Launch or Die at a StartupWeekend Near You

Guest posted by Darius “Bubs” Monsef, a 500S mentor & founder living on the Big Island of Hawaii eating malasadas and smelling the plumerias. Follow him @bubs or at his blog (hellobubs.com)

I was signed up to be a judge & mentor at StartupWeekend Honolulu this weekend, but the more I thought about how I could best help local founders, I decided that maybe the best thing I could do would be to back my talk up with some walk.  So, I’m going to go with an idea, and leave with a launched product… hopefully leading by example and documenting everything along the way to give more inexperienced founders a solid road map for launching their ideas.

And with that idea in mind, I thought I’d pre-event share my thoughts and strategy going into the weekend…

My Founder Story

I’m a fan of StartupWeekends.  Having lived in Portland at a time where there weren’t many signs of life of actual startup companies, it brought in an opportunity to get networked with actual builders & founders.  Amongst a sea of events for wantrepreneurs, it was a chance to see people actually build and launch things.

The first weekend I participated in was several years ago and since then I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about startups by building my own, having founder friends and being an alumni of programs like Y Combinator & 500Startups.  And now that I’ve earned some scars I advise a few startups and mentor with 500Startups, DesignerFund & PIEPDX.

Along my own founder journey, I’ve built COLOURlovers into a top design community with +1.6 Million registered users, raised venture capital from some of the best investors in the game, I’ve had my products acquired and I’ve acquired other companies.

My two previous SW experiences I just hung out and supported teams and didn’t try and lead with my ideas.  In a SW-esque challenge to myself when I worked at Microsoft though, I partnered up with one of my COLOURlovers co-founders, Chris and designed, built & launched an idea in two weeks while working full time at Microsoft. With FriendsCall.Me, we had a similar challenge to get an MVP built and shipped as quick as possible and the resulting product had great reception and we eventually sold it to another company in the space.

StartupWeekend: First, Foremost & Everything

StartupWeekend is a build event.  If you can’t demo a working product by the end, you failed.  I’ve seen enough examples of this to know it’s true, but if you don’t have a working product with beta users poking at it… the weekend will end and everybody will drift back to their normal lives.  You need a product to keep the group together.

StartupWeekend is not a business plan event.  The huge opportunities in founding a web startup is the speed at which you can build and the low cost to do so.  It’s really really hard to start a more traditional physical goods company in a little more than 2 days with 0 startup capital.

So, if you’re a marketing/business/strategy type, then all hope isn’t lost for you.  There is still a place for you at the event, but if you can’t get any developers to actually help you build your own idea… take the opportunity to join another team where you can learn more about the development process and find ways to add value to the idea.

Without Makers. Nothing is Made.

The most important people at SW events are the developers and then the designers.  Without somebody to build the product there isn’t much reason to be there. In the absence of developers, an awesome designer in a weekend could design a polished flow for the app that could later be built out… but again, the point of SW is to launch something.

It’s not a bad idea to bring a couple developer/designers that you know to a SW event as a self-contained way to work on your idea without any of the mucky details that might prevent them from signing on for an indefinite period of time working on it.  Give it a weekend and if the product justifies it… keep working on it.

Some things to watch out for during the weekend…

WARNING: Ship or Die.
As mentioned before.  Without a working product/service by the end of the weekend your chances of survival post weekend are very slim.  Your whole process and strategy should be on organizing a team that can build something, getting it outlined to a minimum viable product that is engaging and shippable… and then busting ass to get it out.

WARNING: No Plans.
Don’t get me wrong, having a strategy and plan for how you’ll spend your time during the weekend is a great idea… but don’t waste any time planning for after the weekend.  Business plans are a huge waste of time for idea stage projects… You can build, ship, test, iterate & capture data faster than you can write a thorough bullshitted business plan. So just build.

WARNING: Avoid All Rabbit Holes.
No decision you make needs to survive 54 hours.  So does it really matter if you use a .ly domain or a proper .com?  No.  If you launch and have ridiculous traction that means going out to try and spend the $ to acquire the .com version… well, that’s not really a bad problem to have.  More likely it will be an ok name and if you have enough progress to keep working away, you can always deal with the name later. (ie, TheFacebook.com, GetDropbox.com, etc.)

WARNING: MVP OR GTFO
You can’t build an entire social network in 54 hours… what you could build is the ability to browse profiles organized from another data-set. What you need is the the simplest most engaging aspect of your overall idea that can capture user interest.  Boil down your idea and features until you get to the MVP… then build.

