Category Archives: Startups

Passion in a Startup – A Double Edged Sword

The Wall Street Journal is one of the few newspapers that I still give the time of day but I still stay mostly in their business and tech sections. Yesterday they posted an article that really nailed it about how an entrepreneur’s passion can destroy a startup. The title is a little click baity for my tastes but passion and startups are definitely hot buttons of mine.

Key points out of the article:
Passion is what drives most startups but it can blind you to the gaping issues.

Issues that you need to pay attention include (but not exclusive to) the following areas in no particular order:

  • sales experience
  • marketing experience
  • technical experience
  • business experience
  • industry knowledge
  • network of folks
  • family life
  • and much much more

Reality is that we get excited about an idea and want to run with it but without a full team that keeps their eye on all of the various issues, you’re doomed to fail.

If, on the other hand, you’ve got a diverse team with a range of skill sets who are working on the project together and helping cover each other’s weaknesses, you’ve got a much better chance.

One of the big things that a lot of startups forget though is family life. There’s the old adage, “An entrepreneur is someone who works 16 hours a day for himself to avoid working for someone else.” This means that family can easily fall off the side when you are deep into it. Long after you’re startup has been gone (success or failure), your family is going to be there for you. Make sure that you spend some time with them and are sensitive to their needs as well.

The two things that really stood out to me as far as data points in the article:

  • 52% of founders are replaced by their third round of funding.
  • 78% of experienced founders would either wait longer to get funding or bootstrap themselves the whole way.

Both of these data points hit me as a lot of times my advice to startups is to wait on taking investment and these two give me a little ammo as to why that’s sound advice. I always ask startups two questions when it comes to investment:

  1. do you have a clear plan as to how you’ll spend every penny?
  2. Are you 100% sure that the potential investor is on board with your vision and bought in for the long haul?

If you’re just taking money from anyone with a checkbook, that’s a recipe for failure.

In short, make sure that your passion, while an amazing thing and the driving force behind any successful startup, is not blinding you to the potential train wrecks.

Startupbootcamp Day 1

One of the most fun things that I get to do in my job here at Microsoft Ireland is work with all of the great startups here in Ireland. I manage the Bizspark program for Ireland, North and South. Through that work, I get to work both with startups directly as well as working with the startup accelerators and incubators here in Ireland. That’s great fun as we’ve got some really good ones. TechCrunch did an article last year where they highlighted the top incubators in Europe and they specifically highlighted the top 8 which includes NDRC Launchpad at #6, DCU Propeller at #7 and Startupbootcamp Dublin at #8. That’s some heavy hitting for such as small island and I’m right in the middle of it.

Eoghan Jennings runs Startupbootcamp Dublin. I met him back in March 2011 when I had the pleasure to speak at a startup thing he was running for Dublin Web Summit. He’s a crazy Irish man who was largely raised in the US (Boston if I remember right) so he really brings the best of the Irish and the American together in a fantastic motivational package of intelligence, perseverance and going huge… It’s that unique blend of personality that make him a great guy to get Startupbootcamp Dublin off the ground and attract some great startups, mentors and investors into a great win-win-win…

Today, I spent the full day down at Startupbootcamp Dublin mentoring potential startups who have all pitched for the program. It was a brutally intense day where we, the 25ish (I didn’t actually count) mentors that were onsite interviewed and gave advice to the startups in a speed dating style day. In this way, we got to mentor 10-12 of the 16 startups that were in for the day.

Patrick de Zeeuw and I were paired up as mentors the whole day. Patrick runs the Startupbootcamp Amsterdam and is a co-founder of Startupbootcamp. I’ll be honest, I’ve been working with startups for a long time and I learned a ton co-grilling startups with him. His business acumen and sense for what startups need was outstanding. If I am ever to do a startup, I’m going to seek him out as a mentor and advisor. It was impressive to see him cut through all of the clutter and spin to get to the base of the business in a short few moments.

There were some of the startups that we pushed pretty hard. There were some that really wowed us. There were some that really disappointed us. All of them, I hope, walked away better for the experience and will take the advice that we gave forward.

