I recently recommended a friend for a PM job at a hot Silicon Valley startup run by another friend. The startup recently raised a big Series A and was looking to scale. I know the risk of linking up two friends in an employment scenario, however, my friend was more than qualified for this job and my founder friend really needed the position filled.
While my friend was more than qualified, interviewed well, and the team loved him, etc, the founder decided to pass on my friend. The reason: another candidate with the same skills and experience came along that they hired. The difference between the hired candidate and my friend? The candidate that was hired had the same PM experience but all at big companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google. My friend has spend his entire career at startups.
My question is: was this the right move? If you had the choice between nearly two identical candidates and one had all their experience at big successful companies and one had their experience at successful startups, isn’t it safe to choose the candidate that worked at the bigger companies?
Put yourself in the founder’s shoes. You just raised a big Series A. You are being pressured by your investors to “go big or go home.” You have aspirations to be a big company. This is Silicon Valley, shouldn’t you hire the absolute best talent we can find? Shouldn’t you hire people who worked at Facebook and Amazon since you want your company to be big like them one day?
PMs that only worked at companies such as Facebook and Amazon are super qualified PMs. Huge plus. They also know next to nothing about building a startup. Huge negative. People from larger companies bring the bigger company process, procedure, and culture with them. This leads to premature scaling of your business. The problem is that your startup is not a smaller version of a bigger company. As Steve Blank says, a startup is an experiment looking for a business model, not a smaller version of a larger company. Facebook as over 10,000 employees and billions in profits. My friend’s company has less than 15 employees and no profits. Hire people comfortable working in that environment, who know how to bring a company from 15 people to 150 people. When your startup has 1000 employees and is super profitable you should start to hire PMs from Facebook. In between, you have to hire people who can not only do the job, but also help you grow the business, shape the culture, and constantly evolve the process.
I made this mistake several times at my past startups. At one startup we realized that we needed an HR manager. Since we had plans to “go big” we wanted to hire an HR manager who came from a big company. Big mistake. We were a team of 12 but all of a sudden we were doing 360 reviews and had to fill out a form in order to take a day off. At another startup we wanted to enter the “enterprise” space, so we hired some “enterprise” software people from a large enterprise software company and gave them fancy titles. The problem is that people who work as executives at big companies usually don’t roll up their sleeves and build a product. Nor do they know how to scale a company, they know how to keep a big company big, but don’t know how to build a big company. In addition they wanted to fly business class and have personal assistants, things that did not jive with our startup culture.
Avoid premature scaling at your company and hire not only the candidates with the best skill set, but also with experience in working at and building a startup. Later on when you are bigger and more mature should you hire the people with bigger company experience.
Being an early stage investor, I see a lot of MVPs. I mean a lot. The problem is that most people don’t build real MVPs, but descend into building a prototype, then beta, then an actual product and still call it an MVP. Remember an MVP is your most important Customer Development tool. It is an experiment designed to test your value proposition’s assumptions by measuring a behavior and learning from the results. MVPs should be used for a short while in order to validate your learning and then help you develop the plan for the actual product. After you have built a few MVPs and measured the results, what are the top three signs that you are done with your MVP and can start building your real product?
Sign #1 That You’re Done With Your MVP: You are getting diminishing returns on your learning
Typically when you start doing the Customer Development/MVP process, it is pretty brutal. Your ideas are shattered when they come into contact with real people. It can be long, hard, and painful at times. But when you stick with it you usually go through three stages of MVPing:
Hearing the same thing over and over
Usually after your first round of MVPs, you go back to the drawing board a little and make adjustments to your Business Model Canvas and test your new assumptions. Typically you get into a zone where everyone is saying the same thing: this is good. After a while you adjust the MVP some more based on that feedback and the feedback and behavior you are measuring is only giving you a very small incremental gain. This is when it is time to stop MVPing and build an actual product.
