Should you work on that startup idea? Ask: Why me? Why now?

New vlog this morning:

Sometimes you just really nail that idea. It's something everyone wants. It's clearly the future. Like in this clip from Silicon Valley:

Nelson Bighetti: The user can control their Hooli phone solely with their neural impulses. Point, click, drag, even type, all using only brainwaves. Think it, and it happens.

Gavin Belson: Holy shit. Seriously?

Nelson Bighetti: Seriously.

Gavin Belson: This is great! Fuck yes, team! So, what's our timeline here? I mean, when can we start testing this? How long before we can integrate this into Nucleus?

Nelson Bighetti: Not long. It'll probably happen in our lifetime, we just have to figure out how to make it work. But I really believe that our grandchildren are going to grow up taking this technology for granted.

Gavin Belson: Our grandchildren?

Nelson Bighetti: I know you're single, but you might meet someone.

Gavin Belson: No... no!

It's not enough. Getting pointed in the right direction is just not enough. As you saw in that clip right there, Big Head in "Silicon Valley" found this out the hard way. You can't just point at the moon, you've got to build the goddamn spaceship. 

Hard questions about a startup's advantage

You've got to figure out the problem to solve, and in that step the questions you ask are: 

  • Who am I building for? 
  • Who's my audience? 
  • What problem do they have? 

And then next, you've got to figure out how you'll solve it. 

  • Is my solution possible? 
  • Is it feasible? 
  • How much will it cost? 
  • What tech today exists and how much of it can I use? 
  • Is it open-source? Is it licensable? 
  • Is there research out there that's already been published, that's a new method? 
  • And what are the alternatives? 
  • How do people solve it today? 
  • Who else has tried this? And what's gone wrong with that solution? 

Why now? What do I have that nobody else has? Is it technology? Is it something that would prevent other people from just copying it? 

  • The best moat of all is often actually real pure technology. 
  • Sometimes it's relationships to customers, for instance, if you're selling to an enterprise and you can close an extra good, initial lighthouse customer that would unlock an entire industry. Envoy, the sign in, check in service that you've probably already used in Silicon Valley, they got started by selling Airbnb in their first 10 clients. 
  • Is it a better go-to-market? 
  • Is there content? Is there some relationship? 
  • Is there something that you do that nobody else does? What is that? 

That's a great place to start because that helps you make something that is a lot more protect-able. 

What it means if you have weak answers to these questions

The difficult thing after doing this exercise is sometimes there isn't a sufficient answer. There might be too many nos, there might be too many weak spots in your pitch. 

Some basic examples? 

  • The audience might be too small. 
  • Your problem might not be felt severely enough for someone to try to fix it.
  • It might not be possible to build what you want, given the state of technology today. 
  • Or it might be possible but it might be too expensive to make it viable for the people who might pay for it. 
  • There might be obvious alternatives that are basically just as good or even cheaper. There might be ways that it's being solved today that are basically fine. 
  • You might have no advantages over other people trying to create this. 

And this might be the moment of maximum disillusionment. That's the time when people start thinking, "Maybe I shouldn't work on it." 

On the other hand, this set of questions helps you think about the questions you need to answer. This focuses you on the things that you need to work on as a founder. 

And if you're a great engineer, that's why building tech can be some of the best ways to do that. You can find a moat, a reason to be that might make it a lot better, cheaper, or faster than all the alternatives. 

Technology as a great moat

If you're a technologist, being able to use technology to be your moat is sort of the bread and butter, right? 

The best examples are things that basically have never happened before. Standard Cognition is a great example of this because they have a pure technology moat. They're actually putting to practice a new method that has never been commercialized before. And as a result, they have something that even Amazon cannot duplicate. They can provide cashierless checkout for a price that is 1/10 the cost, possibly, 1/100 the cost of state of the art that's out there right now. 

How we did it at Posterous, my startup from 2008

But that's not the only way for this to actually come together. 

