four people + nine donuts = one breakfast (at Union Square Donuts)
What I Look For In a Founder
There’s a certain feeling you look for when meeting a founder for the first time. Sure, there’s the usual framework: working prototype, some proven goals achieved, defined vision, and so forth. But at the earliest stage of investment, you’re making a bet on the founder.
We’ve heard this time and time again, but it’s the founder that really make the company. You’re making a bet on the person, not the product. Passion is a key element of a good founder— but what does that really look like?
A good founder focuses on the problem, not the idea. The problem is one they’re losing sleep over. They can’t think or work on anything else, because they are excited by the problem. A founder is frustrated by the problem. A founder is so focused on that particular problem, they can’t do anything else.
This type of focus and commitment is immediate when meeting a founder. Peter describes it as “the butterfly feeling” when you just get that gut sense about an individual. I think of Scott Crouch, founder of Mark43, when envisioning a good founder. As a Senior at Harvard, Scott and his team focused on Nucleik, which makes software to help police collect and analyze data on criminal networks and behavior. After graduating (and raising money from Rough Draft Ventures), the team went on to raise an impressive $1.95M seed round from General Catalyst, Spark Capital and some of the best angel investors in the world— including Chris Sacca and SV Angel.
Within minutes of meeting Scott for the first time, his passion was evident because this was a problem he cared about, and one he is committed to solving. A good founder gives you conviction. Despite risks, challenges, maybe even unanswered questions, Scott himself was the reason Rough Draft Ventures knew we wanted to support the Mark 43 team. This conviction for the investor, and the founder, will carry a team through the hard times and multiple iterations of a company.
Start With Startups
Our hope is that it serves as a good starting point for students interested in tech within the Boston area. After a few conversations, we found ourselves suggesting the same blogs, posts, companies, people to check out online.
It’s just a starting point, and there are definitely other things we want to add. We’d love to hear your thoughts, and welcome any additions.
“If just one child has been inspired to pick up a can of paint and make some art, well that would be statistically disappointing considering how much work I put in. Outside is where art should live, among us, and rather than street art being a fad, maybe it’s the last 1,000 years of art history are a blip, when art came inside in service of the church and institutions.
But art’s rightful place is on the cave-walls of our communities, where it can act as a ‘public service’: provoke debate, voice concerns, forge identities.
The world we live in today is run by, visually at least, traffic signs, billboards, and planning committees. Is that it? Don’t we want to live in a world made of art, not just decorated by it?”
I love the last line here. Art should be more intertwined with our everyday lives, instead of in a category of it’s own. Let’s make more of our world exist as art, instead of making art exist in our world.
Thanks for the reminder to open our eyes a bit wider— to look for the spontaneous, random, and unexpected— in all parts of life.
Stop Counting on Things Working Out
I’m frustrated by this dismissive attitude that permeates our conversations. While there is a lot to be said for things falling into place, don’t 1) overlook the importance of hard work and 2) the value in addressing conflicts when they arise.
Too often we say that things will work out the way they are meant to, when in actuality that’s not the case. There’s a difference between not having control over a situation and not wanting to.
As my friend Jack says, “are you kicking the can down the road, or are you kicking the door to see what’s inside?” Don’t leave something up to chance if you can influence it’s outcome.
Instead of saying “life will work out the way it should,” recognize that “life will work out the way you make it.” Active recognition of problems and working towards their solutions is what pushes us forward and creates success.
Don’t dismiss conflict. The only thing you should avoid is avoidance itself. By ignoring things that may arise we are only positioning ourselves for disappointment. In startups or in general, avoiding an issue only creates further problems until it might be too late.
Consciously working towards solutions is essential for success. Focus on the “WIN” — what’s important now. Ultimately, you are setting the foundation for success.
We’re In This Together
It doesn’t matter that It doesn’t matter if you’re a hacker, a designer, a business guy: you’re on the same team. Pushing for the same goal. The second-base guy and the designated hitter have completely different roles, but they work together. They want to win, and acknowledge that all personalities have to work together to get there.
