Jessica Alter | May 22nd, 2013
Yesterday was another reminder that life is short. A friend of mine announced that his wife has been battling cancer and without a bone marrow transplant, she only has two months to live. Aside from the fact that she has otherwise been a healthy, vibrant woman who doesn’t do anything in excess, she also has a 2-year old son. It’s heart wrenching. But what does this have to do with entrepreneurship?
Much has been made lately of the hype around entrepreneurship – TV shows, movies, acqui-hires. Steve Blank even went so far as to call Silicon Valley “The New Hollywood.” And there is certainly some truth to the idea that entrepreneurship has been glorified. But those who have gotten a true taste nod their heads at Elon Musk’s quote, “Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.” We have great days and terrible days (sometimes it’s more appropriate to talk in terms of hours). It’s mercuric and lonely. It’s not about being on a list of top xxx in tech or getting a TechCrunch article. It’s not about fleeting moments, it’s about building something great and that takes time.
So, it’s on days like yesterday that I take a minute to step back and ask myself the question every entrepreneur should ask themselves: “Is there anything else I’d rather be doing?” I’m thankful that I’m working on the problem I feel literally callen to solve – helping people do what they really want to do. But if you’re considering doing something entrepreneurial or you are an entrepreneur, ask yourself this question. If the answer is ‘yes’, go do it. If the answer is ‘maybe’ go figure it out.
Only become an entrepreneur if your answer to this question is a resounding ‘NO, THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO BE DOING!’. Only become an entrepreneur if you can’t stay away. If you are doing the thing you REALLY want to do. Because the glory rarely comes and life’s too short to do something else.
Jessica Alter | April 24th, 2013
This FounderTalk post was written by Yoav Schwartz. Yoav is the founder and CEO at Uberflip. He holds a BSc in Computer Science from The University of Western Ontario and spends time advising other startups and with his family.
Let me set the stage.
It’s December 2009. My tech startup is hanging by a thread. My co-founder is gone. I’m sitting practically alone in a shared office, my remote sales team just abandoned me, and I’m struggling. I’m taking side jobs to stay afloat (among them, the first version of wagjag.com) because I’ve yet to take a salary. Oh, and did I mention I’m getting married at the end of the month? Needless to say there was nothing glamorous about that time in my life. But I pulled through. I got married, the business hung on (thanks to great people who came through when I needed them), and I knew then what I had thought for some time had to be my top priority – I had to find a new business partner.
As an entrepreneur we get this sense that we can do everything by ourselves. And to a degree it’s what drives us to dive into entrepreneurism head first. But I realized pretty quickly, that just because I could do several things, didn’t mean I excelled, or even enjoyed all of them.
I’m a product guy. I like to design, code, tinker and strategize about product and marketing. I don’t like to do sales calls, support or read/write agreements. Not only do I not enjoy those things, I’m really not great at them either. I’m a product guy.
So when it came time to find a business partner, it was much like finding a second wife (from what I hear – I’m happily married to my first and only! <~ save). I had learned enough from the first experience working with my first co-founder to know what didn’t work. And while that relationship was exciting and brought forth lots of highs and lows, it was not a good combination from the outset. Our skill sets did not compliment each other’s and we weren’t on the same page as far as direction. One example of this – we overlapped in regards to product vision. When we recognized that we had to make our first pivot as a company we didn’t share the same vision for our future. This, among many other factors, proved to be too much to continue working together.
Naturally, this time around I wanted someone who was good at all the things I sucked at or didn’t want to spend my days doing. In a nutshell, for me that was somebody that had a strong business background – an MBA was ideal, was great at building relationships and closing deals, knew their way around a 50-page legal agreement, and of course, wasn’t afraid to roll up thier sleeves and work their ass off. Needless to say we also had to have great chemistry if we were going to work side by side every day.
That was my laundry list. To be honest I had no idea where to look. How do you find someone like that to come into an existing business, take little to no salary, not much equity and keep him or her motivated to perform?
I needed a small miracle.
They say timing is everything and that couldn’t be more true in this situation. Not long after my search began, a close friend (who actually introduced me to my first co-founder) alerted me that a mutual friend had recently sold his business and was looking for a new opportunity.
That person was my current business partner Randy, and while we knew each other (I’m friends with his wife and was actually at their wedding) we had never really said much to each one another.
