Wednesday, October 29, 2008
I made it to the Economy Beat talk today put on by Venture Beat and a few others. I'm glad I went for a few reasons. First of all, it was good to see some optimism in the valley since Sequoia's apocalyptic talk which got all the news last week.
John Doerr. This guy is a genius. If you haven't seen him speak or listened to any of his words of wisdom, look into it. At the end of the VC panel, he outlined 10 things an entrepreneur/CEO can do during this downturn (see list here).
Ron Conway. Another really bright investor. His words of wisdom for the current economy - renegotiate everything. Even your rent.
While the VC's were optimistic and claimed they still are investing in things - the seasoned entrepreneurs added some reality to the matter. They claimed that the VC's aren't investing like they used to. That they're only investing in their companies that show progress. VC's will always tell you what paints them in a good light. Take it with a grain of salt.
What I really liked about the entrepreneur panel, was seeing Max Levchin speak. Now if Doerr is a genius from VC, Max is an entrepreneurial genius. I didn't know much about him before this, besides that he co-founded PayPal and founded Slide. But he was engaging and incredibly inspiring. He moved to the US when he was 16, from Russia, to start companies. That in itself is pretty amazing.
Some words of wisdom from Max:
1) Hire employees that think challenges are interesting
2) Don't listen to anybody - be a contrarian
3) Be quiet publicly
4) It sucks to be the only founder
Words from Nirav Tolia (ePinions.com)
1) Running a lean company should be a mindset
Jason Calacanis (Mahalo)
1) Focus on product
Some additional words of wisdom that I can't attribute to anyone, because honestly, I can't remember who said it. Prepare yourself for refreshing your employee IQ. Basically, hire and pay people who bring high intellect to your company. Do what you can to make sure your star employees are happy and contributing. You'll have to constantly work to make sure this happens.
The biggest highlight though, was my first interview. Fast forward to the end of that video embedded above....and enjoy. Yea, it's not perfect, but cut me some slack, it was my first time on camera.
While I spoke a while back about doing less and spending more time on product, these high value talks have proven they're worth their weight in gold.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
I think I owe you all a Vyoo post sometime soon. But first, here's an event I'll most likely be attending on Wednesday: EconomyBeat: "How to manage your start-up in a downturn". It looks promising, with a great lineup of speakers. John Doerr, Max Levchin, Ram Shriram, Ron Conway, and Matt Cohler, among others (here).
If you know me and you're interested in attending, send me a private email. There are a few tickets available for entrepreneurs at a discounted rate through BASES - The Business Association of Stanford (http://bases.stanford.edu/). Yes, I'm a Cal grad, but we're all entrepreneurs anyway. Also, you guys should join the BASES group on YouNoodle to stay up to date on worthwhile events - http://younoodle.com/groups/bases.
About the event, from BASES:
Start-ups will not be spared the effects of a recession, but what this means for entrepreneurs is an open question.
That's why VentureBeat has invited some of the most experienced and respected business leaders in Silicon Valley to debate the fallout and provide advice to start-up founders and executives about how to manage the mess we're in.
The event will take place at the Stanford Park Hotel between 8am-12pm on October 29th.
The format will be two roundtables, one for investors and one for entrepreneurs.
* John Doerr, Kleiner Perkins
* Ram Shriram, early investor in and founding board member at Google
* Max Levchin, Slide founder and PayPal co-founder
* Nirav Tolia, Epinions co-founder
* Matt Cohler, Benchmark Capital
* Jason Calacanis, founder of Mahalo
* Kittu Kolluri, New Enterprise Associates
You guys have probably already noticed this, but GMail finally unveiled their own emoticons recently. They're available by clicking the little face right above the space where you compose your messages. The same place where you change your font or bold whatever you're writing. I wondered when this would happen.
Yea, I'm 32, but I still like to use emoticons sometimes. Like when I'm acting like my usual sarcastic self - but not sure the other person is going to catch on. You know what I'm talking about...right?
I'd like to also say not to ever use these for business. The minute I get a resume or an inquiry and there's an emoticon in it, it's going in the trash can.
I was out with some friends on Friday night, having a few drinks. Those few drinks turned into a few more when we came up with the idea that we needed a drink special during these tough economic times. It was to be called "The Recession Special".
