On a few different occasions, I have told people that one of the many reasons that I started SocialMatchbox was because I wanted to meet like minded people. On different days this meant different things to me. Some days it meant meeting others here in the Washington, DC area startup community and other times it meant meeting potential collaborators. Today, I would like like to talk about some of the experiences that I have had in looking for a co-founder. Having started four startups myself, three with co-founders, I know something of this subject.
I would like to start off by saying that I have met a lot of people who found co-founders through the SocialMatchbox events that took place between 2007 and 2012. I am always excited to hear these stories and hope that if you haven’t shared yours that you will do so. The bad news for the rest of you is that in my experience, most co-founder situations that lead to success started long before the startup.
Here are a few examples from the SocialMatchbox community:
Webs.com (formerly Freewebs.com). The founding team consisted of three brothers: Haroon Mokhtarzada, Zeki Mokhtarzada and Idris Moktarzada. They had some pretty good success, selling for $100 Million to VistaPrint.com in 2012. The team raised a series A, but they had a lot of good things going before doing so.
TapMetrics. The founding team consisted of two brothers: Chris Brown and Nolan Brown. You may recall that the team presented at SocialMatchbox when we hosted the event at the E Street Cinema Location. The brothers sold their company to Millennial Media in 2010.
Living Social. The founding team consisted of Tim O’Shaughnessy, Aaron Batalion, Eddie Frederick, and Val Aleksenko. The group worked together full time at Revolution Health Group and started working on projects including Visual Bookshelf while they were still at Revolution Health and they were also active in the Ruby on Rails community here in Washington, DC.
Countless other teams started out as a project among peers or friends that go back to highschool or college.
One of the most frequent pre-founding chemistry events that I have noticed is project related. It doesn’t matter if the project is a startup weekend type of event, a work project, a school project, or even a freelance project where a couple of people collaborate. What does matter is that you get some experience working on a project with someone that involves a significant number of hours. How many hours isn’t something that I have the hard data to pin down, but what I can say is that it should be enough hours to allow people to let their guard down. When people get into their groove they start to act like they will under normal conditions. Bonus points for stressful conditions like a tight project deadline or a hackathon.
I have heard a lot of people compare the unique circumstances of founders meeting and discovering that they have the chemistry to work together to dating. There are co-founder dating events, and plenty of networking events. The Washington Post called some of our early SocialMatchbox events “Geek Meet-Markets” because we used color coded name badges for helping people figure out who they were and what they were looking for.
Despite their best attempts, these services have just not cut it in my experience. Don’t get me wrong, but I haven’t heard of any success stories yet. At one point, out of sheer curiosity, I signed up for Co-Founders Lab account. They are one of these co-founder matchmaking services. I had low expectations, but nothing could have prepared me for the zero response that came back. I sent something like 5 or 10 messages, but not even a thanks but I’ll pass came back. This really surprised me because the people I emailed were all “active”. These guys have chummed nearly every incubator that I have visited lately so this really struck me by surprise. Maybe the service isn’t ready for prime time. Or maybe the service just lacks a network validation which is what LinkedIn and Facebook have going for them. My theory is that people simply signed up, then gave up just like I did.
So what is a founder to do if they don’t have a co-founder and they have a great startup? Here are some suggestions:
A VC that I had lunch with earlier today suggested hiring a consultant. Having met a lot of consultants out there, this option makes my skin crawl. I say this with a straight face as someone who has been in the consulting space for many years. Most consultants are just not out there for you, they are out there for the check. But that isn’t even the biggest problem with consultants. The biggest problem is fit. For example: you need someone to be your online marketing consultant, but the one you are talking to is really a public relations and marketing communications expert. Sure they could do online marketing, but Twitter spam isn’t the same as a targeted ad spend paired with decent A/B testing and metrics (think Startup Metrics for Pirates). I would argue that the abundance of the wrong kind of people does not make it ok to use them, despite their numbers and persuasiveness over beers at a DC Tech Meetup. I should point out that consultants can be awesome under the right circumstances. You almost have to look at a consultant the same way as a co-founder because they are going to be building some of the foundation that you will be working from as you go forward.
