Note: A version of this post appeared in Fortune Magazine
You want to know the best way to tell an investor that they should not, under any circumstances, invest in your startup? Here are the magic words:
“We have no competition.”
There are many ways that sentence can backfire on you:
There are large competitors that you are unaware of
If this happens, shame on you. We see a lot of startups at Dreamit, many of which are tiny and under the radar. So I’m fine if an entrepreneur misses a small startup or two, but when they miss a major competitor, the founder has lost all credibility with me and probably has no business building a startup in this space.
You are defining the space far too narrowly
So you’re the only marketplace for left-handed stirring straws. Who cares? What’s wrong with using a right-handed stirring straw? You have just shown the investor that you don’t understand the customer. After all, when it comes to making a purchase, it’s the customer’s decision that matters, not what you have in mind.
You don’t understand the baseline
This one is more subtle. There are, from time to time, concepts that are revolutionary enough that the startup truly doesn’t have any direct competitors, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t somehow meeting the underlying need. Before Uber came along, people didn’t just sit outside their caves moaning, “Gee, I wish there were some way I could get to the mammoth hunt.” We drove, took taxis or buses, or just plain walked. We found a way.
Whatever unmet need you are addressing, people are somehow dealing with it right now. They might be using telephones, Microsoft Excel, Post-it notes, walking down to the corner store—somehow, life goes on. As an investor, I want to know how they currently cope so I can assess whether your solution is a quantum leap forward or an incremental improvement—and I don’t invest in incremental improvements.
And if you truly have a startup that has no direct competitors, no indirect competitors, and your potential customers do not have workarounds in place, then your startup is likely addressing a problem that is so trivial, no one cares.
Note: A version of this post appeared in my semi-regular column on AlleyWatch.
Between applications to Dreamit and the many startups who approach me directly, I speak to a lot of entrepreneurs. And, while I love that part of my job, one of the least pleasant things I have to do as a mentor is tell entrepreneurs when, IMHO, they are wasting their time and need to move on. It’s so unpleasant, that I know many mentors who simply don’t do it. They gently point out “difficulties” but just don’t want to take a chance that they might offend the founder because he might badmouth them so they praise his “hard work” and urge him to keep fighting the good fight.
I don’t do that.
Your time is too precious to waste so if I think you are going down a dead end, I will be bluntly and brutally (albeit politely) honest with you.
Sometimes, that backfires.
The following is an exchange between me and a Dreamit applicant. As background, I had already seen the applicant pitch at other events and knew even before seeing his application that his startup was “not a fit” for Dreamit. His actual application blew past all prior Dreamit records for answer length. I would call his answers “epic novels” except that that implies a logical and narrative structure that was entirely missing. Suffice it to say that, because of this applicant, all Dreamit application questions now have character limits.
It started with this DM:
Why didn’t my company get into Dreamit? I don’t like getting rejecting from accelerators, but they keep telling us to apply again.
Per your dm on Twitter, you asked for some feedback on why [COMPANY] was not selected for Dreamit this cycle.
You are attempting to create a new social network, something that is brutally difficult in the best of circumstances. In the absence of significant traction (>5000 MAU, and rising fast), there is simply no evidence in the market that you are solving a real problem for a meaningful number of people.
I could probably stop there and end with encouragement to apply again when you have made more progress (as you pointed out that most accelerators do) but I won’t.
I’ve seen you working on this concept for a fair amount of time and, while I respect the hustle and hard work, I respectfully suggest that it’s time to move on to the next venture. You have given [COMPANY] enough time and put in more than enough effort that, if this were going to catch fire, it would have already.
You are clearly passionate about this idea and I know it will be hard to move on – I’ve been there myself and know it first hand – but the longer you continue down what is increasingly looking like a dead end, the longer you are putting off the next idea which might actually be the one to go the distance….
Regardless of what you decide, I wish you the best of luck.
Thanks, but I beg to differ and [COMPANY] is much different than any other social network and nobody does things just like [COMPANY]. People may have called Elon Musk crazy to create a new car brand.
Side comment: No one called Elon Musk crazy. By the time he’d started Tesla he’d more than earned his chops. As a general rule, if you are unknown and propose something really out there, you are “crazy” but if you are a hugely successful entrepreneur doing the same thing, you are “bold.”
