Operating in tough times

I think we’re all pretty exhausted. Exhausted from hearing the same things over and over about COVID-19 and people losing their jobs. On top of that, entrepreneurs are probably tired of hearing about how VCs are slowing their investing or are waiting for predatory valuations. These times can be quite frustrating.

Many people don’t know that in November 2008, I left my cushy job at Google to start a company. This was just a couple of weeks after Sequoia wrote their first RIP Good Times memo that we have all seen multiple times at this point. By 2009, it was impossible to fundraise. I went into meetings with investors, and they would all be checking their stocks. It hurt them to see their net wealth drop 50%. It hurt me that no one was paying attention — every investor was so distracted. I wouldn’t be able to raise money for 2 more years. I did odd and end jobs to try to bring cash in the door. I had a whiskey categorizing gig. And critiqued resumes of aspiring MBA students. Among many other things. Of those, the most amusing was the time when Xerox Parc paid me to have one of their user experience researchers follow me around for days.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Although 2009 was a frustrating time, in retrospect, it was actually a good thing I couldn’t raise, because I had no idea what I was doing. And the school of hard knocks taught me how to really build a business — to the point of perhaps too much confidence. These days, I don’t ever worry about not being able raise money from others or find a job again. Even if my VC fund partners kick me out, the rough days in 2009/2010 taught me *how to make money*.

That is an amazing feeling that only comes about from being stuck with the unfortunate luck (or fortunate luck) of starting a business during dark times. And that is my wish for all of you — that you, too, can find that even if things feel rough this year.

Though it might not seem like a blessing in disguise, tough times force you to focus on what is really important and to track your cash carefully. All too often in the last two years, we’ve seen businesses that don’t make any sense rise in valuation to enormous levels.

During these times, I’m going to move my next blog posts away from fundraising and back to fundamentals. How do you bootstrap a company? How do you get customers when you have limited cash? How you keep the lights on? Basically — how do you BUILD a company.

Faster sales cycles

One of the biggest mistakes at the beginning of my entrepreneurial career was that I spent too much time building and not enough time selling. After making this mistake over and over with failed side projects, I ended up getting incredibly frustrated that I was wasting weeks or months only to come to the conclusion that I didn’t have a great product to sell.

This frustration forced me to think about selling product immediately even before building anything. So when we started building out LaunchBit (which was basically our 8th side project), the very first thing I did was to sell without a product. I did so with my personal PayPal account. There was no website. No product. I cold emailed a bunch of ppl with my value proposition and started charging. And guess what – they sent me money to my personal PayPal account. I was shocked that anyone would do this.

What does it take to operate in this market?

This is a chaotic time but also an exciting time, because incumbents are easily dismantled in times like these. As I wrote to my portfolio companies the other day, you’ll see large brands / companies get purchased for pennies on the dollar, because they won’t be able to slim down to a skeleton crew fast enough and act nimbly. Small companies – with even 2 or 3 people — may even be able to acquire some these companies! Or win their business. What wins in a good market doesn’t always win in a bad market. And understanding this is key.

So what does win?

Fast sales cycles win. Now is the time to find out if you have a fast sales cycle. Can you pre-sell what you have even if it’s not built? Can you continue selling what you do have? Are people buying? And if they’re not buying, do you think they will buy in 12 months when this is all over? Or is your market dead going forward?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

These are questions to ask yourself.

If you have no business today, there are going to be two camps of companies — 1) ideas that will be viable in 6-12 months and 2) ideas that won’t be viable at all post COVID-19.

If you’re in the former camp, then maybe you need to get a job or a consulting gig and wait out the market. There is no shame doing that. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Maybe this is a good time to refactor your code business and optimize your product and processes.

If you’re in the latter camp, you need to rethink your company. People don’t like change. They don’t like starting over. They don’t like starting new business ideas. But you have to be honest with yourself and make a hard pivot if you think this is not going to work.

And I’m going to be brutally direct here. If you’re in either of these camps — whether this is a temporary or permanent shift — it’s not worth fundraising now. I see all these companies pitching travel ideas and retail ideas and other ideas that have been dramatically affected by COVID-19, etc.

THERE. ARE. NO. BUYERS. IN. THESE. MARKETS. RIGHT. NOW.

Don’t waste your time working on something that you literally can’t sell to anyone. The truth is would-be investors want you to be able to put their money to work right away — not to sustain your livelihood for 6-12 months until your market comes back.

Scrappy founders win. Being lean and nimble to be able to pivot – even if just slightly – is really critical in these markets.

If you realize that you need to make some drastic pivots / changes to your business, the good news is that there ARE a lot of market opportunities — both short term and long term that you can get started in right away.

If you need some ideas on getting started again, Noah Kagan starts a business LIVE here: https://okdork.com/how-to-start-a-business-from-scratch/

This is something that large companies burdened with big teams cannot do. Wield your strengths.

Frugal founders win. Lastly, it’s frugal founders who win in this market. A year ago, if you had raised a lot of money, that would’ve been considered a strength. And if you still have that money, it is still a strength – cash is king.

But if you have a high burn rate — that has quickly become a huge liability and a big team also prevents you from being scrappier, because coordination amongst many people is hard.