Sign #2 That You’re Done With Your MVP: You’ve been doing customer development for a really long time
I’ve met countless startups that were working on their MVPs for months or years. Typically a single MVP should last a few hours or a day. After that time, you process the data, apply the learnings, and then make another MVP that should only last a short time as well. In a perfect world, you would only be MVPing for a month or two at most since the results of all of your MVP experiments gave you enough data to build a product.
If you have been MVPing on the same idea for over six months, you need to reevaluate what are doing. Some startups clearly have a product (see #3) and some clearly do not. If you have not seen traction in a long time and have been grinding away on the same idea for several months, it is time to ask yourself some hard questions.
Sign #3 That You’re Done With Your MVP: You are actually making money
Sometimes I’ve seen startups that are still MVPing when they are actually making money on their product or service. Typically the startup doesn’t have a clear indication of what the pricing model should be or what the right customer segment is. Once you have enough “validating revenue” (typically around $250k ARR), stop MVPing and start A/B testing and using other tools (typically sales tricks) to figure out the best pricing and customer segmentation.
As you start your next venture, think about these three tips when you start your Customer Development so you do it effectively, but don’t do it too long. Good luck!
If Einstein were alive today, what would he think of our investment markets? He is vaguely attributed to have said that compound interest is the “most powerful force in the universe” but the evidence supporting this attribution is weak.
However, he would surely find it curious that we now live in a world of negative interest rates, where more than US$2 trillion has been invested in negative bond yields and banks are charging interest rates on deposits. Although the word deflation is constantly used in the media, the reality is still inflation, so whether measured in nominal terms or real terms there is no doubt that we live in a time where a certain group of borrowers are able to get paid to borrow money.
Since the driver of these interest rates is the cost of time, the financial sector has accidentally created a way for money to reverse the effects of time.
Besides being surreal, why is this important?
The obvious answer is that no serious investor should want to invest their assets into negative return assets if there are better alternatives. It is both a pessimistic view of the world and an inefficient use of assets.
Large companies are also taking a cautious view of the world, preferring to spend on share buybacks rather than new investment, with a record US$900 billion spent on buybacks and dividends in the US alone in 2014. In this case, share buybacks create the illusion of growth by shrinking the denominator, the number of shares outstanding. At an individual firm level, this can sometimes be the right strategy but can society overall shrink its way to prosperity?
For context, it helps to look at the size of investment at the opposite end of the investment spectrum, early stage companies focused on growth. Overall venture capital investment in the US was a record US$48 billion in 2014 and a closer inspection of the data shows that early stage deals received US$1.3 billion.
In today’s world, when the opportunities to create value through innovation are more exciting than anytime in history, society is investing the largest amount of money in the most pessimistic assets with the lowest expected returns and investing the least amount of money in the assets with the largest potential to create new innovation and highest potential returns. These are symptoms of a deeper problem: failure of the imagination.
As an early stage venture investment fund, this actually works better for us because it means less competition. Ultimately, however, early stage investment is not a zero sum game and so we would rather have more people invest to create more overall value.
Finally, if the perception is that there are no assets that can generate meaningful returns given the risk, investors are better off giving their money away because there is no shortage of social issues which have not been solved by markets.
Circling back to Einstein, some people may argue that he would be in favour of the current asset allocation by society because it appears to be made by rational decision making in a scientific manner. But his comments suggest otherwise. In Einstein’s own words, “imagination is more important than knowledge.”
I remember it like it was yesterday. My co-founder and I just left Yahoo!’s New York City office. It was October 31st, 2002, and we were happy because Yahoo! asked us if we would go exclusive with them on our yet to be released online service. At the time, Yahoo! was one of the largest players online (think Google today) and they were offering to resell our data on their site, potentially a lot of money that could possibly make or break our startup. We were at it for months with no revenue and without a salary and unable to hire some more talent, so this was a much needed shot in the arm.
When we got outside, I called my mentor and our investor to tell him the good news. He said: “ Cool! What minimums did you negotiate?” Minimums I ask? As quickly as I was excited, I was now deflated.
The Deceptive Value of an Exclusive Contract
The deal we had shook hands on with Yahoo! had the potential to pay well over $1m in six months. Not bad for a startup with no customers, right? Wrong.
