The Importance of Founders Staying Focused

The more this topic has been discussed the more founders i find making this grave mistake. As a founder of a company, you have one and only mission, to make your venture work. Everything else is noise… hackernews, funding, techcrunch, entrepreneurial / VC blogs, presentations, technologies… Noise you need to dial down…

The Funding Issue

- Hi, i am Thanasis, what is your startup about?

- HI! We want to do X for Z! [...]

- And at what state are you now?

- We are getting prepped for a seed round, we have an amazing deck and we’ve already talked with two investors!

That’s the chat pattern with almost all of the founders i’ve ever met… Worst part is, it’s not only the CEO that talks about it, every member of the team will talk about funding between the second to third reply in our discussion.

The “funding issue” expands to the sad fact that in most of the founders’ mindsets, getting funded, is the one and only validation of them doing something right. Of course [i've done that too], it gets you nowhere, consumes 80% of your energy and steam and even worse, you might endup achieving what you desire. Then what?

Glitterati :: techcrunch, vc blogs, tweets, cool juice

Understandably, everyones gets star struck when exposed to all these kind of media. The “Startup / Get Funded” fire-hose of information is a well established business and doing a very good job at it. While there is value to be gained by putting your finger in the honey jar, you should not forget to pull it out.

There’s a time to study the industry and its inner workings, that time is not while you’re committed to your venture and the clock is ticking. “Who got funded by whom”, “10 ways to talk to a VC”, “How i got funded by sending a single email” are just not the kind of things your brain should spent a single computing cycle on.

It is understandable that being afounder is also a learning process and you need to get a good grip on the ropes of “foundering”, but there’s a fine line between being a groupie and studying. You need to muster every piece of discipline you have so you can keep your relationship with the startup mainstream media a strictly learning experience.

Technologies, product, introversion

If i had a penny for all the buzzwords i hear when the discussions veers towards technology and product… Self-confidence boosts, ideology preached, egos bloat…

Founders focused towards technology and product are fewer than previous mentioned sinkholes but when you meet them they stand out. They can talk for days about what they are building and the techs used, how it scales and jar jar jar jar…

So, are you building a product or a company?

Stay focused on what then?

Well, i’m certainly not the first one talking about [the-only-thing-that-matters]!

Plain and simple?

Validate your assumptions…

…before you even commit to a new venture! Get out there and try to sell your mock product to your target group. Is it education? Sell it to teachers! Is it about local shops? Sell it to them then! Refine your business model, discover it, evolve it, but have one!

And no, offering it for free so they can test it will not do. Everyone will be kind enough to you to accept a free service. Not all will actually be willing to pay for it. Get money in your pocket and you can be halfway sure  you are onto something…

Get your product out there as fast as possible

AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. No stealth bs, no “the product is not complete”, write it in any tech you are more familiar with, make it stick with saliva and clay and push it out there.

Expose it to a select and dedicated group of people and iterate on it. Gradually introduce more people to your beta, by the time your product will look somewhat like a website you’ll already have a significant following.

Focus on product market fit!

There i said it, too.

The single most important thing you need to stay focused on, is finding the perfect fit between your product and the market you are selling it to.

Does it make sense? Then why don’t you spend all your day trying to make it work? Find that sweet spot, where your product fits a market need and exploit it to infinity?

why?

Top photo: “Weapons of Mass Distraction” contributed to the JazJaz Flickr Pool by Hunter Langston

Second photo: “Wrong Turn” by Kristen Morgan

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Funding, Lessons Learned, Rants, Startups | Tagged , , , ,

The Seven Deadly Sins of a Startup

There are so many things that can kill your startup, from pure chance down to very specific mistakes. Through my course i have done all conceivable mistakes one could do. I have learned from this experience and after some pondering i have summarized my gravest fails down to seven major areas. These are the kind of fails that can single handedly bring down your efforts, i did them all and enjoyed them fully.

No Team

What can one add to this so much talked about topic? We’ve heard all and seen all, single founders succeeding, stellar teams failing, the magic combination… In my case, as a single founder, being the one man band was apparently not enough. The realization of that fact turned me in the lookout for a co-founder, which was pretty much a loss of time. You can’t find a co-founder on the super-market shelves.

The founding team is a position you have, not a quest. You either have a team or not, and you have a team by having past experiences with the persons you will team up with. That said, you either have to look in your past, or start building up strong relations for the future. It takes time, years, not days and it will not happen simply because you want it to, you have to create the environment and live it.

Overbuilding

I’d start by saying technical founders tend to do this mistake, but i have seen all kinds doing it. You want your product to be complete, the experience for the user holistic and you don’t take no for an answer. Only if your users have both Facebook and Twitter signup options can the project succeed, only if you have both an iPhone and Android version for your app can you reach critical mass!

There are two things going on here:

  1. You have no idea how to do a startup.
  2.  You really want to hold on that dream a little bit more before you expose your baby to the real world and get crushed.

There is a reason that poor guy, Eric Ries, has been pulling his hair out; shouting to all startupers about the MVP and the lean startup methodology. If you are thinking product, you are doing it wrong. Think market, distribution, competition. Once you got these cleared out, product will be a given.

No Metrics

Metrics have been the hidden underdog in the startup blogoliterature. You won’t see many talking about it, or its significance.  Not having metrics is like opening a new shop and standing in your cashiers desk with a blindfold. You can only sense people coming in (visitors) and customers paying you. You have absolutely no idea what people are doing in your shop, what they like, what they don’t like, where they stumbled, what path they followed before they leave and if they understand what your shop is about.

