Adventures in Fundraising: What I Didn’t Know and Sort of Know Now

The Asked Out (new name still up for grabs) team has been on the fundraising hustle for the past 4-5 months.  We have had our successes…we have our rejections…and stumbles along the way.  I personally have not been the most integral part of the fundraising process…but I have contributed.  Therefore I have been able see the process unfold from a birds eye view (if the bird was flying sideways…eyes are on the side of the head )…without being involved in the real nity gritty.  For me…I have made connections, pitched, answered questions and charged the room/Webex with some good ol’ fashion Gen-Y start-upper energy!  My first time doing the valley circuit has been a tremendous learning experience not only in the “hows” and “whats” of fundraising; but also in how to align a team, product and vision.

Let me sum up what I learned with a few key points:

The formula is simpler than you think:

Just like a start-up does business development…raising angel and venture capital is a very similar process.  One: you take a look at who you have relationships with and see who they have relationships with.  Two: You reach out to those connections/ investors, present the opportunity or asked to be put in touch with someone who would be interested in the opportunity.  Three: You pass on materials, pitch or demo.  Four: You wait and hope.  Five: You take on “next steps”.

Yes this is a simplified format and you most likely will be more creative and deviate from this process…however I learned that the process is simple.  Don’t over complicate things…investors like simple…they talk to hundreds of people every week/ month.

Traction (whether you like it or not) it is what gets most companies funded:

We have been pitching on the lower rungs of “traction”…meaning what we have to show is some fantastic test partners and alpha feedback.  However for products that have any type of consumer side, you almost always need traction.  Traction doesn’t mean that your model is scalable…it means you have results.  When you don’t have traction…many will love your concept…not necessarily the opportunity.  So when it comes to getting a product out there…build lean, deploy quickly, iterate…focus on traction!

“You have a huge vision?  So what?

Investors say they love the “change the world type businesses”…however “love” is not always synonymous with investing money. Many investors (mainly angels) like to “hit singles” in this venture ecosystem (as a few of colleagues and advisors have told me). Therefore big dreams can be scary…they may be too robust of a solution for a broad market.  Many investors would rather see a niched model that may catch the interest of Google in a few years.  When investors do believe in your vision…they next want to assess the team.  Can this team execute this grandiose vision or can’t they?

Most won’t give it to you straight (at least a 100% straight):

Most of the investors I have met are fantastic people… interesting, successful and very nice.   In some cases their niceness prevents full self expression (at least it seems to).  We haven’t hear that our concept sucks once (it is a terrific concept however I feel we should expect at least one “this sucks”).  When they do give it to your straight…take full advantage…take in their feedback (don’t always act on it) and ask for advice.  They don’t know your model like you do but they might know the space much better so every piece of feedback counts.  Basically you will have do some introspection to really figure out why you are getting “no’s”.

Separate your belief in your start-up from your response/ success rate:

Like I said it’s important to take in feedback but it’s much more important not to take feedback to heart.  The more you allow “no’s” to bruise your ego the more it will affect the overall start-up.  Feedback is simply feedback…it doesn’t mean your model won’t work…or that your team is not right…it’s just feedback (good feedback from incredible people also doesn’t guarantee success).  Some feedback you will act on…other feedback you won’t.

The rest of what I learned and have began to implement can be summed up in this video by Naval Ravikant of Venture Hacks.  This presentation further expanded what I did not know…always fun to find out you don’t know much :) .  Watch it!!

Simplifying Leadership

Here are some spontaneous thoughts I had leadership and wrote in my note book.  Here they are transcribed and polished (not much) for the blog.

Leadership needs to be different…now more than ever.  Many people realize this, many have stated this, some say our world is not working effectively therefore we need to lead differently.  I personally believe that leadership needs to be simplified.  Simplified to a level where ever single person on this earth considers themselves to be leaders.  Leadership as related to a group should be treated as marketing as related to a company…all encompassing.  Everything a company does creates a reflection of that company; therefore each action can be considered a form of marketing…good or bad.  Leadership should be treated the same way: every specific action a member of a group makes is a form of leadership…good or bad.  Ever decision made by one person has an impact the whole…from the top to the bottom of the group.  If we consider this we are far more likely to be more aware of the actions we take and the decisions we make.  We can step into the shoes of our groups and see how we affect them…their happiness, fulfillment, productivity, creativity and all else.

