Dharmesh Shah


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7 Lessons On Startup Funding From a Research Scientist

By Dharmesh Shah on January 16, 2012

The following is a guest post by Ty Danco. Ty is an angel investor and startup mentor. Read more of his thoughts at tydanco.com.

My wife isn't in business, but she is wise in the way of funding. Just as I have experience on both sides of the funding table (as an entrepreneur and as an angel), so does she. As a research scientist, she gets her own grants and also reviews grants from others. While she doesn't talk in startup lingo (pivots, minimum viable product, etc.), she has taught me that many of the issues we face as entrepreneurs have a corollary in science. Here's what I've learned from her.science lab

1. Always seek funding from the best people, even when you have easier alternatives.

Before the bootstrappers hang me, I didn't say that you have to raise a lot of money or that you should be working fat. But consider this story: my wife was slaving away writing one particular National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant knowing that the funding rate was ~5%. Why not look for a less competitive foundation to underwrite it instead, I asked. I figured that this could save her time and trouble, and that she could proceed with her experiments that much faster.

That's not how it works, she replied. That's like self-publishing a paper instead of getting it peer-reviewed. If she couldn't convince sophisticated research centers to part with their dwindling cash, she continued, obviously the project wasn't good enough. If it's not good enough to get other people to write a check, it's not good enough to be spending time on. Startup corollaryjust as a paper published in an inferior journal has less impact than the same paper in a good one, when you go for funding, get it from great people. If you have to take dumb money, you're doing it wrong.

Personal application: I'm temporarily self-funding my new startup, FX Aligned, but I'm pitching it to the best East Coast VCs who understand the space. The same logic appliesif I can't convince people who see 1,000 deals that my idea is worth funding, it isn't worth doing.

2. Proposals are always stronger once edited.

Nothing beats peer review, especially from people with deep expertise.

My chat with one VC surprised me. He thought our initial target market was too small. And upon reflection, he was right. At the same time, I was talking to another VC, and I explained to him that we intended to go after that smaller market first, get established, and then work closely with our alpha clients to find solutions to their real pain points. He quoted his senior partner, whose rule was if a new startup is counting on a two-part process to make money, don't fund it. This is exactly the tough love I needed to hear, and it saved me months to time I would have lost if I had self-funded and drunk my own Kool-Aid. We didn't need to do a two-step dance to discover the real market opportunity.

3. If the specific aims of your experiment (company) undergo too many major changes, that's a sign that you haven't thought through the issues yet, and it's too early.

No scientific grant ever makes it from start to finish without changes. Similarly, no VC or angel should be so nave to think that business models turn out perfectly on the first try. However, when a fundamental concept keeps shifting as the idea evolves, there is a problem.

My new company has gone through one major change as we search for product-market fit. However, our edit did not change the core concepts. Our pivot came as we realized that our solution for our original market would, with some minor systems tweaks, serve not only our target market of public pension funds, but now solve an industry-wide problem faced by all institutional managers buying and selling foreign securities. The aim — giving our clients a means to quickly, cheaply, and more efficiently transact foreign exchange without getting ripped-off remains the same, but now the same basic company has a far bigger potential market.

If your concept is not robust at its core, no iteration will help. Before you pivot, ask if the underlying ideas are still valid. If they are, take your time and get the change right.

4. Don't keep it secret.

Scientific grants and paper submissions are kept confidential during the review process to allow for brutally honest feedback, but generally that's the only time of secrecy. The point of science is to advance knowledge, which is done through sharing. Even before a paper is published, preliminary results typically are presented publicly at conferences and ideas are exchanged before the lengthy process of publication. These public discussions can bring in new collaborators, just as startup events can introduce co-founders to each other. Don't hide, network!

