Tag Archives: startups

Is Your City Startup Friendly?

I was talking with a few people at the last High Tech Happy Hour and the last Capital Entrepreneurs meeting about what makes a city startup friendly.  We came up with a short list, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  What makes a city startup friendly and how can cities that are not startup friendly make changes to become more startup friendly?

Startup friendly cities need to have a high density of smart people.  Potential founders of startups need other smart people who could be potential partners, contractors or employees.  Most cities that have a high density of smart people happen to be cities with large universities that attract a huge supply of smart people each year.  It helps that these cities have universities because it’s even better to have young smart people, rather than simply smart people.  Young people can afford to take bigger risks and are more willing to work longer hours for little or no pay than older people who may already have families, mortgages or other obligations.

Another helpful characteristic is low cost of living.  If founders can live cheaply and find cheap office space, it makes it much easier for a startup to get off the ground.  Additionally, having a low cost of living allows startups to stretch their investment dollars much further.  Employees, rent and just about everything else is cheaper.  I talked to one Madison-based founder who has successfully sold one company and is on his second startup who believes that Madison’s low cost of living is one of the most important reasons why his company succeeded and his competitors did not.

Access to affordable office space in a business incubator is another key characteristic of startup friendly cities.  Business incubators are an important asset for startups, especially if they are affordable.  Unfortunately, many incubators I’ve seen end up charging close to market rates.  Incubators are an important step for startups because they are usually the first move from working out of the founder’s bedroom.  They also provide camaraderie, connections and bring startups out of isolation because the rest of the people in your office are also running startups.  It’s much better for a startup to move into an affordable business incubator with other startups, rather than move into an affordable office space next to a lawyer, construction contracting company and a non-profit.

It is extremely important for startups to interact in a community of other startups. Having other entrepreneurs around, especially entrepreneurs who have been successful in the past, is important because founders can ask for advice when they have problems.  A mentor program like MERLIN Mentors is very important because it matches up experienced people who have been successful before with inexperienced startup founders.  These mentor programs not only build a community of startups, but they provide specific feedback to startups and help them overcome challenges that they might not if they were left on their own.

Another important aspect of an entrepreneur community is free networking events like the High Tech Happy Hour and Capital Entrepreneurs. Events like the High Tech Happy Hour bring smart people together who are not necessarily focused on entrepreneurship and startups, but are fertile ground for finding employees.  Local, free entrepreneurship groups like Capital Entrepreneurs offer founders of startups a place to meet others who are doing what they are doing.  It also creates a community and gives founders of startups some semblance of co-workers.  Starting a startup can be lonely if you do not get out and interact with others who are facing the same challenges and dilemmas that you are.

These free networking events provide a way for experienced entrepreneurs to mingle with people who are just getting started.  Experienced entrepreneurs set an example and show everyone in the city that starting a company is viable.  They can also provide advice, but simply having experienced, successful entrepreneurs in your city makes your city startup friendly.  Cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle have these networks.  Others like Madison and Boulder are just getting started, but are on the right track.

These experienced entrepreneurs can introduce inexperienced founders to professional service providers like lawyers and accountants who are willing to help entrepreneurs.  It also helps if your city cultivates a network of experienced, flexible professional service providers.  These service providers should be willing to take equity, give discounts or defer payments into the future for startups that they think are going to be successful.  It is extremely helpful if startups can still get top notch professional services, without breaking the bank during the company’s research stage.

These professional service providers can help startups gain access to capital that they need to fund their business.  Ideally, a startup friendly city will have VCs, angels and other rich people who are interested in investing in startups, but not all cities must have all three.  A strong network of professional service providers who work with entrepreneurs can make introductions to rich people who are willing to invest.  Some startup friendly cities can be heavy on angel and rich individuals, but light on VCs.  Another way cities can help entrepreneurs is by advocating for small business loans and other alternative ways of funding.