I believe it’s catching on, and my 13,000 followers on LinkedIn and over 10,000 members is reason to believe. We’re more of a niche network, and there’s no way to move onto something else with all of the effort I put into this. There needs to be a new social networking site as the others do not do a good job. It solves many problems, such as we don’t comment on the photos, less inclined to have bullying. We don’t have people’s information exposed all over search engines like anyone else does. Likewise, our concept brings communities of people together at schools through networks and communities. We have a patent on our tagging and other bigger ideas, so that people can be who they are in photos, which could potentially lead to future job opportunities. We categorize the photos into teams, and we’re building AI technologies to recognize a photo team photo, etc.
I thought we would’ve been great with your partnership with [DREAMIT EDTECH PARTNER].
Many people who join [COMPANY] love my idea! You’re just making up an answer, and I challenge you to find another company you accept in your program that has over 13,000 followers on LinkedIn or has put the amount of effort into a site that I have. We have been challenged to do a lot of great things because we need to raise capital to do them. As someone who worked at Bunk 1, I’m shocked you would say something like this because you know how important camp and team photos are.
Side comment: I’d have responded to him but before I could, he sent me this next email.
Your skepticism makes me want to do a better job, not change everything I’m doing. I hope whoever accepts me and [COMPANY] will make you believe in what I’m doing someday. How many accelerator programs are there? You see my point, yours just so happened to get lucky with a few hits, some of which are in social media such as [Dreamit Alumni]. What if someone were to start another accelerator, would you tell them to do something else? You see where I’m headed, the competition is good and fair. There needs to be a new social network and we’re not the only ones doing this. I wish I had no competition, but the way is now there are many upstarts in the social media space.
Side comment: And before I could respond to this, he sent me yet another email….
This is a quote I think is great and sums up a hard working entrepreneur. I’m in this to win it. I’ll do anything to make [COMPANY] succeed because I know it will and I fight every day to get new people to join [COMPANY]. I can’t wait till the day I win!
“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Side comment: Wait, I thought he was Elon Musk. Now he’s Gandhi? But wait, he quickly sent me a 4th email….
Instead of just wishing me luck, can you like my update? I don’t want luck, I want mentorship and growth to my company. That’s why I applied to the Dreamit accelerator. I guess I’ll have to apply again or to another accelerator who will believe in my dream because Dreamit doesn’t believe in the dream as I thought. I’m upset, but if you want to cheer me up, please like my update because I believe in [COMPANY] and what we’re doing. We have a lot of great ideas with [COMPANY] and we’re growing really well!
Please like this update:
With respect [APPLICANT], you missed my point entirely.
I could very easily have simply wished you luck but instead I gave you my candid opinion of [COMPANY]’s odds of success (extremely slim) and frank advice for you.
That is mentorship. It’s just not what you had hoped to hear… but often that’s what a real mentor does.
You are welcome to disagree – I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg had many doubters too – but at some point you have to wonder, “Maybe I’m not Mark Zuckerberg.”
Either way, I wish you the best of luck.
Thanks! Every company you bring on has a slim success rate. What you’re saying isn’t new to me. I know with my work ethic and my idea that I’m bound to succeed. You should only see the billboard I just spent thousands of dollars on….
Side comment: a billboard?!
…I just purchased 50,000 flyers to distribute. We need to grow, and I see [several Dreamit alumni] raising millions after being in Dreamit and think you must be doing something right. Feel my pain, but also realize I work really hard to succeed. I’m inside on a Monday night, turned down a dinner offer to be working and recruiting people to join [COMPANY]. There’s nothing more that an entrepreneur dislikes when you compare them to another entrepreneur. We all know we are not the same people, and you’re not the guy from YCombinator, whatever his name is.
Side comment to Paul Graham: If you want this guy, he’s all yours.
