Month: April 2011
I’ve got an entrepreneur focused deal on Brad Feld’s Amazing Deals today. The deal is for Udemy.com, a website that has online courses on a variety of interesting topics. When Udemy came to me, they were interested in offering a deal on one of their $99 courses that was pertinent to startups. After some negotiation, we decided to do an offer where you get their five top startup courses, priced at a total of over $400, for only $59.
The courses that you get in this Amazing Deal are Raising Capital for Startups, Attracting, Hiring, and Retaining the Best People, Writing a Business Plan, “Startup and Go”: The first steps to building a technology company, and Social Marketing for Startups. Each course has multiple classes (usually around 45 minutes) taught by people like Phil Libin, Aaron Patzer, Dave McClure, Naval Ravikant, Russ Fradin, and Auren Hoffman.
Once you make your purchase, you can use your voucher code multiple times on Udemy, once for each course. If your are looking for a heavy dose of this information in on place, take a look.
I love watching our portfolio companies iterate on their products, especially when they are in the early days. Initial efforts often provide nothing more than learnings, but turning those learnings into an improved product offering is a huge part of what being an early stage company is all about.
BigDoor has been going through that iteration process over this past year and this last week they quietly launched a pilot of a new feature called “Quests” on UGO.com and a dozen other sites. BigDoor partnered with the talented folks at SpectrumDNA to bring Quests to life. At first blush Quests may just appear to be the addition of a directed-engagement type game mechanic, but what is going on behind the scenes is really interesting.
The BigDoor team believes strongly that gamification should be a profit-center for web publishers and app developers, not a cost-center. As a result, they don’t charge for the usage of their API or their widgets. However, in order to fulfill their vision of providing a free gamification platform as well as sending checks to publishers, they’ve known that they needed a solution that worked not only for publishers and end-users, but also for advertisers as well.
Just in time for ad:tech, BigDoor’s Quests allow advertisers to create a series of tasks that direct users to visit multiple sites/pages and in the process deeply engage those users into their brand. The user earns rewards (badges, virtual currency and discounts) for completing quests, and the publisher makes money every time a quest is completed.
Any solution that gives advertisers traffic, publishers money, and users rewards has the promise of being a big win. It’s too early to tell yet if this first iteration of Quests will accomplish all of that, but the early numbers look promising. Across all of their pilot partners BigDoor is already seeing that 35% of initiated Quests are completed (a Quest requires a user to visit and interact with five different websites), and 40% of users who complete a Quest tweet or share their accomplishment.
Having worked with the BigDoor team since mid-year last year, I know they will listen to their advertisers and publishers, watch the metrics, learn from this pilot, and then iterate and improve before they make Quests available to all publishers and advertisers sometime this summer. If you want to check out what Quests look like now, visit UGO.com and “Start Your Quest Now.” If you are an advertiser or a publisher who is interested in participating in the Quests pilot, feel free to contact the BigDoor team to see if there is a fit.
I’ve had a number of interesting conversions about the intersection of the virtual and the physical world since I wrote the post Did Someone Ruin Foursquare For Me Yesterday? Kashmir Hill in Forbes did a quick email interview with me titled Venture Capitalist Gets Creeped Out by Foursquare which captured a few new thoughts and I spent some time the other night at a TechStars Mentor dinner talking with Alex Rainert, the head of product for Foursquare, who had spent some time digging into this issue to try to figure out what was going on.
When I reflect on this, it’s clearly a “me problem” and not a “Foursquare problem.” Specifically, I’ve been chaotic and much too promiscuous with regard to my social graph. I don’t have a clear rule set about who I accept as friends on different services (I pretty much accept everyone) and as a result don’t have much control over what I broadcast. When I reflect on this, I also realize that it has rendered services like Facebook and LinkedIn largely useless to me as an information consumption mechanism.
Given my social network promiscuity I realize that I’ve fallen into a broadcast-only trap. Basically, I’m broadcasting on all the various services I use, but not consuming much new information, except on Twitter. When I extend this to my overall information consumption pattern, I realize that a lot of signal is once again getting lost in the noise, especially around the RSS feeds that I try to read regularly versus the endless amount of web media that is now distributed by RSS.
Toss in Quora, Stack Exchange, Disqus, and a few other high signal services into the mix and my approach has broken down. While I’m still able to manage my email, I’m struggling to get the right kind of utility out of my social graph.
