12 thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of TechCrunch50

Launching at TechCrunch50 was awesome. We met a ton of interesting people and it is already a boon for BreakThrough.

I sent the below feedback to Mike Arrington and Jason Calacanis. Jason encouraged me to post for the public, so here it is:

Strengths

1. Fast internet
: if there is one thing a tech conference has to get right, I think it’s internet access. Otherwise it’s like a restaurant with great decor and service but terrible food. TC50 nailed it with fast ethernet and power cables at every seat. Absolutely the right place to spend big.

2. Great organization
: throughout the application, preparation, and presentation, we got clear instructions on what to do and when. It was like a Swiss train. Jason’s presentation prep was especially helpful.

3. Strong panelists
: a good mix of smart and entertaining people asking generally good questions. I want Yossi Vardi to host my next birthday party.

4. Press tags
: it was helpful to see the orange press tags so we knew who to approach. I didn’t see a color for investors; they should have been tagged green instead of the startups.

5. Decor
: banners, tables, music, visuals, and stage were all well designed. If the startups had to design their own signage, it would have looked like a drunken quilt.

Areas of improvement

1. Democratic judging
: I meant to post this before the awards so this couldn’t be seen as a response to how BreakThrough did, so please believe my feedback would be the same even if we won.

As a finalist, I was quite surprised that Jason said the winner was determined by he and Mike alone. I think a great thing about startups is their democratic spirit and judging early-stage ideas is such an art that I think many opinions are needed. I think this is why VCs usually require buy-in from all the partners to close a deal.

I would love to see the judging process become more transparent and democratic. Jason believes the panelists shouldn’t judge because they aren’t at every session and that audience metrics can be gamed, but I think these concerns can be addressed. I am sure some investors would like to listen to all of the pitches and complete judging forms; some watched most of the sessions anyway, and it would be a source of status for them. It would also help the startups get feedback.

I think TC50 can authenticate conference attendees and internet viewers enough that their feedback is fair. The on-site poker chips are a clever example. The winner could be determined by a combination of Jason, Mike, VCs, panelists, and audience. Even if these are gamed somewhat, like any crowdsourced app, I think more involvement is a net benefit for everyone.

It would also be nice to offer mini-awards for more companies; for example, $1,000 for each best-in-session, $5k for two runners-up, and $30k-$50k for the best-in-show.

2. Clearer metrics: Our and other startups didn’t seem to know exactly what presentations were judged on. Was it the strength of the idea, the presentation, product quality, probability of a high VC return? I am guessing it was a combination, but it wasn’t really clear and what is measured will determine how we present. It will also help the audience understand the results.

I don’t really have a strong opinion on which metrics to choose. Since we are mostly early-stage, my guess is we collectively care most about closing funding, so I think investor metrics are a natural way to go: large market, quality product, strong team, clear distribution, competitive advantage, business model.

It may take a little more time to show these, but I think it would be an extra minute or two well spent. I don’t think Sequoia’s billion-dollar potential should be the threshold; I think lower exit, higher-probability ventures like Y Combinator’s are just as valid.

I think it would be great to have panelists quantitatively score presentations like Olympic judges with large cards numbered 1-10. The score could be a simple combination of startup quality (per above) and presentation quality. That would help Jason zero in on judges that especially liked or disliked an idea, even if it didn’t affect the results.

I’d also like to see live, post-presentation scores from attendees and internet viewers via SMS and web. A company like Mozes or Polldaddy would likely be glad to help. Again, it wouldn’t have to affect the results, but it would make the judging more fun, democratic, and useful.

3. More focus on distribution, less on product
: As a product manager by training, I like and understand the conference’s focus on product, but I think the one thing that needs more attention is distribution strategy. Like Marc Andreessen and Reid Hoffman, I think there were a lot of startups with interesting ideas and good products but hinged on unclear or weak distribution strategies.

The web is so saturated that distribution is as or more important than product quality. The #1 feedback I heard about companies – including BreakThrough – was “great idea, but how do you get traction”? If startups don’t have time or license to focus on distribution, they really can’t put their best foot forward.


Ideas

1. Investor booths: I think the startups would love to interact more with the investors present. I have seen VC booths at other conferences and I imagine many would be interested in one, even if they’re sometimes unstaffed or staffed by Associates.

2. Conference services
: two in particular would have been awesome: massage therapists and nap pods. I’m sure many founders were like me and running on little sleep. A quick nap or massage might have really helped people perk up. They could charge the vendors or attendees if they wanted.

3. Poker tournament
: as a way to unwind, I think a Monday night poker tournament would be fun. I know a lot of founders, including Jason, that like poker. Tournament directors at Bay 101 or Garden City could run it and TC50 could give the winner a sponsor prize or lunch with Vinod Khosla. Phil Hellmuth lives in Palo Alto if they want a star emcee.