Randy’s background couldn’t have been further from technology. He had just sold his kitchen manufacturing business! But, being the creative guy that he is, in his spare time he created a really cool video resume using iMovie showcasing his passion for marketing and technology. For someone non-technical this thing was pretty amazing. As soon as I watched it I knew we had to get together and talk.
We felt the risk.
We hit it off right away after sharing that first breakfast at School, but we also both instantly felt the risk that lay ahead. He really had no background in technology (outside of his iMovie skills). But we got along well, he was smart, had a strong business mind and was really passionate about technology. I was his door into the tech space and he was my door to push the business forward. After 2 or 3 meetings over the course of only a couple weeks we put together a quick agreement to try out the relationship for 3 months. If either of us felt it wasn’t working, we could part ways without any hard feelings. Needless to say that didn’t happen.
The opportunity for both of us was completely unconventional, but made plenty of sense. His abilities and passions complimented mine, with really the only overlap being our strong work ethic.
Together, we cover most bases when it comes to running Uberflip, and any areas we both lack we’ve quickly filled with other really talented people.
It’s been just over 3 years since we’ve started working together, and things are going really well. That 3 person outfit is now over 20 and growing.
We’ve built an amazing business, product and culture at Uberflip and while there’s been plenty of ups and downs, we’ve both remained extremely passionate about what we do and we continue to push each other to work harder, and dream bigger.
If there’s any takeaway here it’s that as an entrepreneur the sooner you look at yourself and figure out where you lack, the sooner you’ll find the right person (or people) to go into business with.
From my humble experience, you’re much better off finding someone who’s got a different mind but the same drive, over someone who’s skill sets mostly overlap your own.
Jessica Alter | March 28th, 2013
A few weeks ago, I received an email from a close friend letting me know that her fiance, Hansoo Lee, had passed away after a 15-month battle with cancer (he was 35). It was a stunning reminder of how precious life is and it felt near impossible to offer even a hint of solace. Then I read the blog post below, written by Bhavin Parikh, Hansoo’s cofounder, on Magoosh’s blog. I realized his tribute to Hansoo encapsulated not only that people are truly a company’s most valuable asset, but also the indelible mark one person can have on another. It’s more poignant than any statistics we can post about why cofounders are important. If you’ve even thought about starting an entrepreneurial endeavor, I encourage you to read the below and honor Hansoo’s legacy.
Hansoo Lee was a visionary, a close friend, and my co-founder at Magoosh. On March 4, 2013, at the age of 35, he lost his 15-month battle with lung cancer. Hansoo changed my life, and I will be forever grateful.
Hansoo and I were classmates in the full-time MBA program at Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. He came to Berkeley-Haas fully aware that he wanted to pursue entrepreneurship. In fact, he wrote the following in his MBA application:
“I believe in the power of a well-operated, sophisticated organization that generates social and economic value. My career goal is to found and lead this type of organization.”
In our first semester at Haas, Hansoo and I joined Pejman, another Haas classmate, and his friend Vikram in creating Magoosh, an online education product initially focused on test preparation. Hansoo quickly emerged as a leader among the group. He was deeply passionate about changing the world through education. He served on the Board of World Savvy, an education non-profit, for several years prior to Haas and continued to do so during and after. Unlike the rest of us, Hansoo had worked at a startup before and knew what it took. He acted with conviction and focused on getting things done instead of trying to make the perfect decision. He had a bias towards action, a value we hold dear at Magoosh today.
Hansoo and I pursued Magoosh full-time during the summer, foregoing traditional paid internships. We worked out of the basement of his apartment for 10+ hours a day. That summer, we released Magoosh in small iterations, from just one page with a question, video explanations, and a text box for email addresses, to over 200 GMAT math questions with full-on video explanations. Early into the first semester of our 2nd year, Hansoo and I were the only remaining full-time members of Magoosh. We were at a crossroads: Should we go back to corporate America or continue to work on Magoosh full-time after graduation?
Hansoo, the visionary
Hansoo was fearless. The decision to pursue Magoosh full-time was a no-brainer for him despite the company having very modest revenue and no funding. His confidence was unparalleled and often led to tension between us. But I later realized that while I could only see what was right in front of us, Hansoo could see through the fog. He had a vision for Magoosh of making high quality educational material accessible to all, and he had confidence in us to see that vision through.