So the tables have a turned a bit. This is a natural advantage for teams who struggled to raise money and were forced to become ramen profitable over the teams who may have raised millions of dollars. The latter teams can still win, but very few of these founders will be able to make the right decisions to cut down to becoming frugal.

Need help with cash management? I’m holding an AMA on cash management on Wednesday April 15th at 4pm PT. It’s completely FREE but we are capped at 1000 participants.

Sign up here: https://cashflowmgmtduringtoughtimes.splashthat.com/

Finding purpose and mission in bleak times

This past week was particularly exhausting. I think I speak for almost everyone when I say this.

And the prior two weeks were rough as well.

It’s hard to find comfort in times where people all around the world are getting very ill (COVID-19) and in some cases, dying a slow horrific death. Our medical professionals on the front lines have no equipment. Everything is basically shut down – wall street is falling and main street is crumbling. Panicked people are hoarding. The news is infuriating. And being cooped up inside with small children all day is not easy. For the better part of the last few weeks, I’ve felt helpless about everything going on around me.

It’s during times like these that it’s important to dig deep. A question I’ve often asked myself over the past few years is “Why do you do what you do?” And this is the question I ask of you today.

And, if the world were to end tomorrow, what do you wish you would’ve done differently? What do you want to be remembered for?

For many years, I didn’t know the answer to any of these questions. But in the last few years, it really clicked.

One thing that I noticed in the past few years is that the best entrepreneurs are very often overlooked in the beginning, and it’s hard for them to get access to resources. Certainly, well-connected people who went to certain schools or worked at certain places may often be an exception, but in large part, this is true (and even for many well-networked people). I believe that people who are “great hustlers” – as defined as people who execute with speed – ought to be able to get access to resources even in the very beginning their journeys.

And so, two years ago, armed with this mission, I started Hustle Fund with two friends of mine: Eric Bahn and Shiyan Koh. We have a long ways to go, and right now, we can only chip at the problem little by little and are not able to help every great hustler today. But we’re working on this mission over the next 30 years or so.

Your mission may be different.

Img courtesy: motivationaltwist.com

I am fortunate that my mission carries over professionally as well as personally. I am paid (a little bit) to follow my mission. But, your work doesn’t have to align with your mission – that’s ok. For many people, a job pays the bills to allow you to follow your personal mission outside of work. But always remember your mission even if it’s not your livelihood.

In times like these, it’s especially important to remember what your mission is so that you can dig deep and find the courage to do the hard things that these times may require of you.

For many of my entrepreneurs whom I’ve backed, as well as broader main street, these tines are going to really test their leadership. Most of them will have to lay off a lot of people in order for them to keep going to fulfil their missions. Many of them will see significant drops in their revenues as consumers are not able to spend as much money — or at all — at home. Many of them will feel like they have spent the last 2 years working so hard a building traction only to start anew — an incredibly frustrating experience. The decisions we will see our entrepreneurs make over the next few weeks or months will not be easy.

Lack of morale makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning. But it is during these times, you actually have to do the exact opposite of what you naturally want to do in order to succeed. You must find courage to embrace these tough challenges and inspire others to help you achieve your mission. And this is where mission comes in — when everything else around you is falling apart, other people are no longer motivated by money or traction or achievements — because all of these things are gone or have dropped considerably or are unstable. People are motivated by what the future looks like and the mission you want to achieve not the past.

In some cases, missions are really easy to convey. For health companies, for example, they can say their mission is to “find the cure to cancer or whatnot”. But for most companies, missions are a bit less clear. My former startup was an advertising technology company. I can tell you that most people don’t find it inspiring to work at an ads company. “To show as many ads as possible” would just not be a mission that many people would sign up for. (nor would I) And yet, there are often great missions behind companies without obvious missions. Zappos is a great example of a company that conveys their mission well. They want to provide the best customer service and just happen to sell shoes. Google is actually an ads company (which so many people don’t think about including Googlers themselves), but they want to organize the world’s information to make it accessible to all.

Remembering your mission helps you focus. It’s also makes it easier to make tough decisions – such as layoffs. If you remember your mission and why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place, it’s often clear what the path needs to look like even if it’s a tough one to go down. The right sacrifices in the short term are often beneficial in the long term.

In addition, if your mission is really clear, many people will want to rally behind it. I was talking with a fellow fund manager the other day, and I was beaming about my amazing team. He was a bit confused how I even found all these kickass people (let alone pay for them). I told him that most people on our team could be making way more money elsewhere, and as a small microfund, we have no budget. But it’s the mission that everyone rallies around. Building a microfund is in fact not the best or easiest way to make money — there are much better and easier ways to do so. But at Hustle Fund, we are constantly selling as many people as we can on our mission — whether they are potential team members, investors, startups, or partners. People who join forces with us want to change the world and invest in the best hustlers even if they didn’t go to MIT or live in the middle of nowhere. Mission can often compensate for many things — even if you have near zero cash or resources.

Missions extend beyond companies. In fact, companies often start out as personal missions that rally up other people who also believe in the same cause. If you don’t already have a mission, that’s ok! This is a good time to come up with one or join someone else’s.

