This “teacher’s reference guide” distills what I thought were some of Chirs Dixon’s more interesting blog posts and ideas. Don’t take my word for it, I’ve put together a complete compilation of his blog posts below that is well worth your time.
Chris Dixon first started a company called SiteAdvisor that helped users understand the safety and reputation of websites by testing the sites to find malware and spam. McAfee eventually bought it. His next venture was Hunch, a site that built a collective intelligence recommendation system, that was eventually acquired by eBay. Chris is now a partner at a16z, the “CAA” of venture capital.
Some of my key takeaways were around cryptocurrency (it allows computers to make commitments, amongst many other things, of course), the next paradigm shift will start off looking like a toy/hobby (what the richest and smartest do for fun on the weekends is what the mainstream will do in 10 years), and more related to network effects, startups, and venture capital.
Third, retool your plan. This is the hard part—changing the facts of your plan and what you are trying to do, to make your company more fundable. To describe the dimensions that you should consider as you contemplate retooling your plan, let me introduce the onion theory of risk. If you’re an investor, you look at the risk around an investment as if it’s an onion. Just like you peel an onion and remove each layer in turn, risk in a startup investment comes in layers that get peeled away — reduced — one by one. Your challenge as an entrepreneur trying to raise venture capital is to keep peeling layers of risk off of your particular onion until the VCs say “yes” — until the risk in your startup is reduced to the point where investing in your startup doesn’t look terrifying and merely looks risky.
But I Don’t Know Any VCs
VCs work mostly through referrals And of course it’s even better if you walk in with existing “traction” of some form — customers, beta customers, some evidence of adoption by Internet users, whatever is appropriate for your particular startup. With a working product that could be the foundation of a fundable startup, you have a much better chance of getting funded once you do get in the door. Back to my rule of thumb from the last post: when in doubt, work on the product. Failing a working product and ideally customers or users, be sure to have as fIeshed out a presentation as you possibly can— including mockups, screenshots, market analyses, customer research such as interviews with real prospects, and the like.
Don’t bother with a long detailed written business plan. Most VCs will either fund a startup based on a fleshed out Powerpoint presentation of about 20 slides, or they won’t fund it at all. Corollary: any VC who requires a long detailed written business plan is probably not the right VC to be working with.
Alternately, jump all over Y Combinator. This program, created by entrepreneur Paul Graham and his partners, funds early-stage startups in an organized program in Silicon Valley and Boston and then makes sure the good ones get in front of venture capitalists for follow-on funding. It’s a great idea and a huge opportunity for the people who participate in it.
Read VC blogs — read them all, and read them very very carefully. VCs who blog are doing entrepreneurs a huge service both in conveying highly useful information as well as frequently putting themselves out there to be contacted by entrepreneurs in various ways including email, comments, and even uploaded podcasts. Each VC is different in terms of how she wants to engage with people online, but by all means read as many VC blogs as you can and interact with as many of them as you can in appropriate ways.
So, when such a new thing comes out—like, hint hint, Facebook or Twitter— jump all over it, see which VCs are using it, and interact with them that way — sensibly, of course. More generally, it’s a good idea for entrepreneurs who are looking for funding to blog — about their startup, about interesting things going on, about their point of view.
The Only Thing That Matters
Personally, I’ll take the third position — I’ll assert that market is the most important factor in a startup’s success or failure. Why? In a great market — a market with lots of real potential customers — the market pulls product out of the startup. The market needs to be fulfilled and the market will be fulfilled, by the first viable product that comes along. The product doesn’t need to be great; it just has to basically work. And, the market doesn’t care how good the team is, as long as the team can produce that viable product.
In honor of Andy Rachleff, formerly of Benchmark Capital, who crystallized this formulation for me, let me present Rachleff’s Law of Startup Success: The #1 company-killer is lack of market. Andy puts it this way:
When a great team meets a lousy market, market wins.
When a lousy team meets a great market, market wins.
When a great team meets a great market, something special happens.
Let’s introduce Rachleff’s Corollary of Startup Success: The only thing that matters is getting to product/market fit. Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market. You can always feel when product/market fit isn’t happening. The customers aren’t quite getting value out of the product, word of mouth isn’t spreading, usage isn’t growing that fast, press reviews are kind of “blah”, the sales cycle takes too long, and lots of deals never close. And you can always feel product/market Ft when it’s happening
Carried a step further, I believe that the life of any startup can be divided into two parts: before product/market fit (call this “BPMF”) and after product/market fit (“APMF”). When you are BPMF, focus obsessively on getting to product/market fit. Do whatever is required to get to product/market fit. Including changing out people, rewriting your product, moving into a different market, telling customers no when you don’t want to, telling customers yes when you don’t want to, raising that fourth round of highly dilutive venture capital — whatever is required.