He dragged me, often kicking and screaming, through many of Magoosh’s milestones. In October 2010, Hansoo spent weeks convincing me that we should raise a seed round. I still recall a three hour walk we took around Berkeley’s campus debating the merits of fundraising that ultimately he won out. And the process was easier than I expected, thanks to the previous 12 months that Hansoo spent building relationships with potential investors. I could always come up with thousands of reasons to defer a decision, but he would usually get his way, and we would take action. His way was the right way — make decisions and move forward — it’s why Magoosh is successful today.
In late December of 2011, I received a crushing email from Hansoo. “Hey Bhavin. I’ve been diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer…” I could barely read on. I was 3,000 miles away visiting my wife’s family in Massachusetts, but my heart was with Hansoo in California. I didn’t understand. He was fit, active, and a non-smoker. He did everything right. How could this happen to him?
He stepped away from Magoosh operations as of January 2012, but he remained fearless about his prognosis and the company’s future. His positive attitude was infectious. I still can’t believe that during this time he provided me with support because he knew running the company as a sole founder would be difficult.
Unfortunately, his condition worsened throughout the year. Despite going through various advanced treatments, he faced complication after complication. Our weekly walks turned into monthly phone calls and then just the occasional email. I couldn’t imagine what he was going through, and I wanted to do more for him. But whenever we spoke, he told me to focus on Magoosh. He was watching from a distance and loved seeing the team’s progress.
On Monday March 4, 2013, Hansoo passed away due to complications from his cancer. He died in the arms of his fiancee and was surrounded by his family. We had spoken for nearly an hour just two weeks prior, and I’m grateful that we were able to chat then. I was able to tell him about his impact on me and on Magoosh.
Hansoo’s impact on Magoosh
Hansoo left a lasting impact on our daily lives at Magoosh. He was the impetus behind our daily standup meetings and the weekly one on ones between managers and employees. He cared so deeply about crafting an amazing culture and brand that he led us through an exercise to define our core values when we had only 4 full-time team members — we still hold those values dear today. He was transparent with our vision and finances because he believed in providing everyone with purpose and autonomy in their work.
I’m reminded of Hansoo everyday when I walk into the Magoosh office. Without him, Magoosh would not be what it is today, and I would not be who I am. We’ve grown into a successful business and have helped thousands of students improve their GRE and GMAT scores thanks to Hansoo. He was our leader, and we’ll miss him.
How you can help
To honor Hansoo’s memory, we have created the Hansoo Lee Fellowship. The Fellowship will provide a stipend and mentorship to help Berkeley-Haas MBA students pursue their venture full-time for their summer internship, as Hansoo did. Students will receive:
- A summer stipend of $5 – $10K
- Mentorship from Haas alums focused on entrepreneurship
- Office space donated by Magoosh
This fellowship is a realization of Hansoo’s vision. He always looked for opportunities to give back, and this is our way of celebrating him. To donate to the Fellowship, click here.
Jessica Alter | March 6th, 2013
This FounderTalk post was written by Micah Baldwin. Micah is repeat entrepreneur and advisor. He started his first company at 9; currently he is CEO of graphicly and a mentor at TechStars. He can be found hanging out with his dogs (Billie and Taylor).
I was done.
There comes a time in every startup where you have the thought about whether it was time to fold them or keep on trucking.
I know we tell each other that failing is ok. I know that there are books and blogs written about the importance of failure.
But that didn’t mean that I didn’t think it wasn’t because of me.
I think thats the hardest part of being a founder. Of believing so much in something that it keeps you up at night. That when you start talking about it, your words begin to stumble over each other in a hurry to get out of your mouth just so that others can share in your excitement. And, the moment when you think it might be all over, you realize that the spark that fueled that energy has just…poof.
I can remember the exact moment that I decided that I was done. It was the early morning. I had just fed my dogs and cats and I was sitting in the backyard smoking a cigarette. I looked at the cigarette, and realized that I had quit smoking years ago, and I didn’t feel bad about starting back up. As I finished the cigarette, I remember the only feeling I had was that I wanted another one. Just one.
