Important things I’m not doing, yet (ITINDY)

When you talk to experienced investors and founders of startups, they tell you it’s all about “focus”, but how do you make that actionable and structured? As the business changes and evolves, a founder (you) will also get lots of ideas (some good, some bad) from your team, customers, investors, other companies…but how do you know when or if to act on these?

For me, I developed the ITINDY approach – which stands for “Important things I’m not doing, yet”. As the ideas with merit roll in, I add them to this list, acknowledging both their value (Important) and the fact that I am not losing my current focus to act on them (Randomizing) but I might in the future. Then, I set 2 types of milestones to review the list or specific items; one is “date based” like at the beginning of the quarter or June 1. The second type of milestone and the one we use most often is a “success metric” which could be achieved in the near future or never depending on how the business grows and how right our assumptions were. Examples would include revenue (X MRR), Y number of customers, a funding round > Z, the 10th new hire…all very specific and quantified. If you chose incorrectly on a market, pricing, a sales strategy…you might never achieve these metrics which is where the date-based milestone comes in, giving you an out to make major changes in strategy.

Often, as part of my strategic plan, I have these goals aligned, so they should happen around the same time assuming the business is growing as planned like; we should hit 50 customers, 25K MRR and our 10th hire around June 1. By setting this expectation for me, the team, my investors, even customers we all get into a good flow of the things that are “important now” and the things that might be important in the future and most importantly an expectation on when we’re going to discuss and decide about doing or leaving something on the list.  As we approach the date or success milestone, we also know it’s time to review, re-order the list and collect relevant data to make a decision, which drives a strategic planning session. FWIW, I usually do this in a Google Sheet where tab 1 is the high-level strategic plans and goals (months across the top, key priorities, and metrics down the side) and we keep ITINDY on a separate tab. As we reorder/group the list for strategic planning, it has a way of outlining who we need to hire next, what projects we want to fund (raise more money) or what major features to build.

I have used this method with really good success to keep the team aligned, working toward near-term goals, but with the expectation that we will keep evolving the business as a measured and methodical pace and avoid the proverbial “shiny penny” scenario. Stay focused and make your list!

P.S. – this will work for your personal life too.  For example, at some point I would like to teach at the college level, write a book, hike the TA trail in New Zealand, do a transatlantic crossing on a big multi-hull, land at Nairobi airport…and the list goes on.

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5 questions to ask every VC (at the beginning and end of the first pitch meeting)

Raising money from VC’s creates a long-term relationship, so you may as well get a good understanding of each other and set up the foundation for a strong two-way dialog.  The VC needs you as much as you need them, so the discussions should feel balanced where you’re learning about each other on equal footing.  So, I suggest these questions to begin the first meeting and one important one at the end before you go.  Getting started…

I’ve done my general research on the firm but tell me a bit more about the current fund? They should answer with the fund size (e.g. 200M), when it was raised, total invested to date, the remainder left for follow-on investments.  Have they had any exits from the current fund (which companies, you can research later to find out how much they invested and likely returned)?  Does the fund has any specific theme or stage focus (seed, Series A…)?   Depending on the answers, you can get a sense of how likely they are to do new investments (you) and how the fund is performing so far (are they looking for some swing-for-the-fences (they have already done well on something or are very confident) or need safer bets).  If early in the fund life (they usually invest aggressively in years 1-4, then follow-on with good companies years 4-7 and need to return the fund in years 7-10, but are likely going out to raise new funds around year 5-7 depending on how it’s all been going) you get more latitude in both their interest and time to make the company work.  So, understanding where you fall in their overall cycle is important.

For  the last few investments you (partner) or the firm did, can you tell me about the dynamics?  This should include their check size, did they lead or follow someone else, how long did the process take from first meeting to a funding decision?  You are looking for a clear process, a timeline of 4-6 weeks (or less).

Can you tell me how the firm makes decisions?  This should include some generic dialog about the # of partners, who decides on what, when they have meetings (most on Monday’s) and how many deals they have in progress right now.  Make sure you have some sense of the pecking order of the partner you are working with and how many other people you will need to convince.  New guys have a harder time doing deals or they likely take longer as they want to satisfy everyone and/or doing safer bets, so tenure, rank and the recent success of the partner matters.

Is there any area where you think you/your firm adds unique or disproportionate value?  Most VC’s give you a bullshit answer about a big network, ability to connect you with X or Y and some help with building out your team.  If you hear some good specifics, you can be done with this question.  If you get vague answers (highly likely), you can press one further with, “If I talked to 2-3 of your CEOs (currently funded companies) what would they say is an area where you have been especially helpful?”  Again, you’re looking for some specifics and preferably in areas where you need help to grow your company.