Do you know any current business students at [UNIVERSITY]? I’d love to have a new campus representative there who is serious about promoting [COMPANY]. I’m a big fan of [BUSINESSMAN], and know he has a great shot of being the next President of the United States, but figured if I can hire a student from [UNIVERSITY] maybe there could be a possibility his company would be able to sponsor [COMPANY] and this student would be able to succeed as a representative. You see the type of ideas I think about, great things and helping the students succeed in college and their career! I’d also like to make [COMPANY] into a more educational portal over time whereas students can upload the class notes, videos and more for those who want to use it as this. This is more than just a social media platform in its evolution. I wanted to do a lot of this stuff early on, but it’s a lot of work. I think if we can get the next President of the United States, whether it’s [BUSINESSMAN] or someone else behind [HIS COMPANY], we can do some amazing things.
Can you get your [UNIVERSITY] alumni email to join [COMPANY]? I’d love to have some alumni supporters from this school! I’ve been trying to get [UNIVERSITY] on [COMPANY], as I totally believe he’s one of the greatest alumni from [UNIVERSITY]. He’s the guy I believe in, and the guy who I think can make a difference with technology, since he’s been there. A lot of people thought his ideas were not going to work, turned him down at one point, and he was able to break through the rejection and find investors.
I hope you can find us someone at [UNIVERSITY]! That’s the kind of mentorship I need, the connection to the people who can help [COMPANY] grow.
Side comment: No, not Trump. He was referring to someone else.
I’ve been out of [UNIVERSITY] for many years but you may want to try [OTHER COMPANY]. It’s a startup too that specializes in recruiting campus ambassadors.
We are trying to work with [OTHER COMPANY] again. [COMPANY] was one of their first companies and their site was in its early stages, now it’s improved. Are you an investor in [OTHER COMPANY]? I’m also working with [ANOTHER COMPANY] and a Startup with a bunch of [UNIVERSITY] students called [ORGANIZATION]. Looking into another one called [YET ANOTHER COMPANY] which [INVESTOR] from [FUND] invested in I believe. There are a lot of accelerators. Another one emailed me today called [ACCELERATOR]. I don’t think it’s as good as Dreamit though, or they are ranked lower, right? [ACCELERATOR] is also lower ranked than Dreamit, right?
Side comment: I’m redacting a lot of names here but believe me, they are silently thanking me now.
Not invested in [OTHER COMPANY] but did come across them as an applicant to Dreamit
Know [ACCELERATOR] very well. I mentored with them for several years before heading up Dreamit NY. [HEAD OF ACCELERATOR] is a great guy.
I think Dreamit is better but I may be biased.
Side comment: If you think you are the accelerator / great guy I’m referring to, DM or email me with the company that this is about and I’ll buy you a drink to commiserate.
You’re better, you ranked higher up in the rankings. Dreamit ranked 10 and [ACCELERATOR] ranked ##.
Side comment: While I appreciate a good ass-kissing as much as the next guy, by this point I just want this to end. So I don’t respond… but that doesn’t stop this guy.
A high school student messaged me today to invest in his startup. Maybe I should tell him to apply to Dreamit. You might reject him though because he’s trying to build a social networking app. Did Meerkat apply as a social networking app or did you see them as something else and they pivoted into social networking?
I wasn’t here when Meerkat applied but they were originally Yevvo and then Live On Air before becoming Meerkat so, yes, they went through quite a few pivots before becoming what they are.
Also, I believe that they had proprietary, hard to replicate, technology underpinning their original concept as well.
Translation: “I know Meerkat. Meerkat is a friend of mine. You sir are no Meerkat.” (In case you don’t get the reference)
Some parting thoughts
As you probably imagine, there were a lot of points during the above dialog where I wished I’d simply said, “Competition was extremely fierce this year. Better luck next time!” and been done with it.
But I stuck with it – probably a few emails too long – because I truly felt that this entrepreneur was pouring good time and money after bad, pursuing a venture that had slim enough chance of succeeding even in theory (new social networks make lottery tickets look like good retirement investments) and that, after several years, was absolutely not catching fire. He was emotionally attached to a dead end. As one entrepreneur to another, I felt I owed it to him to help him try to move on.
It’s easy to latch onto to a few glimmers and think you see the light at the end of the tunnel. This entrepreneur really thought at 13,000 LinkedIn followers meant he had traction but we all know that there are some people on social media who will follow a half cooked noodle if it reaches out to them. More generally, anyone can pump money into getting registrations or followers but that’s rarely what really matters. For instance, for a startup like his Monthly Active Users are the metric that matters and, despite his years of effort and money invested, he had fairly few of these.