We ordered it up from the bartender, not knowing what to expect. She came through with flying colors when she offered us up some well Bourbon shots. It was fitting. Bourbon reminds me of old times... and it's an all American whiskey. It makes me think about guys down in Kentucky and Tennessee, crushing grain into mash to make Bourbon during Prohibition. Along with moonshine of course. And those were the years leading up to the Great Depression. It all made perfect sense as we head down that same road.
So, hit your local watering hole and order up the Recession Special. If they don't know what it is, just tell 'em.
Friday, October 24, 2008
One of the interesting people I met last night was Jeffrey Tannenbaum, CEO of Brands 2.0. He's a veteran entrepreneur, having started several other companies already, along with some healthy exits. His new product is straightforward - image overlay advertising for your website. It's subtle, but potentially effective, both for content providers and marketers.
They provide an additional point of sale for websites, either big or small - just like AdSense. I'm in the process of adding this to my blog - to get a feel for it. I have a few hesitations about the service, but what the hell, it's worth a try.
So what are my questions/concerns? The issue over whether you have control over the types of advertisements show up in your photos? If you don't, it may seem like you're endorsing a product that you don't want to endorse. What if Starbuck's coffee show's up on an image and I'm a Peet's fan. Will I care? Maybe. It's probably more likely if I'm passionate about a product.
Or how about from an advertiser's perspective? What if your brand is being advertised on a website that doesn't necessarily support your point of view? When ads are shown in banners or along the side of a site, users understand that they're there as ads. When they are actually embedded within personal photos, as I mentioned above, it may seem like an endorsement.
Another issue is that it may inhibit the user experience. Having a website inundated with banner ads is bad enough, but now additional real estate is starting to be taken. When is the whitespace in your webpage going to be used for advertising? I'm sure people are working on that.
I'm also curious to learn about the CPM and CPC model they have - and how it relates to the rates AdSense provides for example. I'd think they should be higher since they're much more visible.
Now if this product's technology can handle those issues - then they may be onto something. For example, this could be a perfect solution to Facebook's monetization issue.
I attended TheFunded.com's Event Connect last night at Tesla Motors. It was an event for Bay Area CEO's to meet, greet, eat, drink, and test drive Tesla cars. The quality of CEO's was great - so the networking was actually of value.
Unfortunately I didn't get to test drive the Tesla. There were too many people waiting in line and I had a bit too much to drink as the night wore on.
TheFunded, whom I've written about before, is a website for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs. It's our take on VC's. Our experiences and most importantly, our opinions. It's an anonymous site that really lets you bring it to those VC's that make you feel like shit when you pitch. And man, we all know that stepping outside some of those meetings, all you want to do is vent. Well, you can.
It's a bit of a challenge to get membership. You need to be a legit CEO which they do a background check on. So you need a website and your bio up there. And no VC's allowed - which let's us be much more honest.
There were a few products that I learned about last night that I thought I'd pass along. But I'll give them the decency of their own post.
Monday, October 20, 2008
This post is more of a lead-in to a post about selfishness that I've been thinking about for a few weeks now. I've just had a hard time putting it into a post - because I have so many thoughts on the matter.
What prompts this post? Well, I've recently received an expensive lesson in time and energy. Why? Because I didn't have the details of the relationship worked out, in writing, in advance. I've always operated under the assumption that honesty begets honesty. A cyclical process. As I've moved forward with Vyoo, I was told many times to get everything in writing. But, naively, I operated under the guise of trusting other good intentioned people. Bad idea! Always get things in writing!
I've been helping a company with their sales here in the States. A company that I've developed a great relationship with over the past year. I like the founders. Great people. I've met with them quite a bit and discussed how they could operate here in the States. We had initially talked about putting me on retainer along with sales commissions for any work I sent their way in addition to meeting with potential clients. Yes, this detracted from my work at Vyoo - but something has to pay the bills. And bartending, GMAT tutoring, and selling cars (which has all but ended) just weren't cutting it.
Fast forward. I pushed a project through recently. And we hadn't discussed referral fees up to that point. Several weeks after the project started - I brought this up. My contact pushed this out because they were busy. Pushed it out for several months, which I thought was a bit strange to say the least. The project was recently finished and the customer intends to initiate another few projects. Still no deal on the fee structure.
