Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being a mentor / judge on a Founder Institute pitch event in Sydney. Benjamin Chong invited me to give back to local Australian entrepreneurs while also sharing my US perspective as a founder and angel investor. I sat on a panel with Colin Fabig from JumpOnIt and David Catterall. We started at 6:30 (ok probably 6:38 since I got lost looking for the venue) and went until 9:30 before heading out to a pub to "network."
Here's some of my high level feedback / thoughts that I shared with some of the FI participants:
Less is More - I really enjoyed reading the 37signals' approach of embracing the fact that as founders, we have less money, time, and resources than a big company. But that can be an advantage. We can engineer less features and focus on simplicity.
For example, in 2000, I was one of the 1st users of Salesforce.com. It was in the cloud, easy to understand, and had straightforward payment terms. Then about 10 years later, I once again signed up for Salesforce.com for my 2nd startup. It was a disaster. I had to choose from various different plans. There were industry specific packages that were supposed to be more customized and make my life easier. And the payment process focused on locking users in via a contract versus 37signals that embraces "locking" users in by delivering value on a daily basis.
That was one reason I gave Mark Willis of Bizzy Mee my only 5. He focused on simplicity and not feature overkill. With the shift to apps, I think that this trend will dominate software design. When was the last time we read the instructions and FAQ's for an app? If the inline support was not enough or if the app wasn't intuitive enough, I just delete it without investing more of my time. I would highly encourage every entrepreneur to read Getting Real.
Passion - When I'm listening to anything, I want to hear and feel the passion from the person, especially if I'm thinking of investing money into their idea. To illustrate, when I was raising money for my 1st startup, I was rejected over 100 times. But I do remember during one pitch, I was literally banging the table (think Khrushchev banging away at his historic UN speech).
Afterwards my co-founder thought I might have overdone it. I thought maybe I overdid it too. But they were one of the few that believed in us and cut us a $100,000 check. You think, live, and breathe your idea 24x7. Let the passion flow! You don't have to bang a table to get the point across but look at yourself in the mirror when pitching. Are you engaging, believable, passionate? If not, videotape and practice.
Idea Description - For some of the presenters, I instantly got their idea. For others, I was lost until the middle or end of their presentation. Two tips that I've learned to get it across quickly:
(1) Latch onto a proven model. Mark said that he was doing an Evernote like app for To Do lists. I got it. A recent Seattle startup, Rover, claimed they were going to be the AirBNB for dog sitting. Again - I got it quickly since AirBNB was blowing up, and Rover was pivoting off of their popular and successful business model.
(2) Ask a question so the audience can empathize with the problem. Going back to the Rover example. It would go something like this, "You know when you want to go on a family vacation for a week to Hawaii, but then you don't know who's going to look after your dog?" The listener will usually nod and say yes. Then the pitch continues, "That's the problem we're solving." The listener usually gets it and asks more questions. Or the presenter can elaborate after piquing the listener's attention.
People over Idea - The business idea I pitched for my 1st company was different than the model that aQuantive ended up buying us for. For my 2nd business, what we pitched also pivoted. When we started, there was no Twitter and Facebook was still in its infancy at Ivy League universities on the East Coast. We had to be flexible and pivot our business appropriately.
When I make angel investments, I definitely value the person / team more than the idea. That's not to say the idea can be crap because that would show poor judgment by the founder(s). But I would bet on a great team and good idea versus a good team and great idea. So if you don't "hit" on a great idea, keep digging for industry trends and meeting great people. If you're passionate and relentless, your time will come.
Culture - The more I think about some great companies like Zappos and Southwest Airlines, the more I like the notion of leading with culture. Anytime a company starts, a culture starts too, regardless if the founder is intentional or not in creating it. So why don't we be intentional in creating the culture?
Too often, founders think about the product or offering and not about the culture and principles that guide decisions from product design, to hiring, to customer service, to work environment, etc. Take out a piece of paper and write down what is important to you. What will get you excited to go into the office everyday? For example, one company may value being frugal and humility. Whereas another company may not value those traits. Create a culture that suit you since you'll be living and breathing it. Here's a great example of people management culture at Wetpaint which raised $25MM+ in the US.
It'll be lonely at the top, and it'll be hard. But given enough consistency in thought and action - it can happen. See the video :)
Brand - One lesson that I learned earlier on is that if you don't yell for your brand - no one else will either. I learned that from Brian Scudamore and Cameron Herold of 1800GotJunk. He was always wearing his logo vest around at the conference. After his speech, I promptly ordered BuddyTV vests, polo shirts, and oxford shirts too. I knew I had to be a proud evangelist. Brian's goal was to get onto Oprah, and you can see all the free publicity his brand got via great PR and passion. Junk isn't that exciting, but Brian made it so. Also great to see Mark having a Bizzy Mee shirt sharing his brand with everyone last night.
Thanks Ben, my fellow panelists, and the brave presenters for creating a magical evening. Best of luck moving forward!
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