Monday, January 30, 2012

TechStars Week 2

Today's the first day of week 2 of techstars. I woke up early even though i haven't slept much. I guess I caught up on sleep quite a bit over the weekend. But also I kept dreaming about our project last night...upgrading office spaces, integrating in two ways with face book, etc etc. big dreams that indicate success. i just couldn't sleep after that.

Last week was quite eventful and everyday was eye opening. On Wednesday, the HackStars team went around and interviewed/chatted with every TechStars company to see what they were about and how we could help. Boy, there are a lot of incredible people here. We also had a session to meet the CEOs from last year, and they were a bunch of well composed and weathered people. Out of that meeting I got a lot of good advice:
- Write down who you are/think you are in the beginning of the program, before you get torn down and changed around.
- TS is mentorship driven - the goal is not to answer a mentor's questions but to understand why they ask a question
- The product is as good as the pitch. The ultimate goal for TS is demo day. In 3 months the product, your user base, or your business may or may not change much, but the pitch must improve.
- The agile process/3 month plan. in month 1, build relationships. In month 2, prepare those relationships for fundraising. email everyone and keep reminding them that in month 3 you are preparing to fundraise.
- The rule of thirds: leading up to demo day, aim to have a third of funding rounds closed. Try to have investors that will bring credibility for the rest of investors already agreed to fund.
- Everyone has an "I suck" moment when they realize they have to step it up.
- There will be mentor whiplash. Do not be a mouthpiece for your mentor. They will pitch a lot of ideas to you that you've already thought of. Instead of saying "we thought of that", understand why/how can that help, why they said it.

Wednesday was the most interactive day I had that whole week because we talked to 6 of the 13 companies. It seemed like so much yet we didn't even cover half of them. I didn't even get to code at all that day; my computer was used mainly to take notes. At the end of the day we sat in on some mentor meetings. Everyone was scheduled to meet with Brad Feld, author, entrepreneur, and star mentor. Listening to him listen to the companies pitch definitely gave me a lot of insight on both how mentors try to understand the business, and how we must think about improving that first mentor meeting.

The first thing was that the presentation must be ready in a technological sense. I'd gotten a lot of experience at Lincoln panicking before a demo because the software wasn't working, and the same situation happened twice: the computer was too slow to demo the product and basically wasted 5 minutes of their time with the mentor.

The second is that Brad could understand the product quickly, then immediately tie it into his experience in the industry, and connect with people who would be better to help with it.

On Thursday, we had a session about how to best make use of your mentors. I got two big points out of that:
- Mentors are not smarter than you about your business. If you are not the smartest person in the room about your company on demo day, you're in trouble.
- Sometimes a mentor might not want to give advice if you are blindly following them. Letting the mentor know that you will take their advice intelligently will make them less afraid to give it.

And in a separate meeting about product development, I started thinking about how to organize the feature list for Stix. At this point in the week, we were TechStar team Stix, so we started working on our own product. For a feature list, one way to organize them in order to prioritize them is to rate each feature on three factors:
1 - Does a feature help new users adopt it?
2 - Does the lack of a feature risk causing a current user to stop using the product?
3 - Does a feature help an existing user share/promote the product?

And finally, on Friday, we had product workshops where we created a business generation canvas, wrote down assumptions, and turned one assumption into a testable hypothesis. The business is modeled as an ecosystem where all the entities in your business's world are modeled as circles, and --> arrows show what an entity provides for another.

My group included two big retail-focused startups: Murfie and Shopsy, and their charts were incredibly complex compared to mine. Murfie was already far along in their funding process and had a much more detailed idea of the agents in their business. Psykopaint was more similar in the product and audience to mine, but when we looked at my chart, I realized that Stix was still in the phase that only cared about Stix <-> Active stix users, and had no need to look anywhere beyond that (Stix artists, retail brands, non stix users).