My mentor went on to explain that if Yahoo! were to get an exclusive reselling deal, or even a non-exclusive deal for that matter, they needed an incentive to hold up their end of the bargain. If Yahoo! miscalculated the demand from their users, if their sales force did not engage with us and actively sell our product, or if market conditions rapidly changed, we could make nothing. That would force our startup to close its doors.
In order to create some incentives for the larger party on the other side of any exclusive or non-exclusive contract, you should structure the deal where at the end of the term there is a minimum payment to be made if a threshold is not met. This way you are protected and the larger party has an incentive to uphold their end of the bargain. If the larger party won’t commit to the minimum, they have little faith that they can actually deliver the value that they are promising and that is a bad sign. Typically you should ask for and get a minimum of about 20% of the initial agreement.
For example, let’s say that you negotiate a contract with a channel partner in India. They promise you $1m in sales per year and want an exclusive arrangement in India. Ask them to “put their money where their mouth is” and offer to pay a minimum at the end of the term if they don’t sell enough. If you stick to a 20% minimum, at the end of the year if they produced no sales, they still pay you $200k. If they produced $100k of sales, they would pay you $100k (the difference between the actual sales they produced and the $200k minimum.) If they produced $250k of sales, they pay you nothing as they have reached the minimum.
If the minimum is not enough to cover your costs or offset the opportunity cost of going exclusive, you should not do the deal. If you are a pre-revenue startup and the larger party wants to go exclusive globally for some time, you should also demand that they make an equity investment as well-to show that they are serious and have some “skin in the game”.
Did Yahoo! Agree to the Minimum?
My partner and I went back to Yahoo! and proposed a non-exclusive arrangement and a minimum. They agreed but took a long time to sign the paperwork and get started. In the interim we went to Monster.com, their competitor (we were talking to Yahoo!’s HotJob unit), and signed a similar deal, with a minimum. Within 6 months, we were earning about $1m in revenue from both parties! So glad that we did not go exclusive.
Not only is it hard to attract talent to your startup (know any free developers in the Bay Area?), as a founder you also have to set the proper structure. A common saying is that you need a “Hacker, Hustler, and a Hipster” on the founding team. In the earliest days that makes sense, especially when you are MVPing and hustling for your first customers trying to find a product-market fit.
Sometime after you have product-market fit and raise a round of funding, you need to hire outside of the core founding team. A lot of founders struggle with the right roles to hire and what the proper structure should be. Some founders hire too many engineers (typically non-technical founders) and some founders hire too many “business” or “marketing” people (typically technical founders), leading to being lopsided in one area. Founders run the risk of being engineering centric or marketing centric in their product development. In reality they need to be customer centric and embrace the Holy Trinity of Product Development.
The Holy Trinity of Product Development: Dev Lead, PM, PMM
When it comes to product development, you need three distinct roles. Those roles are what I call the Holy Trinity of Product Development: Developer Lead,Program Manager (PM), and Product Marketing Manager (PMM). These three roles work together to represent the customer and build the business, ensuring that you are not too engineering focused or too marketing focused. The role in the middle of that fine line is the Program Manager.
Program Manager (PM)
What is amazing about the PM is that they have no power or authority over the PMM or dev lead, all they can do is influence the engeneering and marketing teams. It takes a unique skill set to get this done.
The dev lead has a difficult role to play insofar as they have to represent the engineering team to the PM and PMM as well as work on all of the “tech stuff.” The tech stuff includes: setting the development architecture, get their DevOps game on by organizing the build (doing things like Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment), coding, and choosing the right technology for the job (Rails or PhP anyone?) The dev lead also needs to keep the engineering team together and motivated and make sure that the agile process is, well, agile.
The hardest part of the dev lead’s job is interfacing with the PM and PMM. The nature of startups is that they are resource constrained and always in a rush to get something shipped. That means an insane amount of pressure on the engineering team. It is the dev lead’s responsibility to work with the business (PM and PMM) in order to set realistic deadlines and proper expectations, all while not being the guy complaining about lack of resources. Not always an easy task..
