Why I Co-Founded Start It Up Delaware

I worked/lived in Delaware for almost a decade. As a transplant and Chicagoan at heart I have heard all the “Dela-where?” jokes and made some as well. But after ten years hanging out in the state where they ask which high school you went to right after they meet you I can tell you that all those jokers are right. Delaware is small. And when it comes to startups, size matters.

The Seed

Almost three years ago an idea started to percolate amongst a few of us hanging out in Wilmington.  Two guys who were young and naive enough to think that co-working could work in downtown Wilmington had brought a number of us together periodically for what would eventually become our 400+ member Delaware Tech Meetup.  But then it was a much smaller group that would meet to share stories, practice pitching and dream about what the startup ecosystem in Delaware could be.

Size Matters

One of the great strengths of working in a small business-focused state is the access you have to key people.  From business leaders to government you are never further than one degree of separation from the person you need. We saw this in spades when an eduction focused startup came to talk to us.  After determining that getting to decision makers in school districts was on their critical path it was a short step to arrange for a meeting with both the head of the largest school district and the Secretary of Education for the state.

Fast Forward

This past Monday, three years later, I joined a group of well over 150 people to re-launch a newly renovated, larger co-working space.  Surrounded by representatives from all parts of the ecosystem we listened as Governor Markell spoke about the importance, the progress and the contribution of the initiative to date. Led by Mona Parikh this initiative has grown well beyond our initial discussions.  With growing corporate support and an ever improving cadre of startups Delaware is defining its identity amongst the I95 corridor.  No longer will Wilmington be just the stop between DC and Philly for Geeks on a Train.

Grateful

I left Delaware soon after we established the Public/Private partnership with the state that defines our official launch in 2012.  I have returned many times to share my learnings from new home in New Orleans and support the various events that have led up to this point.  Each time it has been eye-opening to see the growth, the new faces, the enthusiasm.  While I will continue to make New Orleans my home I will aways be only a call away for my Start It Up Delaware family.  “A catalyst for dreamers” is an appropriate mission for the coming years and a great recognition that this all started with a bunch of dreamers.

Dreamers

Thanks are due to many but here are a few that I want to personally call out from the early days.

  • Wes Garnett and Steve Roetteger – Thank you for being crazy enough to build us our first clubhouse.
  • Brian Sowards – Thank you for your vision and spark.
  • Brad Wason – Thank you for taking the leap of faith so early (and often).
  • Tim McIntosh – Thank you for being my sanity check and wingman for much of this ride.
  • Jeff Rollins & Lee Mikles – Thank you for be willing to listen to me and trusting me enough to join and lead the board.
  • Dan Freeman – For being the best university partner we could have asked for and for building the pipeline of entrepreneurs with the Horn program.
  • Mona Parikh – Thank you for leading by example and being the best connector the community could ask for.
  • The Net DE community – You guys rock!

If you are ever in Delaware come join us HERE

The “Essential” Use Case

A couple of months ago, John Borthwick, founder of Betaworks, was featured in Inc. Magazine describing what he looks for in companies.  In the article Borthwick defines an “essential company”. (the entire article here)

When we use the term essential company, we mean products or companies that are essential to people’s habits and daily workflow.”

Borthwick’s term,  “essential”,  put a name to what me and my cofounders have been focused on as we prepare to launch our startup. Like many startups we see a big opportunity to solve a need in the market. Like many startups our solution has the opportunity to be a powerful suite of valuable features. Like all startups we had to pick where to start.

In order to define our MVP’s focus we used a simple 2 dimensions chart. This simple framework allowed us to have productive conversations and to make, what we hope are directionally correct choices.  One dimension was for our users.  Important for obvious reasons.  The second was for us.

  • User Value. We knew that unless our MVP had significant value to our target market we would struggle with adoption. The promise of a full feature set may test well in customer development interviews but if the first step isn’t compelling we will never get the chance to build it.
  • Learning Value Dimension. We are believers in the lean methodology and the power of learning as a differentiator and key to success. For this reason we looked at how much learning we would gain from the launch and use of the various features. Learning requires use and frequency of use accelerates the feedback cycle.  Essential companies by definition generate more learning cycles.

Our map of features led us to view the resulting matrix in this way.

MVPquad

Building an essential company also raises the bar on our understanding of our target user, their daily habits, and how we fit in to it (design thinking). So the importance of learning is even more pronounced.  Our vision is to become the essential tool for our target industry so we are launching our app with essential at the core. As a startup we know that learning is essential and we look forward to sharing our learnings .

What are your thoughts to our approach?  How do you pick your MVP features?

Social Impact Startups

A few weeks ago I had the chance to work with the University of Delaware’s Entrepreneurship program and to speak at the Delaware Tech Forum’ Meetup. As a founding member of Start It Up Delaware (SIUD), before moving to New Orleans just before the ribbon cutting, I can think of no better way to continue my investment in what I am sure will be a remarkable mid-Atlantic hub of innovation. Chris Wink from Technical.ly Philly wrote a nice piece on “the place to be someone”, here.