Some tips that we ended up giving a lot of companies and things that you should know…

  1. Focus. Many of the startups were giving their pitch and it had several ands, alsos and the like in the pitch or they were talking about going live in a thousand different countries. The best possible thing that you can do is focus. Get down to the one thing that’s going to matter and trial it in a sandbox – then go BIG. We applauded the companies for thinking big but pushed them to get down to the nitty and gritty “minimal viable product” and to knock out a specific market and then go big.
  2. Commit. It’s imperative that if you’re really going for it with a startup that you commit to it. That means that it’s not your part time job or your hobby but rather your full time gig. That’s tough but it makes a difference. We saw several startups that had been in theory mode for a couple of years and in every case it was because they had been working on it part time rather than committing full time and risking everything. Honestly and on a personal note, it’s why I’m not actively working on a startup – I can’t currently take the risk with the family and I need to put food on the table on a day to day basis rather than risking my kid’s college funds on a company that might not take off.
  3. It’s all about the team. Patrick said it well. They don’t invest in products, they invest in people. More than once, Patrick chased down the team dynamics and found glaring issues. Sometimes that was in areas where people hadn’t or can’t commit full time. Sometimes it was that they had business folks and no tech folks. More often, it was that someone had a great idea and tech but didn’t have someone to really carry them on the commercial and business side. That was a huge issue that I don’t think that everyone got when he said it. There was a bit of, “well, we’ve carried it this far so what’s the problem?” and they couldn’t see how much of a difference the right MD/CEO would and could make to their startup.
  4. Demos matter. We only got 4 demos today out of all of the startups that we saw. That was a problem especially with a handful where we really didn’t get the product. A demo, wireframe, sketch, pretty pictures, ugly pictures or some type of visual would make a huge difference. There was one that I was all set to dismiss until I saw their short demo and was wowed. All of the sudden, I got it. The pitch might or might not be perfect but sometimes, like in this case, I was not familiar with the industry involved and the demo all of the sudden crystalized things for me.
  5. Mentor up. It was amazing to watch how things worked today. Every person who came and sat down with us were smart people who had been thinking about their business far longer than we had been. Yet, in 5-10 minutes, we were able to push every one of them to think about things that they hadn’t though of before. This wasn’t about us trying to be mean, just bringing our fairly vast experience to bear to help them think in different directions. It doesn’t matter how well you know your business, your product, your market, your team and all the rest of it, mentors can push you to think in new directions.

It was a fantastic day and I wish all of the startups the very best of luck!!! I’m looking forward to tomorrow as well…

Oh, and I’ve got a new camera and took a bunch of pictures of the day which I posted at – http://www.flickr.com/photos/joshholmes/sets/72157629032625343/

Voice Control with Amulet Devices

logoOne of the things that gets me excited is working with new forms of user interaction. Or rather old forms of user interaction that humans use being used with our users.

Amulet devices are doing just that. They are a BizSpark startup based in Dublin, Ireland. They are a device and software company. The software does voice control of Windows Media Center which can be the hub of your home entertainment.

Amulet_Detail_0246[1]Their remote is a universal remote that has a very clever microphone that is activated by a gyroscope. When you tip up the remote, it activates and allows you to control your media center by voice. It means that the remote won’t accidently pick up your voice and start changing channels on you right before the winning goal or the bad guy gets the bad guy. It also means that it’s you can use it in a crowded and noisy room as the mic is right next to you.

They are, unfortunately not available for sale in Europe but they are available all over North America.

Glancing ahead in 2012…

Welcome to 2012! This is the time of year that everyone sets new resolutions and prognosticates about the future. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what 2012 brings. I’m excited about the promise of the year though and I’ve got a few things that I’m looking forward to.

We are at an interesting juncture in technology where truly the only limits are our imagination.

kinect[1]I look at movies like Minority Report and how advanced we thought the technology was when he was traversing the computer with his glove. Here we are less than 10 years later and the Minority Report is old school because he had to wear a glove. Technologies like the Kinect are revolutionizing how we interact with technology. There are some companies doing some remarkable things with it. For example, VonBismark is one of my great Irish startups and is doing amazing things with Kinect. They have been working on a prototype. They placed their prototype at Liffey Valley Mall and had 15k interactions in the first 3 days.

Nobody needed instructions or to be pushed into trying it. It was just there and people interacted with it. I’m looking forward to a near term future where I walk into my living room and my computer not only recognizes me but sees that I’m in a good mood so puts on a little progressive rock or that I’m in a bad mood so fires up the metal.

What I love about this is that technology is disappearing into the background and just working for us rather than us working for it. I really hope that this is a glimpse into the future.

And then combine that with the ability to launch a startup with global reach and the ability to scale to all size customers in practically no time.

zartis_tag[1]For example, take a look at a Zartis – another great Irish startup. They went from concept to customers in 10 weeks. They are 6 months in and they have 500+ customers and the vast majority are not from Ireland. They were able to do that with almost no capital investment due to technologies such as Azure. Through BizSpark they were able to start on Azure for free and then as they scale, with revenue tied directly to traffic, they pay for overages when they go beyond the free benefits.

So unlimited computing power combined with unhindered and amazing user experiences speaks to a very bright future to me.

Happy New Year!