Metrics is a very deep and wide subject, which i plan on analyzing further in future posts. One thing to point out is that proper metrics mechanisms will add a 20% overhead on your development time. The best source i have found so far is Andrew Chen’s blog, which is the most complete and comprehensive source about metrics you can find out there.

Funding Hunting

This might be the biggest sin of them all. All entrepreneurs focus on fund raising too much. The whole startup scene has been built revolving around the fund raising process. This subject has been blown so much out of proportion that mainstream media (cnbc, forbes, The Economist…) have pointed out we are in a second tech bubble. Others debate the issue. Don’t care whose bubble it is at this point. The important thing is that entrepreneurs fall into this trap.

And it’s a black hole, rather than a trap. I considered fund raising to be the ultimate indication of success, dedicating the biggest portion of my energy around this pursuit. The pitch, the deck, map investors, map VCs, read how others did it, business plans, techcrunch, angel.co, oh the cool juice i just can’t have enough.

Well, i couldn’t have made a biggest mistake. Throughout my course, money was the least of my problems, yet it occupied 80% of my energy and focus. I built and oriented the product so it looks good to investors. Lost whole months preparing for and chasing funds.

Is this what matters? Is this what will guarantee you success? Do you believe money is the problem?

Mentors / Environment

I’ve said it before and i’ll say it again. There is no other place to build your [internet] startup than the valley. There are true believers that say you can do an internet startup anywhere in the world… Sure you can, and it has happened a couple of times. You can grow algae in space too. However corn fields need fertile land, and lots of it.

Nough with the smartass sayings, the real issue is the lack of mentors. While mentors exist anywhere, and it’s usually them  who lead the tech communities around the globe (Brad Feld explains why this is wrong), these are not the mentors you really need. Typically they are coaches, CEO’s of technology companies (but not Internet Industry, or with slight relation), lawyers, marketeers and good willing people in general.

What you really need are multiple mentors with a wide variety of backgrounds whose experience is from the Internet Industry. You need CEOs of real internet startups, you need product managers that created gmail, you need the ui/ux designer of youtube, you need people that have gone through what you are going through and can help you with your exact problems, issues and challenges. If you wanted advice on how to build your gadget would it hurt if you talked to the first iPhone hardware engineer who likes to lurk in Hacker Dojo?

No Network

Following up on the previous subject, mentors, a natural byproduct of having them is that you have access to their network as well. A network of highly specialized people who have dedicated their lives on solving problems you couldn’t even imagine.

And what about your network? Who are you connected with? What can these people do for you? What can you do for them? Much like the Team subject, this is a positioning and not a quest. A positioning that will unlock your way through the hardships of startup building.

If you are like me, i have no network. Or rather, had none. What chance do i stand with no network? Shouting, waving my hands, trying to attract attention? I need not say more, you are smart readers, you understand what i’m talking about.

Ignorance

Well, in our case ignorance is not bliss. Being enthusiastic, pumped up and strongly believing is one thing. Being ignorant of the surroundings is another.

Only now, after years of actively, vividly, energetically being in the startup grindings do i realize how many unknowns i have. Ask me two years ago, and i’d tell you i know all i need to know. This naivete can also be a positive thing, in pushing you to do something on yourself, which in any other case you wouldn’t.

However once you start dancing it helps to know the moves.

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Lessons Learned, Startup Communities, Startup Funding, Startups | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

My US Visa Got Denied

As i mentioned in my previous post, i had a US visa application going, which didn’t go so well. It was an E-2 investors visa application, which is considered to be the closest type of visa you can get to the infamous “Startup Visa“. It allows citizens of specific countries to get a visa to buildup and grow their companies as long as they provide working positions to US citizens.


The investment amount required is relatively small, $200,000 and can be in the form of cash, merchandize or other type of assets including intellectual property. My application met all typical requirements and was carefully and methodically crafted with the help of an experienced lawyer, one that was referenced to me by a fellow entrepreneur from France who run exactly the same application with more or less the same specs as mine. In the pass of time i also got to know more entrepreneurs who used this type of visa with no problems at all.

Well that was not my case… The US consulate in Sweden, where i applied to since i am also a Swedish citizen, took its time to reply, and through a series of cascading delays a decision that was supposed to be issued on November 2011, finally landed in my hands on March 2012. Official reason was that the investment was marginal and not able to employ US citizens. A reason that as i have already stated was not a problem for my fellow entrepreneurs, and all of you startupers know, stands to no reason.

I had such a long waiting period, that all my energy and momentum was drained. A man with no face, trapped, with no freedom to move or express, waiting for a (seemingly at the time) life-scale type of decision to be made for him. Well i don’t have to bump my head in the wall any more with this issue, i can now move on.

In the few days that have passed since i received the letter i am feeling better every day, now i know where i stand and gathering, reflecting on my past voyage. For me there is only one place to be if you are venturing on the internet technology industry.

Now with, finally, peace of mind i am slowly planning and preparing for my next steps.


First photo on top courtesy of Just a minuteNo Entry
Last photo courtesy of fotorossoand lead falls from my bones

Posted in About Me, Enter Silicon Valley, US Visa | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Are You Building a Website or a Startup?

We have an idea, we discuss it with a few close friends and start working on it. We are building for months and when somebody asks us what we do, we fondly reply “I have a startup”. But do you?… There’s a hidden word after “Startup”, and that word is “Company”, doing a website and building a Company is like comparing apples with oranges.