4. Feedback collection
: TC50 could benefit from collecting on-site and online feedback during and right after the conference.

The whole process was awesome so I intend this feedback as ways to make it even more awesome.

How would you improve TC50 for next year?

BreakThrough.com launches at TechCrunch50!

I am thrilled to announce that after three months of stealthiness, my new startup launched at the TechCrunch50 conference. We are BreakThrough, a site to connect mental health providers with clients for treatment via video, phone, and web. We focus on therapy and counseling but will also eventually enable medications when appropriate.

This is the article and video of our launch. We are excited to see the responses on Twitter were overwhelmingly positive.

I am now churning through the investor and press emails so forgive me if I am radio silent.  If you are interested in investing in, working at, or covering us, you can reach me at mark at breakthrough dot com.

Silicon Valley deserves its West Wing

TV loves dramatizing professions: CSI for forensics, Boston Legal for law, ER for medicine, Entourage for Hollywood, West Wing for politics, and so on. These are interesting venues to be sure, but as an entrepreneur living in Silicon Valley for eleven years, I have wondered: where is our TV series?

The Valley is a fascinating place with a host of interesting characters: entrepeneurs, CEOs, venture capitalists, angel investors, engineers, salespeople, bloggers, PR promoters, and more. Startups also have tons of story lines that can teach and entertain:

-The birth of a new idea
-Founders vs. venture capitalists and the struggle to raise money
-Founder vs. founder conflicts
-Angel investors vs. venture capitalists
-Engineers vs. marketers
-Extreme work hours
-Turbulent highs, lows, and uncertainty
-Small startups vs. big companies
-Social skills of engineers
-Useless businesspeople
-Deals and acquisitions
-Public relations disasters
-Innovating with little money
-Living with a lot of money
-Pursuing money vs. pursuing meaning (mercenaries vs. missionaries)
-Startup competition: copycats, sabotage, poaching, patents
-The difficulty of having relationships during startups
-The lack of women entrepreneurs
-The Valley’s underground drug culture
-The Valley’s Libertarian politics
-The process of going public
-Serial entrepreneurs

If I were a better fiction writer, I would write the screenplays myself, but I have sworn off content creation. Aaron Sorkin is reportedly writing a screenplay on the founding of Facebook. Aaron, are you listening?

The best way to network and fundraise is freemium

The most important resource in entrepreneurship is people: co-founders, engineers, investors, partners, and anyone else willing to help your cause. The adage that it’s not what you know but who you know is true.

How do you meet great people? Networking.

This guy knew how to network
This guy knew how to network

What is the best way to network? I’d say it’s a freemium model.

Freemium means offering something for free to show your value, then asking payment for extra value. In networking, too many people ask for what they want before demonstrating any value:

“I’m Chip Meekbottom, VP of Sales at Crapster, and I’d love to talk your ear off for two hours about our new doohickey.”

This is like trying to sleep with someone five minutes into the first date. It just causes shields up.

Better is to offer value first, and the best way to offer value is to understand needs:

“I’m Chip Meekbottom, what do you do?” “You sell enterprise hardware? Could you use contacts at Cisco? I know some folks there.”

Offering value first is not only kind, it creates goodwill and shows you are someone worth knowing. Once there’s a relationship, you are also more likely to receive reciprocity, though you shouldn’t demand or expect it.

What can you offer? There are several common needs that business people have:

-Potential clients and partners
-Good employees, especially engineers
-Investor contacts, especially for startups
-Product feedback
-Press awareness

The same is true for investors. Investors spend many of their meetings assaulted by strangers with lofty talk and requests. “Our team believes it can do X and wants $Y million.” Often the hardest decision for investors is execution risk: deciding whether an unproven team can do what it claims.

How can you reduce the perception of this risk? By showing competency as early as you can without asking for anything.

I setup investor meetings as soon as I can, even pre-prototype, to form the relationship and show value. I make any commitments I can of what we will build and when, then meet those milestones to demonstrate the team can execute. I also mention any interesting ideas or teams I’ve seen. It’s empathy for the investor’s dilemma; don’t pitch, show.

Even if you have no connections or value to offer a certain contact, just showing genuine interest in people makes them genuinely interested in you. As a side effect, asking nothing from someone who is frequently hounded piques interest. Ask a super attractive woman; the guys who are unfazed, confident in what they bring, and form a friendship first are more likely to be the keepers.

When I meet new folks or reconnect with old ones, I try to ask how I can be helpful. It’s good business, good karma, and feels good.

How can I be helpful to you?