My talk focused on the importance of startups focused on social impact and why I am very bullish on the future of these efforts.  I was invited to speak by the Executive director of SIUD, adjunct professor at University of Delaware and dear friend Mona Parikh. Mona is passionate about social impact and got me thinking a bit deeper about my position on it and the role that ‘treps can play.

My slides can be found below but my reasons for being excited were simple.

Even non-impact focused startups are finding impactful use cases.

You have to look no further than Twitter to see a startup enabling one of the most basic of human rights, free speech, having a role in the dramatic changes taking place across the world.  The power of 140 character in shaping human history has not been so clearly exemplified.  You can almost see our founding fathers tweeting, “When in the course of human events…” Granted at 8.020 characters it would have taken them 58 tweets to get the whole thing out so they probably would have linked to a blog post or a Tumblr photo of the congress.

Impact startups are already adopting proven startup techniques.
Companies like Charity Water, Warby Parker and Donors Choose are making a difference and building successful models for others to build on. By using tools and techniques piloted by non-social impact startups like social, crowdfunding and ecommerce,  these companies and others are showing that doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive.  These even extends to the accelerator model and university programs where building the skills and knowledge of the ‘treps is so critical.

Quick shout out to Matter Inc and the SISE program at Tulane. I have had the joy of working with both. Both are worth you checking them out.

The next generation of ‘treps want to do this.

Reports show that Millenials are interested in making a difference as much if not more than making themselves rich.  We need to support them by:

  • Changing the way we keep score (think impact not $$)
  • Sharing our knowledge (mentors needs to work with non-profits)
  • Rewarding new metrics for company success (B-corps FTW)
  • Encouraging them to think big, NOW not later

We are humans and by nature we find pleasure in helping other humans. I think if we all just follow our hearts social impact startups will be where our best and brightest will get their ‘trep on.

 

NOLA Treppin’

This past week was New Orleans Entrepreneurship Week #NOEW. While this was the 6th annual, it was my first. The week was full of programs and pitches put on by the fine folks of Idea Village and their many partners. I have been working with IV this season in many capacities, they do everything here in NOLA by season (more on rhythms and rituals here.)  I hosted over a dozen Idea Sessions, where any entrepreneur can come in and receive 90 minutes of support and counsel from more experienced folks. I also was co-EIR for the first-ever Food Challenge,  which took 5 food product companies through a 10 week program. I even presented an Idea Institute! a 2 hour free class spreading the gospel of the to the business model canvas.  Finally, for the past 45 days I have acted as pitch coach for a host of the companies that presented last week. Through these activities and many nights at Capdeville I am no longer a stranger to this vibrant community. However, even with my status changed to “kool-aid drinker”, a few things still managed to stick out to me this past week.

This City Loves Its Startups
While startups remain not much more than a buzzword in many cities, NOLA top to bottom is building, encouraging and supporting them all. From youth programs to sector specific challenges NOEW showcased an incredibly diverse range of business creation efforts. And with support from government, local industry and recognized celebrities it is clear that startups are an important part of New Orleans’ rebirth.  This wide spread support and diversity of business types means that while you may be a sole founder you are never alone.

The Power of Rising Tides
Pun not withstanding this city really understands the phrase, “a rising tides raises all boats.” Because of this, the NOLA startup scene is as collaborative and open as any I have seen. Startups are always willing to share learnings with each other and see the success of any as the success of all. The winner of this years Big Idea, the week’s capstone crowd funding event, is a new brewery looking to turn the $50k prize into a New Orleans home for its novel craft beers. The mentor who has helped guide this startup through the many challenges associated with starting a new brewery is none other than the founder of the only craft brewery currently in New Orleans.  Like a good party host, “the more the merrier”, not “how will we feed all these people” is the first thought of folks here.

When It’s Time To Change…
The classic Brady Bunch song that highlighted Peter’s awkward transformation into adulthood was also apparent this past week. Lots has been written about how to start an entrepreneurial ecosystem and if engagement, visibility and inspiration are measures there are few that have done it better than Idea Village and NOEW. However like any good parent there comes a time when you have to recognize that your child is growing up and your role needs to shift. And likewise the child needs to understand that with new freedoms come new responsibilities. I for one am excited to see how this next chapter unfolds and play whatever part I can.

Cue the street cleaners that are the final parade float, letting everyone know the night is over and let’s get back to building the stories that will be told at NOEW 2015!

Pitch Tips From Jackson Square

JSqband

I like to walk. It is my meditation.  It is my exercise. Mostly, in a city like New Orleans, it is my inspiration. Yesterday’s sunshine found me wandering down the riverfront. A quick stop in the French Market to make a $5 investment in sunglasses which I had managed to forget and then into Jackson Square. There, in the noisy crowded confines, stood artists, mystics, and street performers. Each of them fighting for the attention of the waves of people moving by.

I spend a lot of time working with startups, and some really big companies (love you guys, you pay my bills), on their pitches. So, as I sat there enjoying some music and sunshine and others saw showmen, musicians, and hustlers, I saw pitches.

