Dec 212009

Innovating in New York City

Innovating in New York City

Last week I wrote about speaking at the NYC Lean Startup Meetup.  One of my other key takeaways from this, which I’ve known for a while and have been meaning to blog about, is just how vibrant the tech startup community is here in New York.  I know others have been blogging about this like mad – Fred has some thoughts here, here, and here, and Charlie has some here and here.  Chris Dixon’s seminal post on this is here. (I even blogged a bit about why NYC is a good place to start a business back in 2006 here.)

I’ve had a little more time for networking and speaking in the past year than the prior year, and I’ve been blown away by how many startups there are here.  Like most things, New York City is such a massive and diverse place that it’s easy to “get lost in the crowd,” and there’s a lot going on.  So startups don’t tend to get the same level of social buzz that they do in Silicon Valley.  But Fred’s stat in one of those links above that over 150 startups were founded in NYC this year compared to over 300 in the Valley is interesting when you consider the geographic density here.  There are many more per square mile in New York.

Despite the geographic density to the startups, the New York startup scene is a long way from being a community.  There are some encouraging signs of late.  Charlie’s establishing a physical presence for First Round Capital is one. NextNY, with over 2500 members, is another, along with various Meetups.  I am learning more and more every day about local incubator-type organizations as well (take that term with a grain of salt).  I thought John Borthwick’s Betaworks was the only one until Charlie told me about Sunshine Suites, TechSpace, and the NYU/Poly program.  But something is still missing.  Some glue to hold it all together.

In the Valley, the startup community is  a cultural thing — plus, startups are part and parcel of a larger tech community.  Most of the big acquirers of internet companies are out there, so the ecosystem keeps cycling through companies and talent and investors.  In smaller cities like Denver/Boulder and Boston (and soon to be Seattle), TechStars fills a good void by providing a high profile “lure the talent here” combined with “meet the money” program. Seedcamp does that nicely in London, which, while it’s a big city, has a much smaller and more dispersed startup community than New York.

Since we’re unlikely to suddenly sprout a bunch of Fortune 500 tech companies in NYC, where’s our version of one of those programs in NYC?  Or is there some other “glue” lurking out there to tie it all together?

Aug 072009

Techstars Roundup: Why I Mentor Other Entrepreneurs

Techstars Roundup:  Why I Mentor Other Entrepreneurs

Yesterday was Demo/Investor day at Techstars in Boulder, Colorado.  A lot of people have written about it – Fred, Brad, and a great piece by Don Dodge on TechCrunch listing out all the companies.  My colleague George and I co-mentored two of the companies, SendGrid and Mailana, and we really enjoyed working with Isaac and Pete, the two entrepreneurs.

I posted twice earlier this summer on the TechStars experience.  My first post on this, Where do you Start?, was about whether to be methodical in business planning for a startup or dive right into the details.  My second post, One Pitfall to Avoid, was about making sure you don’t create a whizzy solution looking for a problem, but that you start with a problem that needs solving.

Rather than rehash what others have written about yesterday — yes, it was great and fun and energizing — I thought I’d focus on why I spend time mentoring new entrepreneurs.  I did it this year at TechStars, but I’ve done this informally for probably a dozen different entrepreneurs over the years in the community in general. 

Anyway, there are four main reasons I spend time mentoring other entrepreneurs (in no particular order):

It sharpens the saw.  This is Stephen Covey’s language from both The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The 8th Habit:  From Effectiveness to Greatness, and it simply refers to an activity that puls you out of the day to day and refreshes your brain because it’s different.  Running, playing guitar, mentoring sessions with entrepreneurs — they all clear the head and are just plain fun.

I get good specific ideas for my own business.  I think I came away from every single meeting I had with either entrepreneur this year with at least one new “to do” for myself and my team at Return Path.  There’s nothing quite like seeing how another company or entrepreneur operates to spur on good thinking, and in this case, both teams we worked with were working in the email space, so they were very relevant to our day-to-day.

I crystallize my own thoughts and ideas.  Much like writing this blog, problem/solution sessions with other entrepreneurs forces me to take a cloud of ideas down to a simple sentence or paragraph. 

I learn a lot about my colleagues.  This is a specific case for this year because I co-mentored these companies with George, although I guess bits and pieces of it have come up over the years as I’ve roped other colleauges into other situations.  George and I brought different ideas and frames of reference to our sessions with SendGrid and Mailana, and it was fun for me and a good learning experience as well to see how George approached the same problems I did.  Call it a “peek inside George’s brain.”

Hopefully I will get invited back to TechStars again next year as a mentor – it was great fun, and I’m incredibly proud of Pete and Isaac and their teams with how well they presented their companies yesterday!

Jun 242009

Techstars: One Pitfall to Avoid

Techstars:  One Pitfall to Avoid

George and I met with our Techstars “mentee” companies again yesterday.  As was the case with the last meetings, the sessions were energizing and fun and great to see new companies unfolding. One lesson I was reminded of yesterday with both companies is a timeless one, since at least the beginning of the commercial internet:

Don’t create a “solution looking for a problem”

I call this the Pointcast problem, after the mid-90s service that pulled headlines into screensavers and clogged corporate networks until the fad passed. 

One of the companies we’re working with has this challenge looming in front of them.  They have a very cool concept and technology.  It’s clear that it solves some problems, but there are many possible problems it solves, for many different people.

The key to get past this hurdle in the development of a business is to force yourself to articulate one or more very clear, crisp definitions of “it solves THIS problem for THIS person who is willing to pay THIS amount of money to have the problem solved.”  Even if you end up with two or three of these statements to then go concept test in the market, at least you will be able to shape your product and messaging development towards getting into the revenue jetstream somewhere, to quote my friend David Kidder from Clickable.

May 292009

First day at Techstars: Where do you start?

First day at Techstars:  Where do you start?

I’m a new mentor this year at Techstars, a program in its third or fourth year in Boulder (and this year also in Boston for the first time) that provides a couple dozen companies with seed capital, advice and mentorship, and summer “incubation” services in a really well conceived for-profit venture started by David Cohen in Colorado.

Yesterday was my first day up there with my colleague George Bilbrey, and we met with three different companies, two of which we will tag team mentor through the summer.  I won’t get into who they are at the moment, mostly because I’m not sure what the confidentiality issues are offhand, but I’ll make the first of a series of posts here about observations I make from doing this work.

Yesterday’s thought was:  Where do you start?

It was so interesting to meet with in some cases pretty raw companies.  They weren’t exactly “a guy with an idea,” but for the most part they were <5 person teams with a working code base and some theories about who would buy the product. 

So where do you start on the question of business planning.  Do you dive into the deep end of details?  (What should we charge?  How do I get my first 5 beta customers?  What about this new feature?)  Or do you wade into the shallow end of methodical planning?  (Who is our target market?  What problem are we solving?  How much is it worth to the prospect?  What will it cost us to produce, sell, and support the product?)  We heard both of those approaches yesterday across the three companies. 

My conclusion isn’t that there’s a single correct answer.  For most mortals, it’s probably the case that while it’s good to have a product and an inspiration behind it, there’s a long road between that and a successful company that requires careful articulation of the basics and a good grip on potential economics before incremental investments of time or money. 

But there are the occasional companies whose ideas are so perfectly timed for such a large market or user base that some of the method can be ditched up front in the name of getting to market (think Twitter or eBay) — provided that the company circles back to those basics down the road in order to grow smartly over time.

Anyway, it was a thought-provoking day and great to see new entrepreneurs and ideas take root.  George and I have a series of six sessions set up with these companies as well as the full Techstars Demo Day in early August.  I’ll try to blog some thoughts after each session.