It’s also tempting to point to all the unique features and patents your startup has none of these mean a damn thing if they don’t fuel usage.
When you’ve poured as much of yourself into a startup for a long time, it’s extremely tempting to write off negative feedback as outliers or as people who “don’t get it.” And yes, there are plenty of those so you do need to stick to your guns for a bit. But when someone who has experience in your field takes time out of his (most likely very) busy day to give you specific and candid feedback when there is nothing in it for him – and especially when there is a fair risk of downside to him from your potentially negative reaction to his feedback! – you need to listen carefully.
And for God’s sake, if someone is telling you that he thinks you need to move on to something else, don’t ask him to put his reputation on the line and introduce you to a lot of people. What’s he going to say to the person you want to meet? “I don’t believe in this startup and I think the founder should kill it but please go ahead and waste your time talking to him”?
So did I learn my lesson? Probably not. When I see an entrepreneur trapped in a doomed startup, I’ll still say something.
But then again, I never claimed to be smart, just experienced. J
Coda: the other company that the applicant mentioned actually did end up applying to Dreamit, was accepted into the program, and is close to closing its round. When asked about this applicant, that founder’s only response was a facial expression best described as “Bruh”
Note: A version of this post appeared in Fortune magazine’s Entrepreneur Insider network under the headline “The Difference Between a Great Entrepreneur and a Really Bad One”
Great entrepreneurs are like guided missiles. If you point them in the right direction, nothing is going to stop them from hitting the target.
It starts with passion. At Dreamit, we will always back a missionary over a mercenary. Founders who are in it for the economic opportunity will always quit when the going gets tough. An entrepreneur who is driven by the need — not the desire — to change the way the world currently works will stick with it through thick and thin.
Then it takes empathy — not sympathy. The difference between the two is the difference between feeling bad for someone vs. knowing exactly how that person feels. With empathy, a good founder can look at a feature and intuitively know that it solves a user’s problem. An empathic entrepreneur not only knows that something is a problem in his industry, but he can get so far inside the mind of the specific decision-maker that he knows the buyer will look at the service and think, “This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for.”
A great entrepreneur is neither a weathervane nor an anchor. He has well-reasoned but lightly held opinions. There is so much bull**** out there, with so many people pretending to be mentors who have absolutely no business being one. A good entrepreneur almost never adopts advice without reflection. If somebody gives him feedback that is contrary to his current hypotheses, he digs into the reasoning behind that feedback and, if and only if the logic and evidence are good, he changes his hypotheses.
The best entrepreneurs are quick learners and even quicker doers. You often hear them saying things like, “So I taught myself X,” or, “I’ll figure that out.” They love to learn, but they also know when it’s time to tear themselves away from the books and start doing. You never have to tell them to do anything twice, and sometimes not even once. For instance, a potential customer was talking to one startup in the Dreamit program and suggested that the team look into becoming an approved vendor. When they were done, I mentioned to another startup in the room that they might also want to look into it, whereupon that founder turned to me and said, “I’m already halfway through the application.”
Lastly, the best entrepreneurs have failed before. If you find someone who has never failed, odds are they never really pushed their limits.
Bottom line: When you know what to look for, the best entrepreneurs aren’t hard to find.
Note: A version of this post appeared in my semi-regular column on AlleyWatch.
It’s a little surprising that entrepreneurs don’t pray more.
The best entrepreneurs are missionaries, not mercenaries. Even if they are not explicitly pursuing a social impact startup, they are driven by the sense that they can, at least in some small way, make the world a better place.
What’s more, so much of the startup journey hinges on fate. Being at the right event, at the right time, to meet the right investor or chancing to catch the attention of an influential journalist or hitting the market at just the moment when it is receptive to your disruptive service… and just before your competitors get there. Even if you do everything right, so much hinges on fate.
Lastly, karma pays a major role. Founders routinely do favors for people they have just met, paying it forward, knowing that sometime, somehow, some of these favors will pay dividends.
Hmm…. Sounds a lot like religion to me, albeit one oddly devoid of prayer.
A few years ago, I resolved to pray daily. I can’t say I’ve quite hit that mark but I succeed more often than not. And while I try to set aside a few minutes for free-form meditation on whatever issues most stress me, I’ve come to see the value of a structured liturgy.
