Archive for the ‘tipping points’ tag
Unqualified lessons are hard to wring from startups. It’s difficult to really understand something without doing it, and no two people who do it have identical experiences. That said, I’ve seen two schools of thought on how to learn from others’ startup experiences:
1) It’s best to learn from success. Stories of failures have no prescriptive advice on how to accomplish something. Stories of success, on the other hand, offer models to copy.
2) It’s best to learn from failure. Success is fairly random, whereas failure usually happens for distinct reasons.
First, anyone thinking of starting a company should take lessons from wherever they’re available — successes, failures or those yet to be determined. But given a choice, the best lessons come from failure.
I’ve stopped thinking of a startup as a discrete success or failure. Rather, a company is a series of small (or big) successes and failures, one side of which eventually overwhelms the other. Some failures are singular and crushing — taking on a bad co-founder, for instance. Others are subtle and can sit under the radar for years, even in companies that are otherwise successful. Poor initial equity distribution or choice of corporate structure, for instance.
That said, most companies aren’t killed by one overwhelmingly bad decision. They’re killed by dozens of bad decisions that pile up and stick the company in an unrecoverable morass. These small, could’ve-gone-better decisions offer the best startup learnings, are the exact lessons covered up by success.
Take one of the greatest entrepreneurial success stories of our generation — Facebook. Clearly, Facebook did some things right. But they also did a whole lot of things wrong, and it’s hard for anyone to determine how much more Facebook could’ve screwed up before they would have doomed their chances to win the social networking wars. It’s entirely reasonable that they could’ve blown any number of decisions and still come out on top.
On the flip side, copying success is tricky. Let’s look at Facebook again. The most difficult thing about copying Facebook’s success (or any company’s success) is not deriving the factors that led to their success, but figuring out the level on which they should be copied. For instance:
Level 1: Facebook was successful, so I should copy what they created: a new social network. Good luck with that one.
Level 2: Facebook was successful, so I should copy their operational or strategic decisions for my own idea. As I pointed out above, it’s not obvious that Facebook made great operational or strategic decisions.
Level 3: Facebook was successful, so I should copy their methodology of thinking about ideas or products. This sounds high-level enough, but how does one execute on it? Does anyone know what goes on inside Zuckerberg’s brain? More practically, are those thoughts relevant to your product as opposed to a walled garden social network?
On the theme of translating theory into practice, I helped create Founders at FAIL, a forum for entrepreneurs to talk about their failures. Think Founders at Work, but all the stories have unhappy endings. I’ll be speaking there (along with GoCrossCampus founder Matthew Brimer) on August 18th.
The more time I spend working with startups, the more I find useful lessons for growing companies in random places. Take my gaming (industry) meetup, for instance. I’ve been running it for over a year, but only recently has it begun to “hockey stick”, in industry parlance.
The Opportunity: After running a gaming company in New York City for six months, I realized that there wasn’t a good place for people in the gaming industry to meet others in the gaming industry in an open, cross-pollinated environment. The International Game Developers’ Association’s New York chapter held regular events, but they were primarily focused on software developers, not the entire game creation ecosystem.
The Tactic: Create the New York Gaming Meetup, a (monthly) event where game developers can freely interact with others in the gaming industry as well as those outside the industry. Events would be regularly attended by investors, marketers, designers and others with a big role in making successful games. Meetups would be oriented around a series of demos of games built in the NYC area with networking before and after the demos.
(1) The NY gaming industry is highly fragmented with a focus on small (1-3 person) indie development shops. This isn’t Seattle or LA; there are only a handful of mid-sized gaming studios in NYC. It was critical to recognize that New York is a very different place and build a program that caters to those differences.
(2) There are few potential sponsors of such a meetup in NYC. This event would have to take root with minimal budget.
(3) Space in New York is hard to come by. The event would have to be structured and timed to let us take advantage of free space in bars and restaurants.
(4) As I’ve previously written, the New York tech landscape is very siloed, with little cross-pollination between verticals. In Silicon Valley, anyone working on a tech-enabled solution considers themselves part of the tech industry. In New York, we frame ourselves in terms of the particular vertical we are tackling — the “advertising industry”, the “gaming industry” or the “fashion industry”, for instance. This makes it difficult for events to reach across the social graph, and to this day I rarely see any Gaming Meetup regulars at other big tech events like the NY Tech Meetup or the Y+30.
Execution: For its first year, the event took place at Gallery Bar in the Lower East Side on Tuesday nights. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give the location a 2, the venue a 7 and the cost a 10 — it was a free (but good) space with AV equipment in a out-of-the-way Manhattan neighborhood. Don’t get me wrong, I love the LES, but it’s a suboptimal place to host an after-work event.
Initial Results: The Gaming Meetup got a decent but not overwhelming response. We had a fairly predictable number of attendees — 55 to 75 per meetup — over our first ten months. The event wasn’t really gaining traction, but it was establishing a good core of game developers and people who loved what we created. The content (demos from local game developers and entrepreneurs) was hit or miss. There weren’t enough games being developed in New York City for us to be truly selective, and for every awesomely cool and instructive game that took the stage we had one guy just trying to sell something to the audience.
