Entrepreneurs should avoid the ‘pitch competition theatre’

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Early stage entrepreneurs have countless opportunities to stand up in front of a crowd, pitch their idea, and receive feedback. They usually do this for a cash prize and the chance to raise awareness about their product. I have known more than a few founders that raised prize money as a way to get started. It is really hard to argue against that. But I will.

Not once, that I can recall, have I seen a company receive funding because they only had an awesome pitch. Good companies receive funding. Good pitches might be associated with good companies but I think what makes that pitch good is the byproduct of the founders knowing (or have a good idea) who their customer is and why their customers care about the product.

The number of pitching workshops, pre-program pitches, events that celebrate the pitch, and ‘how to raise money’ workshops makes first-time entrepreneurs think that is where they should spend their time. None of that is validation of your product (but it might feel like it is). The validation comes from customers. Spending time in workshops and events celebrating being an entrepreneur might feel good but I don’t think a founder has any time left to get to know their customers. That is a mistake.

If you spend all that time getting to know who your customer is, learn what makes them excited and what makes them frustrated, your pitch will write itself. You will know the story that resonates with people and that confidence will follow you on stage.

A great pitch is not your business plan, your financials, and how well you know your competitors. Those can be important things to keep on top of but I don’t think a founder gains anything by spending so much time with people that haven’t actually invested in that founder’s success.

You only have so many hours in a day. You should spend it on the most important things: family, team, customers, sleep. If you have time left over there is nothing wrong in getting some judges to award you money.

Theory: Wearable tech (hardware) company is a software company

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There has been an explosion of interest in wearable tech or hardware companies in general lately. From meetup groups to accelerators specializing in hardware to a playbook for wearable tech on TechCrunch, everyone is trying to figure out if this new trend is a big new opportunity or at the very least a fad to capitalize on.

I have the following theory:

Wearable tech (or hardware) is connected physical (usually plastic) user interfaces (input devices) to web based software or apps that try to be more a sticky (or natural) way to input useful data and/or interact with software on a mobile device (phone). Without advanced software, there is no value in the hardware.

Wearable Tech solves a problem with web based software — you have to use a mouse (or touchscreen) and keyboard to input data. Phones are better than laptops or desktops as they are more portable but essentially they aren’t ideal. Popular apps like Foursquare which can be incredibly useful to both marketers and customers have been limited because ‘checking in’ has a terrible workflow.

I have to pull out my phone, open an app, type or tap on stuff, then put it back in my pocket.

Why can’t my phone stay in my pocket? Enter Pebble. In the very early days Eric would insist that people really don’t want to pull out their phones every time they wanted to check why it was buzzing. A quick glance at a watch would be a huge improvement. A lot people agreed (I love my Pebble).

What Pebble (and other wearable tech) can do is create that sensor enabled connection and data collection/consumption that is a more natural or low cost interaction. It still requires software. In fact it should be built on software that adds value and the hardware is the sticky part people can’t live without.

Nike Fuel Band, Fitbit, etc.

Update April 21, 2014: There isn’t a lot of information yet but it appears Nike is at least scaling back its Fuel Band and focusing on software. Not sure that should be taken as failure but rather pointing towards the fact this class of wearable tech is experimental. The band wasn’t Nike’s core product but it has allowed them to understand how sensors, software, and their shoes can interact with customers.

Hardware companies that ignore the software and overall User Experience (UX) are in trouble

RIM (or Blackberry) is an easy example to pick on but if you think about it they gained popularity not because they had great hardware but the way Blackberry OS manages messages is arguably still ahead of everyone else. Apple focused the overall UX parts that RIM didn’t focus on: how the customer interacts with the brand, device appearance, apps, carrier billing, photos, and music. For managing messages iOS is still terrible. But the entire User Experience is important.

For upstart hardware companies the UX is super important and should not be ignored. Just because your hardware does something novel does not mean someone will buy it (and use it). Your hardware interacts with software and you need to think about how that happens, always.

Companies like Kiwi are offering products that will enable hardware companies to spend more time figuring out the UX than how to get working hardware prototypes. More useful tools are on the horizon.

