November 25, 2013

Unicorns and MBAs

I like being a contrarian.  As a kid, if a certain TV show was popular amongst my buddies, I’d purposefully ignore that show and search for other shows that were less well known (e.g., Hogan's Heroes was a personal favorite that never hit mainstream).  When someone declares something is conventional wisdom, I look to poke holes and challenge the underlying assumptions.

Recently, the conventional wisdom in Startup Land has been that young, technical founders are the prototype for creating valuable companies.  The formula, this theory goes, is to find a hacker in a hoodie and bring out the wheelbarrow of cash to back them.  Think Mark Zuckerberg/Facebook, Drew Houston/Dropbox, David Karp/Tumblr and – the most recent poster boy darlings of Startup Land – the SnapChat founders

I have always thought that stereotype was skewed. Don’t get me wrong – I love young founders.  At Flybridge, we have invested in many of them (e.g., Eliot Buchanan and Dan Choi at Plastiq) and we plan to continue investing in many others.  But in my twenty years living in Startup Land, I have found that there is no single model or archetype for success.  Success comes in many flavors and combinations.  And, in my last five years on the HBS faculty, I have become more convinced of the value of the MBA entrepreneur. 

Thus, I was thrilled to read Aileen Lee’s terrific analysis of unicorns (companies that have been created in the last 10 years worth more than $1 billion) and have it shatter this piece of conventional wisdom.  Aileen systematically analyzed the common characteristics behind this cohort of 39 companies and found that “inexperienced, twentysomething founders were an outlier. Companies with well-educated, thirtysomething co-founders who have history together have built the most successes.”

Aileen’s analysis didn’t provide any data on the role of MBAs in the unicorns.  So, in partnership with HBS second year Juan Leung Li, we did some of our own digging.  Here's what we learned:

  • 33% of the Unicorns had at least one founding member who had an MBA. Examples include Kayak (Steve Hafner/Kellogg), Workday (Aneel Bhusri/Stanford and Dave Duffield/Cornell), Yelp (Jeremy Stoppelman/HBS) and Zynga (Mark Pincus/HBS).
  • 82% of Aileen's Unicorns had at least one founding member or current executive team member with an MBA. Examples of unicorns where MBAs were hired to help build the company include Evernote (COO Ken Gullicksen/Stanford), Facebook (COO Sheryl Sandberg/HBS), Twitter (COO Ali Rowghani/Stanford).
  • Of those that had MBAs, the leading schools represented were: HBS (21%), Stanford's GSB (17%) and Wharton (10%).

Unicorns pic - companies v2

 

Unicorns pic - schools
This week, John Byrne of Poets & Quants published a complimentary analysis, ranking the top 100 MBA Start-Ups.  In this analysis, he found some terrific companies that have been MBA founded in the last 5 years, such as Okta, Rent the Runway, Warby Parker and Wildfire.  Among this MBA founder list, HBS (34%), Stanford (32%) and MIT (11%) came out on top.

Why all the momentum with MBAs and start ups? Simply put, the major schools have radically changed their curriculum. These schools and others have become super-focused on training their MBAs to be effective executives across a range of company sizes, from start-ups to large enterprises.  For example, HBS now teaches two courses to help train students to be effective start-up executives:  Launching Technology Ventures (which I teach) and Product Management 101.  MIT is considering offering their own version of these classes in the spring or next year and Stanford has a plethora of strong course offerings for future start-up executives.

So the next time someone tells you that you need a hoodie to be a great start up entrepreneur, don't be afraid to flash your MBA diploma with pride.

To see the detailed spreadsheet that Juan Leung Li did, click here.

October 24, 2013

The Product Management Revolution

Copyright Martin Eriksson and Mind the Product 2011.

The art of Product Management continues to evolve. I've enjoyed spending time with many VPs of product in the last year since I co-authored an HBS note on the role of the Product Manager to develop more insights, materials and case studies on that revolution.

Earlier this week I taught a seminar on product management to MIT Sloan students as part of their "Sloan Innovation Period (SIP)" curriculum.  Although it's not exactly the EdX experience, in the spirit of open courseware, I thought others interested in the topic might enjoy the materials I used for the class, which are here:

October 09, 2013

Start Up Nation - Trip Report

I spent last week visiting Israel with a group of fellow venture capitalists touring Start Up Nation - a trip sponsored and organized by CJP. We had a terrific time - despite being in the midst of a pretty tough neighborhood, the country's innovation economy is absolutely booming.  A recent report named Tel Aviv the second most vibrant start up ecosystem in the world, behind only Silicon Valley.

A few take aways from the trip provided us with some insight into why such a tiny country (population of only 8 million) is doing so well:

  1. Big Winners are Emerging.  There used to be a perception that Israeli start-ups had great technology, but were weak at growing sales and marketing and so had to sell out to bigger companies early in their lifecycle, precluding the opportunity to build very valuable companies.  The success of Waze ($1B sale to Google), Wix (IPO filed), Outbrain (IPO rumored to be quietly filed or in process) have entrepreneurs on the ground thinking big.  The Times of Israel reports these success stories are inspiring Israeli start-ups to focus on the IPO path rather than M&A as a potential path to greatness.  I see this through the lens of our portfolio company, tracx, whose ambitions to build a great SaaS social intelligence company seem to rise with the country's ambitions.
  2. Start Up Heroes.  A culture is defined by its heroes.  The American entrepreneurial narrative has been shaped and amplified by the oft-celebrated heroic journeys of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, among others.  The Israeli narrative has gone from celebrating its war heroes (think Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, the Mossad) to celebrating its entrepreneurs.  I think we were told no less than a dozen times that Warren Buffet's largest international investment was in an Israeli company ($6B for Iscar) and yesterday it was reported that he is acquiring his third Israeli company.  The country is bursting with pride at its latest Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry (now numbering 11 Nobel laureates in its 65 year history).  Everywhere you go, Israelis want to tell you how smart and entrepreneurial they are!  Unlike any culture I have ever seen, this country gets the value of raw intelligence.
  3. Partnerships Matter.   Knowing their position as such a small country, Israeli businesses are always looking to partner outside of Israel.  Native Israeli venture capital represents only 25% of the VC capital invested in the market - most of the money is coming from global firms like Battery, Greylock, Lightspeed, Sequoia and others.  The two recent partnerships from Israel's elite technical university, Technion, are manifestations of this open approach.  First, the ambitious partnership with Cornell to build a new engineering school in New York City - called Cornell Tech - which appears to be off to a strong start, helped in part by a $133M gift from Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs.  More recently and announced while we were on campus, Technion announced a joint venture with a Chinese university to build a new campus in Guangdong thanks to a $130M gift from Chinese billionare Li Ka Shing, a large investor in Waze, matched by the Chinese government.

