MBAs and Startups

Mar 27, 2014

From time to time the subject of MBAs and startups seems to raise its head and did so again recently by a few of my fellow inhabitants of Atlanta Startup Village. First John Melonakos mentioned how Business School is not Street Cred for Startups and then Kevin Sandlin followed on with why Getting an MBA is Stupid.

Personally getting an MBA was one of the best investments I ever made. My MBA enabled me to understand at a very deep level business in general, finance, and marketing. When I joined a startup that went into hyper growth mode I was able to apply this theoretical learning and build upon it in a very practical way. 

Regardless, most technology entrepreneurs seems to hate MBAs for good reasons. But what really took me aback was the quote John pulled from the article Could a Harvard Business School Degree Hurt More Than It Helps?:

"For venture capitalists who pray at the altar of pattern recognition, it would be hard to ignore how few massive tech successes have been founded by entrepreneurs with MBAs on their resumes."

The first two startups that I joined were founded by MBAs. Both had successful exits. One a billion dollar market cap public company. The other a $275 million acquisition. The above quote did not align with my personal experience. It appeared biased to me.

So I went digging around. A good place to start was the Harvard Hurt article itself. To quote:

"It’s possible to turn to research conducted by Aileen Lee for her viral list of ‘unicorns' – slang for the 39 tech companies founded since 2003 valued at $1 billion or more by private or public markets. Only 12 of those 39 companies had co-founders with MBAs..."

Only 12 of 39? That's 30%. I don't know how many MBAs there are in the USA but it is no where close to 30% of the general population. The degree is over indexed in the sample set. Seemed like a positive pattern.

So I decided to do a little more analysis closer to home. I went through Paul Judge's recent list of most valuable or promising startups in Atlanta. There are 25 companies on that list. I looked at the educational background of the current CEOs of these companies using simple internet searches and LinkedIn. 

I was not able to ascertain the educational background of three of the CEOs (at least one is a college dropout). Of the twenty two that remained nine have a masters degree in business and fourteen do not. Or but another way, 41% of the CEOs from the list of the most promising startups in Atlanta have a graduate business degree. There was no other degree held by this group of CEOs that was even close to this percentage. I was somewhat surprised to see that science and technology grads only account for six (27%) of the CEOs. There were four that have undergrad business degrees (bringing the total that studied business to nearly 60% of the total), two liberal arts majors, and one that studied law.

While MBAs are not for everyone (I have advised many proteges to skip the degree and get their learnings in more practical and potentially lucrative endeavors), a good percentage of the people that run high potential startups have the degree. Getting an MBA may not be stupid at all. It's fine. Just don't be an MBA. What matters is what you do with the degree. That is what will earn you street cred.

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Posted in Business, Entrepreneurship, Startups

Startup Genome Survey

Mar 20, 2014

Today in the Atlanta Tech Village newsletter (sign up here) the Startup Genome Survey was mentioned. Startup Genome and the Kauffman Foundation have teamed up to conduct research on the Atlanta startup community. Taking the survey is quick and easy. At the end there is a link to this nifty startup map that is quite interesting if you play around with it.

So go ahead. Take the survey.

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Posted in Accelerators , Entrepreneurship, Startups

Startup Defined

Mar 19, 2014

Google "what is a technology startup." When you do this article I wrote back in 2009 will most likely show up as the second result right below the Wikipedia entry. The Wikipedia entry is a little more interesting to me at the moment than what I wrote five years ago. This is what it says:

"A startup company or startup is a company, a partnership or temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. These companies, generally newly created, are in a phase of development and research for markets." 

The first sentence of definition was authored by Steve Blank. I have the utmost respect for Mr. Blank. His book The Four Steps to the Epiphany literally launched the lean startup movement. His bookThe Startup Owner's Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company and Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers by Alexander Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur are required reading for anyone looking to found a startup for the first time (and maybe certain serial entrepreneurs as well). I am a fan. However I strongly disagree with the above definition of a startup.

Here's why. It does not pass the reasonableness test. If you were to ask members of a startup community if certain companies were or were not startups they would more often than not classify companies that have repeatable and scalable business models in place as startup companies.

