Surviving 2016 as a seed stage startup: Don’t batten down the hatches but take an umbrella

In late 2008, I was about to turn in my 2 week resignation at Google to start a company when Sequoia sent out a presentation to their portfolio companies.  In their 56 slide presentation of doom and gloom, they told their companies to batten down the hatches and expect to survive a year without external funding.  I ended up leaving Google during one of the worst economic downturns in the last decade, a seemingly stupid move at the time but actually one of the best moves I could have made in my career.

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Image credit: Giphy

Since then I’ve moved to the other side of the fence as an investor.  From my purview at 500 Startups in talking with many seed investors – both angels and VCs – this is what I predict will happen in 2016.  (Note: these are my opinions and not my employer’s):

1. Raising seed capital from VCs who invest in all stages will become challenging.

Investors who invest at all stages are increasingly reserving more capital for follow-on to keep their existing portfolio companies afloat longer.  The IPO markets have been tough, and late stage investors are realizing their unicorns actually are just My Little Ponies in a Halloween costume.  It’s just really hard to get liquidity these days in the late stage game.

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Image credit: Giphy

2. Angel investors will reduce their seed investments.

When polling several angel investors, the general feeling is that angels will also be parring back on their startup investments.  For angels, they are not tied to investing in startups per se – they simply want to invest money in channels that will yield good returns.

Some say that if/when the Fed increases interest rates, people will pour their money back into interest-bearing accounts.  Although the interest rates will still be significantly lower gains than, say, holding an index of good startups, if angels cannot get liquidity for their earlier startup investments, they’ll prefer accounts that allow them to take out their cash immediately.

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Image credit: Giphy

3. VCs who invest solely in seed companies will continue investing at the same cadence if not increase their investment speed.

Micro VCs such as 500 Startups will continue to invest business-as-usual in 2016 and may potentially even increase our investment cadence opportunistically.  The best times to invest are when others are fearful.  I’ve heard from other VCs who invest solely in seed startups that they plan to do the same.

That said, because I know that it may be challenging for our portfolio companies to raise from downstream investors, it will be extra important for me to believe that companies I invest in will 1) survive even without downstream capital and 2) have the traction to potentially bootstrap for a while if need be.  What this really translates to is that I’ll be extra careful to make sure that a company has really solid unit metrics; growth matters, but unit economics matter more, especially in times like these.

4. All points above don’t apply to international investors.

The general assumption of the above points were for American investors.  That said, international investors are investing very differently.  I see interesting market changes in other places, where many investors are divesting their money into American markets or away from older industries.

Never before has it been more advantageous in the startup world to speak a second language.

What is different between now and 2008?

It seems that every 8 years, money seems tight.  In 2008, raising money as a startup was brutal.  In 2000, we had the dot com bust.  In 1992, we were in a recession.  In 1984, we were pulling out of a really long recession (or so I’m told).

This time, it’s not going to be doom and gloom.  There are plenty of VC firms that have recently raised capital; there is a lot of available cash for startups.  The economy is generally doing well, but investors are cautious.  They are waiting to see what happens to existing unicorns before ploughing more money into new startups.  They are waiting for liquidity.  And yet, there is still plenty of money to go around that needs to be invested.  So, if you are a seed stage startup with a lot of traction and solid unit metrics, you will get funded.  It will be business as usual for you.

However, if you are a seed stage startup with an idea and zero traction or if your unit metrics don’t quite look good or if your growth is say, 5% MoM, it will be a lot more challenging for you to raise in 2016 than it was in May 2015.

What do you suggest?

If you have decent traction numbers for a seed stage company, you should raise money at the beginning of 2016.  Make sure you have enough cash for 18 months, if possible (or can survive off revenues).  Keep your burn low.

If you don’t have the numbers at all, I would go heads down right now and bootstrap to get them.  Times like these are actually good – they force companies to focus on their business because they have no other choice.

Although it was scary leaving my job at Google in 2008 to do a startup (we could not get any funding), ultimately, it helped me focus on the business and not get distracted.  And, times like these also weed out people who are serious about their business and those who are wantrepreneurs.

No need to batten the hatches this time around.  But take an umbrella.

Special thanks to Dave McClure and Brian Wang for their input on this post.

5 things a non-technical founder can do

For all intents and purposes, I’m the non-technical co-founder of my internet company LaunchBit, an ad network for email.  I barely write a line of code anymore.  So what do I do?  I sit around and boss people around. I’m the ideas person.  I write strategy docs.  I manage products.