Product Marketing Manager
While the dev lead represents the engineers and the PM represents the customer, the PMM represents the business. While the PMM is responsible for what all non-marketing people think of as marketing (ad campaigns, trade show booths, email blasts, product placement, media placement, etc), they are also responsible for the business model of the product and making sure that the product makes money (or reaches its broader goals if it is a loss leader.) This means setting pricing, and if this is a freemium product, that is far more complex than you can ever imagine. The PMM is ultimately accountable for the product making money.
The Right Balance
Some startups and companies are tempted to combine the PM and PMM role. This is bad! What happens when you combine these roles is that the focus usually becomes either too customer centric or too marketing centric; you need two people and two distinct roles to prevent this from happening. The right structure creates the right environment. The right people in the wrong structure is a waste of talent, they will not be able to use all of their talents, they will spend too much time fighting the incorrect structure. No amount of free massages, free lunches, and unlimited cookies will fix an improper structure. (Actually it is Google, Facebook, Linkedin, etc who have pioneered the Holy Trinity in Silicon Valley. They adapted it from the larger tech companies such as Microsoft in the 1990s.)
The right people in the right structure/environment is where the magic happens.
This may sound like a lot of overhead, however, you are probably doing this in some form already. Typically at the early stage, founders take on these roles and hire people to pass them off to. It’s a sign that your startup has matured and left the experimental phase.
Everyone is talking about replicating and building the “next Silicon Valley” with the rise of Silicon “roundabouts” and Silicon “beaches” in several locations around the world. While this is going on very few people are talking about how Silicon Valley is evolving: specifically that Sand Hill Road is now the Wall Street of the West Coast.
The rise of the “Uber” Round
More and more tech startups are raising hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars in later stage “uber” rounds. (I call these the “uber” rounds as a play on the German for “super” or after the company Uber that has raised well over $4 billion in Venture Capital.) As of this writing, Lyft has just closed a $680 Series E. According to Crunchbase, Lyft is one of 20 startups that have raised $1B or more in venture funding in the past 5 years.
Companies are going public later and later, a trend started by Facebook; instead of rushing to an IPO, companies are staying private longer and are taking more and more uber rounds. (Some people think that these companies should be going public as the investing public can’t participate in the later stage growth, allowing the rich to get richer.) The average amount of money that companies have raised before going public has been going up, more than double since the 2008 downturn.
What is Going On?
Most pundits think that companies are staying private longer to avoid the hassle and expense of going public as well as regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley. While those are all reasons to stay private, the real reason is that Silicon Valley VCs on Sand Hill Road have evolved to grow larger and focus on late stage massive growth.
Typically an IPO is for massive growth. A company will get to a certain stage of maturity and then raise anywhere from $300m to over a $100b at an IPO. The IPO accomplishes a few things: allows early investors and employees to “cash out” and sell their shares to the public as well as provide much needed capital for massive growth.
Today companies are delaying the IPO and raising the growth capital with their uber rounds. On the surface this looks crazy. But in reality, it is genius.
Lean Startup and Uber Rounds
Let’s take a made up startup LeanCo as an example. Assume LeanCo already took a Series A ($8m) and Series B ($30m). Now they are kicking butt and are growing at the same rate as the other high performing startups. Say they have well over $250m in sales, expanding market share, healthy margins, and are expanding internationally. This is the textbook case for an IPO.
What would happen is that LeanCo would go to a big Wall Street bank and raise approximately $5-$10+ billion in an IPO. After all the costs and fees and the Wall Street bank’s cut, the company would have a lump sum of money, let’s just say $5b. Now the company has the war chest it needs in order to grow. Typically LeanCo will acquire smaller rivals, enter new markets, and build out new products and services.
Instead, the LeanCos are choosing to raise billions for growth before an IPO. Instead of raising $5b in an early IPO, they are raising $2-5b privately before a much later IPO (at a much higher valuation.) They are raising the money $400 or more at a time. Here lies the genius of this approach: LeanCo only raises what it needs, when it needs it in a private (closed) market that will provide a higher valuation than a public one. There are also other benefits to staying private during the growth stage, like not disclosing your financial health and spending to competitors.