Now do your pitch…keep it shorter than you think it should be (~30 mins), pause for questions along they way…don’t read your slides…focus on customer traction and specifics…make sure they know how much you are raising and where you are in the process… then…time to go for the close…

On a scale of 1-10, 10 being you’re going to give me term sheet Monday with no questions on valuation, based on what we’ve discussed, how would you score this opportunity? You’re likely to get some squirming on this one but wait for an answer.  If you sucked, you are likely to get a 5 or 6 (they are being kind and not telling you it’s really a 3).  7-8 is pretty good and you’re not likely to get a 9 or 10, but if so, awesome for you!  I usually follow this up with a “what would we need to do/focus on to get you to a 9?”  This pins them into quantifying the aspects where you need to improve, at least for their investment criteria.  In some cases, they will ask for things that you do not plan to do and be OK with that as VCs vary widely on their criteria which can be affected by many things, some in your control, many not so much.

With the answers to these questions in hand, you should have a very good sense of the likelihood of next steps or an investment.  With issues around fund dynamics, you’re not likely to change that (unless you are a 9 or 10).  For the areas to improve, keep the investor updated when you make marked progress in these areas, usually around customer traction, shipping product or team additions.  Regardless, this dialog has demonstrated that you have an interest in them, that you can ask specific questions and understand how the relationship might blossom.

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How I killed my startup hours before closing a seed round

“What details should we use for the final closing documents” is something that every entrepreneur wants to hear. I’d been working on a new idea for over 6 months, had a great team lined up and was on the eve of closing a $1.5M seed round with some of the best investors in the world including Brad Feld (Foundry Group) and a small collection of amazing angels. And then I killed the idea. Below is the note I sent to my would-be investors.

I take my responsibility as a CEO very seriously and would only accept your capital when I had a damn good, defensible plan on the best ways to spend it to achieve success and at this point, I do not. After careful consideration, the original idea of our “personal health record (PHR)” has too many issues/risks for me to proceed with the adequate levels of confidence. Therefore, I am postponing fundraising until I have more clarity and conviction around an idea worth funding. I spoke with Brad Feld yesterday and he was predictably thoughtful and supportive, which is how I have come to know him and the main reason why I want to work with him (and Foundry) in the future.

I’m happy to connect with anyone who wants to discuss in more detail, but the combination of incentives (most providers don’t want you/us to have the data and will therefore actively make it hard to get), patient apathy (most people  aren’t proactive and data-driven about their health), potential costs imposed by the provider during records collection (for example, in WA state a provider could charge a $22 clerical fee, $.96/page for the first 30 pages and $.73/page for all remaining pages (deal killer/frustrating/stupid) and this is implemented differently in every state and varies a ton), lack of a “I need that” feature, the significant amount of coding needed to do to get a viable solution and the fact that several competitors (Gliimpse, Prime, Picnic) have a significant lead on us, all total out to the wrong foundation to build around. Startups are hard enough without all of these factors stacked against you.

I hope you can appreciate the level of frustration and disappointment I feel right now. I am an optimist, pragmatist, and enthusiastic competitor and I fully expect to do a new company, hopefully in the healthcare space, and I hope you will consider investing in me (and my team) in the future.

Thanks again for your belief in me, the idea and the future of health.

Obviously, this decision and email are pretty hard to write. But, it was the right thing to do and the right time to do it. But, how did I get there, what could I have done to prevent this outcome and what do I plan to do differently as I look for an idea worth funding?

As a collegiate athlete (I went to Purdue on a swimming scholarship) and then a professional sailor doing long, offshore events, I’ve always dreamed about systems that could collect data about me, learn and suggest ways to optimize my performance. Then my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, my father had a stroke and my brother and I struggled to help them understand their conditions, coordinate their care and look for the best solutions (specialists, clinical trials…). This was frustrating, time-consuming and not very “smart” and it seemed like a software solution could really help in both cases, a “platform for personalized health”. Ideas percolated for several years, while I built and sold Gist (where Brad was an investor) and started Rival IQ. At some point along the way, Brad asked me, “what’s standing in the way of you building the health platform and doing it with us as investors?” I didn’t have a good answer, so I got to work.

My first steps were a blend of customer development and MVP creation. I set up this survey to learn about potential customers (would be great to have your input too) and started having conversations with users in my target personas (“self-advocates” — people with critical or chronic health conditions looking to take control of their own health and “optimizers” – people who wanted to use data and experimentation to get more from their bodies and minds). I was lucky as I have experienced both of these states so I was scratching my own itch, which is a good thing to do as an entrepreneur. Then, as I’ve done in the past, I got together a team of “night-time hackers” to build a rough MVP of our core idea. This team met on Wednesday nights and included 3 developers, 1 designer and me. All of us were interested in the problem space, working with each other and brought complimentary skills. We grabbed hours when we could on evenings, nights and weekends and focused our sessions on learning, data sharing and trying to get something working. The goal was to make a mobile app that worked something like; install, find your doctor, take a photo of your drivers license, “sign” on the phone (to validate identity) and then magically (after a few days time) you have copies of all your past health records, accessible on your phone. Obviously, we had many ideas of what you could do next (visualize your health history, find correlations and causation, compare with norms, share with others, enhance with other data…) but we wanted to make it fast, easy and free to get your records. After a few months, we had this working (with lots of issues) and it was really cool!