WARNING: No LaunchRock’ing
I love the LaunchRock product and team, but you don’t need a coming soon site.  You need a working now product.  So don’t worry about your LaunchRock page during the weekend, throw it up later when you actually have a working beta you’re iterating on and want to capture user interest as you prepare for wide-scale launch.

My 54hr Startup Weekend Strategy…

Team. The team is paramount.  I’m lucky to have two developers from my company that I’m bringing to the event to work with me. (granted they could get poached by another idea) The rest of the team I’ll do my best to enlist during the initial idea pitch time… Designer & iOS Dev.  Once the team is solidified and we’re ready to go, we’ll do a quick intro for everyone, share skills, drink preferences & expected roles and contributions.

Concepting. Once teams are solidified, there are only a few more hours of the night… and that’s the perfect time to do your concepting…
What’s the big idea?
Who is the customer?
What is their problem?
How can you solve it?
What’s the simplest version of the idea?
What’s the most engaging feature of that simple idea?
What’s the company called?
What technology do you need to leverage?

And now you have enough information for the different team members to head home with a good understanding of what to do next.  Devs know what services to get signed up for / quickly research.  Designers know what branding concepts to start kicking around. Ops folks know what needs to be researched, gathered and organized for the makers.

MVP. And with the first full day starting you can start designing & building your MVP.  Whiteboard the UX flow, ie. Sign-up/in > Create Profile > Upload Content > Rate/Comment Content > Share Content.  Once that simple outline is complete the designers can start putting pen to pixels and the devs can start writing the code to make it work.

MAKE. All that matters now is to get something built and ready to demo / share with friends & family users.  If you’re a super fast team and get a solid MVP built, launched and capturing data… figure out with that next layer of additional functionality is and get it built.

CHECKPOINTS. Don’t wait until the last hour to realize you’re 50% of the way done.  Create short internal checkpoints to evaluate progress so if you’re way over on time with a specific feature you can early on decide to cut it or chose a 70% solution of that feature that gets you most of the way there.  This is what mountain climbers do so if they slip, they only fall 10 feet to where they last tied in, instead of falling to their deaths.

LAUNCH. You shouldn’t need to worry about building a pitch deck for your presentation to the judges, hopefully a killer working product can be quickly demo’d.  But the real winner isn’t the one who takes home the judge’s vote, but who takes home a working product that has the chance to become a great company.

++++

And with all that being said, I hope for your StartupWeekend idea you’ll consider making something that matters.

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Copywriting: Conversions or Thought Leadership?

SuperMentor Steph Hay (AKA Poison Ivy) is known at 500 Startups for her content expertise, UX skills, and giant hair. By day, as co-founder of FastCustomer, Steph works to rid the world from ever having to wait on hold again. By night, she co-organizes the DC Lean Startup Circle and learns Ruby so she can one day finish CakeRock.

A thread in my inbox: “We have a lot of ideas on topics to write about that are relevant to our industry. But how should we go about producing content? Hire a copywriter?”

Two primary follow-up questions I’d ask:

1. Do you want to find the messages that convert users to buyers?
2. Do you want to establish yourself as an authority on certain topics?

To which you’d likely answer “Both.” But how to achieve each relies on different goals, people, tools, and timelines.

COPYWRITING FOR CONVERSIONS

To directly convert users to buyers using words alone, I mentioned trying an adwords-based test as a starting point. That 3-step process yields only one thing: a short-list of words or phrases that make people click.

With that data, you now have a jumping-off point for producing more content like it on a landing page that we can tweak to get conversions up.

But at least you’ll know that content-wise, you’re using the terminology users need to see to arrive on the page in the first place.

This route is all about the sprint: finding the individual words that directly drive users to you, then using analytics-based UX design to close the deal. Whee!

People involved:
-AdWords Expert (for placing/managing ads)
-Copywriter (for coming up with the language to test in ads, status messages, email; then for optimizing the landing page once the most-clicked messages are nailed down)
-Social Media or Email Marketing Expert (for testing messages in the best way possible across social media platforms or email)
-Visual Designer (for designing the landing page once you’re got the most-clicked messages nailed down)
-UX Designer (for optimizing the landing page to test/iterate for maximum conversions)

Tools involved:

-Facebook, Google, LinkedIn ads (for testing clicks; limited by daily ad budgets)
-Twitter or Facebook updates (for testing clicks/shares; limited by network)
-Email (for testing subject lines to opens, and opens to clicks; limited by list size)
-WordPress (for landing pages if w/o a front-end developer)
-MixPanel and/or Google Analytics (to track click-to-conversions)
-Other tools you’d recommend? Tell me!

