I tend to find that the things you remember most are those which involve a certain element of disaster. I’m not trying to suggest for one second that a disaster is a prerequisite for having a good time but they sure stick in your memory. Therefore, given the immediacy of things going wrong on my 5000 mile trek to Startup School, I was hoping this symbolism was something refreshing rather than the gloom I was feeling.
There cannot be anyone anywhere in the world that has not experienced an “oh no” moment, however, I’d like to think that there are not too many at 36,000ft!
As I was going through the steps in my mind of the day ahead I realised that there was a problem with one of them, namely picking up the car, as I had conveniently failed to pack my driving licence. Some rapid cancelling of hotels and subsequent rebooking closer to public transport was hastily carried out on a layover at Philly. So by the time I reached San Francisco sleep was just about the only thing I could think about.
The next morning was the day of Startup School and I’d tasked myself with taking notes to see what, in my opinion, advice also applies to startups here in Scotland (although obviously many of the points will inevitably apply more broadly).
One reason often cited as to why The Bay Area has been so successful in producing startups is the culture. This was brought home before I even arrived at the auditorium. Sitting quietly having some breakfast at a cafe in Palo Alto I noticed that I just happened to be sitting directly next to Paul Graham. In Scotland there is no way you will ever be sitting in a random cafe where people are talking about startups, never mind sitting 5 feet away from one of the most well known investors and a founder of the most successful startup accelerator. I then happened to bump into one of the speakers (Joel Spolsky) on the way to the auditorium, both of us apparently lost, and had a little chat with him and his buddy – wonder if he ever did get that backstage spa treatment he was hoping speakers would be offered!!
To be honest, I could probably end this post here and it would be immediate as to why basing your startup outside The Valley is more likely to be a tougher route to success. However, given that the single most consistent message of Startup School was that startups are hard, well, what the hell. As Jessica Livingston (a partner in Y Combinator) emphasised: startups are hard, NOT IMPOSSIBLE.
As to be expected, a significant amount of the information being disseminated was based on obtaining investment in the form of VC or angel money. I’m not convinced how useful this info is to a startup in Scotland, given that big liquidity events in Scotland are rare (non-existent?), and therefore large investments of this type will be few and far between. That said, a quick summary would be: delay taking money for as long as you can (because then you’ll have more control over the terms), it’s not a deal until the money is in the bank, and investors only tend to be interested if other investors are interested (a chicken-and-egg problem).
So what can Scottish startups do then? To be honest, this is hard to say (and take), but work harder and be sure to be building something you believe in. Many of the founders did not see any kind of traction for over 6 months and even then it was slow. Patrick Collison of Stripe said that everything happens much much slower than you think it will. Weebly took 20 months before any real sign of traction – this was despite being featured on Newsweek, TechCrunch and Time. Weebly founder David Rusenko’s best piece of advice was that you can’t succeed at anything if you quit in 6-12 months, also reiterated by Ben Silbermann (Pinterest). Even apparent overnight successes like Facebook took over a year to get a million users.
Great, so work harder, as if you didn’t know that already, but what else? It was noted by Ben Silbermann that Pinterest’s lack of traction was only really addressed when they acknowledged that the problem wasn’t an engineering problem and instead a community problem. When they engaged their potential users by creating (and sponsoring) events the site took off. Tom Preston-Werner also provided a similar message with regards to Github. Interestingly, one of Facebook’s marketing tactics was targeting universities that already had a product similar to theirs, hence they knew there was a market, and gave these communities something that was much better than the existing solution. So, take time to think about the people that will use your product and invest in them. Above all else you need to focus on the data and listen to what these users are saying, i.e. measure everything.
Now, what about those thinking about about doing a startup? As Ben Silbermann’s wife said “just do it or stop talking about it”. The dependent variable was him, the only reason it wasn’t happening was because he wasn’t committing. It’s worth stressing again though that you have to make sure you are creating something you believe in. Mark Zuckerburg was creating Facebook because it’s something that he wanted to use. There is no doubt that it’s difficult and as Ben Horowitz said “there are two emotions euphoria and terror”.
One thing I recommend more than anything else about Startup School is to go just to get a feeling for the atmosphere and culture in Silicon Valley. It will not provide you with a sudden great revelation with regards to your product but talking with so many like-minded people is refreshing and motivating. Even my bumpy start could not take that away. It feels like you are part of something and this is what we really need over here more than anything. So don’t be put off by doubters as they will always doubt. If you’re going to do it then throw away the distractions and concentrate on building something great. As Ben Silbermann’s said “the future is unwritten“.