College Recruiting Season for Summer 2015 Starts Now

Recruiting software engineers is something that starts earlier than you think.  If you have not already RSVP’d for Fall 2015 college recruiting events you are running out of time.

The best program in the Washington, DC area is the University of Maryland Computer Science Department.
Register for the Fall 2015 University of Maryland Computer Science Department’s Career Fair event here.

Other programs to check out are Johns Hopkins University (Homewood Campus), Carnegie Mellon University, George Mason University (Fairfax Campus), Dickinson, and Drexel.  There are other schools in the region with computer science programs but it is really hard or the benefit is marginal based on the number of students or cost or effort required.  For example: there are some programs that treat startups founders the same way they treat Intel and IBM which means you have to write a big check and yet you still get stuck in a bad seat in the back.

This may seem early.  It is.  Computer Science students are in demand at Maryland.  They are taking over the Comcast Center on the UMD Campus (where Maryland Basketball games are played) this year.  If you can’t make this event have no fear. There is another event in February that you need to register for by mid December.  If I had more time today I would post about the other programs around the region.  Perhaps next year.  Happy Hunting!

Summer intern compensation information:
Full time interns get paid anywhere from $21-36/hr by large companies including Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Lockheed Martin.  It isn’t that they have to pay that much, but they do anywhere. A bunch of the big company recruiters get together ahead of time and decide what the rates should be.  Yeah, that stinks for startups, but the good news is that you can find interns and if you have something interesting for them to work on you can usually find really awesome ones for $14-17/hr.  Don’t even think about competing with the big companies unless you are willing to invest a ton of time up front. There are plenty of students who are not chasing logos…yet.

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Entrepreneur Office Hours in DC, MD, VA

Here is a quick rundown of Entrepreneur Office Hours in DC, MD, VA that founders and people considering starting a business may want to check out.

If you happen to live in Maryland and would like some additional feedback beyond what you are getting right now or if you are looking for some mentoring related to your startup then you may also want to register for an upcoming University of Maryland Mtech Entrepreneur Office Hours session hosted the University of Maryland’s Mtech program.  Mtech is affiliated with the Kim Engineering School at the University of Maryland.  The person responsible for the Mtech program is Akbar Dawood, a former investment banker who spends his days now managing the Chesapeake Bay seed fund and serving as a CxO stand in for startups in the University of Maryland Mtech Venture Accelerator Program.  This is not to be confused with similar programs offered by the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland or the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland which hosts the angel pitches among other things.  There are some great resources there as well, but I am less familiar with their efforts.  These are usually held monthly.

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.  Check the website for dates.

I am not aware of a similar program in Washington, DC, but if you live in Washington, DC and are looking for help and live in DC email me and and I will see if I can help or point you in the right direction.  DC has SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), but unless you are trying to open a real estate development firm, a restaurant, or a dry cleaners this is probably not going to be the right place for you based on my own experiences with this office.  Their people come and go so it isn’t a bad idea to check, just don’t get your hopes up.

One really important thing to know about these entrepreneur office hour events is that the people who serve as “Mentors” are usually NOT experienced in something that relates to what you are doing.  This will not stop them from giving you all kinds of suggestions.  I am a mentor at some of these events occasionally and I have had to give people one and occasionally two raised eyebrows after hearing them give advice that is flat out terrible and misguided.  To avoid this, it is a really good idea to ascertain the background of anyone you speak to up front.  You should also ask them if they have ANY potential conflicts of interests in your category, even marginal ones.  Don’t assume.  It isn’t that you can’t trust them.  You just need to make sure you know if the person you are talking to is working for or on the board of a direct competitor.  There are some people who will not be forthcoming about this stuff.

Another suggestion – ask ahead who will be there and if there is anyone who has experience that relates to what you are looking for insights ,advice, etc. related to. Sometimes these programs will reach out to individual mentors who have a better category or market fit with what you are looking to discuss.

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.

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Luminal, Inc. Closes $10 Million Series B

Frederick, MD based Luminal, Inc., a startup that was co-founded by Andrew Wright, a SocialMatchbox Founders Board Member, announced the company’s successful closing of a $10 million Series B Round.  The company has raised a total of $13.8 million according to public figures that the company has shared.  In full disclosure, I have been working closely with Luminal, Inc. team to help them scale the up their engineering team and to add other key people in the Frederick, MD headquarters as well as in the company’s Washington, DC office location which will be moving from DC’s 1776 to the WeWorks Wonderbread Factory location at the end of this month.