The Moby Dick Theory of Big Companies
First, don’t do startups that require deals with big companies to make them successful.
Second, never assume that a deal with a big company is closed
Third, be extremely patient
Fourth, beware bad deals
Fifth, never, ever assume a big company will do the obvious thing.
Sixth, be aware that big companies care a lot more about what other big companies are doing than what any startup is doing.
Seventh, if doing deals with big companies is going to be a key part of your strategy, be sure to hire a real pro who has done it before.
Eighth, don’t get obsessed.
How much funding is too little? too much?
The answer to that question, in my view, is based on my theory that a startup’s life can be divided into two parts — Before Product/ Market Fit, and After Product/Market Fit. Before Product/Market Fit, a startup should ideally raise at least enough money to get to Product/Market Fit. After Product/Market Fit, a startup should ideally raise at least enough money to fully exploit the opportunity in front of it, and then to get to profitability while still fully exploiting that opportunity. I will further argue that the definition of “at least enough money” in each case should include a substantial amount of extra money beyond your default plan, so that you can withstand bad surprises. In other words, insurance. This is particularly true for startups that have not yet achieved Product/ Market Fit, since you have no real idea how long that will take. Raising money is never an accomplishment in and of itself — it just raises the stakes for all the hard work you would have had to do anyway: actually building your business.
Some signs of cultural corrosion caused by raising too much money:
Hiring too many people — slows everything down and makes it much harder for you to react and change. You are almost certainly setting yourself up for layoffs in the future, even if you are successful, because you probably won’t accurately allocate the hiring among functions for what you will really need as your business grows.
Lazy management culture — it is easy for a management culture to get set where the manager’s job is simply to hire people, and then every other aspect of management suffers, with potentially disastrous long-term consequences to morale and effectiveness.
Engineering team bloat — another side effect of hiring too many people; it’s very easy for engineering teams to get too large, and it happens very fast. And then the “Mythical Man Month” effect kicks in and everything slows to a crawl, your best people get frustrated and quit, and you’re in huge trouble.
Lack of focus on product and customers — it’s a lot easier to not be completely obsessed with your product and your customers when you have a lot of money in the bank and don’t have to worry about your doors closing imminently.
Too many salespeople too soon — are out selling a product that isn’t quite ready yet, hasn’t yet achieved Product/Market Fit — alienating early adopters and making it much harder to go back when the product does get right.
Product schedule slippage — what’s the urgency? We have all this cash! Creating a golden opportunity for a smaller, scrappier startup to come along and kick your rear. So what should you do if you do raise a lot of money? As my old boss Jim Barksdale used to say, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing —be just as focused on product and customers when you raise a lot of money as you would be if you hadn’t raised a lot of money.
Easy to say, hard to do, but worth it.
Continue to run as lean as you can, bank as much of the money as possible, and save it for a rainy day — or a nuclear winter. Tell everyone inside the company, over and over and over, until they can’t stand it anymore, and then tell them some more, that raising money does not count as an accomplishment and that you haven’t actually done anything yet other than raise the stakes and increase the pressure.
Illustrate that point by staying as scrappy as possible on material items — office space, furniture, etc. The two areas to splurge, in my opinion, are big-screen monitors and ergonomic office chairs. Other than that, it should be Ikea all the way.
Why a startup’s initial business plan doesn’t matter that much
A startup’s initial business plan doesn’t matter that much, because it is very hard to determine up front exactly what combination of product and market will result in success. By definition you will be doing something new, in a world that is a very uncertain place. You are simply probably not going to know whether your initial idea will work as a product and a business, or not. And you will probably have to rapidly evolve your plan — possibly every aspect of it — as you go. (The military has a saying that expresses the same concept — “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” In this case, your enemy is the world at large.) It is therefore much more important for a startup to aggressively seek out a big market, and product/market Ft within that market, once the startup is up and running, than it is to try to plan out what you are going to do in great detail ahead of time. The history of successful startups is quite clear on this topic.
Hiring, managing, promoting, and firing executives
Hire an executive only when it’s clear that you need one: when an organization needs to get built; when hiring needs to accelerate; when you need more processes and structure and rigor to how you do things.
Second, hire the best person for the next nine months, not the next three years.
Third, whenever possible, promote from within.
Retaining great people
Companies that are winning — even really big, old ones — never have a retention problem. Everyone wants to stay, and when someone does leave, it’s really easy to get someone great to take her place. Companies that have a retention problem usually have a winning problem. Or rather, a “not winning” problem.
And here’s a neat trick that actually works. Go out and re-recruit the best people who already left. Some of them have since discovered that the grass isn’t actually greener at whatever mediocre startup they joined or whatever other big company they jumped to. Give them fat packages against the new mission and get them back.