Josh

Startup Lessons Learned Viewing Party

The NDRC here in Dublin, Ireland is hosting a live viewing party of the Startup Lessons Learned Conference being held in silicon valley.

Startup Lessons Learned is the first event designed to unite those interested in what it takes to succeed in building a lean startup. The goal for this event is to give practitioners and students of the lean startup methodology the opportunity to hear insights from leaders in embracing and deploying the core principles of the lean startup methodology. The day-long event will feature a mix of panels and talks focused on the key challenges and issues that technical and market-facing people at startups need to understand in order to succeed in building successful lean startups.

There’s going to be a ton of great content and speakers at the conference ranging from big established companies such as IGN to companies such as Groupon to smaller startups such as SideReel. They will talk about how to build a successful start up.

I wish that I could be there in person but since that’s happening many thousands of miles away, I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to connect with the local startups at the NDRC.

 

Read more at http://www.sllconf.com/.

Register for the NDRC live viewing at http://bit.ly/ndrclessons.

Activating BizSpark Azure Accounts

A question that I’ve been asked a number of times recently is how to activate an MSDN Azure account and more specifically, how to do it with a BizSpark account. To make it easy, I thought I’d blog that here.

For an up to date list of benefits you should visit http://www.microsoft.com/windowsazure/msdn-benefits/ but currently it’s as follows:

Subscription Level BizSpark/Visual Studio Ultimate
with MSDN
Visual Studio Premium
with MSDN
Visual Studio Professional
with MSDN
Compute 1,500 hours of the Small Instance 1,500 hours of the Extra Small Instance 750 hours of the Extra Small Instance
Storage 30 GB 25 GB 20 GB
Storage Transactions 2,000,000 1,000,000 250,000
SQL Azure 5 GB 1 GB 1 GB
Access Control Transactions 500K 200K 100K
Service Bus Connections 5 5 2
Data transfers 35GB (WW) Out
35GB (WW) In
30GB (WW) Out
30GB (WW) In
25GB (WW) Out
25GB (WW) In
Annual Savings** $3100 $1300 $800

 

Signing up for BizSpark

2011-04-27_1021

Starting up, if you are a start-up (defined as less than 3 years old, less than $1 million in revenue, privately held and producing technology as your primary monetization) you should be on BizSpark. BizSpark gives you access to all of the Microsoft technologies that you’d need to develop your applications such as Windows, Azure, Visual Studio, Office (in case you need to integrate with it) and more. Just go to http://www.bizspark.com and click Apply Now.

2011-04-27_1022

If you have an existing LiveID, you can use that but the reality is that I recommend that you create a specific LiveID for the start-up because what happens if the person who originally signed up leaves the company? Or is out on a day when something needs to be done on the account? For that reason, I recommend creating a specific account for your BizSpark management.

2011-04-27_1023

I recommend, partly because of the number of lawyers in my family, that you read the terms and conditions but at the end, if you agree, there are two individual agreements that you need to agree to before you click next.

One of those is the BizSpark Startup Agreement and the other is the EULA.

Once you fill out the rest of the wizard, it goes into a process on our end. If you are in Ireland, that registration goes through a two phase approval process. The first phase is with a Network Partner and the second phase is currently me. 🙂

2011-04-27_1038

Once you are signed up, you can log into My BizSpark and click on the Get your Free Software link which will show you a link to MSDN. Reality is that it’s just pointing to MSDN and you can go there directly if you like.

You’ll just need to sign in there with a LiveID that’s associated with a BizSpark member.

Adding new developers to a BizSpark Account

2011-04-27_1041Quick side note is that I’ve also been asked a number of times how to add additional developers to a BizSpark startup. Find the Manage section of the left hand navigation and find the Members link underneath that. Then you put in the new developer’s name and email address. That does not have to be their LiveID – it can be any email address. There will be an acceptance link in the email that will require the person to sign in with their own LiveID to access the bits and all.

Activating Your Azure Benefits from MSDN

2011-04-27_1045Once you sign into MSDN and go to the “My Account” section, you should see the “Windows Azure Platform” link. This link will take you to the Windows Azure signup process and walk you through a longish wizard. At the end of that, you will be able leverage all of the benefits of MSDN on Azure.

One thing to warn you about at this point is that the Windows Azure signup does require a credit card to cover any overages. I recommend that you closely monitor your usage to make sure that you don’t go over. 🙂

2011-04-27_1052Now, once you’re signed up for the Azure benefits, you can simply go to http://windows.azure.com to manage your account and deploy applications. The one portal serves as your management portal for your services, data, SQL Azure and any other services you’re signed up for such as Connect.

Have fun playing with Azure!