A Photo by Craig Steinberg

You have a “Startup Company”, there simply is no “Startup website”! In this post we’ll explore the significance of this simple detail and what it means to your success or failure, but first some boring blog housekeeping staff…

Interlude :: From Minus Twenty to Zero

Many months passed since my last post, i’ve been too busy dealing with my US Visa application, working on my new startup, building a team and moving through continents. My stay in Silicon Valley was so much educating that i’ll need to create a whole new section about what i learned and the experiences i gained from that trip.

Currently i am back in Athens, Greece finishing the last details of my Visa. I must admit it was way more difficult than i expected, not even mentioning the time you have to dedicate to the process, especially if you are an absolute newbie like i am. In the near future i’ll post my full experiences on that issue, enlightening anyone who wants to take the same path…

The Technical Entrepreneur’s Weak Spot

So back to our subject, most first time entrepreneurs with a technical background [like myself] tend to focus on product. We create an incredible feature set for our website, most probably doing it in super cool-io stealth mode, and strongly believe that once everything is ready the world will be wowed by our genius and awesome personality. Needless to say, this is one of the most basic mistakes we can do, and the reason why Eric Ries is up in arms evangelizing about the Lean Startup Model.

However, even if you study and follow the Lean Startup Model (which you should), there is still a chance you are missing the “Company” aspect of your startup. The idea you have may be indeed something cool and original, and may even get you up to some point if you prototype it. However it’s the “Company” aspect that will really make that idea take off, and that, is not something to be thought out “afterwards”.

The Most Important Factor

I remember back in my MBA days, we used to debate with our professors and among ourselves, which was the most important department. Our Marketing professor told us that we could have the best product in the world, if we didn’t know how to position and distribute it in the market we may as well shut our business down. Our Financial professor made us understand that without controlling the company through economics, death was just a quarter away. Our Strategy professor explained to us how every other department was ultimately a set of instructions and operations that had to be done re-actively to our environment, but what was really the single most important aspect of a Company was it’s Strategy.

In the same tune we made arguments with every major course’s professor, Operations, HR, IT, Sales, Legal… So who was right? Which department was the single most important one? Well so far, you, me, seem to have picked ours off, Operations. Operations must be the most important factor, since we dedicate all our resources to this aspect of our “Company”. In the internet nothing else matters, because you see, you built a website, and the next day millions of users will be flocking in your doorsteps and hundreds of VC’s will beg you to take their money.

But is it? Is Operations the most important department in our company? The one that requires our fixated, exclusive, uninterrupted focus of attention and resources? Certainly not. I assume you’ve done your homework and i don’t need to get into how important it is to have a company with a viable revenue model, or why achieving product-market fit must be your primary mission when starting up. I will however try to convert the traditional mechanics of business building and management to the unique nature of an internet startup company.

Sales? Who Needs Sales?

You do. Sales is what you need to do to acquire your first users. Now i am not talking about the awesome marketing strategy you have devised “i’m gonna do you viral“. Or the later-stage steps where your company will be featured by Oprah. Rather, the day to day operations of selling your services to users out there at the very beginning. At this point the game is pretty much like a door to door sales of brick and mortar businesses. You have to devise campaigns, plan them, create lists, and go out there and execute them. Find leads and convert them to accounts. Every single user, one in one.

Once you make the link that users == customers, you are ready to start implementing day to day sales tactics and working your way through your one millionth user. Devise, target, plan, execute. Be creative, you can discover pockets of users in the most unimaginable places, why not go fishing in your competitors’ yard? He can’t see you entering the premisses (the benefits of doing business in the internet). Sell to journalists and bloggers, sell to influencers and trend-setters, widen your net, experiment. But be consistent and constant, the moment you start making your mark you should draw a line, not dots, not splashes, a line. And this line can curve as much as you deem necessary, but it has to always have a course and a speed. Pace is everything and what will eventually bring you the desired results. No single effort you do may work, however if you are consistent and have a constant pace the odds will be in your favor.

What About After Sales Service?

Hey mama, look i’m flying! I have built a Groupon clone in two months! And yes you did, and yes it’s pretty neat too! Oh my and it scales to infinity! So what are your 5 biggest friction pain points for your visitors in numbers? [...]. Metrics, metrics, metrics. This is really an issue that deserves a post on it’s own, and it will get one in the near future, however it’s so important that i have to mention it.

We have such a blessing of operating in such an environment where we can measure and observe the exact and complete experience for each of our customers visitors, that it’s a criminal act to let it go to waste. Depending on the exact nature of your business you should dedicate no less than 5%-10% of your production resources in building metric systems. They should provide insights that will help you understand how your visitors interact with your services and show you the way forward. A must read primer on this issue is  Dave McClures’ slides on Metrics for Pirates

Human Resources Management

In the early stages of your startup HR boils down to two major areas, team building and recruiting. Whatever your setup may be, you are a team. Even when you start solo, eventually you will become a team (or fail). I need not get deeper into the subject of team building, so many have been written about it over the years. Don’t take this issue lightly, it can make or break your business.

Recruiting is a task that startup companies outside the valley take very lightly, if they even give it a thought at all. Yet it’s the biggest bottleneck for the path to your company’s growth. And it’s one of the things that don’t happen overnight, ever. You need to cultivate long-term relationships with your tech community, everybody must know you and you must know them. Understand who are the players, the users and the new-comers. At which point, in their business cycle, are they in? Just hired? Tired? In between? Ultimately, your mission as the startup’s CEO is to make it a billion dollar company. Do you believe you can do that with a band of two people? Don’t throw this ball down the road, you need to be working on it even before you type your first line of code.