Now you could do nothing, but that isn’t the right option either. This is where your network comes into play. So I guess the takeaway here is that you should build up your network around what you are going to be looking for before you go out looking for your co-founder. There isn’t a magic option that will make your hunt for a co-founder go away.
Another suggestion that has worked for me more than once is blogging. I can’t say that I’m be the best blogger, but I have received a ton of interest from people because of my blogging activities. So, if you are interested in a subject area then it might be a really good idea for you to start writing about your pursuit of it. This will add some basis for people to take you seriously when you say that you are going to disrupt Social Media, or whatever it is that you plan to do.
That is it for today, but if you have thoughts, suggestions, experiences to share, or questions please do not hesitate to post them here.
Earlier today, someone asked what language they should learn next – after PHP. I’m a subject matter expert on this topic so I decided to share my thoughts on this with my readers. I would love to hear your thoughts if you agree or disagree or if you just think I’m plain wrong and are looking for a good debate.
If you count new projects that start, Java w/Spring and Ruby on Rails are the two two pics. Node.JS and Angular.js are trendy, but not these are usually 2nd or 3rd Chair to something being built with Ruby on Rails, Python and Django, Java and Spring or Scala, or PHP and Zend or Symfony. A lot of projects are starting in native mobile environments like Android or iOS/Objective C and then evolving from there.
.NET and Cold Fusion projects are not where people are looking – those are projects like COBOL and Fortran where people are looking back at legacy systems and trying to decide how to reduce production support costs on aging systems that very few people want to work on. Cold Fusion lost the popularity contest a long time ago and Microsoft has just had problems winning the heart and soul of the developer community – look at Windows RT. Windows RT and Steve Ballmer are on the way out and Microsoft is doing some hard core soul searching while Android, based on Java, and the rest of the gang are painting the town. C and C++ are still big in these parts, but I’m assuming that this post began with web apps in the mind and that isn’t a first choice for web apps unless you are OKCupid (and they had their reasons).
If you are looking for a place to start I would recommend spending some time playing around with Ruby, Java and Python to see which community you like the most. There are great opportunities for all three. There are also great opportunities in mobile. Try getting to hello world in each and see what you think. Then try the same with Angular.js and compare notes. This might help you make your mind up.
Before I end this, I just want to point out that PHP is big and here to stay. There are a ton of great opportunities in this community which is in the process of evolving after being very dominant until the rise of Rails and Django.
This is a post for all of you founders out there who want to throw up a nice looking website with minimal effort. It is also the story of how I got into the business of helping founders and others to get their website or web application built.
I recently received an email from a founder looking for a professional website for their startup. They were not interested in the lame looking Launch Rock style page with an email sign up. They had a budget of around $2,000 and wanted help building a quality presence on the web.
We had a chat and they went about their way. A few weeks later a friend of a family member popped onto my radar with a site that they needed to make some improvements too. I suspect that they probably found a developer willing to build their original website for cheap. I offered to help because I had a developer available to work on the site.
Next, a family member asked me for some advice on how to get a website up for a startup. They just wanted a brochure site, but not something cookie cutter like a Square Space or Webs or WordPress. Having personally spent a ton of time with WordPress, I recognize that it is a bit cookie cutter, but since WordPress has a great back-end it was tempting despite the cookie cutter aspect. There are also some great plugins. I just can’t find a WordPress theme that doesn’t look like a WordPress theme and this request is for something more unique. The friend of a family member’s site is built on Joomla. Based on my recent experience, I can tell you that the back-end for Joomla is a total nightmare. Everything is like 17 nested layers of hell. The upside for Joomla is that there is a great Joomla extension store. The downside to the store is that the quality of Joomla plugins is more hit or miss than WordPress and a lot of them are pay to play instead of open source or free. Plus Joomla lacks that unique, non-cookie cutter look that is the aim.
