Pay It Forward

One of the things that has consistently impressed me in startup communities is the willingness to pay it forward.  It seems to be a universal agreement in every ecosystem that I have seen.

Entrepreneurs have a heightened sense of the many contributors it requires to achieve success.  The potential customers willing to spend 20 minutes in a customer development interview, the other founders willing to lift their heads up from their own startup to offer feedback and advice as well as the advisors, mentors and others who pitch in to lend experience, expertise and extra hands are all part of the journey.  Like the volunteers who hand water and power gel to runners of a marathon, they all cheer when the runner crosses the finish line.

While many cities are looking to entrepreneurship as an economic driver what is overlooked is that this attitude can be the ultimate catalyst.  We just saw a great local example of this in New Orleans where the Jolly family just made a large donation to the Newman School. Tarun Jolly (TJ) is the founder, CEO, and Chairman of the Board of Renaissance RX, a rapidly-growing medical services business based in New Orleans that has attracted funding from TPG. At the announcement TJ said “As medical practitioners and entrepreneurs, Rupa and I believe strongly in the power of science education to fuel innovation and improve lives.”  I love that he identified himself as an entrepreneur and I love that he has not lost his commitment to paying it forward.  And hopefully it is contagious.  You can see the full announcement here.

In this spirit, I try to end all my conversations with, “is there anything I can do for you?”  So I will end this post with it as well.  Let me know if there is anything I can help you with.

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

tired runnerThis is a phrase I seem to being using a lot and one of the ways that I think New Orleans startups are beginning to develop an advantaged approach. Here in New Orleans we frequently have to remind visitors and new comers of this important distinction. Surrounded by so many opportunities for great music, food and fun it is easy to find oneself worn out or moving zombie like through the motions of experiencing this great city.

 The Startup Marathon

A quote went around on Twitter a few weeks back that said something like, “Most companies are overnight successes. And that it happens somewhere between the 1,000th and 2,000th night.” We all know that startups are hard but we must also be prepared for the fact that they are hard…for a long time. Not 6 months hard but 3-10 years hard. And that is if you are one of the lucky ones.

Seasons and Rhythms

Down here we operate in seasons. And not necessarily calendar ones. Although Summer is one sticky slow one you learn to get through, most of our seasons are tied to other things. Saints football, Mardi Gras, Jazz fest and Crawfish season are all more important dates on the calendar than any solstice or equinox.

Down here you don’t schedule meetings on Thursdays or Friday late afternoon during Carnival for fear of being trapped on the wrong side of a parade route. And you don’t schedule a Startup Weekend if the Saints play on that Sunday because your teams won’t get anything done. Some find this annoying (I did when I first got here) and think that startups can’t waste that time and should be at it 24/7. I have come to embrace it, recognizing that it teaches an important lesson. Push when you can but if you can’t then take that time to recharge, refresh and prepare for the next push.

Acceptance that some things take time and that everything follows its own rhythm, including startups and cities, is an important lesson that allows you to run the marathon.

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Tom Hanks Released a Typing App

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Accelerators and Parades

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I have been thinking a lot about accelerators and incubators recently.  The rapid rise of these startup ecosystem players has been interesting to watch. I remember the run up of incubators during the web1.0 craze as everybody sought to offered shared space, services and Aeron chairs in hopes of creating the next IdeaLab. All but the original failed.

Accelerators todays are the storefront that startup communities put out to signal they are in the market for disruptive innovation.  But too many are mistaking the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself (last night’s super moon still on my mind obviously). Accelerators are, as the name implies, taking what is already there and making it faster.  They are the pedal, not the engine. Below are some thoughts from my readings and recent discussions on startup accelerators. As always, the IMHO disclaimer applies and your comments are welcome.

Build on what you have

In order to ensure an accelerator is not an event, but rather a sustainable catalyst, accelerators need to be authentic to the communities they serve.  Startups only get 10-12 weeks of support.  If after that all the mentors, service providers and fellow ‘treps scatter or close their doors so will the startups.  An accelerator should focus and rally the resources startups need but not “import” them.  If you don’t have them in your community already maybe that is where your energies should go.

Accelerators need a superpower

The basics don’t count for accelerators.  Most quality startups can get access to the space, lean methodology expertise and even cash they need.  What accelerators need is to figure out what their uniqueness is.  When we started the Delaware startup ecosystem we turned our “weakness” of small state into our “superpower” easy access.  Size matters took on a new meaning and they are seeing startups that value small choose them as a place to launch.  You won’t win on your accelerator’s brand or platform, Techstars/YC/500 Startups have that cornered.  pick something else.  Protip: If you don’t know what it is ask someone who just got there.  A transplant or other outsider frequently sees things you don’t.

Turn some people off

Dave McClure used to do a talk where he suggested that you want customers to either want to f&@k you or want to kill you.  The middle ground has little value.   They aren’t passionate.  I know it is safe to have the proof of an existing model in another city but too many accelerators seem to be city agnostic.  Accelerators are competing too and if you don’t have startups that look at your program and say “not for me” you won’t have passionate ones that say “that is perfect for me.”  Startups are not cookies and accelerators can’t be cookie cutters.

NOLA

As EIR for the Idea Village accelerator this season I am excited to try and put these and other learnings into practice. One thing I am sure of is that our program, like the city that birthed it, will be full of rhythms, rituals and great relationships.

Stay calm and ‘trep on.

Hey DJ, Play That Blog

I started DJing when I was 13 years old.  Did school dances, weddings, high school radio (WHFH The Voice of the Vikings) and an endless stream of basement parties.  I DJ’ed all through college in clubs and fraternity houses.  During that time, I took endless requests.  As I sat this morning and thought about some blog post ideas I took a look at my draft file and was a little shocked at how many ideas I had left unfinished.  My goal for August will be to change that. But where to start?

I am taking requests

If any of these titles seem more interesting to you than others leave me a comment and I will play your request.  Look forward to hearing your thoughts on the “playlist” below.

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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?