For A Stranger In Silicon Valley, Success Isn’t Only About Who You Know

(Via TechCrunch) – Thought this was a great piece on what networking can do, for even complete outsiders. It’s one of the many inspiring reasons we’re building ZoloDeck. Enjoy!

For A Stranger In Silicon Valley, Success Isn’t Only About Who You Know:

cherian-thomas

Editor’s note: Cherian Thomas is founder and CEO of Cucumbertown, a recipe-publishing platform. Follow him on his blog and Twitter.

For entrepreneurs, it is now both easier and harder to raise capital: easier because of powerful platforms like AngelList; harder if you’re not part of an accelerator or don’t have a strong network.

Silicon Valley has more startups than ever before. My startup, Cucumbertown, raised its first round a month ago, and during the course of this journey, I realized that, as a first-time entrepreneur without any solid Valley footing, my run toward raising funds as a non-American co-founder was somewhat unique.

Valley funding used to be an impenetrable fortress that opened up only by way of introductions. Your success in raising capital decreased to insignificant levels otherwise. The only other chance to make yourself noticeable was traction, which trumps everything. But the market dynamics of fundraising is shifting, and investors are no longer clustered in the Valley. Accelerators are becoming the showcase for promising startups. I was initially disappointed when a VC told me their firm only focuses on YC companies. But then I realized it makes more sense for them to look at YC, 500Startups or TechStars than to sift through hundreds of decks. These accelerators are becoming the entrance exams for selection.

So here’s how my month of experience as a non-accelerator, non-American fundraiser translates into advice.

Make Friends Fast

I was scheduled to meet 500Startups Partner Paul Singh on the second day of fundraising. As I waited for my appointment, Courtney Powell, CEO of PublikDemand, asked me about Cucumbertown. We became friends within the hour. The PublikDemand team invited me to crash at their home and Courtney taught me everything she knew about fundraising. We continue to meet whenever I am in the Bay Area. Courtney even re-wrote my press release notes.

After I read Darius Monsef’s article on TechCrunch, I contacted him, and he put me in touch with Rajiv Bhat, co-founder of YC alumni Mertado. Rajiv advised me on everything from convertible caps to living life as an Indian founder in the Valley. Nowadays Rajiv and I meet frequently here in Bangalore to track one another’s progress. I even bake for him.

Cucumbertown’s first investor and the co-creator of Farmville was Sizhao Yang, and we became great friends. He also offered constructive criticism of Cucumbertown. Every now and then Zao mails me one-liners reflecting something on the industry worth understanding. Zao now is my 1 a.m. friend/investor on call.

Cucumbertown’s most important advisor and friend is Naval Ravikant. He responds to every email and takes action when necessary. He even follows up. When Naval said stop, I stopped. When he asked me to meet him at AngelList HQ in San Francisco, I changed all my other plans.

These people represent only a fraction of the relationships I built in less than a month, and they represent the change in Cucumbertown’s trajectory to success.

Meet With Companies Who Have Raised

It’s also important to meet with companies who have recently raised. They have a wealth of tribal knowledge that can help you save time. For instance, I met with a company that closed its funds in October, and they advised me about the shift in investors’ herding mentality due to the September YC Demo day this year. This was a wealth of information, as I was able to strike a number of investors from my potential list.

Get On AngelList

AngelList is powering the Valley’s revolution in investing and raising funds. During one of my lunches with an investor, he said that raising funds for the first company he co-founded was near impossible. And raising series A was much more difficult than that. His company’s investors played waiting games and did not introduce the company until their contacts came into the picture. He said shady acts like this frustrated him as an entrepreneur.

AngelList changes all of that and is perhaps the most important tool you’ll need as an entrepreneur raising capital. It is the canonical source of all things related to angel funding in technology now. Never has Silicon Valley been in a position where every investor and fundraiser could e-meet at a platform.