So today while I was talking to front-end developers and web designers that I know, I started asking people if they had any suggestions for lightweight content management system (CMS) packages. A list of what I heard about or could find while researching the subject can be found below. This is a link to one post that I found to be very informative and insightful along the way. By the way, one of the startups that I know is looking for a front-end developer designer right now. If you know anyone looking for a job or if you are then I would recommend that you check it out.
So here is the list:
Droppages - CMS that uses Dropbox for files and comes with a few themes.
statamatic – flexible flat file based CMS.
Jekyll – Ruby based CMS - GitHub Pages are powered by Jekyll, so you can easily deploy your site using GitHub for free—custom domain name and all.
Nanoc – Ruby based static website system built on Ruby and hosted on Github.
Hyde – static website generator built on Python and Django
Phrozn – PHP based static website generator.
Bonsai – Another interesting website generator hosted on Github.
Webgen – Ruby based website generator hosted on RubyForge.
Cyrax – A Python based static site generator “inspired from Jeckyll and Hyde”.
Stacey – Suggested by Nick Whitmoyer.
concrete5 – PHP based CMS with lots of plugins and paid themes like WordPress.
LightCMS – Suggested by Nick Whitmoyer.
ExpressionEngine A premium PHP based publishing platform built on the PHP based CodeIgniter framework by the same team that was was also suggested. It is a bit heavier duty and more expensive ($300 with lots of bells and whistles), but it could be a mid-range option between a lightweight CMS and WordPress or Drupal or Joomla. ExpressionEngine is popular among interactive agencies.
Here is another list that is even longer (thanks to the Nanoc team for putting it together).
For the family member’s site a decision was made to go with statmatic because the designer working on the site likes working with it.
I feel like this is a subject that is going to come up again for me and for a lot of other people which is why I decided to share my experiences here. One of the posts that I read in doing research for this post was by a Darren Knewton, another Texas Ex-Pat currently living in Brooklyn who talked about his effort to rebuild his portfolio site using CakePHP and how it was “complete overkill and how he reached the conclusion that less was more.” He also talked about how these days you don’t need much more than an Amazon S3 or GitHub account. I would add that you could do as much with Dropbox and make things even easier all around.
To tie this back to the original topic (The Business of Business Websites), I feel like I should point out that less is also less time. If you are a founder or business owner and you are slightly tech savvy or not planning to update your website frequently then a lightweight CMS is a great way of cutting down on the time needed by a developer or designer to put a website together for you. Done right you can hire someone to create a unique website design with minimal design and configuration time involved and save a ton of time and money.
If you don’t have time and you prefer to have someone to help, I would be happy to chat with you and see if my team could help or get you in touch with someone else who could. You can drop me a line via firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to chat about something or if you have a lightweight CMS that I left out.
In the last four years my world has shifted from being a founder at the helm of a services company with a side project that involves software development into that of a founder at the helm of a product company with a services company that gets 60% of my time some days and 40% of my time other days. When I’m working with my clients on the service side the balance is usually 70-80% in the service category. With some luck and a lot of hours of hard work I’m hoping to flip the switch and get to 80% of my time going into the product bucket this year.
As the scales tilt more toward product I find that I have an insatiable appetite for knowledge about trends and best practices for design – mobile, web and user experience/human computer interaction and engineering – everything from how and where my teams should be incorporating things like Angular.js or Backbone.js and Node.js into the mix to what the latest trends in Ruby on Rails, mobile development, and even stuff like information retrieval and natural language processing.
Being in the Washington, DC area has never seemed like a bad place for this sort of stuff before, but I never had the desire to really feed my brain on this scale before either.
Today I made a spreadsheet with design and development conferences that I could find online. I wish I could attend them all and a lot more of them, but there isn’t enough time or budget for that. I would settle for a few conferences here in the Washington, DC area, but there is only one mobile UX camp here in the Fall.
I would love to hear of any conferences that are coming up here in the Washington, DC area or around the region that I missed. Things happening as far off as Dallas, Chicago, or Denver could be interesting too.
