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Austin Startups by Roger Chen - 1d ago
On Books, Fatherhood, Diversity, Crypto

On Books… Over the holidays, I reread “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. The last time I read this book, I sent Ben a cold email congratulating him on it and asked him for career advice. That led to an intro to Frank Chen at A16Z which led to my first project ever for a VC. That’s a fun story in itself and I’ll write about it another time. A few years later, “Hard Things” still holds up and I still think this is a must read for any business software entrepreneur.

On Fatherhood… Julie and I became proud parents of a healthy baby boy on January 2. A week and a half later, we’re in a good rhythm and things are pretty manageable. Since leaving the hospital, I have slept more than 5 hours every night which is fantastic but I’m told this may not last…

On Diversity in Tech… Back in November, I gave a talk on Asian participation in the Austin startup ecosystem at a great event hosted by the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce. The idea for the talk came from what I saw as an underrepresentation of my own view that there were very few Asians being represented in Austin startups relative to city demographics when compared to NYC or the Bay Area where I had worked before. I was so encouraged by the response that I wanted to experiment further with access and inclusion efforts in Austin.

I went on the popular Facebook group “Austin Startups” and posted a link to my availability for virtual investor office hours on a first-come, first-serve basis from the broader community. That post sparked hundreds of reactions, and I ended up speaking with more than 30 entrepreneurs in total, with more than 2/3 female and underrepresented backgrounds. An amazing thing to come out of this was that we actually just closed on an investment in an Austin company led by a phenomenal female entrepreneur who I met through this Facebook post. There’s clearly a gap in access and inclusion in the Austin tech ecosystem and I aim to be part of the solution. It’s a no-brainer.

On Crypto… Spending this time at home on paternity leave has given me a lot of time to dive deeper into cryptocurrencies. Between diaper changes and feeding, I’ve easily spent 40 hours this week reading whitepapers and subreddits devoted to various coins and tokens. My view on crypto investing is that the majority of retail crypto investors are gamblers and these new crypto funds are simply taking advantage of the lack of sophistication in several ways. Crypto is a bubble, and while I understand the value in a decentralized and distributed ledger, I believe the near-term economic impact of the actual blockchain technology is <10% of the current aggregate crypto market cap. Having said all that, who knows when this bubble will end and I’m still interested in meeting entrepreneurs with ambitious ideas around blockchain. I’m not above the hype myself and have made additional bets of my own from my “zero or to the moon” portfolio allocation.

Thoughts Jan 13, 2018 was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Is your business idea an undiscovered gem, or a flaming dumpster fire leading you to your doom? Here’s a quick rule to help.

A lot of entrepreneurs ask me to look at their business ideas since they know what I do for a living. Some are gold, some are meh, most are flaming dumpster fires. It stinks to tell people when their ideas are smoldering rubbish, so most VCs don’t and just politely decline or ignore bad business pitches. Although the full content of our upcoming accelerator/incubator, Sputnik ATX, is still in stealth mode, I’d like to share a quick rule you should apply to any business idea that you want to pursue. It is specific to answering the question: will anyone buy this? A question that is obviously important to everyone except the tunnel-visioned entrepreneur who doesn’t value his equity.

So, would be entrepreneurs, let’s take off our blinders and have an honest conversation about your product and service, and more specifically, the benefit it provides.

I’m hoping you already read my post about consumer surplus. If not, read this first. I’m going to use a lot of those terms here. Because if you’re going to get someone to buy your stuff, you had better generate a ton of consumer surplus first. Assuming that your idea and business plan can generate value (consumer surplus), you still may have a lot of trouble finding people who want to buy it because the switching cost still exceeds the marginal benefit. Say what?

Switching costs are what economists call any expense related to stopping the use of one product and service, and beginning to use another. Switching costs may include disposal fees for the old junk, training for new stuff, hardware upgrades, software patches, the time it takes to buy/train/learn the new item, and pretty much anything else associated with the new thing to consume or use. Sometimes these can be quite high.

For example, why do we all keep using Facebook when there are surely other social platforms out there? Because the switching cost includes getting all our friends to switch to the new platform (good luck with that) and also includes information loss when we miss out on posts from our friends still on Facebook or they miss out on ours since we now use some loser platform they’ve never heard of. That switching cost is sufficiently high enough that we don’t switch to Loserbook.

But what if switching has a lot of advantages? The advantages of switching are called the marginal benefit. This is the increase in value we get from switching to a different product or service. For example, if you stop eating at Chipotle and start eating at Qdoba, you get the marginal benefit of free guac at Qdoba (yes, you read that correctly). You also get the added option of queso at Qdoba, and hey, who doesn’t like queso! While this is a good place to add another marginal benefit, not playing the intestinal fortitude lottery at Chipotle, I’m going to restrain myself. Suffice to say that there are some serious marginal benefits of eating at Qdoba versus Chipotle.

Now, if you want to create a new company and provide a new service, you need to provide your consumers a product where the marginal benefits exceed the switching costs in a manner that is obvious and as big as possible. The larger gap between benefit and cost here will greatly influence how quickly people will make decisions to consume your new product/service.

One of the worst products to do this, of all time in my opinion, was the Apple Newton. I can pick on Apple, because they’ve made a lot of smart product launches where marginal benefit kicked the life out of the switching cost, but not on this one (thank you John Scully, I couldn’t have written this without you). Newton was a stinker. For those unfamiliar with it, Newton was a hand-held device that kept digital notes for you. That’s it. You wrote on it, it recognized the handwriting if you used its funky letter system and it converted your writing to digital text. It was also expensive. It cost $699 when launched back in 1993. That is roughly several gazillion dollars today (in Zimbabwe).

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that $700 is a lot to pay for a notepad that only recognizes its own weird version of shorthand. The Newton made you pay an awful switching cost for something that you already had in a simpler, easy to use format and could buy for fifty cents at Walmart. So what happened? People kept buying notebooks that worked great, and the Newton died.

Remember how the Segway was going to revolutionize foot traffic? Yep, switching cost exceeding marginal benefit. There are more. Microsoft Bob? You betcha! Google Glass? Check! The idea graveyard is littered with expensive examples of how brilliant people created incredibly complex and expensive solutions to problems with little benefit beyond what the market currently provided.

Now, Steve Jobs returned to Apple (hurrah) and we got the iPad. It could still be used to jot stuff down, but it also pretty much ran the whole universe. The increased benefit of zillions of apps, made the switching cost paltry compared to the massive benefit provided and, viola! People buy them up the wazoo.

So, if you want to avoid betting your life savings, and that of your investors (me) on something that will never catch on, please do some product soul-searching to see if the benefit your start-up provides is sufficient to cover the cost to customers when they switch. Remember, marginal benefit must massively exceed the switching cost -iPad, not Newton. Of course, you still have to do a lot of other things right to succeed, but this is a biggie so get it right.

Originally published at www.sputnikatx.com on November 24, 2017.

Is Your Start Up Idea Gold or Goop? was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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I recently raised a seed round and was in the process of working on a Series A before my company was acquired. Through that process I spoke with or met in person hundreds of investors. As Bryan stated above, there are no shortage of “How to pitch” or “How to behave” articles by VCs but really very little advice for VCs by founders.