Iteration: A few months after starting the meetup, I started iterating on the model. Here are some things we tried and the results we got. Since metrics are important, changes were evaluated on (a) the number of attendees we got, (b) how long those attendees stayed and (c) how people reviewed the event.
Moving it later: Most people would show up at 7:30 anyway, so our 6:30 start time didn’t make any sense — especially since attendees had to travel to the Lower East Side. Good change, kept it.
Focusing on networking rather than demos: The demos started to get stale after a while, so I created one networking-only meetup to see how people would react. Bad idea; many people will only travel for content.
Fewer Demos: This was partially out of necessity, but ultimately it proved to be a good call. Six demos is simply too many. Four is much better.
Themed Meetups: We ran our first themed meetup (on Mobile Gaming) in March, and it was a tipping point of sorts. As it turns out, there is a certain “optimal specificity” in this kind of stuff — make it too general (“Game Demos”) and people aren’t sure what they’ll get. Make it too specific (“Android Development Best Practices”) and most people won’t care. Something in the middle (“Social Games”, “Mobile Gaming”, “Innovation in Consoles”) is ideal.
Higher-profile speakers: Last month, Kenny Rosenblatt (CEO, Arkadium) came and spoke on the topic of social games, and our meetup got 2x the number of people we’ve ever gotten. I’m a bit surprised that I hadn’t gone the high-profile-keynote-speaker route before. I’m certainly capable of sourcing them, and they give me far fewer logistical headaches than half a dozen demoers (one of which will inevitably bring a mac without the right VGA adapter).
The Hockey Stick: As you can see from my chart of RSVPs, I’ve started to figure this thing out. Popularity, of course, is self-reinforcing — now that we’re getting real traction, we’ve landed a great venue at AOL Ventures in the Union Square neighborhood. And our May meetup already has 90+ RSVPs, which is well beyond what any previous NY Gaming Meetup has gotten by this point. Most excitingly, we’re lining up partnerships with other Meetup groups for this summer — for example, we’re getting together with the Y+30 to host a panel on the future of gaming.
There have been a lot of words flying around recently about why the NY startup scene is starting to get real traction and attention. Today, Stowe Boyd at True/Slant launched Hotbed, a new blog covering the NY tech scene. In his inaugural post, he claims that smart early-stage investors were the missing ingredient in the NYC startup world until this point. I’m sure David Rose is thrilled about that.
Later today, Matt Mireles, who has been making a bit of a name for himself recently, fired back with a claim that entrepreneurs are at the core of NYC’s tech renaissance and investors are just along for the ride.
The emergence of industries in particular cities is a complex problem that has been studied at length by economists and policy experts, of which I am neither. But it still seems like a massive oversimplification to claim that a certain group of people showed up one day and decided to make things happen. If that were the case, it absolutely begs the question of why it didn’t happen sooner. It’s all related — money follows companies and companies follow money, and I don’t believe that one really gets too far out of balance with the other on a local scale.
But that doesn’t mean the volume of investors (or entrepreneurs) doesn’t matter. In fact, a large startup network is particularly important for New York, a city with notoriously siloed industries. In the past, media guys didn’t talk to finance guys, tech wonks didn’t talk to policy wonks, creatives didn’t talk to quants, et cetera. If you showed up at a startup event, finding someone you knew was tough — and it was even tougher to find someone who had a broad base of connections and could introduce you to someone helpful.
This is distinct from the Bay Area, where the volume and density of people interested in startups created a very tight social network. If you were a, say, entrepreneur in New York from Conde Nast working on a startup in the fashion industry, it was tricky to meet the right people in the tech world. There were few “connectors”, since there were simply fewer people to connect — entrepreneurs, investors, executives, engineers, service providers and such. The connectors that did exist — for example, guys in NY Angels — were fairly inaccessible, as angel investors are wont to be.
Thus, the emergence of “smart early-stage investors” is important. But it’s important because they are bringing social capital to the table, not financial capital. First Round Capital could do zero deals in New York over the next 12 months and they would still have a major impact on the NY startup scene because they’re paying Charlie O’Donnell to hang out in the Ace Hotel Lobby and chat with any entrepreneur who walks up to him. Charlie and the rest of the emerging investor class in NYC are guys who can and will connect the finance guys to the media guys, the tech wonks to the policy wonks and the creatives to the quants. And that’s huge.
And let’s not forget the entrepreneurs. As I wrote a week or so ago, the Celebutante Entrepreneur is a dying breed in New York City. And that’s a great thing for entrepreneurs, as celebrities are (almost by definition) inaccessible. I couldn’t go to Julia Allison for advice about getting my startup incorporated, nor would I want to. But guys like Chris Dixon, O’Donnell and Mireles are easier to track down.
The startup social network density has reached a tipping point in New York City. And that’s all that matters.