The assumptions I made were simple, like People will enjoy adding stickers to pictures. But Katie wanted me to dig down and make even more fundamental, deeper assumptions about the business such as people enjoy putting their mark on their own space. For a business these assumptions are really assertions that must be true, and should be testable.

So now begins week 2.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hacking at TechStars

I recently changed jobs and I joined the TechStars incubator program in Boston as one of the "HackStars". This is all the result of a long story which started last year when I joined up with William Ho and created Stix in May 2010. And since then my life has drastically changed. We found out we got into TechStars right before New Years, after they decided that our company would not be a TechStars company, but they still wanted us as individual hackers but also as a company. So we get to work on HackStars half time and try to build our company, along with the help of all the same mentors and entrepreneurs the other TechStars companies have.

So here we are; today was the first day of TechStars. Some of us had been there for a few days or weeks already. And the rest of us were there since yesterday when we had our official HackStars orientation which wasn't really anything interesting. But today for all the companies, we got to hear Katie, Reed, and Aaron talk about their backgrounds, then all the companies got up and gave their elevator pitch.

Everyone is a genius. Especially Reed.

Well, more that the whole place has such a techie atmosphere that it practically makes you exude creativity. Just hearing about everyone's technology and knowing that they'd all been working on this to such an extent was a spur. but not everyone's elevator pitches were super fine tuned...i seriously think that our practice in bars and parties with Stix has made us more aware of what kind of content is good for capturing a random stranger's attention in 30 seconds, and we could really see what worked and what didn't in the other companies' pitches.

However, one thing Katie said during the session really resonated with me, and I could feel my understanding of the business increase, and I could feel myself learning entrepreneurship. That's the one moment when I suddenly felt like I was back in school again; like when I joined MIT and realized it was a way better place to be than Harvard, Princeton, or even my high school; when I joined taekwondo and realized that each practice was contributing something to my knowledge and physical ability; it was (almost) like joining Hogwarts where I'd actually willingly go to each lecture, because literally they were teaching us MAGIC.

Basically, Katie said that it was vitally important for everybody to give feedback. Initially I wanted to just listen to other people give feedback because it seemed they all knew what it was like to be in the startup business and what kind of feedback was good and useful to the guy giving the pitch. But then Katie got mad at us and said that it was vitally important for everyone to learn how to give feedback. And that it was important for a founder to know how to listen, because most people will just try to respond and give more info to an already overloaded audience. And finally, we must understand that when we give feedback we think we are right, but often we will be wrong. And that a founder must realize that of 6 pieces of advice, only two will be right and good for his company. And he has to be able to listen and process that feedback. For some reason this all resonated with me, with the history of trying to work with Stix feedback and beta users, and with our own limited experiences as founders.

Next, Reed gave a talk about precision question answering. It is exactly how it sounds. But when Reed gave an example of precision answering it sounded so much better. Some of the founders will constantly have trouble bringing their explanations into a form that everyone can understand; they have trouble stopping their explanation when it makes sense, without using buzzwords. Reed turned one description of a company into a simple yet captivating catchphrase that even the founders themselves ended up adopting it. And it really made me realize how much experience helps you simplify things...almost in the exact same way that the best poomsae actually makes a form look more simple, not more complex.

And finally tonight we had a mentor dinner, which was basically meet the mentors and eat leftover chinese food and drink beer and wine. It's great that the TechStars office is about 3 blocks from my house because we were there until 10:30 and basically it felt like I could stay as late as I wanted at a local party, and just walk home and crash whenever I needed. But also we met a few random mentors, grizzled veterans of business and entrepreneurship, and a few got quite a good laugh and reaction out of Stix. Hopefully we will be able to sell our product as much as any other TechStars company, and get some incredible feedback from them as well.

Finally, a few faux pas came out of my mouth that night, like saying that our audience is geared toward a younger female demographic in this way: "We need more 12 year old girls." And in comparing our app to instagram, something to the point of "Instagram makes your photos artsy. We make your photos fartsy." That's the new slogan of Stix.