One prayer, known as “The 18”, consists of 19 (Yes, 19. Long story.) short paragraphs, each an acknowledgement of God’s provision of a specific benefit (e.g., wisdom, health, financial success) and an implicit request for the same. It’s far from the most poetic or inspiring prayer. In fact, it’s pretty much a checklist. And therein lies the brilliance.
You achieve what you focus on. If you are looking for biz dev opportunities, you’ll see them everywhere, from sporting events to thanksgiving dinner (e.g., “oh, your cousin works at…”). If you are looking for a tech hire, you’ll find a way to mention it every chance you get (e.g., “So what’s new?” “Actually….”). So if you take a few minutes each morning to run through a structured checklist, you are basically attuning yourself to those opportunities.
It’s not that God is specifically answering those prayers (although who knows?) so much as that the act of praying opens your eyes to what’s already there. It’s as if $20 bills are strewn across the sidewalk and all you need to do is look (up from your smartphone) to see them.
What’s more, focus changes how you perceive events. When your train suddenly goes express and skips your stop, you could get annoyed at the delay. But if your focus is on getting in shape, you’ll enjoy the extra exercise. If an API you rely on is discontinued, you can either rue the setback or welcome the opportunity to see what additional functionality you can access with the newer APIs. It’s all a matter of mindset.
Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, used to write “I, Scott Adams, am a successful syndicated cartoonist” 15 times each day. Ultimately, (and with the help of George Shultz and Gary Larson’s retirement) he became the #1 cartoonist holding a pen. He credits this affirmation with focusing his mind on the potential opportunities that were out there for the taking.
So what are you going to pray for today?
Note: A version of this post appeared in Fortune magazine’s Entrepreneur Insider network under the headline “How to Get Your Employees to Stop Wasting Time”
Congratulations. You’ve got some customers, you’ve raised some money, and now you’re ready to expand your business.
Now you’re in trouble.
The problem is that the very skills that got you to this point are largely unsuitable to take you to the next milestone. You need to change. You need to dodge hand grenades rather than jump on them.
The startups at Dreamit are all “A teams.” If there’s a problem, everyone raises their hand. Or as one of my partners likes to say, they see a hand grenade and everyone jumps on it. Sometimes they even wind up fighting over who gets the grenade. And even after they have assigned the problem to one team member, the rest of them will probably still end up walking over to that team member with more suggestions.
This is great when you’re an early-stage startup, but once you’re at 10 people or more, it’s just not workable. That team member will end up wasting more time interfacing with the other team members than actually solving the problem. You, the CEO, need to be able to assign the task to one person and have everyone else get out of his way and do their own work. Divide and conquer.
The change, though, has to begin at the top. Of all the un-scalable resources and all the un-scalable inputs in the world, the least scalable commodity of all is the CEO’s time. That’s why large corporations pay armies of people to guard their bosses’ time as if it were gold in Fort Knox. You’re not there yet, but you have to start thinking that way. Yes, you still need to be accessible. And yes, you still need to have your pulse on everything going on in the organization. But if you try to do everything, or even just the most important things, you won’t get anything done. You need to start dodging those grenades.
Start by drawing up a list of all of the important things that you need to accomplish over the next couple of months. Then, item by item, figure out who within your organization can tackle each task. The key here is not to find the person best suited to solving the problem, but rather to identify everyone capable of addressing it. This gives you the most options when it comes to divvying up your resources. If you find that you systematically are out of resources overall or lack resources to attack certain types of problems, then you know who your next critical hire is. Most importantly, your goal is to get as many of those things off of that list as possible so as to free up your time to focus on what’s going to move your business forward as a whole.
At this point, several of you are probably objecting. You’re probably thinking, “But these are mission critical items. I need to nail them perfectly, not just do them well enough.” Truth be told, the number of situations where that’s true is far fewer than you’d think. It’s more important that you focus your attention on growing your business than on resolving tactical issues, no matter how important that specific client is nor what the impact of a particular technical decision might be.