Strategy and Business Sustainability

A strategic way of thinking is a prerequisite for anyone venturing on anything anywhere. "ramdom act's of bordem" by doctor.tThat said, there is nothing else that enables strategic thinking but information. Information about your environment (say PEST), your competition (SWOT), your market and the universe. The better understanding you have and the more informed you are the better decisions you can take. That takes time, especially in the very early stages, right after you got the enlightenment and way before you start implementing, you have to be thorough and exhaustive with this process. Even if you miss as much as 1% of the big picture for the industry you are venturing on it can cost you time and resources down the road. Think fractals here, you are at your first minute of creation, a 1% deviation multiplied by months to come will most certainly result in a not so desirable outcome. Pivot all you want, if you don’t have the picture you are shooting ducks in a lake blind-folded.

If you are thinking “Business Plan” you are not too far off. I am not suggesting that you should do the 30 page behemoth that a BP should be, not at all actually. What i am saying however is you should know your math. Let’s do a quick and dirty assessment of your company’s sustainability and challenge your business:

  1. Open a spreadsheet and try to figure out two numbers: How much will my company cost to operate yearly after 3 years? How much after 5 years? Account for every expense, payroll, hosting, legal, everything… Bored? Simply multiply how many people you believe will be at your company by $200K, this grossly includes everything.
  2. Estimate your Customers’ (real, paying ones) Lifetime Value. Try to be realistic here, maybe try two values.
  3. Divide the cost from step 1 with the CLV. Now you know how many customers you need to break-even.
  4. Estimate your conversion rates from visitors to users and from users to customers. Typically 10% and 1% respectively.
  5. Reverse your conversion rates to estimate total visitors required based on the customers you need to break-even that we calculated on step 3.

An example for calculating your startup’s sustainability

Get this simple spreadsheet from Google Docs.

So in conclusion, execution is easy. It’s the fun part actually. However, you should take it for granted and focus on everything else. Think execution as a step towards success and not the end purpose. With todays development tools, execution doesn’t even pose much of a challenge. What is a challenge however is building your company, every aspect of it. Product is no more important than anything we have mentioned in this post.

Let me know what’s your opinion in these issues and discuss it in the comments.


First photo on top courtesy of Craig SteinbergIt’s like comparing apples to oranges

“The King Chess Pawn” on the Strategy Paragraph courtesy of Doctor.tramdom act’s of bordem

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Lessons Learned, Startups | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How To Startup In America

There is much frustration, confusion and disappointment about foreign entrepreneurs finding a legal way to start a company in the United States. For many this issue is considered so hard that withholds them from making the leap and venture in the US. In this post i will try to put things in perspective and shed some light on how to handle this issue.

The Basics

[skip if you are aware] First of, let’s describe the landscape. There is no straightforward way for you as an entrepreneur to come to the U.S. and found your startup company. The stories of frustrated founders returning back to their home countries after facing the immigration monster are quite a few. This has become such a serious issue that most of the high-tech prominent people have joined forces to create the startup visa initiative.

The Startup Visa Movement

The startup visa is the solution to the innovation drain problem that the US faces ever since it decided to firmly shut it’s borders. It will allow entrepreneurs to found and keep their companies in the United States, creating hundreds of jobs along the way. I won’t blubber more with it, i believe if you are reading this blog you are already well aware of what’s up with this issue, and already know what to do to support this initiative. Poke every US citizen you know to support the Startup Visa, raise awareness!

In the awareness front a very notable effort comes from the Starting-Up In America project. Starting up in America is a documentary film with quite a few notable foreign entrepreneurs, illustrating the hardship of the issue and how the US is doing it’s best to hamper innovation, growth and jobs creation. It’s a must see for anyone thinking of making the leap…

Currently the situation looks both promising and disappointing. Promising since President Obama himself and his administration have been actively engaged into bringing the entrepreneurial spirit back and helping America Startup. But also disappointing as the current governmental situation in the US is very polarized and unproductive. It may take some time before we see any kind of meaningful immigration legislation get passed into law, time that you may not have in hand to spare.

So what happens now?

Be In The US

First step to finding your way is to be in the US. You may do your homework back from your country and research the issue so you are at least aware of the options but the real deal is to be here. Being in the US gives you access to resources, connections and knowledge that are in no way accessible through any type of channel while back in your home country.

Most probably you will need to go back and forth to your home country quite a few times before you find your way, but eventually you will find it!

There Is Not One Pathway

There is not one pathway that will allow you to be in the US and start your company. Most probably your pathway is already set based on your education, country of origin and a few other factors…

Now i am not suggesting that it’s easy or all of a sudden the borders are open. What i am saying is that if you are determined to make your venture a success and have what it takes to do so, then there is nothing that will stop you.

Fear Is Your Enemy

You’ve been preparing for the trip for months now, working on your project for even more months, packed your whole life in a laptop and made the leap. This is your most vulnerable moment, probably in your lifetime. You will think “everything can be effed up for a tiny unbreakable technicality in the customs or the next time i come in or when i apply for a visa or or or…”

What if that? What if this?

It’s natural, it’s common and it will kill you.

You have to remain focused on your mission, your purpose, your startup. Nothing else matters. And it really doesn’t. You make sure your startup steps on solid ground, has sustainable growth and everything else will fall into place for you.

I was afraid as well, yet i got inspired by my surroundings. Everywhere i went, everything i did, i saw immigrants around me. In the restaurants that i ate, in the street, in the gas stations, quite a few not even speaking english! Everybody came from somewhere else. Especially in the Valley that is the common rule. You are no exception. Understand that, embrace it and you will start putting things into perspective.

Why Not Take The Soft Landing?

