Saturday, January 31, 2009

Leveling the Field

I've been a bit quiet lately, so apologies for that. I've been focusing on a few things ... like getting closer to launching. I'll post more on that soon, but I have a different topic that I want to cover today.

One thing that has always frustrated me as an entrepreneur is the advantage that business people seem to have. Although Groupthink is my eighth startup (and that's not counting Puzzazz), I've never been a business guy and it seems that there's an inherent bias in the startup world toward business types. I say inherent because I don't think it's intentional -- I think it's just that business people have their own language and their way of doing things and it permeates communication. So, despite the fact that I have a great network of contacts, including angel investors and even a few venture capitalists, I've always felt like I've been at a disadvantage.

A while back, when I was working on a business plan for a potential startup, I met up with someone who was also working on a business plan. He was a marketing guy, with limited technology knowledge, so it seemed that we could help each other. His business plan was gorgeous and read well, and it had all the right revenue projections and graphs. Now I'm no slouch as a writer, but mine was dreadful. My plan had accurate descriptions and diagrams of the architecture of the system that I planned to build, and I had a working prototype to go with it. And his plan? He also had some architecture diagrams, but they were basically fiction. I pointed that out to him, but he said it didn't matter -- they were just placeholders and investors wouldn't care. Guess which company got funding?

I'm not saying that technology people like myself are dismissed entirely, but it's certainly a much easier road for people with a business background.

So, I was really pleased to hear about the details of the Northwest Entrepreneurs' Network's First Look Forum (FLF) earlier this week. The FLF replaces the annual Early Stage Investment Forum (ESIF) that NWEN used to run, with some big differences, the biggest one being that it's not an investment forum. NWEN properly recognized that there are already plenty of investment forums in the area, but there was very little for the stage before that. And they recognized that early stage entrepreneurs need more than money -- they need help. The forum is designed to:

  • Recognize early stage companies that show promise and could benefit from the process.
  • Help the companies to take their idea and make it presentable, through intensive, personal coaching.
  • Provide presenting companies an audience of qualified angel investors that they can present to and network with.
  • Provide those angel investors with interesting opportunities that they probably haven't heard about before.
What I like most about the FLF is that you don't need a business plan. Instead, they want people to answer five straightforward questions (paraphrased):
  • What's the Market and Opportunity?
  • What differentiates the concept from others?
  • How can the business scale?
  • What traction do you have so far?
  • Who are you? What's your experience?
I look at this list and, unlike a formal business plan, I think: I can do this. To me, it levels the playing field, allowing me to leverage my strengths without having to suffer because of my weaknesses. It's almost like they designed it for people like me (and maybe they did). The FLF will have a winner that wins some unspecified "fabulous prizes." Sure, I hope to win (we all do!), but I think I'll be a winner no matter what stage of the process I get to. If you're one of my potential competitors, good luck. And, if you haven't signed up yet, do so quickly -- they have limited slots and they were more than half sold out as of Tuesday night.

Note: Earlier, I said I wasn't going to write about the fundraising process. This blog post doesn't change that. I'll probably write more about the FLF as I go through the process, but I still won't blog about fundraising itself.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Challenges are Universal

On Tuesday, I attended a Business Plan Writing Workshop sponsored by NWEN, the Northwest Entrepreneur Network. It wasn't nearly as valuable as the Alliance of Angels pitch clinic that I attended last week. That doesn't mean it was devoid of content, but it was half the length and less focused, which basically meant it was one-fourth the content. Had I done the two in the opposite order, I might have felt it was more valuable. And, since the NWEN workshop is free (if you're an NWEN member), that's a reasonable way to do things.

Although one talk was about a slide deck for funding pitches and the other was about writing business plans, the content of the talks was very familiar, which isn't too surprising. After all, the mission of both is to explain your business.

I was surprised with the variety of entrepreneurs in the room at the NWEN workshop. When we all introduced ourselves, the businesses included technical stamping, specialized video, traffic information, mobile content, travel, transportation, medical devices, iPhone applications, biotech, farming, retail stores, healthcare, cleaning technologies, e-commerce, and a non-profit, plus two software as a service companies, including Groupthink. Wow!

Interestingly, pretty much every question asked of the presenter, despite the variety of businesses and even business models, applied to Groupthink and probably everybody else in the room as well. The challenges in starting and building a business are universal.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Authentication and Planning

I surprised myself by deciding to rewrite authentication again. I'm almost done with version 3, which is a complete rewrite instead of a modification to the existing code, like version 2 was, and it's taken me longer than the first two versions combined. But, I feel it's much stronger the way I'm doing it and some of the bugs I had in item-level authentication should just vanish. After finishing the 2nd version, I had this nagging feeling that it still wasn't right. Basically, my design was based on the need to work around a limitation in Google App Engine -- the lack of proper relationships between tables (combined with wanting to reduce the number of database queries). I spent some time thinking about it and realized a simpler, more elegant way to avoid the limitations which got me a much better data structure and thus, much better code. I wish I'd thought of it in the first place! But that's the way it is sometimes -- I had to learn from my mistakes.

On a different topic, yesterday I mentioned that I went to the AoA pitch clinic. I've decided that I'm going to spend at least an hour a day working on business planning, my pitch to potential investors, and related items. But, I'm not going to blog about it, except perhaps to indicate how much time I spend on it. The reason for this is that I want to make absolutely sure that nothing written on this blog could be construed as anything resembling a public offering to invest in Groupthink. I will, however, think about writing some blog posts about the process after it's all over.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Advisers and Angels

As we all know, long meetings are frequently less effective than short ones. So, I'm pleased to say that in the last few days, I've had not one, but two, effective meetings that ran three hours.

The first was on Friday, with one of my advisers. We talked mostly about business and how to build the business, not the product, though we spent some time on that too. I learned a lot, but, not surprisingly, was reminded of how much I still have to learn about business.

Today, I went to the Alliance of Angels pitch clinic, a once-a-month seminar that covers what the "10-minute pitch" and the corresponding pitch deck should look like. It's somewhat ironic that it takes three hours to cover a 10-minute talk. But, it wasn't three wasted hours. Like the 10-minute pitch itself, it was all content. Sure, there were sample slides and even some silly bad example slides at the end, but there wasn't the fluff you so frequently get in presentations. The information was clear, useful, and on target, and it was obvious that the presentation had been well honed over many, many presentations. Net: if you're thinking of looking for funding, even if it's not from angels, I highly recommend AoA's pitch clinic.

The meeting and the seminar were different in a number of ways. One was a discussion while the other was a presentation. One had a very simple agenda while the other had a big long agenda and a slide deck. But, they were both successful, despite their length, for the same reason -- clear focus, with everything discussed revolving around that focus. And that's something useful even when you're not in a meeting.

In product news, I'm in the midst of rewriting the authentication system again. Almost done. I'll blog why and what tomorrow.