Market risk is better than marketing risk

The traditional steps of startups are: find something people want, build it, tell them about it, then charge for it.

The internet has radically changed this. It is now easy enough to churn out experiments, and it’s cheap enough that you don’t need to charge much, if at all.

For a lot of web markets, the steps are now: build it, tell people about it, learn if they want it, then maybe charge for it. 

The hardest step of this is usually telling people about it. The downside of cheap and easy development is that others can do the same, cluttering the web with competitors for attention. It sounds counter-intuitive but it’s usually better to create a product with uncertain demand and killer marketing than a product with certain demand and costly marketing.

Succinctly, on the web, market risk is better than marketing risk. 

Market risk is uncertainty of whether people want your product:

-How many people want your product? 
-How much do they want it? 
-How much will they pay for it?
-How many times or how long?
-How fast is that demand growing?
-Is competition saturating demand? (This could be separated into competitive risk.) 

Marketing risk is uncertainty of whether people will learn about and try your product:

-Where can you reach your target users?
-How much will it cost to acquire a user?
-Is your product inherently viral or word-of-mouth viral? 
-Is it new and sexy or old and boring?
-Is it easy or hard to understand?

While an idea’s risks depend greatly on the details, they tend to fall today into a matrix:

[table id=2 /]

From worst to best types:

High market and marketing risk: these are the worst type of ideas. Not only are you unsure people want the product given alternatives, even if they do, it’s costly to get them using it. For instance, there are a ton of search engines, people are generally happy with their current one, and search isn’t viral. That’s why Microsoft is spending $100 million to market its new shiny toy. This type needs to be really useful and well-funded/well-marketed.

High marketing risk, low market risk: these are typically large and established markets where it’s clear people have a deep demand or like innovation, but they aren’t viral and have a lot of competitors. People will want porn, gambling, and dating until the end of time, but because these ideas monetize well, incumbents are well-funded and targeted marketing is expensive. If a marketplace gets initial users, more come and the network effect takes over, but getting initial users is often tough.

High market risk, low marketing risk: these are experimental ideas that are inherently viral or have strong word-of-mouth. When the Facebook platform launched, developers launched a flood of programs to figure out what would stick.  When Twitter launched, it was unclear people wanted it, but its virality took over once it was clear people did. If your idea is a unique twist of this type and can be created quickly, it’s worth trying.

Low marketing and market risk: this is the promised land. Niche services can often fill an ignored need and are cheaper to market due to fewer competitors and a focused audience. Copyrighted content is in high demand and goes viral, as it did on Youtube, but has high legal risk. 

If your idea has low market and marketing risk, it’s a good candidate to start today.

Relaxing while working to the edge: three lessons from yoga

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had chronic muscle tension. It’s caused a good deal of pain, voice hoarseness, and unnecessary stress. One thing that has helped is yoga.

One of my favorite yoga teachers, Kevin at YogaSource, has taught me some lessons for outside the studio.

1. Relax while working to the edge: Kevin will guide us into a pose – my favorite is Warrior II – then say, “Where can you now relax? Where can you push the edge without panic?”

I have seen myself and other Valley folks believe that working hard means working panicked. That if you’re sleeping more than three hours a night, drinking less than four cups of coffee per day, and aren’t sweating bullets, you’re not working to your edge. It’s a poisonous belief.

We can sometimes increase short-term productivity with extreme stress, but we suffer mentally and physically. Investors and managers who aren’t satisfied unless you’re stressed are reaping your short-term gains while saddling you with long-term costs.

The mind and body function optimally when there is a reasonable amount of eustress – positive and achievable challenges – than distress. Kevin’s advice has reminded me to identify where my edges are and how to relax to expand them.

2. Stress is perceived challenges minus perceived resources: Kevin reminds us that yoga is super simple because it starts with breath, not Scorpion pose. Yoga sounds mystical and tortuous to novices who envision bending into pretzels. That perceived challenge plus poor flexibility can cause first-timers to quit.

Stress is fascinating because it stems from perception, not reality. Our minds model what might threaten us based on values, beliefs, biases, and memories. In the most popular class at Stanford, Robert Sapolsky’s Bio 150, he notes primates are the only species that literally makes themselves sick with imagined stress. You can see this among yogis who feel the inability to do a split is a mark of failure.

There are two ways to deal with this:

Reduce our perceived challenges. What percentage of our stressors are really dangerous to our welfare? Maybe 5%? Insults, losing things, sports defeats are examples of stressors that are really rounding errors on our welfare, but we perceive as worse because of unhealthy beliefs. “If X says I’m dumb, I’m no good”, “If I lose in soccer, I’m a loser.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps people correct these faulty perceptions.  It is the gold standard of therapy with the most scientific evidence of effectiveness.

