Author Archives: T.A. McCann
I went to Purdue and studied mechanical engineering. It was an amazing education and prepared me in many ways for the work I do now as a software entrepreneur. (technology, software development, critical thinking, data>>opinion, math…).
Recently, I was contacted by a student looking for an internship. A few emails and an “audition” later, we hired Spencer Brown for the summer. I applaud his networking (reached out to me directly on LinkedIn), willingness to work at a startup who might/might not be able to hire him back (risky internship) and openness to work through our process or lack of one. We were specifically impressed with his hacking/building things and proven entrepreneurial interest vs. just school work. We @rivaliq are looking forward to seeing him this summer and building cool stuff for our customers!
Then I was contacted by Grant Gumina, the managing director of www.theanvil.us, a co-working space at Purdue. He asked me to help out some of the teams who were going through http://theanvil.us/boiler/ (accelerator) and I happily agreed. Prior to the talk, I asked him for some frequently asked questions, and while I answered them during a recent Skype call, I wanted to share for the benefit of others. Here goes;
What’s a recurring mistake have you made that took you a while to figure out?
Doing customer development AFTER I made a product vs. before. Now, I spend lots of time, focused talking to potential customers using only a hypothesis on what solution I might build to frame the conversation. It’s about asking questions vs. telling them what I made (marketing) and why they need it (sales). I want to understand as much as I can (problems, existing solutions, buying behavior, influencers, pricing options, keywords…) about a customer segment, as early as I can, and this informs many downstream decisions.
Not understanding the funding sources early in the process. Talking to investors early, is a useful part of understanding a market as well as when/if I can raise money for a specific idea and the metrics/progress I might need to achieve to get the best investors. Here is how I think about it now; http://www.tamccann.com/the-start-up-fundraising-cookbook-8-steps-to-raising-a-solid-round/
Not understanding similar or competitive solutions, again, early in the formation of the idea. It’s hard to change user behavior so understanding the best solutions in the market today and how ours could be 10X better (enough to dramatically change behavior) is important. I now do this as soon as I start working on a new idea, often using tools like Rival IQ to understand the existing companies, then triangulating with discussions with customers and investors to get a full picture of the landscape.
What would you do if you were in college again?
I was at Purdue for 5 years, 4 of which I was swimming full-time (on scholarship) as well as being a mechanical engineering student, so I was pretty busy. For my 5th year, I won a scholarship (Red Mackey Award) and was able to spend more time really digging-in and learning vs. just getting by. For engineers and other technical majors, I’m sure you are equally busy so there is not much time to do “more”. But, I wish I had spent more time with people who were out in the world doing what I thought I wanted to do. This could have taken the form of projects or internships but more importantly, trying to understand what people DO on a day to day basis via coffee/short conversations. In retrospect and looking at my career path, this would have been much more time pure entrepreneurs vs. more corporate roles.
Secondly, I was a proficient programmer, but I would have have spent more actually get “good” in a way that I could have landed a job in that area as well as mechanical engineering.
Finally, more time with designers. This could have been in graphic design, product design… with a focus on understanding how they think, their processes, how they make decisions….
If your question was about my major, I think ME was a really good foundation.
How do you start to charge users if you’re already giving them the product for free?
This is always a tricky thing, but I would think about it in a few ways.
One, just start charging and let the chips fall where they may. End users should understand that you need to make money too and that they’ve received your “value” for free. Be honest with your users and just communicate openly. The best ones will want to pay you so you keep bringing them value vs. quitting to go work on something else.
Another idea is to pick a set of features which are highly requested, from your best targets (not all users are created equal) and then only charge for these new features leaving the base product alone and remaining free (lead gen).
Another angle is volume based, which means you get to X of something for free and if you want more of X, you need to pay. See Full Contact Card Reader as an example. https://www.fullcontact.com/pricing/
What’s the best way to engage beta testers/early adopters throughout the development process?
I have a longer blog post about this here http://www.tamccann.com/finding-the-right-beta-users/, but the simple answer is;
know who you want and overly focus on a smaller set of highly engaged users. These will be people who “really, really” want their problem solved and ones who are “experi-mental” meaning they are used to using products early in their lifespan and when they usually suck.
blend online means of interacting (email, chat, twitter…) with physical interactions (have real people come to your space and use your product)
Build in customer development and feedback into your sprint/development process so you are always meeting new potential users (at least 2-3/week)
Give public credit to people who give you ideas, e.g. “thanks to GrantG for the idea for X” – Put this in release notes, blog posts, tweets…
As you get a basis working product, consider some “community” support solutions like https://www.zendesk.com/ or https://www.uservoice.com/ or even a hacky google doc where users can report bugs, suggest features…
Focus on “customer success” vs. sales – this means knowing about lots of other solutions in a space, that solve problems for your users in your narrow domain (e.g. Syncing your contacts (www.fullcontact.com) or understanding your competitors (www.rivaliq.com)) as well as the broader domain (business productivity) or (digital marketing). Share suggestions, posts, ideas, solutions widely. Be a useful resource, even when your product is not the right fit.
