What counts more, the five minute presentation or the 56 hours that preceded it?

Well, it’s been three weeks since CU Startup Weekend.  I dropped by Spark Boulder today just to say hi, and was thrilled to see an entire team there still working on their product.  (In fact, there were two teams there, but the other has been there since Spark opened).

I thought I’d say something about my perspective about the weekend, because I had the exact opposite experience as the judges.  I was present for most of the weekend, mentoring and observing, but left at “pencils down” to see my daughter’s hula show.  So I didn’t see the final presentations.  (Well, not until later — thanks for recording them for me!!!)

Please don’t take this as a criticism either of the winning teams nor the judges, but I was pretty surprised by the outcome.  I think the winning teams all have good ideas, but a couple teams that didn’t place in the top three were, from my point of view, the best at executing together.  So my post is really about encouraging the teams that didn’t “win.”  I hope that getting together for the weekend, and learning that you could work together and build a product and a team was also a win for you.  Many of you had great ideas, but more importantly you worked together, adapted, and delivered over and over again in those 56 hours.  I know there aren’t prizes for “best teamwork” or “most likely to succeed” but if you keep going with your ideas and your great teams, the prize will be building a great company together.  (And if you DO keep going, come see me.  There are a few of you that I’d invest in.)

On the other hand, if you had a great idea, an excellent team, but bombed your presentation, you need to fix that.  Because the last 5 minutes of Startup Weekend do matter.  And it’s just the first time you’re going to need to demonstrate how amazing your idea and team are in only 5 minutes.  You’re going to do it again and again.  For investors, for journalists, and in elevators.  And if that’s not enough pressure, remember that you only get 15 to 60 SECONDS to capture your potential customer’s interest.

In any case, I hope everyone left feeling like a winner, because you all did great!


100 years of International Women’s Days, and we still don’t have it right.

I’m sitting here watching my six year old daughter play with her dolls.  There were a couple of years in which she would only wear tutus. (She wore them while playing in the mud, but still she wore them). Until a couple months ago, her entire wardrobe was pink and purple (now it’s blue). I’d like to believe that these are her choices. The dolls she buys with her allowance, and the only rule we have for purchasing and wearing clothes is that they must be weather and venue appropriate. But it’s already overwhelming how much gender differentiation she is exposed to every day. I was raised in a very feminist household in Boulder. I hope that means that I have been respectful towards women and treated them as equals more often than not. (And when I’ve failed at that, I’ve felt like crap.) But having a daughter has changed something for me. Instead of seeing the world from my point of view, I see the world from her point of view, and I’m not at all happy about what I see.

I think that we are doing a pretty good job of mitigating the damage that our culture inflicts, but I’m pissed that we have to mitigate damage at all. The amount of time we have to spend on resetting expectations about body image, challenging the daily assault of “dolls are for girls, machines are for boys” advertising, and the thousand other things we experience, is a waste of time. It’s time we ought be spending building with legos (even the primary colored ones made for boys), building circuits, or, if she likes, brushing doll hair.

But I’d like to see the culture change, and it’s clear that it’s going to take a lot of work. For my part, I realize it’s not enough just to try to do the right thing myself, or to teach her how to “handle” these cultural failures. We all need to be loud and outspoken about things that aren’t ok. When we see an environment in which someone isn’t fully welcomed and respected because of their gender (or ethnicity, or sexual identity, or any other bullshit reason) we need to speak up and change it. Right then and there. We should be respectful to the offender(s), of course. People don’t change when they are defensive, but each occurrence is an opportunity for some “design thinking.” Start with some empathy: (regardless of your intent, how do you think that comment made that person feel). Then test some different behaviors and see what happens.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to be said about all of this, but for now I think I’ll leave it at this: I’m not going to be silent about it any more, and my empathy for women in tech now has the added “kick” that I see my daughter in each of them, and I’m not going to put up with any more crap.  I hope that most everyone who reads this thinks the same way. So it’s not about changing what most of us believe, but just being vocal about the culture we demand in our industry. Let’s get to work.

You don’t need a technical co-founder.