For example as I write this I am sitting in the offices of SalesLoft at the Atlanta Technology Village, a building specifically built to to support and inspire technology entrepreneurs. Salesloft participated in TechStars in 2012. Just a year ago Salesloft had no revenue. Now it is seeing high product demand. The company is growing fast. Both revenue and people. They have found a business model and a market. By the above definition they are not a startup. 

Does Salesloft sounds like a startup to you? It sure does to me. The CEO and all the employees think they are a startup. But by the above definition they are not. The definition is wrong. The definition intentionaly excludes execution. That makes it too narrow. All successful startups execute. They execute to scale.

And this all may be a matter of semantics within Mr. Blank's own diagram of the startup process the act of scaling the company is included in the startup cycle.

Scalable Startup

Going back to my Salesloft example they have conducted customer discovery. They have customer validation. They have a repeatable business model. They are in the process of creating customers and scaling the company. They are a scalable startup but not as defined by Wikipedia.

When it is all said and done I think the Wikipedia definition of a startup just needs a little wordsmithing to something like this:

"A startup company or startup is a company, a partnership or organization designed to search for and scale a repeatable business model.

Moving around a few words enables the definition of a startup to include companies such as Salesloft (which it should). It makes the definition of a startup include early execution (which startups do). It makes the definition of a startup pass the reasonableness test (which it must). 

This refined definition defines startups better. And that would be a better thing.

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Posted in Entrepreneurship, Startups

Update: Most Interesting Atlanta Startups of 2010

Mar 13, 2014

Yesterday Micheal Tavani started a conversation on Twitter about this list of 20 most interesting Atlanta startups. The list is over three years old. I thought it would be interesting to go in and provide an update. Here it is.

BLiNQ Media
Sold to Gannett. Depending on your source it was either $40 million or $92 million. I know the number. Take the average and you are close enough. 

Raised a total of $3.2 million, graduated from ATDC, and moving into their own digs off Piedmont Park.

Most recently raised a $20 million Series C and seem to have found traction delivering their TV everywhere platform.

Out of business (OOB).

Cloud Sherpas
Continues to grow revenues like Kudzu. Added Salesforce and ServiceNow capabilities. Spun off technology into BetterCloud. This is going to be a big winner.

Have not heard much from this hosted PCI solution since their $3 million raise in 2010. Appears to be dead.

Endgame Systems
Endgame raised a $29 million Series A and $27 million Series B from folks like Bessemer and Kleiner Perkins. The company is now headquartered in DC and the founders have all moved on. I am fairly confident they consider the venture to be successful and are on to bigger and better things.  

According to their ads on NPR they have more than 5 million customers. Moving to fancy new digs in Ponce City Market. A privately held tech anchor.

Another company that has been pretty quiet since raising $2.4 million in 2010. Seems to have changed name to RentAdvisor which was acquired by Apartment List.

Acquired by Silverpop. 

Raised a $7.2 million Series C in 2011 and a $26 million Series D in 2013. PlayOn has teamed up with the National Federation of State High School Associations to launch the NFSH Network. It literally is the high school sports network. Their tagline says it all. High school lives here.

The company has been a little quiet since graduating from ATDC in 2012.

The site remains active. It seems the team has moved on to new ventures.

While everyone loves the app and the brand ScoutMob is successfully managing a pivot to a curated ecommerce experience.

Dave Wright has raised $68 million for his solid state storage system. He also moved it to Boulder to gain access to more domain knowledge. Win for Dave. Loss for Atlanta.

SoloHealth has raised $24 million. While they seem to have a solid retail presence a recent boardroom shake up and change of strategy to focus on wellness plans for major employers raises some questions.

From all appearances the company is OOB.

Vertical Acuity
Raised $5 million than sold to Outbrain.

Acquired by Oracle for a sum north of $300 million.


The way I see it that adds up to five companies with successful founder exits, three that had "meh" exits, seven that are too soon to tell, and five that went out of business. I am pretty sure that four of the too soon to tells are going to be winners. That would put my successful startup identification rate in the 45% range. 

Maybe I should be a VC. 

Before I do that I am going to make a new top 20 Atlanta startup list.

Who should be on it?

