Startup America Partnership, Austin-style

I was invited to attend a luncheon this past Friday hosted by the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Austin Technology Partnership to discuss the soon-to-launch Startup America Partnership Austin program.  Startup America is a national program launched this past January at the White House and founded by the Case and Kauffman Foundations to further entrepreneurship across the country.  It’s mission is to provide entrepreneurs with the resources they need to conceive, launch and grow new companies and it is taking a local approach to mobilize resources supported by the muscle of a national brand.  There are some heavyweight influencers tied to this effort including Steve Case, Michael Dell, Reed Hastings (Netflix), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn) and Magic Johnson.

Austin, through the leadership of the Austin Chamber, is taking a pioneer role in being one of the first handful of communities to officially launch its program under the SA brand.  The idea is to gather expertise, talent, customers, services and capital and package these resources at highly discounted rates and/or unique offerings to assist entrepreneurs at various stages of their company’s development.  Another large part of the Austin mission is to create a net inflow of entrepreneurs from other cities to choose and build their companies in Austin.

I was introduced at the lunch by John Price, a friend, serial Austin entrepreneur and Chair of SA Austin, who is spearheading much of the launch effort for Startup Austin in conjunction with other local organizations including the Chamber and SXSW.  In many ways, the story of my new company BlackLocus and its relocation from Pittsburgh to Austin combined with my relocation from Los Angeles, reinforces what Startup Austin is trying to achieve on a broader scale – promote entrepreneurship not just by home growing it, but also by attracting talent from other places in the country to start and grow their companies in Austin.

I’m excited to work with John in any way I can to assist in bringing additional talent and new businesses to Austin.

Texas Venture Labs / Austin Technology Incubator

My new company, Blacklocus, is an Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) company and we presented yesterday at the Texas Venture Labs Expo in Austin.  I stopped by to hear the pitches of 5 graduating companies, including ours.  I was deeply impressed by the presenting companies, at least 3 of them are truly innovating massive industries including online commerce (us!), nuclear power and combustion engines.  These programs are examples of increasing efforts by the University of Texas to integrate with the local business community to develop entrepreneurs, facilitate investment and commercialize research generated through the University.

Now that we are fully relocated to Austin, I’m really energized to get more involved.  There are several objectives I have for “getting involved” with the local entrepreneurial technology community:

  • Build the BlackLocus brand locally through thought leadership, mentoring and recruiting outreach.  The more we promote our vision and progress, the more attractive we will become to partners, customers and employee candidates.
  • Do my part to further entrepreneurship and development of high growth companies in Austin.  This community has so much to offer for entrepreneurs, venture investment, existing companies looking to relocate and I’d like to become involved in initiatives that promote and actualize those attributes.  Capital Factory and Startup America are examples of successful and far reaching programs to promote our city and develop successful new companies.  There is a real talent shortage here, as in many high tech hubs across the country, and it really is a zero sum game that we need to solve.
  • Actively invest in promising high-growth startups.  As I’ve written about previously, I’m active but picky in my search for investments in new companies where I have something to offer in addition to capital.

Yesterday was a great introduction to a few programs dedicated for furthering local entrepreneurship and I look forward to becoming far more integrated over the coming months.

My 10 Favorite Startup and Tech Blogs

I subscribe via RSS to way too many blog feeds, most of them in the tech/startup/VC world.  Some of the authors contribute daily, others may write once per week but provide unique and well thought out content.  I’m focusing here mostly on non-news blogs (Techcrunch, Mashable, etc. not on this list) and instead on individuals with deep experience as entrepreneurs.  For a broader perspective on popular blogs by category, check out TechStartHub.  If you run a startup, are seeking funding, beginning a company and seeking advice or simply want to stay apprised of opinions and discussion happening in the tech startup ecosystem, then here are my recommended 10 must-read blog subscription feeds, in no particular order (click on the links to subscribe to RSS feeds):

Feld Thoughts.  Daily blog by VC Brad Feld, he mixes both personal and professional insights into his writing.  Brad has been an immensely successful VC, particularly over the past few years.  Naturally, he’s enjoying life and it comes through in his writing.

Startup Lawyer.  There is a wealth of archived content by lawyer Ryan Roberts that talks about how to structure your company, approach valuation, taking in money from Angels and VCs, etc.  He’s a pretty infrequent poster, but the archived content is valuable.