We had a chat last week - and the details were finally sent to me in the last couple of days. They want to future date all fees. Future date? The project is done. There may not be any future projects? The economy is in tatters here.
It seemed strange. I'm in the process of a discussion about this so things may resolve themselves. But I'm not optimistic. At this point, it's really become more a matter of principal and not about the money. I have to say, I'm really surprised by their actions - or really, their inactions.
The real lesson - No matter how great people are, how trusting your relationship is with someone, or how you think people will act or respond. Think again. Everyone, in business, is in it for themselves.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
This morning I attended the Orrick Total Access panel which featured Gilman Louie (Alsop Louie), Rich Moran (Venrock), George Northup (AuctionDrop), and Dave Rosenberg (MuleSource). It was a great panel. The talk: Top 10 Startup Mistakes.
I gotta say, Orrick has this down. I've attended lots of panels in the past and these I've found to be the most relevant and informative of all of them. And that's giving props to a law firm - which I normally don't like doing. The moderator kept the discussion moving and relevant. And the panel was full of insightful comments about what to do and not to do. There was a good balance of differing opinions too - because we all know, there's no one right way to do something. I have to say, Gilman Louie of Alsop Louie was a riot! He described every entrepreneurial move in terms of either: 1) Climbing Mt. Everest or 2) Creating a weapon. I guess since he's now working on some CIA projects - he has the analogy down. Anyway, he's a fired up individual who tells it like it is. I'd imagine if you pitched him, he'd tear you apart.
Rich Moran on the other hand told some more mellow stories. He said that VC's notice everything. If you roll in hungover to your pitch, if you didn't shower, if you didn't sleep, if you have spelling mistakes, if you fight with your new sales guy in the meeting. His favorite story though was when he looked out of his window one morning and noticed a group of guys smoking a joint. He saw these same guys minutes later pitching him their idea. Long story short, they didn't get the funding. Lesson: don't be stupid.
George Northup gave the entrepreneur and open source perspective while Dave Rosenberg gave the entrepreneur/psychology perspective. He was selling his psychotherapist whom he loved. Because he's a big psychology guy though, he may understand a lot about what we're doing. Note to self.
So compared to Wilson's Entrepreneur Workshops - this is much more laid back and interactive. If you're looking for a classroom setting - hit up Wilson. If you want a good, entertaining, and education panel - come to these.
Here's the next one in Menlo Park (though they have them in SF too): register
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Well, today is Blog Action Day 2008. The theme? Poverty.
Blog Action Day is an effort to engage bloggers in a discussion about an issue that affects the world, interpreted as we see fit. Unfortunately, the current economic state will probably take some light away from this causee, since people are growing increasingly concerned about their own well being. That's how life works I guess.
My concern around poverty lies in the heart of Southeast Asia, a place I've spent a lot of time over the past few years. I spent 6 months living in Thailand before business school and many months traveling throughout Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. It's a place I've experienced poverty quite closely. Where I watched a woman with a head injury lie in the street, slowly dying, because there weren't any emergency crew within miles of Baghan.
In that same town, I was also rewarded with the experience of a lifetime. I met a girl who wanted nothing more than to share her home with a complete stranger. She invited me to dinner with her family which required a horse carriage to get there. The path was lighted by a flashlight because there was no electricity. Dinner was lit by candle. The family offered me what little they could to eat and never asked for anything in return. They wanted me to enjoy the hospitality of their country. And that I did. But I knew, as I left, that everyday was a struggle for them. No electricity or running water made it difficult to survive. Medical services, vaccinations, and other health measures were few and far between. And cyclone Nargis certainly left the country devastated. While we hear very little about it now, I'm sure the devastation will be felt for years to come.
It's strange, living in America, where we take so much for granted. We don't think twice about flipping a light switch or drinking from the faucet. But around the world, things can be vastly different.