Startup friendly cities generally have support programs in place for entrepreneurs.  They tend to have low taxes.  It is much easier to start a startup in a city that does not have 10% sales tax, like the city of Chicago.  The state of Wisconsin provides a 25% tax credit to angel investors who invest in certified Wisconsin startups.  Wisconsin also offers low interest loans that are forgiven if the startup fails.  Both of these programs help entrepreneurs succeed.  Other states have implemented programs that fund early stage startups.

Finally, many people who start statups generally like living in cities.  They like walking to work and living in tolerant environments.  They like to be able to meet in coffee shops, go to interesting restaurants and enjoy life with their peers.  It’s best to have good weatherLow crime and good schools are also helpful.  Overall, creating a city with high quality of life keeps the three most important ingredients, experienced entrepreneurs, rich people and smart, young people, in one place.

Cities can begin to implement policies that help foster entrepreneurship.  Cities can start by creating a business incubator for startups that offers offices (with windows) at 50% discounts.  They can start to create mentor programs like MERLIN and create entrepreneur networking groups like Capital Entrepreneurs.  Service providers can start offering discounts or equity for service deals.  Once one service provider has success offering this deal, it quickly becomes the industry standard.  I’m not advocating that government do all of this.  People who want to see their cities become more friendly to startups have to do some of the work themselves.

Government does have a place.  It can offer incentives for startups to move to their cities.  It can lower taxes or offer government programs that provide easier access to capital.  It could create a new business incubator and it could help create a community of entrepreneurs by publicizing entrepreneur success stories or the local startup community.  Government could help make cities more startup friendly simply by being more friendly to startups themselves.

Characteristics of Startup Friendly Cities

Figure out if your city is startup friendly.  Rate your city on a scale of 0-2 for each characteristic and score total the score at the end.  0 means that your city does not do it at all, 2 means your city does is very well.

  1. Access to capital
  2. High concentration of smart people
  3. Low cost of living
  4. High concentration of rich people
  5. Network of experienced entrepreneurs
  6. Mentor programs
  7. Low cost startup incubator
  8. Low taxes
  9. Governemnt support
  10. Flexible professional service providors
  11. Free networking events
  12. High quality of life
  13. Tolerant, vibrant, walkable cities
  14. Large universities
  15. Culture of entrepreneurship
  16. Educated workforce
  17. Good weather
  18. High concentration of science and technology workers
  19. Direct national flights
  20. Entrepreneurship advocacy groups

I would say Madison, WI gets a score of 23/40.  Milwaukee gets a 13/40.  San Francisco gets 36/40.

How startup friendly is your city?  Do you agree with my list?  Do you have any characteristics to add?

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To Office or Not to Office?

I’ve always been a proponent of working from anywhere.  I ran my first company completely remotely while in college.  When I was 19, I worked out of my room, usually sitting on my bed, surrounded by paper, music playing from my ipod, laptop on my lap.  My friends jokingly started to call my bed my office.  That got a little awkward when I had to start meeting potential investors and clients.  Going to coffee shops all the time instead of going back to my “office” was a bit of a challenge.

My partners and I continued to work out of our respective bedrooms for the next three years.  We hired two programmers, one who was local in Madison and one from Poland.   It was great.  We were able to save money by not spending on an office, work from home, and stay warm in those long Wisconsin winters.  We were productive and grew our business from about 15,000 users to over 125,000.   We were able to raise six figures from investors, all without getting an office.

In our third year, we were asked to meet up for an interview about starting a business in college.  We all went over to one of my partners’ houses for the interview.  My two partners and I were joined by our US based programmer.  We quickly realized that it was the first time that we were all in the same room, even though we had been working together for almost three years.  There had been just about every other combination, but never all four of us in one place at a time.  It was pretty amazing to see that we could run a successful company without ever meeting in person.

After we were acquired, we all talked about whether we should have gotten an office earlier or not.  I was always happy to work from home and save the money.  One of my partners was a big proponent of getting an office and believed that we would have been more productive if we had been in an office earlier.  After the acquisition, Corey Capasso, my partner who had wanted an office, moved to New York City to pursue his new company, Add The Flavor, a company that infuses flavor inside plastic.  He quickly got an office in Manhattan and got to work.  He kept calling me and emailing saying how much more productive he was now that he was in an office.