There’s a story I heard in business school about a professor who shows up to class with a bucket. He starts off by putting some rocks in the bucket, filling it to the top. He then asks his class, “Is this bucket full?” The class answers that it’s full. He then takes a bag of gravel and pours it over the rocks in the bucket. The gravel fills in the spaces between the rocks, and the professor turns to ask the class again, “Is this bucket full?” The class, again, seems pretty certain that the bucket is full. He then pulls out a bag of sand and starts pouring that on top of the rocks and the gravel. The sand filters into the spaces between the gravel and the rocks until it reaches the top of the bucket. The professor asks the class again, “Is this bucket full?” The class isn’t quite sure at this point, but ultimately most of them agree that it’s finally full. Then the professor takes a jug of water and pours it on top of everything in the bucket, and it seeps into the sand and the gravel and the rocks until it reaches the top of the bucket. The professor turns to the class and asks once more, “Now is the bucket full?” The class is, at this point, too uncertain to even answer, so the professor smiles and says, “Don’t worry, it really is full now. What does it teach you?”
The students decide it means that no matter how busy you think you are, if you’re smart about your time, you can always fit in a few more things. The professor looks at them sadly and says, “You missed the point entirely. If I’d started with the sand and the water, would I have been able to get the rocks into the bucket?”
The rocks are the big strategic initiatives that move your business to the next level. When your startup is very early stage, the rocks are obvious. In fact, pretty much everything is a rock at that point. But as you grow your business to the next stage, more and more of what you deal with are actually just pebbles and sand. That’s why you build your team up—to take small things off of your plate so you can focus on getting the rocks into your bucket.
No matter how hard you try, though, you will still be so busy that you won’t know what to do with yourself. The difference is that now you’ll be focusing on the things that actually matter.
Note: A version of this post appeared in Fortune magazine’s Entrepreneur Insider network under the headline “Here’s How to Know Your Business Is Headed for Disaster”
Something that never ceases to amaze me is how an idea will arise and suddenly come at me from several directions at once. Other entrepreneurs all swear to have come up with that same idea independently, and I believe them—it’s happened to me more than once.
To be clear, I’m not talking about x-for-y variations (e.g., Airbnb for cats or Uber for bicycles). I’m talking about genuinely new ideas. My theory is that startup concepts each rest on a set of memes and technical capabilities. When all of the relevant building blocks are in place, conditions are ripe for that startup concept to be discovered. And with enough really smart entrepreneurs actively and constantly alert for new opportunities, it’s only natural that several of them will come up with the idea simultaneously and independently.
That said, there are some startup concepts that are truly out of left field—that leapfrog a lot of these building blocks. So how do you know if you have a really revolutionary breakthrough or a more garden-variety disruption?
You start by searching. Before you build—before you even model your business in Excel—spend some time Googling up any possible description of the idea you have in mind. In many cases, you’ll find that four or five companies on the first results page are already doing it, and you can simply move on to the next idea.
If you don’t find anything, try searching using keywords that describe the problem you’re solving as opposed to keywords describing the solution you’re proposing. You may find direct competitors that way. At the very least, you’ll better understand how your prospective customers currently relieve the pain point, and you can assess whether you’re a quantum level better or simply an incremental improvement. (Hint: It’s really hard to get attention, much less change user behavior without a clear, compelling, and overwhelming benefit.)
If the field still looks open, go to AngelList and read the short description of every startup in the same sector or sectors that you cover. Yes, read every single one. Every. Single. One.
If you still think you have something new and awesome, go out there and talk to as many smart people as you can, especially if they’re investors or customers on the space.
Don’t worry about them stealing your idea. Most of the people you speak to will never quit their day job, and about 1% will be entrepreneurs with their own ideas. They aren’t going to suddenly look at their startup and think, “My baby isn’t so cute after all. Let’s go steal his baby.” Perhaps one in 1,000 will be entrepreneurs with the right skills, connections, and availability to run with your idea, and it will be immediately obviously who they are. Don’t sweat it.
Instead of worrying about people stealing your idea, ask them to break it. Ask them to tear it apart and show you all of the ways it can fail. And if they can break your idea—and you can’t fix it—thank them. They’ve just saved you years of your life and a lot of money chasing a doomed venture.
If after all this you find that you have something genuinely new, compelling, and unbroken, let me tell you about Dreamit‘s accelerator program.