Anyone notice there's a ton of VCs giving founder advice, and almost no founder advice for VCs? Wonder why that is 🤔

 — @birsic

So without further ado, here are my thoughts on some dos and don’ts for early stage investors.

Pay Attention

There were a number of times that I would be in meetings, mid-pitch, and one of the VCs would suddenly stop listening and do something on their phone. It seems like this would go without saying, but you have been fortunate enough that a committed, hard working founder is giving you their time and even considering taking money from you, so put away your phone. Don’t put it upside down on the table on vibrate, don’t leave it right side up on the table so you can see messages come through. Just leave it in your office or leave it in your bag. If you need to know what time it is, set an alarm to go off a few minutes before the meeting has a hard stop. Pay attention, take notes, ask questions, but your phone really has no place in the meeting. Taking notes makes the founder feel like you are paying attention and gives them clues about which parts of the pitch resonate.

Lines Not Dots

Raising money from a fund is a process, most founders get that. We’re going to tell you about our plans, execute on them, tell you about our challenges, and execute on them. On each of those occasions you have an opportunity to say “this founder did what they said they were going to do.”

The relationship works in reverse however. As you are evaluating us for the ability to execute and present, we are evaluating you for your insights, courtesy, ability to show up on time, and more. If we think you may be cutting a sizable check and joining the board, we are evaluating you as a potential employee of our company. Do you show up on time for your meeting or do you make us wait in the lobby for 15 minutes? Do you give us your undivided attention? Have you been doing research outside of the meeting to show that you’re really interested in the space? What will it be like for me as a CEO to work with you? Can I count on you to do what you’ll say? Can I count on you to provide advice in a candid and thoughtful way? Do you respect my very limited time or do you believe this meeting is just about you and for you?

Rescheduling meetings with short notice is a bad signal. If it happens frequently we assume you will act that way as a board member as well, or worse we’ll just take it as a signal that you aren’t actually interested.

If you make any commitments for intros or feedback, do it and do it quickly. Founders can’t afford dead weight and we need people who are reliable like an atomic clock. Wow us with your consistency and follow through and you’ll win our hearts.

Don’t do reference checks

… until you are actually ready to write a check. Go forward with the assumption that the founder is a good person. If you have some common friends, feel free to ask around about them, but if you want to talk to former employees, colleagues or other investors, don’t until you are fully committed.

This one comes from personal experience, months into conversations and after reference checks (which went well) one particular VC decided he didn’t have commitment to the space. Being told “no” was fine, but hearing that “no” after I had burned political capital teeing up references was humiliating.

Arguably reference checks are pointless anyways because people always select those who will serve as a good reference.

Just don’t do reference checks ever until the term sheet has been issued and you’re almost ready to fund.

Do your research & apply your thesis early

The number of emails I got from eager VCs who want to chat and hear about our company was staggering. The number of those VCs who didn’t know our stage or who had some other part of their thesis that we didn’t match was also staggering.

If you are emailing founders, referencing our competitors, referencing somebody we may know in common, and generally showing that you have spent some time on our company before meeting, goes a long way. It’s frustrating to block 30 minutes for a phone call and discover 15 minutes in that you only do Series B and later but we haven’t even raised our Series A yet. This is public info.

Calls with VCs who reached out to me but didn’t do any research usually felt like I was giving a 101 crash course for them on our space and didn’t leave me with the impression that they would be a valuable investor.

Disclose intentions early

It’s not a big deal if you’re doing diligence on a competitor. In young categories, a smart founder recognizes that investment in a competitor is usually a good thing for them. It drives up valuations, creates interest in the category among other investors, and in a new space a well funded competitor is usually out there educating audiences about the very problem the startup solves.

If you are doing diligence on a competitor, or even if you’re just talking to a competitor, disclose it early in the conversation so that the founder understands the reason for your interest.

Explain conflict rationale

A handful of really great VCs declined to invest in my company and they had the courtesy of telling me that they felt like Company X in their portfolio would be a conflict. It’s awesome that you said no and said no early on, but explain the conflict. The founder is deeply immersed in the space and may be able to explain that the conflict actually doesn’t exist for some reason. That imagined conflict may actually be a great partnership opportunity for two portfolio companies to collaborate.

Get excited (and show it!)

Founders are duking it out day in and day out. Most of the time we are being told no by somebody whether it’s prospects, investors, or hires who aren’t willing to take the risk at a startup. The bottom line is that being a seed stage founder is mostly a very thankless job. Even at Meta SaaS which we sold in a ridiculously fast 16 months (from incorporation, 12 months from seed funding) we had so many people tell us that we were nuts, that we would be crushed, that we didn’t “get” the enterprise, that we selling savings was too hard, that we didn’t have the right backgrounds, that we weren’t in the right geo, that we had our assumption numbers wrong, that nobody would pay what we were planning to charge. At some point every single assumption, decision, or plan we had was criticized and dissected by somebody.

Needless to say if you are listening to a founder and you think “this is pretty cool” then say that out loud. If the presentation was impressive, say it out loud. Smile. Get excited! It’s music to a founder’s ear that they may have stumbled across somebody else who thinks their vision isn’t completely foolish. You’ll build camaraderie even if you don’t invest.

If you’ve been through many VC meetings then you know that a good energy between a founder and investor is a bit like falling in love. You start riffing off of each other about “what if we also did this” and “we could expand into that”. It’s electric, it creates a bond. If you feel any interest in the business, don’t play it cool. All things equal, investors who play it cool lose out to those who get really excited. I would be inclined to accept slightly worse terms from an investor who made me feel good and spoke using the phrases “we” and “us”.

Don’t boomerang founders

If you have specific metrics you look for in early stage companies. Lay those cards out on the table at the very beginning of the conversation when you are explaining your thesis. When founders get told to “come back when you have X customer or N revenue”, sure some of them will, but probably not the ones you’d really want to invest in. When I was fundraising if I heard “I’d like to invest when you get to $X in revenue” and their metrics weren’t disclosed up front, I often thought of the investors as chickens and I always heard it as a “no”. There is no such thing as “not right now” there is just “yes” and “no”.

A good CEO is likely a sales person by nature. Just as you look at deal flow as a funnel, a good CEO disqualifies and moves on. We may say “sure I’ll keep you in the loop” or “sure I’ll add you to the quarterly update” but most of the time we won’t. Give a swift no, explain the rationale behind your no (if you understand it), and then I assure you the founder will be back on their next venture or they will at the very least remember your candor and recommend you to other founders they know…. Founders talk to each other.

Honor your commitments

You got in to the round at terms that seem fair and you’re excited about the venture. Congratulations! If you are a passive investor then your job is mostly over. Reflect back however, did you at any point say “I can introduce you to so and so at X Corp?” did you tell the founder you were friends with somebody they respect and would be happy to connect them? If you made even a single promise (hopefully you wrote it down because the founder definitely remembers it) execute on it FAST and keep the founder in the loop. Getting into the round is just the first part, I assume you’d like intros to other deals and if the venture succeeds through exit you’d like be invited to invest on the next round.