For the investors, this is actually a much more conservative approach. By only giving LeanCo the money when it is needed and doing it incrementally, LeanCo has to operate in iterative cycles similar to the Lean Startup and Agile Development. For example, if investors provided LeanCo with $5b in one lump sum, LeanCo may spend it unwisely feeling that they have a lot of capital on hand. If investors give LeanCo $400m or so at a time, LeanCo will have to take an incremental approach. If LeanCo were to go under after an IPO, investors would lose all of the $5b. If LeanCo were to fail after raising “only” $2b, investors lose far less money.
The Post-IPO World
The VCs on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park have changed the game. I remember in the .com bubble, the largest Venture Fund was $1b and the largest deal was around $75m. Now the VC funds on Sand Hill Road are all well over a few billon each and think nothing of leading a $500m round.
Eventually the startup companies are going public, however, that is only because at some point they have to in order for the VC investors to sell their positions and the employees to cash in their stock options. I’m sure that over time, Sand Hill Road will evolve past the IPO, where companies stay private forever and large East Coast financial institutions buy back those positions from the VCs and earn returns via dividends, etc. You are already starting to see the signs of this when large pension and investment banks such as Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, and Goldman Sachs are part of the last round of financing for companies like Lyft, Box, and Uber. In the future, you won’t be able to buy shares in a Facebook individually, but you will buy shares in a Fidelity “Silicon Valley” Mutual Fund. Silicon Valley is disrupting Wall Street.
What Does this Mean for Startups in Silicon Valley
We all know that New York City and Wall Street is the IPO center of the world. Did a startup have a competitive advantage by being located in New York? As a native New Yorker who built three startups in New York City, I can confidently say no. Mark Zuckerberg proved that when he showed up to his Wall Street pre-IPO meetings in his hoodie. When your company is ready and has the right numbers, the Wall Street Investment Banks will work with you, no matter where you are.
What about tech startups located in Menlo Park, Palo Alto, or Mountain View, close to Sand Hill Road? (Sticking to the geographical description of Silicon Valley.) Same thing, when your company is large enough to take the uber rounds, it does’t matter if you live in Menlo Park or Montana, or Mongolia, the VCs on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park will work with you. You are already seeing this with startups being located in the City of San Francisco and not down south in Silicon Valley. The larger established companies such as Facebook (Menlo Park), Tesla (Palo Alto), Google (Mountain View), etc are down in Silicon Valley, but the young, early stage startups are up in San Francisco. This means San Fransisco is about the startups and Silicon Valley is about the money.
San Francisco is the new Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is the new Wall Street.
In my role at Fresco Capital and as an advisor to several startups, I’ve seen it all with founders: disputes over shares, disputes over money, disputes over a new laptop, founders break up, a founder falling ill, founders get married, founders get divorced, founders get into physical arguments. Often this leads to one founder completely disengaged from the business and still holding a significant amount of equity or even a board seat. We’ve seen this at large companies such as Microsoft and more recently at ZipCar. Typically you need this equity to hire executives or attract investors. Worse, if the company is being acquired, you now have one founder who can hold up the deal if they are on the board and disengaged. That of course is a problem, but one that can be solved with a dynamic founder agreement.
Most founders settle the division of equity question with a static founders agreement. It usually goes something like this:
Founder 1: 50%, vested over 4 years, 1 year cliff
Founder 2: 50%, vested over 4 years, 1 year cliff
This solves a lot of problems, such as if a founder leaves after two years, they will still have 25% of the company but give up the second half of their equity. What happens if one founder is not “pulling their own weight” or contributing enough to earn the vesting (in the other founder’s eyes) but did not leave the company? What happens if they have to leave due to illness or personal emergency? What happens if there is misaligned expectations as what skills a founder brings and what role a founder will play?