Suggest content and connections – “you should really read X, follow Y or try Z and if the user is valuable or influential, make connections.
What things have you really wasted time on early in the company’s life?
Focusing too much time trying to convince users that they had the problem I was trying to solve vs. focusing my effort on solving for the people who self- identified and were really wanting a solution.
What strategies or tools do you use to stay productive?
At work, I am a major user of software tools and utilities. Much more detail and specific tools are here – tamccann.com/tools
I am also still very active and try to exercise for at least 60 minutes/day, usually longer. I also make sure to get at least 8 hours of sleep on one or more nights each weekend. Usually only sleep 6-7 during the week. I also eat largely vegetarian (sometimes fish, but no meat) and have done for over 25 years. Spend at least a few hours each week helping other people, giving advice, sharing what you know…mentor others even when you think you might not have that much to offer. Just “help-share”.
If anyone else wants to support the cool work they are doing at Purdue, connect and share;Read More
For a startup, raising a seed round is a daunting endeavor. Techstars Seattle Demo Day is looming and I recently finished mentoring the teams at the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator so advice on fundraising is top of mind. I’ve written about fundraising before here and here, but I recently saw Brad Feld (who is awesome and was an investor in my last company) give a great talk that added a few great words to the lexicon – Leads, Followers and Random investors. So, borrowing from Brad and adding my own ideas, here are a few things to consider when putting together that perfect seed round.
First some definitions;
Leads – Usually professional investors, who write > 5 checks/year at $100-500K/deal to fund startups. They are experienced in the dance, the terms, know lots of other investors…and know how it all works. They negotiate with the entrepreneur and help set the terms for a round.
Followers – These are majority of the investors you will meet. They either don’t have the time, money, expertise or fortitude to lead a round. These people usually have a day job and are investing as a hobby, a way to engage with startups or to support the startup community. If they are “active” they usually do at least 4-5 deals/year. I am a follower and am very clear about it with companies but many other investors are not so clear.
The overall fundraising process should be planned (e.g. I hope to close by the end of the year), with a solid understanding of how much you want to raise (e.g 750K-1M), with what vehicle (e.g. convertible note) and under what terms (e.g. 4M cap, 18-month term and 20% discount). Much more on terms here and in Brad’s book Venture Deals. The clearer you are, the faster the round will likely come together.
With this plan, you have a sense of the amount you need from a Lead investor, usually >25% of the total raise. You also have a starting point for negotiation when you get the lead investor in the room. Now your job is to go find the LEAD!
In a best case, you will also have some idea of the domain expertise (e.g. “marketing tools”) and/or functional experience (e.g. content marketing, channel sales, product development…) of your desired investors and you can ultimately create a “tapestry” of people with complementary skills and backgrounds to add to your company.
When you start talking to investors, spend time asking questions to determine a good fit. Ask them directly;
How much do you normally invest/company?
How many deals/year?
What thematic areas are you most interested in?
When you invest, how do you like to engage with the company?
- When you have invested in the past, were you a lead or a follower?
In addition to the money, how else do you like to help your companies?
An experienced investor (the kind you want) will be totally comfortable with these kinds of questions. They too are about expediency, getting to a YES or NO as quickly as they can and not wasting their or your time. Depending on their answers, you will get a pretty good sense of the kind of investor they are and in the best case, how likely they are to invest in your space and whether you think they can really help the company.
Assuming you think there is a good fit, continue the discussion about the business, opportunity, specifics…to get to a “yes, I think I would like to invest”. If they are a Lead, you can start working a term sheet, if they are a Follow, “collect” them for later and communicate this to them, something to the effect of “Hey T.A., I am really excited to work with you and I think you could add real value to our company. Right now, I am focused on finding our lead investor to get to solid terms, but I would love to pencil you in for (X, depending on their answer to normal check size) for the round, how does that sound?” At this point, consider them “soft-circled” and get back to finding the lead.