The Series B round was lead by Bethesda, MD based New Enterprise Associates who also lead the company’s recent Series A funding round.  Northern Virgina’s Core Capital Partners and the Maryland Venture Fund also participated in this Luminal, Inc.’s Series A and Series B rounds.

Luminal’s product offering, called Composer, is in the cloud operations and cybersecurity categories and will initially work with the Amazon Web Services platform.

Earlier this year the team from Luminal, Inc. won the top prize as part of the Invest Maryland Challenge.

Here are  a few of the company’s current job openings:
Mid-Sr. Software Developer, Frederick, MD or Washington, DC
IT Manager, Frederick, MD
Office Manager, Frederick, MD
Software Engineer In Test, Frederick, MD or Washington, DC (Details Coming – Email Me For Details)
Engineering Technical Writer, Frederick, MD or Washington, DC (Details Coming - Email Me For Details)

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New Page: Top Coffee Shops

For a few years now I have made it a point to seek out and review the best coffee shops to work from wherever I spend time.  This is partly because I want to have a quick reference for when I have to plan a trip or schedule a coffee meeting.  Since I started this series of posts I have received a few really good suggestions for places that I had not heard about while traveling.  A great location often means the difference between my being able to get work done and wasting time or feeling like your day went to waste.

My criteria for listing coffee shop to work from is that it has to be a place that has solid coffee, good seating, good power, be clean and a very short walk to food options or have good food).

The list currently includes the greater Washington, DC Metro area, Silicon Valley area, Denver, CO and Houston, TX.

If you have a suggestion in one of these places or elsewhere I would love to hear about it. You can send me an email here or send a note via @SocialMatchbox on Twitter

Check out The Best Coffee Shops To Work From By City list here.

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An Agile Vision For The Win

When we are in our early years we are often guided by thoughts of what is possible yet we are governed by what we can afford. As we gain experience we begin to be guided by thoughts of what constrains what we view as possible. It is quite ironic that despite this shift in thinking, our vision for what we can accomplish continues to elude this way of thinking. Product Development has evolved accordingly.

When I was early in my career in software development I was taught to approach things using the Systems Development Life Cycle (SDLC) which resembles our thinking in our early years.  The bottom line in those years is that we try a lot of things and see what happens or if we are going to get shut down.  This tends to be the East Coast startup way more times than not even today.  Somewhere along the way our way of thinking about product development evolved into an Agile Software Development Methodology.  Both Agile and SDLC frameworks emphasize governance as well as complex cycles that culminate in a big bang launch, but Agile evolves our holistic  vision for a project or product or really any complex endeavor by looking at what is possible within a smaller window of time and effort.  Just like being a kid in the sense that we can take on writing a video game without thinking about the adult responsibilities of making mortgage payments or studying for and acing the SAT along with applying for a top college.

Agile goes hand in hand with early product development and a lot more.  You could apply it to sales or marketing or recruiting, not just development.  How this manifests itself in our way of thinking is just as important as how we implement processes.  For example: when planning where to go with a new product we start making complex wireframes and essentially build the house on paper before we start to build the house.  An agile approach would more likely begin with an essential definition of what the product is and what the product strategy is followed by initial initiatives to take things in that general direction.  In a business sense, this is the difference between having a 40-50 page business plan and a 1-2 page plan of record.

Once you have your initial plan you can prioritize accordingly.  By not chasing details that may never be relevant if you don’t get the initial initiatives accomplished you can make more early and consistent progress.  This increases your odds for success.

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How Much Will It Cost To Build My Startup App MVP? Part 1 – What Is An MVP?

A lot of people have asked me how much will it cost to build my startup app MVP lately so I decided to take a shot at answering this question based on my own experiences while pulling together some extremely useful resources on the subject.

This is very similar to questions that received a few years back:  ‘How To Find A Programmer To Build My Startup Idea?

Some Key Definitions from Thought Champions

There are many similar, yet distinct ideas about what an MVP actually is so let’s get this right before considering actual costs:

Startup:
A temporary organization designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model. -Steve Blank (We are not considering services firms as startups here.)

Minimum Viable Product (MVP):
that product which has just those features (and no more) that allows you to ship a product that resonates with early adopters; some of whom will pay you money or give you feedback.” – Eric Ries
You’re selling the vision and delivering the minimum feature set to visionaries not everyone.” – Steve Blank+

A lot of founders get lost chasing a huge product vision thinking it is an MVP when what they are really trying to do is build a full scale product.  This is especially true for first time founders.  Your MVP should be an experiment/research effort in search of a scalable business not a product (i.e. photo sharing service, SaaS product, mobile messaging app) that people will use, buy, etc.  If you are doing things right you will probably reject at least one initial hypothetical business or product and re-focus or even change focus.