Good founders take a “lead follow or get out of the way” approach. We’re on a mission to conquer the world and you’re either helping us, getting out of the way to let us do our jobs, or you’re a problem investor. If you made any promise of any kind to that founder to get into the round and you don’t come through, you just cheated your way into the deal and the founder knows it. Don’t make burning a bridge the first thing you do.

On the commitment front, speed matters as well. Founders are operating at hyper speed. We work 7 days a week. We work in our dreams. We drink coffee to get through late nights of presentations, product, and code. To you, following up a few months after your commitment might seem reasonable (and in most businesses that would be) but when you can see the end of the runway as a CEO, getting that intro today versus next month can have a big impact on our ability to move quickly and execute on what we promised. So don’t just honor your commitment, honor it FAST. Blow the founder away with how fast you moved. We remember the people who stuck their neck out and burned some political capital and did it fast. We call those people first for our next deal because we know they are fast movers. We recommend those people to other founders.

Don’t bullshit a bullshitter

CEOs are sales people. 90% of what we sell is a vision. Being a good CEO means getting over the feeling of being a fraud and becoming convinced that your vision of the future is the right one. Consequently good CEOs have laser sharp B.S. detectors. This is a great quality, it helps with hiring, strategy, sales, marketing, and keeping track of what competitors are really doing versus what they say they are doing.

That said, there is one common refrain that a LOT of founders laugh about behind closed doors, it’s when a VC says they are “value add VCs”. Value add carries with it a suggestion that you have something special you’re going to do. Perhaps it means you have an advisory board with deep connections to potential customers, perhaps it means you have an in house marketing group that will help the founders with a lot of heavy lifting and avoid burning cash on a hire, perhaps it means that you have a group of consultants who help with pricing.

If you can’t point to exactly what the value add is, then you’re not a value add investor… and that’s OK. We like investors who are honest. Tell us that you’re interested in the round, that you will help with intros if you can, but that you’re going to mainly be along for the ride and appreciate the opportunity. That’s awesome when investors are honest like that. Some of my very favorite investors didn’t help me much, but it was clear up front that this was expected. If you say you’re a value add and you can’t point to some specific feature then you aren’t being honest with the founder or yourself. Most founders understand the economics of a 2/20 fund. If you have a $50M fund you have $1M per year for all of your staff, travels, marketing, conventions, and your own salaries. I never really buy the value add claim from smaller funds. It just isn’t realistic.

Don’t one-up founders on work effort

You are a VC. If you’re a senior VC then most of your work happens around raising the fund. If you’re an associate then most of your work is on deal flow and analysis. Those are both awesome and respectable roles, but odds are good that on a Saturday at 8pm you aren’t skipping date night to fix some urgent bugs and it’s not likely that you’re cancelling your vacation (or just not scheduling them at all) because you know you can’t afford to ever be away from the office. That is a founder’s life story.

Your war stories about getting a deal done, flying to conventions, or boring board meetings are great, but they aren’t of the same time and intensity level that founders deal with. Just let the founder carry the cross of “hardest working guy in the room”. There is a theme here, candor and honesty among smart people goes a long way. It’s ok if you don’t work as hard as a founder, almost nobody does, but let’s not pretend. Let the founder’s ego be the bigger one because it’s probably pretty fragile at this point. Your fund isn’t likely to collapse next year, his or her startup probably feels like it might.

Blog but be careful what and how much

There are plenty of VCs whose blogs and social media posts I enjoy. Tom Tunguz , Mark Suster, the Open View blog, and many others are fantastic. I’d enjoy reading yours as well but remember that everything you write cements your brand.

If you say “I only fund entrepreneurs with these qualities” there is a good chance you just lost a future deal by a founder who found your list arbitrary or self serving. As an example, although I find him entertaining you couldn’t pay me to take money from Khosla. Sure they are great investors but some of Keith Rabois’ stances about not funding founders who use PCs were completely self defeating.

Sure maybe that’s a general rule he has, but putting it out in public runs the risk that PC using founders won’t bother to reach out OR that Mac using founders who just believe that is a thoughtless statement. I fall into the latter category.

Conversely, if you do blog (or tweet, or post about vacations on Facebook) make sure that you don’t have any outstanding emails that you owe a response for. One VC I got to know was super slow to reply on a few things we were discussing but had plenty of time to blog, tweet, and simultaneously post vacation photos. When my email got a response a few days later it came along with “sorry for the delayed reply, I’ve been really busy”…. Really?

Treat founder intros with care

Many of my investors in Meta SaaS came through introductions from other founders. I’ve made countless intros to my investors on behalf of funds and startups. If an introduction was properly curated (meaning double opt in) then you need to treat it with great care. When we speak highly of you to somebody but 2 weeks later they can’t get a reply, it makes me look bad and I’m much less likely to ever make another intro. If I do make another intro I probably told the founder “hey, keep your expectations low, he doesn’t really reply half the time”… Enough dropped intros and I’ll just stop making them entirely.

As a founder it thrills me to help another founder get connected with a great investor. It gives me a little ego boost that I could help, it does some good by connecting two awesome people, and who knows, maybe it even helps with the favor bank in both directions.

Some intros I’ve made have been handled so well that I’ve been amazed. Billionaires who I have introduced other founders to are quick to respond and dive in, surely you can be as well…. And if for some reason you can’t be responsive, don’t take the double-opt intro in the first place. “Arlo I appreciate the intro but I’ve got a lot on my plate this month so I probably can’t give them the attention they deserve” goes a long way as does “Arlo, not a fit for me but thanks and keep me in the loop on future deals”.

Give advice from the trenches

Founders want advice. We are capable of filtering good from bad advice, but we only want and value advice from the trenches.

Many VCs have backgrounds in finance. That’s awesome. The world needs you…. but founders want advice from operators who have been in their shoes.

If your dad funded your first company, if you joined Facebook pre-IPO, if you were a VP at a company for 10 years, if you were the 10th hire, none of that counts and your advice will be discounted. Worse your advice may come off as looking like you’re trying to be self important.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t places where specific advice about specific situations may be useful, but the bulk of advice in early stage VC tends to be around GTM strategy and team management. Running an early stage team of 10 people is nothing like running a team of 100 at a company. Going to market in a brand new category with a half baked product is not the same as going to market with an established well funded company.

Assume the founder is knowledgable. Yes we know about the competitors. Yes we know about the challenges. Yes we know about the capital markets. We’re also talking to a lot of other investors so there is a good chance that you’ve just said the same thing somebody else said.

As a side note, if you’re a 27 year old associate and the founder is a 40 year old serial entrepreneur, tread carefully. We’ll smile and thank you for the “great idea” but you may find that for some odd reason we didn’t follow up with the financial projections you wanted…. Deal opportunity lost.

One tip I’ve learned while mentoring startups and investing is to pose your advice as a question. Rather than saying “You should run ads on Facebook targeted at XYZ demographic” ask “Have you considered running ads on Facebook targeting XYZ demographic?”… Same concept but the latter will be received and considered.

So give respectful advice if you are 100% sure it’s either from the trenches of experience or that it’s relevant. Otherwise you run the risk of looking bad, steering a young founder in the wrong direction, or worse…. you’ll miss out.

In Conclusion

If you only take away one thing from this article, let it be this: Founders talk.