People often hesitate in thinking through their personal missions, because we’re all so busy. Almost too busy to think. And too busy to do or too busy to help. But one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that there is no amount of help, thought, money, time, etc that is too small. In fact, what I’ve learned is that the secret to the success of the Silicon Valley is lots of bits of small help here and there. There are so many angel investors here who run around town investing $1k into startups here and there. $1k as a startup investment sounds incredibly small, but these all add up. Small bits of capital combined with new connections to larger checks and more resources — this is how you get momentum going. On our own Fund 1 for Hustle Fund, we had some investors write us $10k or $25k checks in the beginning — that doesn’t get you very far in raising $10m, but it does get you a lot of credibility and momentum. And I am so grateful to those small check writers who supported us on Day 1 and believed early and helped us get others rallied around our cause. Generalizing this, in a crisis, if you want to set out to help small businesses, even buying a $5 gift card is helpful. That sparks momentum. AND, if can you leverage your social capital on social media to turn $5 into friends putting in $100 and they in turn promote this which turns into $1000, that’s valuable. A $5 donation quickly gets leveraged to $1000s. I have seen this happen time and again. Small actions go a long way.

Going back to my mission, my mission doesn’t just apply to Hustle Fund. In my personal life, I ask myself what resources can I help procure (either my own or rally others around)? And who are the effective stewards (hustlers) of those resources to have the biggest impact? Although at Hustle Fund, we currently only apply this mission to venture backable startups, on a personal front, I think about all the other groups where this thinking can apply.

To that end, here is a running Google Doc of the activities I think are worth promoting – activities that I’m personally getting involved with on some basic level. I won’t ever be effective on the front lines – I have zero medical knowledge. I know nothing about main street. But I can help as a connector. Connecting resources to hustlers is what I do. That is what I want to be remembered for.

I challenge all of you to think through your personal mission. Dig deep. Then roll up your sleeves to start to build or rebuild towards it. In these challenging times, we will need all hands on deck in a whole variety of ways — in health, in business (your own or others), etc. No amount of thought, time, money / other resources, or help is too small.

Let’s go make some dreams come true.

Can you build a unicorn business outside the Silicon Valley?

This is a follow-on post to my last blog post about building a global-first startup

The tl;dr for my last post is that these days geography is rather confusing. It’s quite common for a San Francisco Bay Area company to start hiring from day one an engineering team that is elsewhere and building up a real hub elsewhere even though everyone sees them as a San Francisco company. Or for a startup located outside of the US to sell to US companies.  The world is a lot smaller than it used to be.  

And so for these reasons, I believe that to start a company, you can start building a startup these days from pretty much anywhere. The most important thing in the earliest stages is to try to get to product Market fit quickly.

Knowledge has become commoditized at the earliest stages – you can pretty much read about Lean Startup anywhere on the internet.  But what about scaling a business? 

The numbers are actually pretty sobering.  I went ahead and graphed some interesting fundraising data from past portfolio companies that I’ve invested in either as an angel or as part of a team where I was a/the decision maker.  

I took my whole portfolio of all companies that I had invested in between 2014-2016 and created pie charts based on geography. N = over 250 companies in this dataset.

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You can see the vast plurality of companies that I invested in during this time were largely international companies  Note: for the purpose of this exercise, I separated out my Canadian startups from the rest of the world. (Canadian startups are so similar to US startups that I thought they deserved a category of their own.)

I did the best job that I could in labeling just one geography for each startup, but this exercise was a bit tricky. For example, a company that I had invested in is categorized as a San Francisco-based company even though the vast majority of their employees are now based in Dallas. The reason for this is that when I invested in them, the founders were and still are based in San Francisco, and the bulk of their decision-making and operations were happening here at the time.  On the flip side, I classified a number of companies whose founders had recently moved to the US from another country and were doing significant operations in that other country as “other int’l”, even if they were US Delaware C corps. As you can see per my last blog post, it gets a little bit complicated. 

I then went ahead and grabbed the companies that made it to the Series A level and graphed what the breakdown of those startups look like by geography.  The reason I say Series A level is that I have a number of portfolio companies who have done well in revenue and have not had to raise larger rounds.  So if a company had raised a series A, I labeled the company as a Series A company regardless of where the raise happened. Now, I understand that there are some issues with the nomenclature because a Series A in the Bay Area is so much later than a Series A in say Australia, but, this was the best I could do. In addition, if a company had not raised a Series A but had hit US Series A milestones – namely $2m+ “net revenue run rate”,  then I counted the company as a Series A company.

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 2.34.47 PM

What is interesting about this graph is just how much the percentages have changed.  Let’s come back to the analysis in a second.

I went ahead and did the same exercise with Series B companies.  I graphed my portfolio that had graduated to the Series B level. And again, for companies who raised a Series B – whether here in the US or abroad — were labeled a series B company.  For companies who had hit US Series B traction milestones – namely 10m+ annual net revenue runrate – I also added those companies to this category as well.

Screen Shot 2019-08-30 at 2.35.57 PM.png

You can see that this graph has changed even more.