A VC.  Daily blog by legendary VC Fred Wilson.  Fred is usually on the bleeding edge of technology and has a point of view on just about everything technology, particularly trends in the use of technology and startups that are emerging in line with his thesis.

Both Sides of the Table.  Daily blog by another nationally recognized VC Mark Suster.  Mark is probably the most actively engaged and networked in the tech startup community outside of Robert Scoble and spends a lot of time and energy on his blog writing.  No short posting here, usually his writing is very comprehensive and with a strong point of view on his subject matter.

Ask the VC.  Separate blog curated by Brad Feld, he scours all of the VC blogs and re-posts what he believes is the most useful information that day.  Tremendous archived content here as well.

Digital Quarters.  A pretty infrequently posted blog by Ben Elowitz, founder of Blue Nile, but although infrequent, his writing is insightful and comprehensive around whatever topic he is addressing.

Steve Blank.  A serial entrepreneur and founder of E.piphany and eight or nine other companies, Steve Blank (now a professor) has a large following and impeccable reputation in the startup community.

Blog Maverick.  Always a contrarian view on many subjects by this now famous owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban.  He’s a pretty infrequent poster, but his comments are usually pretty insightful whether you agree with him or not.

On Startups.  Blog dedicated to the entrepreneur and written by Dharmesh Shah, founder of HubSpot and several other companies.

SplatF.  Combination news and blog site by technology writer Dan Frommer, he usually posts multiple times per day on whats going on in tech.  What distinguishes him from other writers is he injects his own point of view into news and current events.

Honorable Mention.  Robert Scoble.  Probably the most prolific and connected tech writer on the planet, so much so that its impossible for me to keep up with him and his posts.  He gets an honorable mention because he writes TOO much, but he typically is on the front lines of reporting.

Where’s Your Operating Plan?

Every business needs a 12-month operating plan, even startups at the earliest stages.  The only major difference between a startup Operating Plan (OpPlan) and a mature OpPlan is that the startup OpPlan will inevitably be wrong.  Then why do it?  Because it represents a stake in the ground, your living metrics, targets and milestones so that when targets are either missed or exceeded, it forces an internal review of “why” and then “how” to make adjustments to keep the business performance on track.  I’m going to focus here on the importance of OpPlans for early stage businesses.

First, what is an OpPlan for an early stage or emerging business?  Probably the most common mistake I see is equating the OpPlan to the 3-5 year financial projections spreadsheet that every startup creates to raise money.  While these projections are incredibly useful and contain many of the assumptions that go into the OpPlan, the OpPlan requires an extraction of key assumptions in written form that is easily communicated to everyone in the organization and certain external stakeholders (investors, Board).  Specifically, the 12-month OpPlan contains the following – think of it as an outline for a powerpoint presentation to share with employees:

  1. Statement of Vision, Mission and Strategy.  At the highest level, these should be really clear and posted on a few walls in the office.  How can you know what to do today if you don’t know where you are going and why?
  2. Core 12-month Objectives.  This should be 5 or fewer major objectives for the business that, if achieved, will define success over the next 12 months, at least based on what you know now.  They ought to be completely consistent with point #1 above.  These are not activities or tasks but rather major objectives (ie, “Achieve 5% market share in our category”).  They don’t describe the “how”, just the “what” and since there’s only 5, key stakeholders (Board, investors) should view the achievement of these objectives as a highly successful month/quarter/year.
  3. Key Initiatives and Priorities.  For the current quarter and in order to meet the Objectives, what are the key Priorities and Initiatives that the team will focus on?  We are now breaking down the Objectives in #2 into a manageable set of Initiatives, answering the “how”.  This list becomes the ultimate arbiter when resource conflicts arise (and they will).  Completion of these Initiatives should absolutely result in performance against the Key Metrics (discussed below).  These corporate Key Initiatives then drive more detailed plans within each functional area – Sales and Product priorities drive the product roadmap, which in turn helps to prioritize the Technology, Analytics, Support and Marketing/PR initiatives.
  4. Key Metrics, Target Values and Accountability.  For each Objective in #2, what must be measured (Metric) and what are the Target Values for each Metric that ensure the Objectives are met?  And who is responsible for achieving each Target Value?  Important to track Metrics monthly, understand why there are variances and, most important, take decisive action to address under-performance.  Examples of corporate metrics might be # customers, average revenue per customer, visitor conversion to sale %, hire 10 people, etc.  Ultimately, each functional area (sales, tech, marketing, support) will have their own set of Metrics and Targets that roll up into achieving the overall corporate Targets.
  5. Financial Projections / Budget.  To include Revenue and Expense targets and assumptions.  There are really two methods for determining Revenue projections – “Top Down” and “Bottoms Up” – and I think its important to have a view into both because they often tell different stories.  Top Down approaches begin with understanding the potential market size, assuming some penetration or market share to determine Revenue growth.  Bottoms Up, on the other hand, starts with understanding the sales cycle, product development complexity and available capital to determine a more “reasonable” picture of Revenue scale.   Another way to think about it – Top Down shows “what’s possible” in a world of few constraints and Bottoms Up is more in line with “what’s achievable” being more realistic about resource constraints.  But having a view into both allows for some analysis to answer the question “What additional resources would it require (money, people, technology) to scale the business faster?”