We get together. We text. We have coffee. We help each other with intros and advice. We also warn each other about bad actors and share who the great investors are that have been honest and helpful. If you ask yourself “What if every founder in the world knew about what I said?” and feel good about it, then you’re probably making the right call.

Hopefully some of these tips were helpful to you as an investor. Happy hunting!

Advice for VCs from a serial founder was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Touch Surgery: User Research Case StudyITouch Surgery App

Touch Surgery is known for creating beautifully interactive surgical simulations, breaking down complex procedures into actionable steps. It’s ideal for junior residents (surgeons in their first two years of training) whose aim is to practice and rehearse surgical workflows.

The Touch Surgery app has proved to be incredibly popular, with over 100,000 monthly active users. However, we wanted to support more senior surgeons by helping them understanding the variations of surgical techniques.

At the beginning of last year, my team and I embarked on a research project to explore how we might further develop our training tool for senior residents. We recognised this as a great opportunity to make a real difference in the world of surgical education.

Three months later we had a good understanding of the user problems, their needs and a value proposition that could help us scale the product! But how did we get there?

Remote User Research

Desk Research, Hypothesis, Remote Interviews

After dissecting the past three years of insights collected by our design team, we identified pain points and mapped them to our surgeon profiles.

Here are some pain points for residents:

  • Minimal time to prepare for surgical cases means they lack confidence going into the operating room
  • Gaining sufficient experience in the operating room (OR), especially for rare procedures
  • Textbooks and journals are long and unengaging - inefficient learning

We quickly spotted common themes across all surgeons (e.g. being time poor) and agreed a a focus for our research - improving the efficiency of preparing for surgery.

Next, we wrote hypotheses we wanted to test and planned interviews with surgeons in the field.

This is one hypothesis we investigated:

  • I believe resident surgeons experience difficulty learning specific techniques used by the surgeon teaching them. This is because residents may see the method/technique in the OR only once making it hard for them to retain the information.

To uncover the deepest insights and find the root cause of why surgeons are so time poor, Touch Surgery recognise the value of visiting surgeons at their hospitals. Experiencing their day-to-day lives for ourselves helps develop stronger empathy.

Our Medical Director, Dr Daniel Buchbinder, DMD, MD, is a Maxillofacial surgeon and Program Director at Mount Sinai Health System in New York. He connected us to surgeons in his network and kindly helped us organise a three day visit to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

However, the trip was two weeks away so we arranged a series of remote calls with four different hospitals across the US. We received instant insights into their frustrations with preparing for their cases.

Here’s a few questions we asked:

  • How do you prepare for a surgical procedure?
  • How long does this take?
  • On a scale of one to ten, how prepared do you normally feel before going into a procedure (1 being not at all, ten being fully)?
  • What makes you feel more/less prepared?

Key Finding: Surgeons at all levels look for online videos to help them prepare for procedures. However, it takes them too long to trawl through vast amounts of content to find credible, good quality videos. They feel overwhelmed!

One resident told me if he has 3 hours in an evening to prepare for a case the following day, he will often spend up to 2.5 hours just searching for an appropriate video - it’s a huge waste of their time! Quick discoverability of relevant content was clearly a vital user need.

Research Trip

Interviews, Observation, Rapid Prototyping

From previous experience we knew how precious a surgeons time is; their OR schedules are tight and they often run between cases whilst trying to keep up with laborious paperwork to document the cases they’ve completed. Meetings needed to be fast, focused and concise.

Day 1: Hypothesis Driven User Research

We interviewed four surgical staff across a range of roles and gained the opportunity to attend lectures and observe admin staff inputting resident data. Here’s a couple of open questions we asked:

  • Can you tell me about how you prepared for your most recent surgical procedure?
  • What resources do you use?

Key Quote: “Literature is not useful because surgery is about subtle nuances, like trying one screw versus a different screw - not about how to put it in”

User Research: Interviews with Surgeons

Keeping to our tight schedule of interviews was tough due to the unpredictable nature of surgery. We were due to meet a surgeon at 1pm but his case in the OR overran and we ended up waiting for over two hours. Not wanting to waste that time, we spotted the opportunity to fire quick questions to residents on their lunch break.

Day 2: Problem Confirmation and Rapid Prototyping

We consolidated our findings, validated our hypothesis and rapidly sketched new designs based on the insight we’d gained. There was a lot of energy in the room as we saw our ideas for efficient surgery preparation come to life, knowing we would get feedback the next day!


Day 3: Test Solution and Prioritisation for Future Plans

We met with five surgeons to gauge reactions to our sketches and then recorded them testing our prototypes. The one-day design-feedback loop enabled us to validate (and invalidate) designs cheaply and with rapid speed.

User TestingPresenting the Research

Personas, Company Presentation

Back in the UK, we had more time to consolidate our findings from the trip. We developed in-depth personas for our key user types (trainee surgeon, attending surgeon, program director, academic coordinator) and introduced them to our whole company at one of our weekly ‘family’ meetings. It was an awesome opportunity to educate our sales, engineering, studio and innovation teams on who our users are, what motivates them and the problems we were aiming to address with our product.

Persona: Attending SurgeonRefining the Solution

Design Studio, Prototypes, Testing

Keen to hear opinions and gain buy-in from a range of roles across Touch Surgery (such as engineering, marketing and medical education), I facilitated a design studio where we collaboratively explored more ideas. The diversity of perspectives ensured a healthy debate and resulted in far better solutions than any one of us could have come up with on our own.

Here are a few key features our team prioritised:

  • Private groups for sharing surgical videos
  • Time-stamped video annotations for surgical workflow
  • Video assessments

Knowing how tight surgeons are for time, the key to our success lies in making a simple, intuitive tool.

We created clickable prototypes for each feature using Marvel App. It’s a quick way to communicate, share and test interactive user flows without needing to write a line of code. Each design was tested with a minimum of five surgeons and validated by three members of Touch Surgery to refine and improve the design.

By the end of the three months we had a rapidly tested and validated design which the engineering team were eager to start building.

TakeawaysRespect Your Users Time

A surgeons day starts in the hospital at 5:30am and they often don’t finish until midnight or later, so their time is precious. Arrive at meetings fully prepared and keep them focused.

Quick Validation is Key

Build in regular design-feedback loops to quickly validate (or invalidate) your ideas to save effort. Showing your users regular progress increases buy-in as it demonstrates that you understand and are listening to their needs.

Design is Not a Solo Sport

Success requires input and collaboration from people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. This helps align user needs with business objectives and technical complexities.

Research at Touch Surgery never ends; we constant reach out and speak with surgeons worldwide to gain stronger insights into this space. Please get in touch if you’d like to learn about our product, contribute or take part in research and testing. We look forward to hearing from you.

Fiona MacDougall, Senior UX Designer at Touch Surgery

The Research Behind Surgical Education was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Austin Startups by Chelsea Collier - 1w ago

Sometimes saying, “I told you so” feels smugly satisfying. This is not one of those times.

This week KXAN ran a story titled “Key players warn Austin is being left behind in 5G future.” If this issue sounds familiar it’s because you may have read about it here and here and even as far back as 2016.