I'm not encouraging you to donate. I've done that in the past. But I am encouraging you to think about your own experiences with poverty. The time your heart ached for a child begging for food. The time you helped the homeless just because it was the right thing to do. The time you just sat and talked to someone who lives a life less enjoyable, to try to cheer them on, because everyday is a struggle for them to survive.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
As my roommate was flipping through Newsweek this week, he came across an article entitled, "Facebook's Roar Becomes a Meow" (here). He started reading out portions of it because it was something we'd discussed a few months back. In fact, I wrote about it in May (here). My post just talks about the ridiculously baseless Facebook valuation. I lived through the dotcom bust. I had seen these types of valuations before. Why was it any different this time? They couldn't figure out how to make money! And yet they had a $15B valuation. Come on! You can read it yourself, so I won't repeat it. Anyway, Daniel Lyons, who wrote the Newsweek article, wrote basically the exact some thing. Although it's a bit easier to write about it now. One point that he made that I thought was pretty indicative of their success - which I didn't know, is that Facebook makes about $2.50 per user per YEAR! Nice. And now people (even the co-founder) are apparently jumping ship. Where are they going? Who knows. But they're leaving.
Anyway, I spent about 3 minutes thinking about Facebook. They obviously can't make money using the traditional online advertising methods. But I think I figured out how they can be a little more traditional and start to generate some revenue. All I did was think about a comparable. Not a comparable company - but a comparable metaphor. What is Facebook? Is there anything that they're like... in the real world? In my opinion, it's basically a playground. It's a much bigger playground than the one we're traditionally used to - ya know, the one I played kickball on and the one my dad played handball on. Think about it. You go to Facebook to keep up with friends. Sort of like what you used to do on the playground. You can see them (photos), talk to them (messages/posts/mail), play games with them (apps), advertise your party or event, etc.. I mean...that's what it is. You don't really do anything else there. So how do companies make money on playgrounds. They make money advertising the things you do and use on the playground. You are playing basketball with a Nike ball - there's an advertisement. You are wearing a North Face jacket - well, there's an advertisement. Drinking a coke... you get it. FB is an expression of your life. The things that matter to you. If there are products that matter to you - what better way for an advertiser to leverage that?
So here are some options. How about instead of dressing yourself up, you dress your page up? But make it integrated. Not the "I Like" application. Or Beacon. Because that's too in your face. Too forced. But actually integrate it. When you wear a Nike hat or drink a coke on the real life playground - you're not saying to everyone, explicitly, hey...I love coke! It's more subtle. It just fits in with you. And by association, that model works! And that's why when celebs use stuff. It works. I'm not going to go into my ideas of exactly how you could do this... because I'm sure you can go from there. Just give me some credit when you start generating revenue Facebook. And kick me back some cash.
Just as an aside... another angle is to sponsor certain actions. Like I could dictate that my Wall was brought to you by "Coke" or whatever. Now Coke is getting a billion page views. People actually notice it. And it works better than those ads that show up on the side of Facebook. Because nobody looks at those anyway.
Just my 2 cents...
Thursday, October 9, 2008
So last night was a pretty scary night out there in the Valley. A foreshadow of the impending Halloween season. GigaOm reported on a special meeting that Sequoia Capital called for it's portfolio companies (see here). If you're faint of heart, don't read it. It certainly was, like its title suggests, a Doomsday warning. The sky is falling, earth is crumbling and burning, Satan has appeared, and the apocalypse is upon us. No company is going to survive! No entrepreneur can possibly make it. This is ten times as bad as the initial dotcom bubble.
Relax. Unless you're burning through your cash like it's nobodies business. Or not making money because you have no business model. Or don't have users. Or have no strategy. Then you can worry a bit. But then again, you shouldn't have made it this far anyway. Consider yourself lucky that you got away with as much as you did. Close shop and save the little money you had. Especially because your friends and family are going to need it.
While the people who made the remarks at Sequioa's meeting are incredibly bright and undoubtedly the leading investors and even leading thought leaders for VC in the Valley - they're also alarmists. If you're scared off by this rhetoric - get out of building a business. You shouldn't be an entrepreneur anyway.
Sure we're in for rough times. Who doesn't know that? Are we in a recession? Yes. Are we in for a depression? Maybe. Didn't I say a few days ago that $700B won't do much to cure our problems? Yes. Didn't I say months ago that we're in a tech bubble (here)? Yes. So listen to me know when I tell you what I told you yesterday. If you're building a business that's creating real "tangible" value for your consumers. That has a business model. That isn't a one off improvement. You can be fine. Just don't be stupid. Don't have launch parties to launch a product destined for failure. Don't hire people you don't need. Spend that money building something cool (by cool here, I don't mean Twitter for business). How long until Yammer hits the dead pool on Tech Crunch? How long until Facebook has to lay people off? Ebay already has. Who didn't see that coming (here, here)?