Here are my takeaways: 

1) The San Francisco Bay Area punches above its weight. (not surprising)

One could try to argue that perhaps my San Francisco Bay Area founders are stronger. While I couldn’t tell you whether that’s true or not, intuitively, my gut feeling is that that is not the case.

What I do think is happening here is that the San Francisco Bay Area has a lot more capital, and so there are more startups that get more funding than in other parts of the world. And by proximity of being here, it is easier to access the capital (even though there is also more competition).

But the other thing that I think is happening is access to talent and knowledge, especially as companies scale. I tend to invest in businesses that require less capital. This tends to skew towards B2B companies or other businesses where the margins are nice. I tend to prefer investing in companies where if they could never raise a dime of VC funding again, they would still be able to survive and thrive.

And I’ve applied this lens across all geographies. So as a result, I would not expect such wild differences in ability to get to the Series A level or the Series B level even if there is less capital available in other markets. But you can see that there is a big difference.  

1b) One side note: also, if I remove startups who have founders with pedigree, then SF doesn’t punch above its weight and proportionally stays the same at each stage. 

2) International companies outside of the US & Canada have a much harder time raising money.

You can see that across-the-board, my international companies have had really had a tough time getting to the Series A or Series B level.

And again, I attribute this to less access to knowledge about scaling, less access to capital, and less access to talent that has scaled businesses before. One potential wildcard explanation for this lack of success is that the US & Canada have pretty established customer acquisition channels.  But, that isn’t the case everywhere globally, so it may also be that customer acquisition makes marketing and sales in the US & Canada just faster and that other international companies just need more time to make headway.  

3) Companies based outside of the SF Bay Area that have been successful have spent significant time in the Bay Area

The last interesting thing I would say here is that if you look at the Series B companies, anecdotally I can tell you that all of those founders have cultivated lots of relationships here in the SF Bay Area to get scaling knowledge and access to capital.

Takeaways:

I don’t think you need to be in the San Francisco Bay Area to start a company. In fact, I actually think that since your money goes so much further elsewhere and knowledge is commoditized regarding starting a business.  As an early stage founder, you really should just focus on product-market fit wherever you feel is best for you to live.

BUT!  If you want to start scaling a business – call it at the Series A level and beyond – that’s when you really need to start having connections ideally to the SF Bay Area to raise money from and have a network / learn from and potentially even a pool of people to hire.  

unicorn

Image courtesy of Giphy

If you are starting a business outside of the Bay Area and want to build a unicorn business, in today’s global economy, it is significantly helpful for you to start building from connections on day 1 to the SF Bay Area.  

The rise of the global first startup

In the past 5 years, there have been a lot of changes in the startup ecosystem. One of the big changes is in geographical activity. 

At Hustle Fund, we invest in early stage startups that are in the United States, Canada, and Southeast Asia. We do this all with one fund. And often we get asked, why don’t we start regional funds?  To be honest, this is something that we had thought about very deeply. But what we are seeing in the startup ecosystem today is that startups are global from day one. And that the concept of a “regional fund” doesn’t make much sense anymore or at least is too nebulous.

5 years ago, if you were building a startup, you would be crazy to try to be “global first” startup. If you were building your team in other countries or even other cities, that seemed like a bad idea. If you were trying to sell a product to customers elsewhere, that also seemed like a bad idea. Specifically, the reason why this seemed like a bad idea is that it seemed like the logistical challenges in coordinating with other people would just be so cumbersome that it would negatively affect your business. These days, I would argue that you’re at a disadvantage if you are not a “global first” startup.

giphy-1

Photo credit: Giphy

Most 2019 unicorns are in the United States and China.  And, these companies were largely started in the United States and China and grew up in these places. I believe that we will continue to see this trend. But, if you look at say the the up-and-coming San Francisco based companies that will become unicorns in the next couple of years, many of them were not started in San Francisco.  Many of them were started elsewhere OR have significant offices elsewhere. If you dig into this list of up-and-coming unicorns, not only do you see a number of companies that are based elsewhere, but you see companies like Front or HackerOne labeled as San Francisco companies though they started got their foothold elsewhere. 

This matters, because how startups get their foot on the first rung of the ladder is what enables them to get going. If you can reduce your costs on engineering talent and manage teams well from the beginning, you can take your company a lot further for the same amount of money.  I recently caught up with two past portfolio companies, and I was floored that both of them were doing $5m ARR with fast growth and had raised very little seed funding. If you were to look at their cap tables, one had sold less than 10% of their cap table on a fully diluted basis and the other had sold less than 10% of their business fully diluted. Their next raise will probably be mega series B or C equivalent rounds and will have experienced much less dilution than your typical fast growth startup that starts and grows up in San Francisco. I asked them, “How were you able to build and sell so much with so little?” That’s when I learned that both companies had engineering teams elsewhere. Their engineering teams were in Vietnam and Argentina respectively. Both teams had a technical co-founder leading product outside of the United States. And both teams had customer acquisition teams based in the United States – sales, marketing, and business development.