Leadership starts with accountability and it ends with it too.  It is created with questions like:

“What does my teammate need that will make a difference?”

…”How do my actions impact the team?”

…”How am I perceived?”

…”How can we all align under one strong vision?”

Leadership should be simple…be aware, be yourself, hold yourself accountable, and occupy the space of others.

-3/13/11

3 Ways to Inspire People to Work for Equity

This is a guest post by my good friend and remote entrepreneur Austin Evarts of FullFoundation.com.  Austin has traveled the world while building Twepto , creating an online course on passive revenue generation called The Remote Entrepreneur, all while getting featured on Tim Ferriss’s blog The Four Hour Work Week.

In the early stages of a startup you often need to pay people in equity rather than salary.  Not only is it cheaper while “bootstrapping”, but you want to be working with people who see the most value in being paid with equity.  These people truly believe in the project and are willing to sacrifice payment to see it succeed.

So the problem then becomes:  how do you keep people motivated? As “CEO”, “Chief Motivator”, “Lead Cheerleader” – whatever you want to call it – how do you keep people pushing when they are basically working for free?

I’ve learned (usually the hard way) a few tricks that I would like to share with you here.  Please note that I am not a programmer (although I’ve been learning).  My experience comes from building and motivating teams around concepts that came from my head.  In more cases than not, I am the “non-technical founder”.  So how can you motivate the masses without paying them cash?

1.  Be a Cheerleader
•    Remind people why this project is a “game changer”.
•    Remind people that when this works out, it will be far better than their day job (i.e. you can be making millions and working for yourself).  Be very clear with people upfront that if this project is to succeed, they will at some point be expected to quit their day job.
•    Share good news.  If you come across an interesting article on Mashable that shows a trend toward what you will be offering, share it with the team.  Articles like this are great kindling to fuel the fire.
•    Know the numbers and get good with statistics.  Send out regular (but not too regular that it is annoying) emails about the potential of the company: market size, potential revenues, etc.  These help to remind people what they are working toward.

As CEO/founder of a startup, motivation and guidance is your job.  Make it a point to cheer lead regularly.

2.  Know What you are Talking About
As the non-technical founder, you are in a unique and often difficult position.  Great programmers usually want to spend most of their time coding, meaning you should be spending your time on the business side of things – finding users, testing business models, etc.  You are essentially, “the business guy”.  The problem that many non-technical founders face is that a lot of programmers (at least the good ones) don’t want to the job of implementing the vision of a business guy.

The solution that I’ve found is to really know what you are talking about.  First off, you should definitely have a deep understanding of the problem that your startup is trying to solve.  The best startups begin by trying to solve a problem that the founders have.  Second, you should  be able to “talk the talk”.  Not knowing what your programmers are talking about creates an unhealthy distance between you and the people you are trying to motivate.  If you are constantly asking, “what does that mean?”, you slow progress down drastically.  If you want a general understanding of what your programmers might be talking about, W3 Schools is a good place to start.

A general desire to learn about the environment around you is an extremely valuable characteristic of an entrepreneur.  If your programmers are coding in PHP, you should probably know what an array is.  That doesn’t mean you need to know how to use one.  Just know enough to talk the talk.

3.  Make things Public
The last thing you need in a startup is a lack of communication.  If someone is slacking and missing deadlines, talk to them about it, find out what is up, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  It is hard to to keep people accountable when you are not paying them.  Making their ineptitude public, however, is another story.  People are more motivated by the prospect of public failure than they are by the prospect of making millions.  Y Combinator actually uses this as a technique for motivating their startups.
Make sure that everyone on your team knows everyone else’s deadlines.  When missing a deadline means letting your friends down, it’s less likely to happen.

Photo credit: *Kicki*

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What non-monetary techniques have you used for motivating your team members?

How A 10 Year Old Inspired Everyone!