I stayed in Madison and founded my current company.  My co-founder, Jesse Davis, and I resisted getting an office.  We worked from our house, the business school and the Union Terrace.  I began to call the terrace “my office” and we worked outside with the beautiful view of Lake Mendota all summer.  One of my friends called me one day to tell me that “someone was sitting in my office.”  We were productive and worked well without an office, but we decided that we were not being as efficient as we could.  With Corey’s constant emails about how much better it was to work out of an office in the back of my mind and the business progressing nicely, we started to look for some space.

We ended up getting a great deal on some space in downtown Madison that was too good to pass up.  We had looked at multiple business incubators, but finally settled on sharing some office space with another young Madison company because we wanted to have connections with other startups, they had the best location and they had the best price.

We moved in and our productivity increased noticeably.  We filled the walls with tile board or what I call poor man’s whiteboards and our brainstorm sessions were much better.  We spent less time sending documents back and forth and increased our productivity in just about all aspects of our business.  Getting an office has been one of our best decisions so far.

So when should you get an office and how do you still make sure that you’re not just getting an office for the sake of an office?

I think it’s time to get an office when you are about to raise money.  This does not have anything to do with actually taking money, but it serves as a good proxy for when you you are about ready.  Every startup is different, but if you can do all of our business planning and initial programming before getting an office, you will come out ahead.  If you are raising money, it usually means that you have written a good business plan, done a good amount of initial research and pitched your idea to variety of people.

It’s also important to note that just because you have an office, you don’t have to turn into an 9-5.  My partner and I still work from home when we are too tired to come in, have other things we want to do during the day or simply want to work by ourselves for the day.  Getting an office does not trap you if you don’t let it.  It’s not like getting an office makes you automatically have a boss, stuck in a cubicle.  Try to find an office within walking distance of your house.  It will allow you to go back and forth and give yourself flexibility that you need in a startup.  Don’t spend a ton of money on your space.  All you need is a place to hang some white boards, get wireless Internet and work without the distractions that can happen at home or in a coffee shop.

What have your experiences been with working from home or at an office?  When do you think is the right time to get an office?  What sorts of characteristics do you look for in office space?

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Raising Money from Family and Friends

It’s really easy to find information about raising money from angel investors or VCs, but many people neglect another important way to fund your startup: raising money from family and friends.

There are pros and cons to raising money from family and friends, but for your first round (especially in your first company), I think that the pros outweigh the cons (if your family can afford it), especially if you follow some common sense rules so that you can still go to your family reunions.  It seems to me that many in the startup world look down on companies that are funded by family and friends.  I think that’s a mistake.  I’m writing this post because I wanted to share my experience raising money from family and friends so that others can see it is a viable option.

When it came time to raise money with my first company, I had the choice of whether to try to raise money via angel investors or from family and friends.  After doing some research, I decided that family and friends was the route I wanted to take.  We were able to raise six figures fairly quickly from a good group of investors, which helped us stay focused on running our business instead of raising money.  Whereas many angels and angel groups would have wanted to get to know us for 3-6+ months, we were able to close our round in about 6 weeks.

How were we able to raise money quickly?  How do you actually go about approaching family and friends for money?  What if your family doesn’t have much money?  Why should you do it and why are they better than angels/vcs?

We were able to raise money quickly because we wrote a detailed business plan, did our research and found people who were willing to believe in us.  At first, we wrote a 2 page executive summary of our business that included how much money we were trying to raise, our valuation, how much 1% of the company would cost, why we needed the money and what we planned to do with it.  This exercise helped us really figure out how to tell our family and friends what we were doing.  It is especially important to avoid the curse of knowledge when writing your business plan, but its even more important when the investors are your family and friends.  Next, we developed our full business plan, making sure to be as clear as possible.  We made it clear that we were asking for investment in exchange for ownership in the company, rather than loans.

