Startup Stories: Advisors

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One of the things you should do when you have a startup is to have a board of advisors. Advisors are people you know who you look up to and go to for advice. They may have previous experience in doing what you are attempting to do or have expertise in an area that you lack. You should also look for advisors who can help you overcome hurdles you may encounter or make the necessary introductions.

Approaching a potential advisor
I would approach an advisor much like I would approach a potential customer or cofounder or even investor. That is, after I have built a minimum viable product. This shows them that you have invested some time and put some skin in the game. If you go to them prematurely with just a scribble on a napkin, its really hard for anyone to first picture it and second to know whether this thing will ever move beyond the daydream stage. Remember that they are investing in you by spending their time and energy. You want to show them that you have potential and that with a little help from them that you can succeed. From the advisor’s perspective they want to help someone with the most potential to succeed.

Having advisors means you are now accountable to more than just yourself. This is especially true if you are a sole founder or have not yet found a cofounder. I find this to be a very good motivator because I do not want to let them down and disappoint them. In my last startup I made the mistake of not having any advisors, not because I didn’t think I needed any but more because I was afraid to ask anyone.

Having a group of advisors to round out your weaknesses will also help with building the team. Someone might be on the fence about joining you, but if they see that you have people who know what they are doing helping you out, they will be more likely to join. Remember that it’s all about mitigating risk.

Showing traction
If you have any momentum in terms of unique visitors, levels of engagement, or press coverage, by all means use that to make your startup more appealing to your potential advisor or cofounder. Nobody wants to pour time and effort into something that won’t amount to anything. Most people would rather be employee number 10000 at Groupon than join a no name startup unless there was a strong team or major traction.

Ask people who are already helping you

You may find that certain people are already going out of your way to help you even though they may not officially be advisors. That was the case of one of my advisors. I wanted to show him my latest project and he spent over an hour looking at it and picking it apart and offering advice. He was advising me before we both knew he was my advisor. These people are already investing in you before you even asked, and it makes sense to approach them.

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Book Review: The Dream: How I Learned the Risks and Rewards of Entrepreneurship and Made Millions (Kindle)

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I’ve been reading a lot of business and entrepreneurship books lately. I’m especially interested in ones that deal with internet companies. One book that has been sitting in my queue for a while is this one called: “The Dream: How I Learned the Risks and Rewards of Entrepreneurship and Made Millions”. I saw that it was cheaper than the usual 9.99 on the Kindle and immediately bought it. It’s a fairly small book but I literally read it in 3 sittings. i can’t say that with many books.

The book is the story of how Gurbaksh Chahal, who dropped out of school at the age of 16 and at the age of 18 sold his first internet company ClickAgents, an ad network, to ValueClick for $22 million in stock and then at the age of 25 sold his second internet company BlueLithium, another ad network, to Yahoo for $300 million in cash.

Gurbaksh, a Sikh Indian who’s family emigrated to the US when he was 4, was amazed at the opportunities of the Internet from a very young age. His family struggled to provide for him and his 3 other siblings. Both his parents worked double shifts. His story is an inspiring true story of rags to riches.

What is amazing is that while many of the internet companies during the dot com bubble didn’t even have business models, this 16 year old’s company was keeping it real and posting profits. He had over $100,000 in his bank account when he decided to go to his father to ask his permission to drop out of school. If you aren’t from an Asian family, it is probably impossible to understand how hard that must have been and how disappointed his parents must have felt.

His book has a good mix of life story and business wisdom. You’ll also learn a lot about south Asian tradition, especially Sikh. I’ve read many business books a most are pretty dry. This one was a great read and I honestly wish it hadn’t ended so soon. I give it 5 stars.

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Hot Tweeters on Video at TECH Cocktail Chicago 11

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On August 6th when we had TECH cocktail, Ron May interviewed Olya and I about Hot Tweeters. I think the only reason he wanted to interview me was so that he could get close to Olya. Hey, whatever works. To skip directly to the Hot Tweeters part of the interview, go to 9:30.

Here’s another video of me pimping Hot Tweeters at TECH cocktail by Ramon Deleon. This Domino’s Pizza multiple franchise owner is a marketing genius. I met him at a social media conference at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange earlier. He’s got a great story about how one of his orders got screwed up and the customer happened to be a big time social media person who tweeted about it. He handled it very well by doing a videopology to said person and making it up to her with a new order on the house. That video has been viewed almost 80,000 times at the point of this blog post. He’s one of the best things to happen to Domino’s Pizza hands down. Now he’s hobnobbing with social media heavy weights like Gary V and giving talks all over because of his insane social media marketing.

