08 3 / 2011
I’ll be giving a keynote at Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco on Tuesday the 29th at 4:30PM. Topic will be “Making Money with Metrics” — I’ll chat about how we’re using internal metrics to make more money at inDinero.
Hope to see you there!
27 2 / 2011
My mom once told me something among the lines of: "if you’re in the fashion design business but don’t know how to make clothing, you’re probably useless."
The past few weeks, I’ve been frequently asked by non-engineers how to recruit an engineer co-founder. Knowing what I know now, and who I know now, I probably would not be able to pull this off if I didn’t have technical skill myself. I wanted to come up with a final solution to this problem, and found that there are two routes to success: 1) Learn to be technical and continue building a technical company, or 2) Build a company that prides itself on something other than its beautiful code. Most non-technical founders are destined for failure when they choose neither route.
Route 1: Becoming technical if you’re non-technical.
I believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s philosophy of the 10,000 hour rule. You can’t become great at something until you’ve spent 10,000+ hours doing something. Non-technical founders don’t become great programmers overnight. The problem lies in the fact that if you’re non-technical and want to find a technical co-founder, nobody will want to work with you. This is probably true (I would never work for a non-technical founder), but doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn how to program.
There’s this mantra that A-players hire other A-players, yet B-players hire C-players. How confident are you that you didn’t hire a B or C player? If you couldn’t interview them or code alongside them, there’s no telling. I knew that my co-founder Andy was rock-solid because I worked with him on coding projects before deciding to build inDinero with him. But if I couldn’t code alongside him, I’d be relying on others to tell me how good they think he is.
There’s also the idea of equality. If I’m a single, nerdy, technical founder looking for a co-founder, why would I want to team up with a non-technical person when I can find a coder who is also a crazy awesome business person? No self-respecting A+ programmer would ever settle for that.
The thesis behind route 1: you’re probably never going to become an excellent programmer, but you ought to learn anyway if you plan on building a strong team of technical talent. Examples of founders who’ve successfully done this include the guys from Everlater and Votizen.
Route 2: Build a moat around something that is non-technical.
In other words, if someone with programming talent decided to steal this business idea, you have something unique that would still give you the winning advantage. Examples of this include Groupon, where the business is built around a strong sales-force, Reddit, where the site is only as strong as the community that uses it, and Salesforce, where all its revenues come from C-level staff at Fortune 500 companies. This isn’t to say that they don’t have strong technical talent, because all of the above companies do. But since the CEOs of all three of the above companies decided not to learn how to code, they were smart to find a business and industry that required other unique strengths.
I mentioned once before that non-technical founders are destined for failure if they don’t choose either route. If speed is a startup’s greatest advantage, you won’t have that if you don’t code. So the next best thing to do is find an even better “greatest advantage”.
21 2 / 2011
"She’s a perv, but Lady Gaga understands viral marketing better than anyone on the pop scene today." - Simon Dumenco.
I was reading up about the Grammys a few days ago and learned that Lady Gaga came as an egg and thought “what the hell is she thinking this time?!” — I felt a strong knee-jerk reaction in myself, and I couldn’t help but wonder why she does such crazy stuff.
But I then realized that it’s part of her brilliance. Coming to the Grammys in the craziest of outfits (I don’t think an egg can even be considered an outfit!) is credit to her creative and marketing genius. My borderline viceral reaction turned into feelings of inspiration, and I’ve since watched almost every interview I could find of her on YouTube.
Gaga’s background is pretty similar to that of many incredible entrepreneurs. She started playing piano at age 4, writing music piano ballads at age 13, and she signed onto a record label at age 20. But since she’s in show business, we don’t appreciate her upbringing in the way we do with Silicon Valley prodigies.
What got me so excited about Gaga isn’t her music and isn’t her fashion sense, but rather, her ability to do everything: she’s an incredible artist, she knows how to sell, and she’s mastered the art of fame. She’s the creative director, the artist, the fashion designer, the stage manager, the marketer, the PR expert, and the performer, all in one. I personally sense that the best entrepreneurs do it all, and aren’t just “business people” or engineers.
"A part of my mastering of the art of fame… part of it is getting people to pay attention to things they want you to pay attention to, and not pay attention to things you don’t want them to pay attention to." - Lady Gaga
In Gaga’s 60 Minutes interview, she talks about her relationship with paparazzi. She makes a great point: if they’re trying to profit off you, why not do the reverse too? Everytime she walks in public with a crazy costume, she’s creating more press for herself. People can’t profit off making fun of her fashion sense because she does it to herself every day. It’s as if she’s comprehensively studied all the good and bad parts about being a celebrity, and she’s circumvented all of the latter.
Love her or hate her, Lady Gaga is one fine entrepreneur. I retroactively add her to my list of inspiration.
16 2 / 2011
It’s difficult to find great customer service reps because you need someone who instinctively knows how to provide a great customer experience. Why not recruit them from the places we know best, such as from restaurants and hotels?
As we begin to ramp up on customer service these next 12 months, I’m trying to think of more ways to get the entire team to help out with recruiting. Since everyone at inDinero seems to eat out way more often than they should, one idea would be to had out “casting call” cards to awesome waitresses, akin to what recruiters give to potential models.
"You an awesome waiter! Why not apply your skills towards helping business owners manage their money? Better hours, higher pay, room to learn and grow." — a very obvious career upgrade!
While visiting Zappos last week, I asked many of the employees what they were doing before working at Zappos. I heard everything from waitress to store clerk to call center operator: easy places to pick off untapped talent. I predict that this will be one of our primary methods for recruiting customer service reps, and I encourage you to give it a try. Let me know if it works!
14 2 / 2011
During inDinero’s retreat to Las Vegas, we took a tour of Zappos.com’s Headquarters, and spent the afternoon at their all-hands meeting. It’s easy to tour their office and think “wow, what an awesome place!” It’s far more difficult to apply your learnings back to your company. To those who haven’t yet visited Zappos, it’s a company that cares immensely about culture — probably more than anything, including sales and profits. I think it’s a noble way of running a company, and the most likely reason for their success.
In an effort not to give lip service to their amazing cultural traits, I came up with an “action-plan” of things I plan on implementing at inDinero, as well as a short-list of things that we’ll one day do in the next 1-3 years.
What we immediately plan on doing:
- Staff can give a $50 gift, once a month, to anyone at Zappos for doing something nice. An $600/employee/year additional cost is an incredibly affordable way to spread positive karma around the company.
- Putting all newhires through an “incubation” phase, where they learn everything about the company, spend time chatting with customers and answering support calls, etc.. I might try to apply a twist to this, where we make non-engineers learn some basic programming (so that customer service reps know how difficult it is to promise new features), and where we make non-designers do user interface design. The idea is that we want everyone to be a strong generalist (yet also be an expert specialist), and this is an easy way to promote that culture.
- Having more fun more often. Zappos throws a bunch of parties, sponsors many weekend outings, and puts a lot of emphasis on having a fun time. As a young startup that’s in the midst of building an empire works hard, but shouldn’t forget to play hard too.
1-3YR “Wish-list” of things to do:
- Offering courses for staff to take. For example, I might do a public speaking intensive on a Sunday, or Borden might offer a “sysadmin for dummies” course on Monday nights. If we spend so much time and money trying to recruit our employees, why not spend just a little more effort on further educating our existing staff? Or on the flip side, what if our intern Han knows some crazy Mathematics concepts that our engineers want to learn about?
- Personal assistants for everyone. We’re a bit too poor to afford this service, but it’d be awesome to one-day allow all of our staff to share assistant resources. At some point, we might be able to justify it as a way for employees to spend more time focusing on their work and the things that actually matter in their life.
- 24/7 Phone Service. Most of our inquiries are during business hours, but the idea of having 24/7 phone service is incredible. It sends a clear message to your current and future customers: ”we’re a company that cares deeply about service!” Of course, that message is associated with very obvious costs that we can’t yet afford as a company.
Things we’ve always planned on doing but are now more committed to than ever:
- Customer service that WOWS people. You might have noticed that we’ve been getting more compliments on our support the past few weeks, and that’s because we’ve got an awesome team manning the emails/chat/phone 7 days a week. (team Andrea+Tyler, who you can soon read more about on the inDinero blog)
- Focus on hiring for culture fit. The potential recruit might be incredible smart, but if it’s not a good culture fit, you shouldn’t bring them into your company. Bad culture fit is the reason why 80% of the recruits in our pipeline don’t receive an offer, and we remain committed to hiring nobody if need be. inDinero’s last hire was in September 2010, and I have no problem not hiring until September 2012 if that means being careful about screening for culture fit.
- Promoting from within. Instead of hiring an outside VP of X person, we’ll do our best to train our existing staff to grow as the company grows. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, mentioned that hiring VP-level hires from the outside has a 50% failure rate — meaning that you have a 50% chance of making a bad executive hire, even if you do extensive screening before-hand.
To startup founders trying to build a strong company culture: I think it’s an awesome exercise to tour a bunch of different companies, and to see what ideas you want to apply over to yours. Most tech startups in the Bay Area are culturally near identical to each other, so you’ll have to be more creative in your search for companies that care about culture.
10 2 / 2011
I write this from a very cheap hotel in Las Vegas (< $40/night!) where a small group of inDinero staff decided to take a three-day trip. It’s our first trip as a company, and it’s been an absolute blast. As one friend of mine said, “don’t gamble away all of your investment money!” Rest assured, we remain as frugal as ever.
Until now, I’ve always wondered: why don’t all startups take their entire company on outings like these?
"It costs too much money"
It’ll end up costing the company $1500 total in airfare and hotel rooms for 8 people (inDinero is 6 people full-time, but we have a large army of contractors). We’ll probably do two of these big “sleep-away” trips per year, so doing the math, it’s about $400/person/year. $400 in extra costs to make startup-wage employees is an incredible benefit that everyone in the company appreciates. People who think we’re wasting precious money need not worry.
"It costs enormous time and productivity from employees"
We left for the airport on Wednesday evening, which meant that we lost two days of full-time work. What was interesting though is that for the two weeks leading up to our Vegas retreat, people seemed to put in over-time and work harder to make up for the time they knew they’d lose this week. If I had to guess, our overall productivity from the past two weeks will end up being marginally less than it would have been otherwise.
On the flip side, our productivity as a team will probably increase upon our return. Team building actually works when you spend a bunch of time with each other in vacation-mode. We also had a business justification for our trip: visiting the Zappos Headquarters. We spent the morning touring their office, then the rest of the afternoon at the company’s quarterly all-hands meeting. We learned so much that we plan on bringing back to the company.
inDinero’s next retreat
I definitely plan on organizing another company-wide retreat in the next few months. With enough bargain shopping, it’s super affordable to do. With a business justification (such as visiting Zappos for a day), there’s a real purpose to traveling somewhere. A few other ideas for retreats I had were to visit Disney’s Imagineering team down in Southern California, to tour New York City’s tech startup scene, or to attend Berkshire Hathaway’s Annual Shareholder Meeting in Omaha. What cool ideas for company retreats can you come up with?
Returning to my original question: why don’t all startups have these awesome retreats? I honestly think that the idea just hasn’t occured to most founders. ”Retreats” have the negative connotation of being forced team-building exercises for employees, when in reality it’s just a fun way to learn outside of the office. Remember the field-trips you had as an elementary school student? You’d often learn more outside of the classroom than you would sitting at your desk! I think the same idea applies in the adult world, and we’re trying to replicate that as best as we can at inDinero.
You’re probably busy building your company, but chat with your team about the idea of a company retreat. I’m sure they’d appreciate the free trip!
07 2 / 2011
Every few months, I get obsessed with the idea of happiness and planning for the future. What do I want to do when I grow up? Throughout my entire life, I’ve seen school as simply a means to an end. Graduate from 2nd grade, move onto 3rd grade. I would be one year closer to becoming a real adult, and one year closer to making real money running a real company.
Now that I’m doing just that, my idea of progress has been turned onto its side. I no longer live my days as means to an end. A few years ago, I thought that selling a company for millions of dollars would be the ultimate dream. But I’ve since realized that finding liquidity probably wouldn’t make me happier.
I was having dinner with my partner-in-business Andy this evening, and asked him how likely it was for us to be running inDinero 10+ years from now. He suggested to me something among the lines of, “Most entrepreneurs go into business thinking they’re going to build something huge. You have to be naive to think that there isn’t a chance that we’ll end up selling.”
My next thought to myself was “would I actually be happy being a serial entrepreneur?” Investors continue to assume that I’ll build numerous companies over the course my lifetime, and at one point, I did too. But I’m sick and tired of thinking that everything I do has to lead to an ultimate outcome, and it’s taken a toll on the way that I think about my own happiness. Why does there have to be an end-goal when I find myself enjoying life day-by-day?
We continue to run inDinero as if there will be no ending. Being conscious of this fact means that I can figure out a better, more fulfilling way to make myself happiness in the long-run. In fact, my “ultimate” career goal is to build a lasting company that has no ending (and hopefully, that company happens to be inDinero). Many organizations, companies, and empires have had extroadinary influence on the world, but very few have survived for more than a few hundred years. Building a company that’s built to last won’t only satisfy my ego, but force me to find happiness in building a company where people look forward to coming to work everyday, without it riding on the hope of finding liquidity in its stock.
My big takeaway is mainly directed to career-minded young adults: while society wires us to work towards achieving that “next step” in our lives, take the time and make the effort to figure out what ultimate happiness actually means. Will selling a company for a bunch of money drastically increase your happiness? Unlikely. How about the idea of knowing that you’ve helped thousands of people with a problem that no other company has been able to solve? That type of fulfillment is priceless.
03 2 / 2011
I was mentioned in an Inc Magazine guide about negotiating a few days ago, and thought it’d be good to expand on what I meant by it. Do I practically believe that negotiating skills are the most important for a first-time entrepreneur to have? Not quite — but I do think that it’s the most critical long term asset a Chief Executive can possess. Every major decision you make as a Chief Executive will probably lead to one or multiple negotiations. The person you decided to hire, you’ll have to negotiate their compensation. The investor money you decided to accept, you’ll have to negotiate their deal terms. It’s the single easiest way to increase or decrease the value of your company (and/or personal net worth) with the least amount of time and effort.
It was during my summer in Y Combinator when I decided that this would be important. On the topic of raising seed money for our companies, the great folks from YC talked about how unimportant negotiating deal terms are. At the end of the day, the difference in dilution is “minimal”, and that we should instead be focusing on building our companies. While this makes 100% practical sense from a survival point of view, I think that this is the one time that entrepreneurs can drastically increase their future (potential) net worth. I believe this for two reasons: 1) The dilution you take at the seed level can be 10-30% better or worse from that of your peers, and 2) It’s the first time that a young entrepreneur has to negotiate with multiple people in a high pressure environment.
What is “negotiating” beyond just haggling for a better price?
- Planning in advanced what the other side is looking for. In many cases, you can just ask. For example, while raising inDinero’s seed round, I asked angel investors why they were angel investing. If their primary motivation was “to work with awesome young entrepreneurs”, I knew that they’d be more likely to accept a higher price than institutional investors who are primarily motivated by money. For this reason, we don’t have any traditional institutional investors.
- Creating leverage months (or years) before needing to enter a negotiation. At inDinero, we’re over 12 months away from our next fundraise, yet I’ve already planned out my strategy.
- Creating competition for a deal. This is pretty obvious, but having more demand means you can increase your price. When raising our round, it was relatively straightforward and easy because we had a bunch of people interested in the deal weeks before Y Combinator’s Investor Demo Day.
- Figuring out what’s best for both parties. For example, one of our business partners wanted to charge us $X for services they provide, but I found out that they care more about having a long term commitment than they do about unit price. So I extended my commitment to use their services for a few more years, and my price went to about 50% of what $X originally was.
My biggest takeaway from the past 18 months: ”What does the other side really want?”
I was in the first day course for a negotiation class at U.C. Berkeley, and we had to do a mock negotiation with the person sitting next to us. We were assigned one of two roles, and asked to figure out the optimal outcome for ourselves. There must have been a hundred people in the auditorium, and not a single person won the optimal outcome, because all of us treated the negotiation too adversarial. We never took a minute to figure out what the professor told us to do — to figure out what the other side really wants.