There was a time, not too long ago, when every good startup began with two co-founders: the business person and the technical person.  The work was pretty evenly matched.  The technical co-founder spent crazy amounts of time building the application, while the business person spent equally crazy amounts of time finding money and customers.  Over the past few years, that’s changed dramatically.

Now, I’m not saying that you don’t need technical expertise, nor am I running down technical co-founders (I am one, after all).  What I am saying is that the amount of work to raise money and build traction has increased, while the technical obstacles to launching a startup have shrunk.

If you have any doubt, see what happens at a Startup Weekend event like the upcoming CU Startup Weekend.  In 56 hours, the teams will most likely have built a working application, signed up a few users, and even iterated through some feedback and design changes.  But they won’t have a business yet, because, today, building the application is the really, really, really easy part. Development environments like Rails and Django, and hosting platforms like Heroku have made the app launch simple.  You can even launch an entire business without a back end using a great landing page at Kickoff Labs.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that you can launch without technical expertise. A great product that can’t scale isn’t a great product. Despite what ridiculous acquisitions like WhatsApp might suggest, failing to take the security of your user data seriously should be a death sentence for a startup. What I am saying is that the kind of expertise you need to oversee your architecture is too costly to be wasted on building your MVP, when it could be built by a young and scrappy web developer or outsourced.

What you do need, and I can’t stress this enough, is a launch team that can acquire traction.  The success and failure of a product has much less to do with the product itself than the execution of the team.  So before you do anything else, look at your team and ask if you have the energy, enthusiasm, and stamina to get out and sell, sell, sell!  If not, that’s the hole you need to fill before thinking about anything else. If you end up in an accelerator, there will be plenty of mentors and resources to get you through the technical hurdles.  If you have enough traction for VC money, they can close the technical expertise gap through referrals and contacts.  But neither will be a possibility without a team that can deliver traction.

So here’s my advice to all of you who have an idea, enthusiasm, and the ability to get out and generate excitement: forget the technical cofounder, and build your MVP.  To get the technical side moving, get just a little bit of time from someone who can point you in the right direction and make sure you aren’t making mistakes that can’t be easily fixed later.  Make them a board member or an advisor of some sort, and make sure they have a little skin in the game.  If nothing else, look for a mentor.  (CUNVC teams, this means you!)  A great team with a good idea in a decent market is a recipe for success — even if you completely rewrite your code once you’ve got momentum.

Hey, CU Students, you are already in TechStars. Make the most of it!

If you’ve ever thought about being an entrepreneur, you must have heard of (and perhaps dreamt of) TechStars. TechStars gets thousands of applications per program and selects around 12 teams to participate.  It’s a great experience for the participants, and often leads to investment rounds and great things.  But here’s a little secret for you… If you are a student at CU, you are already in TechStars Boulder. Well, not exactly.  You didn’t get $18,000.  But what you do have is almost everything else, which is much more than the thousand applicants that didn’t make the cut.  And the “everything else” is almost entirely free and waiting for you right now.

The big wrapper for all of this is the CU New Venture Challenge.  It’s billed as a cross-campus entrepreneurship championship, but it’s much more than that.  It can be the incubator for your dream, or a practice run to get the flavor of being an entrepreneur.  It’s an opportunity to experience the entrepreneurial process entirely-risk free.  For the cost of admission, which is nothing more than a few minutes to fill out an online form, you get connected to mentors, presentations, and workshops.

Because you’re here in Boulder, you’re already in the middle of of the best city for startups.  What’s more, the entrepreneurs in this town who support TechStars, Startup Weekends, Incubators, and rest of the ecosystem are the same people who support the grassroots efforts at CU to become an entrepreneurial university. Already this semester, you’ve had the opportunity to see talks by TechStars mentor Howard Diamond, serial entrepreneur Andre Durand, d.school professor John Kembel, and countless others.  If you haven’t gotten involved yet, now is the time. You can still learn from Zach Nies (you may have heard about his company’s $84 million IPO last year?), Larry Gold, Nicole Glaros (yes, from TechStars), Jason Haislmaier, and more.

So regardless of your major or your career goals, make the most of being in this amazing place! It may be that one of the best parts of your college experience is entirely cost & risk free!

