Startups = growth. Growth = friction, removed.

Growth comes from the market, not you. Your job as a founder is to let growth happen and get out of the way.

As a startup, the kind of growth you want is unbridled.

Unbridled growth only happens when your product delivers breakthrough value that motivates users to invite their friends, who in turn invite their friends, and so on. In other words, you want growth capped only by access to capital, whether from revenue or VC. Think: Uber or Facebook.

Most products never achieve truly unbridled growth. There’s a finite amount of attention in the day, so only so many products can “break out”.

But even products that have unbridled potential have an unnecessary number of blockers in the way of growth. Here’s the 3-pronged growth & product development process I use:

  1. Growth is friction, removed
  2. Growth is a process, not an endstate
  3. Growth is retention

Growth is friction, removed

If there’s nothing else I could instill in a startup, it’s this:

Startups = growth. And growth = friction, removed.

The cardinal sin of startups is forgetting that market matters most. Make something users want. As Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator, puts it:

Your goal as a startup is to make something users love. If you do that, then you have to figure out how to get a lot more users. But this first part is critical — think about the really successful companies of today. They all started with a product that their early users loved so much they told other people about it. If you fail to do this, you will fail. If you deceive yourself and think your users love your product when they don’t, you will still fail.

The startup graveyard is littered with people who thought they could skip this step.

If your goal is to make something users want, then your job is to find something people want and then give it to them as often as they will have it.

Because of this, growth is therefore a friction-removing process, not an friction-adding process. This does not mean you shouldn’t add features & functionalities; it means only add a feature when that feature allows more people to do more of a thing they’re already trying to do.

People already want to do something (whether they realize it or not) and you are simply tapping into that desire. You are not creating a new desire. Your job is to identify the desire, then make it as easy/fast/fun as possible for people to do that.

In a Wired interview, Ev Williams, founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, shared his strategy for building a billion-dollar business:

Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time… identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.

Growth is like water. It takes on whatever form it is allowed to take given the constraints around it. What constraints you leave in the way is up to you.

Be formless. Shapeless. Like water.
Put water into a cup. It becomes the cup.
Put water into a bottle. It becomes the bottle.
Put water into a teapot. It becomes the teapot.
Water can flow. Or it can crash.
— Bruce Lee

Identify where growth comes from in your product. Then remove everything that gets in the way of users getting to that.

Growth is a process, not an endstate

More than likely the friction of your early product is limiting growth. Most products don’t start with unbridled growth—achieving unbridled growth is extremely hard to do.

Even Facebook’s growth plateaud at around 100M users and they had to be very conscious about breaking through the barrier. At the time, there was no concept of a “Growth team” in Silicon Valley. How Facebook solved this wasn’t easy, but in hindsight it was straightforward, which makes the journey they took and the goal they arrived at (right now 1.5B monthly users!) all the more insightful. Chamath Palihapitiya talks about how they institutionalized growth as a team, thus creating the concept of the modern Growth team:

“Most people think of growth as trying to create these extra-normal behaviors in people. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about is a very simple elegant understand of product value and consumer behavior.” — Chamath Palihapitiya

In a nutshell, how Facebook got to 1 billion users (and got over the infamous 100 million user hump) didn’t involve any secrets or crazy tactics. It was actually just going back to the basics and iterating ruthlessly.

Chamath created an environment at Facebook where people could quickly test & measure the 3 most important problems to consumer products:

  1. How do you get consumers in the front door?
  2. How do you get consumers to the “A-ha moment” as quickly as possible?
  3. How do you deliver core product value as often as possible?

Using this framework guided them to all the insights they needed to adjust product accordingly, including the things we all talk about in the Valley now like the “magic number”.

Growth is a process, not an endstate. Try, test, measure—repeat.

Growth is retention

The Virtuous Cycle of User Growth

Most startups I see think of growth as purely a customer acquisition process. This reduces growth to just the top of the funnel, when really growth is just as (if not more) heavily reliant on the bottom of the funnel, i.e., retained users.

The biggest customer acquisition firehose in the world won’t save you if you have a leaky bucket.

The most valuable users are those who consistently use your product. In the tech industry this is called retention and it is the most valuable metric you can mention.