I've spent about $20,000 in the past year on Vyoo. It's not a lot. Sure it's taken longer than I'd ever imagine. And far longer because I can't pay anyone. But hell - I'm doing it because I love what I'm doing. I'm passionate about my company. And I want to start a great business. What better time to do this now that all of the other scaredy cats are running away?
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
There's been a lot of talk about what this economy means for entrepreneurs here in the Valley and throughout the world. Let me start by saying that it doesn't bother me at all. In fact, I embrace it!
For all of you young entrepreneurs who weren't with us during the dotcom bust of the early millenium, you may be a bit apprehensive about what we're in for. But I say, fear not. For two main reasons. The first is short term while the second is a bit longer term.
In the short term... meaning throughout the end of this year, there's lots of money still being spent in the valley. Last year was another banner year for VC funds. In fact, the first two quarters of '08 already have outpaced '07 (see image above) from a money raising perspective. While that trend certainly won't continue through this quarter and next (and beyond), that money still needs to be spent. After all, it's not going to do those VC's any good to sit on all of it.
In the long term - there are quite a few more reasons why this is good for us. Ever since following the companies who pulled through the last downturn and also educating myself with some great articles I saw over the last half year (Inc. magazine for one, here), I've realized that one of the most promising times to start a new venture can be during a downturn. Why?
1) First of all, you can kiss some competition goodbye. In a tight market you'll see less people willing to take a risk, leave their comfortable job, and jump into the uncertainties of starting a company. And you'll see more people who were half assing a startup or doing it as a part time endeavor, just give up. So, very happily, I'm hoping we see less of those "twitter for basketball" companies throw a website up and get funding. It's natural selection. And I like it.
2) With less competition, hiring good people will be that much easier. Less opportunities for those brilliant people out there. And you should always be looking for brilliant people. People better than you. What HR department wouldn't embrace a time like this? That is, as long as they're not downsizing. And if you're a well run startup. Or an early stage one, you shouldn't have enough employees to even think about downsizing.
3) The companies who have already raised and spent their money will find it harder to raise and spend more if they're not proving their worth. So if you're one of those companies - well, it's time to get your act together.
4) Getting funded on an idea and some users won't cut it anymore. If web 1.0 was about eyeballs, web 2.0 is certainly about users. Up until recently (and probably still), if you had users, you were getting money. I think we're going to see that angle dry up. Now it's going to be about a business model. About sustainability. And about making money or the potential to make money.
5) You learn to be frugal. This is a great learning experience because you value the money that people give you to build a successful business. No wasted money on employees you don't need, PR you don't need, office space you don't need, and t-shirts you don't need. You make things work and pour more time and energy into becoming successful. You're more calculated and focused. You do things for a reason. It's the way a business should be built - the good old fashioned way.
6) I've always thought that regardless of the economy, if you have a good business, you'll get your money. If you're providing a tangible value to people and you have a way to generate revenue from that, you'll be able to leverage that into funding.
So maybe you work a little harder, eat a little less, and sleep fewer hours. But if you're passionate about your idea, don't let a hiccup (or a total choke) in the economy get you down. There are plenty of history lessons about companies flying high through a recession. And there's no reason you can't be one of them.
Monday, October 6, 2008
As an aside, our alpha is about up. Ok, so we're a few days behind schedule, but most of it is due to GoGrid. They haven't solved our DNS issues yet.
During the weekend I was redoing my desktop. I saw this sweet background and decided it was time to change the look and feel of my PC. I found this awesome product called RocketDock and wanted to share it with you all.
RocketDock provides the Mac application launcher for the PC. You know, that smooth looking bar along the bottom of any Mac where you launch applications from. It's allowed me to completely remove everything from my desktop. I don't like that thing cluttered anyway. It's pretty awesome. While some of you probably like your desktop cluttered, this helps nonetheless.
Also, for some slick wallpaper...check out InterfaceLIFT. They rock.
