When I originally signed up to blog this session, it was mostly as a lark, to explore something that I could see myself maybe be interested in sometime in the future. Then, Friday morning, I was having a conversation about my plans for the next few years, describing what I wanted to do, and the woman I was talking to said “it sounds like you should be thinking about a startup.” That still seems like a scary thought to me, but it made the session a lot more immediately relevant. It was a panel discussion with 5 women involved with startups: Jessica Alter (Formative Labs), Connie Chan (Andreessen Horowitz), Liz Gannes (All Things Digital), Sandy Jen (Meebo), and Lucy Zhang (Facebook). They answered some prepared questions, and then took questions from the audience. The room was packed-standing room only-and the session was energizing and inspiring.
Were any of you startup people from birth? Starting lemonade stands as a child?
No, I think that’s mostly a myth.
What you need as a startup founder is determination. Not just passion, but that you’ve tried things and failed and tried again.
If everyone loves your idea, it’s probably been done already.
Some people start companies right out of college, others work at companies first and then develop their entrepreneurial tendencies
How did you get your idea and make it a company?
We failed on 2 ideas before we got one that we could sustain our passion on (Meebo).
Don’t be in love with the idea, be in love with the idea of building somehting and with the people you are working with.
Your idea will change.
When evaluating entrepreneurs, we look at the person and the team, not the idea. We want a strong team that will not give up, that will pivot when they need to.
How do you find cofounders?
My husband, although there are goods and bads to that.
Trust is important, it has to be someone you can be honest with.
Pick someone with complementary skills.
Make decisions together and argue together, but know you are working towards the same goal
It’s like marriage. You don’t marry some one after the first date.
It’s how you work through the difficult times that matters, not the good times.
Do a project together before you start a company together, figure out how you work out disagreements
The average lifetime of a startup is 7 years. Make sure you’re willing to spend that long with your cofounders
Make sure you have synergistic skillsets
You will have more arguments about button placement than selling the company. Day to day arguments are the most crucial, and your ability to handle those determines whether or not you succeed.
Mutual respect, trust and transparency are key
Co-CEOs are a red flag for investors. Everyone should have distinct skillset.
The transition from coding to managing can be a challenge. Be prepared to change your role, take on leadership roles. Be okay with adapting, growing your team.
In a startup you wear a lot of different hats. Which is good if you thrive on lots of different challenges.
When growing a company, hire slowly and fire quickly
One or two bad apples can kill the culture and dampen spirits
What is the impact of geography on startup success? Do you have to be in Silicon Valley?
Silicon valley is an easier environment for startups than other places. There’s a culture of risk taking and innovation; in other areas you will get less encouragement
Fear of failure is the biggest obstacle. If you’re in a place where failure isn’t common, it’s harder to deal with.
Startup companies are increasingly coming out of places like Chicago and New York. Look for the communities already in place in other locations
Silicon valley also has a cluster of incubators that support startups, and law firms that will consult for free in hopes of later business.
There’s actually almost a preference for people who have failed and keep going; it shows determination
What’s the impact of your gender on what you do?
You get more invitations to speak, you stand out
Mostly, though, the product speaks for itself. Gender is less relevant
You get to act as a role model for younger women
Sometimes women don’t support women enough, look for opportunities to be there for others in the workplace
Seek out mentorship
Women tend to underestimate their accomplishments. They make excuses for why they got an award or achieved something.
Learn to take a compliment without deflecting it.
Then the floor was opened to audience questions.
How do you protect your ideas?
You don’t…If it’s a good idea, someone else already has it.
Don’t try to hide it. Share it, get feedback
Silicon valley has a great culture for sharing. Do it.
Ideas are cheap. Fail quickly and move on.
A lot of people have the same idea, so it’s about execution. Can you get out there?
How do you decide when to launch?
Don’t polish your product
You think you know what people want, but you don’t. The polish is irrelevant.
Launch when you’re a little bit embarrassed by your project. You’ll get feedback and realize that thing that was 5th on the list to work on is crucial and what was 1st is irrelevant.
How do you wrap up your failures?
You don’t wrap it up, just wipe it aside and try to learn from it
How do you know when to quit your job and try a startup?
You don’t know. Just do it
You’re never completely ready
If you’re thinking about it, you’re ready enough
Decide which you will regret more: leaving your job or not trying the startup
The earlier the better, when you have less to lose (i.e. no mortgage, no kids, etc)
How do you innovate outside of silicon valley?
The network is most important. Find like minded people and groups
Start a group. Have a hackathon. Look online: quora, a16z, startup blogs
How do you raise money in a non traditional way?
Look into different foundations supporting work for social good.
When do you need an MBA?
You don’t always need one
It depends on your company.
In a startup you do thing you haven’t before-selling, hiring, firing, etc. Sometimes you can just learn to be the business person
What is the most efficient founding team in general?
3 people with a different mix of skills and abilities; you don’t want just one vs one because then disagreements are hard to resolve
Typcailly, 2 coders/engineers and a business person
What do you look for in an investor?
The best investors are ones you’ve had a relationship with previously.
Some are good for money, some connections, some a specific product
You typically have more than one investor
Talk to the companies that are already in the investor’s portfolio
Check 3 things: Do you like them? Do they agree with your vision? Do you agree on how to get there?
Thefunded is a site providing feedback on VCs
There’s a bit of a shakeup with VCs right now, where they are realizing they have to provide services in addition to just money
If looking for seed investments, look for seed specific companies. The seed round is just the first round, you don’t want to get it from people who are going to make later funding rounds more difficult
What’s one resource you would recommend?
Look for people on startup panels and talks at conferences and contact them
After the session, I stopped and had a chat with Sasha Laundy, from, Twilio, who had been advertising on twitter about her availability to answer startup related questions after the session. I asked her what she recommended in terms of finding some financial stability while working on gathering your initial funding (especially given that it seems like you need to plan to fail for awhile before having a chance of success). She recommended finding a startup with Series A or B funding already secured-they will likely be expanding and will be able to pay an actual salary and will give you some insight into the startup process as well. Most startups won’t be advertising job openings, so just email them and offer your services.