Why is it so valuable? Because these are the people who love your product and evangelize it to others, a.k.a. the virtuous cycle of user growth.

Alex Schultz, Facebook’s VP of Growth, asks “Where does your retention asymptote?” As in: after several weeks what % of your users still use the app regularly? This is known as terminal retention in the tech industry.

“If you end up with a retention curve that asymptotes to a parallel line with the x-axis, you have a viable business and you have product-market fit for some set of market.” — Alex Schultz

Simply put:

  • If your terminal retention asymptotes at 0%, all the growth in the world won’t mean anything because they’ll all churn out.
  • If your terminal retention asymptotes >0% (even 1%!), find more users like those users who are between the x-axis and the retention asymptote and get them to use your product.

There is a saying in farming: “Cattle always graze where the grass is greener.” Don’t literally call your users cattle 😉 But do ask yourself: who is using our product (eating our grass) the most? And where are they doing it? That will point you both to product-market fit and to identifying your most valuable users.


Great startups are built by founders who build products that they want themselves, but they’re still just one user in an ocean of users with different lives and tastes and experiences. Growth comes from the market, not you.

As a founder, your job is to hire and scale the reduction of friction. Bring on people who will do two things: reduce friction of the core product value to users, and generate awareness. Those are your goals. That’s it.

Institutionalize your growth process and do it all day, every day.

Be like water.


Header image credit: sorarium via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-ND

How to Include Product Hunt in Your Launch

A Guide for Internet Marketers, and Everyone Else

The response to How to Product Hunt has been great. But almost as soon as I hit Publish I got a dozen emails on a similar theme:

In other words: “How/when/where/what/why do I incorporate Product Hunt into my overall launch strategy?”


Let’s get this out of the way: You could just roll the dice and post right now. It’s possible your product already has great fit with Product Hunt’s community and you’ll get hundreds of upvotes. But statistically speaking that is not the case. That’s why I wrote this.

I am a firm believer in tying actions to goals. Lots of upvotes and comments on Product Hunt means nothing if that doesn’t translate into sign-ups. Your job is to make something people want, so that when they see it on Product Hunt that will translate into value to your business. My job is to help you navigate a new and unfamiliar marketing channel.

So. This guide is about how to maximize your outcome on Product Hunt, when you’re at an already-fragile point in your product’s life: launch.


Everything in this guide can be summed up as Marketing 101:

Find people who want what you make. Tell them you exist. Repeat.

Product Hunt is a market. Like any market, just go find people on Product Hunt who’d want what you make, and tell them you made it. (As in email them, not post on Product Hunt and hope they notice.) Repeat until you have customers and they’re bursting at the seams for you to “post to Product Hunt already!” Then post to Product Hunt.

You do it this way instead of the other way around because the #1 potential killer for success on Product Hunt, again just like any market, is not having fit with the market. Your goal is to increase the chances you product will fit.

If you do nothing else, just do this. Everything else will fall into place.

Now. Here’s a more nuanced take…

An Example Launch Strategy Template

There are a million launch strategies out there. Every product is different. B2B SaaS products are all the rage these days so I’ve written this as if you’re launching one of those. In broad strokes, a SaaS B2B launch strategy might look like:

  1. Find 5 customers.
  2. Build an alpha product for those customers.
  3. Iterate to beta based on their feedback, get to 25 customers. Charge $.
  4. Post to BetaList, get 25 more customers.
  5. Iterate based on their feedback.
  6. Post to Product Hunt. Tout the fact that you already have a) product-market fit with b) a great product that c) 50 customers love and pay for and d) hey today we’re coming out of beta and PHers get a discount!

I’m opining a bit on what a good launch strategy is here, but I’m right.

Now let’s get into the step you care about: Step 6 — Product Hunt.

Step-by-Step Guide

Preface: This is all happening after you have early traction

Notice that in the template above I put Product Hunt last. I recommend doing PH after your product has real traction. This may mean after launch.

Why?

Product Hunt is now a marketing channel in its own right. It has millions of visitors. It directs massive traffic. Its audience is dense with early adopters.

You are creating a fire. It’s all about momentum. There are many strategies to a successful launch already. Use those to start the fire, make it big. Throwing PH on the fire while it’s still growing on its own is a waste.