Horn Blast
The loud blare of a trumpet shatters the loud but indistinguishable buzz of the square.  People stopped walking and turned towards the source of the sound.  In that instant the band had created its own spotlight on this sunny day.  The band leaps into a boisterous rendition of an overused and cliched tune.  But the rhythm and the sounds of the brass band quickly draw a crowd.

What is your startup’s horn blast?  Is it your mission, the benefits your product offers, the uniqueness of your solution?  If you could yell just one thing at a crowd of people what would make their heads turn?  What would draw a crowd?

Hi-Di-Hi-Di-Hi-Di-Ho
The list of things that New Orleans has contributed to American music would fill an Amazon distribution center.  One of these is the introduction of “call and response.”  Popularly recognized in the song Minnie the Moocher, this element draws the crowd into the song, blurring the line between performer and audience.

As a startup you need your pitch to pull in your audience.  Get them nodding yes as you state the problem you seek to solve.  Get them to raise their hands and identify as a customer that values your solution. Make them feel ownership in your effort. In an age when the line between customer and collaborator is blurred by crowd sourcing and  open innovation you need them to be part of your pitch not passive listeners.

Fill The Bucket
Lyrics to the songs get changed to speak of it.  Stories of the performers’ lives are shared to show how it helps. It is used as a prop.  What is the it?  The bucket.  The call to action is never left alone for long.  The existing contributions are displayed as social proof and drivers for those who have not yet reached into their pockets. The audience is never in doubt as to what they should do, that others have done it before and how what they do impacts the musicians world.

Buy something.  Try something.  Support something.  What is your call to action and how are you making sure your bucket gets filled?

New Orleans is full of lessons for startups and one of the reasons I am so grateful to be here.  Quality musicianship is not enough in a city full of players.  It takes a touch of showmanship.  And so it is with startups these days too.

Oh, and by the way I also know where you got your shoes :)

More catalyst on pitching can be found here in my curated magazine

Who Is Facebook’s CFO?

Greeneyeshade

There is so much written everyday about the key skills for startups.  We hear endlessly about product managers, engineers, growth hackers, ninjas and Swiss army knives.  But we never hear about finance guys.  So that we are clear, I am not talking about accounting.  Accounting, in my view, is a statement of facts about what was done.  Finance addresses today and the future.  When will our cash run out?  Is the cost of the new product development an investment that pays itself back or a cost that just needs to be done? How can we structure our deals with our suppliers to allow us more time, less burn or more support?

I have been lucky to have had a business partner for the last 14 years (longest relationship in my life) who has educated me and demonstrated the power of having a smart finance guy on the team.  Kyle has rebuilt supplier relationships, structured funding that allowed startups access to the capital they need, and sorted out ways to keep startups running long after the money was supposed to run out. In short, he has been a key piece to almost every successful business I have worked with.  While strategy can be viewed as a kite, finance is the tail of that kite.  Not weighing it down, but ensuring that it can climb steadily towards the sky.

Startups often don’t see the need for a finance guy until someone wants to write them a big check.  This is often too late.  More startups should embrace the value of finance.  It has an important role to play.

Why I Do This Startup Thing

I have been at this startup thing for over a dozen years now.  Working in, on and with early stage companies has been great.  Often when I meet someone for the first time the, “what do you do?” question arises.  The next question is, “any I have heard of?”  The reality is that while quite of few of the startups I have had the pleasure to be associated with continue to operate, I have not had any IPOs and there are no household names on the list either.  While money has never been the motivation, the love of solving puzzles and the infectious passion of founders plays that role, it is an easily understood scoring system for others.

My Reminder

This past Fall I was fortunate enough to be selected by Idea Village as the EIR for a pilot program focusing on food product startups.  A great group of very early entrepreneurs following their passion. For 9 weeks we worked on marketing, packaging, distribution, partners and presentations.  I raced to adopt best practice concepts for tech startups to physical products and together we raced towards demo day.  After a stressful day that included a food court, allowing a large group of food related experts and supporter a chance to taste product and meet the ‘treps, and presentations, to an esteemed panel of judges that would have looked at home on a Food Network program, the program was done.

That day the group presented me and my co-EIR with a simple heartfelt card and a huge bottle of tequila :)  Like all ‘treps this group had suffered through the ups and downs that are inherent in startups.  While winners needed to be chosen, in our eyes they were all winners.  And for me personally, I remembered, yet again, why it is that I continue to do this startup thing.

Trepthx

Thank You!

To the 2013 Food Challenge cohort and all the founders, angels, VC’s and startup supporters I have had the pleasure of working alongside these past 12 years, thank you.  Thank you for allowing me to spend over a decade having something I never thought of as a job and doing something that never felt like work.  I am humbled by your passion and grateful for efforts.  If I, in any small way, was additive to your journey, it pales in comparison to what you all have added to mine.

FoodTreps

 

Stay Calm and ‘Trep On