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Posted in Startups

Do Your Own PR

Feb 21, 2014

So I am spending more and more time these days advising concept stage and seed stage startups. And I had an interesting conversation with a pair of entrepreneurs the other day about press releases and marketing. They had reached a significant milestone and put a release on the wire. They were waiting for coverage.

I had the break the news that you don't really get coverage from putting a press release on the wire. You have to work it like this.

Somewhere along the way it came up that they had dropped a low four figure amount on a PR agency to help them with their release and to create a list of potential writers to contact. I love using an agency at the appropriate time but for companies without funding or revenues getting attention is a core competency that someone on the team needs to develop. It will both save you some money and people that write about startups prefer to talk with founders over flacks.

While we were having this discussion one of the founders started having a bit of a text exchange with a writer for a national news website focused on information technology companies from startups to Fortune 1000 firms. Seems he had networked his way to the writer. Hot space. Got same day feature coverage.

Do your own PR.

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Posted in Marketing, Startups

Sources of Startup Ideas

Feb 13, 2014

I have been reading and thinking a bit these days about the sources of startup ideas. How ideas that are worth turning into technology startups come to life. The best work I have found on this is by Daniel Gulati who actually conducted some primary research on the matter and wrote it up for the Havard Business Review. Good stuff but I don't think he has it totally right. As I have thought about this it seems there are two primary categories that serve as sources of startup ideas; those that occur naturally and those that are manufactured.

Natural or organic startup ideas just happen in the course of your life. It is almost by accident. The aha moment when you experience some pain, could not find something to fix it, and have a sudden realization that you should go out and solve the problem yourself. This is how Charles Brewer came up with the concept for MindSpring and David Cummings created Pardot (Pardot was a pivot). I believe this the best source of startup ideas. It's just kinda hard to plan an accident.

Another natural situation that occurs is when you are working at a company and discover a customer need  that no one is addressing and for whatever reason your employer does not wish to address that particular market. The most obvious of these in Atlanta was ChoicePoint, which was spun out of Equifax. Endgame came out of ISS in the same fashion. ScoutMob actually got their start when EarthLink shut down its municipal WiFi network and some of the laid off employees founded SkyBlox.

The second large category of startup idea sources are those that are manufactured. The most prevalent manufactured startup idea is created of necessity. It is also known as a pivot. The original startup concept is not as successful as desired so the team has to figure out some other model. Examples abound. The aforementioned SkyBlox pivoting into ScoutMob. The Sunday Paper becoming Half Off Depot. Viture moving from a walled user generated video service to a social platform. CipherTrust was a pure message transfer agent before becoming an email security company. I could go on.

Finally there are purposely generated startup ideas. While I have an ongoing list of startup ideas that I think about, just sitting down and coming up with good startup ideas is incredibly hard. It's so hard that I am extremely hard pressed to give examples. I agree with Paul Graham (and his Ideas for Startups and How to Get Startup Ideas are most reads). The best way to get startup ideas is to look for problems. Problems where you have some domain knowledge. Problems where you know other people that might be able to validate them. Problems that you could potentially solve. While problems to solve abound not many of them meet the criteria for evaluating startup ideas.

The catch-22 around startup ideas is that in some ways purposefully generating them seems more challenging then stumbling upon one. Startup ideas are best generated if you are working on something else than trying to generate startup ideas.

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Posted in Entrepreneurship, Startups

Lens For Evaluating Startup Ideas

Feb 04, 2014

One of the things that I have been pondering lately is how I can evaluate startups and startup ideas more systemically. There is good reason for this; I am looking for my next venture. And as I was contemplating how to go about this a thought popped into my head. Evaluate them in the same manner that investors do. Which took me back to a lesson I learned from Merrick Furst, the founder of FlashPoint.

Merrick taught an undergrad entrepreneurship class at Georgia Tech. I sat through some of them. During one Merrick explained a venture risk framework that most investors used even though they generally don't talk about it. The framework included management risk, market risk, product risk, and funding risk.

From an early stage investors perspective all startup milestones should be focused on reducing management, market, technology, and funding risk. And if you are going to be investing the most precious commodity in the world, your time, it is not a bad lens for an entrepreneur to use as well.

Looking at startups and startup ideas through this lens leads to a host of questions to ask to evaluate the risk inherent in the opportunity. You need to get to a point where you can decide if the idea is something that could become a real company. Below are some of the questions to ask. 