When I look at my Hustle Fund portfolio, which is newer, I also see the same trend. Even if not hiring abroad, my companies are hiring outside of San Francisco. One of my current portfolio companies who has actually raised a lot of cash and is based in the San Francisco area has more employees in Dallas than here. You would not know that by just looking at the company as an outsider.  To most people, they seem like a regular, ordinary San Francisco-based company. I have other portfolio companies that are also on a fast-growth trajectory who from day 1 started building teams elsewhere as well. One of my fast-growing B2B companies has more employees based in Nepal than here in the San Francisco Bay area, and they are a SF-based company. We have portfolio companies who have engineering and operations teams in places like Bulgaria, Canada, and Nigeria. By hiring talent and managing talent outside of San Francisco, companies can see a 3-5x difference in cost than hiring in San Francisco.  Roughly speaking, this means that you can extend your runway 3-5x longer which is huge when you are trying to find product-market fit or make a big enterprise sale that won’t happen for 2 years. 

I think five years ago, there was this notion that technical talent in San Francisco was stronger than elsewhere. I think that is only true when you’re talking about the top 1%. It’s not because San Francisco naturally breeds smarter people, but it’s because you have companies like Google and Facebook who are willing to pay $1m+ per year to attract that global talent to the Bay Area in the first place. But, can startups woo that 1% talent away from Google and Facebook? And my hypothesis is that only in rare cases can this happen.  Startups can’t compete with the GOOG on comp or benefits. And, I’m seeing most of this talent either starting their own companies or working for a friend’s very promising company. 

And so most SF Bay Area startups are not able to hire this talent — they are hiring good talent for sure. But you can hire good talent elsewhere too for lower salaries.  I think sometimes we think that the more you are paid, the better you are, but that is actually not true. How much you are paid is largely related to the cost of living of where you are. In parallel, what we are also seeing are two other trends.  1) Knowledge is becoming more and more of a commodity. You can find all kinds of free information on the internet on how to do just about anything. 2) We are also seeing a lot of tools coming up to make development easier or in some cases, allow you to build things with no code.  If you are building a “deeptech” startup, then you do need to hire the best technical talent in many cases, but most say typical B2B startups that are coming up don’t need particularly deep technical knowledge. So, you can get the same level of talent quality for a fraction of the cost in places where the cost of living is cheaper.  

Now, hiring people in multiple locations certainly has a ton of challenges. It is challenging to build rapport with people remotely. And it is challenging just to get people to work together remotely. I think all of these challenges still apply even now but are a bit easier than 5 years ago.

Over 5 years ago, remote communications was a challenge.  Nothing really worked well. I remember Skype and Google Hangouts being just sh*tty.  (They still are) I hired remotely for my startup, and I was one of the early users of Zoom for my startup LaunchBit. Prior to that, we had tried just about every video conferencing software possible, and nothing worked well.  But, with Zoom, we gave everyone an iPad and had everyone just leave Zoom on all day everyday. The calls *never* dropped. And there was never any latency. It was like we all sat in the same room. Today, we also have Slack, which has made communication so much easier.  And a lot of wiki-like tools.  

What I have seen work the best with regard to tight communications, is to build a hub-and-spoke model. For most of my portfolio companies, they have distinct offices in specific places. They build out teams in these places, and there is a team leader of sorts in each place.  Usually a co-founder who had spent time in the US and met the US-based co-founder and then returned home to build the team. And it is the team leaders who need to coordinate the best remotely. E.g. it is the technical co-founder who coordinates really well with the business co-founder to test hypotheses together to get to product-market fit. And they have really quick feedback loops. So then you’re not really talking so much about coordination of many people, but you are talking about the coordination of a couple of people.

Building culture, though, is the tricky part. How do you ensure that each team has the same culture? And that’s hard. I don’t have a great answer for this. even when I worked at a large company – Google – I noticed that the culture was different in the Boston office than at headquarters in Mountain View. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is challenging to have to ensure that all teams have the same culture.

Beyond working with teammates globally, we also have portfolio companies who are doing some crazy global arbitrage things. For example, in Canada, the government offers startups so many grants of all kinds. And that reduces the costs dramatically or reduces the need to take dilutive funding. In contrast, in the US, most software startups do not qualify for any grants.  One of my San Francisco-based teams actually set up a Canadian entity just to take advantage of one of these grants. 5 years ago this might have seemed like a weird distraction. But today, this type of arbitrage can buy you a couple of extra years of runway or reduce your need for dilutive capital.  

On the business side, we have US portfolio companies who are now selling to potential clients in Asia. and we have Southeast Asian companies who are selling globally or to the US market. Five years ago, this seemed impossible but today, this makes a lot of sense for the right business. 

How can you sell abroad? I see most of my portfolio companies or past portfolio companies building out their customer acquisition team in the market they are selling to. But even in the beginning when it’s just the co-founders, this is possible too.  Even many years ago, when I was selling ads for my startup, my customers were in India and Israel and Europe . And, I made all of those sales over the phone or over video conference. In fact, those sales were done in the same way that I sold to US customers. The only difference is that sometimes I would have to stay up and make those sales or get up early in the morning.  In fact, some of my current portfolio companies are finding that it is actually easier to sell to customers in another geographical market. Customers in another region of the world may be hungry for technology in a way that local customers may not — especially when you’re building to disrupt old stodgy industries. Sometimes finding product-market fit is tied to to geography.