You’ve got to collaborate with your team to succeed. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, but it should happen more. We should focus less about why everyone should code, full-stack marketing, (insert other buzzwords here) and instead focus on what we’re building as a collective group.
Pay more attention to the question “how are we going to succeed?” and recognize the answer includes all parties involved.’
A quick post after a weekend away.
Practice Makes Perfect
My friend Brian Watson shared this post recently:
It really resonated with me. The more you work, the better you get. Repeatedly and consistently making improvements helps you succeed. Learn from your mistakes. It’s one of the easiest ways to improve, yet we all seem to struggle with focus and commitment to a project.
As much as this ‘blog-every-day-for-thirty-days’ thing can be frustrating, it’s helped me create routine and ritual. I definitely think my writing has improved. I’ve become better at articulating my thoughts, both online and in conversation.
While I don’t necessarily produce A-grade posts daily, posting daily has lead to steady improvement. I’ve made it two weeks so far, and look forward to writing more.
Thanks for reminding me, Brian: “produce more to get better.”
Talk Versus Action
There are a lot of students with big plans who haven’t gotten anywhere in the past 6 months. When I ask what they’ve done so far, it always starts with “well I talked with (name), and they said…” But that’s where it stops. Whether you’re trying to grow a student group or create a company, lots of talk isn’t going to get things done.
Talk without purpose is not solving a problem. It’s perpetuating it.
In fact, talking too much about what you want to do distracts you from the things you could be doing. You want to grow a student group on campus? “Building community” doesn’t just mean sending a tweet or posting on Facebook, or hosting a weekly meeting for the sake of a weekly meeting. In fact, too much talk about what you want to do distracts you from the things you could be doing. It means leading by example and providing resources to help students, and their respective organizations, succeed.
Don’t get me wrong— there is something to be said for the excitement and energy when you’re sitting in a meeting discussing the big picture. It’s an inspiring situation, and you definitely leave the table feeling good. That plan isn’t accomplished by that feeling in the meeting room. Use that energy and channel it into productivity.
My biggest advice to students who are working on things is to talk less and work more. Lead by example. Host workshops. Make a website. Share updates. Plan events for your student organization. Record succinct meeting notes with executable tasks. Run activities that teach students new skills. How do you send a cold email? How do you reach-out for a coffee meeting? How do I get involved in tech startups without an internship? These are the things that will help students succeed.
Stop constantly talking about the big picture. Instead, focus on the smaller things that will help you chip away at the bigger task. Ultimately, these will get you to that big picture. It’s a lot more simple than it seems.
One of the main reasons I love working at a startup is because people really get shit done. Regardless of team size, good startups know how to effectively 1) communicate, 2) execute, 3) iterate. These skills are important for any student group, particularly those that wants to produce and support entrepreneurs.
Wanting to build something is great. You’re not going to build it by talking about it. If you want to grow student-entrepreneurship on campus, don’t sit in a room and talk about it. Go do it.
A Look at Email Messaging
I’ve been thinking about email messaging from three “learn-to-code” websites recently. The differences between emails from Thinkful, Codecademy and Dash really serve as examples of email tactics for a similar product.
These emails are personalized in the sense that they come from Nora at Thinkful. They’re a bit dense for me. Also, I didn’t sign-up for Thinkful to learn “how to code” but rather to follow the company. I’ve received 12 emails in the past month from Thinkful, including emails saying:
I also found these to be really cookie-cutter— this email wasn’t meant for me specifically. Also, 12 emails in a month is a lot! I submit my email to preview the syllabus. I felt a bit inundated from their messaging.
I like how Codecademy sends these emails from Zach Sims, one of the founders. Their emails have a different tone: they touch base, support and encourage community on Codecademy in a newsletter-type format. They don’t necessarily encourage two-way communication between myself and Codecademy. I like the newsletter style, but I really think Dash from GA is my favorite style of email from a “learn-to-code” product.