You are a top notch hacker, you turn a stone into a silicon wafer, you are the most valuable resource in the Valley! Why not try a soft landing? Chances are, what you think is probably wrong. Your startup will most certainly fail. I expect my startup to fail, and the reason is very simple: You and me, we, are starting from many points minus from zero.

  • We have no understanding of the play-field and how things work
  • We have no real connections to boost our progress, guide us, help us
  • We have no prior experience on how a startup -company- is built
  • We think knowing how to build a website equals knowing how to do a startup. Wrong
  • We won’t be able to recruit engineers in the short timeframe that is required

So it would be foolish to believe that we can all make it. Some may make it, but not all, not all by far. Yet, in the Valley we can have a second and a third chance, why not take it? Why not dedicate ourselves in another startup for a couple of years and get better positioned for our future ventures?

I cannot stress how important this advice is, especially for you the younger ones that hold dear in your minds the dream of being in the Valley someday, with a kick-ass startup, ready to rule the world.

No, don’t wait for that idea and time to come, it will be too late, get active now, find a company to sponsor you and dive into the global core of High Tech! Ride with someone that will take care of you, coach you, connect you and before you realize it, when that idea comes, when that entrepreneurial bell rings, you will be starting from twenty plus!

I hope i shed some light into that troubling issue, hope to laid off some of your fears, i’d really love to hear what you think and discuss it…

Photo courtesy of the wampeter Photographyborder fence

Posted in Enter Silicon Valley, Entrepreneurship, Startups | 4 Comments

You Need To Be In San Francisco

In my efforts to find the right place to found my company i traveled to all the major High Tech Hubs, New York, Boulder CO and of course San Francisco. In this post i describe my experiences and why i believe San Francisco is the place to be if you are in the high tech internet industry.

As readers of this blog know i did a cold e-mail survey back in February to gauge the metrics for each one of the High Tech hubs i have mentioned. The metrics i surveyed are explained in detail in that post, but i will mention them briefly to refresh our memories:

  1. How easy is it to find a Tech or Biz co-founder?
  2. In what time frame will i be able to get seed-funded?
  3. Up to which point can i scale my company? (NY/Boulder only question)
  4. What’s the average cost for office space?
  5. What’s the average cost for living there?

I e-mailed about 10 people from each of the target high tech hubs and got various replies, ranging from ‘google it‘ to a deep analysis of what the situation is and how to find funding! (Hey PaulMikal, Steli Thanks!)

Truth be told, what i wanted to do in that “survey” was two things and none of them had anything to do with the questions i asked. I measured how responsive and helpful people were on each community, and i also had a very good excuse to e-mail people i wanted to draw their attention.

But for the sick geeks you are, here are the answers for these questions as summed up  from the people that bothered to answer them:

How easy is it to find a Tech or Biz co-founder? Coming from where i come from? 20 minus? Nearly impossible. Now multiply that by 10 for NY and by 500 for Boulder

In what time frame will i be able to get seed-funded? That is a silly question. Has been cross answered multiple times in Quora. Anywhere between three months and never, same applies to any community.

Up to which point can i scale my company? (NY/Boulder only question) In Boulder you can scale up to 30, max 50 people. Anywhere north of that would be exceptional and unlikely. For NY that would be up to 500 people for a really successful company. Limitations not only apply because of total human capital, but also of total venture capital available to support the growth.

What’s the average cost for office space? Boulder is ok, NY and SF compete on which is the craziest expensive for office space. Yet utilizing cool co-working spaces you can have a cheap kickstart for your startup.

What’s the average cost for living there? Boulder is the cheapest of the two, no car is needed, small town, everything within walking distance. NY is, well, NY, still no car is needed… SF is expensive and a car is needed, unless you stay in the actual city of SF were you don’t need a car but apartment prices well compete those of NY.

Wheels Down – Boulder Colorado

First stop was Boulder Colorado, the much talked about super high tech community. To any friend and family that asked me why the f*** i was going to the rockies i replied that Boulder is like Eureka, the small village with the crazy scientists ;) To you my reasonings are best described by one of Boulder’s core persons, Brad Feld, in this post.

I stayed in Boulder for a week, attended most of their biggest events like Boulder New Tech, OpenCoffee and Boulder Ignite. The feeling and the Boulder people were awesome, welcoming, fun, atypical, original and relaxed. The level of high tech potency can match any other high tech hub with ease, Boulder has nothing to envy in that regard.

I landed in Boulder with the intention of founding my company there, as one of my ambitions was to get in the Boulder Techstars accelerator program on summer (now officially declined). One of my most important priorities was (is) to find a partner to found the company together (aka cofounder). It was that priority that i didn’t feel would be served well in Boulder that forced me to move on.

Talking with people there i got the feeling that the music had stopped and all the chairs were taken. While the pool of available engineers was small, the pool of prospect partners for me could be counted in fingers… and they were all into their second or first years as CEO’s in startups.

I also had two other sort of irrelevant facts that really broke my mood there, on the first day of my visit, my macbook fell off and the backlight of my monitor broke. That threw me completely off track and i completely lost my pace. Picture this for a moment, been preparing for this trip 3 months, first day i set foot on the US: *SLAP*

The second bad occurrence was that i dried up all my credit. In Europe it is illegal to give a price to an end customer that is not the final price, including tax, VAT and whatever…that is not the case in the US! Beware of that. A front price of 550$ for renting a car / month can easily result in a 1,500$ total when you reach the counter… Now add to that the fact that i couldn’t access my internet banking (no laptop) … The result? My credit card maxed out while all my funds were on the wire somewhere over the Atlantic ocean. I ended up having something like 50$ in my pocket, no credit, no other cash and a ticket to San Francisco. Needless to say that was excruciatingly difficult for me, yet hacking life is a trait that is required for anyone making the leap.