So when I look at our portfolio, I cannot quite “bucket” so many of my companies. I have companies that are San Francisco-based but have operations or development in another country or another city.  In other cases, we have Singaporean companies that sell to the US. What it means to be say a “San Francisco-based company” is quite nebulous these days.  

In fact, when I previously was running an accelerator in a past life, in one of my batches, I had a portfolio company with a co-founder who was from another country X and had a development team in country X.  But the company was incorporated in the US and both co-founders lived in the SF Bay Area. My past employer also had a regional fund that invested in companies in country X. And, the fund manager for country X was a bit ticked off at me at first for not showing him that deal.  

I was puzzled, “But they are a US company and the co-founders live here — I thought you are investing in startups in country X.” I said. 

“But the founder is from country X and they have a team in country X,” he said. 

That was the first time I started thinking about this issue. My mind raced through all of our companies in the accelerator batch and past batches. It dawned on me that most of the companies in our accelerator were US companies (SF based) who had teams elsewhere and that geography had become blurred.  That was a few years ago, and now it’s even more blurred. 

In this modern economy, if you can navigate hiring and building teams in different locations and selling to customers in other areas, you are at a serious advantage. And in many cases, I think in the next 5 to 10 years, I think this will become not only a nice to have skill set but a necessary skill set. 

What questions will early stage VCs ask you?

I thought it might be helpful to create a live running Google Doc of all the major questions that a VC might ask you.

Go to -> Questions that a VC might ask you.

If there are more questions you think I should add to this list, please comment in the Google Doc, and I’ll add additional ones that get multiple votes.

I’ve highlighted in blue the questions that I care the most about. I’ll certainly ask questions about traction just to get an understanding of what has been done in the company, but as a pre-seed investor, we do most of our investments pre-traction. This will, of course, be different for a seed or mango-seed investor.

What is most interesting to me in looking at all the questions I’ve highlighted in blue is that you can see I very much gravitate towards customer acquisition questions.  It isn’t so much that I care about what your LTV and CAC are today.  In fact, in most cases, your CAC will only go up (significantly) and your LTV will hopefully be worth more in the future, so it doesn’t mean anything to me! But I want to understand how you think about getting customers.

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Credit: Giphy

Most entrepreneurs at the pre-seed stage haven’t thought much about customer acquisition. In my view, this is what separates savvy or experienced entrepreneurs from everyone else.

The savviest or most experienced entrepreneurs will often think through the customer acquisition first before even thinking about the product.

At this stage, no one will have all the answers, but a great entrepreneur will think through things like “is this problem important enough that customers will part with their money for this?” and “what is my wedge into this market to beat out alternatives / competitors?”  The savviest or most experienced entrepreneurs will start pre-selling ahead of having a product and know that these results are more telling than surveys.  These are the kinds of things that I want to understand at the pre-seed stage.

What questions do you think should be added to this list?

Some thoughts on balancing family and a startup

One of the more taboo topics in “Startupland” is around having a family while starting a business.  When I was about to have my first child while working on my company LaunchBit, I was catching up with a friend of mine who was also an angel investor in my business.

And then he asked me, “How do you think about balancing your company with a young child?”

Since then, it’s a question I’ve batted around for years.  Is this an appropriate question?  Is it even a good question?  And what is even an answer to this question?

To be clear, my friend didn’t mean any malice by it nor was he trying to use my answer as a piece of information in making a decision about investing — he was already an investor. He was just legitimately curious. But of course, the immediate counter question that comes to mind (and that I articulated out loud) is, “Would you have asked me that question if I were a male founder / CEO?”

We all know that he wouldn’t have.

For as long as I’ve been running my own company — first at LaunchBit and now at Hustle Fund — I have not often engaged in conversations about family in business meetings / business settings.  When other people talk about their kids, I usually just kinda smile and nod.  In contrast, my business partner at Hustle Fund Eric often talks about his family and his minivan.  He shares photos of his children with our investors in our monthly reports regularly.  I don’t think think most of our investors even know that I have children.  There is an unspoken looming fear that many female entrepreneurs with children have — that their abilities and dedication as a professional will be judged and looked down upon because they have children.  This is because there is a notion held by some people in the ecosystem that having a startup while having children puts you at a disadvantage and shows a lack of dedication.  Obviously, not everyone holds this belief, but there is no upside as a woman to sharing that you have children while running a startup.  And so for so long, I’ve just generally kept quiet / private about the whole matter.

And I’m not the only woman to do this.  Countless female founders of mine over the years have asked me for advice and guidance on managing a family while starting a company but have also asked me to keep these questions on the down low or even their plans to start a family on the down low.  I’ve become a confidante of sorts because I’m a female founder with a family in this taboo world.

However, after mulling on this for a few years, I think the exact opposite needs to happen.  Everyone would benefit by sharing advice on tips for handling parenting while running a startup.  And, so I’ve decided to write this post on how I’ve managed to balance parenting while running 2 startups (had kid #1 while running a product startup and had kid #2 while starting a VC fund a couple years ago).  