Photo Credit: Our Covers

My girlfriend Catherine helps run an after school program in San Jose called Alma Verde.  The kids range from 5 to 12 which makes for some interesting dynamics between young and older kids.  One of the products of those dynamics are their strong opinions and inquisitive nature.  This naturally makes from great after work storytelling from Cath…

However last week’s story trumps all.  The Alma team ran a simple activity about the reuse of wasteful packaging…in this case gum was passed out to see if the kids can think of innovative ways to reuse the packaging.  This exercise was taken to a level no one anticipated as a 10 year old boy named Jorge spoke from his heart…about gum.  Yes a simple consumer product like gum fueled a fire under Jorge as he exclaimed his concerns he has for this earth and called everyone to action…check out the second hand synopsis below:

Disclaimer: I did not witness this …first hand, so I appologize in advance to Jorge and the Alma team for not doing the event justice.  From what I can judge, no text can embody the events of that day :)

Group:  Everyone passing around the gum packages.  Jorge abruptly stands in front of the entire group.

Jorge: “Why do we need gum?  Why do we spend our precious resources on producing such a pointless product?  Do we need gum to survive…no?  Why do we create something that does not add value to our lives or the earth?

How can we continue to degrade our earth for our simple pleasures?  Gum goes into the ground and adds to the waste of this earth…don’t get me started about the manufacturing and packaging.  We can’t continue to degrade our earth any longer!  We chew gum for what?  So we chew away and  have fresh breath?  Well mother earth is suffering for it!

We must remember…we are simply members of this earth…we don’t own it.

Thank You…”

Group: Cheeerrrrssss loader than I can imagine!

Jorge: “Lets write the President!”

Group: “Yayyyyhhhhh!!!”

A 10 year old boy has inspired his peers, his care providers, myself and hopefully you!  No constraints in his talk and his actions…there is no doubt he will do what it takes to make the world a better place…while bringing others along with him.

If Jorge is a reflection of the future of this world…I think we might actually be able to create a world that works :)

Thank you Jorge!!!!

Contribution at the Core

Entrepreneurship and self reflection goes hand in hand.  When you’re able to step away from the laptop for a few, you often are confronted by the “whys” of your life.  One of the fundamental “whys” that confronts entrepreneurs is the ‘why am I doing what I do?’.  I mean…your friends think your weird, your parents don’t approve, you can’t take your girlfriend out to that nice restaurant down the street, you sometimes wonder if you can pay rent on time…why in the hell do we do what we do?

As my friend and amazing entrepreneur Arielle Scott has asked a group of friends…“How do us over believers set our goals so high, fail, yet keep on moving forward”.

I believe it’s imperative that entrepreneurs must establish a governing motivation beyond anything superficial and ephemeral such as money, fame or status.  If those are your main motivators you will we quickly be disappointed.  You will either not fulfill your expectations fast enough having the utter disappointment making you quit…or you will obtain money and status so fast that you fail to establish a long term vision beyond yourself and fail when both money and fame cease to be enough.  Basically it takes looking beyond one’s self satisfaction and preservation to actually make a true impact.  It takes the intention of building a legacy with the contribution you make.

I have no empirical evidence suggesting that people like Sergey, Larry, Steve Jobs and others have come to the same conclusion that making a contribution is what it takes.  I am sure many successful entrepreneurs are simply free market opportunists with genius like intelligence and uncanny work ethic.  However I believe this notion of “being a contribution” is adopted amongst a sub-set Gen-Yers…and if it is not yet adopted it needs to be.  Not simply to better our chances to succeed…but to better the chance for all of humanity to thrive.

I would like to believe that the very people that have the innovative abilities, ingenuity and vision to transform the world with what they create will always keep the people of the world in mind.  Having “being a contribution” become a governing motivator for many may shape the world in positive ways that we can only dream of at this point.

It took me a while to realize that focusing on becoming a contribution would be my only way to accept the failures and continue to move forward towards success.  It took me even more time to be present enough to look outside myself with the work I do.  Next step is to make it so that I (and we) leave a lasting positive impact on the world.

The Power of the King…A Tale of Empowerment

MLK

Few times in history has true good prevailed over all other forces.  Martin Luther King was able to invent a world of true good…free of judgement and prejudice while filling the newly empty space it with love and understanding.  Not everyone would subscribe to this new world, however this new world would change everyone’s world for ever!

We live in a cynical world…where it is easier to get caught up in bad then it is to believe in good.  Scarcity of resources and money play a large part in this which make people have to focus on their own self preservation.  Focusing outside oneself is impractical.  That’s why people tend to compare and contrast themselves with other rather than focusing on the affinity that might be there.  When you look beyond yourself true love for other people can be created.  Martin Luther King inspired people to look beyond themselves and brought people together on a human level.

He casted a dream over the nation.  A dream where good prevailed, where understanding and love was created.  He made people enroll themselves in a vision much larger than any one person, a vision that was beyond whites and blacks, it was a world vision where all people can be united regardless of background or circumstance.  He took action and had other take action with him, showing the world that the dream he described was very much a reality for some.

Dr. King empowered millions of people in the short time he had on this earth.  His legacy lives far beyond his life as today many people live in the world of the King.  His tale is beyond leadership, beyond courage…but of transforming a world.  I am not black, only part white…being mixed raced was most likely not even recognized during the civil rights movements; regardless he is a hero of mine.  Him being a hero to me shows that this his imprint on the world goes far beyond race, ethnicity and pigmentation of one’s skin. He empowers the world to think of what is possible and to think of others first.

Establishing Product Market Fit Before Launch

The Startup Pyramid (12 in 6)

The Startup Pyramid (12 in 6)

Working with a startup from the soil up has given me tremendous insights into some of the challenges facing early stage startups (especially working with a startup trying to disrupt the market place).  One challenge (a fun and worthy challenge might I add) is establishing “Product Market Fit” while being in stealth mode.  Start-up marketing consultant and entrepreneur, Sean Ellis, defines product market fit as creating a product that  the majority of your users cannot live without.  Finding this fit seems like a prerequisite to building out any truly impactful startup.  So how do you establish product market fit before you actually have real customers?  Good question…I’m not sure.  However, here are some ways of working that we have taken on that will help us get as close to product market fit as possible before we actually have customers.

Test, Analyze, Iterate

Some startups have the luxury of developing a product, openly creating a community of alpha/ beta testers, and iterating…others may have to be more thoughtful in their approach depending on what type of product that is being released.  Our product requires a very involved approach to testing, therefore there are many things to take into account before gathering feedback.  We have to find the right groups to test, create the right process for testing, and then create a method for for analyzing feedback as it relates to the product and the process behind using it.

There are things we will discover organically and other indicators will appear based on our assumptions.  No matter how the feedback arises there is a need to analyze the feedback objectively and not be overly reactionary or dismissive.  I have a tendency to dismiss some very important feedback as it does not fit into the overall architecture of the design.  Sometimes this smugness can pay off as you know what’s best…but most of the time you don’t know best, and it’s best to listen to the feedback.

Iterating based on the feedback is something that has to be done mindfully.  All changes and add-ons need to fit in to the core DNA of the product.  Everything is connected…therefore too much change can create too many loose ends.  Sometimes it takes careful evaluations of a feature to make sure that change fits within the schema of the product…sometimes it takes considering that specific feature and how that feature relates to the rest of the product to make sure the adjustment fits.

Build Lean

Before you can test you need to make sure your product is “testable”.  To be testable you need to build what is necessary to test, without building up too much mass where it will be hard to pivot.

Building lean allows you to prototype rapidly with little resources.  This will move you into each testing stage faster and rely on qualified feedback to fully flush out product rather then conjecture.

Build too bulky, you will find yourself taking more time stripping out a fixing what doesn’t work than building and moving forward.  Agile development works if you want to move faster and smarter.

Scale Your Testing

We have to test in phases.  Each phase means we incorporate a new user type and scale up our testing group.  We have decided to have different goals for each phase.  One phase we are testing a small group on both the product and business processes.  The next phase will be all about scaling (both the product and our internal processes).  Then we beta test publicly which should really show if  we have hit product market fit!

If you can’t establish product market fit before your bring your product to market…you can bring a well fitted product to market.