UPDATE: I wrote the following last night...before the markets opened...
Let me start by saying I'm absolutely unqualified to be making comments on the economy. I've had very little training besides an undergrad economics course and two grad economics courses (micro and macro economics). But I read a lot and try to research things that interest me... so I'm going to opine anyway.
I'd also like to say that I'm making these statements with no political motive whatsoever. In fact, I don't even know if it's clear which side each party is on. As I see it, it was a bi-partisan bailout vote with both Republicans and Democrats voting for and against it.
Here's why I think the bailout is...or at least in the state in which it was passed, a bad idea.
Most importantly, it's a band-aid solution. We need to attack the underlying problems. So what are those?
1) There's an oversupply of housing. What happens when there's an oversupply of something? To oversimplify it, there will be a sale. Some way to try to get rid of the extra inventory. Which is what should happen. But I guess we're not going to let it happen. You can't keep propping up supply problems by providing cheap money for people.
2) Sub prime mortgages. The worst of these were mortgages were ones in which the monthly payments simply covered the interest and not the principal - but the real problem was selling these mortgages to high risk individuals, with the government's help. How could institutions sell mortgages in good faith, with complicity by the government, to people who couldn't afford them? And what do we do with them now? I don't think that's been answered. But I think I know why this happened. Because people were making money so they didn't care.
3) How do we pay the 700 billion anyway? Simple, we sell China some more debt. China currently holds $1 trillion of our debt (our debt is currently $9 trillion). What's another trillion? Our debt to GDP ratio continues trending upwards. China also holds $1.5 trillion of US currency. None of these things is a good sign. And I don't think its necessarily good that China holds 1/9th of our debt and soon maybe more.
4) So we just paid the 700 billion. And China paid for it. But where did the money really come from? Well, we just printed it. We're not on the gold standard anymore, so we just make more, without anything backing it. What's that mean for Americans? It's inflation which is really just a tax that the public pays for. Our money is worth less - because there's much more of it in circulation.
5) Now that we've decided to spent the $700 billion, what are we going to spend it on? Who knows. Pump it into the economy to back up the mortgages? So lots of people think that's great. There will be less mortgage defaults. Which I guess means the terms of these sub prime mortgages will change - because how else could we prevent loans from defaulting? I hear so many people talk about how this is going to save the little guy. So if it does actually save people from defaulting on their mortgages, then what happens to the poor people who have already lost their houses? They're just shit out of luck? I have a hard time believing this is going to save the little guy anyway.
6) Who's running this anyway? Oh, Paulson? Just an ex-CEO of an investment bank. He certainly doesn't have any conflict of interest in this.
7) Now that we passed the bill, printed the money, and spent it, what are other countries going to think and what's that mean? Well, lots of people might not care what other countries think - but you should care because it will affect you more than you know. You see, America has been a superpower, and the only one, for years. We've been able to influence world markets (we have the largest sphere of influence in the world), both politically and economically. Around the world people buy up dollars, sell, trade, operate in dollars. Dollars are used everywhere for everything. This might all change. And along with this change, our influence changes. And so does our standing in the world. There are already plenty of countries lining up against the US (Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Bolivia... and it keeps growing). An economic mess and a devaluation of the dollar will only serve to grow that list and make their voices louder.
Just a few months ago - China mentioned the possibility of dropping the dollar. And that almost sent world markets into a dollar selling frenzy. Which further caused the dollar to drop. If the dollar gets dropped - our economy will be reeling even further. We need to reinforce the value of our dollar - and that doesn't happen by handing out $700 billion. It happens by solving the problems that got us into this mess.
8) What are we going to do to ensure this doesn't happen again? We should start with some oversight. Some rules. And some regulations. But I don't really see a good plan for this now. Hedge funds, derivatives, and all of these other creative financial instruments have been left to Wall Street without oversight. And it's created this huge bubble. I think that should be our first priority.
We're spending billions on wars. We have a housing mess. A Wall Street mess. A loss of consumer confidence. A loss of confidence from our allies. And our growing list of enemies. In addition, the US has a negative savings rate. That's right, our people spend more than they earn. And this didn't just happen now, these are 2005 statistics. Do you know when the last time that happened was? During the Great Depression. China on the other hand has a 35% savings rate.