Before I had kids, I had in my mind an idyllic notion of parenting.  I thought I would swaddle my newborn in cloth diapers, feed breast milk for a year, and follow every other piece of advice from “ideal mother” websites. But then, reality quickly set in – in having my first child while running my adtech company.  The idea of spending an extra 30s putting on a cloth diaper at 2 in the morning in a half dazed stage all of a sudden seemed less exciting — my stance on parenting immediately changed when I became a parent — I just wanted to make sure my kid stayed alive and healthy! 

The reality check

On one hand, there is truth to why running a startup and raising children isn’t easy.  Many people will say that it’s because children take up a lot of time and attention.  Other people say it’s because they increase your financial burden. Both are true but IMO not the biggest issues namely because people are incredibly resilient to constraints — both time and money constraints.

For example, before I had children, I thought I was quite efficient with my time. Post-children, in looking back, I’m actually 3x+ more efficient with time now. I never thought I could eke out so much more efficiency. You can ALWAYS become more efficient with more constraints.

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Playing Bejeweled is something I used to do but don’t anymore…

So, the biggest challenge isn’t additional constraints, because resilient people make things work and make them work better.  I actually think the biggest challenge is that there are just a lot more variables that are out of your control.

For example, your kid gets sick and can’t go to school; that’s out of your control. Your kid wakes up every two hours; you can’t control that either. So how do you deal with last-minute situations? How do you impromptu handle situations you didn’t expect? 

So, here are some key things I’ve learned while leveraging my time as an entrepreneur parent:

  1. You need support. Don’t do it alone.
  2. You need to say no and leverage time.
  3. You need to “let go.” 

Support

It really does take a village to raise children, and I’ve leaned on tons of people for support from the beginning through now. I think people are often afraid to do so, but I think it makes life a lot easier. 

During the first few weeks of motherhood, folks showed up with home cooked food or bought meals / meal gift certificates for me and my husband. Beyond the warmth of love and generosity this brought us, such a little act made a big, practical difference in my day. I could then put my energy towards thinking about my business, focusing on my kid, and even some personal recovery time, instead of worrying about what we were going to eat for dinner. On the flip side, this is probably the easiest, best gift you can get a new parent — meals.

My support network helped me balance time as I became a first and then later second time mom while being an entrepreneur. When my kids were still very young, friends and relatives babysat while I went to networking events, to work, or to sleep when I desperately needed a nap. For example, when I was fundraising for Hustle Fund in 2017, there was a networking event on a Saturday in San Francisco, and my husband was out of town.  For the 2-3 hours that I was there, I left my baby with my friends who lived in the Mission.  As an entrepreneur, at work, you ask for the moon from your business partners and potential clients all the time.  But we don’t often do that with people we’re closest with.  Why not?

My husband holds down the fort a lot, especially when I travel for work or have late meetings or events.  And my parents have spent so much time with my kids when they have no school (and in the very beginning when they couldn’t go to daycare), I can’t imagine accomplishing both startups without them or my extended support network.

Pride is one thing you really can’t afford when launching into the role of a entrepreneur-parent. 

Saying no & leveraging time

As a parent and entrepreneur, I need to leverage my time, and I need as much of my 9am-5pm working block to be free to think / write.

To achieve this, unfortunately, this means I end up saying “no” to a lot and moving things to more efficient channels whenever I can.

For example, people ask other people for coffee meetings a LOT!  Usually without any purpose. I used to do these coffee meetings a lot in my 20s. But, now, I often say “no” to coffee meetings. Critics of this strategy may argue, “Well, I’ve built my best connections through coffee meetings.” And I can agree coffee meetings are great to a) re-build or strengthen rapport with someone you already know / want to catch up with a friend OR b) meet with someone new and build rapport with LOTs of coffee meetings with him/her.  But when I look back, the vast majority of my coffee meetings in my 20s have been one and done, and for those people, that one coffee meeting isn’t enough to end up doing business or hang out socially in most cases.  (there are some exceptions but largely true of the coffee meetings I’ve done over the years) 

Instead, I prefer to stick with email for quick communication and if necessary, move to a phone meeting while commuting. In fact, I set up my Calendly so that bookable times are primarily during my commute at the beginning and end of the day. I end up having a lot of meetings while walking, skateboarding, kick scootering or driving. 

For further “networking”, in lieu of a 1:1 coffee meeting, I like to do group drinks / lunch or hangouts outside of my 9-5 working block.  So if there are a handful of people you want to re-build rapport with or want to get to know, it’s a lot more efficient to group everyone together.  And they’re busy too, so they want to make the most of their limited time too.

This means that when I get to work at 9:00am, I’ve already done a few calls / networking, so most of my 9-5pm day is slated for “thinking work”. I might have a couple of additional meetings during that block where I need to take notes and be fully thoughtful, but I like to have — as much as possible — a whole day to only do thinking and writing work.

The opposite of this schedule is what I had when I was working at Google in my 20s. I had back-to-back meetings all day, and then when I got home, I would, in a tired way, try to think and write. In retrospect, if I were to set up my schedule all over again, I would have skipped many of those meetings, asked people to do most work / coordination over email, and done calls while commuting to free up most of the day.