Cucumbertown represents a first-time investment for Mokriya‘s CEO Sunil Kanderi and partner Chandra Kalle. I met them during a growth hacking conference in San Francisco, and they expressed their desire to be connected to Cucumbertown. Our profile on AngelList, our existing investor list there, and our testimonials offered the credibility we needed to gain their trust. And investor Stefano Bernadi followed us out of the blue on AngelList and subsequently invested in Cucumbertown.

Here are some things I learned to be successful on AngelList:

  • Build a concise and compelling profile.
  • Make it equally good for your team, too.
  • Follow investors early on, even during your idea incubation stage, to understand their modus operandi.
  • Follow partners at VC firms to understand the deals they are seeking. You can view their activity stream.
  • When you get your breakthrough investors, immediately connect with their connections and start the conversations (AngelList allows you to talk to connections of connections).
  • Showcase your strengths in the status messages. Don’t overdo it.
  • Respond to everyone who initiates a message with you. But once you start calendaring in people become selective in appointments.
  • Get your investors to write testimonials for you.
  • Almost every company listed there is exceptional. Being different is difficult. But seek the difference.

Silicon Valley works largely by clustered investments. Your company would have always had a chance of being invested in by people who knew each other. And limited by them, too. That has changed with AngelList.

Calendar Every Meeting

I met 28 investors/funds over three weeks, and more were scheduled. The Valley is flooded with investors, and it can get pretty overwhelming once people start responding. Keep it organized and calendar all meetings. The executive assistants for most of these investors will reschedule your meeting at least three times. You have only once chance, so be prepared to move around.

Learn To Say No

As tempting as it was to accept capital from anyone — especially with the uncertainty of the future looming over our heads — we said no to investors who did not align with our thought process and principles. It was difficult. But we sleep well today. My new best friends in the Valley taught me this quality, as well.

Maintain Heat

The Valley has more startups now than ever before, and investors are bombarded by a hundred pitches every week. You are as valuable to them as the other 99 and so are likely to get lost within three days. Be proactive in the conversation, and try to get a response in a week.

Fundraising is a game. If you know you have a good product/team/traction, then get in to win. You are already here because you believe in something. Continue the journey to win. Persevere.

Thanks to Maneesh Arora, advisor and investor in Cucumbertown, for the draft review.

[Disclaimer: 500 Startups is an investor in Cucumbertown. But we are a non-accelerator investment. Though Naval is AngelList’s co-founder Cucumbertown did not benefit any special status. Cucumbertown wasn’t a featured startup or did not show up in the trending list. Dan Hauk is Cucumbertown’s American co-founder. But Dan was not involved in fundraising. Cucumbertown is a distributed startup and none of us co-founders have seen each other. I travelled to the Bay Area to raise funds.]

 

(Via TechCrunch)

Clojure utility functions – part II

Cross-posted from Zolo Labs

 

Here’s another useful function I keep around:

Everyone knows what map does, and what concat does. And what mapcat does. 

The function definition for pmapcat above, does what mapcat does, except that by using pmap underneath, it does so in parallel. The semantics are a bit different: first off, the first parameter is called batches (and not, say, coll, for collection). This means that instead of passing in a simple collection of items, you have to pass in a collection of collections, where each is a batch of items. 

Correspondingly, the parameter f is the function that will be applied not to each item, but to each batch of items.

Usage of this might look something like this:

One thing to remember is that pmap uses the Clojure send-off pool to do it’s thing, so the usual caveats will apply wrt to how f should behave.

Clojure utility functions – part I

Cross-posted from Zolo Labs.

 

I kept using an extra line of code for this, so I decided to create the following function:

Another extra line of code can similarly be removed using this function:

Obviously, the raw forms (i.e. using doseq or map) can be far more powerful when used with more arguments. Still, these simple versions cover 99.9% of my use-cases.

I keep both these (and a few more) in a handy utils.clojure namespace I created for just such functions.