A Few Examples

I started out planning to build a job board. I used WordPress and a bunch of different job board engines to see if things would work as I had imagined they would. I learned a ton of lessons including the fact that job board economics are really bad. Not only are they really expensive, but to achieve density of job seekers is mission impossible.  Before that, I tried out every major job board, niche job board (including Craigslist. and sites like Craigslist.  I’m not saying it was impossible, but it was a lot harder to make money in the early stages despite low costs for testing my MVP hypothesis.  In this case, my cost was around $85 including domain registration and hosting plus money spent on targeted ads and printing on my color printer for events that I promoted it for.  WordPress is free and so were the job board engine services that I used.  Next I chased a recruiting tool for helping companies keep track of all the places they posted their jobs, helped them to post their jobs, and helped them keep track of applicants and candidates they were pursuing.  This started out as something to help us recruit people for our own efforts.  We quickly figured out that it was a crowded market that would be expensive to acquire and keep customers in and pivoted to a hybrid model that combined some insights and angles from job boards and recruiting tools.  Suddenly we had a great product-market fit then we started building our product.  I really wish I had done more experimentation and less building in the early stages – that would have worked out better which is part of why this post is so important for early founders to read.

I was personally influenced by The New New Thing by Michael Lewis. I found a copy of it on a bookshelf at a friend’s house.  Can you imagine how different the world would be if Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark had started a Nintendo online game service instead of Netscape?  They considered it.

Next, let’s create a slightly narrower definition of what we are talking about when we discuss the idea of what an MVP should be.

My friends from Webs.com that sold to VistaPrint.com for $117 Million started out like a Geocities.  Their concept was to make a website publishing platform so easy that their mom could use it.  They were really successful and raised money to carry out their vision, but they hit a wall at one point.  They were selling ad campaigns.  Along the way the team created two top 5 Facebook platform games (early on) that lead to the spinout of the Social Gaming Network (SGN) which later got acquired by a co-founder of MySpace, acquired Pagemodo a really popular Facebook Page builder), and took a new path that involved small business websites and Facebook pages.  They even developed a light weight CRM product.  While their example is at a much later stage, imagine how different things would have been had they figured this out early.

I haven’t met him personally yet, but I listened to a talk by Nat Turner in Philly a few years ago.  He said that he and his co-founders started out in an apartment that they worked and lived in.  By day they chased their MVP ideas and used air mattresses to block the light coming in from windows.  By night they slept on those same air mattresses.  They rotated through 4 different businesses until they got the validation that they were looking for with Invite Media which later got acquired for $70 Million by Google.

One startup that I advised built that bordered on a social network for business people.  The founder is a great salesman, but he did not do the kind of early MVP hypothesis testing that we are talking about today.  He is now in the hotel category, has raised money and has some great paying customers.

Cost of MVP vs. Cost of Product

My last post, ‘How To Find A Programmer To Build My Startup Idea?‘ covers building an early product, but does not really address how to build an MVP or what one is.   I plan to update that article because it has great suggestions on how to negotiate and find a developer, but it is missing a few important steps and considerations which I plan to cover here. Most early founders fail after they take on more than they can handle.  They either run out of passion, stop having fun, or they burn up their savings or funding or both.  Once you have your MVP and what you feel confident is a scalable business then, and only then, should you really set out to built out your product.

An Idea Should Not Be An Anchor

Most people approach their startup idea with the notion of building the founders’ vision into something that can be sold, but should that something be a product or just an experiment?  For a lot of people there are two major blockers: ideas that are inflexible and ideas about competition. Founders feel like they are Albert Einstein when they have an idea.  We lock onto the idea like it is a life or death challenge to ship that idea to everyone in the world and that it will make us rich and famous.  This is fatally flawed.  You should not treat your commitment to your first idea like a marriage.

I have met and listened to stories from many of the most successful founders of our time and read extensively about founders that came before them and us.  An idea is a starting point.  Sooner or later we all have to realize that our initial idea is not the right one to pursue.  Sometimes we can fork the idea, but other times we have to simply file it away. Perceived competition is a similar challenge.   The reality is that we have to be a lot more like Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps.