So follow some of these links and get to work!  (Oh, and after the NVC championship, by all means go ahead and apply for TechStars.  Because, despite my sales pitch, I understand there’s nothing quite as awesome as going through TechStars.)

CU New Venture Challenge
Spark Boulder
CU Startup Weekend
Silicon Flatirons

There are dozens more links and organizations waiting for you, but it’s time for me to get back to my day job.

Updated 2/6: Nichole just announced the TechStars schedule for Boulder, and the dates line up well with NVC.  Make the most of the next few weeks; your competition for the program might include some of your mentors (hint hint hint).

When is it safe to cut the cord?

As parents, we often hear the phrase “cut the cord.” It’s a topic that comes up time and time again.  When do we leave our child with the first babysitter?  When are they old enough to ride around the neighborhood on their bicycle?  But today I thought I’d talk about a cord that a lot of us are thinking of cutting or have already cut: the cord to our wireline telephone at home.

People will often consider cost, convenience, or the disturbing amount of dust gathering on that 20th Century relic.  But today, let’s consider the special relationship that this phone has to the safety of your children.  Specifically, let’s talk about 9-1-1.

9-1-1 service in the United States was born about six months before I was, in February of 1968.  The Haleyville, Alabama Police Department took that first historic call.  (Mark Fletcher wrote a great blog post about it, if you’re interested).  About forty years later, I had the excitement of being part of the first text message to 9-1-1. But that’s a story for another day (and a different blog).

When 9-1-1 was first deployed, it was pretty simple: the local telephone switch recognized that the first 3 digits were 9-1-1, and (physically!) connected the caller’s telephone circuit to a circuit at the local police station (or other answering point).  As the telephone network increased in complexity, and because it became important not only to get the call, but know who and where the caller was, a new system called “Enhanced 9-1-1″ was created.  Using 1960′s vintage long-distance dialing technology as the foundation, E9-1-1 not only delivered the call, but the number of the caller.  (This was called Automatic Number Identification, or ANI.)  The local 9-1-1 center would then use a data circuit (1200 baud leased lines, if you’re wondering) to get the address of the caller through a system called Automatic Location Information (ALI).  Amazingly, this system is still in use today, and we’re only now beginning to see the first trials of “Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1).”  You might notice the name of our company – yes, we’re a part of that, too…

Why does this all matter?  Because until NG9-1-1 is in place across the country (which is still years away for most of us), all these modern technologies to which we’ve become accustomed (like cellphones) have been squeezed into that 1960′s vintage network.  Although some really smart people have figured out ways to make it work pretty well in many ways, there is one way in which a wireline phone and a cellular phone are incredibly different: location.  Wireline phones (including “plain old telephone service,” Voice over IP, and service provided over cable TV lines) are associated with your physical address.  Cellular phones, on the other hand, can be anywhere.  So when you dial 9-1-1 on a cellphone, the 9-1-1 center only knows the general area from which the call came from.  Initially, that can be anything within a many-mile radius, although the FCC requires that within a short period of time, the phone must be located to within about 150-900 feet, depending on the type of phone.  It turns out, that’s really not nearly good enough if the caller is a small child.

So what does a resourceful 9-1-1 dispatcher do when a child calls 9-1-1 from a cellphone and doesn’t know their address.  They do this: “Honey, go open your front door.  Stand at the door with it open and listen for the sirens.”  Then, as a police car or ambulance drives up and down the streets with their siren blasting, the dispatcher says “louder, louder, louder, softer, softer” until they find the right street.

Even though it’s rare, sometimes children do need to call 9-1-1.  Dispatchers can do amazing things and our children can do amazing things when they need to.  But sometimes, our job is to keep them from having to be heroic in extraordinary circumstances.  So before you cut the cord, make sure to think about these things:

  • Can your child dial 9-1-1 from your smartphone? (unlock it, find the phone number-pad, dial 9-1-1, and hit send?)
  • Does your child know your address?  Will they be able to tell it to the 9-1-1 dispatcher when they are panicking?
  • Is the cellphone always somewhere where your child can find it?
  • Is the cellphone always charged?

If you can’t answer yes to all of these questions, maybe think about keeping that wireline phone one more year.