Finally, I highly recommend creating a “One Sheet OpPlan”, a 2-sided but one page document that has Key Initiatives and Priorities for the current period (quarterly) on the front and Key Metrics and Target Values on the back.  This document gets distributed to ALL employees so everyone is fully informed and aligned on what drives success and, more importantly, how individual efforts tie directly or indirectly to certain Objectives that drive that success.

This important process and document really forms the basis for instilling a Performance Based Culture within the organization by tying individual performance and compensation to company Objectives.

Detractors may say that this is all too much structure and process for a startup where you are simply trying to get the product right and achieve some customer traction.  I would agree that putting too much effort into planning when you are a team of 2 or 3 is probably not the highest and best use of time.  However, while the need for this level of thought into the business may vary, certainly by the time you are taking external capital into the business its important that everyone is aligned on where the business is going and what defines success in the near term, even if success is defined by “get 2 paying customers”.  Even an objective this simple requires sales, a product, technology reliability and scale, support, design, analytics, etc. such that each department has a list a mile long of things they can’t get accomplished due to resource constraints.  A well constructed OpPlan helps to coordinate priorities across departments and keeps everyone’s eyes on the prize.

Investing Through the Startup Noise

As someone who is both seeking my next professional role in an early stage business and (newly) looking for Angel investment opportunities in startups, it is incredibly difficult to determine the high quality businesses given the sheer volume of startups in the marketplace right now.  While there is unprecedented access and information on startups through sites like AngelList, the consequence of this transparency is a ton of noise – anyone can put their business idea out there regardless of its business viability AND its cheaper than ever to start a technology company as infrastructure, hosting and storage costs have never been cheaper.  Gone are the days of VC proprietary access to deal flow, but also gone are the vetting and screening of startups prior to them becoming discoverable.

I wrote previously on some tips for first time angel investors as communicated by Brad Feld and David Cohen.  But the biggest challenge – how to gain access to high quality startups – was left largely unaddressed.

Take AngelList, a site that launched only 1.5 years ago and claims to have facilitated over 8,000 introductions between founders and investors with 400 companies funded through those introductions.  Nearly 10,000 startups and 2,300 investors are listed and have profiles on the site.  Fantastic for access and transparency, but wow, that’s a lot of noise.

So as a job seeker and potential investor, how do I maximize my probability of gaining access to only the highest quality ideas without having to do an inconceivable amount of research?  Well, its different for job seeking v. investing.  I detailed my process for job seeking in a previous post.  Here, I’ll talk about how, as a new entrant to Angel investing, I’m going about gaining access to quality startups and cutting through the noise.

Letting other active Angels know I’m investing.  There’s a handful of folks in my network that are actively investing in startups and quite frankly, have better access and are better connected into the ecosystem than I am.  Sharing with them my intent to invest, including how much per investment and the kinds of companies I’m most interested in is a way to shortcut access to quality deals.  These people include former colleagues, VC’s who invest personally, seed-stage fund investors and others I’ve met along the way.

Building and managing my online brand.  This involves utilizing and being active on social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and particularly AngelList and ensuring my profiles are up to date, comprehensive and consistent across platforms.  “Investor” shows up in bios and short descriptions.  Diligence is not a one-way street, the smartest founders and entrepreneurs research their potential investors so I want to be easily discoverable but in a way that I direct and control.