Market Risk




You also need to ask yourself if the startup is one where you can have an impact. You have to look at it through the lens of your own personal experience and the value you can bring. For example when I personally evaluate startups or startup concepts I look for a business to business SaaS or SaaS like Internet company with a consumer element where sales and marketing are key drivers to business success. I know I can have a significant impact on these type of businesses.

Your lens is likely to be much different. Know what it is and focus on it.

Look at startup concepts and startups through the lens of investors and your personal experience. If you do you are more likely to find a winner.

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Posted in Entrepreneurship, Startups

Startup Naming

Jan 28, 2014

Tonight I am giving a presentation on naming and positioning at Founders Institute Atlanta. In prepping for it I uncovered an old draft article on the subject of naming. It was part of a series of posts on startup marketing that I published back in the summer of 2009.

While a number of articles have been written on startup naming by the likes of Guy Kawasaki, Jason Calacanis, and Dharmesh Shah, I but together my own simple five point framework for startup name characteristics. I hesitate to call them requirements because in today's day and age if you are going to meet all the requirements it would take a pretty good chunk of change that concept and seed stage companies can not afford. 

I will also say this, I am not sure if the company name really matters. If might give you an edge but it may not be a big issue. It is an subject that deserves some serious cycles but if you take a peek at the winners in the Atlanta tech space it is hard to discern if the name matters at all on ultimate company success.

1. Memorable

This is the most element to me. A startup name needs to be memorable. To be memorable it needs to be brief. Four syllables or less. Less is good. Think eBay, Google, Netflix, Twitter, and Yahoo!. All two syllables. Two syllable names also seem to have the best verb potential. Dropbox it to me.

Part of the reason is that you don't want the name to become too long is that people will have a tendency to cheat on your name. A great example of this is Internet Security Systems. Great descriptive name, but so long people just called it ISS.

A bigger part of the reason is that you want the brand and word of mouth effects that a memorable name provides. Having a memorable name greatly increases word of mouth marketing potential. 

The name needs to be memorable not only to people but to machines. Machines such as search engine crawlers. You want to be sure it is unique enough that you can own it via SEO. 

2. Easy to spell and pronounce.

You want someone to be able to spell and say your company name correctly unprompted after hearing it one time. This, along with shortness, are the two most important elements in my book. If it is not obvious know to spell you will spend the rest of your time with the company dictating the letters over the phone every time you talk to someone for the first time or they ask for your email address.

If it is not obvious how to say the name you are going to have a much harder time building a brand. And this may sound a little out there but people have to like the way it makes them feel when they say the name. Xobni does not exactly roll off the tongue with pleasure. You want your name to make people smile.

No hipster buy a vowel names allowed.

3. Reflect product capabilities or be evocative.

Some of biggest brands on the Internet today have names that do not reflect their product capabilities but are evocative. Amazon, Google, eBay, Yahoo. 

Some of the biggest brands on the Internet today have product capability names. Facebook, LinkedIn, NetFlix, The Weather Channel. 

While I prefer product capability names I will also say this. If you go down the road of your company name reflecting product capabilities it can create issues if you have to pivot. More likely than not you will pivot.

4. Trademark clear.

This might seem obvious but you have to ensure that you can get rights to use the name for the purpose you want. Simple United States Patent and Trademark Office searches are a good place to start but are not definitive. If you have the money a CompuMark search can be undertaken.

The key to the mark being clear is if it has the potential to create confusion in the marketplace. You find a trademark clear name you should start the process of registering it as soon as you use it in commerce.

5. Able to secure web properties.

You want to be able to obtain the .com domain and the company name on the big three social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) if appropriate for your market. The .com has to be available or available for a price that you are willing to pay, now or at some time in the future. Successful companies cheat on this all the time. Twitter was Twittr. Delicious was Do what you have to do to grow the company and then getting the right web property in the future seems to be a enough common practice that you can pursue it if you have to do so.

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Posted in Marketing, Startups

Managing With Strategic Priorities

Dec 18, 2013

Planning at a startup, like most things, is hard. Conditions are rapidly changing and the amount of real information that you have is smaller than in larger more established companies. One tool to use to help in planning is the creation of strategic priorities. It is kinda like a big company three year plan. But due to the rate of change and unknowns startup strategic priorities need to be set about every six months.