There was no sense of relief. No sense of completion. No sense that I was even doing the right thing. Just complete and total acceptance of my decision. I finished my cigarette, grabbed the full ashtray, walked into my kitchen and tossed the butts into the trash followed by the box of American Spirits.
I spent the rest of the day just completely unmotivated. I watched tv. I played Xbox. I chatted on IM; read Facebook. And as the afternoon rolled around, I grabbed my basketball shoes and headed over to the local park to shoot baskets with a buddy.
I played hard.
Basketball was glorious. I just played, and I played hard. The missed baskets didn’t seem to bother me, and I remember laughing. As I wrapped up the game, I felt the soreness in my left ankle begin to grow.
Fuck. I thought to myself. How am I going to get my Fitbit steps in?
As soon as I got home, I stepped on the treadmill and started to walk. Limp really. My left ankle was on fire, but it seemed that my desire to get my FitBit steps was burning hotter. So I walked. And walked. And the pain increased, and increased. And finally I started to cry.
It was maybe thirty minutes in or so when I started to realize something.
Here I was, willing to destroy my ankle to get some arbitrary step count, but I wasn’t willing to take my company to the end? Seriously? How big a pussy was I being? How selfish was I for not fully committing to seeing the company through?
How could I be okay with destroying myself; but not okay with driving the business?
I stopped the treadmill (after I got my steps) and limped over to the couch. I sat quietly and wiped my tears, and then I opened my laptop.
Perhaps the answer was to look at the business in a different way. I pulled out our pricing model and revenue projections and started to muck around with them. I looked at the P&L and found areas that we could cut cost.
I rejiggered the product focus and vision. And, I called every company that we were talking to about buying us and told them no.
They say that when you can only get sober by hitting rock bottom. Perhaps that is what I did. I forced myself to hit the bottom of being a founder. I peered into the abyss and realized that it was not time for the company to die.
Now, its funny.
Folks comment on how calm and zen I am about the business. I tell them that it comes from the belief I have in it and the people working on it, and that sometimes failure is something we should not accept as our reality.
I think daily about that time on the treadmill. I remember the pain and the tears, and I know that the company will never be the cause again.
Hayden | February 6th, 2013
This FounderTalk – The Real Story post was written by Nick Mehta. Nick is an Executive-in-Residence at Accel Partners and advises several startups. He was most recently the CEO of cloud archiving provider LiveOffice through its acquisition by Symantec. He was previously an executive at VERITAS Software. Nick followed the typical path into enterprise software by starting out selling custom-built golf clubs over the Web.
“There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”
- Henry Kissinger
It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when you know you’re in a crisis. This is especially true in a startup – where fires become as familiar as your morning Starbucks order.
But for me, I knew things were different at my last startup LiveOffice one morning in early 2009. My Controller and I were in her office and went through the roof with joy when we discovered ADP didn’t deduct money from our bank account until a few days after our company payroll date. We’d make at least one more payroll. Hallelujah!
This wasn’t supposed to happen. It was indeed the peak of the financial crisis and the world was pretty much ending, but we were profitable and growing and our customers were still paying their bills.
But it turned out they would only pay the bills they received.
Rewinding a bit: as a SaaS company, we had our own, homegrown billing system. And billing was very important to us. We had never raised any capital into our company (our investors came in via a secondary sale) so we had a very “thin balance sheet,” which is a nice way to say “we had no money.”
We grew our business from our customers’ payments (old school – I know). And since our customers were timely payers, as long as we sent them invoices, we could count on the cash coming in. Cue the disaster music.
In an effort to get more flexible and predictable about billing, we were migrating to Zuora, the leader in subscription billing software. We were excited to get away from our internal system, which was brittle, tough to maintain and definitely not our core competency.
And while we were in the process of cutting over, we thought we would make some (seemingly) small tweaks to our billing processes to make them easier for our customers to understand and simpler for us to manage. At some point one of my team members ran the plan by me and I approved it – a no brainer, right?
What’s That Blip?
Big mistake. Sometimes in a startup, you have to focus on the big picture; other times, the details really matter. This was the latter. And none of us realized it until we saw cash start to drop.
At first we thought it was a “blip.” Maybe the credit card companies were slow in transferring cash to us since we had new merchant IDs? Maybe a few big customers had slipped payments? Maybe maybe maybe. Well, it turns the “simplification” of our billing policies meant that invoices were being sent out 30 days later than before. Not good when you have a skinny balance sheet.