How Rec.fm Can Change the World

Rec.fm Superman

A little over a month ago I began a stint as a consultant with Rec.fm, a new startup out of the valley that is dedicated to merging social commerce with cause donations.  A month later I am becoming more and more aware of the Non-Profit landscape and the themes of creativity and innovation.  The majority of the charities I talked to sparked from a possibility, an idea that would make the world a better place…most got to where they are today through innovation and ingenuity.  Rec.fm is based on an idea that we direct a slice of the billions of dollars moving by way of social commerce to causes that better our world!  The vehicle of product recommendations is the innovation needed to gain a slice of the bigger pie.  Just the type of innovation these NPO’s spawned from.

How it works:

Go to Rec.fm and start recommending products you love and find product recommendations from your friends and other people.  You can also ask the community for specific recommendations on product types.  For most people, the real exciting part is choosing a cause to give back to.  You can browse from our partner charities to find a cause you care most about and contribute to that cause with every rec you make.  In my eyes much of the beauty of Rec.fm is that it gives people an alternative way to give back.  Forget digging into your pockets to support entrepreneurs in a third world country (I contribute to Kiva.org), instead do actions you do on a weekly basis anyways (chat about a movie, talk about your Mac Book, etc.) and through that…give to those entrenrpeurs in third world countries.

How it can change the world:

Success stories like the Facebook app Causes and Charity Water are proving that many people want to and can change the world with the use of social media.  Bring social commerce and an individual’s social equity together and you have something powerful.  Rec.fm facilitates social powered buying based on recommendations from trusted sources…THE PEOPLE YOU KNOW!   With 90% of consumers participating in peer recommendations, (stat from Nielsen) we look to our friends for product recs than we do Google.  Now allow those people recomending products to their social circle to give back to causes they care about and you have a natural behavior followed by an altruistic motive.

If we as consumers began to consume intelligently and recommend product for a purpose we can make a huge difference in the world.  With Rec.fm donating over half of all site earning to the causes of a user’s choice, just a few recs from you can make a large impact.  One tweet and one shared link on Facebook can bring in hundreds or potential thousands of dollars to an important cause.

There are infinite possibilities.  Rec.fm can be a clear and simple way you and your friends connect when it comes to recommending products, it can be a source in searching for what celebrities buy (all in support of the charities of those celebrities).  It’s a powerful tool to use you “social equity” to do good!

I encourage everyone to use Rec.fm in 2011 (and beyond for that matter).  Start sharing with friends…ask your friends what they recommend and give back to causes you are passionate about.  I would love to hear back from you with any feedback you may have on how Rec.fm can better change the world!

Searching for a Heart of Gold

neil_young_heart_of_gold

My mom has always been a huge Neil Young fan…beyond HUGE.  We even watched the Super Bowl at his house when my brother and I were kids since our families had mutual friends.  My whole life I just thought he was a semi-aloof artist with an very interesting voice.  Today I listened…truly listened to Heart of Gold for the first time in my life.  I have heard the song hundreds of times with my mom humming along and archaically drumming on the counter tops while she cleaned the kitchen…but never really listened.

What I heard today was a song about the seeking nature of human beings.  The seeking nature to do good with no authentic reason why.  Something I have struggled with for the past couple years.

For the past couple years I have been seeking to embody my mantra of “adding unique value” to this world.  Deciding to make an impact as an entrepreneur I quickly found that I had to look beyond my own self fulfillment and focus on making a positive  impact on the world (as my entrepreneurial efforts had an adverse impact on my bank account and many other personal areas).  However, I have not been able to tap into a genuine state of generosity where what I do is fully for others.  Stuck in my mind I guess…not giving myself enough credit for giving and always needing to give more and focus outside myself…funny enough all these thoughts have been me motoring my own self worth (see the paradox?).

I have been able to find a ton of happiness in becoming a contributor.  By focusing outside myself allows me to be more present…happiness is in the present.  Happiness I am finding is becoming a contributor outside of ego.  I think this is the state of “being” Neil was searching for.

Listen to the song…it’s amazing!!

Soooo Right On

*The Holstee Manifesto….

Thanks Ashil!

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