There are a lot opportunities in wearable tech and the internet of things

The number of hardware companies that are in trouble because their software only runs on their hardware and isn’t networked is a lot. The opportunities created by having a very powerful and connected ‘brain’ in a phone changes the focus to the UX advantages you can design, the software to enhance that, and spend far less time on extremely complex (and costly) development of hardware that needs to do everything. The low hanging fruit in wearable tech and hardware is building the software that lets you use your phone as the brains behind an array of sensors.

Also, what is being missed in all this hype is that things like hearing aids are the original “wearable tech” and the technology built into them along with how they get to consumers is way ahead of everyone entering the space now. Highly advanced devices in the larger medical space are likely where the big wins are going to be. 

The first round of wearable tech was medical. Then the landscape changed with powerful mobile computing devices (phones). This next round is about people building highly advanced hardware that connects to software for something with more than an incremental improvement in User Experience.

Advances in connected devices brings us one step closer to ubiquitous computing. Exciting times!

10 years of blogging: coder to dad to entreprenuer

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In April 2004 I started blogging. When it started, I wrote about things that I would have posted on uw.general (the wild west of amazing backchannel at U of Waterloo once upon a time) – status updates on the main web page, standards, and other interesting things. That evolved into an interesting timeline of life events over the years. In looking back I can see my transition from a coder working away at web stuff to a dad and entrepreneur. What I learned going back over my blog’s 10 years:

  • Writing more means I have become a better writer or expect more from my writing which means I blog less.
  • Going through my old posts reminded me that startups need community more than anything – that is what gave me the confidence to build one.
  • It is fun to build things. I don’t want to ever stop doing that.
  • I need to shift back to a balance of sharing life events and writing about things I am passionate about.

This is my current top 10 in the last 10 years.

  1. Back then I was really excited about web development, this is when I first started thinking about Ruby on Rails in January 2005.
  2. It wasn’t until the summer of 2006 when I really got excited about development — that summer was a big with the development of some interesting things on rails.
  3. January 2007 my first son was born (and it was mentioned in the Daily Bulletin at the bottom!) – I posted about the next 3 kids but this one was the first.
  4. January 2007 started the mobile project that became VeloCity. As part of that project we built a twitter clone, UW Chatter. It didn’t go anywhere but it was cool.
  5. I started a new job in with the Special Projects Group and I was President of the University of Waterloo Staff Association – that work inspired TribeHR for me.
  6. StartupCampWaterloo was launched. It was small. In early 2008 we hosted the second one at it was big, over 100 people attended including the infamous David Crow and future CDL G7 member Jevon MacDonald. Then in the fall of 2008 we got really excited about the Startup Community in Waterloo at StartupCampWaterloo3 even though the economy was falling apart.
  7. TribeHR was unveiled at DemoCampGuelph – that demo had a bad connection to the projector, lots of laughing, and 4 years later it was acquired by Netsuite.
  8. IgniteWaterloo started and I did the opening presentation as a last minute stand in!
  9. The moment I truly felt VeloCity was successful and the startup community in Waterloo is heading to an awesome place with the amazing 7cubedproject.
  10. I learned how important things like fishing with kids are.

In 2013 and 2014 so far my posts have almost been entirely focused on the work I am doing. The last 2 years have seen a big shift in my focus to family but that doesn’t come out in my blog at all. I will work on that.

The next 10 years are going to be fun!

The Market for Credit and Supporting Entrepreneurs

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Over the last few years of growth in Accelerator or Incubator programs, the overall media coverage of early stage tech startups has increased in Canada. The lack of coverage before the programs existed made media coverage a metric of success. For any entrepreneur support program to be relevant there is a requirement to be mentioned in the media resulting in the Alumni Success Metric as a key metric used to identify success of any program.

I think we need to find a better way to measure these programs and the effect on the problem they are solving.

As more and more programs compete on this metric they spend more on marketing to rise above the others which results in an increase in the costs to deliver a program. I believe competing on this metric can foster animosity between programs and hurts collaboration between a large number of extremely talented people.

What is the problem?