The City of Austin lags behind every single major metro in the state when it comes to granting applications for small cell site permits. (Small cells are briefcase-sized technology that attach to light poles or buildings to boost mobile broadband connectivity.) To put it in context, Houston has 548, Dallas has 288, San Antonio has 66. Austin has two. You read that right. Two.

The ramifications that this has for Austin’s future is terrifying. We are willingly losing the race for innovation.

Here’s what I mean. The number connected devices (also known as the Internet of Things or IoT) will almost double in a few short years. Today there are 30 billion devices and that number will explode to 50 billion by 2020. To power all of this, we will need 7 times the mobile broadband power than what we have today. Small cells are the key to this puzzle.

The City of Austin blames the lack of small cell permits issued on others, making this a state versus local fight. Last year state lawmakers passed SB1004, which creates statewide standards for small cell deployment, which is an economic imperative. But Austin doesn’t like this and says the state shouldn’t dictate how a city enforces its rights of way or what it can charge.

This is the same kind of egotistical, shortsighted view that landed the city in the ride sharing war of 2016. Because the city demanded special exceptions from the private sector, they ended up chasing those companies out of town. (Thanks to consumer demand, they eventually reworked the regulation and joined the rest of the developed world in allowing companies like Uber and Lyft to operate.)

This “you can’t tell us what to do” whining is now putting Austin at the bottom of the list when it comes to smart city technology deployment. A smart city uses connected technology to optimize a city’s operations, improve quality of life and increase economic development. Cities all across the country — like Kansas City and San Diego — are realizing the benefits. Sadly Austin isn’t even close.

I’m embarrassed that my home, which is such a cool, unique and beloved city, is a national example of bureaucratic red tape. It’s time to take a reality check, Austin. Stop spinning the raw facts. You are not prepared for a tech-enabled future.

Austin’s challenges are starting to out weigh its shine. Traffic is abysmal. The cost of living is through the roof. It is getting harder and harder for the people who make this town what it is to live here. Just ask Amy Simmons, the creator of Amy’s Ice Cream who recently relocated to Smithville. In an Austin American Statesman article she mentioned, “I’m kind of done with Austin. I’ve fought with that city for so many years.” Even Austin’s most celebrated are packing up and getting out.

There is still time to fix this. I love this city and I’m bringing up these challenges to help move us all forward in a constructive way. On the connectivity issue, this checklist is designed to help. Let’s all work together and be a community that is special, unique AND willing to collaborative and invest in our future success. Anything else is just not smart.

Austin Abdicates Innovation was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Austin Startups by Allen Tsai - 1w ago
What spending 10 days in a remote village in Nepal has taught me about the role of technology in water sustainability and independenceThe Origin Story

At an early age, my parents instilled in us a sense of empathy for the less fortunate and taught us to be mindful custodians of the world and its precious natural resources. Whether it is volunteering at the local convalescent home, sponsoring families in Nepal, or finding novel and creative ways to save water at home, we wanted to leave the world a better place than we found it. Water conservation was an especially big deal at our house, perhaps due to my parents’ upbringing in an agrarian-based economy in Asia.

For example, we did not use detergent when washing dishes since we saved the water for the plants, and soap is harmful for the soil. We also had large, unwieldy buckets in our showers to collect bath water, whose subsequent destination was also the garden. Not for the squeamish, we collected our urine in the Costco premium assorted nuts container just so we could save ourselves a dozen toilet flushes a day. The ammonia and nitrogen in urine is great for, as you may have guessed, fruits and vegetables in our garden. Thus was my upbringing in a family that was maniacal about water conservation.

Through charity: water, we raised over $1000 for the twins’ birthday. Charity: water shows you details of how your money is used and the development site it went to.

Suffice to say, the conscious use of water and general awareness of water-related issues was something that was ingrained in my psyche from an early age. A few years ago, I started looking for water-specific charities to get involved in and came across charity: water. Charity: water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries. Founded by Scott Harrison in 2006, charity: water has raised more than $300M dollars, funded almost 28,000 water projects, and has helped over 7 million people get access to clean water.

Charity: water works with local NGO’s on the ground to deploy capital and resources to directly impact those in need in rural communities. Its website has a feature that allows you to create a “birthday campaign”, a program in which friends can donate to your personal online fundraiser in lieu of gifts. We’ve been using this campaign feature for our children for several years, and it has been a great way to bring awareness to our kids regarding water-related problems while empowering them with a way to contribute to the cause.


I came across Nepal Water for Health (NEWAH) through charity: water’s birthday campaigns. NEWAH is an NGO started by Umesh Pandey over 25 years ago with a singular mission to help the most rural and poorest people in Nepal get access to clean water and sanitation. A pioneer in developing and promoting the concept of “WASH” (water sanitation and hygiene), NEWAH and its projects have helped two million Nepalese villagers gain access to potable water and proper sanitation systems, an amazing feat given the lack of infrastructure in one of the poorest countries on the planet. Given the history and kinship I’ve had with Nepal, I knew that I had to get involved beyond financial support. I reached out to Umesh directly in the middle of 2017, to see if I can get my hands dirty (literally) and offer some direct on-the-ground assistance. I learned that NEWAH was dealing with some bureaucratic red tape (read: government corruption), and that they were having issues getting projects approved. But thanks to the tenacity of Umesh and his team, as well as employing some excellent enterprise sales techniques that we can all learn from, several dozen projects were finally green-lit, with the first breaking ground in February of 2018. I packed some Imodium and a sleeping bag, and I was on my way to Kathmandu.

The men at NEWAH who work tirelessly to make water access a fundamental human right. Left: Mahesh, Program Manager. Right: Umesh, Founder of NEWAH.The Journey

Nepal is a landlocked South Asian country that shares a border with China and Tibet to the north and India on all other sides. With 26.4 million people, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world with almost 60% of its population earning less than $2 USD a day. Almost half of its working-age population are unemployed, and the latest United Nations Human Development Index ranks Nepal at #144 out of 188 countries, coming in behind Cambodia (#143), Zambia (#139), and Iraq (#121).

The water project is located at Mahendrajhadi VDC #8 Ward of Sindhuli province, which is an 8-hour “drive” from Kathmandu. I use the term “drive” loosely, since half of the time we were actually off-roading through the mountainous terrain, traversing river basins, and avoiding herds of livestock. As a matter of fact, the village was not even accessible by car a few weeks prior to my arrival.

Pulling into the village, our truck kicks up a cloud of red dust as we stop in front of a maroon cinder and mud structure. A crowd gathers as curious eyes peek about and slippers shuffle to and fro to observe the commotion at the village school. NEWAH’s Regional Director of the Sindhuli region, Dinesh Upreti, and the site manager, Mahesh, convenes with some of the village elders and chair persons to gather the village people for a welcome ceremony.

At the Welcome Ceremony. From left: Prem, the village elder. Dinesh, NEWAH Sindhuli Regional Director, me, and Krishna, our fearless driver.

Dinesh introduces NEWAH and its mission, describes the project we are kicking off, and explains everyone’s roles and responsibilities. One of many important lessons NEWAH has learned over 25 years of providing water access services is that community buy-in, participation, and ownership dramatically improves the long-term viability of the water tap installations. As such, every household that will use the water taps will need to contribute to the preparation and construction of these units. A hand-written contract is drawn up with every household listed as co-signers. Some of the villagers are illiterate, so in place of some signatures are fingerprints.

