Fox Theatre

StartUp Grind deserves its name to be displayed on the old fashioned marquee of historic Fox Theatre, despite its rocky start in terms of logistics and coordination on the first day. Held on February 12–13 in Redwood City, CA the conference hosted a line up of great keynote speakers including Joe Gebbia, Lorraine Twohill, John Collision and, Michael Seibel.

The attendees were mostly young entrepreneurs and the speakers were partners from top VCs, successful entrepreneurs and C-level executives of big tech companies.

A Handful of Advice from Top VCs

Look for the right VC partners

Let’s start with some highlights from the VC’s point of view. Jessica Verrilli, former VP of Corporate Development and Strategy at Twitter and current General Partner at GV, the venture capital arm of Alphabet, Inc., compared today’s Venture Capital ecosystem to 10 years ago. In 2008, when there was a global economic crisis and the public market crashed, Limited Partners (LPs) hesitated to give money to VCs. No one could foresee that the technology would go so far. There was a very small ecosystem mainly carried by underdogs. Now, the technology and industry are at their peak, the VCs are experienced on different verticals, and the VC ecosystem changed not only Silicon Valley but the whole world.

Verrilli also gave some advice to entrepreneurs. Forming a diverse and inclusive team and forming a value system from the beginning should be top priorities for a startup. While finding the product-market fit is so hard, startups should look for the right VC partners. In her closing remarks, Verrilli mentioned that social networks combining online and offline marketplaces is a trend worth following, as, in 5 years, it is expected 50% of US population will be working in the gig economy.

Tell the story with numbers

In another session, two former founders, current partners at YCombinator, Adora Cheung and Holly Liu advised entrepreneurs that,

  • They need to take good care of themselves.
  • It is very important to keep communication with investors by sending monthly or quarterly updates.
  • It is vital to tell the story with numbers, not with quotes.
  • It is almost impossible to get investment just with an idea. You should at least be able to validate it.

Both having lived in China before, Cheung and Liu made a good comparison of Silicon Valley to the China ecosystem. China isn’t a place where everything is just copycatted from the US anymore. It has become a place where market-specific and genuine product ideas have flourished. On the other hand, VCs expect short term return of investment (less than 5 years), as they usually come from a real estate background.

Make sure your team is good.

It is very important to stand out while pitching to investors. Alda Leu Dennis, General Partner at Initialized, Emily Melton, Partner at Threshold Ventures, and Annie Kadavy, General Partner at Redpoint, highlighted what entrepreneurs should care about while pitching.

The first rule is to make sure you are a good fit for the VC in terms of their expertise, investment verticals, and the investment stages that they usually participate in. When sending the very first email, you should make it personalized by including things that you know they care about as a result of researching the recipient beforehand. Especially for the seed level investors, teams mean a lot. Make sure your team is good. Making connections to investors through their networks is better than sending cold emails. Be sure you are introduced before sending your email. This is also a good practice for entrepreneurs to test their abilities to leverage their resources and connections to make things happen. It is the nature of the ecosystem.

Making a good pitch is as important as finding the right investor.

  • You should set the problem and your mission clearly. You should tell how big the problem is that you are trying to solve and who is affected by it.
  • Almost all speakers at the conference emphasized that the team comes second in the pitch. Make sure your team is good and be ready to tell them how you know each other and how long you have worked together.
  • To avoid misunderstandings, try to make the pitch as interactive as possible. Don’t just be a presenter who is following a script.

What VCs want

On the second day, Global Scaling Academy gave a great presentation on what VCs look for in startups. Legendary venture capitalists Don Valentine, Bill Draper, and Dick Kramlich may have different opinions on whether it is a great market, a great product or a great team that matters, but in the end, every VC will look for a combination of those three. You can watch the complete session here.

How to Measure, Get Investment and Scale

Handle the truth

The metaphor, Roy O’Driscoll used when talking about how to measure growth for SaaS companies applies to every company. The metrics you choose should be simple, universally understood, allow fast response and deliver information quickly — like vital signs in an E.R. To ensure success, you will always need a North Star to follow. That should be a non-financial measure of customer engagement.

O’Driscoll’s closing remarks were from Jack Nicholson, “You can’t handle the truth.” What is harder than establishing the right metrics? Having teams internalize it.

Never lose your ambition

Kris Naudts, founder at Culture Trip, talked about how he never gave up for 4 years before he got his first investment in 2015 — $2M which led to another $100M in the following two years. His ambition and patience helped him to convince the first investor, who he kept hustling to follow up with constantly via email. Having a constant user growth also helped a lot to secure the first $2M.

Do your best to win it when you see a window of opportunity

Aaron Levie, Co-Founder at Box, shared how he and his co-founder Dylan Smith turned Box, an online file sharing company for enterprises, into a public company. They founded Box in 2005. They currently have 2000 employees, a 27% annual growth rate, $500M revenue and 90,000 customers. Things didn’t go that well at the beginning back in 2005. They gave away a fourth of the company for their first investment of $80K.

They did better in the following rounds and managed to raise $560M before they went public in 2014. The reason they were able to raise that money was that they saw the window of opportunity being shaped with 4 megatrends: mobile was going to be the trend, people were going to use applications in browsers, the internet was getting faster and the cost of storage was going down dramatically. They decided to spend all their money and effort to win the market.

The Stars of the Conference

Prioritization, OKRs, measuring and testing

Lorraine Twohill on how to build a brand like Google

Being one of the early employees and first marketers of Google, when Search was the only product, Lorraine Twohill had a lot to of insight on how to build a brand like Google, including how difficult it was to go international with a product that is developed for the US in the first place.

The discipline of prioritization they set through the company was very helpful since in the beginning, resources were scarce and the teams were small. They spent 70% of their efforts for top core things, 20% on new features and 10% for crazy things. The company is still run by Objectives and Key Results. They grade the OKRs and are transparent about them. If 70% of the OKRs are achieved, they call it a success.

On the marketing side where there are thousands of different platforms, they try and measure every one of them. They are obsessed with conversion funnels. That’s why they use A/B testing a lot, like the rest of the company.

Talk to users

Everybody knows the famous story about Airbnb, yet it was still so inspiring to hear it from Joe Gebbia. They decide to found the company sometime after they moved to San Francisco with no money. When a design conference comes to the city and every single hotel room is sold out, they decided to use their airbeds and their living room for accommodating 3 people.

Joe Gebbia on Innovate with Intention

There were times they tried to solve every problem (trust issues, community issues) with programming and failed during their journey. They were advised by Paul Graham that it isn’t always about scaling, especially in the early days. It was a breakthrough moment for them. They decided to offer professional photo shoots for the listings once they noticed that listings had terrible photos. They personally went to those places and acted like professional photographers. While taking the photos, they had the chance to talk a lot about the hosts’ experiences. Being early adopters, those first users, in fact, had a lot to talk. So their feedback was priceless. They changed many things, especially about the user experience of the website after those meetups with early adopters. The moral of the story: talk to the users.

It was an intense 2 days full of success stories, advice, and inspiration. StartUpGrind will be a regular conference for us in the following years.

Bridging enterprises with global innovation that matters.