Here is my list so far*:
|Burlington Ruby Conference 2013||Burlington, VT||Ruby||8/3/13||8/4/13||200|
|Northeast PHP 2013||Cambridge, MA||PHP||8/16/13||8/18/13||200|
|Madison Ruby Conference||Madison, WI||Ruby||8/23/13||8/24/13||299|
|MobileUXCamp DC||Washington, DC||Mobile UX||9/14/13||78|
|StrangeLoop 2013||St. Louis, MO||*.*||9/18/13||9/20/13||500|
|Circles 2013||Grapevine, TX||Front-End Dev||9/19/13||9/20/13||265|
|Nickel City Ruby 2013||Buffalo, NY||Ruby||9/20/13||9/21/13||99|
|Front Porch Front-End Web Developer Conference||Dallas, TX||Front-End Dev||10/8/13||75|
|The Midwest UX Conference||Grand Rapids, MI||UX||10/17/13||10/19/13||n/a|
|CSS Dev Conference||Denver, CO||CSS||10/21/13||10/23/13||495|
|Web Design Day 2013||Pittsburgh, PA||Web Design||10/25/13||195|
|Web Unleashed 2013||Waltham, MA||Web Dev||11/7/13||11/18/13||129|
*Anything that cost more than $500 or that involved the Microsoft stack as a core aspect of the conference (e.g. more than 80% of the content) was left out. I’m personally not interested in the MS Stack unless it is a wall that I have to climb over to get to where I am going. If you have a MS stack conference that is related to web, mobile or application development and you would like for me to link to it I’m happy to do so.
Questions, comments, etc. should be directed to email@example.com – please note that discount codes are carpool offers from friends and interesting people are welcome. I would be happy to publish yours or take advantage of one in the event that you have one to share.
Here are some additional conferences this Fall:
Future of Web Design, New York, NY Web Design 10/7/13 10/9/13 $995
SassConf, New York, NY 10/12/13 10/13/13 $475
Converge RVA, Richmond, VA 10/11/13 10/12/13 $200
I have recommended Steve Blank’s book, The Four Steps To The Epiphany, to a ton of startup founders building B2B products who have asked me what the #1 book that they should read is. Today I found a free eBook version of the book here. If you are thinking about building a software, web or enterprise software product for any industry or you are thinking about recruiting a technical co-founder or hiring a developer to work on your startup product for you then you should stop and read this first.
If you happen to live in Maryland and would like some additional feedback or are looking for some mentoring related to your startup then you may also want to register for an upcoming entrepreneur office hours session hosted the University of Maryland’s Mtech program. The person responsible for that program is Akbar Dawood who works for Mtech.
If you live in Virginia, there is a similar program hosted by the Mason Enterprise Center at George Mason University. John Casey is in charge of that program.
I am not aware of a similar program in Washington, DC, but if you live in Washington, DC and are looking for help feel free to drop me a line and I will see if there is anyone that I can connect you with.
For anyone outside of the Washington area, please use the comments section and let me know where you are. I’ll try to reply with details on who and where you should go to talk to where you are. For example: in the Chicago area the University of Illinois-Urbana Campaign has a great startup incubator with similar offerings (let me know if you need details for that program – I have a lot of this information stored in business cards or in my contact database.
A few weeks ago I had lunch with another founder who has raised 20+ million for one startup and tens of millions for at least one other. He is working on a new one now. We were talking about different approaches to building a software product. He prefers to slap a lot of open source applications together and then sell that whereas I prefer to design, build and sale the software. His way is probably the route to faster riches, but it isn’t one that I prefer to take for a number of reasons. One being that I prefer to disrupt markets as opposed to simply monetize them. Another being that I prefer to own the intellectual property and be less subject to the constraints that come from having to try to force a lot of square pegs through round holes to get the job done. The people involved are usually a lot more interesting people to work with all around. My exit objectives are potentially different than his as well.