Followers are not likely to become leaders, no matter how much you try to convince them. Too many entrepreneurs spend way too much time trying to make this conversion happen. If someone, who has not lead before, wants to step up, probe on experience, skills, desire… and plan to invest more time with them and your lawyers to get to a solid term sheet, but this is not the desired path. You really want an experienced Lead.
After many meetings, you are likely to end up with a collection of Followers and finally, a LEAD! Woot! Get to a term sheet, get the Lead committed and then start closing the Followers. Depending on where in the process you found the Lead, you may have a long or short list of potential Followers. Part of the job of the lead, is to bring more people to the table and in most cases they have many people who they’ve co-invested with before. Ask for introductions and use their leadership to close other people. Assuming the lead has 25-50% of the round, Followers might close out the round or at least get to 75% before you need to go back to the well and look for new investors.
But wait, there’s more. As you you diligently move through your known prospects, getting people to commit, “random” people will show up and express interest. These are likely people who have heard about you from some other investor, another entrepreneur, a press article…but they feel random. As these investors are coming late in the round, you should have momentum with lots of others signed up, closing these Random investors much more quickly. Otherwise, rinse and repeat the process above, but be OK with Random happening.
Finally, fundraising is a sales process so you need to keep momentum going with lots of prospects, closing when you can and continuing the conversation with others being clear, consistent and regular with your communications. Focus on the right things, the right people, the right process and you will close those Leads, Follows and Random investors to fund your own next big thing!
Troy Henikoff is the managing director of TechStars Chicago. I recently saw him do a great talk outlining the tools and strategies around building your financial models. Lucky for you, the Techstars team in NYC, where Troy spoke, videotaped the whole thing, but I thought I would pull out a few key points and add a bit of my perspective too.
As entrepreneurs, we all make PPT slides to tell our stories, which is basically required. These slides get the broad story across and should be used to get prospective investors engaged in the business. But, the smart investors will quickly want to understand how you plan to run the business, what choices you need to make when and what impact these choices will have on the core metrics of the business. These choices are best examined and communicated in a set of financial models and they are critical if you are to impress good investors and run a successful business. Time to study up!
Troy does a masterful job of showing you, through a presentation and example spreadsheets, how to build the models, what assumptions to make, how to challenge these assumptions inside your team and then with investors.
A few key tips;
Use Excel vs. Google Spreadsheets. Excel is more powerful, will allow you to take real snapshots and is “the language of a professional financial world.”
Use simple, clear “labels” on your spreadsheets. This makes is easier for everyone to understand what you are talking about as you move around different sheets.
Build the models yourself – you need to understand your business, how the model works, what are key assumptions, when you need more cash…you can get help in structure so it meets standards, but know your own model.
The most important number on the model — revenue. To create long-term sustainability, you must be growing revenue, preferably quickly.
Know how to take an investor through your model in a way that is concise, clear and methodical. This will instill confidence and build a solid foundation for working together.
The one thing you know about your model is that it’s wrong, you’re just not sure where, yet. Your job is to make it and then find the things that are incorrect as you keep running the business by comparing the model to actual, usually on a monthly basis.
Troy does such a good job on the slides and the presentation, I won’t try and cover all the points, but I highly encourage you to download the docs and watch the full video. It will be worth it.
Full video is here – https://techstars.wistia.com/medias/qqh2rt9v7w (multiple segments, so keep watching)
Copy of presentation and sample docs are here – https://www.dropbox.com/sh/wyvknlpf0i2myzw/AABH4wDZD1qeq2rtPzxaSKina?dl=0Read More
Last week, I participated in The Meeting in Aspen, CO. I was invited by my good friend Christopher Jerard who is former editor of Freeskier Magazine, Rival IQ customer and all-around good dude working with some amazing clients in action sports. The event, held annually for the last 10 years, is about getting smart people from the ski and snow sports industry together to compare notes, learn from each other and plot a course for the future.
The event was fun for me because I don’t know the industry, the players or the issues despite an occasional trip up a chairlift. I did a talk about “Learning from your Competition” which included my background in sailing, the 2013 America’s Cup, current work in marketing analytics and some future scenarios around quantified self. It was fun to try and bring a fresh perspective and at the same time make my experience relevant considering my affinity for the liquid vs. crystalline form of H2O. I hope the group took a few things away from the talk including the ideas around “build– measure — learn” and measuring “me vs. me, me vs. the competition and me vs. best in class”.
After my talk, I had the chance to meet lots of great and inspiring people including Chris Davenport who, after doing some amazing skiing is working on climate change with Protect Our Winters and Jeremy Jones (also involved with POW) who was showing off his latest movie Higher. These guys were seriously inspiring on so many levels and I was blown away by their accomplishments.