I’ve seen this happen at one of my own startups. One of our founders was a lawyer and at the time we sold the company, he could not represent us due to it being a clear conflict of interest. While the legal fees were not all that bad (maybe $50k), to this day, almost ten years later, my other co-founders are still mad at the lawyer co-founder. This was clearly misaligned expectations.
This is what Norm Wasserman calls the Founder’s Dilemma, or the unexpected consequences of not spelling out the roles and expectations of the founders early on combined with the unintended complications of a founder leaving early or disengaging. He suggests a dynamic founders agreement.
The Dynamic Founders Agreement
The dynamic founders agreement is a way to mitigate the risk of an underperforming founder by changing the equity based on pre-set parameters. For example say I am starting a company with my friend Sam. Sam and I agree to a 50-50 split with Sam being the “business guy” and me being the “tech guy”. The assumption is that I will be the coder of V1 and lead the development team after we get funding. But what if I need to leave the company due to family emergency? What about if I decide that I don’t want to code anymore, before we can afford to hire a developer? What if I only give 30 hours a week and consult on the side?
A dynamic founders agreement is a big IF THEN ELSE statement that spells all of this out. IF Steve works as expected, his equity is 50%, if Steve has to leave the company, if he becomes disengaged, here is the pre-negotiated equity and if we have to buy Steve out, here are the terms. For example:
Steve works full time as CTO performing all the coding and technical duties of V1, his equity is 50%, vested over 4 years, 1 year cliff.
Steve works part time, is disengaged, or we need to hire developers sooner than expected, his vested equity is reduced by half and he forfeits his unvested equity. Loses board seat.
If Steve has to leave the company because he needs a job or a family emergency: if Steve built V1 then the buyout is a one time payout of $50,000 USD cash or 2% vested equity, if Steve did not build V1, the buyout is 0.5% vested equity. Loses board seat.
Having a dynamic founders agreement won’t solve all of your problems, however, it will make the the process of removing a founder much less stressful. Sure some of the language in the dynamic founders agreement will be subject to interpretation, but the “spirit of the agreement” is much easier to follow or even if you have to litigate, more robust. If you never need to use the dynamic founders agreement, but built one anyway, it will force a frank and open conversation about roles and commitment among the founders. This only strengthens the relationship between founders, increasing the chances of success.
All startup teams need help. The good news is that there is no shortage of “startup mentors” out there. The bad news is that there is no shortage of “startup mentors” out there. How you recruit and work with your advisors is critical as the right advisors managed properly can really have a powerful impact on your business.
Many startups that I work with like to build as impressive a list of advisors as they can. When talking with founders about advisors, I usually focus on two things:
Making sure the advisors augment the skills lacking in the current team
Formalize the relationship with the advisor and compensate them according to an objective standard
The Team’s Needs
Look at the needs of your business over the next six months to a year and then look at the skills of your team. You will have a lot of gaps. Start to think how an advisor can fill some of those gaps. Some teams will need help figuring out BizDev or do pricing of their products. Some will need help with higher level technology decisions-or someone to interview a CTO candidate/co-founder. Some teams have all the necessary parts but lack a little “gray hair” or folks with the battle scars of doing business a long time. Some teams lack the network to raise money and some teams lack domain experience. (Which I question why are you in that business in the first place.)
You need to find advisors who can augment your team with skills, experience, and connections. If you are all PhDs in astrophysics and are building a related startup, you don’t need the head of your University’s Physics department or even a Nobel winning Physics on your advisory team. You will need some people with business and fundraising experience. Also, don’t try to go get famous people to be an advisor; I know that Mark Zuckerberg is not meeting with you monthly and won’t add much value except for the coolness factor.
The good news is that there are a ton of people out there willing to give you advice. The challenge is keeping the advisors engaged.
The Dreaded Conversation: How to Formalize and Compensate an Advisor
Your advisors mean well and want to help, but they are busy people. You need to set the expectations up front as to what kind of advice you need and how often you will be asking for it. If you don’t have this conversation with your advisor, you run the risk of some very misaligned expectations, leading to a bad experience for both sides. Typically for companies that I advise, we usually have a call once month or every six weeks. But when something comes up that I am uniquely qualified for, the frequency is higher.