Not sure if Charles Brewer or Mike McQuary came up with this strategic priority scheme. Perhaps they came up with it together. All I know is that it works. Here it is listicle style. 

1. Assemble the team off site.
You need to gather up the senior team and get them off site for a day or so to focus. Depending on the stage of the company this could include board members, investors, advisors, co-founders, or senior management. Plan on a day and a half. You need some time to think about things overnight.

2. State of the company address.
The girl or guy in change opens the meeting with the state of the company and the purpose of the meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to come up with a set of three to five overarching objectives for the company to meet over the course of the next six months. It's a team effort, the guy and the girl should not get too deep into the below at this stage. It would taint the outcome.

3. Review past strategic priorities.
If this is not your first time at the rodeo, doing a post-mortem on the previous set of strategic priorities is a must. Grade the results just like in school. A - F. Talk about the why. There are both good and not good reasons for not achieving an objective. Know which type is at work. If it is a not good type discuss how to improve the cause of failure going forward. Have a scribe to capture this and all other discussions at the off site.

4. Macro environment discussion.
Have a discussion about the big environmental factors potentially effecting your business. The economy, politics, change/potential change in government regulations, the financial markets, other technology areas to name a few. These are not really things that the company can control but discussing what everyone is thinking about concerning the wider landscape helps to provide some perspective as the team starts drilling down. 

5. SWOT analysis.
Have a SWOT analysis discussion. Or if you prefer a Porter five forces analysis discussion. Once you do this, combined with steps 2 through 4 above it is time to determine the strategic priorities.

6. Strategic priority selection.
Have everyone present the three things that they feel the company needs to focus on during the next six months. By the second or third person themes will start to emerge. Combine them into some smaller number. Have the team debate what is really the most important areas for the company to operationally focus on during the next six months. Pick five give or take one or two. Have no more than seven. For each strategic priority appoint an individual at the meeting that is accountable for its delivery. More often than not strategic priorities are focused on customer experience, product development, and revenue generation.

7. Set strategic priority measurement criteria.
The last thing before getting back to the work of the day to day is setting measurement criteria for the strategic priorities selected. These metrics will be used in the weekly progress report and to grade the work toward the objectives at your next strategic priority meeting. The person directly responsible for delivery of the strategic objective should lead the discussion on the appropriate metrics.

8. Create drill down objectives for every employee.
Every employee needs to understand the strategic priorities and how their actions contribute to it every day. Explain the priorities to those (if any) that were not at the off site. Jointly come up with goals and measurements for each and every employee. Either one on one or in teams.

9. Discuss progress every week.
Every week as part of an internal team meeting set aside time to discuss progress against the strategic priorities and what adjustments need to be taken to meet the objectives. In my experience sharing this with the entire company during company meetings is very powerful. Having the person accountable for achieving the strategic priority provide these updates works best.

10. Rinse and repeat.
Managing via strategic priorities is a great tool. Do it once then rinse and repeat. Adjust as necessary for your company.

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Posted in Management, Startups

Hatching Twitter Lessons

Dec 02, 2013

Over the Thanksgiving break I breezed through Nick Bolton's "Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal." It is a fast paced easy read filled with exactly what the title promises. Co-founder/board/executive level drama. There are some good lessons as well.

Don't hire your friends just because they are your friends. This, along with slow decision making, is portrayed as Ev's downfall and the reason for his ouster as CEO.

Have no mercy. When Ev pushes Jack out of the company he leaves him with a ceremonial board seat. Jack uses the seat as a place to plot his revenge and oust Ev.

Backup your application. At one point pretty far in there is no backup of the Twitter database.

People behave differently when a lot of money and power are at stake. What begins as a small team trying to do their best to start a company can turn into something much more complex pretty darn quick.

Fred Wilson comes across as a hard ass. Nothing at all like the friendly guy on A VC. Not sure if I believe the portrayal. Then again, people behave differently when a lot of money is at stake.  

I don't know how accurate the tales are in Hatching but it is a darn good read with many lessons. Highly recommended.

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Posted in Entrepreneurship, Social, Startups
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