As I sat in meeting after meeting, day by day, our excuses grew as our cash dropped. And I unsuccessfully tried to pay attention in product strategy discussions and sales meetings while I reflexively glanced at my Blackberry (it was a long time ago!) to see if any new customer payments had come in.
To their credit, one of my investors and Board Members gave me a wake-up call as our cash position looked less like a runway at an airport and more like a plank on ship. He said I needed to make cash my number 1, 2, 3 and only focus until were out of the crisis.
“But I have lots of meetings scheduled and our business needs to go on,” I responded. In some ways, I wanted to deny the urgency of the situation and let the business continue as normal. But as the words left my mouth, I realized that none of those meetings mattered if our money ran out.
So I cleared my calendar and went from CEO to CCO (Chief Cash Officer).
Our investors flew one of their associates down to help us through the challenge and to add to the drama, he was an ex-Navy Seal (and a surprisingly nice and low-key guy). Zero Dark Thirty had nothing on us.
And in a stroke of luck, we were able to convince our ex-Controller (who had the ship running tightly for years before the changes) to come back and get our systems going again. She had been commuting long-distance and was excited to be home with her family, but returned because she knew we needed her.
Thanks to a heroic team effort, we made it. Barely. And we went on to grow rapidly as the market leader in our category, culminating in a very successful acquisition by Symantec in 2012. Along the way, billing became a huge strength of our company.
But during those few months in 2009, it felt like that amusement park ride where you fall from the sky and almost touch the water. And then you throw up.
So What Did I Learn?
Hopefully I never have a crisis like that again, but if I did, here’s what I’d consider:
- Clear the Calendar. It’s easy to get stuck in your routine of product, customers, employees, etc. And the bigger you get, the more pulls you’ll have on your time. But when you’re in a crisis, you need to break your routine and free up the time to deal with the day’s urgency. Literally cancel all of your meetings and start from a fresh calendar.
- Keep the Crisis Top of Mind. In the same vein, it’s important to keep the crisis in front of you at all times. For me, this meant printing out our (very ugly) daily cash forecast and keeping it with me constantly. I think I literally carried it in my pocket for weeks.
- Assumptions Make a *Something* Out of All of Us. When we cut over to the new billing system, we switched to all-email invoice delivery. Since we had been around for some time, we previously were mailing invoices. But we never double-checked to make sure we had email addresses for every legacy customer. It turned out a bunch were missing and hence they weren’t getting bills. Sometimes the most obvious things can get you.
- Go to the Mattresses. Ben Horowitiz has a great post on war-time versus peace-time CEOs. And to continue the Mafia analogy, sometimes you have to decide to go to war (or the “mattresses” as they say in The Godfather) and switch out of your normal CEO personae. This might mean being tougher or more scrutinizing than usual. But you do this because your company needs it.
- Call in the Wolf. Sometimes bringing in an outsider can help a lot. Whether it’s our ex-Controller or Navy Seal, in my case, or Harvey Keitel’s “Wolf” character in Pulp Fiction, figure out if there’s an expert that can come in and be there side-by-side with you through the drama.
- Beg. Your real friends will come to help you when you ask. Zuora turned out to become an amazing partner for our company. I called Tien Tzuo, the CEO of Zuora, and caught him in the car on the highway. He understood the direness of our situation and immediately sent one of his top engineers to our office to work with our team until resolution while his entire product group was supporting us behind the scenes. Our investors pitched in with the aforementioned Seal. Our founders saved us with bridge funding. Our vendors were very understanding. We learned how lucky we were in our time of greatest need.
- Rally the Team. You can’t do it alone. In a real crisis, it’s important to be transparent and make sure your team helps where possible. You don’t want to distract them (especially if you want them running the rest of the business so you can focus on the crisis). But for me, I wanted my leaders to learn how important the next few months of cash were. So I had them all sit with the billing team for several evenings and help send out bills. While we fat-fingered through invoices, we learned how complex our procedures were (allowing us to fix them down the line) and also internalized the severity of our cash situation.
It’s easy to take this advice too far and treat every situation like a crisis and see war in every time of peace. But when real disaster strikes, how you respond makes all the difference.
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