The love of learning and barriers to equality

12299247_10207068795412023_8207870252888426556_n.jpg

As a parent I feel like there are only a few key things I need to teach my daughter.

  1.  A love of learning,
  2. Empathy for others, and
  3. Perseverance in the face of adversity

With these 3 things under her belt she will easily acquire the knowledge she needs, be a good person with a sense of integrity and will apply her knowledge to life despite the inevitable set backs. What more could anyone do as a parent to set their children up for success?

In this spirit my wife and I took Amara (4) to the Chabot Space and Science center last weekend. She loved it, just like she loved the Lawrence Hall of Science 2 weeks before. She can’t wait to go back and while it may not be as exciting as Disneyland, these trips are a close 2nd for her. When I ask her if she wants to do a science experiment at home, she always drops the iPad (an unfortunate addiction) and joins me on whatever project I’ve got set up for us. In short, Amara loves science and learning and I am going to do everything I can to make sure that never changes.

Now that I’m done bragging about my daughter, the reason for this post:

Each time I visit one of these science theme parks its costs our family at least $50 and it dawned on me last weekend that this cost was yet another socio-economic barrier to advancement. For us the $50 isn’t a consideration but for the working single mom in Oakland who is struggling to put food on the table how can she hope to give her kids the same experience? There are other and cheaper ways to instill a love of learning in your children but they may not be as effective or as easy. Our relative privilege confers on my daughter an almost impossible to quantify but no doubt significant advantage in life that she will take with her no matter where she goes to school or how the markets are doing. She will fundamentally be a more effective human being because of the privileges we can provide.

It makes me a little sad that we can’t make these public facilities free or at least free for the socio-economically disadvantaged. I often think about what kind of charitable work I would do if I were retired and in a position to fund a foundation. One thing I would like to do is to make sure that facilities like these are available to all. Every child should be able to grow up inspired to learn.

Its on my bucket list now. If this is something that interests you, let me know. Lets chat and see what we can do about it. 

Demo Day Pitches Are Too Polished

I get less and less value from demo days. I attended the 500 Startups Batch13 demo day this past week and each of the pitches followed a very specific formula. By the time the 3rd or 4th pitch was over, the companies all started soundingindistinguishable from one another. It’s hard to make a secondary marketplace for cosmetics sounds like a 3D printing company and yet they somehow managed. This isn’t polishing presentations, it is grinding them down into a standardized unit for mass consumption. Each of these companies is crushing it with X% margins, XX% MoM growth and $$$ in ARR. Each has super secret ongoing conversations with big industry players and each just might be able to squeeze you into a round. What do the companies do? Its not entirely clear but they are in a big market, isn’t that enough?

I don’t want to cast shade on 500 Startups because I think their program is valuable for the companies and I don’t want to demean the companies who presented, many of them actually shine when you talk with them 1:1. The problem is that demo day seems to take everything exciting and interesting away from these companies. I don’t know if it is the time constraints or some desire on the part of the accelerators to level the playing field between their stars and their bench but whatever it is, I think it does a disservice to the companies. If I were to give any pre-demo day advice it would be to standout, whatever it takes. If you have impressive metrics drop them on me quickly but then move on to the human part of your story. Be unique! Be relatable.  

Founder red flag: The tiny vision problem

Everyone knows that startups shouldn't try to do too many things at once. Its hard enough to build one great product or go after one huge market, its virtually impossible to do two. That said, if my vision for a company is bigger than the CEO's, an investment is a total non-starter.

The best CEOs in the world are also the most ambitious. Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Larry Page, Mark Benioff and Jeff Bezos all began with simple products and straightforward features but don't think for a second that they didn't all have dreams of changing the world. 

If you founded a synthetic bio company that makes glowing plants but your passion is to make the living world around us as malleable as code I want to talk with you. In fact, you might find me hard to get rid of. If you founded a synthetic bio company that makes glowing plants because you are passionate about.... glowing plants, I am probably going to pass. The company is the same, the product is the same but the vision and the prospects are completely different.

In our first conversation your job is to convince me of two things (1) you have a magical vision and (2) you have the practical restraint to get there... in good time. If all you have is practical restraint, how can you ever build a world changing company. I suggest that towards the end of an initial meeting, if we haven't touched on your grand vision yet, you need to share it. If you're worried that you might come off as unfocused preface it with something like "In our 5 year dream scenario we own all the data in industry X and can disintermediate the entire $20BN industry Y. Industry Y won't see it coming and won't be able to fight back but first we need to do XYZ and thats why we're here today." 

(In case you're curious, once you do 1&2 above my job becomes convincing you that I share the magic vision and that I have the expertise to help you accomplish it.)

Dream big but be practical.

The worst question that founders absolutely need to ask prospective investors

There is one question every entrepreneur should ask when talking to prospective investors but its a question I hate answering more than any other. The question boils down to:

“Besides capital what will you do for me?”

Capital is a commodity and these days there are a ton of places to get it. It only makes sense to ask your prospective investors what they think sets them apart and what they can bring to the table. Nobody who has a choice wants “dumb money.”

That said I hate this question because its like asking someone on a first date what sort of tangible value they will deliver to you over the next 10 years. There really isn’t a good and credible answer. Will I help with recruiting? Sure. Will I help you raise your next round? Yup. Will I introduce you to potential key partners? Of course but saying all of these things is fairly meaningless.

As a founder what you should focus on in these meetings is whether there is chemistry between you and the investor. Am I someone you want to spend countless hours working with and does it seem like I am going to want to spend that time with you. All the deliverables that a prospective investor promises you are essentially just different ways of saying I will give you X hours of my time. Focus on whether you want that time and you’ll be happier with your decision.   

Sour grapes do you no favors

I took a pitch a few weeks ago from an entrepreneur who came over the transom. These things do get read and every so often I’ll reply. I don’t know what about this pitch woke me up because it wasn’t particularly amazing in any respect but for whatever reason I pinged the founder back. Flash forward a few days.

The product being pitched was not revolutionary, it was not protectable and while it was working for a few beta customers, in my opinion, it was not far enough along for us to move forward. The founder had yet to name the company but was going to pick a name that evening and incorporate.

The morning after the pitch I very politely passed on the company but in doing so I asked if the founder had settled on a name. The founder replied that since I would not being going forward with an investment in his company he was going to keep the name confidential.

Good thinking dude. You definitely don’t want me stealing your company’s EXTREMELY valuable name. I mean you explained everything about your product the day before but lets make sure to keep that name secret. This way I wont be able to follow your progress, won’t be able to experience the exquisite pain of missing out on a win or gasp won’t be able to offer you an investment in the future. You win. Good move.

(I realize the irony in the title)