Where to go and why
When picking an industry to enter, my favorite rule of thumb is this:
Pick an industry where the founders of the industry — the founders of the important companies in the industry — are still alive and actively involved. This is easy to figure out — just look at the CEO, chairman or chairwoman, and board of directors for the major companies in the industry. If the founders of the companies are currently serving as CEO, chairman or chairwoman, or board member of their companies, it’s a good industry to enter. It is probably still young and vital, and there are probably still opportunities to exploit all over the place, either at those companies or at new companies in that industry. Once you have picked an industry, get right to the center of it as fast as you possibly can. Your target is the core of change and opportunity — figure out where the action is and head there, and do not delay your progress for extraneous opportunities, no matter how lucrative they might be. Never worry about being a small fish in a big pond. Being a big fish in a small pond sucks—you will hit the ceiling on what you can achieve quickly, and nobody will care. Optimize at all times for being in the most dynamic and exciting pond you can find. That is where the great opportunities can be found. Apply this rule when selecting which company to start
In a rapidly changing Held like technology, the best place to get experience when you’re starting out is in younger, highgrowth companies.
The Pmcarca guide to personal productivity
Don’t keep a schedule!
By not keeping a schedule, I mean: refuse to commit to meetings, appointments, or activities at any set time in any future day. As a result, you can always work on whatever is most important or most interesting, at any time.
When someone emails or calls to say, “Let’s meet on Tuesday at 3″, the appropriate response is: “I’m not keeping a schedule for 2007, so I can’t commit to that, but give me a call on Tuesday at 2:45 and if I’m available, I’ll meet with you.” Or, if it’s important, say, “You know what, let’s meet right now.” Clearly this only works if you can get away with it. If you have a structured job, a structured job environment, or you’re a CEO, it will be hard to pull off.
If you have at any point in your life lived a relatively structured existence—probably due to some kind of job with regular office hours, meetings, and the like—you will know that there is nothing more liberating than looking at your calendar and seeing nothing but free time for weeks ahead to work on the most important things in whatever order you want. This also gives you the best odds of maximizing Yow, which is a whole other topic but highly related.
Keep 3 and only 3 lists: a Todo List, a Watch List, and a Later List
The more into lists you are, the more important this is. Into the Todo List goes all the stuff you “must” do — commitments, obligations, things that have to be done. A single list, possibly subcategorized by timeframe (today, this week, next week, next month).
Into the Watch List goes all the stuff going on in your life that you have to follow up on, wait for someone else to get back to you on, remind yourself of in the future, or otherwise remember. Into the Later List goes everything else—everything you might want to do or will do when you have time or wish you could do. If it doesn’t go on one of those three lists, it goes away.
3×5 Index Cards
Each night before you go to bed, prepare a 3×5 index card with a short list of 3 to 5 things that you will do the next day Use the back of the 3×5 card as your anti-todo list. Each time you do something, you get to write it down and you get that little rush of endorphins that the mouse gets every time
he presses the button in his cage and gets a food pellet. Then tear it up and throw it away
The gist of Structured Procrastination is that you should never fight the tendency to procrastinate — instead, you should use it to your advantage in order to get other things done.
As John says, “The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.”
Do email exactly twice a day
When you do process email, do it like this
First, always finish each of your two daily email sessions with a completely empty inbox.
Second, when doing email, either answer or file every single message until you get to that empty inbox state of grace.
Third, emails relating to topics that are current working projects or pressing issues go into temporary subfolders of a folder called Action.
Fourth, aside from those temporary Action subfolders, only keep three standing email folders: Pending, Review, and Vault
Emails that you know you’re going to have to deal with again — such as emails in which someone is committing something to you and you want to be reminded to follow up on it if the person doesn’t deliver — go in Pending.
Emails with things you want to read in depth when you have more time, go into Review.
Everything else goes into Vault.
Don’t answer the phone
Let it go to voicemail and do them in batches
Hide in an iPod
People are less likely to bother you even if you’re not listening to anything
Sleeping and eating
start the day with a real, sit-down breakfast. This fuels you up and gives you a chance to calmly, peacefully collect your thoughts and prepare mentally and emotionally for the day ahead
Only agree to new commitments when both your head and your heart say yes
Do something you love
The Psychology of Entrepreneurial Misjudgment
The design of tactical incentives — e.g. bonuses — is a whole topic in and of itself, and is critically important as your company grows. The most significant thing to keep in mind is that how the goals are designed really matters — as Mr. Munger says, people tend to game any system you put in place, and then they tend to rationalize that gaming until they believe they really are doing the right thing. I think it was Andy Grove who said that for every goal you put in front of someone, you should also put in place a counter-goal to restrict gaming of the first goal.