Please send it to me over DocuSign.

The official name of the project is “Ratodanda Simras Solar Lifting”. The villagers currently fetch water from a natural spring source at the bottom of the valley, but the source is open-air and unprotected, which makes it vulnerable to contaminants from animal excrements and other pollutants. The task of retrieving water falls on the backs (literally) of women and young girls, who make multiple 30-minute round trips every day while carrying 30+ pound water vesicles.

The “Lifting” project consists of the installation of a solar generator next to the water source, which pumps water from the bottom of the valley to a local geographical peak into a water reservoir tank and feed into several water taps via gravity located at various points in the village. This can potentially free up more than 300 woman-hours a week across the 31 households in the village, for the women to focus on other productive work and the children to devote more time to their education.

Women/girls bear an unfair share of the burden to retrieve water, an ordeal that consumes 2–3 hours daily. The green object on the head of the girl on the right is a toothbrush…tell you kids how good they have it.

The village elder arranged for Mahesh and me to stay in a villager’s hut for the next 10 days (Dinesh endured another 4-hour trek to return to Sindhuli!). Our host is Saritha, a 28-year old woman with two kids, Kopila (11) and Kiran (4). As with a large number of working-aged men in the village, Saritha’s husband is laboring abroad to earn money to send home to Nepal. Men spend anywhere from 3–7 years in neighboring countries like Qatar, UAE, China, etc. to make $300-$500 USD a month to send back to their families.

Saritha’s husband’s absence freed some space in the hut, hence our arrangement. For Saritha’s accommodations, which includes two meals a day, the village elder agreed with Saritha for me to pay her $2.50 a day (I voluntarily ended up paying her a few times that rate because…well, just because). A typical Nepali meal consists of a huge heap of rice, daal (lentils), and stir-fried aloo (potatoes). The diet is heavily carb-based as daily manual labor requires readily accessible calories and energy. Protein is considered a luxury, but Saritha owns livestock, including 6 goats, 4 kids (baby goat), 7 chickens, and a cow. We were told some of aforementioned protein could be made available for an additional charge. It is difficult for me to eat something after I have named and pet, so I respectfully declined.

Left: The village hut we stayed in. Right: Our host Saritha.

The typical day in the village starts around 5am, depending on when the rooster lets you know he’s up. Saritha generally begins her day sweeping and cleaning the hut. When daylight emerges, she feeds the livestock and lets them out of their pen to forage among the fields. Kopila is up at some point and will have fetched her first container of water by 8am. After my morning meditation routine, Saritha usually has breakfast ready for us around 9am. At 10am, Kopila and Kiran head off to school, and Mahesh and I meet up with the villagers for the construction of the water project.

Since we were in the beginning phases of the project, most of the work consisted of digging meter-deep trenches up the side of the mountain for the water pipeline, directing water from the source to the top of the hill. To my surprise, people worked through lunch time and did not break for food. Work would generally conclude around 5pm, when the village chairman would come by with a ledger and write down the names of everyone who showed up for work that day (I can think of a loophole or two with this approach…). Dinner is served around 7:30pm, and lights are out before 9pm as we look forward to the morning wake-up call in 7 hours.

I’m the city slicker with the gloves and back brace, while the women and girls embarrass me by laboring in their full sari garb and sandals.

While we were not able to stay for the entire duration of the project, here’s what the final product would look like based on other projects that NEWAH and charity: water have done nearby.

The wear-and-tear of the pipeline digging caused me to re-aggravate a previous Achilles injury. I felt terrible, with almost a sense of guilt as I was forced to end the trip two days earlier than anticipated. In the short amount of time I was there, I developed a deep connection to the people and an appreciation for their struggle. The villagers are extremely hard working, possess an inspirational sense of community, and, despite lacking in what the western world defines as “wealth”, exude incredible grace and quiet dignity.

I fought back tears as the village came together on my last day to perform a going-away ceremony. While an extra set of hands is always welcomed for the labor-intensive part of the project, the villagers were much more appreciative of the fact that a complete stranger traveled across the world, raised money for their cause, and took time away from his wife and children in order to improve the quality of life in their village. It was a recognition of genuine reciprocity that I am so grateful for, as the experience in the village has given me so much more than I can ever give them. And so with a traditional Nepalese ceremony, a new appreciation for life, and a promise to the community of returning in the future to taste the fruits of my labor, my Nepal trip came to a close.

The Epiphany

For the last several years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we can apply technology to reimagine the water infrastructure for both utilities and consumers. I’ve since formulated a hypothesis that, similar to communication networks, water networks and infrastructure inevitably has to evolve from a centralized to a decentralized topology. In other words, instead of homes having to rely on water from a central water utility with all the “centralized processing power”, all the end nodes in the water network (ie homes or commercial buildings) have to have to be intelligent and self-reliant with water monitoring, recycling, and processing systems.

At the risk of over-simplification, if consumers and utilities knew how much water was being used on which appliances in real time, and if said appliances can recycle the water that’s been used, then consumers can become much less dependent on an aging and insecure water infrastructure. Along these lines, I’ve explored ideas ranging from wireless water flow IoT sensors to infrastructure-mediated machine learning platforms, but these approaches all seem to be missing something and are heavily dependent on consumer behavioral change. On my Nepal trip, I had an epiphany.

By my estimation, Saritha’s household uses less than 15 gallons of water a day, mainly attributing to the fact that they don’t shower daily, wash clothes only a few times a month, and uses only a cup of water to flush the toilet. According to the USGS and EPA, the average American family uses about 250 gallons of water indoors per day. The International Space Station recycles 93% of all of the water on-board. For the average US household to go from 250 gallons a day to 15 gallons (coincidentally a 94% decrease), a smart home device which will indicate when you’re over your limit is not going to suffice.

The amount of lifestyle and behavioral modification required for that magnitude of change will be a challenge with a passive device. The epiphany I had was that, in addition to monitoring usage, we need innovations around filter technology and plumbing topology that together can proactively help people reduce water usage while recycling water that has been used (“greywater”). A step-functional increase in the monitoring intelligence, efficiency, and recycling capabilities of our water appliance is required for us to reduce our dependency on a centralized water authority. Such is the driving motivation and focus of my next startup named Pani, or “water” in Nepalese.

The Destination

Friends, family, and colleagues often ask me, “How was your trip?” I still have difficulty answering this question despite several weeks removed from the trip. Where do I start? Do I talk about charity: water and NEWAH? Do I talk about the 8-hour journey into the village and the difficult conditions of the local community? Do I talk about the resilience of the people and the quiet dignity with which they live their lives? Do I describe the haphazard education the village kids get despite best intention of teachers, and how, I wonder, would these beautiful children break the cycle of poverty that they’re born into without proper education? What is the first brush stroke with which I begin to paint the complex texture of my experience?