These elements suggest a bright future for Start Up Nation.  Now imagine what would happen if a peace agreement with the Palestinians could be reached (for a glimmer of home, read this NY Times report on a recent interview with President Abbas) and a nuclear deal with Iran (again, if you're an optimist, read today's WSJ report on Iran's seriousness in negotiating a deal).

A bright future, indeed.

September 30, 2013

Mentors and Reverse Mentors

Mentors

I make a lot of lists. It’s an old habit that started when I was in grade school.  Lists of to dos, lists of goals, lists of workouts. Lists, lists, lists.  I’m also a nostalgic person and so I tend to save a lot of these lists and use them as touch points for storing memories and keeping track of the passing of time.  Every now and then I’ll come across an old list and re-read it.  Some of them make me think deeply and others make me laugh at my younger self’s absurdity.

Recently, I came across a list in my desk labeled simply “Mentors”.  I’ve had a lot of mentors in my life – many who may not even know they played this role for me.  I’ve always kept an eye on them and noticed the choices they’ve made and how they’ve carried themselves personally and professionally.  A number of years ago, I drew up a list of my mentors as it helped crystallize for me who I admire, why I admire them and what I can learn from them.  It was fun to stumble upon that list again and reflect on my choices.

Then, I read an interview with my friend Barb Goose, president of Digitas, where she talks about reverse mentors.  It inspired me to draw up another list.  

Reverse mentors are people younger than you who you admire and learn from.  Everyone on my mentors list is older than me.  That was my traditional definition of mentor – someone ahead of you in life that inspires you, helps guide you and show the way to live.

But when I read Barb’s reason for seeking out reverse mentors – younger folks who she learns from in this rapidly changing, digital world – it really resonated with me.  Entrepreneurship, technology and innovation are profoundly influenced by the young. If you’re not tapping into their knowledge base and seeking their insight on trends and opportunities, you’re missing out on a valuable resource.  Upon reflection, it’s one of the reasons I so much enjoy the teaching I do at Harvard Business School.  I learn a tremendous amount from the students and they are always helping me think about the latest disruptive ideas, technologies and companies that are emerging or challenging how to best go about building start-ups to tackle these opportunities.

So now I’ve got my reverse mentor list.  I’m tucking it away in my desk for another few years and look forward to tracking the careers and choices of those on it.

September 08, 2013

What Makes the Boston Start Up Scene Special?

Every year, I give an open talk to the returning students at Harvard Business School on what makes the Boston start-up scene special.  I do it for two reasons:  1) as an advocate for the local innovation ecosystem, I want to make sure all these smart, talented folks from around the world can access and plug in to the amazing local resources available to them; 2) Boston is a microcosm of the ingredients for a successful start up community, a topic of great interest to policy makers and leaders all over the world (for more on this topic, see Brad Feld's excellent book, StartUp Communities).  The city of Boston is a relatively small one (the 21st largest city in the US with a population of 600k and a combined metro area that ranks it 10th), yet it is consistently ranked as one of the most innovative clusters in the world.

This presentation gives you a sense of why.

I have written in the past that in the IT sector, Boston suffers from not having more "platform companies", such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn.  As the above presentation shows, only a few companies in Boston are of the scale where they are platforms for other startups to plug in to and large enough to create their own industrial clusters.  Hopefully, that will change in the coming years.

Enjoy!

August 21, 2013

The Other Founder

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the unsung hero of many start-ups:  the other founder.  A lot has been written about the founder/CEO and her growth and evolution as a company grows.  But little is written about the (nearly omnipresent in my experience) co-founder – the #2, behind-the-scenes partner who teams with the founder/CEO from the very beginning to build the company.  In the image above, most everyone knows the name and image of Larry Page - cofounder and now CEO of Google.  But how many folks know Sergey Brin (on the right) and the role he has played in building Google to its massive success and a market capitalization of nearly $300 billion?  Sergey Brin is the other founder.

I’ve probably been thinking about this topic a lot lately because I’ve been recently meeting with the other founder at a few of my portfolio companies.  The conversations we’ve been having have a consistent set of themes.  The other founder usually begins with a particular range of responsibilities that compliment the founder.  They may run a function, such as product or engineering, or they may have a broader operational role and carry a COO title.  Typically, a 5 person company doesn’t need a COO, but it’s a useful catch all title for the other founder because it sounds better than “vice president of miscellaneous” or “SVP of whatever falls through the cracks,” which are more accurate descriptions of their role. 

The challenge for the other founder is that as a startup evolves from “the jungle” (super early stages, chaotic organization, prior to achieving product-market fit) to the “dirt road” (developing some organizational maturity and initial product market fit), senior functional executives often get hired from the outside to take over departments.  These executives naturally encroach on the other founder's responsibilities.

For example, at one of my portfolio companies, the other founder looked after administration, finance, operations, product and  engineering.  Basically, everything but sales and marketing.  But then the company hired a VP of operations.  And then a VP of finance.  And finally a VP of engineering.  And suddenly, after transitioning each function successfully to an outside senior executive one at a time, the other founder had successively worked himself out of a job.

The board and investors are super focused on making the founder/CEO successful – building an executive team around them, perhaps even a COO/president to compliment their skillset and help the company scale.  Or, as in the case of Google's hiring of Eric Schmidt, an outside CEO who can guide growth and scale.  In these situations, everyone is focused on the impact on the founder - what his role will be, how he handles the transition.  Very little board attention is typically focused on the role, evolution and growth of the other founder.

I would submit that ignoring the other founder is short-sighted.  I recommend boards and CEOs spend more time worrying about the role of the other founder and helping her successfully evolve over time.  Typically they are intensely loyal to the company and the founder/CEO, valuable sounding boards for the executive team and the founder/CEO and champions of the company culture and mission.

Here are a few approaches or archetypes that I typically see as the role of the other founder evolves over the life of a startup:

  1. Become a functional owner.  The other founder may be “VP of miscellaneous” in the beginning days of the startup, but be explicit about which functional area she should expect to own over time.  That way, she can develop the skills in that area in a focused fashion and slot in appropriately when the time is right.  Product management is a popular functional area for the other founder as the other founder is typically close to the customer and business problem being solved.  Further, the role doesn’t involve managing tens or hundreds of employees, a skill that is typically better suited for experienced functional operators.  Another one is business development for similar reasons and because it involves selling the company into an ecosystem of partnerships, requiring a blend of product knowledge and marketing skills.
  2. Grow into the COO role.  One successful portfolio company of mine had two young, MBA founders.  One played the CEO/cofounder, Mr. Outside role and the other played the COO/cofounder, Mr. Inside role.  Even as the company scaled, the young COO rapidly learned how to be a successful operator at scale.  I have had other companies hire coaches to help the young other founder grow into the COO role.  For the right profile, this can be a great role for the other founder.
  3. Drive the next strategic initiative.  As startups evolve into functional startups, they get very focused on the here and now:  shipping the next product release, successfully closing the next quarter, closing an important partnership.  Yet, startups need to always worry about what’s around the corner and have resources dedicated to strategic initiatives that can provide non-linear growth.  This is an area where the other founder can be very valuable.  Because of the respect he has within the company and their ability to cut across functions, he is well positioned to drive strategic initiatives and providing the “startup within a startup” culture necessary to innovate.