Summary:

It’s all about running fast — content can be up and iterated upon in a matter of days, discovering the messaging that makes people click immediately thereafter, then building and refining landing pages until the magic content-then-UX formula is discovered.

Then blow’d up.

COPYWRITING FOR THOUGHT LEADERSHIP

Startups-as-thought-leaders is a great way to:
-Get invited to conferences and speak on panels
-Create a repository of SEO-friendly landing pages
-Be the go-to expert for press
-Close deals with customers who need to see papers to say “yes”
-Create newsletter fodder (which make for nice investor updates, too)
-Direct inquiries to posts that answer common questions
-Keep super fans engaged over the long-haul

But if none of these are pressing goals, then your time and energy (and runway) might be better spent on the first approach of finding conversions fast.

This route is all about the marathon: STRATEGICALLY finding the topics people care about, then using consistent production of content on these topics to establish credibility over time.

People involved:

-Content Strategist (who likely is also an excellent writer)
-Social Media Strategist (to be consistently researching topics)
-Product Manager or Business Analyst (to keep posts relevant to business efforts)

Tools involved:

-A CMS or blog platform on your domain that isn’t a complete bitch to use and also includes some way for users to share posts easily via social media and email
-Email list (for distribution of said posts, either as published or on a specific timetable)
-Whatever text editor is preferred (I’d suggest a Google doc if doing collaborative writing) but IA Writer is badass.

Summary:

Building thought leadership over time takes planning, regular research, a confidence in voice and direction, consistent publishing, and — above all else — an audience of users who give a shit about what you’re saying.

But if you (like 37signals or Woot.com) can achieve this goal, it’s gold.

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Thoughts on Tech & Family

The below is a guest post by Shireen Rahjou, Community & Media Relations Manager at .CO. You may have seen her running around SXSW in an orange t-shirt, spoiling all the .CO VIP’s (startups registered on a .CO domain). This social butterfly comes from a business background, holds a Masters in PR and she wants to be every .CO’s best friend. We’re excited to have .CO on board as a 2012 Annual Partner so we’ll definitely be seeing more of Shireen at future 500 events.
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I can think back to the early 90’s and remember the bulky desktop computer that took an eternity to power on and once it was on, I needed my folks’ assistance figuring out the command to type so that I could play my pixelated computer game. The command “win.exe” is not something that today’s children know. They are fortunate enough to be part of a generation that can navigate the web better than their parents and embrace just about every piece of technology that’s offered to them from handheld video games to a touchscreen remote control. To put it simply, if you were to place an iPad in a child’s lap, they will be mesmerized and entertained for hours and chances are, they won’t need your assistance. (Okay, maybe they’ll need your iTunes password but that’s about it).

Technology has come a long way since I was kid and I can only begin to imagine what is yet to come. Children are growing up with iPads and laptops as educational aids. Technology is just as much a part of their education as it is their entertainment – so, why not tap into the family tech market?! Think of the endless opportunities that exist for businesses to break into the multi-trillion dollar “mommy market.” Technology impacts the everyday lives of each member of the family – now, it’s your opportunity to create something spectacular that will impact the lives of families around the world.

As a business owner, entrepreneur or parent, you can skip ahead of the game with the help of some thought-leaders in the family tech industry. Get some inside info on industry trends and projections, get child-specific UX design tips from industry pros – and much more! The best part is that it’s all happening at the MamaBear family tech conference. If that sparked your interest, head over to the event website mamabeartech.co for the full agenda. You’re guaranteed to be inspired by influencers who are innovating the way families everywhere use technology. Think back to your childhood, what really cool technology did you wish existed? If it doesn’t exist today – create it! Do you have an idea that could make parenting your children less stressful? Get those ideas flowing and we’ll see you in Mountain View, CA at MamaBear!

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Scaling Venture Capital? We suck. We can do better.

I’m kind of embarrassed to call myself a Venture Capitalist.

In fact, most of us who call ourselves VCs should be too.

Why? Because MOST of us are hypocrites, and have NO idea what we’re doing.

Because we SUCK at EXACTLY the thing we’re supposed to help entrepreneurs do — build BIG, SCALABLE companies.