Ultimately, I begin with one message, and the last thing I will leave with you: every one of us reading this article has already hit the karmic jackpot. We have food on the table, we have clean water to drink, we have access to a good education, and our fathers don’t have to go to a foreign country for years at a time just to make a nominally sustainable living for the family. We are all so blessed to have the life we are given, that so many of our 1st and 2nd world problems dissolve in context of the larger issues that so many around the world still face today.

So the question now becomes what are we going to do with the short time that we have here on earth? How do we become more compassionate for our fellow human beings and how can we work towards a better life for those who are less fortunate? How do we become more mindful of how we consume our natural resources so that we leave behind a sustainable world for our children and our children’s children?

There is no one answer. There is also no silver bullet. But at the same time, no act is too small and no deed is too insignificant. At the end of the day, the journey is different for everyone. The only devil is inaction and complacency. So go out and do something. Be the change you want to see in the world. For me, I found my inspiration high up in a remote, dusty and smoky village in Nepal.


Here are some additional images that I took that captures the spirit, resilience, and the essence of the people in the village.

My Water Pilgrimage: was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Not surprisingly, searching for “blockchain” stock photos yields some pretty lame results, so I threw an old BTC mining rig on my table and took a picture. I’m basically a stock photo maven.

Say you have a file with a list of transactions on your computer. This is called a ledger. If you were the only one with a copy of the ledger, you could add or remove entries as you please. The integrity of the ledger would rest entirely in your hands, but in a blockchain everyone has an exact copy of the ledger on their own computers.

If you want to add to the ledger, your computer needs to message everyone in the network, letting them know what is being added. If everyone agrees that your transaction meets a certain set of rules, they add it to their copy of the ledger. If they don’t agree, your transaction is rejected.

Since everyone has a copy, they can see every transaction in the ledger. This makes the system transparent.

Since everyone needs to agree, no single person decides which transactions are valid. This makes the system decentralized.

Cryptography is used to ensure that everyone follows the rules.


Blockchain Explained in about 3 Tweets was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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June 7–10 in Austin, TX

Be a part of the world’s only LGBTQA-themed Startup Weekend! Startup Weekend HackOut 2018 is kicking off in Austin, June 7–10!

http://www.swhackout.org || #SWHackOut

The purpose of this event is to inspire potential entrepreneurs in the LGBTQA community to learn the ropes of validating an idea for a startup or lifestyle business and turn that idea into a business venture.

In just 54 hours, you will experience the highs, lows, fun, and pressure that make up life at a startup. As you learn how to create a real company, you’ll meet the very best mentors, investors, co-founders, and sponsors who are ready to help you get started. Startup Weekend HackOut is being organized in partnership with StartOut, the national nonprofit supporting LGBTQ entrepreneurs, and Lesbians Who Tech, the community of queer women in and around tech (and the people who love them).

Your community is here to help you. Regardless of your professional background — sign up now for Startup Weekend HackOut in Austin, TX!

http://www.swhackout.org || #SWHackOut

Startup Weekend HackOut 2018 was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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The Forrest Four-Cast: May 13, 2018

Inclusiveness and diversity was one of the most important themes at SXSW 2018. But this mindset and approach must not be limited to geographical, gender and racial concerns. A truly inclusive tomorrow also focuses on accessibility in all its forms.

Learn more about cutting-edge accessibility at John Slatin AccessU, scheduled May 14–16 at St. Edwards University (3001 South Congress Avenue in Austin). Named after the pioneering leader in web accessibility who taught at the University of Texas, John Slatin AccessU provides immediately useable information for designers, developers, project managers, administrators and content creators.

Sessions for John Slatin AccessU 2018 range from “Designing Accessible Forms,” “How to Inject Accessibility into your Organization,” “Plain Language: Accessibility for Content,” “Usability Testing with People with Disabilities,” “WordPress + Accessibility = Win,” plus many many more. The keynote speaker on Tuesday, May 15 is Liz Jackson, who will cover how “Disabled People are the Original Lifehackers.”

Pre-conference begins Monday, May 14 and the event itself runs Tuesday, May 15 and Wednesday, May 16. Register now to be part of this special three-day event. John Slatin AccessU is one of the many programs organized by the Austin-based non-profit company Knowbility.

Other Austin events for the week of May 14
May 14: Telemedicine Across Texas
May 14: Co-Founders Wanted Austin Meet Up
May 14: AustinRB Meet Up
May 14: Austin Clojure Meet Up
May 14: EFF Austin Meet Up
May 14: PowerUp Austin! & Networking Reception
May 14: Telemedicine Across Texas
May 14: Women Who Code Hacking Hangout
May 14: MicroConference: DevOps Days Redux
May 15: Networking Tips and Tricks
May 15: Music Tech Meet Up
May 15: Evening Of Python Coding
May 15: Product Management Info Session
May 15: Web Development Immersive Info Session
May 15: Learn to Code: Intro to Data Science With Pandas
May 16: Trends in Action: Accenture + Fjord AMA / Fireside Chat
May 16: Founders Live
May 16: Austin Startup Meet Up
May 16: Austin Go Language User Group
May 16: 2018 WIT Showcase Event
May 16: Build a Taco Website
May 17: Website SEO Teardown
May 17: Austin Cassandra Users
May 17: Unlocking the Answers with AI and Natural Language Processing
May 17: General Assembly UX Designer Graduate Showcase
May 17: Texas Society for Construction Solutions
May 17: Austin Hardware Startup Meet Up
May 17: Bleeding Edge Web Meet Up
May 17: SXSW 2019 Strategies for Success with Hugh Forrest
May 18: Austin Community Inclusion Council
May 18: US Census Hack / Viz-a-Thon

More upcoming Austin events:
May 22: Beers and Bar Charts: How We Rely on Data & Facts
May 22: foundingAustin Issue 7 Release Party
May 23: MassChallenge Texas Startup Showcase
May 23: Find Your Event’s Next Big Idea
May 24: Austin A-List 2018
May 29: Michael Pollan Book Reading
June 1–3: ATX Hack for Change
June 1–3: Dreamhack Austin
June 5: Austin Forum on Internet of Things
June 6: Austin Digital Marketing Conference
June 7–10: Startup Weekend Hackout 2018
June 21: Central Texas LGBT-Allies Diversity Summit
June 25: SXSW 2019 PanelPicker Speaking Application Process Begins
August 3–5: RTX Austin 2018
August 22: Snap Judgement LIVE!

If you have a creativity-focused event that you want listed in this space, then please contact hugh at sxsw dot com.

Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.

John Slatin AccessU: May 14–16 in Austin was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Austin Startups by Joe Merrill - 2w ago

How to convince the sorting hat that you’re a gentle(wo)man and a scholar, not a wild animal.

Successful entrepreneurs know how to engage VCs. We’re not some elusive species. We’re human just like everyone else, and yet I’m very surprised at how many founders think that we’re jerks when they, in fact, are acting like wild animals. This primer is designed to help entrepreneurs understand VCs a little better in the hopes that we can have more meaningful interactions and avoid some of the blunders that cost entrepreneurs a funding opportunity. Quite frankly, these aren’t just things that drive VCs nuts, they are basic rules for being a good person.