Increase our perceived resources. Some threats really are serious – cancer, losing a job – but can be managed with coping mechanisms. Cancer patients with strong peer support improve at higher rates. Laid-off workers with a strong network regain employment faster. People who meditate have lower cortisol levels.

Again, many of these solutions don’t increase tangible resources like food or money, but our perceived resources of safety and connectedness.

3. Contentment is not a competition. Most yoga studios have mirrors to help students improve form. Unfortunately this also causes students to compare themselves to others. You’d think men gawking at women in tight spandex is yoga’s most common voyeruism, but it’s really everyone envying the most advanced yogi in the room.

Kevin probably harps the most on this knowing his Silicon Valley audience. “We aren’t competing here, folks.” Some students close their eyes once in a pose to temper the urge to compare. Kevin will lay out levels of difficulty for each pose so that novices can find their own edge instead of adopt someone else’s. For example, here are three levels of backbend:

 

If you haven’t tried yoga, I highly recommend it. If you’re in the Bay Area, YogaSource has been deservedly voted the best studio in the Valley for ten years running. It’s a wonderful community.

Are you predisposed to startups? The Myers-Briggs traits of entrepreneurs

In a recent coffee with Steve Blank, the topic of entrepreneurial personality traits came up. We talked about the Myers-Briggs scale, which classifies our preferences and tendencies on a spectrum of four traits:

Extroversion (E) vs. Introversion (I): Where do you put your social attention and get your energy? Extroverts get it from socializing, introverts from being alone or in small groups. Introverts are not necessarily shy; they just enjoy solitude more. 

Intuition (N) vs. Sensation (S): Where do you put your mental attention and how do you process information? Intuits favor patterns, theory, and focusing on the future. Sensates favor details, sensations, and focusing on the past and present.

Thinking (T) vs. Feeling (F): How do you make decisions? Thinkers favor facts and principles, feelers favor personal concerns and harmony. 

Probing (P) vs. Judging (J): How do you organize your life? Probers are more spontaneous and flexible, judgers are more deliberate and structured.

Myers-Briggs doesn’t say people are all one side of the spectrum or the other. It posits we have natural set points for each trait, and while we can exert effort to temporarily be more one way or the other, at rest we tend to resort to our set point.  

Controversially, it does say people should strengthen these tendencies and find the best environmental fits rather than try moving to the center on all traits and being all things. For example, introverts shouldn’t try to gain energy from socializing, but strengthen their ability to reflect and enjoy solitude.

What set of traits do you think most favors entrepreneurialism? While any combination can succeed, I think there’s a clear combination most predisposed to startups: ENTPs. These folks are only ~3% of the population and classified as Inventors: 

“Inventors are keenly pragmatic, and often become expert at devising the most effective means to accomplish their ends. They are the most reluctant of all the types to do things in a particular manner just because that’s the way they have been done. As a result, they often bring fresh, new approaches to their work and play.

They are intensely curious and continuously probe for possibilities, especially when trying to solve complex problems. Inventors are filled with ideas, but value ideas only when they make possible actions and objects. Thus they see product design not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end, as a way of devising the prototype that works and that can be brought to market.

Inventors are confident in their pragmatism, counting on their ability to find effective ways and means when they need them, rather than making a detailed blueprint in advance. A rough idea is all they need to feel ready to proceed into action.”

Steve and I discussed the importance of both intuition and sensation for his concept of customer development. Steve says entrepreneurs should start with a vision (intuition), then collect data to validate their hypothesis and revamp the vision (sensation). Entrepreneurs without intuition will get lost in data and miss valuable patterns; entrepreneurs without sensation will chase ideas without supporting data and produce unwanted products. It’s a tough balance.

As a dyed-in-the-wool ENTP, I have felt the temptation to brainstorm in a dark room without customer data. I am good at seeing patterns of behavior and needs people may have, but I need to focus more on confirming these ideas by getting outside my head and the building, as Steve would say. 

It’s worth noting Myers-Briggs is itself the product of intuition. It is based on Carl Jung’s theories, which relied primarily on anecdote instead of controlled studies. Another prominent personality tool used to diagnose mental illness, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, is entirely empirical with no initial theory. The creators just posed a list of 600+ questions to people and observed what answers correlated to diagnosed mental illnesses. It is a sensate method.

Of course, any psychological theory is a simplification compared to the complexity of actual people. Yet, my (intuitive) observations are that ENTPs have an inherent advantage in entrepreneurship, and are at the very least, a lot of fun to be around. 🙂

P.S. I’m mainly focusing on the traits of founders. Early employees in other roles are probably optimized by other combinations, like architects (INTPs) and salespeople (ESTPs).