All of this highlights a contrast between two very different approaches to building software and software companies. But the world is changing. Let’s roll with the change for a moment. If you have ever heard of Elon Musk, and if you are a geek like me then surely you have, then you probably know he is the founder of SpaceX, and co-founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal (originally X.com). In at least one interview that he did some time ago he talked about how science fiction inspired him when he was younger. Over the weekend I was trawling the web in search of something and happened upon a video tour of the Space X headquarters that Elon gave (my thoughts about that video and a link to it can be found here). At one point during the tour Elon starts talking about how the company uses 3D design tools and 3D printers to build nearly everything. So to get right to the point, he isn’t alone. Even NASA is using 3D design and printing to design rocket engines.
This is all very interesting stuff and it sounds like something out of a William Gibson interview or article. Until I was asked to join a Red Bull Flugtag team competing in this Fall’s National Harbor competition. I had no idea that I was going to be as interested as I have suddenly become in 3D design and printing. I remember playing around with a very early 3D design tool on my Atari 1040 ST many years ago. At that point, I was inspired to design really interesting spacecraft and aircraft. Back then I thought I was going to be a fighter jet pilot or an Astronaut. Anyway, my parents did not volunteer to send me to Space Camp and my wearing glasses all of those ideas to the back burner.
With this Flugtag effort, I get to dabble in this stuff again which is pretty exciting and things are so much different today than they were when I was a kid. Our team, powered by a ragtag bunch of geeks with professional backgrounds ranging from Comic Books (ok, that is a side venture for one of the team members) to BioPhysics to Bouyancy to Software to Satellite design is planning to use a tool (probably Sketchup Make) along with one of the considerable number of open 3D model libraries available today and combine it with the considerably easy to attain materials available to build a glider for the Flugtag not entirely different from this one. Did I mention how crazy cool this is? I learned how to hang glide last year.
I had no idea that I could go to a site like 3D Warehouse (one of many free 3D model libraries) and pull up a 3D model of a glider. Now, I’m not saying that we’re planning to use such a 3D model for what we are going to build but it does make building a glider a hell of a lot easier for you or I to do than it would have been for the Wright Brothers. The same could be said about private space, or building a new laptop computer, or designing a new car. The design piece is only the beginning. Imagine what you could do with a series of really cool 3D printing and fabricating tools? I’ve personally visited labs at Carnegie Mellon University and on the University of Maryland College Park campus, but so far I’m pretty amazed at what is possible.
So to tie this all back into the original discussion about two founders discussing different ways of doing business I just want to point out that there isn’t so much different in my way of looking at a startup company looking to build something physical and a startup company looking to build something with software. If anything, Elon Musk’s tour of Space X validates this.
So get ready, the world is about to change faster than you or I can imagine.
I would love to hear from you about what you are seeing and doing with 3D printing or 3D design or 3D manufacturing for that matter. The conversations that I have had with people who are creating and participating in DIY and hacker spaces around the country have been interesting so far. I’m very interested in hearing from anyone who has a business like Space X that is using this new technology and related business processes to disrupt traditional supply chain models. Please feel free to leave your comments here or send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org today.
The tectonic plates in mobile and web application development are shifting faster than ever these days. Development used to be a about smart idea turned into project timeline with quality gates, and an eventual due date for the project being finished or turned on. That just isn’t the case any longer. Ok, maybe in old school government contractor circles and in CMMI engineering communities…but that isn’t how it works for modern software product development. Before I get hate mail for saying something negative about CMMI or government contracting I just want to point out that I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for that sort of stuff. I am sure that when you have one shot to send a satellite into space or a rover to Mars things work a bit differently. But whether or not that sort of process is desirable or not is a discussion for another blog and another day. I’m here to talk about the emerging role of a growth hacker.