Leveraging the incubator programs.  These programs in some sense do a lot of due diligence for you first by accepting an idea/founder into their program and second by coaching and mentoring their early progress.  Nearly all of the reputable programs, but particularly 500Startups and TechStars, enable broad access to Demo Day presentations through live streams or blogging and then you can access and enter the investment discussion either directly with the founders or through AngelList.

Yesterday I attended Demo Day for the graduating class of 500Startups, an incubator/investment engine that boasts 175 portfolio companies and founded by prolific investor Dave McClure.  It’s a program similar to TechStars and YCombinator with the added dimension that they will make pure seed investments without the requirement of going through their incubator program.

I was actually really impressed by many of the newly formed ventures coming out of the program (and now seeking investment in the $300-500K range).  There were 31 presenting companies and over 1,000 participating audience members (via personal attendance and live stream video).  1,000 potential investors for 31 companies?  That tells you the dynamics of this market and why valuations are bloated right now, with many of these graduating “ideas” garnering pre-money valuations of up to $5M.  But there were 2 companies that were extremely interesting to me, so I reached out to them on AngelList and within a few hours, had access to their investment materials.  This would have been impossible for me just two years ago.

Did I mention AngelList?  Because I’m not “in the club” of elite investors that have automatic access to all the hot startups without the need to do any outreach, I need a way to 1) broadly market or announce my interest in investing and 2) access startups that I’m interested in.  AngelList is the best and only place for a new investor to do both of these things effectively given the critical mass they have achieved.

Make an investment.  While I’ve reviewed a half dozen companies, including meeting with founders, I have yet to find the right opportunity and I’m not going to part with my hard earned cash just because there is a startup gold rush happening right now.  That said, there are a few opportunities with founders I already know well that I anticipate will close in the next few months.  The point here is that building a track record as an investor is, or certainly should be, important for founders to accept your money.  This is particularly true in the current market where entrepreneurs have a choice of investors.  Why not choose money that comes from people who have demonstrated picking winners and who can add value through advising or introductions to their superior networks?

This process has worked pretty well for me, I’m curious to hear how other new investors are getting into the market and accessing high quality startups?

Are You Working in a Performance Based Culture?

Or in a culture that rewards based on popularity or some other subjective measures?

I’ve had several vastly different experiences in organizations that preached “we are building a Performance Based Culture (PBC)” and generally I don’t think there’s any confusion or lack of understanding about what it is.  The problem, and where I’ve seen it break down, is a poor execution by 1) not putting in place the key ingredients to enable employees to truly understand how their actions will be measured and rewarded and 2) inconsistent and subjective evaluations by leadership.  This last point is the cultural kiss of death for having employees believe that true performance will be rewarded.  Just because you are told you work in a PBC by a C-level executive doesn’t mean you do.  So for startups, why is an explicit transition and focus on building a real PBC important?

Most successful startups go through a few phases of growth that inevitably leads to varying degrees of erosion of the talent level as the team grows, particularly if the team grows quickly and can’t hire staff fast enough.  At the early stages, the right way to hire is to be ruthless about hiring only the best – test everyone extensively in specific skills, intellect, skills flexibility and cultural fit.  Individual performance metrics are less important as everyone is hunkered down to build the product and achieve product/market fit.  And, everyone on the team in the early days has to be a star, their work is too important and is seen and experienced daily by everyone else.  An explicit focus on PBC is not necessary, it simply already exists.  However, over time the organization passes through two important phases that require changes in leadership both of the business and of people.

  1. Rapid scale in employees.  For hyper-growth companies at roughly 20-25 employees (and urgently going to 50 or more), it becomes impossible for the “entire team” to interview every candidate and hiring velocity becomes a gating factor to progress.  Thus compromises tend to be made, B & C level talent sneaks in and because the company is growing so fast, its requires a heroic effort to instill a culture of “firing fast” for mediocre performance.  The result, you end up with some “hangers-on” employees that are not horrible at what they do, but they certainly are not leaders and innovators that will propel the company forward.
  2. Different skills required to scale the business – particularly on the leadership team.  In the best run organizations, this is the time that a more disciplined approach to managing the business takes hold – putting processes in place, tracking and reporting on metrics that drive success, and explicitly preaching and building a Performance Based Culture (PBC) for evaluating and rewarding employees.
So what’s the big deal, seems easy enough right?  I think much of it IS easy – determining organizational goals, defining the desired behaviors, creating individual goals – takes work but not an overwhelming challenge.  The hard part is constantly communicating and coaching employees, supporting their achievement of individual goals, eliminating fear and making reward, hiring and firing decisions that are absolutely consistent with the preaching and the promise, decisions must be objective.  Leadership can’t on the one hand preach rewards and advancement based on objective performance and then exhibit subjective, special treatment or “inner circle” mentality based on a popularity contest.  Everyone will see it, eyes will roll and faith in any sort of real PBC will be lost.
Bottom line, if you are a leader in a startup that is growing rapidly and in need of a more explicit focus on performance management, here’s an oversimplified formula that’s worked for me:
  1. Be clear about what drives success for the business, then create a handful of metrics, measure them, share them, post them – make sure everyone has clarity if we do x, then we achieve y.
  2. With success metrics clear, ensure everyone has actionable individual goals that tie directly to the organizational metrics.  This can be tricky for non-executives.  Every individual goal should roll up into the organizational metrics, directly or indirectly (Some goals should reinforce desired behaviors, not just quantified metrics).
  3. Provide frequent feedback, encourage dialogue and make course corrections.  This should be an ongoing topic of discussion every week as part of a broader check in with direct reports, especially in the early days of implementation.
  4. Be timely.  Don’t let half the quarter expire before individual goals are in place.  It shows a lack of commitment.  How can evaluations be objective if goals are undefined for half the period?
  5. And most important, lead by example, evaluate your staff objectively.  No inner circles, no boys/girls club, no rewarding big talkers, no overly subjective evaluations.  Even with the best intentions this can go awry simply because you may not have a full view of your employee’s performance if they work closely with others.  Important to actively seek out performance feedback from those with the best understanding of performance.  Put in the effort to get it right, you may be fooled by a lack of information on someone’s performance, but everyone else in the organization won’t be.

Looking for Funding? Try AngelList

I recently attended a talk on Angel investing given by Brad Feld and David Cohen at the Boulder TechStars Bunker.  One of the challenges I’ve been unable to get my head around as a prospective startup investor is how do I get access to the most promising startups?  All of the “high profile” startups that are started by the most accomplished entrepreneurs are almost impossible to get access to.  There’s a small community of well known Angels and entrepreneurs that circle these startups and get first dibs at seed level funding.  Makes sense.  If I’m starting a company, I want “smart” money in my deal.  Not just cash, but cash from accomplished business builders and investors who have a track record of helping companies be successful and generating a return on their investment.

So the question is, as an unknown investor with some success starting and building companies, how do I get access to the better deals?

Enter AngelList, an online marketplace for startup entrepreneurs and prospective investors to connect started by serial entrepreneur Naval Ravikant.  Here’s how it works:  Startups can register and create a listings page that contains their product, screenshots, video, team and advisors.  What really makes it interesting is that you can see which prospective investors are “following” the company and which are “endorsing” the company.  Investors must also register and be “qualified”.  To be qualified, an investor will be evaluated one of two ways, either by how many current community investors are Twitter followers or by having a certain number of current investors “endorse” you as someone they would trust and co-invest with.  This qualification process I believe gives the community credibility and its working based on the list of over 2,000 incredibly accomplished investors and entrepreneurs listed on the site.  The latest, unverified stat I heard was that AngelList was adding 20-40 startups per day.

Now, does AngelList by itself give me access to the most high profile deals?  No, but it sure does begin to provide transparency and level the playing field.  Gone are the days when prominent VC’s had proprietary access to deal flow.  Now everyone – entrepreneurs, Angels and VC’s – has to be scrappy and compete.

This level of market transparency is also great for startup entrepreneurs.  They now have access to a broad range of investors and in this era of AngelList and social media, you can get to almost anyone if you can efficiently articulate your pitch and cut through the volume of social media noise.  But access is no longer the issue.

The final implication to consider from this increasingly transparent and open investment environment is on valuations.  I’ve said before that we are not in a “bubble” similar to high-flying times of 1999, but pre-money valuations right now are pretty darn high I think due to numerous factors but certainly at least two:  1) huge success stories like Facebook, the LinkedIn IPO, Zynga, Groupon, etc. have investors over-exuberant about finding the “next big stock” and 2) an increasingly transparent market (via AngelList, Second Market, Sharespost and social media in general) is allowing anyone to invest in startups, creating more demand and driving prices up.