Because MOST of us aren’t engineers. Because MOST of us aren’t designers. Because MOST of us aren’t internet marketers. Because MOST of us haven’t built a customer support team or run 24x7x365 network operations centers.

And yet… MOST venture capitalists seem to think we know EXACTLY what we’re doing when we tell our founders who ARE engineers, designers, & marketers what to do.

We tell them what they should be doing in order to build BIG, SCALABLE companies that can (hopefully) make us lots of money.  And yet, MOST venture capitalists SUCK at building BIG, SCALABLE venture capital firms… well, at least MOST of us, anyway.

Let me explain.

When i was leaving PayPal in 2004, i started doing some angel investing. i really had no idea what the hell i was doing (that may still be true), but due to the good fortune of working at PayPal for a few years, i had a little bit of money in my pockets. and since i knew even less about real estate than i did about startups, rather than blow it all on a big mortgage ahead of the housing crisis, i ended up investing ~$300K over the next four years in a baker’s dozen of young companies. about 5 years later, i got my first meaningful exit when Mint.com was acquired by Intuit, and i made ~10x on a $25K investment. i made a few other investments that seem to be doing well (SlideShare, Mashery, KissMetrics, etc), and i was an advisor for a few companies that also got acquired (Bix, Jambool) where i made some money on advisor stock options.  overall, i was probably more lucky than good, but regardless it seems i didn’t lose my shirt playing amateur investor while i figured out what it is that investors do.

maybe i’m better off lucky than good — i’m still not sure i’ve learned much in the past 3-4 years of “professional” investing at 500 Startups & Founders Fund, or in my previous 4-5 years of UNprofessional investing (arguably, all of my investing could be described that way, and in fact has been by some folks in the past). but good or bad, we’ve made investments in over 250 companies in the last 24 months, and maybe 10-20% of them will survive to adulthood.

but one thing i’ve learned in the past 20+ years i’ve spent in Silicon Valley as an engineer, entrepreneur, marketer, and investor — building BIG, SCALABLE companies is hard. and, it doesn’t happen very often.

i’ve failed miserably several times trying to do it myself as a founder; been fortunate enough to be along for the ride as Max & Peter & others at PayPal successfully beat the odds to build a pretty darn big company that went public and later got acquired by even bigger eBay. and i consider myself lucky to have witnessed several other big success stories founded by some friends and other folks i’ve gotten to know over the years — LinkedIn, YouTube, Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, LivingSocial, Yammer, DropBox, etc.  i certainly haven’t walked in their shoes, but i’ve been humbled to watch them grow from small startups into HUGE companies, and continue to be amazed at what can be accomplished by innovative, driven founders and their employees.

so here’s the thing…

Q: how many VCs have done the same with their own VC firms?

how many VCs are there that have successfully grown from a few partners into BIG, HUGE companies with HUNDREDS if not THOUSANDS of people operating all over the world?  where is the Google of VC firms? the Facebook of VC firms? the Apple of VC firms? why hasn’t this happened yet? why aren’t there VCs that invest in HUNDREDS if not THOUSANDS of companies every year?

aside from DFJ & Ron Conway in the 90’s, and Y Combinator & Tech Stars more recently, i’m not sure anyone has even tried. there a few global firms that operate in multiple geographies like Accel & Sequoia. and i’ve been impressed with what First Round Capital has done ramping up seed-stage investing. and it certainly seems like Andreessen-Horowitz is trying to rethink how VC operates at scale.  the Samwer brothers in Germany may not be well-liked, but they have been able to duplicate big successes rapidly. and Jeremy Berrebi in Europe is similar to our own 500 model of lots of little bets. still, at the moment the closest to what “big, scalable” VC looks like is probably either Y Combinator or Angel List… kudos to PG & Naval, they are taking risk, innovating, & putting it all out there.

and yet: the modern venture capital model has been around for perhaps 30-50 years, but we still haven’t quite seen the Henry Ford of venture capital.

we can do better.

 

 

 

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Visualizing The Last 18 Months of 500 Startups

Our buddies (and portfolio company) over at Visual.ly created this awesome infographic depicting the last 18 months of 500 Startups. It’s hard to believe how much has happened since then.

Enough with the prose. On with the pretty pictures!

First, a new video featuring most of our partners. You’ll notice a few new ones, because Paul Singh and Christen O’Brien have been promoted to partners. Bedy Yang and George Kellerman (not featured in the video) have also joined as venture partners!

And finally, behold… the last 18 months of 500.

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