One example from my own past was Posterous actually. Posterous, if you don't remember, was a dead simple email platform that let you email one email address, and this itself was a brand new thing that nobody else had ever tried. The main reason was that people thought that security wise it wasn't possible to provide a good experience that way. That's why people always had sort of 

Posterous was doing, on day one, a thing that people thought was not possible. But we did it using pretty simple software. It wasn't machine learning. Frankly, it was IF statements. If we received an email from you before, we asked you to confirm it. Once you confirmed it, we knew that that path of email was going to be safe.

That simple innovation from my co-founder, Sachin Agarwal, was enough to be a great moat for us. Nobody else tried to copy us right off the bat because they couldn't figure out the thing that we had figured out. That was enough for us to become a top 200 site and do it in a way where we weren't sort of fending off a thousand other copycats. 

So there's not just one way to get this moat. What was true for us in 2008, remains true today. Without that moat, without that reason to be, without that thing that other people did not have, we didn't have a good reason to exist.

We could take this technological limitation, which is antispoof technology, and use it to be enough of a moat to get our first hundreds of thousands of users. 

That's a thing that you can do too. Maybe not exactly that but that's the shape of something that you should be looking for when you're working on a new startup. 

It's just prudent to ask: Why me? What do I have that nobody else has? And if that answers nothing, you've got to keep working. 

Masterclass on Remote Work: Hiring, recruiting, and essential tools (Part 1 of 2)

This is the first part of a two part masterclass on remote work, now live here:

01:46 Meet Shogun, the e-commerce page builder 
02:58 They started fully remote as a side project that became profitable 
04:23 The Tools: Hardware and software that enables remote work 
07:40 How to do learning & development 
08:29 On recruiting for remote teams 
11:35 Remote recruiting process 
19:43 How to legally hire remote candidates 
22:05 Onboarding remote employees

Watch the full video at YouTube here: — You can also read the full Shogun Remote Work guide at their blog here

I guess we're all working remotely right now, so who better to sit down with than a team that is the best at remote work that I've ever seen, Shogun?

Today's a master class in how to run remote work teams, from a team that has been working remotely from nearly the beginning. They've gone on to create one of the best products in the whole portfolio, and they did it through great recruiting, great management, great software, and great processes.

In this masterclass today, they sit down with Katelin Holloway Partner at Initialized and former head of people at Reddit to walk through all of the secrets they learned the hard way so you don't have to. Part one is about recruiting, tools, workflow— Let's get started.

Masterclass: How to sell to 20M software developers with an amazing onboarding experience

20M software developers in the world— if you can convince this set of people in the world to use your software, you've got a very very valuable startup. Today I wanted to sit down with the folks behind one of the best developer experiences I have ever seen and hear their lessons as they built it. 

Quick run of show—

01:15 Algolia is realtime fast customizable search, both backend and frontend 
02:02 Tech giants can put 100s of devs on search. Algolia democratizes that. 
03:34 Walking through the developer experience 
03:45 The homepage 
04:01 Evolving from self-serve to enterprise 
04:16 Even if you sell by enterprise, showing value to developers immediately is still key 
05:51 Garry's magical experience using Algolia 
06:12 The docs drive you directly to the tutorial: Interactive is better 
09:53 Design tip: Strong call to actions 
10:42 Developer docs are only effective when they make devs feel powerful 
11:56 How did Algolia implement their interactive developer docs? 
13:01 How to support 9 runtimes? 15 engineers out of 100 are devoted to dev xp 
14:43 Low bar high ceiling: the holy grail for products and services 
16:56 How Sylvain got into tech 
18:56 When your competition is 20 year old tech: Lucene and Sphinx 
20:05 Career advice for engineers starting out 

Transcript below

Stories from China Tech that don't get reported: A conversation with Rui Ma of Tech Buzz China

Today we're sitting down with Rui Ma. She is a very old friend of mine who also runs one of the top Chinese tech podcasts. Th ere are so many stories we never get to hear in the West, so I thought it would be fun to talk through a bunch of those narratives. It's a country of 1.4B people. People say China is either the future, or it copies the future. The reality is a little bit of both. 

Transcript below

The best podcast on Chinese technology— Tech Buzz China

00:30 Meet Rui Ma, Co-host of Tech Buzz China 
00:58 Tech in the West doesn't pay enough attention to China 
01:18 Why Rui started Tech Buzz China 
02:13 Luckin Coffee is an example of US tech media getting it wrong 
02:43 Media’s false equivalence: Luckin = Starbucks 

What's it called and how do we find it?