My favorite way around this problem is the one identified by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma: don’t go after existing customers in a category and try to get them to buy something new; instead, go find the new customers who weren’t able to afford or adopt the incarnation of the status quo.
Just do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. The article he references can be found here
Luck and the entrepreneur
Chance… something fortuitous that happens unpredictably without discernable human intention.
OK, so what are they?
In Chance I, the good luck that occurs is completely accidental. It is pure blind luck that comes with no effort on our part.
In Chance II, something else has been added — motion. Unluck runs out if you keep stirring up things so that random elements can combine, by virtue of you and their inherent affinities.
Now, as we move on to Chance III, we see blind luck, but it tiptoes in softly, dressed in camouflage. Chance presents only a faint clue, the potential opportunity exists, but it will be overlooked except by that one person uniquely equipped to observe it, visualize it conceptually, and fully grasp its significance. Chance III involves a special receptivity, discernment, and intuitive grasp of significance unique to one particular recipient. Louis Pasteur characterized it for all time when he said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
[Chance IV] favors the individualized action. This is the fourth element in good luck — an active, but unintentional, subtle individualized prompting of it. Please explain! Chance IV is the kind of luck that develops during a probing action which has a distinctive personal flavor. The English Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, summed up the principle underlying Chance IV when he noted: “We make our fortunes and we call them fate.” Chance IV comes to you, unsought, because of who you are and how you behave. Chance IV is so personal, it is not easily understood by someone else the first time around… here we probe into the subterranean recesses of personal hobbies and behavioral quirks that autobiographers know about, biographers rarely. [In neurological terms], Chance III [is] concerned with personal sensory receptivity; its counterpart, Chance IV, [is] involved with personal motor behavior.
[You] have to look carefully to find Chance IV for three reasons.
The first is that when it operates directly, it unfolds in an elliptical, unorthodox manner.
The second is that it often works indirectly.
The third is that some problems it may help solve are uncommonly difficult to understand because they have gone through a process of selection. We must bear in mind that, by the time Chance IV finally occurs, the easy, more accessible problems will already have been solved earlier by conventional actions, conventional logic, or by the operations of the other forms of chance. What remains late in the game, then, is a tough core of complex, resistant problems. Such problems yield to none but an unusual approach…[Chance IV involves] a kind of discrete behavioral performance focused in a highly specific manner.
Here’s the money quote:
Whereas the lucky connections in Chance II might come to anyone with disposable energy as the happy by-product of any aimless, circular stirring of the pot, the links of Chance IV can be drawn together and fused only by one quixotic rider cantering in on his own homemade hobby horse to intercept the problem at an odd angle.
Chance I is completely impersonal; you can’t influence it.
Chance II favors those who have a persistent curiosity about many things coupled with an energetic willingness to experiment and explore.
Chance III favors those who have a sufficient background of sound knowledge plus special abilities in observing, remembering, recalling, and quickly forming significant new associations.
Chance IV favors those with distinctive, if not eccentric hobbies, personal lifestyles, and motor behaviors. This of course leads to a number of challenges for how we live our lives as entrepreneurs and creators in any field: How energetic are we? How inclined towards motion are we?
Those of you who read my first page and the entrepreneur post will recognize that this is a variation on the “optimize for the maximum number of swings of the bat” principle. In a highly uncertain world, a bias to action is key to catalyzing success, and luck, and is often to be preferred to thinking things through more thoroughly.
How curious are we? How determined are we to learn about our chosen field, other fields, and the world around us? In my post on hiring great people, I talked about the value I place on curiosity — and specifically, curiosity over intelligence. This is why. Curious people are more likely to already have in their heads the building blocks for creating a solution for any particular problem they come across, versus the more quote-unquote intelligent, but less curious, person who is trying to get by on logic and pure intellectual effort.
How fIexible and aggressive are we at synthesizing– at linking together multiple, disparate, apparently unrelated experiences on the fly? I think this is a hard skill to consciously improve, but I think it is good to start most creative exercises with the idea that the solution may come from any of our past experiences or knowledge, as opposed to out of a textbook or the mouth of an expert. (And, if you are a manager and you have someone who is particularly good at synthesis, promote her as fast as you possibly can.)
How uniquely are we developing a personal point of view — a personal approach– a personal set of “eccentric hobbies, personal lifestyles, and motor behaviors” that will uniquely prepare us to create? This, in a nutshell, is why I believe that most creative people are better off with more life experience and journeys into seemingly unrelated areas, as opposed to more formal domain-specific education — at least if they want to create. In short, I think there is a roadmap to getting luck on our side, and I think this is it.
What I got out of it
Some awesome insights. I changed how I batch mail, learned how to see luck from 4 different perspectives, and thought Simonton’s age and outstanding achievement was incredible