Next, we talked to our lawyer about how to raise money.  He helped us write up an offering summary, amended our operating agreement to allow us to take on investors and filled out all of the necessary forms for the government.  He also helped us add to our business plan to make it more understandable to non-tech people.  Our professionals that were working with us (lawyers, accountant, professors) were able to point us in the right direction of people with money.  This is even more important if your family does not have the resources to invest in your startup.

All of our investors were accredited investors, which means that they have net worth of at least $1m or a yearly salary of over $300k.  Accredited investors helped us in two ways.  First, since they were high net worth individuals, they could afford to take the risk of losing their money.  While we were confident we were going to be successful, we still knew we could fail and lose our investors’ money.  Second, having all accredited investors meant less paperwork for us and our legal team.  Having accredited investors helped us avoid the mistake that some people make: raising money from people who cannot afford to lose it.  This is a huge mistake, even if you think you are going to be successful.  It is the quickest and surest way to give yourself way more stress than you need and get yourself taken off their holiday card list.

We were up front with our potential investors.  While we were confident we were going to be successful, we told the investors that the worst case scenario involved them losing 100% of their investment.  We told them that they might not be seeing a return on their investment for 3+ years and tried to think up scenarios that would cause these bad outcomes to happen.  It was clear that our investors were more comfortable with us once we showed them that we had done our homework and were not simply selling them snake oil.  Don’t make promises you can’t keep just to get someone to open their checkbook.  They will not be happy with you when you are not fulfilling your promises a few months down the road.

Make sure you don’t set your valuation too high.  While you are trying to get a good deal for your business, you want to make sure that your investors are getting a good deal as well.  After all, they are your family and friends.  Another key is to not take too much money from one single investor.  In my first company, our biggest chunk from one single investor was $70,000.  While we ultimately made him money and he could have afforded to lose his investment, it would have been more comfortable for everyone involved to have gotten a little less from one single source.  It’s also not the end of the world if one of your potential investors turns you down.  Don’t press for money from someone who is uncertain because they will be the first to complain when things are not going as well as you had hoped.

Many angel investors will tell you that their investment comes with connections that you will not get from your family and friends.  While there is some truth to this statement, I think that it is overrated.  Your family and friends will get you money more quickly and be more willing to take you at your word.  A family and friends round will also set you up nicely for a second round from an angel or VC if it is necessary down the road.  If you can show that your family and friends believe in you, it gives you credibility.  If I see a startup without some amount of family and friends money, I wonder “wow, this guy couldn’t even get his Mom to believe in him, so why should I?”   It brings up questions in my mind, but is not a deal breaker.

I have had good experiences raising money from my family and friends and I think more people could benefit from thinking about going this route, rather than just thinking about angels/vcs.  Check out my list of Dos and Don’ts and Pros and Cons of raising money from family and friends below:

Do

  • Write a simple executive summary and longer business plan
  • Be upfront and honest about potential losses
  • Be honest about the time horizon for payoff
  • Make sure your investors can afford to lose 100% of their investment without any hard feelings
  • Seek out accredited investors from your professionals

Don’t

  • Oversell yourself, your company or the opportunity
  • Underestimate risk
  • Take too much money from a single source
  • Set your valuation too high
  • Get mad if they turn you down

Pros

  • Raise money more quickly
  • Better valuation and less stress than angels/vcs
  • Potentially make your family/friends money
  • Easier to get money than from angel groups for first time founder

Cons

  • Can be awkward if you fail
  • Doing business with family/friends can be nerve wracking
  • No network

What do you think?  Have you had experience raising money from family and friends?  What did I miss?

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Paul Graham’s Newest Essay is a Must Read

I’ve never written a post solely telling readers to read someone else’s work, but Paul Graham‘s newest essay called “What Startups are Really Like” is so good I’ll break my rule.  Graham is the founder of Y Combinator, a company that funds startups and gives them guidance, money and a community for to help them start their startup.  Graham emailed all of the founders of the companies Y Combinator has funded asking them what was the most surprising thing about their experience:

I’m in the unusual position of being able to test the essays I write about startups. I hope the ones on other topics are right, but I have no way to test them. The ones on startups get tested by about 70 people every 6 months.