Shortly after I created a user account to try Dash (note: not when I entered in a ‘sign-up for our emails’ field) I received the email from Nathan. As the person behind Dash at GA, he sent a message from his personal email. Looking at his Twitter account, it’s clear to see this really was Nathan’s email address.
He included a short message, with a brief email subject line, and made himself reachable. Direct and to the point.
He followed-up with quick and easy tips that were easy to execute. Not link-heavy. Approachable and to the point. I really like how GA communicated the Dash program to those who signed up. Also worth noting that this didn’t cross-enroll me for General Assembly emails.
It’s interesting to look at these three styles of emails and evaluate which email I enjoy the most. I wonder about the effectiveness of the emails. GA’s might be my favorite, but do 12 emails a month convert well for Thinkful?
What do you think?
What Do You Look For?
I’ve been thinking about “what matters most” when looking at a new opportunity. These questions below act as my loose criteria for evaluating future possibilities.
Will I be learning?
Firstly, I want to make sure I never stop learning. Learning takes different forms. It might be in a job or internship with new challenges. It could be working alongside a manager with lots of experience and wisdom to share. Maybe, it’s that a side-project or new skill I want to tackle. I never want to be in a static job where I won’t be learning. This criteria above all is essential. This question serves more as a reminder than a measurement tool. I don’t always want to quantify a new skill or experience. Rather, it’s a reminder— in every internship, project, or career move should also be a step towards learning.
Will I have ownership?
The best part about a job is being responsible for something. Making sure I get to directly work on a project is something I really enjoy. If I can have ownership, even partially, over a particular project, I definitely feel like I am helping the company succeed— even in a small way. Ownership over a particular task or subtask is important. It enables me to contribute to the success of the company, even in a small way (more on that later). Down the line, if I move on to another opportunity, I want to be able to demonstrate what I worked on and the results of my efforts.
Is there good culture?
I realized the importance of good company culture while I interned at Foursquare. I was excited and inspired by my coworkers and fellow interns. We bonded over lunch, karaoke sessions, and of course— jargaritas. Good culture doesn’t mean free lunch or discounted gym memberships. It’s more about the camaraderie, having confidence and trust in your team. How do you measure good culture? Usually, I go with my gut. If I can feel the energy, look at how coworkers interact with each other, listen while they describe their peers… I think I can get a good sense of their team. I want exactly that— that good, energized team feeling that develops when you’re building a company.
Are we solving a problem?
To that point— I want to work on a problem. Creating a company as a solution to a particular challenge. Technology should enhance while simultaneously simplifying an issue. While this seems vague and broad, but it’s important to stop and think: What is this company working towards? Are they building the best solution out there? Can I be a part of that solution? Idealistic? Naive? Maybe. But I want to do something that I think will make a difference.
Am I excited to work on this problem?
As a combination of the points above, asking whether or not I’m excited for this problem is important. Am I going to be working on some part of a solution, surrounded by a great team, where I can consistently learn?
That’s really what I ask myself. What do you ask?
This post was inspired by Cristina Cordova’s post, Factors in Choosing The Right Startup.
Advocating For “Yes”
To play devil’s advocate, a friend challenged me to write about the opposite of saying no. When should you say yes, even if it seems risky?
Putting yourself in new, sometimes even uncomfortable situations helps you push yourself outside of that static comfort zone and enter “where the magic happens.”
It’s tough to find a difficult balance, and not a static point. The line between what seems like a bad idea and what is just crazy enough to be smart can be blurred. That being said, I think it boils down to trusting your gut, that first instinct.
(credit: Max Stoller)
The venn diagram above doesn’t just apply to good VC investments, but good decisions too. Knowing when to make that personal investment is definitely important and can go a long way.
Something to keep in mind this Sunday.