You also need to formalize your relationship with you advisors! This is important for several reasons, but the first is legal liability. If overnight your company is worth billions and your advisors have been informally advising you without a contract, they may think that they are due a large stake in your company and sue. Another reason to formalize your advisor’s relationships is that by formalizing it, they will take the relationship more seriously. So many companies ask me to advise them, but the ones I say yes to and have a formal agreement with, I feel more obligated to make the time for. An easy way to lock down an advisor is to use one of the standard Advisor Contracts. I have used this one several times.
Lastly, you need to compensate the advisors in order to keep them engaged. If your advisors want a huge chunk of your company or a salary or stipend, they are not the advisors for you. Use the following matrix to determine how much to compensate the advisor with. First determine what stage your company is at: idea, startup, or growth. Idea is usually pre-seed, startup is usually Seed stage, and Growth is typically a Series A or later. (I explain the stages of funding here.) This is important due to the amount of risk your advisor is taking. Then determine what kind of advisor you are signing up: Standard, Strategic, or Expert. I know that these are kind of vague, but they usually line up pretty easily. Make a proposal and then use the equity number in the box. This should be a standard and non-negotiable. If the advisor tries to negotiate away from these numbers, don’t have them as an advisor. They should not be in it for the money/equity, the compensation is more of a “nice to have.” They should be advising you because they want to.
Lastly, have a vesting schedule and a way to easily remove the advisor. Typically you have an advisor for a year or two, depending on the need of your team. For example, if you lack a technical team at the idea stage and engage with an advisor who is very technical and expected to help you recruit and hire an CTO within a year, you probably only need to sign that advisor up for a year or two. Then make room for other advisors in other domain areas.
Advisory Board vs Board of Directors
What is the relationship between a Board of Directors (BOD) and your advisors? Nothing. More importantly, your board members are responsible for the governance of the company and legally liable for its execution, while your advisors are responsible for nothing and legally liable for nothing. Your directors have high engagement, often meeting in person several times a year. Your advisors are less engaged and often engaged via email and Skype.
You should update your advisors (and investors) with a bi-weekly or monthly email: explain the good, the bad, the ugly since the last email communication. At the end of the email put in the ask, or what you want your advirosrs to pay attention to or what you need from them. While your advisors may only skim over the updates as they come in, at your next call, the advisors can review those emails before the call and make the call more efficient. You won’t have to spend the first 10 minutes of the call updating the advisor on what happened over the past month. I love getting these emails, it shows me that the companies that I advise are organized and understand proper time management.
My Experiences Advising
I’ve advised many companies over the years. I’ve been asked by many more than I’ve said yes to, I only say yes to companies that I can add value, are in an exciting space, and the founders are awesome people to work with. (Now that I am an investor, I say no to almost 100% of the asks to prevent a signaling issue. I did, however, recently agree to become an advisor to a company where my skills made me uniquely qualified to help.)
What was my experience like? Some companies rarely contacted me. Some contacted me randomly, usually when they needed some specific advice. Other’s scheduled a regular phone call. I’ve done it all: lots of general strategy, accelerator application advice, fundraising tips, team compensation, interviewing CTO candidates, make introductions, M&A advice, and sitting in-between founder breakups. I’ve even pretend to be Paul Graham and asked them YC interview questions.
Some of my companies have had exits, sometimes the money from my shares was great; one exit was small and paid for an awesome dinner and night out with the team. One company I advise recently shut down and I helped the founder find a new gig. All my experiences were worth the time I put in and lots of fun.
Lastly, I learned a lot advising, as much as I taught the founders!
Only five years ago, getting into and completing an accelerator program was something special. That was when there were only a handful of Accelerators worldwide and the program, mentorship, and opportunity for follow on funding was huge. Today there are literally thousands of accelerators out there, diluting your experience, unless you go to one of only a handful of programs. Today going through an accelerator does not distinguish your startup. I mentor at a bunch of accelerators and have seen a disturbing trend: A lot of startups are going to multiple accelerators! This is a very bad idea.
