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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Startup Bootcamp @ MIT

I took a break yesterday to go to the Startup Bootcamp at MIT and had a great time. Not only did they have great speakers but the Kresge Auditorium of ~1250 people was almost full of entrepreneurs. During the event users were tweeting using the #sb tag and the twitter feeds were being shown using a great visualization from Visible Tweets. The actual videos of the entire days presentations have been archived and are definitely worth watching.

There were a couple of common themes at the event, but by far the most common was the need to build a learning organization: that as entrepreneurs we need to focus on learning from our customers and we need to use it iterate on the startup. A number of examples and reasons where used to explain this. Adam Smith (Xobni founder) talked about how they changed their product from an analytics tool to something that users would want to use on a day-to-day basis. Ken Zolot described how adding Strawberry Seeds to Fruit Rollups added more credibility and increased the sales, even though they did not add any nutritional value and perhaps only hurt the stomachs of those who ate them. Kyle Vogt (Justin.TV founder) recommended doing development driven by facts (such as split testing) and to be careful in which cases you are listening - such as paying attention to their complaints when something is not working. Angus Davis (TellMe founder) referred to Steve Blank's book and recommended doing customer development. Robin Chase (Zipcar founder) pointed that solving the business problem involved iterating using the facts, the enabling structure, and the idea. Drew Houston (DropBox founder) and a couple others highlights the benefits of building from problems that you have - and getting yourself to be users of your product as soon as possible.

There was also a fair bit of advice on marketing. Dharmesh Shah (HubSpot founder) suggested that Stealth mode startups that push for a big 'hollywood' launch does not work for most startups. Dharmesh referred to it as being only appropriate for Fighter Jets. While Aaron argued that Hollywood launches make sense when the number of people using a product keeps decreasing. Dharmesh suggested building a barrier to entry with marketing as an advantage. He described the difference between outbound and inbound marketing, and beyond recommending entrepreneurs to blog he recommended thinking about making marketing about creativitiy and not about cash. Beyond giving alot of SEO advice, he mentioned that getting good traction on a marketing inititiative can take time and recommended startups to build a following before even building the product.

Fund raising was also discusses by a number of speakers. Dan Theobald recommended staying away from Other Peoples Money. He used the analogy of taking such money as being similar to the movie Alien when Sigourney Weaver set of a self-destruct system and ended up having an hour to kill the alien. Dharmesh mentioned that he was not against entrepreneurs being given the money but that he did not feel like it was worth entrepreneurs spending the time needed to go raise the money. Hemant Taneja (General Catalyst director) recommended using VC's only if you have to, and that they liked hard problems with very large markets. Hemant also recommended choosing VCs by making sure that the VC was someone your could resolve issues with, was transparent to you, had the bandwidth to help, had a relevant network, and were part of a stable VC firm. He suggested staying away from the VCs that were looking for downside protection as they should be with the company for good or bad. He recommended making sure that you raise enough capital to hit a significant milestone.

Other common points where to keep the burn rate low but to do so where it made sense - while money could be saved from building and using your own servers, the infrastructure setup and management overhead would not be worth your time. Most speakers also recommended hiring smart people and being around other entrepreneurs - to share the ups and downs. Another common observation was made that after the initial launch there was usually a 6+ month long period with not much interest in the company - the message was simple for such cases: Don't give up and ride it out.

Beyond the common themes that came out from the speakers, there were a number of other nuggets. Ken made sure to point that entrepreneurs need to take a step away from the technologies involved and spend effort on communicating the 'who cares' part of our ideas. He recommended us to make an effort in public speaking and being an advocate of our ideas. Dan recommended building a socially responsible company, and pointed out that even though it might cost 10% of revenues (as is the case for them) the benefits in terms of hiring employees and getting customers are significant. Kyle recommended getting catered lunch as it results in a 10% productivity gain as employees do not need to go get lunch. Robin pointed out that while partnerships with other larger companies can potentially be great, they did not have much success as the larger companies did not give them much importance. She did mention that working on partnerships was helpful as it could be good be useful to mention of the talks with the potential partners. Drew wrapped up the event by mentioning that there are two scaling challenges for entrepreneurs building a startup - one is in scaling the company but that can only happen as you scale yourself from a technology person to someone who is a great leader.

For more notes on the Startup Bootcamp see Adam Marcus' blog:


Michael Grinich said...

Hey. Thanks for the great write-up! We now have HD videos up on YouTube as well.

michael grinich

Michael Grinich said...

Sorry, here's the link to the youtube videos.