As a result, I’ve decided to make one of my Q2P1s to rethink and re-architect my entire social graph. While this will require lots of effort, my expectation is that I’ll get two clear benefits out of this. First, I’ll reset how I use my social graph. But more importantly, I’ll get a better handle on the dynamics – and gaps – that exist in using and managing a very active social graph. Once again, I get to use my corner of the universe as a laboratory and hope to find some new important technologies and companies as a result. And I’ll blog the experience so you can help me figure it out while learning from what I do.
I’m back home in Boulder about to head out for a long run in the mountains. As I was catching up on email from last week (not quite done yet) I was reflecting on the awesome week I had in New York. I had a couple of board meetings, spent a bunch of time at TechStars, gave some talks, had a pair of really fun late night dinners, had two strong runs (including one amazing one) along the east river, and stayed up until 1am drinking scotch with my partner Seth one night who was also in New York for a few days this week.
On Thursday night I gave a talk at NYU Startup Week. I followed Nate Westheimer, who runs the incredibly vibrant NY Tech Meetup. Nate led off by asserting that NY was the best place in the world to start a company and hypothesized that in the past year I had probably spent more time in NY than in the bay area. Since I track where I sleep every night (and have since 1/1/09), I was able to quickly answer this question going back 29 months.
And the winner is – New York – by seven days.
In the endless “where is the best place to start a company” argument, I think many of the ones on this list (Boulder, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle) are amazing places to create a company. They all have different strengths and weaknesses but reinforce my belief that many cities in the US can build long term durable entrepreneurial communities.
I was at an board meeting yesterday morning for a new seed deal that we’ve done that will be announced next week. I love the product vision – it’s in an area that I’ve been working in for a while across a variety of companies and will take a new approach to a very old and persistent problem.
The entrepreneurs have been living the specific problem for a long time and believe they have a unique and very informed way to solve it. Given that the company has had no funding to date, the founders have been scrappy and have cobbled together a really impressive prototype that they’ve been using to get early customer feedback. It’s an ambitious product vision that will take a while to fully roll out.
In lean startup language, they’ve got a minimal viable product. However, they are faced with two choices. The first is to polish and release the current prototype. The second is to use the prototype to continue to explore and understand the specific customer fit while building a production version from scratch that incorporates much of what they learned during the prototype development.
In their case, the customer is a business customer rather than a mass market consumer web product. Consequently, having 100,000 free users is not important in the near term – I’d much rather see them have 100 paying customers which might translate in several thousand users across all of these customers, as our premise is that organizations will have between 1 and 100 early users of the product.
We spent a lot of time in the meeting talking about this choice as well as overall product cadence. We left it up to the founders to figure out what they wanted to do and what they wanted the cadence to be, but we encouraged a one year top down view, rather than a quarterly bottoms up view. We encouraged them look at where they want to be in a year (remember – this is a seed deal, so we have plenty of ability and desire to continue to fund as they make progress, with or without new investors) and work backwards to a product cadence that works for them.
I don’t know if they’ll have a once a week, twice a month, once a month, or once a quarter release cycle. But I’m fine with any of them as long as they pick the cadence and stick with it. Given my deep belief in an agile development approach, I don’t really care what’s in the actual incremental releases at this point as I fully expect the furthest out they’ll be able to see is one quarter.
It reminded me of something I often tell TechStars teams – “slow down to speed up.” I see so many startups rushing to just get stuff out, without thinking hard about “what that stuff is and why anyone would care.” Part of this is lack of understanding of what you are trying to accomplish, but some of this is a lack of product cadence. When you have a clearly defined cadence (e.g., a monthly release) you can focus on “what’s next” while in parallel explore “what’s after next.” But in the absence of a cadence, you are always working on “what’s next” and never looking out any further.
On April 11th, I’ll be the interviewee at CU Silicon Flatirons Entrepreneurs Unplugged. The event will be held at ATLAS Room 100 from 6:15pm to 7:30pm; Brad Bernthal and Jill Van Matre will be interviewing me.
If you’ve come to an Entrepreneurs Unplugged event in the past, you know that I’m usually the interviewer with help from Brad Bernthal. I’ve loved playing the part of a very amateur Charlie Rose with some great Boulder (and Denver) entrepreneurs. It’ll be fun to be on the receiving end this time. I promise I’ll tell at least one new story that’s never been heard before.
“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble.” – Macbeth
Every time I hear the word “bubble” I think of that quote from Macbeth. I also think of Tulip Mania and the South Sea Company which purportedly was the source of the concept of an economic bubble. And then I remember Charles Mackay’s classic book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds.”