When I started my failed startup Parrotview, I had no idea what to do.  This is a primer that I wish I’d received myself.  Moreover, if you are a non-technical entrepreneur looking for a technical co-founder, showing that you can do these things effectively will set you apart from nearly everyone else.

Customer Development

As a non-technical co-founder, it can be easy to sit around and do nothing in the beginning because no product has been built. Actually, this is when you are MOST needed.

When there is no product, your job as a non-technical co-founder is to somehow get customers AND keep them happy.  (tweet this)

At the beginning of a potential business idea, I would meet with random people of our target demographic to ask them questions about their pain points and problems. When I first started customer development, it was really daunting.  I would often have to cold-call and approach random people I didn’t know to do these customer interviews. It was absolutely necessary to make sure we were solving a problem, and it was a my job.

Wizard of Oz Customer Validation

Then, after figuring out what problem to tackle, my co-founder Jennifer and I would figure out the minimum viable product (MVP) we’d need to create.  Since speed is everything, we forced ourselves to do MVPs in 2-4 weeks.  This meant there wasn’t a lot of time to build much technically.  So, most of our MVPs have been very concierge-style.  To put it bluntly, the product was just us doing operations manually behind the curtains.

For example, with LaunchBit, our advertisers emailed us their creative, and our publishers would copy and paste it into their newsletter.  Advertisers would send money to my personal PayPal account.  There was no ad server.  No dashboards.  Virtually no technology in v1.  Once we started getting more advertisers and publishers with this approach, things started becoming chaotic.  We needed to keep campaigns straight and keep track of who paid and who needed to be paid.  Sometimes, because there was no technology, mistakes would be made.  A publisher might inadvertently leave off the last couple of characters in an ad campaign.  Or an advertiser might forget to include an image. I’d have to sort out those mishaps.

Customer Service

As a result, both advertisers and publishers would get frustrated or angry because this concierge-style service was tedious – not just for us but everyone involved.  It both hurt a lot and was incredibly exciting to hear these complaints.

Complaints are our #1 indicator that someone even cares about what we are doing.  Indifference is our #1 enemy.

Doing customer service was also my job.  (In parallel, after we had all these customers clamoring for a non-manual product, my co-founder Jennifer started coding like a madwoman to address the most complained about issues.)

Direct Sales

In parallel to Jennifer’s product-building, we needed to keep getting new customers to continue getting feedback to make sure we were improving.  So, I would do a lot of cold-calling and cold-emailing to keep a pipeline full of customers.

I’d never been a salesperson before, so much like with customer development, it was difficult at first to work myself up to emailing and calling random people to do sales.  It still is sometimes.

Growth Hacking

Lastly, once you have product and market fit, it’s the non-technical co-founder’s job to figure out how to grow.  It could be through business partnerships and direct sales.  It could be through online marketing, including advertising, content marketing, built-in product, and virality.  Since your particular company’s growth could come from a number of different channels, the most important skillset at this stage is to figure out a) how to test lots of growth channels quickly and b) how to measure those tests both qualitatively and quantitatively to see what is working.

I’m certainly no expert on all of these things, but these are the skills I’ve found to be the most important as a non-technical founder.  This is what I think non-technical co-founders should be doing in a startup to make themselves useful.  What does the non-technical co-founder of your startup do?

Cover photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

6 Things I’ve learned about careers in the last decade

I’ve been working full-time for the past decade or so, and here’s everything I’ve learned about careers.

tl;dr

Believe in your f***ing self.  That’s it.  That’s all that matters.  Everything else stems from this.  

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1. Failure opens doors to success.

My first job out of college was in customer support/sales in Tokyo.  Getting that job was a total fluke.  One month into it, I got fired.  I couldn’t speak or write Japanese very well, so my company didn’t want me talking with customers.

I was devastated.  Who gets fired from their first job within a month???

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via GIPHY

Turns out it was one of the best things that happened to me.  In the subsequent weeks,

  • I got moved into the marketing department at the same company.  Even though they’d fired me, they let me stay for a year, and my job was much more interesting going forward.
  • Because I was not allowed to stay at my job for more than a year, I got into business school at MIT Sloan at age 23.

When one door closes, you’re forced to find another one to open, and that one could be better.

2. Don’t worry about what other people think.

One day in grade school, I was upset by something that some kid on the playground said.  My dad said, “Don’t worry about what other people think.  They can think whatever they want.  They can think you’re 10 feet tall, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

This turned out to be the best advice I’ve ever followed.