Initially I was reticent to talk to angels too much. While my angel friends were good at giving me feedback on presentation matters, none I knew had expertise in fintech, which is where my new company fits in. So I initially wasn't getting a lot of strong commentary. Thanks goes out to James Geshwiler of CommonAngels, however. While he didn't have expertise in my field, he sent me to two angels who did. One of those two angels is now on my Advisory Board, and the other is giving me solid advice on a technical matter that is critical to the company, but outside of my own expertise. What's the result? A lot less risk in our prospects. And besides, as Dharmesh says, stealth mode is for fighter jets — not startups. Read “The Real Reasons Startups Don't Talk

The more you discuss your idea, the luckier you'll get. Never miss a chance to pitch your idea, but then keep your ears open, especially for the chance contacts that can turn out to be key.

5. It's easy to get funding in trendy areas, but focus more on impact.

I've tagged along to dinners with my wife's scientific colleagues, and once heard a story about zebras grazing. Those zebras that want to play it safe in the middle of the pack can get by, but the juiciest grass — and the greatest danger of being eaten is out on the edges. While it's tempting to go where the funding is, science is about more than just getting another grant.

Find a problem worth solving, not just something convenient for funding. And hopefully, that will be something different. The world doesn't need yet another daily deals aggregator.

By the way, no one should go through the rollercoaster that is startup life unless they are a) certifiably crazy, or b) intending to go big. (See Don Dodge on Google Dreaming BIG.) If you're pitching something, make sure it has potential to change the world.

6. Don't even think about pitching a project without preliminary data.

Scientific grants rarely get funded without substantial preliminary data. It's not just about feasibility, i.e., showing that the method can work; in addition, enough data needs to be submitted to statistically demonstrate the likelihood of the project's success.

This one is a little harder in my case, because it will take a few months to crank out a minimum viable product. However, that doesn't mean we can't test out the markets. We're talking with as many institutional investor customers as we can to get their input on what they need.

This is just customer development 101, a la Steve Blank. For startups, customer data is the best data.

7. The first funding is the hardest.

In science, like in startups, the experienced team always has it much easier rounding up backers. That's just the way it is.

That's one reason why I suggest that people who want to start their own companies begin by working for some rocketship company first. Your own startup becomes more bankable because you'll slowly be absorbing experience that will stand you in good stead in your own future startup. Whoever writes a check wants to see a return on that money, be it in science or in startups. You increase your chances of funding success when you de-risk your venture, especially when a team (or lab) has had time to gel previously.

Thankfully, the team at our new company has had success together before. And that, probably more than anything else, makes it easier this time around. Not that this stuff is ever easy

And a bonus, once you have that funding:

Always be running little experiments on the side. Especially those that can surprise you. For more on this, read Eric Ries' book, The Lean Startup. And while you're doing those experiments, make sure that they are sufficiently well-designed to give you answers.

Any other funding lessons from the lab I missed? Please leave a comment.

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The Big List: The Best and Worst Startup Stuff In 2011

By Dharmesh Shah on January 2, 2012

The following is a guest post by Ty Danco.  Ty is an angel investor and startup mentor. Read more of his thoughts at tydanco.com.  Or, check out his recent article "What To Do If You Don't Have An Idea"

It's time to review the past year, so without apology for personal taste, here's my list of the best (and a few of the worst) of 2011.

Best Startup Book of 2011: Mastering the VC Game by Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital

I keep a loaded Kindle copy of this book on my iPad, and I'm constantly showing it to startups raising money. The money chapter: When the Dog Catches the Bus: Making the Pick and Doing the Deal tells you what YOU should be checking out about VCs.mastering the vc game

Runners-Up:

The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries. Had to rethink my whole approach to my startup after reading this. And I'm going to re-read it again soon.

Venture Deals: Be Smarter than Your Lawyer and Your Venture Capitalist, by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson. A little dry, but will save you a ton of headaches.

Running Lean, by Ash Maurya. Pragmatic and quick.

Honorary Runners-Up (read by me this year, but written pre-2011):

Inbound Marketing, by Brian Halligan and OnStartups.com's own Dharmesh Shah. Simply put, a seminal book that gets you traffic.

Do More Faster, by David Cohen and Brad Feld. Really fun.

Pitching Hacks from Naval and Nivi of AngelList.