When I returned last weekend from a week off the grid I encountered the word “bubble” over and over again when referring to the tech industry. A variety of people were using it to describe the current situation. This has been going on for at least a quarter or two, but the velocity of it seems to have picked up with a wave of high priced financings along with large financings for nascent companies. While plenty of tech bloggers were tossing around the word “bubble”, I also noticed it among the mainstream media. But more interestingly I saw it in my twitter feed from some entrepreneurs and VCs who I respect a lot. So I spent some time on my run yesterday rolling the idea of a bubble around in my head.
In the tech industry, the great Internet bubble inflated between 1999 and 2000 and deflated (or popped) in 2001. I remember it well as 2001 was easily the most challenging year of my business life. I made a lot of mistakes in 1999 and 2000 that I’ve hopefully learned from (I believe I have) and took on a lot of challenging things between 2001 and 2005 which laid the groundwork for the business context that I find myself in today. So, in hindsight, the great Internet bubble of 2001 was very powerful and useful to me, even though it was very painful.
I refuse to make predictions as the only thing I know with certainty is that some day I will be dead. I view predictions as irrelevant in the context of what I am working on and trying to accomplish. Sure – I pay attention to what is going on around me, have hypotheses about what’s going to happen, and adjust my behavior accordingly. But I think making predictions with certainty such as “we are in a bubble” are useless, especially in the absence of recommendations about what to do to either defend against or take advantage of the situation.
I find this discussion about bubbles especially bizarre and entertaining against the backdrop of the downward economic cycle of the past few years. In 2008, everyone in business and politics was consumed with the “global economic crisis”. However, entrepreneurs just put their heads down and continued to accelerate the current web revolution which started around 2004 with “Web 2.0” being articulated by Tim O’Reilly. Today, there is once again enormous focus on entrepreneurship as the salvation for many things, with the naysayers starting to say “but it’s a bubble” or some variant.
If you recognize that we are in a strong, positive, upward segment of the current “tech company creation cycle”, that’s more than enough. You should accept that we’ll be back in a downward part of the cycle at some point, but that we don’t know if it’ll be in a week, month, year, or decade. We also won’t know the slope of the curve although if you are a hedge fund trader you probably think you can calculate the derivative of some equation about the future that will tell you what to buy and sell. Whatever – have fun and good luck.
If you are an entrepreneur, you can build a significant, powerful, sustainable business taking advantage of market expansion during the up cycle and consolidating your position during the down cycle. Don’t get distracted by speculating about “bubbles” other than the ones in your bathtub. Instead, spend your energy creating amazing products, thrilling your customers, building an awesome organization, and living your life. Always remember that one day you too will be dead.
While I was on vacation Founder Labs announced their New York program this summer. I’m a big fan of Shaherose Charania and Baat Enosh and agreed to help support the program along with Fred and Joanne Wilson and a number of other folks that support entrepreneurship in New York.
Founder Labs fits in the “pre-accelerator” category – it’s aimed at people that want to experiment with entrepreneurship. It doesn’t require a full time commitment, but it is a very intense program for five weeks. This year’s program is focused primarily on entrepreneurs interested in mobile applications. While Shaherose and Baat are still tinkering with the formula, they are off to a great start and I’m glad to see them trying it out in New York in addition to San Francisco so they can get some perspective on the dynamics in different geographies.
Applications are now open for the New York program until 4/20. While there is a modest cost for the program, scholarships are available so don’t let that slow you down.
We’ve decided to implement a new phone system in our office. When I posted about our search for our video conferencing system, we got a ton a great feedback so I’m once again looking for your help.
We’ve been using an older version of Cisco’s Call Manager (VoIP based) that we’ve had for the past decade. While it has worked flawlessly and has a ton of bells and whistles, we simply do not use them. Occasionally someone will transfer a call and that’s about it. Call Manager is currently fed by two T1’s that flex between voice and data. We have a total about about 20 phones in the office.
Our goal is to rip all of this out (including the T1s) and replace it with something much simpler that has low to no incremental cost beyond whatever hardware we buy up front. We’re currently considering two different possibilites, one were we have no phones at all and everyone uses cell phones and a second where we continue to have a physical phone (or just a headset) and use cell phones as a backup.
Scenario #2 is where we’re looking for input. We are looking for a system that would involve no hardware at the office (save for possibly having phones/headsets on the desks) and that would not require dedicated T1’s as we want to use our existing Comcast line for this.
We’ve so far spent time exploring Google Voice but have had too many complaints of unacceptable voice quality for it to be a viable solution today. While Skype is another possible solution we have existing numbers that would need to be ported (or at least forwarded in some way) so Skype doesn’t feel like a great option either.
Thoughts or suggestions?