Exercise

As an aside, exercise is really important to me, and combining work time with exercise (walking, jogging, skateboarding, kick-scootering, etc.) allows me to eke out additional productivity.  I don’t believe in multitasking for most things – I think multitasking makes it challenging to really focus and be present. But I do think that exercise and talking-work goes well together, and this type of multitasking actually is more productive. 

I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run (excellent book) and learned that our ancestors used to hunt animals by basically jogging a marathon everyday! Since then, I’ve been trying to increase my miles–some days I walk eight miles–and multitasking with phone meetings helps with this goal, too. I’ve also heard that walking is more conducive to thinking than sitting — but who knows?

In addition, I often use voice-to-type to “write” emails on my phone, especially during commutes. Whether walking, jogging, or scootering with my kids, I can still “talk” to do writing work.

Emails

Lastly, everyone gets TONs of email these days, and email management is a big chunk of work in itself.  It’s really important to me to keep my 9am-5pm working block mostly free — I don’t want to be spending most of that time in email.  With the exception of a few emails that need immediate response, I work on email on the Caltrain on the days that I go up to San Francisco or at night after dinner.

I also recommend SaneBox, Superhuman, and Gmail smart responses to streamline emails and Calendly to streamline calls.

I use SaneBox to filter a lot of emails including subscription emails, emails from people I’ve never met, etc.

I use Superhuman for templated responses so that I can tell everyone the same thing over and over again.  For example, if I need to move a conversation to a call, I send the same templated response with just a couple of keystrokes, and people can pick their own time to chat (during commute hours) through my Calendly calendar management.  I also use Superhuman for offline email processing – so for example, if I’m commuting on the Caltrain to San Francisco, I can plough through all my emails offline quickly.

Re-scope responsibilities and letting go

Outside of work, the time it takes to complete simple chores adds up and eats away time and energy you could be spending either working or with your kids. Since working on a startup means having a budget, my husband and I have re-scoped and re-prioritized our chores to make them as manageable as possible.

Laundry. To save time, we don’t fold laundry. We just don’t. I know – that sounds blasphemous. That’s a tradeoff that we’ve made. We each have a laundry basket to keep clean clothes separate, and we wash each person’s laundry in their own load. I also streamline my clothing options by wearing a @HustleFundVC shirt and jeans almost every weekday. I understand that not everyone wants to keep his/her clothes in a laundry basket or wear the same outfit over and over, but I can tell you that it saves me a lot of time. Sometimes you just have to let go and figure out what is really important to you. 

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Photo credit: Giphy

Food. Each week, my husband and I each cook one simple dish, usually on the weekend. One night, we’ll order cheap delivery, one night we’ll end up eating at someone’s house, and one night we’ll pop a frozen pizza in the oven. Leftovers carry us through the rest of the week. Keeping our meals simple means neither of us has to fret over grocery store runs or recipes.

Dropoff and pickup of kids. We only have one car, so we each take a day to do both dropoffs and pickups.  We are fortunate to have managed to get their schools to be close to our work and home, so our commute, in general, is not that long.  (A miracle in the Bay Area where there is tons of traffic) . 

When my kids are not in the car, this is when I do my car calls so that the drive time is not wasted.  When the kids are in the car, it’s actually a good time to chat with our kids.  Conversations don’t just have to be at home at the dinner table.  They can be in the car too.  Since we only have one car, on other days, I will sometimes combine exercise while the kids are in a double stroller or while we’re kick-scootering together and will take calls when the stroller is empty. 

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Double stroller + skateboard combination day

Contractors. People have often asked me if I have a nanny or if I hire a company to clean our place. I’m not averse to this, and in general, I believe in comparative advantage.  Meaning  — if someone else is way better than you at something, for the right price, you should hire help.  This is how you’d run your business; and, this is how you should run your home.

In our case, both of my kids go to school, so a full-time or even part-time nanny wouldn’t be helpful because he/she would have no children to watch during the day. And by setting up the above the systems, things like laundry actually don’t take more than a few minutes — a chore that could take hours you can shortcut by basically not caring.  So should I pay someone for something that I fundamentally don’t care about is the question? Not sure.

I also make my kids — as young as they are (both under 6) — do chores.  In the beginning, it’s not done well, but at this point, they are actually quite good at cleaning and feeding themselves.

But I do think you should pay for things that you do care a lot about and will take a long time (such as this blog post!). That’s how you can get further leverage on your time.

To summarize

Running a business and being a parent each requires a lot more juggling than without children. But, it also forces you to be pretty dam* efficient that you could possibly imagine.  

To summarize, the biggest way to leverage time with a low budget is to a) ask for help from your community (family, friends, and even your own kids); b) prioritize thinking work and figure out how to get rid of everything else; combine with exercise, and c) reduce how much you care about daily chores. 

My business partner Eric at Hustle Fund is appalled by the fact that I don’t fold my clothes, so these exact strategies are not for everyone, but I do think with some creative juggling, you can eke out a lot of additional efficiencies to make parenting and entrepreneurship work without going crazy. 

Special thanks to my editor Caitlin for pulling the first draft of this together.  Also, the stock photo above isn’t a photo of my kids, but they are cute.