  1. Don’t talk to VC’s when you’re drunk. OK, this seems obvious; however, you’d be surprised how many times drunk founders approach VCs at mixers. For some reason, there is a lot of booze at start-up and VC events that some people enjoy just a little too much. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to mix these two things, but I strongly suggest you avoid the bar if you want to impress anyone. I once had a drunk guy come up to me at SWSW and declare, “so you’re one of those {expletive] VCs I’m supposed to be networking with so I can get my company funded, so lets talk.” Needless to say, I moved on.
  2. If you want funding, ask for my advice, don’t ask me for money. It is surprising how often people lead with the money question, and that is just poor manners not to mention bad communication strategy. If you want me to be interested in what you’re doing, ask me for my advice and let’s both find out if I can help you. Look for smart money that will be able to assist your company to grow, and if I see you doing that, I’m more likely to be interested in you also.
  3. If I don’t answer the phone, don’t keep calling over and over (same for texting). Seems like a simple thing, right? And yet, on one deal we were pretty much ready to sign one day when the founder kept calling and calling until my partner and I were just begging for him to stop. He was pestering us to sign the funding agreement, and we were very preoccupied with a credit facility emergency with a different portfolio company that had to be addressed. Our investment in the other company was very significantly greater, and had to be the higher priority. We realized after many back-to-back calls from him that he didn’t respect our time, that things would only get worse if we did the deal and so we decided to walk away from the deal. If founders are jerky up front, things usually don’t get better after we give them money. So just show some good phone manners and respect my time in the same way you would expect.
  4. Don’t monopolize the conversation. Another no-brainer, but one that is repeatedly violated, most often at events where a VC is in conversation with a group of founders from different companies. Typically, we will try to get to know everyone by asking questions to each person about their company and what they’re doing to change the world. Invariably, one or two people in the group think that this is a competition to see who can one-up, interrupt and dominate the conversation. Instead, introduce what you do and ask others the same. VCs will notice that you prefer to learn than lecture, a good attribute in a founder.
  5. Get value from the “no”. If I turn you down, don’t be a jerk. It is OK to ask why I’m not interested, and even to ask if I know a VC that might be interested, but it is not cool to just roast me. VCs say no 95% of the time or more. It is just a simple matter of supply and demand, nothing personal. However; I’m impressed when someone is thoughtful enough to thank me for my time and consideration, then asks if I can share feedback or suggest another VC that might be interested in the investment. That is smart. If I take the time to listen to fully evaluate your company, I started with the idea that this might work. If it doesn’t end that way, ask me why. I may not always feel like I can share, indeed there may be a confidential reason I can not provide, but it doesn’t hurt to ask me why. If you do, you may get valuable feedback to improve your business model or help you realize how your company is perceived. Furthermore, asking if I know anyone who might be interested in your company may result in a referral to a good funding source. So please resist the urge to assume we’re jerks for not giving you money, and get some value from the “no”.
  6. Avoid superlatives, balderdash and hyperbole. Wild claims and broad statements are usually a sign that the entrepreneur is either overconfident, foolish or dishonest . I went to a pitch once where the founder stated that they were the first company to do something when I knew, for a fact, they were not. I knew because I founded a company based upon that same business plan almost ten years before, and sold it to a strategic seven years later. There were, in fact, a lot of competitors, and by stating they were the first, the best, etc., they just showed that they were ignorant of the real market and totally unprepared for funding. Please know the limits of your technology as well as your competitive marketplace, and be prepared to discuss them with honesty and integrity, avoiding the breathless reporting of meaningless, management jargon.
  7. Don’t turn the one minute elevator pitch into five minutes. If a VC gives you a time limit for your pitch, please observe it strictly, unless the VC invites you to go into overtime. This happens a lot on pitch days when companies exceed their allotted time. Look, I know you have a lot to say, but the ability to concisely deliver a compelling message is one of the best indicators that a founder will be successful. Doing so shows that you know how to sell, and respect the time of the person you’re talking to. If you don’t respect other’s time, it also speaks to a lack of empathy and possibly integrity. For fun tips on how to perfect your pitch deck, go here.
  8. Don’t bring up valuation unless I ask first. I previously stated that you shouldn’t lead with money, but let’s be frank: don’t bring it up unless asked first. Talking about your company valuation is kind of like bragging about how much you paid for your pants. No one wants to hear about it, unless they intend to buy some for themselves. So, don’t waste valuable time talking price, until you’ve sold me on the value of the pants themselves. Once I’m convinced that you have a company worth exploring further, I’ll ask and you’ll know that I’m really interested. That is a good signal for entrepreneurs that my interest is piqued, so make the most of it.
  9. Don’t trash talk other VCs or angel investors. Investing is a team sport. Funds don’t go it alone, and we prefer cooperation more than most industries because it reduces risk and improves returns for everyone. We know that it is in the interest of all to get as many smart people as we prudently can to advise and help a portfolio company. VCs invest in teams, with each round of funding bringing in other VC firms who have value and experience that is relevant to the asset. That means that most VCs are frequently friends and serial business partners. I respect them a lot, and value them highly. If you think I’ll be impressed when you trash talk the last office that said “no” to you, well I’m not impressed. That kind of behavior shows that you may have trouble working with other people, and reading a market, both are very bad traits in founders that we seek to avoid.
  10. Don’t show up at anything personal hoping to connect with me, like my kids athletic event, or heaven help you if you knock at my home. Nobody likes a stalker. I’m more likely to call the cops on you than even consider funding your company. Another no brainer, and yet I have more than one example where people tried to pitch to me while I was trying to watch my kids play sports at school. It is nice if you realize that your kids team and my kids team are in the same league, but please, let’s just enjoy the game. Use this time to show me that you can set appropriate boundaries and allow me to enjoy some precious time with my family. Don’t be a stalker.
  11. Google me, find out what I’m interested in, and engage me in a conversation beyond your company. Some might find this creepy cyber-stalking, but I just consider it good recon. If you know the people you want to meet, you’re more likely to be able to build a foundation of trust. Find a genuine area of common interest and build upon it. I’m impressed with someone who tells me that they googled me and discovered an area of common interest and we can chat about that for a while. An important caveat: don’t try to fake it. Disingenuous interest is easily seen through if you only have a quick, Wikipedia education of something I’ve enjoyed my whole life.
  12. Don’t go on and on about where you attended college. I don’t care if you went to Harvard, please show me what you can do. Your education is nice, but there are a lot of people who emphasize it too much, as if education is some kind of guarantee that they are smart. And let’s face it, Harvard is a nice school, a good fall back if you can’t get into the University of Chicago, but where you go to school is not as important as what you are doing with that education. Remember, a lot of smart people don’t go to top tier schools, and will work you under the table. Hungry, resourceful, hardworking brilliance is something VCs look for in founders. Think smart, gritty and determined, not educationally stunted by virtue of lofty expectations with little substance to back it up.
  13. Smile. Yep, I said it. Smile. It is amazing how by just being happy, and feeling good, you subtly influence others to do the same. Smiling is free, and appreciated by all. Launching a start-up company is a full-contact, extreme sport. So, please show that you enjoy the challenge, and help your founding team to stay positive in the face of their challenges. Changing the world is hard but rewarding, so make sure you enjoy the ride.

Originally published at www.sputnikatx.com.

13 Ways to Engage a V.C. was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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