This set of themes is one that I’m personally very familiar with because I played this role at one of my startups, Upromise.  My title at the start was president and COO – thus I initially played the Mr. Inside role and rapidly grew into running a large organization.  Then, as we hired a skilled operational CEO, I transitioned to driving strategic initiatives.

I guess that’s why I’m always a sympathetic ear for the other founder.

July 11, 2013

Scaling Sales: From Craft to Machine

I've been thinking a lot lately about scaling sales.  

In every start-up, finding initial product-market fit is a magical moment.  Before this occurs, the sales process is a craft or an art - custom-made by the founder or evangelist sales VP.  You dive deep into a customer development process, working closely with a few customers who feed you requirements and are willing to trial an imperfect product that is evolving quickly.

But once you achieve initial product-market fit and are down the Sales Learning Curve, suddenly you are faced with a new challenge:  how do I scale up the sales efforts?  How do I build a repeatable, scalable sales process that is like an industrial machine - not a crafts project?

Across our portfolio and in my own entrepreneurial experience, I have seen three main sales models work successfully in scaling B2B sales:  1) Enterprise; 2) Telephone; and 3) Developer-driven.  B2C sales and customer acquisition efforts are a different matter (and one I'll perhaps address in a future blog), but for B2B, those three models are the most common pattern.  I'll discuss each one below.

1) Enterprise Sales

The enterprise sales model is a pretty simple one and was the predominant model ten to twenty years ago in the IT industry.  If you want to scale sales, you hire more sales reps.  Find a new sales rep with industry experience, a rolodex and a strong track record.  You assign an annual quota to each rep, train them, feed them some sales tools and assign them a sales engineer (particularly for more technically complex products) and coach them along the way.  After 3-6 months, they work their way down the learning curve, close their first deal and are off to the races.

The typical quota for a sales rep varies by type of business model (SaaS vs. perpetual), product gross margin (e.g., 80-90% software products vs. 40-50% advertising products) and company maturity (e.g., a "jungle" stage company would have a lower quota than a "highway" company).  Typically you want to see a 3x ratio between the contribution margin per rep (factoring in the lifetime value of the customer, or LTV) and the cost per rep to acquire that customer, fully loaded (i.e., customer acquisition cost or CAC).

For example if you have a 90% gross margin SaaS software product and assign a $1.1M in quota for a rep (i.e., $1m in contribution margin) that makes $250K at target and assume another $50k in benefits and travel costs and $30k in marketing and support costs for a total of $330K, then you have a 3x LTV:CAC ratio in year 1.  Another rule of thumb for SaaS companies, some focus on "the Magic Number", which is the ratio of new sales to sales and marketing expenses.

If the customer is a recurring customer, then they are more valuable and a lower quota might be tolerated, although a separate group of account reps are often accountable and paid commissions for the renewal revenue.  If the marketing support is greater and the product is more mature, than a higher quota might be assigned.  In my former company, Open Market, we had rising quotas each year as we got more mature, from (if memory serves me) $1.1M to $1.3M to $1.5M to $1.7M to, finally, $2M in annual quota.  Advertising sales reps, with a 40-50% gross margin, might have $3-5M in annual quota.

Although it is an excellent fit for complex enterprise-class solution selling, many people think classic enterprise sales, as a standalone go to market model, is broken.  When you analyze it carefully, unless you can support large quotas due to very large deal sizes, it can simply be too expensive to hire senior sales representatives, distribute them around the country, set up offices and support them.  Many are therefore proponents of a sales model that relies more on telephone-based selling, as described below.

2. Telephone Sales

The telephone sales model is based on a group of lower-paid, typically younger sales representatives that sit in cubicles next to each other and grind out call after call.  To implement this sales model effectively, there needs to be a tight coordination between sales and marketing to generate qualified leads and to feed these leads to the sales organization.  There also needs to be a large target universe of potential customers to justify the volume of calls - the model simply doesn't work if your target market pool is in the hundreds or even thousands.

Sales reps in this model may be closers or simply openers who qualify leads carefully and then hand them off to the closers (in this scenario, the telephone-based representatives are often called business or sales development representatives -- BDRs or SDRs).  Many organizations will have two separate groups - a group of SDRs that are nurturing leads and conducting product demonstrations and a group of telesales reps who are closers.  It is not uncommon for the SDRs to be right out of college or, at most, have only 2-4 years of experience and be earning base salaries as low as $30-40K.  Their quotas may be as low as $400-500K, but their salary at target might be only $80-100K.  With no travel budget and no field offices, the numbers pencil out nicely.  The telesales team can also be a nice training ground for enterprise sales reps - a path that can be cheaper and less risky than hiring someone externally.

Generating a high volume of leads for the telephone sales rep is the key to making this model work.  It is all about (highly qualified) leads, leads, leads.  Leads may be through inbound marketing techniques (such as webinars, blogging, white papers or other forms of content marketing) or outbound marketing techniques ("smile and dial" against a list of prospects).  The Hubspot folks (who are terrific in this area) estimate that each SDR in their mid-market group needs 150 leads per month to be productive and busy while for the small business team, they target feeding 2000 leads per sales rep per month.  This is an appropriate number to figure out and model to help guide whether you need to ramp up marketing (demand generation) or sales (closing) as you scale.

To that point, a well-run telesales operation will be super metrics-driven.  You can measure EVERYTHING - how many calls per day per rep, how many connects per call, how many positive conversations that lead to follow-up, how many demonstrations, how many proposals, etc.  These measurements help with the "machine-building" process as you can more predictably assess how you are doing at any given time and where you need to focus your resources - more leads, more SDRs, more closers, etc.  The best sales VPs of telesales operations are more like accountants than charismatic salespeople.  If you hire a charismatic leader as  your head of sales, make sure you hire a director of sales operations to support them.  I never fully appreciated the value of this role until I saw it in action myself at Open Market where the director of sales operations managed all the numbers and operational details, freeing up the charismatic sales VP to hire, lead and close the big deals.