Product/Market Fit to include a minimally viable business

(Via Zolo Labs)

Product/Market Fit to include a minimally viable business:

Yesterday, Siva and I had coffee with Bradford Cross, the co-founder of Prismatic. We caught up on all the things we’re up to recently, mainly about the startups we’re involved with. As you’re probably aware, he’s doing amazing work at Prismatic, and they’re totally blowing up. He had a ton of great advice for folks getting started on new stuff, but here’s one thing that really stood out.

Distribution

For some context, distribution is the answer to the question of “what is the plan to acquire users?” The typical Lean Startup process focuses first on product/market fit, and you don’t worry about scaling distribution until you actually have something that users get value from. Which makes sense; if you don’t have a product that delivers value to at least some people, you can’t have a viable business.

However, Brad’s point was that that is rather late in the process to start thinking about distribution. Folks should be paying attention to distribution right from the beginning, even during MVP development. One part of that is thinking about your voice and your conversation with your potential audience, your outbound marketing, campaign-based user-acquisition, and so on. But it also means planning (and maybe even implementing) features for your product that can organically increase sign ups. 

The common feature people add to address this (and in fact, hope to become “viral” from it), is social publishing and sharing. The problem with this is that there is too much of it – most applications let you share/invite others, and the question becomes why anyone would want to do this with your product. And why would the person on the receiving end even care.

The  answer is obvious – in order for there to be a successful outcome, there needs to be explicit value to both sides. It is your job to figure out what these features are for your product.

Minimal Viable Business = MVP + Distribution

So here’s the bottom line: it’s as important to figure out your product/market fit as it is to figure out that you have a viable (scalable) business. After all, you may have a lifestyle business, and just not know it. By thinking about this  as early in the game as possible, you’ll be better positioned to plan a blow up.

Tagged: distribution, mvp, startup

Make it right, then make it fast

Cross-posted to Zolo Labs

Alan Perlis once said: A Lisp programmer knows the value of everything, but the cost of nothing.

I re-discovered this maxim this past week. 

As many of you may know, we’re using Clojure, Datomic, and Storm to build Zolodeck. (I’ve described my ideal tech stack here). I’m quite excited about the leverage these technologies can provide. And I’m a big believer in getting something to work whichever way I can, as fast as I can, and then worrying about performance and so on. I never want to fall under the evil of premature optimization and all that… In fact, on this project, I keep telling my colleague (and everyone else who listens) how awesome (and fast) Datomic is, and how its built-in cache will make us stop worrying about database calls. 

A function I wrote (that does some fairly involved computation involving relationship graphs and so on) was taking 910 seconds to complete. Yes, more than 15 minutes. Of course, I immediately suspected the database calls, thinking my enthusiasm was somehow misplaced or that I didn’t really understand the costs. As it turned out, Datomic is plenty fast. And my algorithm was naive and basically sucked… I had knowingly  glossed over a lot of functions that weren’t exactly performant, and when called within an intensive set of tight loops, they added up fast.

After profiling with Yourkit, I was able to bring down the time to about 900 ms. At nearly a second, this is still quite an expensive call, but certainly less so than when it was ~ 1000x slower earlier.

I relearnt that tools are great and can help in many ways, just not in making up for my stupidity 🙂

The technical priorities of a startup

There should be none. I mean, sure, there should be some, but just enough to get over the hump of creating testable hypotheses. The hypotheses, should in turn, be iterations on your product – and they should be in the hands of your users.

There are just so many other things that cause a startup to fail, that optimizing the technology stack is just the wrong place to spend any resources. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use promising technologies if they can solve clearly anticipated problems. It does mean that you don’t want to waste resources in premature scaling. This, of course, applies to all aspects of your startup – tech, sales, support, etc. 

As far as tech is concerned, pick the best tools for the job, and then move forward quickly. Don’t worry about being perfect (in fact, don’t be). Get traction first – no one cares how amazing your backend is.