Best Interview Podcast/Webcast Series with Entrepreneurs: Andrew Warner's Mixergy

If James Brown was the hardest working man in music, Andrew Warner must be the same in startup journalism. He cranks several hundred of interviews a year, so you can't expect every show to be pure gold, but he's produced more good ones than any three other people combined in 2011. A big differentiator: he spends a lot of time looking at failures as well as the easy success stories. You can search through transcripts quickly to see if you want to download the interview, either in audio or video modes. A few favorite interviews from the last half 2011: Joel Spolsky of Trello and Stack Exchange; Sarah Prevette of Sprouter talking about rising from the dead; Eric Ries on Lean Startups; Naval Ravikant on AngelList; David Friend of Carbonite; and for me, the one that hit closest to home, Harley Finkelstein of Shopify talking about biz dev.mixergy andrew warner

Runners-Up:

This Week in Startups, with Jason Calacanis. Jason remains the master entertainer, and he invented the startup webcast genre. You either love him or hate him, but believe me, you'll have an opinion. Cranking out 2 shows a week.

Founder Dialogues, with Eric Paley of Founder Collective

Founder Stories, TechCrunchTV with Chris Dixon of Founder Collective

While Founder Dialogues features lengthy, in-depth interviews, and Founder Stories is cut into smaller segments, the shows are similar: Eric Paley and Chris Dixon are both VC partners at Founder Collective, both have started and sold multiple companies, and both host shows featuring great guests.

Best Intervew Podcast/Webcast Series with Investors: Mark Suster's This Week in Venture Capital. It's hard to pigeonhole this showMark's guests include both entrepreneurs and investors, but, like the sister show This Week in Startups, he gives a lot of advice on how to work with VCs. I tend to prefer his earliest shows, which featured more VCs and less entrepreneurs, but regardless there's something to be learned every time.

Upset pick for Runner-Up: The Frank Peters Show Frank's audiocast is not aimed at entrepreneurs, but rather to his fellow angel investors. He covers the nuts and bolts topics that no one else does, such as best practices for angel due diligence, and different techniques to value companies. (Disclaimer: I've been on his show twice, including this time in 2011.) A good example of Frank's work: his 4 part series All About Angel Investing. If you're looking to hunt down angel money, you should understand your prey. The best way to understand angels other than sitting in on an angel group is listening to a few of his shows, although entrepreneurs can skip the international shows or the stray episodes devoted to cycling.

Best Startup Blog: This, the most hotly contested award goes to Both Sides of the Table by Mark Suster. OnStartups already tracks the most-read startup blogs, and you should check them out. Many are great. So why did BothSides get the nod? Well, in sports, not only do you have to perform day-in, day-out during the regular season, but you need to raise your game in the playoff. And my favorite blogpost in the last week of December is this one on profitability, so Suster takes the prize--but he cranked out many equally good in the regular season throughout 2011.mark suster

Runner-Up:

David Skok of Matrix Partners' For Entrepreneurs. Every piece is gospel.

Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz's Ben'sBlog.

I go for quality, not quantity. All three write fewer, but deeper, articles. Funny how almost all of the best VCs started out as entrepreneurs, by the way.

Best Startup Answer Sites Other than OnStartups

Three-way tie between Venture Hacks, Quora, and AsktheVC.

Favorite Blog posts of 2011:

For sheer density of learning, the verdict was already delivered by early January: Tom Eisenmann of HBS posting his startup curriculum for his coming class.

Best blog post by an entrepreneur:

A tie between this postmortem by Justin Hall about Gamelayers, and

Rand Fishkin on how a funding round got screwed up.

Runners-up: Jason Baptiste talking about how to kill it on DemoDay (which he did.)

Best blog post on an unknown backstory goes to Lee Hower's post on raising Series A for LinkedIn in 2003.

And from the personal side, my favorite blogpost I co-wrote was:

Raising Money On AngelList: 21 Tips From Two Active Angels which was co-written with Dharmesh. That post received more views in 3 days than the other 49 posts (including the companion piece on AngelList hacks for angel investors) I wrote on my own blog for the whole year. You gotta hand it to him, Dharmesh knows how to get those inbound eyeballs.