Alignment between sales and marketing is critical in any sales model, but under the telesales model it is even more critical.  Organizationally, SDRs may even work under the marketing organization while the closers work for sales.  Whatever the organizational configuration, the definition of a lead, clarity on the quantity of leads being targeted, and alignment on the quality of a lead required before handing off from marketing to sales are all key elements to work through.  Marketing automation platforms are particularly helpful here so that you can track someone from website visit all the way down the funnel through close.

Again, there are many who believe even the telesales model is flawed and outdated.  Hiring armies of young, inexperienced professionals and training them to become sales reps and operate in a "boiler room" style environment can be expensive.  To achieve friction-free revenue (and who doesn't want friction-free revenue?), a third sales model has emerged which I'll call "Developer Driven".

3) Developer Driven Sales

My partner, Chip Hazard, wrote a terrific blog post on the power of developer-driven adoption, something we have seen play out very successfully at a few of our portfolio companies, but most notably 10gen (maker of MongoDB).  As Chip points out, if you can architect your product as a platform (build APIs that are accessible to 3rd party developers) and get bottoms-up adoption from the development community, you can drive adoption without investing heavily in sales.  Chip's examples are mainly from technical products (his main area of expertise), but this approach can be employed for any product where customers can trial, see value quickly and begin adoption without taxing your sales resources.

To do this effectively, you often need to employ a freemium business model - making it easy for a developer or customer to try your product for free, get set up and quickly self provision (ideally within 5 minutes) without ever speaking to anyone at the company.  This provides the ultimate inbound marketing model - customers contact you when they have tried your product and are convinced it provides them with value.  Once value is established and the product usage ramps up, you can hear the cash register ringing.

Instead of hiring telesales people, you hire "Community Managers" who arrange hackathons and meetups, actively engage the community on the forums, and shares relevant content through various social channels.  When things are really working well in a developer driven model, developers are embedding your platform in their products and each developer becomes a marketing agent for the company.  In effect, your developer support team becomes your marketing team.  

Summary

The magic in developing a go to market strategy is that there is no "one size fits all" approach.  Many companies will design their sales and marketing machine as a blend of each of these approaches.  Use a developer-driven model to drive trial and inbound activity.  Telesales to close high-volume, smaller deals.  And then enterprise sales for the select strategic deals with average sales price (ASP) > $100K.

Different phases of your business will see more emphasis on one area than another.  For example, many companies embark on a freemium model initially, then depend on inbound upsell, later hire a telesales team to ramp up the upsell process by adding outbound activities, then hire an enterprise team to close the big deals.  Dropbox is an example of a company that has followed this path with tremendous results.

The main point is that you need to be as strategic and thoughtful in designing your go to market model as you are in your product or company strategy.  Only then can you evolve from a crafts model to a machine.

I include a chart below from a recent board presentaiton from my portfolio company, tracx (a SaaS social intelligence platform) that frames the multi-stage process in a particularly clear manner.


07132013 Sales Board Deck slide 28

To read more on this topic, here are a few books / blogs I recommend:

June 27, 2013

Don't Forget the "Tech" in "AdTech"

Today's IPO by Tremor Video is seen by many as a harbinger for the adtech community (full disclosure:  Tremor Video is a Flybridge portfolio company).  Rightly so.  Tremor is the first public offering of an adtech company since Millenial Media's IPO in April 2012.  One can argue how successful the Tremor IPO was, and the broader industry implications, based on the first day's opening price and trading, but the real test of these offerings is what happens next - how companies perform and execute over the next few quarters.

One thing that is clear, though, is that the advertising community would be wise to keep an eye on the "tech" portion of "adtech".  I have argued in the past that software is eating marketing.  Simply put, technology is radically transforming the marketing function and the role of the marketing professional.  The flow of advertising dollars into digital, addressable media is well-documented and well-understood.  It is estimated that in 2013, $100 billion will be spent on digital forms of advertising, representing more than 20% of the total advertising market and continuing to grow rapidly in share  (see chart above).

Less understood is that managing digital advertising is far more complex than its analog counterpart.  Advertising agencies have retained their industry wide hegemony as a result of this complexity.  With so many new technology vendors popping up and so many immature point solutions being deployed, the core competence of agencies has gone from being great at relationship managemnent to being great at technology platform management.  As DataXu's Mike Baker likes to say, Mad Men have become Math Men.

But, in every industry, software improves and gets simpler and simpler.  Technology platforms gain in scale, become more mainstream and training programs become more mature.  As all this happens, agency services are required less and less.

So, the lesson that may get loss in the Tremor IPO hoopla?  Agencies are being transformed.  Technology companies are sweeping into the advertising industry, much like they did in marketing (see Salesforce.com, Eloqua/Oracle, Exact Target/SalesForce, Neolane/Adobe).  And the days of getting the job done with thin technology in combination with armies of bodies are over.  To be a valued, strategic player in the market, you had better have a thick, differentiated technology stack.

June 10, 2013

The Productivity Paradox

Think about all of the amazing technology innovation that has impacted businesses over the last three years.  Since 2011, we have seen an explosion in cloud computing, in mobile, in technology-enabled business services and in globalization.  All of us feel more productive as professionals and our businesses feel more productive instutionally.  As a nation, the US must be cranking in productivity.  Killing it -- particularly after rebounding from a recession, right?

Now look at the latest US productivity statistics (Q1 was just released last week):

  • Q1 2013:  0.5% (annualized)
  • 2012:  0.7%
  • 2011:  0.6%

In other words, despite three years of amazing innovation and growth, we don't seem to be gaining in productivity.  What's going on?  

In 1986, observing a similar phenomenon on the heels of the PC revolution, MIT Economist Robert Solow quipped:  "You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics."

Those of us that are immersed in the innovation economy may find this hard to believe, but we are not, as a whole, actually more productive when we are in the midst of an innovation cycle boom.  New technologies take time to absorb, refine and make mainstream.  Computer software can be reprogrammed quickly.  Humans can't.  

Forrester captured this phenomenon nicely in a chart they produced a number of years ago predicting "the next big thing" in computing:

Forrester chart

We can't imagine a world without broadband wireless, iPhone 5s, iPads and the cloud.  But we've got a lot of work to do to absorb these amazing technologies and make us all more productive as a whole.

May 23, 2013

Should I Join an Accelerator?

Today is Demo Day for Techstars Boston.  I love Techstars Demo Days for many reasons, not the least of which is the amazing community that gathers to hear the brief, well-rehearsed pitches from the various start-ups who have spent months planning for this big event.

As accelerators like Techstars gain in popularity, many entrepreneurs wonder whether they should be applying and, if admitted, joining an accelerator and when they shouldn't.  I get this question a lot from my students, particularly as they're graduating and scrambling to figure out where they should start their company, how to raise capital and whether an accelerator is right for them.  Here are a few guidelines that I would think about if I were an entrepreneur making such a decisions.