Where Is NY?

Ok, i set foot on NY just for 8 hours, barely enough time to sneak some cool tourist photos… promise to come back on that issue when i have first hand experience…

Why Not Boulder Or NY?

While Boulder and NY are vibrating up and coming high tech hub communities, they are, well, up and coming. Meaning they are not there yet. So if you have no specific ties with these communities there is absolutely no reason why you should go there.

What are specific ties? If Techstars (Boulder / NY) invites you, book the first ticket and be there ASAP. If you have an already planned secret agent there, that can incubate your life and business, by all means go! Secret agents include startup companies that may invite you to work there, but then again, that’s off topic and beyond the scope of this blog, we are entrepreneurs.

Why San Francisco

The general San Francisco Bay Area, also known as Silicon Valley, is a place of almost unlimited resources for technology startups. Substitute the word ‘resources’ with anything… people, events, mentors, funds, know how, experience [...]

You could make it a full time job to network, the daily events are so many that they often overlap! You walk down the road and hear people talking about how to tackle a billion transactions per second, you open the radio while driving (driving is a downer, too much of it) and you hear an in depth discussion of how to raise your twitter engagement. The billboards on the road advertise cloud technology solutions…

Everything is Silicon Valley is build towards supporting innovation, entrepreneurship and helping people boldly go where no man has gone before! Your ideas will be challenged daily, you will go to your bed crying with your idea trashed and your self confidence under zero only to wake up with a new more evolved plan (thank you!).

Since you are reading this blog i am pretty sure you are aiming for the stars! That’s not bad, not something to be ashamed of, that is why you are starting your endeavor, sacrificing so many, strongly believing in  your success! You need to be to the one place in the world you can make your dreams come true…

You need to be in San Francisco!

Photo courtesy of Colton Witt PhotographyWe all Have Paths in Life, We Just Have to Choose the Right One.

Posted in Enter Silicon Valley, Startup Communities, Startups | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

How Lean Startup Forced Me To Leave My Country

Working in an isolated environment without any external interaction can be a really dangerous thing. I developed my product in such an environment believing i knew everything, creating the equivalent to a Vogon spaceship for my startup. When i realized how wrong i was, not talking to people about it, i went on the other side, over-extroverting, hitting a wall and deciding to leave my country. This is my lean startup story.

About The Lean Startup Model

There is much talk today about the Lean Startup Model. Tell you the truth, i didn’t quite get it in the beginning. So much noise around it that i was missing the essence. Yet i persisted on trying to grasp the concept as i saw every prominent person in the startup industry praising it. For all of you not familiar with the term like i was, i will try to boil it down into a few bullets for you:

  1. Don’t write a single line of code
  2. Don’t assume you know the problem, or that you know the solution
  3. Tell your idea to 20 people
  4. Re-write your idea based on what you heard, repeat step 3 three times
  5. Write a few lines of code, create you Minimum Viable Product
  6. Get feedback
  7. GoTo step 3

If you believe your idea is so important that no one can know about it, you are an idiot, you don’t know what you are doing, stop now.

How I Efed It Up

Well i was that idiot guy, believing my idea was so important that once i told it to someone he would right away run to his home, take a 24hour course programming lesson and start implementing it. Funny.

So off i went and started implementing my important idea, perfecting it, inventing wheels, 12 months developing deep in the cave! In the meantime foursquare became a multi-million company, facebook implemented places and pretty much everyone and their pets got into location services.

How I Got It

So it was October of 2010, the single, yearly, Startup Weekend event in Greece took place, i communicated with the organizers, asked them to plug me in the event and they were cool enough to do so! (Hey James and Fotis, thank you!).

I polished and shined my service, rushed a few things into completion and there i was at the event talking with real people and exchanging ideas! Yet there was a caveat, i didn’t get any valuable feedback. People would either not get it or simply didn’t care on anything but their thing. [except like two or three people with whom i really connected].


Sunday was presentation day, as i said, the organizers where kind enough to allow me to present my project in front of the best audience the Greek startup scene could offer, and so i did. People congratulated me, handshakes, contact exchanges, wow!

Next day, website spikes in visits and i got my first 100 users! Yeaayyy it’s working! [...] Days pass and i see traffic falling back to zero. Not a single user used the service, didn’t receive a single feedback. Nothing, no “Hey you suck” or “You need to fix this and that”, “This is awesome i love you”, nothing, land of the dead, had i launched the service or not, same thing. Needless to say the virality coefficient multiplied to the power of zero. No more signups.

Enlightenment Come!

It was about that time that i first got familiar with the lean startup model and its principals. Read about all the clever examples that were implemented following the L.S. model and the kind of results they had. So i figured why not hack the model? I’ve done it all wrong anyway, i couldn’t screw it up more…

No sign-ups on my open beta? No feedback? Feeling awful about it? No problem, i reversed the Lean Startup Model! i figured “Hey, why not close the sign-up and name it a Closed Alpha?” That would sound cool and i’ll no longer have to worry about not getting new users!

And so i did, closed the open registration and found my peace of mind. Now i could take my time and understand what was going on… was my product that crappy? Did i do something terribly wrong? Was there a lack of early adopter culture in the Greek community? Hmmm that blinked… Hey, i believe in my idea, it solves a pain i have which is not yet solved by any of the superstars out there, what gives?