Starting a company requires some blend of imperfect data, reasonable assumptions and a collection of smart people who think the problem can be solved, but is ultimately some leap of faith. With a bunch of customer input, tons of research and an MVP, I decided to quit my day job and go for it. I went back to Brad, further articulated my plans, solutions to some of the issues we found, built a rough model with users, growth, team, revenue…and decided I needed 1.5M to get going at the pace I think the idea deserved. Brad was thoughtful in his questions and we agreed to fund the new company. I was on cloud nine and it was hard to contain my excitement!

I’m a big believer in creating a “big tent” of smart people who can help an idea succeed and while Brad was happy to take the whole 1.5M, I wanted room for angels who could help the company grow and/or add unique value. We agreed to carve out 250K, for up to 10 angels (@25K each) in the round. I articulated that I wanted 2-3 people in 4 categories;

  • Quantified-self geeks – people who used data to gain an advantage, often in sports
  • Medical disruptors – had experience changing the healthcare space with software, data and a focus on the patient/consumer
  • Platform innovators – companies that aggregate data and provide new value and/or had similarities to our approach around personal storage (e.g. Mint.com, Tripit.com, Dropbox, Evernote)
  • Company builders – CEOs who could help me be better, grow a big company…there is always more to learn

For each category, I made a list of my top prospects. With Brad’s support as a foundation, I leveraged my network, found connections and followed much of the advice I’ve given before in these posts. For each investor, I articulated the vision, our progress and why I wanted them specifically to be part of the company. Within 30 days, I had an awesome group lined up with several people I only dreamed of getting when I started the process. Time marched forward, we hired an awesome legal team with great experience in the space, drafted documents to form the company, raise the round and get started. I made my first offer to a full-time employee, who could add necessary medical expertise to the team. She chose us over an existing offer and gave notice to her current employer. I started talking about the idea more broadly and made plans for an impending public disclosure around the financing. All systems go with a plan to close in mid-October!

While I was raising the money, we were also working on enhancing the prototype, diving deep into policies and regulations, talking to medical providers and continuing our customer research. As my enthusiasm for working with the team and the investors was increasing, we starting finding serious structural issues in the overall business, mostly outlined in my note to investors. We looked hard at incentives (who wanted us to succeed and who might want us to fail) and I will do this much more deeply in the future. We considered many, many options on ways to incentivize the consumer more and solve the structural issues that seemed entrenched on the provider side (very hard to do). I was optimistic that we could find good solutions but as the days marched forward toward the financing timeline I had communicated, the negatives mounted and my confidence decreased.

During every startup, you reach points of critical inflection; when to narrow to a specific focus (vs. idle chit-chat about ideas), when to start coding an MVP, when to commit full-time and quit your day job, when to raise money, hire your first employees… Obviously, there are many more points in the future, but these early points are some of the most critical. As an entrepreneur, each of these points presents an opportunity to take stock, weigh the risks/rewards, make a plan and then re-commit to the next major milestone/inflection point. Knowing Foundry and the investors I’d lined up and the team I’d recruited, I knew that we were all committing to at least 3-10 years of our lives to work on this idea. I wrestled with the idea, brainstormed with the team, talked with other CEO’s I respected and discussed with my wife who has seen me succeed and fail in the past. The process of discussion and communicating my decision-making criteria helped it crystallize my opinions and in the end, the calculus was not right.

I was in Boulder for a Full Contact board meeting and I’d aligned our schedule around this date. It was planned to be a celebration of the financing, a new company, and a new adventure. Brad and I first met during a run along the river in Denver way back in 2008. While building Gist, we talked about many challenging issues while running or walking. On this day, we walked to Boulder creek trail and I explained my logic and decision. He seemed to know this was coming, which is likely just good investor intuition. I was sad, frustrated and even a little embarrassed. He was conciliatory, thoughtful and supportive. The next day, I sent my note to the other investors and the other partners at Foundry. Some were surprised, many appreciative and this made me feel even better about my decision.

I remain sad, frustrated by the systems and incentives at play in healthcare.   As for healthcare innovation, I do plan to keep working toward an idea worth funding. I hope the other players in the space succeed and I am inspired by people like Eric Topol, Jonathan Bush, Peter Diamandis, and Atul Gawande to find solutions that deliver better results and a life of “optimal health and peak performance”.

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Twitter for entrepreneurs – the why and the how of growing a following

I was recently asked to talk to a bunch of budding entrepreneurs about how to use Twitter to grow their own personal brands and therefore additional value to their companies.  The presentation talks about the “why” and the “how” to achieve this and includes some very cool stats from other “social CEOs”.

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2015 Social Media Priorities (infographic)

Understanding social media is critical and grocking the trends is a good start.  Our team at Rival IQ just put together some good data to get you started.  For more like this, check out our blog – blog.rivaliq.com or download the whole report with data from our massive survey here http://blog.rivaliq.com/social-media-trends-2015/

Social Media Trends 2015

 

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