First, broadly speaking, accelerators serve a very valuable role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.  In many ways, as Eugene Chung of Techstars NY points out, they are like finishing schools for entrpreneurs.  Like a college, there is a rigorous admissions process.  And once admitted, the participant receives an extraordinarily rich education, in this case in the field of entrepreneurship.  Also like college, the best accelerators represent valuable networks, where your "classmates" and even other alumni as well as boosters all become a part of your professional support system.  Finally, the brand of the network will always be associated with your brand.  Dropbox and Airbnb will always be known as "Y Combinator companies", which initially helped buttress their brand, and more in more is helping enhance the Y Combinator brand.

So with that in mind, here are a few reasons when I think an accelerator is a great choice for the entrepreneur:

  • Outsiders to the Entrepreneurial Community.  You are early in your entrepreneurial career and want to super-charge your entrepreneurial network.  To be clear, this is not a comment about age - you might be in your 50s and new to entrepreneurship.  But, as Launchpad LA's Sam Teller observes, "Across the board, accelerators provide one key value:  dramatically expanding your network."
  • Outsiders to the Particular Community.  Every major innovation hub in the world now has an accelerator and most have numerous (Boston alone has over a dozen).  If you are from outside that particular community, the accelerator is an amazing way to build a network in that particular city.  As Brad Feld points out in his book on innovation ecosystems, there is tremendous power in being connected to a hyper-local, dense entrepreneurial ecosystem.  Accelerators are magnets for the leaders in a given community - at Techstars Demo Days, it's always a "who's who" of that particular community.  The quality of the mentors at the many events and one-on-one sessions over the are course of the program is outstanding - typically, you can't get access to these people any other way.
  • New to Fundraising.  Accelerators pride themselves, and often measure themselves, on their ability to help their graduates raise capital.  For example, across nineteen Techstars classes in its four year history, over 70% of all Techstars graduates have raised capital (Techstars publishes an amazing chart that lists every company in every class and their fundraising status as well as employee count).  If you don't have existing relationships with investors, accelerators are great ways to establish instant credibility and an instant network.

That said, not all accelerators are created equal.  Just like with a college, your personal and professional brand will always be associated with that particular accelerator, so choose wisely.  Some accelerators specialize in certain domains (e.g., Rock Health for healthcare or Learn Launch for edtech).  Others have stronger reputations for fundraising vs. product development.

If you want to get a sense of the quality of the particular accelerator you are considering, you should ask around about them - graduates, senior entrepreneurs, VCs, start-up lawyers, bankers and accounting firms will all have their opinions.  One tech reporter, Frank Gruber, publishes an annual ranking of accelerators that is pretty good, although it leaves out hybrid organizations that aren't technically accelerators, like Boston's Mass Challenge (which is a contest) and NYC's First Growth Venture Network (which doesn't take any equity).

Accelerators are thus not for everyone.  If you are already well-connected to a particular entrepreneurial community, have a entrepreneurial track record and network, and are comfortable with your fundraising skills and relationships, then an accelerator probably isn't worth it for you.  But if those attributes don't describe you as an entrepreneur, an accelerator may be an excellent choice.

Now...off to demo day!

May 07, 2013

Immigration Reform - Senate Testimony

I was invited to testify at a Senate hearing tomorrow in front of the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.  Below is my planned testimony.

(update: the video of my initial statement is below and the full hearing video is here) 

The immigration reform debate is near and dear to my heart and has whipped up the passions of many in the Innovation Economy, including Mayor Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg, and countless others.  It feels like, finally, we may get some positive movement on this and I'm honored to have the opportunity to help in any small way I can.

JJBussgang Senate Testimony - Immigration Reform - 5-8-13

If you are inspired to lend your support, visit / contribute to:

April 16, 2013

I am a Bostonian

I was born and have lived in the Boston area almost all my life.  I went to school here, met my wife and married her here, built a family and pursued my career here.  I am a rabid fan of all the sports teams and love exploring and connecting with every nook and corner of this community.  Never have I been more proud of the resilience of my home town.  Never have I felt more meaning in the statement:  "I am a Bostonian."  

In the Flybridge partners meeting this morning -- which was held at one of our homes as our office is a part of the crime scene and in "lock down" mode -- we discussed where we were when we learned of the horrible events, how we felt, who we know who was touched by it all.  We checked in with loved ones throughout the meeting and fielded kind notes from friends and colleagues.

For those of you who have written, texted, tweeted and called with words of solidarity and support, thank you. The sensitivity and tenderness that my kids' schools have shown is another reflection of what an amazing community we live in.  We are all more bonded together by this sad experience.

The talk in the town is that next year's Boston Marathon will be the greatest in history.  Many of my friends who have never ran before are thinking seriously about running in it.  Many vow they will be at the finish line cheering the runners on.  Many more still vow that the fundraising efforts next year will dwarf years past.  The theme throughout the city today is "we will perservere, we will thrive, this will not slow this great community down." 

The world is watching us and we intend to step up.

I am a Bostonian.

April 12, 2013

Raising Your First Round of Financing

I gave a talk at Harvard Law School this week to a VC and Entrepreneurship class on raising your first round of financing.  It was good fun and forced me to rethink my usual presentation and add some practical elements.  You can view the presentation here:

My other SlideShare presentations are here.

April 01, 2013

Seeking A Job in Start-Up Land

My first time jumping into the start-up world was as a freshly minted Harvard MBA in 1995.  As my classmates were rushing off to high-paying, high-powered jobs on Wall Street, I joined a Series A start-up with 30 employees as a product manager, making $65,000 per year - lower than my pre-MBA salary at management consultancy The Boston Consulting Group.  Since then I've had a terrific ride, but I often think of that fateful decision when I get asked, repeatedly, by other freshly minted MBAs:  "How do I get a job in a start-up?"  Or, more generally, "How do I even begin to find and assess start-up job opportunities - I don't even know where to start?"

