companies are in direct competition with each other. That obviously seems like a slightly strange set up but you also have to remember that Ron Conway can get you a meeting with essentially company, however big or small, in the Valley which is a pretty good reason to have him involved in your company.

– He wants to see flexibility in founders i.e. that they are prepared to adapt the business model when needed. It reinforces the whole concept of failure being a badge of honour out here – investors are more impressed by someone who can admit their business model isn’t working and they’ve had to restart the company than someone who just sticks to their initial business plan.

– A lot of the time he doesn’t even care about the actual idea, in his words “in a year the idea will have changed so much anyway it makes it pointless to invest on that basis alone”. Ron invests in people, a real cliche but it’s so much easier said than done. The difference with Ron is that he’s done it, several hundred times.

So all in all, looking back it’s been an incredible experience this far. I expected to learn a lot but I couldn’t have imagined just how much in such a short space of time. By the end of this week, having pitched to that room full of investors, I’m sure there’ll be a ton more experience/knowledge into this head and that’s a pretty cool feeling to have. Right I’m going to catch some sleep now, probably won’t be getting all that much this week so may as well grab it when I can.

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