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Adobe Max 2008: Unconference Flex + Papervision

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The Flex + Papervision Unconference talk was given by Vic Cekvenich CEO of PointCast Network. His company provides software solutions based on opensource packages but also provides services and additional libraries to facilitate development.

His talk was an intro to Papervision, so I won’t cover some of the material that’s pretty much all over the web. What I found interesting was that he uses FlashDevelop to do Flex development. His opinion is that it’s smaller, leaner, and much faster. He just has the Flex 4 SDK installed and when he builds, he targets the Flash Player 10 runtime, and that’s pretty much all he needs.

His talk was also geared towards people who want to build great experiences online that rival consumer apps like what you see on CNN, or the Xbox360 interface. His argument is that web experiences fall short of other experiences even though the PC is a much more powerful medium because developers are too lazy. His other focus was Papervision for online game development.

One insightful comment that he had was that people have this silly notion that you build great applications, then some magic happens, and then you become rich. The web world has convoluted that second step, that magic step. People think they out to give things away for free, and somehow they’ll get rich. He says charge for the damn thing. For the Flash games that he develops, he provides a free version with limited options, and if you want to use better guns, or have better clothes for your avatar, you pony up cash. Magic.

The other thing I learned from the talk which I will be trying out soon is adding lighting to my Papervision scene. Basically you use a Phong Shader which you apply to your material and specify lights for it, and voila – lighted objects. Look for a tutorial in the near future.

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Takeaways from “Speaking of Success” with Jason Fried of 37signals

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Just got back from a great talk hosted at Chicago’s ITA TechNexus on 200 S Wacker. The speaker for this event was Jason Fried, co-founder and President of 37signals, a private Chicago based software company whose products include, Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack and Campfire to name a few.

The question was posed of how Jason became so popular over the years. He attributed his success to his sharing of knowledge and ideas. He advocates outsharing and outteaching rather than trying to outspend the competition in the marketing department. The small guy simply cannot win by outspending the competition on advertising.

On Exit Strategies
He doesn’t believe in them. Rather, his long term goal is to simply stay in business and be happy.

On the Current State of Software
The current model of software is broken. Companies are too feature obsessed. Also in the enterprise market, there is a disconnect between the buyer and the end user. Software is made to tailor to the buyer with disregard to the actual person using it.

Good software should do a few things well and get out of your way. His analogy was the hammer. It’s a one purpose tool and it does its job really well and you can charge money for it.

Release half a product, not a half assed product.

Favorite Word: Clarity. The word simplicity has been so overused that to him, it has ceased to mean anything. However, a good tool is clear and effective.

He’s a big fan of “good enough”. A software product shouldn’t take more than 3-4 months to develop. Otherwise the feature set has to be parred down. I couldn’t agree more. I’m a big fan of release early, feedback and iterate.

On Being the 1st Mover
Jason also doesn’t think that its important to be a first mover. Many of the software giants and brandnames today were not first movers – they were just better.

On Ad Support Sites and Applications
those applications are optimized for the advertisers and not for the users. Again, the disconnect between the user and the “buyer”.

I totally agree with his statement that us software developers are EXTREMELY lucky in that it’s very easy to create and change software. We don’t have to worry about issues such as warehousing, inventory, waterproofing. Even changing software is much easier than changing a building once its built. Truly. Software developers live in an age where we can create applications and businesses at a very low cost now than ever before.

On Beta
Beta is BS. If it’s out there, it’s not Beta. Private betas are ok.

On PR
Had a PR firm for about 3 months. PR and marketing is just what you do. Just be yourself. All the press has come from sharing, being opinionated (because boring people are not newsworthy).

On the Team Being Spread Apart
Get more done when not together. People meet all the time when they are together and lose work time.

New Stuff On the Horizon

  • Tighter integration between the products
  • New book on entrepreneurship
  • Products sold as a suite

On Jeff Bezos, investor in 37signals
Jeff has a similar mindset to Jason – a long term view not driven by quarterly earnings or a need to cash out. Jeff is in it for the long run.

On What to Focus On
Focus on things that don’t change. Invest in usability and reliability for example. “Ten years from now, who knows if Facebook is going to be around, but people probably don’t want harder to use software or unreliable software.”

On Hiring
Hire when you absolutely need to. Hire when it hurts.

On Growth
When asked if he wanted to be a 100 person company, he didn’t particularly care. The metric he’s more interested in is revenue per employee. Dude is speaking my language.

Some sites he considers cool:

After the talk, I went up to him and got to say hello and shake his hand. He’s a pretty cool guy, very approachable. I was surprised that some of the people in the audience weren’t even familiar with him. I guess I don’t expect people to think of him as a huge Hollywood celebrity, but it’s just strange to go listen to someone talk if you’ve never even heard of him.

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