The start-up universe is a large one and can seem overwhelming and impenetrable to the uninitiated.  In order to narrow things down, I recommend following a simple, four-step heuristic.  Here's the advice I give:  

  • Pick a Domain.  First, figure out your passion in terms of domain.  Are you more of a B2C type or a B2B type?  What blogs are you reading?  What articles in Techcrunch or the Wall Street Journal capture your attention?  What companies are your dream companies to work for?  Answering these questions will help narrow down a set of domains that you are excited about.  It can be more than one, but it shouldn't be more than, say, three.
  • Pick a City.  Next, figure out where you want to live.  Again, there may be multiple options, but ideally one or two favorites.  Each start-up community has its own plusses and minuses, quirks and idiosyncracies.  I find that once young people choose a particular start-up community, they stay there.  It's a natural phenomenon - they build relationships over time that lead to one opportunity after the next.  Your co-workers in one start-up become your co-founders in another.  Thus, young professionals should be thoughtful about choosing a city early in their career because of this "settling in" phenomenon.
  • Pick a Stage.  Next, determine what stage company you prefer to work in.  Do you want a company that is still in the jungle phase (hacking through and trying to establish a path to success), the dirt road phase (established initial product-market fit and now trying to execute and scale in a relatively clear direction) or the highway phase (optimizing and scaling along a well-trod path)?  This decision should be made somewhat based on risk appetite and somewhat on personal makeup and preferences.  If you are a risk-taker and enjoy the challenges and roller-coaster ride, then the jungle phase is for you and you should bias towards seed funded or recently Series A funded companies that are pre-revenue.  If you are more conservative, want a good salary and prefer to pick a "safe" winner, then a highway phase company that is pre-IPO or recently IPO'ed is the right choice. 
  • Pick a Winner.  Now that you have your target domain, geography and stage, focus on picking out a few winners - the hot companies that everyone thinks has great momentum and potential.  After all, why would you want to work for anyone other than the absolute hottest company in a given category?  How does an outsider figure out who the winners are in a given domain, market and stage?  Ask a handful of insiders.  Find the top 3 VCs, angels, tech lawyers and headhunters in your target geographical market and ask them for the two or three hottest companies that match the domain and stage you are interested in.  Compile this list, pressure test it, and see what patterns you find.  The firms who get the most mentions with the most compelling underlying evidence will naturally rise to the top.

Below is a sample chart that I put together answering the question for someone interested in either e-commerce, mobile or SaaS companies in SF/SV, NYC or Boston.  The first company listed is an earlier stage company (either jungle or dirt road) and the second company is a later stage company (either dirt road or highway).  This list is illustrative - just to make the point - not in any way attempting to be comprehensive.

MBA blog 3-31-13
(full disclosure:  tracx, 10gen and Savingstar are Flybridge portfolio companies)

Once this heuristic is complete, you now have your target list.  The next step is to get warm introductions to the target.  This is easier than you would think.  LinkedIn is an incredibly powerful tool, as are the various alumni databases.  VCs are often happy to pass along your resume and background to their portfolio companies - after all, they are doing them a favor by sending them highly qualified talent.

In general, the start-up community is so incredibly generous with its time and has such a strong "pay it forward" culture, that with tenacity and time, you can get to almost anyone.   In fact, I recommended you aim high.  Use this heuristic to narrow down your search and then list out the 10 people that would be your absolute top choices to sit down for 30 minutes with face to face.  Then, go after those 10 people in any way you can (without stalking them or being a nudge!).  These networking meetings will help you establish valuable relationships, even if the job fit isn't there.

In short, be organized, focused and tenacious.  Aim high, seek out the incremental networking meetings and pick yourself out a winner.  Things may not work out, but at least you're putting yourself in a position for a little positive serendipity.

March 18, 2013

No Denying Deflation: Will It Eventually Kill Content?

In classic economics, deflation - a downward trend in prices - is a dangerous force that leads to recessions (see:  Japan, economic disaster - a case study).  In the world of the Internet, deflation viewed as a positive force, leading to massive consumer gains.  How can we reconcile these two competing beliefs?  And what impact will this deflationary pressure have on the production of high quality content?

I've been thinking a lot about deflation and its impact on the Internet economy since reading two articles in two different newspapers this last week.  The first was this article in The Economist about the music business.  The article contained a chart showing music industry revenues peaking in 1999 at $27 billion and dropping consistently as a result of the disruptive power of digital music and iPods/iPhones.  Industry revenue may have finally flattened out at $16.5 billion, but the bigger story is that over $10 billion of value has been taken out of the music business thanks to over a dozen years of digital disruption.  Artists are still producing a ton of music (I would guess music proliferation has grown during this period, although I haven't seen the data), yet the Internet has produced massive deflationary pressure.

The second article that I was struck by was in the Wall Street Journal, depicting the explosion of online video.  Titled, "Web Video:  Bigger and Less Profitable", the article reports on the rapid growth in online video views (39 billion in December), yet the fact that prices are dropping rapidly due to the oversupply of video inventory.  The CPM (cost per thousand views) that advertisers are paying has dropped from $17-25 in 2011 to $15-20 in 2012.  Advertisers and content producers are used to this trend.  Whenever a new advertising medium emerges, prices are high at first, and then steadily drop as inventory swells (I wrote about this in a post that provided a bearish analysis of Groupon back in 2010).  Every content business today faces this rapid drop in CPMs across every category, resulting in severe cost pressures.

So if the producers of music, video and other content are getting hammered on deflation, who is benefiting?  Consumers.  Consumers are getting access to music, video and other sources of content for less.  They're also getting subsidized by business advertisers through social networks and search.  McKinsey did a study a few years ago that sized the consumer surplus from the Internet at over 100 billion euros.  Interestingly, they concluded that in measuring this surplus, consumers have benefited 85% of the gains from the Internet as compared to 15% for producers.

Thus, while the business press is full of stories of disruptive gains in business transformation, the real story of the Web is the power of the consumer and the massive gain consumers are receiving.

Although I am thrilled with the consumer surplus, I struggle with where this logical chain is eventually leading us.  I worry that if there is too much deflation in content, that this consumer surplus will hit a natural limit.  That natural limit will be that content producers will stop investing to produce high quality content.  After all the inefficiencies have been wrung out of the system, eventually fewer producers of content will be willing to produce great content because the rewards just are no longer there.  If this were to happen, consumers would be all the poorer for it.

My conclusion:  although deflation has produced awesome consumer gains in the last decade, it is emerging as a real threat to content producers.  But at some point, perhaps soon, it will tip to being a negative force that will cause high quality content produers to turn away and pursue other methods of financial gain.  If that were to happen, we might regret allowing deflation to run rampant on the Web.

March 05, 2013

The Religion of Entrepreneurship

All the focus on the Pope's departure from the Vatican has got me thinking about the meaning of religion.  Those ruminations have led me to a surprising conclusion:  one of the reasons the force of entrepreneurship has become so powerful in recent years around the world is that entrepreneurship has evolved into a global religious movement.

Wikipedia defines religion as follows:

Religion is an organized collection of belief systemscultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values.

Similarly, the start-up world has evolved into a set of shared beliefs and values.  For example, the notion of Pay it Forward has become a core part of the entrepreneurial ethos.  In religious communities, when someone is in need, the community rallies around them.  People do kind things to other people just because it is the right thing to do.  The start-up world has a similar share value - investors, CEOs and service providers throughout the entrepreneurial ecosystem are always willing to lend a hand, donate time and provide guidance and counsel.  When I talk to entrepreneurs I've never met before, I always have a sense that we are kindred spirits on a shared journey.  There is an immediate connection and mutual respect, just as I feel when I meet a member of my religion (Judaism).