Embracing The Lean Startup Model

By the time i realized that the feedback loop was broken in the environment i was venturing and i really couldn’t get any type of advice a process started to take place in my mind. If this gig was to be a success i had to fix the feedback loop. I had to challenge my idea with likeminded people and move the concept forward. I had to go lean.

I wouldn’t write a single line of code before that feedback loop was in place and i had a very good understanding of how my customers perceive the product and what their pain was. But where would i find my customers?

Today i am in the San Francisco Bay Area and each day that passes equals to four months of brainstorming back in Greece. I’ve been here for just two weeks and the amount of feedback i get daily is crazy! In that pace i will accomplish my 3rd product iteration in just a few days!

So this is how instinctively craving for the Lean Startup’s feedback loop, i decided to leave my home country and get to the place where internet startups are built.

1st photo courtesy of Franz EricBabushka
2nd photo from personal collection

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Self Improvement, Startups | Tagged , , | 22 Comments

Enter Silicon Valley – Final Preparations

Editors note: i want to apologize for the time it took to write a new post, my macbook’s backlight broke after it fell off on March 1st, just a day after i landed in the US. That through me off balance and i lost my pace. After an agonizing two weeks, with no credit, no ability to make arrangements and three town changes, i am starting to get back on track, so expect a flood of posts in the next days :) Thank you for your patience and keeping up!

This post is for a series named “Enter Silicon Valley“. It is a personal journal written as a how-to guide about how you as an outsider entrepreneur, can get your startup in one of the high tech communities, find people, funding and grow your company.

So, in our path to enter silicon valley we discussed how to get started, create your first presentation and what was the process of taking the final decision to make the leap. In this post we will explore how to make the final preparations for that leap, winning time, cutting corners and raising awareness for your effort.

Mental Preparation

Final Preparations is a Full Time Job

As i mentioned in my first post, the final month before your jump requires your full attention preparing for it. You must live day and night in the twitter stream, try to communicate with anyone you believe can help you in your path, understand who is who and the connections between everyone.

By now you should have honed on two or three high tech hubs, that will make your life easier in targeting the right people. You should have a good understanding of who are the players, who are the influencers, community leaders and the mavericks. What are the connections and relations between them. Follow them, target them, study them. Don’t contact them just yet, wait until you feel confident about what door you are knocking.

Twitter Is Your Friend

The world’s high tech startup avant garde has an active twitter account. Any high tech dude (or dudette) that respects himself has a twitter account.

Write that down 50 times. Leverage that fact to your benefit. Prominent high tech folks that are not active in twitter are only a hand-full and it’s quite unlikely you will bump into them anyway. But if you do, it will much easier to assess his real value by utilizing your current knowledge.

Create the best collection of people to follow and sit back and watch your twitter feed 24/7. First weeks simply watch, as you gain a better understanding of what goes you can try to engage with some of the smaller players and see how that goes. Trial and error is the way to go here… More on how to exploit that channel with a dedicated post on how to master the social media for your benefit…

Contact / Cold Mail

First things first, you need to think and set your goals, strategy and tactics. What do you need to achieve when moving to the high tech hub of your choice? Of course making your company successful is the ultimate goal, but how do you go about achieving that?

Is it funding? Is it people? Is it advice? Is it guidance / acceleration? A mix of all that? In what order? You have to set your goals and priorities. Even if you have no clue which is the right course, pick one and stick to it, if it’s your gut filling it’s probably right. Or wrong. That’s what being an entrepreneur is all about!

Having your priorities and tactics in place you are ready to start cold e-mailing people. As a professional you should think of nothing less of that process than a full blown campaign to promote yourself and prepare the ground for your arrival. In that respect a Personal Contacts Manager will be more than required, personally i am using Gist and have even written a review about it.

Ask easy, open questions. One mistake i made was asking many questions to one person at once. A few were kind enough to reply to all of them but i had a high miss rate. So act smart, create your set of questions, and ask them one at a time to each one of your targets. You should have targeted enough people to mail all your questions three times or more. Geeks need numbers, so don’t go for less than 20 people, per area.

Create Awareness Of Your Effort

This is the single most important part. You have to raise awareness to your surroundings, community and country for what you are about to do. You never know where an introduction will pop out from and to what it may lead to.

I cannot stress how important that is, all your grandmother’s friends must know, your schoolmate that you haven’t talked to since high school must know, anyone in your country’s tech community must know [...]

I got introductions from the least expected persons for the most unexpected places and situations (!). In the end, just a week before my trip, i started receiving calls by people who heard about what i was about to do, introducing me to people that will help me.

So, spread the word, be as vocal as possible, let everyone know!

And You Are Done! Congratulations!

So since you reached that point you kinda graduated from the informal school for Silicon Valley preparedness. Remember that you are the best advisor for yourself, anything you read or listen is just somebody’s babblings.

Since you followed this advice [or not], and at least made the effort of reading it, you are now ready to Enter Silicon Valley!

Golden Gate Bridge

1st photo courtesy of OrchidSparcDay 34 / 365 Mental Preparation
2nd photo from personal collection

Posted in Enter Silicon Valley, Startups | 2 Comments

Enter Silicon Valley – Making The Leap

This is the third post of a series named “Enter Silicon Valley“. It is a personal journal written as a how-to guide about how you as an outsider entrepreneur, can get your startup in one of the high tech communities, find funding and grow your company.