Best Communication from a Startup to its Investors: From Objective Logistics as described in this blog post. I kick myself for not investing in these guys. Talk about the right attitude.

Best Accelerator Structural Innovation:

techstars, for coming up with the HackStars program. It sticks together massively talented hackers who want into a great startup with the killer companies that make it into TechStars. The result: a serious increase in global startup mojo.

Runner-Up:

500 Startups, for providing Designer in Residence help. Almost all of the companies accepted already have a hacker and a hustler onboard, but not all of them have (although everyone needs) some serious design. Dave McClure gives UI, UX, and beautiful design its proper due, but having not just great mentors, but trained staff in design gives a big boost to his companies.

Best Accelerator Financial Innovation:

This feels like ancient history now (it happened in January 2011), but Y-Combinator, the big Daddy of them all, wasn't resting on its laurels when it announced that Yuri Milner and SV Angel were combining to offer every YC company a $150k uncapped, no-discount convertible note. Angels and VCs gasped, but it was great for the startups on the receiving end.ycombinator

Runners-up: Thomas Korte's AngelPad, TechStars and 500 Startups for following up with similar deals. Like Y-Combinator, the original AngelPad funding came from 2 entities. TechStars spread it out wider amongst its network of VCs. Both firms were reacting to Y-Combinator, (hell, every accelerator is a reaction to Y-Combinator), but both quickly reacted and recognized the merits of the program. Lessons to startups: never be afraid to copy a good idea.

Funniest Twitter Feed in 2001: @fakedavetisch. He was only active for two days, but what a great two days!

Best business card execution: Any business card from moo.com that has a face with it. If you want to make a solid impression, you should consider these heavy, slightly different-sized, super high quality cards.

Runner-Up: Jeff Clavier's business card has a wordcloud that totally describes the types of companies he's looking for. It's a perfect summary of his investment interests on a tiny card.

Best business card app: CardMunch. With one iPhone snapshot, get all data entered into your phone and get connected via LinkedIn. (Also, my favorite angel investment of 2010 and the fastest exit I'll ever have.) Thank you Manu, Bowei, and team.

Best present for an Entrepreneur:

A T-Shirt or Poster from Fake Grimlock.

Best Bank for Working with Startups:

Silicon Valley Bank

Runnerup: Nobody. Almost every startup I've invested in (plus the one I'm in now) use SVB.

Best app I can't live without: Video Skype

I pitch my company with it, entrepreneurs pitch me on it, I talk business on it nearly every day. It saves time, money, everything. And you can archive and edit it. Runnerup for telemeetings: GoToMeeting. Never fails.

Best big push by a city to build a startup ecosystem: Montreal.

From very little in 2009, the startup tribe there has launched a new incubator last year(FounderFuel), gotten big institutional and government support from the province to create funds to match angel investments and subsidize programmers, built the largest angel group in Canada soon to be one of the largest in North America (AngesQuebec), hosted a successful first international startup festival, pulled off a successful startup competition, and created a vibrant co-working space (Notman House). And it keeps on going.

And now for the flipside:

Worst Spat of Two Co-Dependents:

Arrington and Calacanis. You're both rich, you're both successes, you don't need to piss all over each other. Guys, work it out and play nice, or even ignore each other. Just leave us out of it.

Worst Meme:

Comparing Silicon Valley to anywhere else. OK, we know it's great there. Yes, it is still on top. Yes, you can build a great business anywhere. Next.

Runners-Up: We are in a tech bubble.

VCs Suck.

Worst Upgrade since Windows Vista: iOS 5 on my formerly trusty iPhone 3GS. Buggy, crashes, mysterious data losses, I could go on. I promise from now on to wait to hear others' stories before installing updates.

Worst startup launch viewed from afar: Color.com. But don't ask me about it, ask the Scobleizer, who also wins a related Best Rant for his review of their launch.

Worst startup mistake: Having a big burn rate.

Runner-up: Procrastinating by reading (or writing) blogs. Excuse me, I gotta get back to work.

Who did I miss?  Anyone you think deserves a shout-out (or a call-out) for being the best or worst in 2011?  Please leave a comment.  

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