It's called Tech Buzz China, and then you can just go to any platform and we'll be there.

That's awesome, and what kind of stuff do you like to talk about?

Basically I talk about China tech, but it's with a heavy emphasis on internet. So, consumer internet primarily because that's really a lot of the big Chinese internet companies, that's what they're doing.

There's just so much happening in China and it feels like the media environment is completely separate. It doesn't make sense, it's worlds apart in sort of a sheer hardware platform, a sheer, like, software platform, but I don't think people pay attention to what's happening with Chinese companies nearly enough, and I'm glad for what you do. Thanks for doing that!

Oh, thank you.

Why did you start the podcast?

I thought there was an opportunity to more clearly bridge a divide that I saw between English coverage of Chinese tech companies and then what actually was happening on the ground in China. There are certain companies that are really popular in the media, or with the media here in the U.S., and are actually viewed quite skeptically in China, for example. There are other companies that are viewed very strongly in China that might not get a lot of airtime here in the U.S. but that are really interesting. And so, I look primarily at actually Chinese rich coverage, and I lived and worked in China for eight years, so, I tried to use my knowledge and cultural understanding to bring that, yeah.

That's super useful. What's the most extreme example of this?

One of the more extreme examples of recent years is a company called Luckin Coffee, which basically does delivery of their coffee. In China, there's a lot of skepticism about the company, but in the U.S., I think that they have, you know, there's some balanced coverage, but overall, I felt like that they were covered more favorably here.

How do you think that happens, that reporters here can't get access to the right people to sort of vet the story properly?

I think basically the reason why that happens is that there are certain narratives that come more naturally to Western audiences, so it's just more interesting because it's more familiar, whereas there are lots of things that are more unique to China that are just difficult to explain without have to provide a ton of context.

In the case of Luckin, they sort of just used one work to explain their business, and the word was Starbucks, which I think everyone here can understand, but if you take another company in China, like Kuaishou, which is a short-video app that does live-streaming e-commerce, all these other things, it's just much harder to explain 'cause there's no Western analog.

Andrew and Garry's Guide to Selling Your Startup

When and how should you sell your startup? M&A (mergers & acquisitions) are always a high stress process, and there are a lot of things you have to consider when you are trying to get a startup exit executed in the right way. Garry's startup Posterous was sold to Twitter for $20M and Andrew Lee's startup was sold to Zynga too. As venture capitalists today we work with more than a hundred startups from the earliest possible stage to now a total market value of over $36 billion. We've seen nearly every kind of startup exit and regularly try to help founders as they navigate these problems. This short video encompasses a lot of the advice we end up giving frequently to our community.

Transcript below

Andrew: Are you recording now?

Garry: Yes, recording. The reality is like, we sold our company because the company was ****ed.

Andrew: Yeah.

Garry: We were out of money. This is why you really sell your company. You made something good and then you're not growing. You can't raise more money. The company's going to die.

Andrew: Yeah, but sadly, what's happening is you always get approached when your company is growing, it's doing super well, and you don't really need anybody, and that's the time when it's probably the best time to sell. That's the classic problem.

Garry: That's the conundrum! It's okay, though, this video is to help you figure out how to actually get it done.

Andrew: And remember, companies are not sold, they're bought.

Email overload is the first sign you need to scale yourself

New vlog this morning! Transcript below or click play above.

Do you ever get a lot of email? Do you ever wish you could just do this with all that email? 

Of course, then this would probably happen.

As much as I'd like to hide from email, I can't hide, and most founders cannot hide either.

The ability to deal with a crazy amount of information and prioritize it properly feeds into the one trait that is super important for every founder— Conscientiousness. That is being able to do one's work well and quickly, with diligence.

There's an interesting study by Bucknell University from 2004, linked here. It's a study of businesses that were able to survive for eight years, and it studied founders on five different traits: agreeableness, extraversion, emotional stability, openness, and conscientiousness. 

Those first three had no affect on the outcome of the business after eight years. There was no significant correlation. Being agreeable or disagreeable? Maybe it doesn't matter. 