There will be competition and challenges along the way that we have to conquer.  Paul Graham agrees.  In a post following a talk that he gave, he said:

One reason people overreact to competitors is that they overvalue ideas.  If ideas really were the key, a competitor with the same idea would be a real threat. But it’s usually execution that matters…”

Ultimately, an idea should be flexible.

Product vs. Experiment: Breaking Down Pre-Conceived Notions About The MVP

Here is a one quote from Eric Ries that you should read and burn into your pre-MVP memory bank:

What we should have done, and what we did for a lot of features thereafter, is started with a landing page that promised people that product. Then we should have taken out the AdWords we were planning to take out, drive traffic to that landing page, and offer people to buy the experience that we are talking about. What we would have found out if we were doing that experiment is 0% of people would have clicked through, which means it doesn’t matter what is on the second page. The first page is so bad, not because it is badly designed, but because the features are wrong that you don’t need to go through the effort of building out the product. So we wished we had done that, and we did make that mistake really.”  - Eric Ries

This early approach is echoed by lean startup advocates as well as influencers in the early stage startup community:

Marc Andreessen would add that “The #1 company-killer is lack of market.” and that the market should pull the product out of the startup.

Dave McLure‘s Startup Metrics for Pirates is useful for extending, framing and planning and practically applying Eric’s landing page experiment that I just mentioned and a lot more.  This stuff should also be burned into your  pre-MVP memory bank.

signup

It isn’t that you should throw up a test page and see if anyone will click on an ad to it then sign up or express interest and call it a day.  You need to identify a problem that needs to be solve or at least mitigated and this is the first step towards developing what Eric Ries describes as “the build-measure-learn feedback loop” for your MVP.

By contrast,  the number one item on Steve Blank’s list is:  “There Are No Facts In Your Building, So Get Outside”.

Steve Blank’s (early) Customer Development principals (that he developed with the help of Bob Dorf) sound a lot more like something that a sales team would engage in.

Just in case you think that means that he is suggesting that you just go out and meet with customers, his second is “Pair Customer Development With Agile Development”. Steve’s approach is slightly more relevant to B2B (Business to business) startups while Eric’s approach is slightly more relevant to B2C (Consumer Facing) startups.  Make no mistake though, they are both relevant.

In case you are not aware of the relationship between Eric Ries and Steve Blank, Eric was a student of Steve’s.  Eric took Steve’s first class at UC Berkely.  They do take different approaches and have very different backgrounds, but they agree on quite a bit.  Steve is a also bit more of a big company type of guy and Eric is more of a scrappy startup kind of a guy.  If you are building an MVP you should get a copy of Eric’s book: ‘The Lean Startup‘ as well as Steve’s Book: ‘The Four Steps To The Epiphany‘ either way.

Something else that Steve says in relation to your MVP is that “the minimum feature set is 1) a tactic to reduce wasted engineering hours (code left on the floor) and 2) to get the product in the hands of early visionary customers as soon as possible. You’re selling the vision and delivering the minimum feature set to visionaries not everyone.

Having read this post, you should have a clearer picture of what a minimum viable product (MVP) should be.  The subject of cost will be covered in detail in this series, but not in this first installment.

Part 2 is Coming Soon
so check http://www.socialmatchbox.com or follow @socialmatchbox for updates.

Let’s Chat If You Want Help:

If you liked this post, have any questions, thoughts or disagree then feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.  If you really thought this post was helpful or interesting, please take a moment to share it with other startup founders, developers, designers or entrepreneurs who may also benefit from reading it.  I am @socialmatchbox on Twitter.

If you follow these steps and still can’t find what you are looking for then let me know.  You can reach me via email by contact@socialmatchbox.com or by phone at 202-330-3909.  If you call, please do so after 3pm EST on Friday during my open office hours or let me know ahead of time so we can schedule a call over Hangouts or Skype.  Sometimes I can make a referral to a designer or developer near you, but please do not reach out to me expecting that this will happen.  I am happy to chat for 15-20 minutes, but if you feel like that is not enough I may be able to provide some consulting help through my consulting firm: staffmagnet, LLC which specializes in software product development project teams, team member recruitment and team acceleration.  I am also happy to provide a demo/free trial for the recruitment platform that I built: SortIQ.

Updates:
I shared this (work in progress) with many of the founders I know as well as on Reddit and Hacker News.  This lead to a ton of feedback and keep it coming.  Thanks!  I plan to incorporate this feedback in the form of edits to the original post (this is a playbook/guide that I hope will last years, much more than a regular post).
One suggestion was that I should add formatting enhancements and visuals.