The canonical texts of the entrepreneurial world are firmly established and widely read.  Although they haven't sold as well as the Bible, there are a set of books that nearly every member of the entrepreneurial ecosystem has read, including:  Crossing the Chasm, The Lean Start-Up and Four Steps to the Epiphany.  Even those who have not studied these books and their derivative works are familiar with the concepts.  

The cultural force of entrepreneurship is a powerful one.  This force and the cultural norms they impose can vary from the profound (it is no longer ok to look down on the "little guy/gal" in business, young people are now listened to more carefully and given more opportunities to have an impact) to the mundane (it is now ok to wear jeans to a serious professional meeting, it is no longer ok to pull out a Blackberry in a meeting as opposed to the iPhone).  The binds that tie the community together are strong.  I can walk into a start-up event in Sao Paolo, Jakarta or Little Rock and have the same dialog about the same concepts - just as I can when I walk into a synagogue on Friday night anywhere in the world and feel at home.

The prophets of entrepreneurship have been firmly established.  Paul Graham, Steve Blank, Eric Ries and a few others have risen to a status such that anything they say or write is followed closely by hundreds of thousands of followers.  The entrepreneurial community reads all the same blogs and debates the same issues around the world.  Certain corporate leaders, such as Steve Jobs (who, arguably, was practically deified in the wake of his tragic death) are also viewed with such reverence that they can command massive followings and sway opinion.

I could go on, but you get the point.  I'm not sure what to do with this observation, but I think it represents a profound undercurrent that drives the start-up system in a very positive way.  I'd be curious if others see it similarly.

February 27, 2013

Fred Wilson Returns to HBS

 

Fred and Jeff

Despite being a Wharton and MIT guy, my friend Fred Wilson has been kind enough to attend my class at HBS for the last few years.  Yesterday was another terrific one.

Instead of a final exam, I assign my students the task of blogging.  You can see the the class blog here, where the students wrestle with the limitations of the lean methodology, challenges in seeking product-market fit, premature scaling and other important startup topics.

I encouraged the students to live tweet the class and it was a huge success.  You can see the Twitter stream from the class here.  A few highlights/quotes that I thought were particularly salient:

"We should always bet on the team and, in this case, ignored that it looked like a niche market." (Fred on lessons learned on passing up the opportunity to invest in AirBnB)

 "It’s a lot better to fail with professional investors’ money than with friends and family money. We’re used to losing money."

"Don't let your own reality distortion field convince you, as a founder, that you've hit product market fit."

"As an entrepreneur, stay a 'free agent' as long as possible." (i.e., don't pick a VC  partner too early in your lifecycle - Union Square and Flybridge aside...:-)

"[When pitching investors,] focus on the big vision, how you will be the market leader in 10 years, don't get stuck in the operational details."

On career choices:  "You'll learn more doing your own startup [versus joining someone else's]. But doing a startup for the sake of doing a startup isn't a good idea. "

"VCs look for passionate, authentic founders who actually believe they can defy gravity" (I think this was me but Fred seemed to agree)

"There's value in having a founding team with a crazy person with vision alongside a cofounder grounded in logic and analytics."

Thanks again to Fred for coming out and helping make a memorable class experience!

 

February 10, 2013

Balance and StartUp Life

Living the startup life is a hard roller coaster.  One day you think you're on the verge of building a billion-dollar company, the next you wake up in a cold sweat, paranoid that you are about to run out of cash and have to shut the whole thing down.

There a lot of good books on how to develop a customer value proposition, rigorously test it and raise money.  But I have never seen a book address the hard issues of how to live your life while you're working 80 hours a week trying to do all those things.  Until now.

My friend, Brad Feld, has written precisely that book with his wife Amy Batchelor, called Startup Life. The couple tackle how to manage your relationship with your significant other while trying to live in the mad, crazy, demanding world of startups.  Nothing is off limits for this book - Brad shares how he screwed up his first marriage, how they manage their highs and lows together and even addresses the topic of how to find time for sex while running startup.

Brad asked me to share a few thoughts on my perspective on the topic and whether I had any additional tips.  I have been happilly married for 19 years and have known my wife, Lynda, over 25 years (we met our first day freshman year in college while moving in to the same dormitory entryway).  Like Amy, Lynda is not in the startup world at all, but rather has a completely different work and personal profile than I do (she is a former professional Broadway-style performer and is now a pioneer in the world of aging and multi-generational programming).  Additional context:  we have three kids (now ages 16, 13 and 10).  Brad and Amy don't have kids, so they were light on addressing this additional challenge - a topic I struggled with when I was an entrepreneur and still struggle with today as a multi-tasking, over-scheduled venture capitalist trying to be an accessible, loving Dad for my three high-energy children.  

Be Predictable, Even If It's Bad News.  

One of the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur is the unpredictable schedule you face.  A customer calls with a bug and there's a crisis.  A new product needs to get pushed out the door and it's a crisis.  Or you're trying to raise money and you need to prepare all night for tomorrow's investor meeting.  It would drive my wife absolutely nuts when I would say I would be home by a certain time, and then not show up until one or two hours later.  Dinner would be cold, kids would be mad and all hell would break loose.  

I finally swore I'd get better at is keeping track of time and setting expectations better with my wife about when I come home.  So we developed a system together:  at the beginning of each month, I email her when to expect me home at night that month (or not at all if travelling) with a 15 minute range.  Many nights the range is "945-1000pm" if I'm in NYC that day or have an evening event.  But it is what it is and I don't try to sugercoat it.  Then, I work very hard to stick to that hour, treating that deadline as if it were a meeting with an entrepreneur or a portfolio company board meeting.  If I know I am going to miss the deadline for being home (sure, stuff comes up), I always give her the heads up.  This creates a sense of predictability for her and the kids.  

If I see my kids in the morning (which is rare, although I'm working on that), I will tell them verbally what time to expect me rather than try to hide from the fact that I'm travelling or working late that day.  This avoids my family getting more frustrated with my unpredictable schedule than my actual schedule!

You're Just Not That Interesting.

In my early startup days, and the early days of the Internet, we used to refer to the crazy pace that we were living as "Internet Time".  There was this feeling that everyone else was living a slower pace than we were.  Indeed, to me, my 12-14 hour work day was chock full of a week's worth of stories, characters and drama.  Subconsciously, I thought my day-to-day was more exciting than my wife's and would come home eager to share all the drama.  After a few years, I began to realize that as interesting and dramatic as my work life is to me, it's really not that interesting to Lynda.  She cares about the big things, of course, and she cares about how I'm feeling about it, but the ups and downs about new product releases and who's missing the quarter and what competitors are doing are all just noise to her.

