Posts tagged Startup

Apr 25, 2007

Startup Camp Minnesota

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Previously, I shared my prepared thoughts for the “Startup Camp Is Coming” session at MinneBar. Going into the session I carried a few opinions with me about factors for a successful Minnesota Startup Camp. As I’ve established, I’m in no way qualified to have opinions on this topic.

  • Seriousness could be an issue. Startup School includes a lot of serious people who fly in from all over the world. There is a chance that a Minnesota event could be bogged down by tangentially interested folks.
  • Application management will be important to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  • Time must be available in the margins to talk to other people about their projects. Again, having serious people is important here.
  • A smaller group of attendees would be OK if application management is adhered to.
  • Avoid a high frequency of events, which will lead to dumbing down of individual events. Particularly, I think the quality of presenters could be impacted if too many events are held.

(Again, my opinion means very little. I can’t say this enough.)

Startup Camp appears to be taking a little different path than I would prefer. There are two different ways to interpret the goal of Startup Camp, which I believe to be “Encourage more startups in Minnesota.” One way to parse that statement is to say we’d like to improve the startup success rate. This appears to be the track chosen by the group in attendance. Desired sessions were very practical: venture capital, market research, intellectual property, guerilla marketing, etc. I whole-heartedly agree that sessions on these topics are important. If the camp is to be a literal educational tool, then naturally 80% of the sessions will side toward practical topics. And since nerds feel comfortable in technology, the topics will be heavily weighted toward business and marketing.

My interpretation of the camp motto is to encourage a higher quantity of startups being built in Minnesota. To put it another way, the camp should encourage those early founders to continue iterating when their startups fail. The camp should help foster a culture that encourages young people (by-in-large) to choose startups over corporate jobs. So when I think of the sessions I’d like to see, it leans very heavily toward the inspirational. It seems unlikely that any existing startups will be able to pin their success on a one-day camp that taught them all the ninja-business techniques they required. I think it’s more likely that the inspiration gained from a day-long event could help a founder internalize the reality of startups. Startups will fail, but that’s not all bad. Just try again.

The second startup I was ever involved in suffered from extreme bouts of pre-planning. It’s pretty clear to me now that success isn’t defined by grocking your market 100% or understanding all of the venture capital options. That kind of stuff is secondary, which doesn’t really take away from its importance but does imply that a startup should deal with it later rather than sooner. Early on, there is a lot more benefit for a startup to get an application built that works well for the target users than to understand exactly how many companies are in the same perceived market segment.

Perhaps the resolution to the conflict I present is to select very inspirational practical presenters. For instance, a presentation on guerilla marketing by a successful startup founder could result in a nice mix of practical and inspirational content. Startup School included a presentation by Hadi and Ali Partovi. The session contained a lot of practical information that I consider too far advanced for most startups. Particularly, they focused on creating a culture within their companies that fostered innovation and retention. This will put a lot of carts before the founders’ proverbial horses. But the presentation was interspersed with enough inspirational stuff to make it valuable from multiple angles.

I sincerely hope Startup Camp happens, and succeeds, in Minnesota. There is clearly enough interest, and the organizers are quite focused on giving the community what it wants. Ultimately, my opinion is one of many. It will rightly be drowned out if it is proven to be on the fringe.


Apr 23, 2007

Startup School and Minnesota converge

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On Saturday I attended Minnebar, the Minnesota version of BarCamp. It was an excellent first experience, thanks to organizers Ben Edwards, Luke Francl, and Dan Grigsby. Very well attended, with lots of great sessions and conversations to be had.

Dan asked me to say a few words at his session, “Startup Camp Is Coming.” This was not due to any special knowledge I have, but rather because I attended Startup School a few weeks back. Being my first BarCamp, I did not know what to prepare. I quickly found that the long version of my Startup School thoughts would not be appropriate, so I figured here is as good a place as any to share my thoughts as they have crystallized over the past month.

I don’t have a lot to say about the value of a startup camp in Minnesota. I’m not particularly qualified to have an opinion on any of this stuff. I’ve been thinking about startups for under a year. I’ve been kind of sort of involved with them for under nine months. And I’m not really pushing hard toward any sort of success.

I left my corporate job in February without any income stream in place. I’m involved in a startup project (Scrawlers) that doesn’t expect to make any money. For income (and additional experience) I’m working twenty hours a week contracting for the Iridesco design firm in New York City.

So I’ll just describe my three biggest take-aways from Startup School to give you an idea how the whole conference comes together in one person’s mind.

Diversity is important

Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus, one of the fastest growing companies ever, was the keynote speaker. One particular point he made was that hiring diverse talent leads to more innovation. By diversity, he meant hiring those with varying experience and backgrounds as well as the more traditional definition of diversity. Kapur felt one of the most common mistakes made at startups was to build “mirrortocracies,” which leads to two problems: ignoring better talent due to a desire to hire someone like yourself and suppressing the innovation that comes from varied life experiences.

The presenter directly following Mitch essentially stated the opposite. He declared that hiring young and technical is the way to go. Granted there are good points to be made about his thesis, but he didn’t really make them. I don’t wish to name names, but his company reportedly turned down a billion dollar acquisition from Yahoo! He suffers from a belief that his success is defined by his experiences, his state in life. Therefor, hiring more people like him will lead to greater success.

You can probably guess who I side with.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Google campus. It was striking how many women work at the company. I have never attended a tech event with greater than a 5% representation from the female population. I couldn’t even guess what percent of the people I saw at Google were women. Google appears to be a pretty successful company. Just sayin’.

In terms of startup camp, diversity is an important issue. Success will be enhanced with more diverse presenters and attendees. It was valuable to have that variation in experience so we could collectively determine who was worth listening to and who was full of shit. As you can see, contrasting these presentations becomes an invaluable educational experience.