If you have hired or managed developers before then you have probably learned that you can’t ask a developer to wear a sales and marketing team member hat in most cases. The same goes for wearing a designer hat. It isn’t that they could not do it, but it just isn’t part of the traditional developer skillset. Maybe it is because what makes a developer really good at being laser focused in a complex code base has a direct relation to their desire to have to talk to people. I would argue that it is a lot more than that, but I have at least a few developers who have worked for me over the years who have simply said that they don’t want to do sales or marketing. If you step inside most development team areas within companies you will see physical manifestations of this mindset. There are no phones on the desks of developers (maybe in large companies, but not in startups). People have headphones on. The lights are off and there might even be a lava lamp to set the mood. Things are quiet and people are concentrating. By contrast, marketing and sales people are much more social and talkative. Phones are part of their routine.
But somewhere along the way things started changing. People in marketing started getting analytical. They started using tools like Google Analytics which worked up until a certain point. Then they wanted to see real time customer interactions with their apps, to segment customer lists and to do things that were a lot more database intensive. This lead to things like A/B testing and statistical modeling of customer behavior. Now there are entire teams that call themselves data scientists who work in somewhat of a grey area between development and marketing.
What does it mean for my startup?
Unfortunately, small startups don’t have a budget for teams of data scientists. This doesn’t stop them from making efforts in this direction though. This has lead to an opportunity and a skill combination that is probably more developer than data scientist, but that fills the need of earlier stage product companies for someone who has the combined ability to do analytical marketing related work that requires a developer. The trending title for this role is “growth hacker”.
I don’t know where the discussion about growth hacking started, but it is closely related to the early stage startup founder team composition discussion. To be clear, an early stage startup for the purpose of this discussion is not a consulting firm, not a service provider, not a government contractor, not an interactive agency that builds websites or web apps for other companies. We’re talking about early stage software, web or mobile app product startups that are building something that sells product to either an enterprise or consumers. In most cases this applies to consumer focused startups. And to be even more specific, we are talking about the trendy developer lead startups such as ones that might try to get into YCombinator or Tech Stars or 500 Startups.
Enough background though. Early stage startup founder teams in these circles are encouraged to have three people: the hacker (developer), the hustler (the customer acquisition person – does customer acquisition), and the hipster (optional in some models, but becoming more mainstream as far as these discussions are going).
The key to growth hacking is customer acquisition, retention and growth. The best illustration how growth hacking works of this that I know of is a slideshare presentation by Dave McClure, the founder of 500 startups. Some related discussion can be found here. Note that a lot of what he is talking about is taking a platform like Facebook or iTunes and leveraging it as a distribution channel. This is distinct from hiring someone to do SEO/SEM/Marketing Strategy generically. Those folks have a place in the universe as evidenced by the number of them who I have met, but they typically not someone you want to turn loose on your product’s code base.
It isn’t so much that this is a new breed of developer. It is just that there are a lot of developers out there who just want to be developers. They don’t want to do sales, marketing or design. In an early stage startup company this isn’t really an option…at least not for a startup that is being bootstrapped. Investors at just about every level are looking for founders who can build a minimum viable product with as few resources as possible (search the web for Lean Startup for more on that). Two Good books are: The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (ebook version available) and The Four Steps to the Ephiphany.
So the natural question here is whether or not an early stage startup team should hire someone to fill the role of growth hacker, or whether it is essential or not.
The short answer is that it is a really bad idea to for an early stage startup to outsource customer acquisition to a development firm or freelancer or consultant. That said, it might be the only thing that helps you get to the next level so it isn’t something to rule out entirely. When you consider this you really need to consider that mastery of an understanding of customer acquisition is core to your business, a to your financial model. So the notion of hiring a consulting firm to do growth hacking is a really bad idea if it means that you are simply delegating the work. On the other hand, getting help or coaching and temporary help from a freelancer who has experience with early stage customer acquisition while you are trying to figure out how to approach things might work. You should make sure that it is someone really entrepreneurial AND someone who has some of the type of customer acquisition and distribution experience that Dave McClure talks about in the Startup Metrics for pirates presentation I mentioned above. Note that this is not an SEO/SEM consultant that we are talking about. We are talking about someone who can run the full gauntlet.
If you have any stories or examples of how you approached growth hacking I would love to hear them.