It will be interesting to see if the market becomes more transparent and open, if valuations will continue to rise, stabilize or fall and what effect a fall in valuations might have on the supply/demand equation for startup financing.

I Rest My Case, This is War

6/16 UPDATE:  Here’s a really informative graphic as to what’s happening in the U.S. related to skilled workforce requirements.  The most compelling points?  1) By 2015, 60% of the new jobs will require skills possessed by only 20% of the population, and 2) In 1991, by contrast, less than half of the jobs in the U.S. required skilled workers.

______

One of my recent posts discussed the war for engineering/developer talent, particularly in the Bay Area.  It’s getting worse and I just don’t see how it is sustainable.  Here are some recent additional data points related to the overwhelming demand for engineering talent:

  • A recent Techcrunch article discussed some analysis by TopProspect, an emerging online recruiting destination, that shows analytically who is winning among the top technology companies – Facebook, Google, Twitter, Zynga and others.
  • Check out this blog post by Gordon Hempton on “What It’s Like to Be Recruited“.  It details Gordon’s experience of posting his resume and subsequently receiving 266 emails and 96 voice mails from companies and recruiters, most of whom ignored his very specific job request for mobile development and instead were recruiting him for a broad range of development positions and platforms.

What is clear from this and other analysis is that we are in a zero sum game right now.  Meaning, there are simply not enough quality engineers entering the market to come close to the demand, there’s a nearly fixed pool of talent trying to supply both incredible existing company growth and the startup ecosystem.  The result is an all out war, including underhanded PR stunts, espionage and poaching that results in some companies winning (Facebook, Zynga, LinkedIn and Groupon) and others losing (Google, Microsoft, EBay and Yahoo) in talent acquisition.

I’ll refrain from calling this a talent bubble, as I hate the term bubble for what’s happening in tech right now – it brings back too many bad memories from 1999/2000 when this term was coined and was far more appropriate.  Because I went through the original bubble, I know what is happening now is vastly different.  We are investing in real companies now.  Sure, valuations are high, but newly funded businesses for the most part have real products and customer traction which was not the case a decade ago.

However, much of the talent population, engineers in particular, are too young to have been through the 1999 bubble, so I worry about soaring egos, mercenary behavior and lack of perspective which defined attitudes in 1999.  Engineers were hiring their own agents back then.  Put yourself in their shoes.  Young guns getting constant calls from recruiters, offers to leave their current positions for 25+% compensation and perk increases, which they can repeat from employer to employer.  Tempting, right?

I gotta believe that the demand/supply equation will balance itself, it always does.  But how long will it take?  To the engineers I say good for you, take advantage of the opportunity while it exists, but be careful.  Things have a way of coming back to center.  Put value in building great product, team loyalty and product ownership in addition to your career path and compensation.  See your work through.

Fortunately, this is exactly what I’m seeing at least in the engineers I’ve had the pleasure of working with.  Motivations seem much broader today than they were 10 years ago and attitudes and perspectives towards what is happening in the talent marketplace seem much more balanced, which is refreshing.

Why is this?  I think its because the role of the engineer has changed from pure coding and taking orders from business folks to now having a deeper role in product development and far more empowerment around solving technical problems.  With the proliferation of technology platforms and languages, there are many ways to solve complex technical challenges and the engineers are leading these efforts, they are closest to the product and thus enjoy increasing levels of autonomy in their work.

It’s a great time to be an engineer!  And a frustrating time being a company trying to find the best ones.

Tech is Alive in Austin

I just spent two packed days in Austin, TX connecting with members of the technology startup community, both entrepreneurs and also the investment community.  I also had a chance to spend some overdue quality time with my two nieces, Zoe (2) and Shelby (9 months).  My brother Chris lives in Austin and is part of a group of entrepreneurs and investors that are really shaping Austin’s present and future role in fostering a comprehensive environment for companies to launch and thrive.