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Thoughts on The Startup Interview Process

In person interviews for startups can be intense.  I have heard stories about 10 hour interviews at companies where the spare minutes of a lunch break were spent working on solutions to math puzzles.  If you want to hire the best people then this is a post for your.

First off, 10 hours is insane.  If you are going to schedule someone for 10 hours of interviews then you should break it up into more than one day.  But that isn’t practical or recommended.  Most startups I know have a phone screen or two designed to disqualify a candidate followed by an a half day interview.  Some even plan a full day interview.  If you do, make sure it counts.

Here are some tips for making your startup interview process and candidate experience suck less and be more effective overall:

1. Provide a job description up front.  Make sure your job description is not just a list of requirements. It should provide a good idea of why someone should be excited about joining your team.  I find that some startups treat people like pieces of meat.  Don’t be that way – it is a choice for people to come to work for your company, not a trip to the supermarket.
2. Provide lunch, or schedule a lunch break (one was not provided).  
I am at a loss for words as to how one co-founder of a startup, a methodical engineer who claims to be able to algorithmically predict good vs. bad hires using a white board, managed to leave out a fundamental variable like lunch in an all day interview with a candidate for a key role.  Having pastries from breakfast in the office does not count.
3. Provide a tour of the office that includes some causal conversations with people.  Elon Musk provides some good ideas in video tours that he has done for SpaceX.

​4. Provide a sense of what your company culture is. And please don’t make your candidates ask.  I asked one guy what his company did for fun and he said they tried to get a softball team organized twice, but he could not think of anything else to say.  If a statement like this is the only sense of culture that a candidate can gather from 7-10+ hours of interviews over the phone or in person then something is very wrong.
5. Be transparent.  You should provide some sense for how ​candidates will be evaluated.  This is called a rubric in the education field.  It is usually part of the syllabus.  It helps people perform at their best and also builds trust.  If you don’t then what do you think people are going to expect of your internal management processes?  This should include at least minimal notice that you are going to put someone through textbook math exercises on the whiteboard in order to disqualify them for a role that does not have a math requirement.  Glassdoor.com, HackerNews, Reddit and social media should not be where these things are discovered…trust me.  I once had an interview with one of these types of situations and I would have happily told the team that I had no framework for solving geometry puzzles and that I had not had any prep, practice, training or reason to professionally use geometry in 15+ years.  This would have saved the team around 10 hours and $1,000.  It would have also saved me around 32 hours and $200 if you factor in the prep and research that was necessary for the interview which required calculation of cross country move costs and multiple flights.    
​6.  NEVER insult someone who you are interviewing.  You never know what the future will hold. For ​example: ​You ​should not tell a candidate that your 10 year old daughter solved the same math puzzles that you put on the white board if someone tells you that they do not know how to solve a problem.  Note: A fifth grader should be able to solve math puzzles (Ex 1, Ex 2, Ex 3, etc.) that she is learning about in school at her age and grade level.  The same holds true for programming exercises - don’t compare your candidate to your son or your interviewer.

7. If you are interviewing an intern or an entry level hire, or a quant, perhaps math problems on the white board can be a good idea, but be realistic.  For a non-engineering executive level hire or for the even top employers who are hiring across the board this is a waste of time (even Google agrees).  You could save yourself a lot of time by simply asking me what my SAT Quant score was or what the highest level math that I took was and what my grade in the class was.  If that is not convincing then request transcripts.  Ultimately, there is no way that you can predict whether or not someone you are interviewing has recently had an interview with similar math puzzles which prompted them to study or someone who has not touched this sort of thing in more than a decade.
8. Sell your company to me.  In 7-10+ hours of conversations, there should be at least 10-15% of the overall interview time spent getting the candidate excited about your product, company, team, aspirations, etc. Just saying you are were working on some great stuff or that you have a big deal person on the board is not enough.  People need to see themselves in your company, as a part of your team.  You don’t want people who are just there for the paycheck, trust me!
9. Implement behavioral and performance based interviewing that is relate to the job.  Asking very broad general questions is fine, but it is a good idea to get a good sense for how someone would handle specific situations that are inevitable as part of the job.
10. Look at the whole picture, not something that is totally unrelated.  For an example, read the section of this article about a hypothetical interview that involves 
crème brûlée (related HackerNews discussion here).

People believe what they experience.  Just remember that User Experience is not just a consider for your app.

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