Founders are taking advantage of everything offered to them (as they should) which results to this common scenario in Canada (not based on any particular company).

  • Founders went to University of Toronto (and/or Waterloo and/or Ryerson and/or WLU and/or insert school here) and worked out of Banting and Best (and/or the Garage and/or the DMZ and/or any coworking space).
  • Someone else on the team took a pre-accelerter or some other community education program.
  • They are clients of MaRS and Communitech and Halton Innovation and…
  • OCE has awarded them a grant., MaRS IAF will invest in them, IRAP might have had a role.
  • They might get into another accelerator program before they finally get a few key investors at the table and start to grow.

When they get VC funding or something big worth a media push, what happens? Up to 10 organizations want to be listed and each of them release a story about how proud they are. Few if any list the other organizations or programs or people that helped (because the list is huge).

How this may hurt entrepreneurs?

Funding and product announcements aren’t success, they are a milestone that is blown way up in the local media as a result of everyone getting excited (excitement is good, celebrate the good things). It is possible that the positioning of programs media releases could confuse the market that the company needs to reach.

That said, the media coverage froth is likely localized to Canadian media so it probably has no effect on where the companies market likely is: the United States.

This intense market for credit can be frustrating for everyone who delivers programs. In reality it takes a community to raise a startup. From funders that have done it before to programs designed to focus attention, lower the risks associated with getting started, and build peer groups. We should all celebrate the entrepreneur and collectively be excited there is so many people out there helping them.

The metric is good for something.

Where I think the Alumni Success Metric does work is that helps inspire new founders. Knowing that good things have happened for those that come before them in the same program is the same metric Higher Education uses to recruit undergraduate and graduate students.

How do we avoid the zero sum game around credit?

The metric is not useful for defining the success of any program as most of the support happens in parallel in accelerators or incubators. It is extremely difficult to know what helped and when and where or what made the difference. It creates something for programs to compete over when they should be collaborating.

The stories about companies growing shouldn’t be “x program’s y company has done z” but instead be about how the company achieved this milestone and all the people that helped along the way.

A metric needs to exist that can demonstrate how effective a program is without having each program battle it out with marketing.

Step #1 is that we have to stop thinking of service organizations or accelerators or incubators as startups. They aren’t. They are philanthropic organizations offering a support group and networking services for founders, funders, and service providers.

The main goal is not to build sustainable models around these organizations (how can most realistically generate revenue outside of an education or philanthropic model?) but build a sustainable ecosystem that doesn’t require the current level of philanthropic support. Every philanthropic organization should hope that one day the problem they are solving is no longer a problem. That should be no different with supporting entrepreneurs and everyone should work together to achieve that outcome.

The “Tech Cluster” discussion must include Hamilton

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There is no doubt in my mind that when we are talking about tech in Canada and the future of the economy, Toronto and Waterloo will play a big role. It is one big ecosystem and it’s growing. There are some limitations to this growth and the big scary one is the relative lack of transportation infrastructure west of the Halton Region. This problem is making people choose between communities which isn’t good for growth.

A recent Huffington Post article where I was featured highlights the problem for technology (and just about any sector really) jobs. For myself I work in Toronto where there is a much larger concentration of research (17 000 grad students, $1.2B in research at UofT alone) which is important for me as I am constantly looking for founders with the potential to build scalable companies. With four kids the quality of life that I would like for my kids would be hard to provide in Toronto.

The quality of life issue is something that can be overcome by living in a lot of different communities outside of Toronto. You can have better access to and from Toronto to areas that have a similar quality of life as Waterloo in almost every direction away from Toronto but not west of Halton Region. Those other communities are 45-60 min train ride which is just another 15-30 min over the average commute if you live in Toronto.

The discussion on tech ecosystems has shifted from Waterloo or Toronto to a larger technology cluster of Toronto AND Waterloo — which is great! The problem, I think, is that only talking about Waterloo and Toronto for technology is limiting the stories being told of the amazing technology companies that exist in a broader cluster around Toronto.