I also had the chance to talk with Chris and Rob from Outside about their recent work and was especially excited about their upcoming Volvo Ocean Race coverage. Chatted with guys from X Games, GoPro and other major brands to learn how they are producing and promoting such amazing content across lots of different channels. We also hang out with Troy and his group from Resqwater (very cool chemistry lesson) which might just end up being the next drink sensation! Finally, Deric and the crew at Aspen Snowmass organized a great mountain bike ride on the new trails up behind the airport. Let’s just say that living at sea level vs. altitude creates a disadvantage and I got totally smoked on all the climbs but it was beautiful and fun.
I learned a lot, made a set of connections that challenged my thinking and gave me new perspective on many things including the limits of human performance. I hope I get more invites to unexpected places to keep learning from smart and inspiring people. Thanks for having me!Read More
Building your startup team is the most important thing you’ll do in the life of your company. The team includes the people who work on it every day as well as your advisors, investors and in certain cases, partners. At Rival IQ, we are hiring for a marketing leader and another developer to add to our team, so I have been thinking about the best approach and I believe it’s a blend of fit, skills and experience, in that order.
Fit – Doing a startup is hard with tons of stress, long hours and a million decisions. Finding people who have similar value systems, approaches to living and problem solving is critical. There are no absolute right answers on fit. Different people fit into different situations and many great people will not fit your culture. I suggest creating 3-5 statements or philosophies about the company that attempt to define you and your culture and therefore better assess fit. My friend, Rand Fishkin, at Moz has created this Tagfee, which pretty clearly articulates what they care about. Bart Lorang at Full Contact openly expresses things they value, some of it illustrated in his post about “paid, paid vacation“. At Rival IQ, we are developing our own culture using phrases like “freedom with responsibility” (self-motivated), “data drives decisions” (analytical and specific), “everyone has a voice”(respectful and opinionated), “a team that works out, works out” (healthy) and “it takes a village” (family, friends and community matter) and correspondingly we can approach “fit” for new people. As a founding team, you should also determine bigger issues like “what does success look like” (lots of impact, lots of money, building a big company, building a fun company…) as this will determine fit for potential team members and drive much of your ongoing decisions. Write it down, evolve it (I suggest quarterly or with a funding milestone) and test your culture with people you think you want to hire and make sure they fit while at the same time really understanding your own company.
Skills – Every company has a set of goals and tactics they need to employ to achieve them. Skills are how you get shit done. Time also usually equates to more skill as people get better as they practice. Think hard about what needs to be done and what critical skills are required. Hire for these. Also, hire for people who can demonstrate the acquisition of new skills (learners). “What did you learn over the last year?” “What do you want to learn in the next 6 or 12 months?” are good questions to test for this. The best people come with demonstrated, quantifiable skills but are very good acquiring new ones. Map your skills into the business needs for the next 3-12 months and fit it into the puzzle of what you already have on the existing team and don’t overweight into one category. Skills, of which learning is one, are second to fit in importance.
Domain experience – Most valuable industries are moving fast so deep industry knowledge can be as much a curse (these are all the ways this won’t work) as they are a blessing (here’s how we can work the system to our advantage). The key is to find people who don’t overweigh their domain experience and take from it the opportunities to lead and re-invent. Also, as you move more toward B2B or complex selling or PR/marketing where industry connections and relationships are important and take a long time to foster, the value of domain experience is higher, but still falls behind fit and skills. If you are hiring someone for experience, work hard to see how their connections translate directly to the things you need to achieve (usually customers, partners or other people). If the line is not clear, run away.
This approach of blending fit, skills and domain experience applies to your advisors (I recommend 2-3) and investors too. Some investors want you to be frugal, others spend like crazy. Some want you to focus on people and systems, others not so much. Some care more about the technology, some the customers, some the growth. Some are happy with an early exit; most want only a home run. Some will want you to work 100 hours/week while others think it’s a long haul and you need to stay fresh, happy and rested. Like fit, there are no “right” answers here, just different ones, but if you end up with mis-matched values and expectations you will spend more time fighting than building the business. Brad Feld and Steve Hall were investors in my last company and we all really “fit” so building the business together was fun, rewarding, stimulating and very productive.
Hiring and building a team is an art and takes time. Start hiring early, before you need people, by defining your values and finding the people who fit, who have the core skills to do what needs to get done. Focus on fit, skills and domain, in that order!