I’ve seen several startups “accelerator hop” or join multiple accelerators. The top reason I have been seeing is that a startup has gone through a regional accelerator in their home country and then wants to use an American accelerator to “enter the US market.” For example, let’s say you are startup CoolCo from Poland and you go through the PNA or Polish National Accelerator. You’ve given up 6% for somewhere between $20k and $75k. After a few months at PNA you “graduate” at Demo Day with some initial traction and a small amount of revenue, but don’t necessarily have much opportunity to raise money in Poland. You know that your core customers are in the United States, so you need to enter the US market. PNA does its best to introduce you to some mentors and connections in the US, but you are pretty much on your own. So you decide to go to another accelerator, in the US, in order to enter the US market.
The problem with this model is two fold. The first is that you get diminishing returns going through a second accelerator. You already spent the time working on the “product market fit” working with mentors and learning the “lean startup.” You should be an expert by now. 🙂 All those mentor meetings, Friday check-ins, demo day pitch practice, will be educational, but a distraction. That is time you could be actually working on your startup, specifically hustling to enter the US market! Ironically joining an American accelerator will slow down your US entry! In addition, the accelerator in the US, while located in the US, is not going to help you break into the US market, just like being an exchange student in Italy won’t make you an Italian citizen. US accelerators do not focus on US market entry, so you are better off hustling and entering the US market on your own.
The second problem comes down to economics. Your second accelerator will take another 6% stake for somewhere between $20k and $75k. So you will have raised approximately $100k for somewhere between 10-12% of your company. Your next step is to try and raise a Seed round and now your have given up too much equity in order to get the seed round.
Another reason I am seeing in the accelerator hopping phenomena is funding. Some startups join one accelerator, can’t raise a seed round after Demo Day, and then join another accelerator, hoping that the second accelerator will introduce them to more investors. They fall in the same equity trap as CoolCo above. The problem is that no accelerator is going to magically change your chances of raising money in three months, only traction and customers will do that. You are better off not wasting the time in another program and spending all of your energy getting customers. Paying customers leads to investment, not multiple accelerators.
The Middle Ground
I understand that once you have graduated an accelerator your startup may not be ready for a seed round. In addition, you miss the focus and push that an accelerator gave you. One possible compromise is to join an incubator program. Incubators usually provide space, business services, and a very light mentorship program without taking any equity. They are typically run by government development funds or other non-profit programs and last between six months and a year. A handful of incubators will also provide access to some non-equity grant money. Incubators are not perfect, but can give you the final push your startup needs before doing a seed round without diluting your equity or wasting your time.
Your competitors are growing 3,000% year on year. Your classmates from university are serial entrepreneurs on their 5th startup. A pop singer is running a venture capital fund in her spare time.
Everyday is full of headlines from the hype cycle. Why is it hype? Because attention is so scarce that the lowest common denominator is not the truth, but anything to get you to click. That 3,000% growth rate is growing from 1 user to 30. The serial entrepreneurs have 4 failed projects that they call startups. The pop singer hired her brother to run the venture capital fund and will lose all the money.
Why is this important? Because the hype cycle makes you feel the need to catch up with your own hype, throwing out useless vanity metrics to grab attention. Which simply perpetuates the cycle.
Does that mean you should stay in a cave, ignoring the outside world, focused only on improving your product? Of course not. You need to engage with the outside world and the hype cycle. If a story is really important for you to understand, dig deeper to ensure that all numbers are supported by reality and all quotes are taken in context. If you want to find out what is really going on behind the scenes, build a network of trusted contacts.
How about your public announcements? Yes, you need to make them interesting to get attention, so have a point of view and be willing to share your successes. But don’t make up facts and stories just to convince others, and yourself, that you are successful.
During the good times, people who focus too much on the hype cycle do well. But, during the bad times, they forget to adapt precisely because they have been fooled by their own hype. Don’t fool others. Don’t fool yourself. Focus on reality, not the hype cycle, and you can make progress through good times and bad.