However, conscientiousness and openness we do have to worry about. Conscientiousness is positively correlated. The surprising result is that openness is actually anti-correlated with success over eight years. 

I think this points to a certain type of transition that happens in the life of every startup. Early on it's incredibly important to be as open and creative as possible. Later on, it's incredibly important to be as conscientious as you possibly can be.

Pre-product market fit? You need openness. You need creativity. You need the ability to do something that nobody else has done. You need the chaos of the prototyper, you needed to try things that other people have never tried. You need to be contrarian against the status quo.

But, over the long haul, that switches. It's the founder who has to manage the transition from this open, creative period, to one of scalability. 

Post-product market fit is about execution. It's about that founder who found product market fit, giving power and control over to the best possible people they can possibly hire. It's about delegation, it's about goal setting, and then it's about keeping people accountable to those goals that were set. It's a switch that a lot of people fail at.

Here's what it looks like when someone who has product market fit finds it, and loses it. The graph goes up, up, up, to the right, plateaus, and then starts falling. 

Founders who cannot scale, end up being overwhelmed by email first. It kind of looks like the scene from the movie "Brazil" that started this video. You're jammed for time. You become a bottleneck for the decisions you have to make. Your decision quality suffers over time. 

The fix is straightforward. You must invest in your skills as a manager. You must hire people you really trust, who are excellent, and then you have to delegate and trust them. But then verify! You've got to hold them accountable.

Those are all skills that many first time founders, who start off as incredibly open, and creative, do not have, but they must either develop those skills, or hire people under them who do have those skills. 

We have a finite number of hours in the day. Founders need to really manage this transition well— going from founder to CEO, running a board, running a team of executives. You have to be the player-coach, instead of just the star player. 

So this is actually a pretty useful roadmap for founders. Pre-product market fit, it's about openness, it's about creativity. Later, they need to switch into conscientiousness mode. They need to take what they've learned, and then march the whole team in that direction, and hold that team accountable the way they would hold themselves accountable.

When a founding team nails the first, and then the second, that's the makings of something that can truly be great.

Parker Conrad on building eng teams outside of SF and why engineers must do customer support (Part 2)

This is part 2 of my interview with Parker Conrad, founder of RipplingRead part 1 of this interview here.

Garry: Parker, one of the things that we're definitely seeing across our whole portfolio is that we're here in San Francisco, but engineers are very expensive. There's not enough housing, quality of life is very difficult at some level... but what's difficult for San Francisco is turning out to be an incredible boon for the rest of the world. How do you guys think about remote work, and what are you seeing across all of your customers?

Parker: In my view, remote work is the worst way to build a company, except for all the others. It's really not possible to build engineering teams at scale in the Bay Area right now. I think it's not something that a company can do, and so, if you need to build a big engineering team, you've gotta do at least some of it, or big parts of it outside of San Francisco. 

One of things that I think was not unique anymore, but was unique when we started doing it, is most of the company was actually outside of the Bay Area. We have a second office in Bangalore, and that's, even to this day, more than half the company is at our Bangalore office. And a lot of that is engineering, but there are other functions there as well. 

All of the challenges of having remote teams are there, but it's so impossible to build everything in the Bay Area that you need to find ways to overcome those challenges. And we see in our customer base, Rippling is really one of the only systems like this, it's the only payroll and HR system that was built for remote-distributed teams across the globe.

You can hire people outside of the U.S., you can pay them outside of the U.S., you can have one system for everyone, and so, we see this in a lot of our customers. That's one of the big value propositions is for companies that do have people, whether it's employees or contractors outside the U.S., you can do it all seamlessly inside of Rippling.

The 4 Habits of Auteurs That Made Hideo Kojima’s Video Game Masterpiece, Death Stranding

New vlog today! Here's the transcript below if you prefer to read, but this one in particular is a lot of action! The video game we talk about is gorgeous and words don't do it justice.

Games are violent. Really violent. Holy crap! Really, really violent, seriously. 

But do they really, really have to be that violent? 

This game doesn't think so. 

Today we're talking about "Death Stranding" One of my favorite games. It's so beautiful, it's super fun, and you don't have to kill a lot of people.