In late 2008, Sequoia came out with their famous presentation on how they were going to stop investing.  This was a week before I’d planned to turn in my 2 week notice at Google.  I briefly thought that maybe I should not go through with leaving Google to start my own company.

In the end, I decided to leave.  I left during the biggest downturn in the last decade.  Everyone thought I was crazy and stupid, and lots of people told me so.

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This turned out to be one of the best decisions of my career.  Had I cared what other people thought, I would’ve lost out on the opportunity to learn a TON about growing a company, work with amazing people and partners, sell my company, and get multiple opportunities to join various VC firms as a partner (not to mention a financially better outcome than staying at the GOOG all these years…).

Worrying about what other people think prevents you from taking risks and, by definition, limits your reward.

3. Persistence trumps all.

When you learn to play the piano or soccer, people always tell you to practice to get better.  You read stories about Michael Jordan, who got cut from his basketball team initially and then practiced night and day to eventually become the best basketball player to play the game.

When it comes to other things such as starting a business, no one tells you to practice.  No one tells you that you need to do 5-100 startups before hitting upon some semblance of success.

Since high school, I’ve had many startups and side projects including Pajel, Bazaar, The Stacks, &Backpocket, Parrotview, Shiny Orb, DressMob, and LaunchBit.

The first one (Pajel) was horrible.  It was a web design company that my friends and I started in high school.  This was in the dark ages when no one had websites.  We had 0 paying customers. Zippo.  Nada.  I was so scared to talk to customers, so no one paid us.

Each venture I’ve done has gotten better.  Still no billion dollar successes yet, but each one has been a step in the right direction.

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For LaunchBit, I was still scared to pick up the damn phone, but I had no choice in the beginning. I had to work the phones, or we wouldn’t have ramen to eat.  Like everything else, you get better.  By the time we brought onboard our first sales hire, I had sold near $1m in ads myself.

Anything worth doing is hard.  Just keep going.

4. Optimize for one thing.

There are many blogs that give you advice on what job you should take.  They tell you things like: Take a big corporate job that will challenge you.  Work at a startup.  Start your own company.  Work for the best boss possible.  Hop on a rocket ship.

You can only optimize for one thing at a time in your career.  Think about what that one thing is.

In my early 20s, I optimized for travel.  I wanted to be paid to work internationally.  That’s it.  This is how I ended up working, interning, and doing gigs in Switzerland, Japan, New Zealand, and India between college graduation and when I turned 25.  During that time, I had to forgo making lots of money or working at a notable company or fast-growing startup, or even living near my friends in San Francisco.

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What you optimize for may change over time, but you can only optimize for one thing at a time.

5. Find feedback buried in a haystack and improve yourself.

We all hate criticism and avoid it, but the best thing you can do for yourself is actually the opposite: grow a thick skin and seek feedback on how you can improve yourself.

The best entrepreneurs I’ve met – even rejected – ask questions like, “What can I do to win your business?”  Or, “What would it take to get you to say yes?”

Feedback is sometimes very nebulous, though.  I remember pitching one investor on my company LaunchBit.  At the end of that meeting, I asked him, “So what do you think?”  to which he responded, “Well, I don’t want to say the wrong thing and call you a meek Asian woman, but I question how you will lead 100 people…”

I was shocked.  And pissed.  Who says that?

Days later, I was reflecting back on that conversation.  I started to look at it in a different light.  I was no longer thinking about it in an angry way, but rather, what could I learn from it?  Clearly, he didn’t have conviction that I could lead a company.  If he didn’t have conviction, then how many other investors also didn’t have conviction?

Going forward, I did everything I could to combat any “meek-Asian-woman” impression that investors might have when meeting me.  I became over-the-top loud.  I sat up in my chair more.  I was more outgoing.  And it worked.  After that, I closed a lot more investors.

6. Keep perspective

As an entrepreneur, it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture.  A customer asks for a $45k refund – and you’re wondering, how am I going to deal with this?  (True situation that happened to me).  Your problems can feel so big and overwhelming sometimes.

But, in the last decade, I’ve had several friends my age die.  Cancer, car accidents, childbirth, and other sudden unfortunate fates have taken them.  Though there are plenty of problems left to solve, we live in an amazing world, and all of this can be gone in an instant.

Time is actually your most important commodity, not money.  You don’t know how much more time you have, and every day that passes, it becomes even more valuable.

Keep perspective and make sure that you are using your time wisely.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

 

Cover photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash