26 4 / 2010
Have you ever read an article by someone on the internet who shared awesome advice? And don’t you wish you could have them as your true mentors for your company? I’ve been applying the idea of having “virtual mentors”, where I pick just 3-5 people I respect and follow their supposed advice as religiously as possible. To keep it simple, I find one mantra that gives me context for any advice they would give me in person. 1) Paul Graham: “No distractions.” 2) Dave Mcclure: “Focus on core product, stop adding useless features.” 3) Sean Ellis: “Focus on product/market fit. Until then, nothing else matters.” 4) Eric Ries: “Build minimum viable product for everything.” The key isn’t in figuring out everything they would tell you, but rather in living by your virtual mentors’ rules. And you’ll find that if they were actually your mentors in real life, their advice would revolve around the mantras that you listed. The interesting thing about this is that you might yield up to 50% of a mentor’s value just by asking yourself “what would so-and-so say about this?” For example, some people have been giving me the advice of thinking about marketing and distribution more than I do about product. But if I go through my checklist of virtual mentors, all of them would have something unique to say:
"What should I do about marketing and distribution?"Paul Graham: It’s a distraction at this point. Focus on building something useful first. Dave Mcclure: AARRR - optimize everything. Fix your landing page. Measure the funnel of conversions. Optimize signup page, make it as few steps possible. Fix core product to increase engagement, build in ways for users to refer their friends. Sean Ellis: You don’t have product market fit yet, and until you do, focus on product. Eric Ries: Resist the urge of launching. You’re locked into positioning, and you can’t launch again. Better to screw it up with early customers. Of course, I don’t know exactly how they’d respond to my question, but simple role-play can go a long way. Consider this an alternative method of getting free world-class mentorship :)
20 4 / 2010
As my final semester of college comes to a close, I’ve been training one of my classmates to help organize the computer science events here at Berkeley - and as an engineer, he hates the idea of promoting events that don’t exist. “It’s total vaporware!” Yes, it’s vaporware, because we’re advertising an event that doesn’t actually exist. But by selling vaporware, you quickly figure out if something is worthy of spending your time on.
Last summer when Andy and I started our company, we just put up a crappy webpage that told people what our product did. And of course, we didn’t have a product. So people would try to sign up, only to find a form where they could leave their email address. This was important for three reasons:
1 - we immediately knew that our problem was worthy of solving.
2 - we got instant feedback from people telling us what they wanted to see from our product.
3 - it gave us the motivation to push forward.
In fact, I’ve taken this to the next extreme: my focus is on the vaporware itself, since it solves the problem of not knowing what to build. Engineers are terrible when it comes to solving problems that don’t exist, and I knew that my co-founder and I had a similar risk. I now spend about 50% of my time figuring out what needs to be solved (by fixing the website, validating screenshots of our vaporware), and 50% of my time on building the product that has so far been vaporware.
This works in many arenas of life - for the CSUA (computer science undergraduate association) here at Berkeley, we’re co-hosting the annual “Engineering Demo Day”. Which means we had to find a) a lot of engineering demos, b) sponsors for the event, c) people to attend. To take my focus on vaporware to the extreme, we signed up dozens of demos and secured out sponsors before even finding a venue, because none of the logistics would have mattered if there was no demand in the first place. We set up a facebook event advertising the event to see if anyone would RSVP. This took less than an hour of our time. My CS friends hate the idea of selling vaporware (and in this case promoting an event that doesn’t yet exist), because it’s “morally questionable”, but I don’t think so at all. Let’s say that Demo Day had no demand. We’d tell the demoing teams that the event is off, and we’d tell our sponsors they could keep their money. No problem, at all.
Let’s say inDinero had no demand in its first product. What if I told you that it didn’t have much demand? Truth is, we didn’t get any compliments until I redid the website for the third time. And through each iteration of the user-facing website, I learned of what prospective customers wanted, I figured out what our website didn’t advertise, and I had a much better idea of what people were looking for in a finance product. And all of this knowledge came from my selling vaporware.
The bottom line: Vaporware is good because 1) it’ll save you time and money, 2) it’s a completely legitimate method of doing customer development, and 3) You’ll learn so much about your product without even having to build a prototype.
26 3 / 2010
I keep on hearing how great these guys from 37Signals are. They have great advice, it’s so brilliant, and yet it’s obvious sense, and yet people don’t listen to that advice. And then it occurred to me that people want to believe what they want to believe, then seek out advice that confirms their intuition. Then they think “wow, what a great intuition I have!” instead of acting on that advice.
This type of mentality needs to be eliminated as swiftly as possible, and it’s built into all of us from birth. There are two distinguishing factors I see in good entrepreneurs: 1) they actively solicit advice, 2) they immediately act on that advice. Most “entrepreneurs” have this false sense of productivity by doing part 1, yet they don’t follow up with part 2. Why is this?
I’ve had and still have this issue myself. And when I nod my head in approval at a good idea, it’s usually because it’s a good idea. I don’t follow up with part 2 not because I’m lazy, but because I can’t figure out how to get it done in the limited time I have. So then the idea gets tabled, never to return to unless I hear the same advice again. But even when I hear the same advice from a second source for the second time, I’ll probably get stuck in this endless loop of not listening to very good advice.
Here’s my advice: every time you hear good advice, do SOMETHING SMALL that helps you in the direction to achieve that advice. If someone says “start doing test driven development”, you’ll nod your head in approval because it’s a good idea. But then you get back to your desk and have no idea where to begin, the idea gets swept away in the back of your brain, and you’ll continue writing shitty untested code. Herein lies the problem that all of you face, even if you pride yourself on getting stuff done.
In fact, that’s the precise story of what happened last summer. We brought in great summer help from a guy named Sam Liu, and he coded his ass off, but things were breaking. “Jess, Andy, let’s do testing!” Andy and I were so busy were other things that we tabled the idea for a “free weekend” when we had nothing more important to do. But startups being startups, no free weekends exist. And therefore non-urgent tasks don’t get done. Ever.
But I started doing things with a new attitude. We started testing our code incrementally, knowing that it wouldn’t be perfect. We didn’t look into doing things perfectly; instead, we followed the Steve Blank model of doing “the minimum viable product”, yet applying this to everyday things such as following advice. And it works brilliantly because the advice you seek actually has an impact. And most advice never gets that far!
Next time you hear good advice, nod in approval, then write down the LEAST POSSIBLE thing you can get done in order to be making progress in that direction. Then when you get home, allocate an hour or two to get that thing done. This means that half hour meetings with prominent people should actually take up three hours from your day, because you’ll need time to execute on all advice. And if you think that’s too much time to spare, you’re wasting your time by taking the meeting.
The sad thing is that you probably won’t listen to any of this advice.
01 3 / 2010
Edit: (03/26): The event is sold out, and is being shown live via webcast on the website.
The student organization I work with (Computer Science Undergrad Association) is hosting the TEDxBerkeley conferenece on Saturday, April 3rd. I wanted to offer my readers priority to attend.
Essentially, TEDxBerkeley is a full-day immersion of TEDtalks and live presentations by some of the Bay Area’s most accomplished people. After going to my first TED conference, I felt the need to share the experience with my friends and classmates. And then TEDxBerkeley was born.
On the registration page, just mention that you found out via jessicamah.com to get priority. Half of the 700 seats are already gone.
25 1 / 2010
08 1 / 2010
A few months ago, I wrote an article on how to come up with business ideas. I basically said to look at the world with a critical eye, and to keep track of everything that seems to suck. I still maintain that philosophy, and I recently discovered something about my “passions” in life: Everything I aspire to do is directly related to something that I dislike.
I hate education, and I always have. School has never been a fun place for me. In elementary school, I was bored out of my mind. My 5th grade teacher discouraged me from my entrepreneurial pursuits. High school was more about dealing with girl drama than it was about learning meaningful things. By having spent more than 80% of my life suffering through these traumatic experiences, I’ve become interested in something that I’ve forever dreaded. While I’m yet to do anything super innovative to help the world of education, my past project internshipIN.com was a start in that direction. I realized that most of my learning came from working at a company, and so I spent my limited free time on helping students find real world internships.
More recently, I decided that I hated accounting, I hated finance, and I hated money (although I enjoy the idea of having it). Managing finances is the one thing I despise most in building a company, and nothing stresses me out more than thinking about money. It’s the root of all evil, it causes people to kill, it leads to people going to jail (think Madoff), and yet it’s the biggest driving force behind every person’s life aspirations. So I built a startup, Indinero.com, around the idea of making money suck less for businesses. It’s something I plan on dedicating my career to.
One of my friends in the investment world recently asked me why I’m building Indinero. After all, why would any young college student want to work on a finance startup? I think about my life as doing two primary things: Minimizing my risk, and minimizing my dissatisfaction with the world. This is an odd way to think about things, because most people think about their life in the opposite way. But I’ve come to realize that minus the shitty things that happen in life, I’m an optimally happy person. If I can remove the things that crush my soul, I’d be a happier person, and the world would theoretically be a better place.
What would you rather do: Make the world a better place, or prevent it from sucking as bad as it does? I’d pick the latter, because it embraces the fact that the world is far from its optimal state. As my friend Manu told me, “make sure you’re creating a painkiller instead of a vitamin.” As I write this article, I’m suffering from the worst cold I’ve had in years. I’d pay anything to make this go away, and no cold medication has worked. So thinking about life from my current unhappy perspective, I see the world as a crappy place to live, and I’d be 10X happier if I simply wasn’t unhappy. What a seemingly simple idea!
Because think about it: during the happiest moments of your life, you probably didn’t have anything special or unique that made you happy. But in each and every one of these happiest moments, you lacked the things that would otherwise drive you mad.
This past summer was the happiest time of my life. I lived on ramen (literally), I shared a tiny Berkeley home with my team members at Indinero, and I was at the peak of my happiness despite my having zero material assets and close to zero fulfillment in my career. But I didn’t have the two things that stress me out most: 1) school and 2) money issues. Between being on summer break and having $35k in the bank (and a startup that creates software that helped cure my finance concerns), I couldn’t be happier. Or in more meaningful terms, I couldn’t be happier with my life.
I’m going to suggest the inverse of what Tony Hsieh from Zappos.com preaches. He’s big on figuring out what makes you happy, and it was inspiring for me to see. But being honest with myself, I felt that it wasn’t very satisfying because it just seemed too idealistic for even my liking. If you gave someone a week to think about what makes them happy, they still won’t be able to give you the correct answer. People are generally bad at thinking of what makes them happy, so instead of focusing on happiness, I think it’s much more practical to focus on unhappiness because it’s much easier for us to identify and eliminate.
Identifying sources of unhappiness is the easy part. Eliminating them is the difficult part. but it’s what makes life seem more interesting. I think entrepreneurs are so fascinating because they first eliminate that point of dissatisfaction in their own life, then dedicate their remaining time to helping others eliminate it too. My mom is a prime example: growing up in a poor family, she had no choice but to wear her older brother’s hand-me-downs. There’s nothing more depressing than a teenage girl wearing her older brother’s ugly clothing. So as a 13 year old, my mom designed and sewed her own clothing. Soon later, she started doing this for others. Fast forward a few decades, and it’s the driving force behind her career and the jobs of hundreds of people.
As pessimistic as it sounds, I think that identifying your sources of unhappiness is the most effective and honest way for you to live a better life. (and find ideas for your next company) What do you hate? How can you turn it into helping yourself and ultimately helping others? And that’s the key to happiness.
04 12 / 2009
"There’s incredible anguish felt when you think you’re at the pinnacle of your success. But if you never expected or saw or wanted that success, the anguish may go away. Appreciate those amazing moments in life. Cherish the journey you took to get where you are. Remember your dreams from when you were young and unexposed. Then you’ll have a re-inspired sense of how amazing and successful you are." - writings from my notebook during the TED conference in Long Beach. 02/05/2009.
Too many people have their happiness set on the future and on achieving an end goal, but life is all about enjoying the journey. So enjoy every moment while you can.
16 11 / 2009
Disclaimer: I’ve never raised VC money before. Back when I was just playing around with the idea for my startup, I decided to put together a quick executive summary and apply to the UC Berkeley Business Plan competition. And we got rejected from round one not only because our ideas were terrible, but one of the judges commented “you’re only looking to raise 30k?” Yes. Only $30k. I actually felt a little insulted that the tiny amount we wanted was a critique of my executive summary. For the stage we were at (two weekends before my co-founder Andy and I built a prototype), $30k was far more than we needed to get something running. Fast forward two months, and we won a $35k grant after building a prototype for $0. Who needs to enter a business plan competition anyway! (I now advise the business plan competition) Throughout the summer, we were burning through cash. Not going to college meant paying for our food and rent, so the $35k grant wouldn’t last long. We started talking to angel investors, and ultimately met this guy named Steve Blank. He’s best known for his writings on customer development, and wrote “The Four Steps to the Epiphany" - a book that I’d recommend to anyone and everyone who aspires to create a meaningful business. I told him about the problem we had raising money while still in school, and without that mystical hockey stick curve. He basically told me to not to raise money until I saw a hockey stick curve. "… but Steve, if we had a hockey stick curve, we probably wouldn’t have trouble raising money!" And that was the key lesson: To be in a position where we would never have to raise money. He essentially told us what every angel investor who said "no" told us: go back to the drawing board, get more traction. But instead of just saying that we should do all of the above, he told me why: If we were to raise money now, we’d burn through it no matter what. The important thing is to spend that money wisely, and without a scalable sales model, we’d be spending money on the wrong things. We’d be scaling an ineffective sales and marketing strategy, we’d be prematurely growing out the engineering team, and we’d basically be burning through money as ineffectively as Paris Hilton. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but after thinking about it more, I realized that he was right. Just this week, I was talking to some well-known venture capitalists about my company, told them about the idea, talked about the market, and one of the first questions they asked was "do you have a website yet?" Well… not only do we have a website up, but we have a product AND paying customers! And they were stunned because the majority of entrepreneurs who pitch them have nothing to show for but a nice powerpoint presentation. Not to mention, these "entrepreneurs" actually work full-time on their companies unlike Andy and I. And this got me thinking even more about the state of VC… people look at investment money as a means to an end, whereas people like Steve Blank see it as an accelerator for growing something that already functions. Remember back in your college days, when you flunked a test and thought "that test was stupid! I studied so hard, but I studied the wrong things!" Well, same thing applies to raising VC money too soon. You don’t have the kinks to your product settled, you don’t understand your market well enough to be marketing to them efficiently enough, and raising money buys you the time you want to scale an ineffective operation. So why bother? Now the worst situation would be if you’re a "hot" startup that’s raised a few million dollars, you have no revenue, no hockey stick curve, and you’re trying to raise more money now that your first round is almost dried up. Not even Steve Blank could tell you to give your first VCs their money back and to get things right, because it’s too late. You just wasted $X million dollars building a scrappy product, you don’t have any revenue, so you’re practically at the mercy of your next VCs. Crappier valuation, more dilution for the team. Last time I checked, the vast majority of web startups do this. So this is the second thing I’ve learned from my summer of entrepreneurship: plan that every round of financing is your last. With only $50k from grants, we’ll be fine. This means 100% ramen profitable for a 5 person team, and we’ll never have to raise VC money if we don’t want to, or if VCs don’t like us. And this is psychologically very good for us, because we know we won’t be any rush to appease the VC world, and because we can focus all of our time on the product. There’s nothing worse than spending time to raise money, because it effectively shuts down your company for the weeks (or months) that you go through the process. So I figured, if we’re ramen profitable, wouldn’t any smart investor want to come to us? And instead of it taking a few months to pitch a whole string of investors, we could focus on building a great business over the course of our senior year in college, then upon graduation it shouldn’t be too difficult to raise money. Yet again, we won’t need VC money since we’re already profitable… see how powerful this mental exercise is? Being still a senior in college, I might just be overly idealistic. Everything I write is how I think the world should work rather than how things actually function. But I think there’s a lot to be said about Paul Graham’s view of college-aged entrepreneurs:
"Someone ignorant but smart will come along and reinvent everything, and in the process simply fail to reproduce certain existing ideas"My translation of this is to trust your ignorant instincts, and do what seems to be ideal because many people don’t understand why they do things in the way that they do. This directly relates to the argument of why it’s not good to copy the work of others: because you don’t understand how and why people did things in the way they did. How do you know that they aren’t copying the work of someone else too? By looking at things from a fresh and original perspective, you have a complete grasp over your decision making power, and you significantly decrease your risk of making stupid and uninformed decisions. I think of raising money in the same way that I think about getting married. It’s something I naturally feel inclined to do (since it’s something everyone seems to be doing these days), but I want to be honest with myself: why in the world would I want to get raise money (or get married) other than to be part of the norm? At the time of my writing this, I don’t have very good answers to either questions. My business isn’t operating at the level of efficiency needed to make good use of VC money, and I’m in no mood to give up my career for bearing children. Until I can directly and honestly answer the questions to my own life pursuits, I won’t be raising money or getting married. But who knows, my views are likely to change over the next few months. :)
11 11 / 2009
12 10 / 2009