If you are going to talk about a Technology cluster in Ontario it can’t be just about Waterloo, it must include the QEW corridor down to Niagara and it should put more emphasis on Hamilton. This area includes the regional municipalities of Halton, Hamilton, and Niagara (could also include Woodstock, Brant county, and Brantford). Combined they account for roughly 1.6 million people — nearly half the population is in Hamilton and it has the largest urban centre outside of Toronto in the south of the province. 

The conversation has to expand as I think it limits the economic growth by cutting off the story telling in the broader ‘technology’ sector. If all we talk about is Waterloo or Toronto we are distracting people from all the opportunity in a very broad area. Research, Software, and Hardware will be sprinkled around seeding growth everywhere. We also need to talk about and support the next evolution of technology manufacturing otherwise this resource rich country will keep exporting raw materials and be reliant on other countries to build our products.

This is not a zero-sum game.

Founders, do not apply to that accelerator

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It is that time of year again when all the accelerators start recruiting heavily for their new cohorts. Out they go looking for some great founders that ideally have some momentum already and the accelerator can take 5-10% of your company for $25-50k. They will market you, they will promote you, you will meet dozens of well intentioned people trying to help, and they will make you feel special.

But here’s the thing the accelerators won’t tell you… you can get all of that for free. What you have to do: build your company, focus on growth, and earn access to a trusted network that can apprentice under along your journey.

It will take 2-5 years to build your company.

You will hate it and love it.

It’s lonely building something even though you are surrounded by passionate people.

You don’t think you can do that on your own? You don’t know where to start? Start with customers. Start with reaching out to founders of similar companies that have exited or are doing something else. Don’t ask for money, ask for their time. Prove to them you can be coached and can move. Amazing things will happen next.

Only apply to an accelerator if it is a strategic move. It is crazy to give up that much equity unless you are absolutely sure you will get a return on that investment.

Remember: getting funded is not validation, getting accepted to an accelerator is not validation, and winning some prize is not validation. There is a lot to be said for natural growth. Customers paying for your product or service are. Focus on that instead of all the applications that will be tempting you over the next 6 months.

What is the problem accelerators are solving?

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There is currently a preoccupation with accelerators in the entrepreneur world resulting in a large increase in programs.  Arguably, the result of this frenzied growth is that ‘entrepreneurship’ is as commoditized as college. Unlike college, it is extremely hard to know which programs are adding value and which ones are wasting everyone’s time. This doesn’t mean investors aren’t in the know and they are favouring the programs they like – example, YC or TechStars.

It could become (or has already become) virtually meaningless to be an accelerator born internet entrepreneur so why would you give up 6-12% of your company to do it? For investors it is really hard to cut through the noise. I think this is because few people actually know why accelerators exist at all. In some cases I fear that the people that are creating new ones aren’t likely clear on why they are creating these programs either.

How does anyone know which ones work? What problem are they solving? What metrics should they be tracking in order to get better at what they are doing?

Defining the problem(s) accelerators solve.

There are three problems I think accelerators are trying to solve:

  1. Investors need to identify talent.
  2. Talent needs to find the right investors and coaches.
  3. Education system failure.

The first is a relatively easy problem to solve. It is hard for investors to identify talent at an early stage, accelerator programs offer a filtering tool for investors as they can take the top talent that applies and narrow it down to those that have the highest potential based the criteria of the particular program. If an investor trusts the filtering job done by the accelerator than that accelerator is providing value.

A suggested metric for this: measure how many alumni of a program receive funding, from what type of investor, and in what time span?

The second problem that talented people and teams have is finding the *right* investors and coaches. By the right investor I mean someone that will give you enough money and coaching that you can slowly de-risk your startup a little more and build momentum as you grow towards being a sustainable business. Founders need coaches to apprentice under while they build their company. The right investor is someone who will put in enough of their own money and time and they can help you get your business through the major milestones it faces. This likely means that party rounds are bad. What I think should be the goal are 4-6 investors and/or an individual (not a VC) has a 1/2 to 1/3 of the total round.

This should result in the person(s) who put in significant capital also have a board seat and have their sleeves rolled up ready/able to help.

A suggested metric: track who put in the most personal money in the round and are they on the board of directors or some other significant role in the company? How much time a week/month do they spend with the founders?

The failure in education is a much harder problem to solve. Is it the traditional silos that are limiting education or is it the expectation that you go to school to be trained for a job or a bit of both or something else? Is the failure the education system (K-12) or is it the students or both?

In higher education you have environments that are designed to encourage independent thought that is backed by facts and thinking. You should be exploring and developing your networks. At no other point in your life will you be surrounding with that much leading edge research and thinking. Just because a school doesn’t hand you your first startup with funding and office space does not mean the education system is failing entrepreneurs!

There is also already a process for very smart people to apprentice under others that have already developed their ability to take massive amounts of information and focus it on an outcome. It also happens to come with a filtering mechanism built right in that improves the likelihood that the person that finishes is relatively in the top few percent. It’s graduate school.

The process is not perfect but it is a process that works. Educating people is hard. Coaching people is harder still. If an accelerator is going to solve the failure of the education system in educating entrepreneurs it should take that part very seriously and not dismiss the education system as having nothing to offer.

A suggested metric: Does the accelerator have qualified educators and coaches that put in a significant amount of time (more than 1 hr a week) with each entrepreneur? Are there measurable outcomes expected on the entrepreneur? Are there consequences for not meeting expectations?

Accelerators should be more than marketing to the entrepreneur and placing them in a zoo for the public to see them in action. Education is serious business and it is about people’s future. Entrepreneurs need to have realistic expectations and enter with a clear idea of what they want out of the opportunity.

Everyone around accelerators is still learning about how to make them work and for whom. It is an exciting time in education — just be sure to track stuff that matters while you run the experiments!

A Perspective on Investor/Mentor Whiplash

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The other day Fred Wilson posted an opinion and some tips on Investor/Mentor Whiplash. He took the position that that is a big problem for accelerators as well as early stage and seed environments. Brad Feld took this as a bit of a misunderstanding on accelerators, he insists that TechStars creates an environment where early stage companies can learn to manage the whiplash. Brad Feld states:

I disagree with Fred. It’s not a big problem. It’s the essence of one of things an accelerator program is trying to teach the entrepreneurs going through it. Specifically, building muscle around processing data and feedback, and making your own decisions.

On the surface this seems correct. A problem (one of many) new founders face is the overwhelming barrage of mentorship (good and bad) and information mixed with the inability to filter. An accelerator should be able to provide the environment where a strong group of peers with some guidance can help to build the “muscle around processing data and feedback.” In the last 6 years I have noticed that is a common problem founders face and their ability to manage it is important to their success. It wasn’t until I experienced the whiplash myself a 2nd and 3rd time that I fully appreciated the damage it can do even if you are prepared for it.

Generally what I tell early stage founders:

  • Only talk to customers once you have something to show them — but that shouldn’t take you a long time, don’t go heads down for months. Asking people what they want and not focusing on something specific they can touch/feel is a path to busy work and infinite sadness.
  • Avoid the mentor parties/socialization. Find two (or three) good people with opposing views and bounce specific data off them but only when you have done something that requires fresh eyes to advise you how to interpret the results.
  • Focus on what isn’t working when getting feedback from mentors. Founders need to be positive but you need to focus on the bad things when talking to your close mentors that have been through it already. If they can’t help you with the tough stuff why are you spending a lot of time with them?
  • Don’t expect a direct answer. Experienced mentors know you are the best person to run your company, not them, and they have developed a way of not telling you what or how to do things but instead challenge you to figure it out in a positive way.

Whiplash from mentors doesn’t just happen in startups, it happens everywhere people are giving you advice or have something to gain by influencing the decisions you are about to make or the opinion you develop on something.

Being prepared and learning to manage the whiplash isn’t just the essence of accelerator programs, it is the essence of education that culminates in the top level you can achieve to filter information – a phd program. At the phd level the filter muscle is almost too strong but that is a topic of a whole other blog post.

The scary thing for entrepreneurs is that accelerator programs are too often run by people that don’t know how to effectively educate people and/or they have something to gain financially by the decisions founders make.

I think this *is* a big problem in accelerators. I wonder if the ability to teach that skill to founders (or select founders that already have that skill) is the difference between a successful accelerator (which is really only TechStars and YC) and one that isn’t (pretty much everyone else)?

In Canada education has oversight and that isn’t always bad

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There has been some dramatic attention brought to the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and University over some attention it has given Bitmaker Labs. I have had a few tweets shared and I wanted to share a quick view on this after saying that I totally support all the effort that is going on to get people into coding. It is good, necessary, and a heck of a lot of fun to those involved.

The first issue is why there are regulations, Wired has an explanation and a good article overall:

The rub is that Ontario’s Private Career Colleges Act of 2005 prohibits anyone to charge a fee for providing “instruction in the skills and knowledge required in order to obtain employment in a prescribed vocation” without approval from the TCU. The laws were enacted to protect students from expensive and misleading private vocational schools that offer substandard education, though the agency has been criticized for lax enforcement in the past, according to the Toronto Star (the U.S. has struggled to regulate such institutions as well).

No one is assuming Bitmaker is doing anything underhanded (and they even say that regulations make sense). The article that drew the attention of the government states:

Each student paid $7,000 for the opportunity to learn tough computer concepts in a condensed period of time as a means of securing employment in today’s increasingly digitized world.

Prior to enrolment, students were required to complete a 60-hour prep course taking them through Web programming language basics in order to maximize the effectiveness of actual class time. The student-teacher ratio is 8 to 1.

That sounds like tuition and it should be something people can claim on their taxes (and requires approval). There are a lot of things (like Employment Insurance benefits, etc) that the taxpayer can’t do to take advantage of the education infrastructure/support if an organization operates outside of the rules. Plus it is illegal. I do hope the process to get approved is quick.

There is a much larger debate about what education is and I bet there is a big can of worms around accelerators/incubators trying to be the ‘educators’ of entrepreneurs. It will be interesting to watch. Market failures in education and training exist which creates opportunity for entrepreneurs. Just be sure to follow the rules! I am sure Bitmaker will continue to be successful in the future and the tech community will benefit from this experience.

What is the Value of the ‘Alumni Success’ Accelerator Metric?

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There is a rapidly growing number of support groups and organizations that fit into the category of accelerator or incubator. What is the value one of the core metrics many accelerators use today ‘Alumni’ success and what does success mean? That success metric can be a funding event, exit, or some other significant milestone that has been made public. Each has a different value but the purpose is to say something positive about the accelerator which is, for many, a key ‘metric’ used to report back to those that back the program.

Why is it a metric at all? After all, shouldn’t accelerator/incubators be focused on making money? The role of accelerators in Canada according to Mark MacLoed:

…these programs are not meant to help investors discover the next giant. They are there to help investors and mentors identify, nurture and develop talent. In smaller markets like Canada’s, we are sorely lacking in proven, been there, got the t-shirt talent.

I generally agree with Mark as the purpose of all these programs is to build a funnel of qualified talent which has a value to those that back the accelerator. That could include investors and/or the government (the tax payer). I will add that what happens with all this support is self guided experiential ‘business education’ but that is another blog post.

When an accelerator releases something that states “congrats to cohort company x on raising money from y” how should future applicants weigh those releases when the company is an alumni of more than one program? How should the people that support these organizations value those announcements?

As a recruiting and reporting tool I can certainly see the value in getting the organizations name out there. The problem is that it starts to sound like a ‘party round’ where so many people have been involved in some way it is impossible to say who made the difference. The truth is they all helped. The value for any one organization is not as high as it would be if the company only worked within a tiny controlled system. That simply isn’t happening and that is a good thing. It takes an early stage business ecosystem to build more frequent and bigger success which includes all points between here and the valley.

This is something very similar to the education system where every school at all stages of education can share in celebrating success of their alumni. If a higher concentration of success is coming from a particular school then that won’t go unnoticed and it should be supported and enhanced.

What I hope will happen peacefully and relatively unnoticed by the entrepreneur is that the organizations that have more success grow, those that low success fail, and new ideas are injected into the process as everyone keeps learning.