Skill is a requirement for success, but not a guarantee

One speaker at Startup School very clearly believed his aptitude was the biggest reason for his company’s success. It’s not true. I don’t wish to name names, but he probably will not be offered a billion dollar buyout again.

While skill can get you in position for success, it’s very clear that however smart you are, there are thousands of entrepreneurs that are smarter than you. Lady luck is the biggest factor in your success. Evan Williams, the founder of Blogger, used to come off as someone who believed his intelligence was the sole reason for his success. He went so far as to write an excellent blog post about the Ten Rules for Web Startups, and then ignored five of those points with his venture du jour, Odeo. Since that experience, he has humbled up quite nicely - definitely worth listening to. If you’ve ever heard Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, speak, you know that Digg did not have every technical feature nailed, but they succeeded. I think he’d be the first to admit that he was in the right place at the right time.

There are lots of bad ideas

In other words, you will fail. If you’ve internalized anything from the great startup writers (Graham, Spolsky, and Sink), it’s that failure is inevitable. Indeed, Graham and Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail reiterated the same thing. Buccheit had a great point during his presentation about the sure way to success; redefine the meaning of the term. Change the definition from “I made a lot of money” to “I learned something.” Then pursue projects that will teach you. Graham hammered this point home by addressing everyone’s fear of uncertainty. Graham removed any doubts by telling everyone, “You will fail” and encouraging us to get on with it.

Something I wish I would have done more of was talk to other attendees. When reading about startups, you are frequently reading about success stories or reading opinions of the successful. Just like Buccheit’s and Graham’s statements, it is a little surreal to hear a phenomenally successful person tell you that failure is inevitable. What you see and what you hear do not mesh. The little bit of networking I did led me to the conclusion that there are a lot of bad ideas out there. This isn’t to say that these ideas had no merit and wouldn’t teach you anything. These ideas were simply difficult to imagine succeeding in a monetary sense.

Some ideas were empty from all sides. There didn’t appear to be a financial success in store and the technical aspects weren’t going to teach anyone anything. These are the things to avoid. It appears the best way to success is to get involved with ideas that interest you and teach you something. Then iterate. You’ll have some failures, but given enough attempts someday you should find yourself in the right place at the right time.

What does a successful startup camp in Minnesota look like?

This is the question Dan and Jamie Thingelstad planned to address with the Startup Camp session at Minnebar. I’ve written enough for now, so I’ll give you some of my thoughts and half-baked opinions later this week.

Update:My half-baked opinions are now posted.


Mar 29, 2007

Startup School 2007

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This past weekend I took the opportunity to attend Startup School at Stanford University. It was an excellent experience, one that should push me to attend more regional “gathering of nerds” events. The presentations ranged from excellent to valuable to boring to offensive. That’s probably a good mix actually. It helps you appreciate those who were worth listening to and forget those who don’t grock the extent of their luck.

The best presentation was given by Hadi and Ali Partovi, the twin partners of iLike.com. These guys have had repeated success in the startup arena, and they were able to pass on a ton of information in a very short time. I had never heard of the Partovis before, so I was a bit surprised by the quality of their presentation.

Paul Buchheit, inventor of Gmail, also gave an excellent presentation. He was funny while also passing on some important technical tips about how to serve up data quickly. Coming from Google (employee #23), Paul was definitely of the opinion that fast is the most important UI feature. It will serve everyone in the audience to keep his points in mind.

Paul Graham was mostly entertaining. Some of the conference was simply designed to convince folks to pursue startups rather than “day jobs.” Graham’s style is typically novella length essays, so naturally his presentation came off as a tad nutty without the proper word count. At least Graham was nutty in an encouraging way.

Most, but not all, of the other speeches were worthwhile. Alexis Ohanian had a hilarious “evolution of Reddit” presentation to end the conference, leaving everyone with a smile on their faces.

A lot of the benefit was in talking to other folks attending the one-day conference. Bumming around with my brother deflected a lot of attention toward Google. The first three people we met were a competitor of Google Analytics, a grad student starting at Google in two weeks, and a Berkley PhD interviewing at Google this week.

Everyone else we met was working on, or giving the appearance of working on, a startup. The folks that I recall with actual web sites were Socster, Storm Pulse, and MEDgle. It was good to talk to them; to see where they started and where they are.

If you read about this whole startup thing long enough, you’ll internalize the conventional wisdom that pretty much every startup fails. This message is hyper-real, though, because the person passing along the wisdom is typically a person who has succeeded in the startup world. It was nice to hear the tens and hundreds of ideas floating around the auditorium and realize that, indeed, lots of those ideas aren’t very good.

This isn’t to say that working on those ideas is a bad thing. As Buchheit said, the secret for success is to redefine success as meaning “I learned a lot.” Still, the concept that most startups fail in a practical sense has become concrete for me. I’m sure those who learned of Scrawlers are thinking the same thing about my idea.

Startup School certainly could provide momentum to any projects you are pursuing. In the five months since I started working on Scrawlers, I have had a surprisingly consistent motivation factor. Maybe I’m not the best person to comment on Startup School’s catalytic effects in that case. But give it a try sometime. Mix it with a larger trip for added effect.

(An aside. Comparing my visit to Google to my other nerd experiences, I’ve determined that Google hires 90% of the competent female software engineers in the country. Of the just under 1000 folks at Startup School, there were probably 10-15 women. At the Ruby events I’ve attended in the Twin Cities, I’ve run into one member of the fairer sex. The vibe at the Google campus was much different. As Guy Kawasaki always says: “Ask a woman.”)