So my mantra now is, my work life just isn't that interesting to my family.  I share with them the top-line highs and lows, but I don't think my wife could name each of my portfolio companies.  Instead, when I come home, I focus on them:  the ups and downs of my kids social and academic lives; the ups and downs of my wife's work and social life.  In my head, I try to keep it to "80% them, 20% me" sharing time.  I'm sure it ends up more balanced, but if I aim for 20%, I know I'll come home focused on them rather than on me.  To be clear, I love my work and love being consumed in it.  It's just not that interesting to the four other members of my household.  And I'm ok with that.

Find Together Projects.

My wife and I operate in different professional worlds, but we have found that we love collaborating together on projects beyond the raising of our three kids.  Raising our kids takes an enormous amount of thought and energy.  The topic of our children often dominates our private time together.  We have discussions and make decisions each week about their activities, their school work, who to have a sleepover, who is picking them up when (during the weekend, we often switch to "taxi driver" mode) and what they should do for the summer.  But, we have found that having "adult projects" that we collaborate on is also very rewarding.  We have pored energy into various non-profits, our synagogue and our kids' schools as a way of making a difference, yes, but also spending our outside work time together.  Thus, although our professional communities are very separate, our personal and social communities are totally integrated.

In addition to those few tips and reading Amy and Brad's books, I recommend a few other books:

  • The Three Big Questions For a Frantic Family by Patrick Lencioni.  Lencioni is one of my favorite business book writers (see this blog post on his work on team dysfunction) and so this book was a refreshing way to apply some of his core business lessons to family management.
  • Raising Cain by Daniel Kindon and Michael Thompson.  I have two boys.  I have read this book twice - once when they were recently born and again recently as they move into the world of teenagers and found both sessions incredibly helpful and informative.
  • Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  David Kidder of Clickale suggested this one to me and I have enjoyed it as a book that cuts against conventional wisdom in many areas of raising children.
  • The Talent Code:  Greatness Isn't Born, It's Grown. Here's How by Daniel Coyle.  My partner Jon Karlen recommended this one to me.  Jon was an all-American squash player and his wife was a 12-letter athlete (!) at Harvard, so I take his recommendations about raising talented kids seriously!

Good luck with your own journey for balance and happiness!

February 06, 2013

Leadership Lessons for Entrepreneurs from Jethro (Moses' Father-in-Law)

I was in synagogue last weekend for a cousin's bat mitzvah and was struck by the entrepreneurial lessons from the weekly Torah portion.  The portion was Exodus 18, where Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, sits down with him and gives him some mentorship:

What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit, and all the people stand before you from morning until evening...The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself.

Moses is the ultimate entrepereneur, trying to do it all himself.  He leads the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt (nice vision!) and then is forced to execute on creating a new society and way of life for his people.  It's too much for one person to bear.  

So like any good mentor, Jethro gives it to him straight - you are going to burn out.  You need to delegate.  Find some good people you trust and let them deal with the minor issues.  Focus your energy on finding the right people, put them in a position to succeed and then save yourself for the really big decisions.

Pretty good advice for an entrepreneur.

January 23, 2013

Does DC Know Startups?

The short answer is no, but perhaps there’s hope.

The day after President Obama was inaugurated for a second term, I was invited to speak at the (MUCH smaller) inaugural meeting of the newly formed Congressional Caucus on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.  The caucus is a bi-partisan group, created by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), Darrell Issa (R-CA), Vern Buchanan (R-FL) and Gary Peters (D-MI), to focus federal policy efforts on supporting startups and innovation.

I have to admit my expectations were pretty low.  After my euphoria over the passing of the JOBS Act last year, the latest fiasco over the fiscal cliff have me pretty down on Washington’s ability to get anything done that will help create a more robust business environment.  I have been to DC a few times with the policy business group I helped co-found, The Alliance for Business Leadership, and every time I’m there, I’m struck by the contrast with the more thrilling, action-oriented world of startups and venture capital.

That said, the House Members and staffers seemed genuinely interested in the components of a vibrant start-up ecosystem.  I gave them a briefing of why Boston and NYC have such vibrant start-up environments, with the former being in the midst of a renaissance and the latter emerging from nowhere over the last 5-10 years to legitimately become one of the world’s major start-up centers.

I cited a few elements, which echo a presentation I have given in the past about Boston’s Start-Up Scene and that my NYC-based colleague, Matt Witheiler, has written about NYC.  Specifically:

  • There are four important ingredients for a start-up ecosystem to thrive:
    • Intellectual capital – Universities, young people, creative (whacky) people, expertise in multiple disciplines
    • Angels, Advisors and Accelerators – that first capital and good advice to transition from idea to reality and provide mentorship
    • Venture capital – the necessary capital to scale, advice, mentorship, guidance from those who have “seen the movie”
    • Successful companies – to inspire, partner with, poach from and/or sell to
    • I also observed the important cultural characteristics of successful start-up ecosystems.  They are open, diverse, inclusive, welcoming of outsiders/immigrants and creative types, and rich in information exchange.

Today, Boston and NYC are shining examples of these elements.  Boston has always had rich intellectual capital, but was historically weaker in the cultural characteristics than it is today.  The angel community has also stepped up in a more meaningful way recently, which has been very positive.

NYC has historically fallen short on intellectual capital, but that has changed dramatically in recent years with all the talent streaming out of Wall Street and Madison Avenue into start-ups.  Further, following the interesting entrepreneurs and ideas, there’s been an explosion in NYC’s angel community.  This has led to an environment that has never been more promising.

With the audience being a policy one, I gave some simple advice to policy makers:  avoid getting involved in areas where government doesn’t have a role (e.g., picking winners with targeted tax breaks) and focus instead on fundamentals (e.g., education, infrastructure) and policy issues that matter to entrepreneurs (e.g., immigration reform, reforming community and state colleges to fit the needs the start-up employers, and capital formation issues like crowdfunding).  I gave a nod to local government leaders like Governor Patrick and Mayor Bloomberg who have been terrific champions in their respective communities. When you ask local business leaders, they will all tell you that those two politicians “get it”.

I can’t predict whether this new caucus will have an impact, but clearly comprehensive immigration reform is on Congress’ short list for important initiatives in 2013 and Rep. Polis was one of the co-sponsors of the Start Up Visa Act, so he clearly “gets it”.  If every entrepreneur reached out to their House Representative and encouraged them to join this Caucus, perhaps it would have a small impact.  Meanwhile, I was happy to leave Washington DC and get back to action-oriented Start Up Land!

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