After the exercise was over, we were
31 1 / 2011
inDinero has been getting a bunch of great publicity lately, but many of my interviews focus too much around my founding the company with Andy. Why do I bother doing PR if I know in advanced that it won’t be focused on my company?
It’s hard to predict how articles will turn out in advanced because the editor often chooses the direction. One unhappy example was when I woke up super early to talk to a reporter about inDinero. We spoke almost an hour about the company and its progress, but the reporter ended up taking the “lack of females in tech” angle. I told the reporter in advanced that it wasn’t a topic I was interested in discussing, but that’s the angle they took. On the flip side, I was super pleased by how the NY Times and SF Chronicle articles turned out. While the articles prominently featured me, they also talked a bunch about inDinero and where the company is headed — and thus sent us a bunch of new customers.
After getting featured in better known publications, I get asked to interview with smaller blogs and local news outlets to talk about my entrepreneurial background. My original policy was to turn them down immediately, knowing that they do very little to help the company. But after speaking to an editor from Fortune, I’ve slowly begun to shift my opinion: the interviews have seemed to be a source of inspiration for others, and it’s very encouraging to hear from readers who learned something from reading about my company. It’s especially fulfilling to hear from high school students who one day plan on starting a company, because I was in their shoes not so long ago.
I remember just four years ago, my friend Miriam sent Ali Partovi (then Founder/CEO of iLike.com) a Facebook message with a note telling him how awesome an entrepreneur he is. She had read about him in the press, and was inspired by the incredible success he and iLike were having. I was astonished to see his replies — iLike was taking off like a rocket ship, and he took a few minutes to respond to my friend Miriam’s questions. We were both ecstatic for the rest of the evening, inspired by the fact that a successful entrepreneur would actually bother chatting with wannabe high school entrepreneurs. Four years later, Ali Partovi became an investor at inDinero.
If doing PR does nothing but inspire potential entrepreneurs, I think it’s worth doing. If only half of inDinero’s stories revolved around the company itself, I’d be happy to have taken the time to do them.
20 1 / 2011
During interviews, I’m often asked who I get my inspiration from. There are five people I’ve read extensibly about — as in, I’ve read many books about their history, I’ve studied the products they’ve built through their careers, and I’ve watched many of the video interviews of them.
I think it’s invaluable to figure out who your five hero figures are, and to study them for the purpose of applying their ideas to your own business.
Management Philosophy: Warren Buffet. I absolutely love his long-term thinking (what other company thinks as long-term as Berkshire Hathaway?) His thoughts on CEO compensation, the flaws of stock options, and the role of a Board of Directors have struck a cord in me. I highly recommend reading all of this annual shareholder letters, starting from the one he wrote in 1977.
Design Thinking: Walt Disney. His creative powers during his tenure at the Walt Disney Company are unrivaled to this day. Though he doesn’t have a great managerial legacy, it’s fascinating to see how his company grew and struggled through the 20th century. I highly recommend reading Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
Business Strategy: Bill Gates. He played Microsoft as if he were playing an elaborate Chess game — the most immediately obvious moves others take often make little sense, and he’s one of few technical CEOs who’ve been able to think so strategically about building an empire. Just a few months ago, Paul Graham recommended I read Hard Drive: The Making of Bill Gates and the Microsoft Empire. It’s a great book, and it shows how long it took for Microsoft to become the company it is today.
Culture and Service: Tony Hsieh. His new book, Delivering Happiness, changed the way I think about the culture of my company. My biggest takeaway was what he said about selling his first company. When it stops being fun, the money doesn’t matter anymore. I’m looking forward to taking my company to visit Zappos in Vegas next month!
Marketing and Publicity: Steve Jobs. I recently started watching his keynotes at MacWorld, starting from the one he gave in 1984. One investor recently called inDinero an “incredible hype machine”, and now you know where the inspiration comes from.
Through my tenure at inDinero, it’ll become very obvious where my ideas and philsophy come from.
Where do you get your inspiration from? Choose a few people to look up to, and study their histories extensively.