So I sent all the founders an email asking what surprised them about starting a startup. This amounts to asking what I got wrong, because if I’d explained things well enough, nothing should have surprised them.

He took the most interesting responses and wrote an essay reacting to it.  If you run a startup, are interesting in starting one or are just interested in what entrepreneurs go through to start a company, this article is a must read.  Pretty much everything he says rings true to my experiences and would be advice I would give, so I will just let it stand on its own.

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Don’t Be Afraid of Competition

I just got back from a trip to New York.  While I was there, I met with a promising entrepreneur who has a great startup that has been pretty successful so far.  He is in the middle of expanding his business nationwide.  We came upon the topic of competition and how to deal with it.  I realized that many people have some misconceptions about competition.

My advice was “don’t be afraid of competiton.”  I learned this lesson when I was running ExchangeHut and talked about it at last year’s Entrepreneurial Deli event in Madison.  While we were running ExchangeHut’s trading platform for college students, our biggest fear was that Facebook would launch a marketplace that would crush our competitive advantage.  When we heard that Facebook was launching its marketplace, we changed big parts of our strategy to react to the new competition that had yet to launch.

Big mistake.  When marketplace first launched, it was fairly useless and was not a competitor to our business.  We had changed some of our bigger plans because we were afraid of competition and did not expand as quickly as we had planned because of it.  Our competition did not hurt us.  My point is that you never know if your competition will actually be successful.  If you have a great idea, don’t immediately change your plans if you hear about competition.  Execute on your ideas and let the chips fall where they may.  If your idea is good and you execute well, you will be successful.

Another point on competition:  Don’t be afraid to get in contact with your competition.  This isn’t t say that you should tell your competitors (or the world) every last detail of your plans to conquer the world, but you should be on good terms with the other people and companies in your space.  We found that it paid off to get to know the other startups that were in our market.  We talked to just about everyone in our market.

We even ended up being able to work out some great deals with competition because we were on good terms with them and they knew we existed.  There really is no downside to being on good terms with the others in your market.  You never know when a great opportunity will present itself to you or one of your competitors that will be beneficial to both of you.  Plus, if you plan to start another company, these contacts will be valuable later.  If we had been afraid of competition and not talked to them, we would have missed out.  Moral of the story: don’t be afraid of competition, get to know them, but don’t tell them everything!

Every Startup Needs a Mentor Team

Every startup that wants to succeed needs a mentor team.  These mentors don’t have to be a formal board of advisors, but they should be a diverse group of accomplished business people, lawyers and professors.  They don’t have to be experts in the area you are starting your company, but it would be useful to try to find one person who is.  You should be able to call or email them anytime you are stumped on a problem you are trying to deal with.  You should also be able to meet with them every 1-2 months to give progress reports and talk through your business.  Ideally your core team should consist of 3-5 people, but even 1 mentor is a huge help.

It’s important to have a mentor team for a bunch of reasons.  First, your mentors will be able to bring an outside perspective that isn’t as close to the business as you are as the founder.  Its amazing how many problems someone smart who is a little removed from your business can solve.  Second, having a mentor team builds credibility both with others in the business community like potential partners and customers and with potential investors.  When I look at startups, if the founder doesn’t have a mentor team, I start to wonder if their idea is any good or if the founder is totally committed.  Sort of like a partner, if the founder can’t find someone to like them and their idea enough to be a mentor, there might be something wrong with the idea or the team.  Third, mentor teams provide valuable insight into areas that founders many not have experience.  Whether its a tax question or how to approach investors or how to present to a partner company, people who are smart and have been successful before usually are able to help you out.

My mentor teams for my businesses have consisted of a lawyer, successful entrepreneurs, professors.  For my current company, my partner and I joined the MERLIN Mentors program here in Madison to add to our existing network of advisors and mentors.  If you are starting a company, see if there is a program like MERLIN in your area.  It is a great way to gain access to mentors who can help you succeed, especially if you don’t have an existing network.  If there isn’t a program, email interesting professors you find online or in your area.  Write a business plan and enter into a business plan competition.  Join LinkedIN and see if you have any connections who might be able to help you.  Ask your friends and family if they know anyone who might be interested in listening to your ideas.  Not only is it easier than you think to find a good mentor, it’s also one of the most important things a startup can do.  It doesn’t even cost any money!

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Entrepreneurs Come in All Shapes and Sizes

I’ve been writing a lot about entrepreneurship lately, focusing on how it is easier than many people think and how people should view getting involved in a startup as a viable alternative to getting into the job market, especially during college and in this economy.  One of the most common responses to these posts have been “I’d love to start my own business, but I don’t know the first thing about technology” or “running a big technology startup is too hard and I don’t want to move to the coasts.”  I want to clear up this common misconception.

There are all kinds of entrepreneurs.  They come in all shapes and sizes and start all sorts of industries.  I think everyone agrees that high flying Silicon Valley tech startups and cutting edge biotech companies are clearly founded by entrepreneurs, but there are so many more examples of entrepreneurship that many people overlook.  Founders of small businesses like gas stations or restaurants are entrepreneurs.  So are people who start non-profits, people who start bands, artists who sell their paintings and people who create custom designed t-shirts.  Self-employed consultants, programmers and graphic designers are entrepreneurs.  So are people who sell parking on football Saturdays and Sundays around the country.  The examples are endless.

Jean-Baptiste Say, a French economist and the person who coined the word entrepreneur, defined an entrepreneur as someone who “undertakes an enterprise, acting as intermediary between capital and labour.”  I like his definition, but will add that an entrepreneur has to accept full responsibility for the endeavor’s success or failure.  All of these endeavors fit this definition.

Whenever I talk about entrepreneurship, I’m referring to all of these different ways to be an entrepreneur.  I think its critical for people who are thinking about starting something on their own to realize that they can be an entrepreneur and live the entrepreneurial lifestyle without raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, hiring huge amounts of employees and inventing something that will change the world.  These other types of entrepreneurship are just as important, if not more important, than many of the big high tech, high visibility startups that you hear about in most newspapers.  I think this distinction is really important and try to break it down whenever I talk with potential entrepreneurs.

Revenue vs. Growth

There are two paths that entrepreneurs go down when they are starting a company.  They can try to grow as quickly as possible without regard to revenue so that they can sell out or they can focus on cash flow and revenue, while still trying to grow the business.

I’ll call the first one the Facebook Method.  For companies that subscribe to this thinking, their goal is to add users, traffic, page views or some other metric as quickly as possible.  After reaching a certain critical mass, the goal is to try to be acquired by a larger company that will figure out how to make money from their success.  If no other company will acquire the startup for fair value, the startup will look for a good revenue model.  In order to reach this goal, theses startups usually have to take on large amounts of angel or VC funding.  This method was most popular during the tech bubble years of the 90s, but still is popular with many startup founders, as its the easiest way to start a company.

The second method is to start with a well defined revenue model and try to become “ramen profitable” as quickly as possible.  Companies that start with well defined revenue models expect to become profitable much more quickly than the companies that subscribe to the first model.  Many times, they will be profitable within 6-9 months, rather than a few years.  These types of companies do not necessarily have to bootstrap or eschew VC funding, but they generally have stronger footing when they do go to raise money.  They can get better terms because they do not need the money to stay in business.

Both Paul Graham and Mark Cuban have written about these two competing strategies in the recent months and it seems that both fall into option two rather than option one.  Graham’s recent article titled “Ramen Profitable” is about the necessity to have a revenue model that actually generates revenue from the start, rather than hope to grow big enough and then find a revenue model.  Graham explains Ramen Profitable this way:

Ramen profitable means a startup makes just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses. This is a different form of profitability than startups have traditionally aimed for. Traditional profitability means a big bet is finally paying off, whereas the main importance of ramen profitability is that it buys you time. [1]

In the past, a startup would usually become profitable only after raising and spending quite a lot of money. A company making computer hardware might not become profitable for 5 years, during which they spent $50 million. But when they did they might have revenues of $50 million a year. This kind of profitability means the startup has succeeded.

Ramen profitability is the other extreme: a startup that becomes profitable after 2 months, even though its revenues are only $3000 a month, because the only employees are a couple 25 year old founders who can live on practically nothing. Revenues of $3000 a month do not mean the company has succeeded. But it does share something with the one that’s profitable in the traditional way: they don’t need to raise money to survive.

Graham believes that companies that can become ramen profitable quickly have a better chance of success in the end.  So does Mark Cuban.  Cuban puts a huge emphasis on cash flow and profitability and getting there quickly.  Cuban says:

Business is a very simple concept.  You have to pay your bills.  If you have anything left over, you get to smile and spend it as the principals of your business see fit. If you don’t have enough to pay your bills, you either have to raise money to cover the deficit, file bankruptcy and try it again, or go out of business.Simple.

…[I]f you talk to any company I have ever invested in, the only thing I care about are profitable sales. What are you selling?  How hard are you working at selling? What are your revenues ? Why are you paying yourselves a salary rather than a commission ? What unique initiatives are you working on to generate sales TODAY.

When I invest in companies, I expect 100pct of them to be successful and grow and QUICKLY be profitable.  I may  not hit many homeruns, but I sure hit a lot of singles and doubles and rarely strike out.

Both Graham and Cuban put an emphasis on having a clear revenue model from the start that is designed for quick profitability.  This attitude puts them at odds with many VCs who are happy to invest large sums of cash in companies that are not going to be profitable for many years or do not have a revenue model other than “ads.”  This is not to say that a VC will not fund a company because it has a well defined plan to become profitable and has a revenue model from the start. VCs are mostly interested in upside, ie how big will it grow at exit, rather than can it be profitable from start to finish.

Ramen profitability is a great goal for startups to have at their inception.  It forces them to think long and hard about their revenue model and how they will actually get customers to pay for their service.  It’s a delicate balance between profitability now or growth now.  I see it as a continuum.  On one end is the Facebook Method of extreme growth without much time spent on the revenue model.  On the other end is trying to be profitable from day 1 and believing that growth will come with a good product.  Founders should balance quick growth with a revenue model that generates profit as quickly as possible.  I know this sounds like having your cake and eating it too, but it is possible.

If you are thinking about starting a company or have started a company, take a step back and think about how you will actually get someone to pay for your service and how you plan to get that money into your bank account.  I know it seems simple, but many startups raise round after round without thinking about how they will become profitable, until the funding dries up and you are done.

The Entrepreneurial Push

Why do people start startups? To solve a problem or fill a need?  To be their own boss?  To escape the 9-5?   To make gobs of money? The answer is different for everyone, but its probably a combination of a few of these factors.  Lots of people I talk to have great ideas, but don’t end up taking the next step even though they would like to make money, be their own boss and escape their 9-5 job.  How come?

I’ve been talking with other entrepreneurs and doing a bunch of thinking about this question for the past few months, but had not completely put it into words until I read  Paul Graham‘s latest post about why he started Y Combinator, an innovative investment fund that gives techies mentoring, an office and small amounts of funding in exchange for small pieces of equity.

The most common reasons for people not starting their own companies are that they think it will be harder than it actually is, they are risk averse or are worried about capital.  For some people, these are real reasons not to start a business, but for many people who have good ideas, they are more excuses and rationalizations than reasons.  They simply do not know where to start or how to move forward with their plans.

This is not a personal failing on the part of people with good ideas who have not moved forward yet.  It is a failing of high schools and colleges for not teaching them the necessary skills and punishing creativity.  It is the failing of entrepreneurs who have been successful for not showing others the entrepreneurial process and its the failing of a society that makes entrepreneurship seem much more dangerous, risky and hard to do than it really is.  Potential entrepreneurs have to get past objections from family and friends who ask things like “why don’t you work for a real company ” or my personal favorite  ”when are you going to get a real job.”

This isn’t to say that starting a company is easy and that everyone should do it.  It’s not easy and some people aren’t cut out to be entrepreneurs.  It takes hard work, perseverance and the ability to motivate yourself even when you run into obstacles, but it’s not as hard as people think.  Here is why Paul Graham started Y Combinator:

The real reason we started Y Combinator is one probably only a hacker would understand. We did it because it seems such a great hack. There are thousands of smart people who could start companies and don’t, and with a relatively small amount of force applied at just the right place, we can spring on the world a stream of new startups that might otherwise not have existed.

In a way this is virtuous, because I think startups are a good thing. But really what motivates us is the completely amoral desire that would motivate any hacker who looked at some complex device and realized that with a tiny tweak he could make it run more efficiently. In this case, the device is the world’s economy, which fortunately happens to be open source.

That “relatively small amount of force applied at just the right place” Graham writes about is the Entrepreneurial Push.

I have been trying to give the Entrepreneurial Push to as many people as possible, without having a name for it.  I think it’s important for people who have started companies to share their experiences with others to set an example that it can be done.  I try to use my blog and consultancy to show people that you can be an entrepreneur without a business degree, tons of startup cash and a team in place.  Whenever someone comes to me with an idea for a business, I try to encourage them to start going down the startup path because once they start to write their business plan, they are much more likely to actually start.

While we all don’t have the wealth of resources (time, money and experience) that Paul Graham and Y Combinator have, I think that entrepreneurs should go out of their way to give as many people the Entrepreneurial Push.   I started Capital Entrepreneurs, a network of young, Madison-based Entrepreneurs, partially in hopes that the group would influence more UW students to start companies while  in school or see it as a viable option after graduation.

What should entrepreneurs do to give others the entrepreneurial push that they need to get started?  Here’s a short list of ideas, but please comment with any other ideas or strategies that you have.

  • Advocate for entrepreneurship to make small business and startups more visible in other places besides California and Boston.
  • Give back by helping others who are just starting out to eliminate the “cloud of apprehension” surrounding entrepreneurship.
  • Join local entrepreneur clubs.
  • Speak in high school and college classes.

These small entrepreneurial pushes help smart people who are thinking about start their own companies actually start. They could create amazing companies that could change their lives or even the world.

Note: If you are an entrepreneur in Madison and are interested in joining Capital Entrepreneurs, shoot me an email.

The 40 People Who Can Change Your Life

The 40 people who can change your life are, after your family and friends, the most important people in your life.

I first learned about the 40 important people who can change your life from Roy Elkins, the found of Broadjam.com and member of my MERLIN Mentor Team here in Madison.  The concept is simple, but very powerful.  Make a list of the 40 people who are likely to be able to change your life, either through business connections, investment, job opportunities or simply being there for you to help you get past a road block in your business plan.  Once every 4 months, email your 40 important people who can change your life and let them know what you are up to.  The goal is to keep the 40 people who can change your life up to date on what you are doing so that when you do need to ask for advice, money or other help, they will not only remember you, but know what you are doing.  Its much more likely that someone will be willing to respond to your request when you need it if they are familiar with you.

I just started doing this a few months ago and have already seen the results.  I set up a rotation so that I am always emailing 10 different people each month so that I always have someone different to connect with.  Its been a great way to stay connected with the people who might be able to help me out down the road and its been fun.  Many of these people have responded with articles or suggestions relating to my businesses that have been incredibly helpful.

I like the concept so much that I just started my own list of family and friends who I want to stay in contact with on a more regular basis.  I want to make sure that I stay up to date with friends from college who have moved away and my extended family who I probably only see a few times a year.

Try both of these ideas and see how it works for you.  I think both the 40 people who can change your life and a friends and family list are a great idea for anyone, but especially people who are interested in business.  Do you already do anything similar to this?  Do you think you will try it out?