Austin grew up in the early 90’s as a technology community hub, particularly in Enterprise Software and Hardware, as the birthplace of Dell, Tivoli, Vignette and Trilogy among others.  Today, slowly but surely there seems to be a newer crop of companies emerging in Consumer Internet and Mobile – HomeAway and BazaarVoice being two successful examples – and a whole slew of new and exciting startups that are getting funding locally through Austin Ventures, Silverton Partners, NEA and even outside of Austin from firms such as Boulder-based Foundry Group.  Startup programs such as Capital Factory and Startup America Partnership, in addition to the large and local University of Texas, are helping to perpetuate and grow Austin’s track record of starting, scaling and exiting new businesses all while enjoying a great quality of life.

I was really energized by what is happening in Austin and look forward to my next visit.

One thing is clear, people love living in Austin and they rarely leave.  And if they do, they come back.  Exciting times in the heart of Texas.

Don’t Hate Me Cause I’m a Business Guy

I recently read a fantastic post by Jacob Quist entitled “Why Engineers Distrust Business People” that provided a unique perspective on what I never fully understood, but was always aware, to be a common tension between deeply technical folks and those of us who are far more competent in non-technical arenas such as business operations, business development, sales or marketing.  In Jacob’s post, he believes the foundation of this distrust is due to the fact that historically engineers have been directed at the highest levels of the organization by business people and it only takes a few bad experiences to perpetuate a stereotype.  This is certainly a 2-way street, there are plenty of bad engineers and technical leadership out there, but typically its the business side of the house that directs the organization.  At least historically.  Jacob is right, its all about providing mutual value which leads to mutual respect.  Now with so many new startups founded by engineers, there’s a burst of independence from these bad experiences, creating a challenge for even the most effective, accomplished business entrepreneurs to find “co-founder” opportunities unless they bring the idea or concept to the table.

As a “business guy” who’s worked closely with engineers in startups for over 10 years, I’ve consciously made efforts to complement, not contribute to (read: get in the way of), the technical aspects of the business while treating the technical/engineering function equally if not more important than anything that drives the success of the organization.  Most recently I’ve tried to take it one step further, a step that I rarely see other business folks embrace – ensuring technology leadership has an equal seat at the table at the highest levels of strategy and product development and enabling the technical staff, the engineers, to contribute to product development in the form of a “safe challenge” dialogue with the product team.  This view has evolved over time for me as I’ve been exposed to increasing levels of strategic talent in the technical individuals I’ve worked with.  Experienced engineers often have incredible design and product sensibilities because they are the closest to the end product.  While they may not create the original design or spec, they are problem solvers in implementation, constantly iterating to find the best solutions.  And they usually understand a product’s complexity better than anyone, which HAS to be considered in any strategic product discussion.

So to all of you startup engineers out there, especially those who are founders and assuming you need a business partner (and you do, subject of a future post!), what should you look for in your “business partner”?

  • Demonstrable success in starting, building and scaling a startup.  These are 3 distinct phases of a company’s early growth that require different skills and perspective, and you need someone that has success in all three.
  • Philosophically aligned on the role of technology.  Ask the tough questions about the qualities of a great CTO, the role of the engineers and how strategic decisions are made for the organization.
  • The business co-founder does not have to be the CEO.  This is a great ego-check moment.  There should at least be a dialogue and healthy debate, never a default assumption.  And discussing how roles will evolve as the company grows is equally important.
  • Find an overall athlete (COO or Head of Ops)  instead of a functional expert.  This is probably the most controversial point that many will disagree with.  Many founders want to solve their most immediate need (more sales, marketing to acquire customers) and thus seek to find deep experience in a single skill as the first or second key leader.  I would contend that in a startup, there are a dozen areas that need leadership now to properly set the company up for success and that if every other attribute on this list is met, the “right” business partner can fill any immediate functional need sufficiently in the interim.  Another important point – acquiring and building out a talented, cohesive and high performing leadership team is difficult and a skill that should be historically demonstrated by your partner.
  • Ability to immediately contribute.  Leadership recruiting, product strategy, fund raising, sales, business development, marketing – the seasoned business lead can successfully step into most of these roles initially as the other functional leaders are recruited.
  • Test for worst case scenario.  When all hell breaks loose and it looks like the business is going to crater, how will your partner deal with it?   Do you share common philosophies on hiring, spending, tough decision processes?  This is difficult to predict, but you have to talk about worst case, because in a startup, worst case is most likely case!

What other qualities should you look for in your “business” partner?

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