Man Falling Of Cliff

A month has passed since i started getting educated about options for growing my startup. I formed a gross view of the startup world locally, in Europe and globally. Now i had to think about what would my next steps be. I asked myself many hard questions, do i have a business model? Do i have enough funds to keep going? Do i have any traction? What about the team? Can i pull this of? Needless to say, when i first posed these questions my straight out answer was ‘NO’ or worse…

I must admit that this period was extremely stressful as any move i made, any decision i was to take would guarantee me nothing and could mean the failure of my startup and dreams. It was yet another time in the history of my project that i felt like this was the end. And like all the other times, it felt real and it felt absolute.

Cross Road SignThen, i started working again. Perfecting my presentation, and studying the startup scene even harder while i was finishing up my prototype. I started to gain confidence bit by bit again. Studying the startup scene deeply gave me the realization that staying put would not get me anywhere so i had to make the big decision, stay home and wither or get to a high tech hub and face the impossible. I almost had everything covered, only thing missing was the funds to support the leap. How do you find funds to help you get into a high tech community?

Pre-Seed Funding

At the time that i had to make the decision not only did i not have any funds, i had already created a small debt to the banks funding myself for the past months (there’s a minus 1 for me, we’ll discover the rest minus 19 points in time [sic]). In order to make any move i needed at least 50k, i knew i had to preserve my equity for funding from professional investors, so off i went to my easily accesible choice, the 3Fs (Friends, Family and Fools).

For weeks i was perplexed with what kind of deal i would offer to my 3Fs. Realizing how dangerous an investment to a startup is (thus the ‘Fools’ part) gives you a big sense of responsibility against your friends and family. I could convince them with any deal i threw to them, convertible loans, high valuations, whatever i wanted, they knew me, trusted me and believed in me.

Respecting that fact i came up with a deal that is only possible for the 3Fs, but would really exclude the ‘Fools’ part. The funding i was seeking was an investment on me, quite literally! I valued myself at a reasonable price and offered a direct percentage of what my net value will be in 5 years from now. Cash in the bank, houses, stock, anything that surmounted to value will be counted in. So in-effect my investors have a piece of me, whatever i do, how many giggs i pull in the next 5 years.

No papers were signed, just a warm handshake. It’s the kind of deal that you cannot afford to sign as it would hamper future deals with future real investors, and generally would create a lot of friction for anything legal i am to sign. Another reason would be that for any lawyer to create such a contract would require a humongous amount of effort and money without ever really being solid enough. And in the end of the day, if my intension was to game my investors i could do it really easily by making funds vanish just before they get accounted for… So, best deal for friends and family, requires huge amounts of trust, don’t try it with anyone that doesn’t know you since your school age.

Boom! Decided!

The Road Ahead

Posted in Enter Silicon Valley, Entrepreneurship, Startup Funding, Startups | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

How To Learn Anything Faster

It is a common trait for geeks to catch up with new stuff fast. A new programming language, a new technology, a social skill (!)… Whatever that maybe as long as they are interested in it, they get pretty good pretty quick, within months if not weeks. Observing this cool feature on myself i realized there are some principles that are common during this process.

You must really want to learn

That is as core as it gets. If you are not really interested in that new thing then don’t even try. It’ll be a waste of your time and your teacher’s if you have one. However, you may have to learn that new expertise, to serve your business, personal or startup needs. Understanding how these new skills will help you in your mission is key on flipping your original reluctance.

So your first check is to eagerly want to learn, to can’t see the time when you will be able to wield the power of your new knowledge. Only then you will be ready for the next steps…

1. Wander And Discover The Bounds

When starting the self-teaching process, the natural tendency is to study everything that lands in front of you from your research. While that is required it is not advisable at the beginning. The best thing you should do is wander, roam through the available shared knowledge that exists out there and start bookmarking and keeping notes of whatever you find interesting.

Read only the titles of the articles or books you discover, at most the intros available but no more. Your main goal should be to cover as much ‘real estate’ as possible on the land of the new knowledge field you are diving into. What is required in this stage is to connect the dots and discover the bounds.

Find out who are the top gurus, who have ‘written the book’ and are generally the most respected by the experts and general community in the area you are studying. ‘Prominent experts’, ‘celebrities’ or ‘recognizable figures’ are not your targets, you should aim to discover the A+++ players thus understanding the bounds of the knowledge field you are studying. Discover who are the lone voices in the sidelines, border-lining with trolling, they will help you form a better understanding of the who-is-who and what goes. Apply this to both people and achievements and don’t always believe the hype. Many-a-times what is commonly considered the best option is not always the actual best option. Trust your instincts.

2. Study

Right after you feel confident that you have charted the majority of the available resources, is the time to start studying. Reading the whole articles, books, how-to’s and diving deep into the knowledge you are seeking to learn. This is the main operation of the learning procedure so be picky and focused.

By now you know who is who and what are the bounds of the knowledge field you are interested in. Start from the most abstract layers down to the most detailed and deep. Try to create a solid outer shell first and then build the deep core of your discipline. This way, whatever falls in your way, any bit of information, will create a structured, solid knowledge of what you are focused on.

3. Practice Practice Practice

No art can be gained without practicing it first. This is the most important step in your learning process and the one that hard-wires the knowledge to your brain. So apart from being the third and last step, this is also a requirement. If you don’t have an immediate use case for the new knowledge you are about to accumulate, you have to create one. Set a goal and don’t give up until you have accomplished it.

These steps can be applied to anything you are interested in life. It is a practice that will help you create solid and rounded knowledge about anything that you need to learn about. The more you observe your learning process the better it gets each time. So on each time, you will be able to say “i know Kung Fu” even faster!

Posted in Entrepreneurship, Self Improvement | Tagged , ,