You are telling a story. Instead of having to say “Hey PH, give us upvotes please” you have a powerful story to tell: “Hey PH, we launched to Kickstarter just 30 days ago, and the response has been unreal. You may have already heard of us via TechCrunch — we’re happy to answer any questions!”

Wait until the fire is just about to stagnate, just after after your launch and people stop paying attention to you, then throw more fuel on it by posting to PH. Then you’re able to go to PH with a ton of attention already, which greatly amplifies your ability to command big upvotes.

That said, things change. Be adaptable. Again, it’s all about momentum. If your launch starts puttering, consider PH. But remember it’s just one of many channels.

Step 0: Post to other communities first

If you’re actually serious about online marketing, I recommend posting to forums, Slack chats, BetaList—whatever niche communities make sense for your product—for initial feedback and traction before PH. Anything that can help you get early fans who will talk you up in your PH post.

Step 1: Find potential fans

In a spreadsheet, list hunterswho would want your product + collection curators. For example, if you’re making a product for parents:

  • Add everyone who upvoted OwletAirbearKinsights, and other parent products. Then rank them by # of parent products upvoted; now you’ve got a list of people who have a natural affinity towards parent products.
  • Add the curators of Products for Parents and Rick Kelly’s Parenting Tools collections. (NB: As of publishing, it’s not possible to deduce who follows a collection. If PH adds that, that would be another great resource.)

Here’s an example spreadsheet:

Step 2: Make fans out of them

This is the hardest part. Making spreadsheets is easy. Making a product people love is hard. Not magic, just hard. Fortunately you did all that work in Step 1 to increase the chances you’re reaching out to the right people.

Get them to sign up. Iterate until they love it.

Make sure to tell them not to share to PH yet. That comes later. Your goal here is to build a base of Product Hunt-using fans of your product, so when you go to PH they’ll give you momentum.

Here’s an email template I use across many marketing channels, not just PH:

Step 3: Launch to PH with your new fans

  • Get your best new user to post to Product Hunt for you. Make sure they can post to the Featured section. Coordinate with them, they’ll love this.
  • Email fans (hunters and collection curators) 1 day before you post, so you’ll have a thunderclap of attention when it matters most.
  • Help them help you! Prep shareable content like Click-To-Tweet.

What if none of your best users can post to the Featured section?

Then you need to find a hunter who can. If it’s totally cold intro, make sure to email them at least a few days in advance. Longer than that isn’t necessary. Look at Yvo Schaap’s Product Hunt Leaderboard, find someone who’d resonate, then pitch them straight-up.

Criteria to evaluate good hunters:

  • They can post to the Featured section.
  • Past success doesn’t matter. Even being posted by Ryan Hoover himself doesn’t guarantee hundreds of upvotes; what matters is your product’s fit with the PH community.
  • Understanding of your product doesn’t matter. Again, it’s about fit.
  • I’ve never heard of compensation. It’s all just good karma.

Don’t be nervous. The best hunters are just as interested in posting your product as you are.

Lessons

  • The key is timing. Your launch is a fire. Only throw PH on the fire when it will make it bigger. The order is important and I swear to god if you post to PH before you get customers I will turn this car around.
  • Build a base of Product Hunt users who love your product first, then post to Product Hunt. Not the other way around. This will help you learn whether & how your product fits with the PH market.
  • Again, Product Hunt is not for getting your first customers. Unless you are a master of product launches and you know that PH is pinpointedly your target market, do not launch to the PH market first.
  • You’re always creating your story.
  • Don’t just post to PH on a whim.
  • Don’t post to PH yourself if you’re a new user. (See #5 Best Practice.)

Or you could just roll the dice and post right now. (Don’t do that 😉

As always, feel free to tweet me @thetylerhayes or email me if I can help.

Good luck, have fun!

A Few Other Frequently Asked Questions

Is [My Great Product] interesting to the Product Hunt community? Should I include Product Hunt in my launch?

Personally I think almost any product is interesting to the PH community. The question is: how interesting?

Product Hunt is never not worth it. You should never not post to PH. It’s just a matter of when. Consider the two following scenarios:

  • If your product isn’t anytime soon going to have a better fit with the PH market than it is now, post now. You’ll at least get 100 visitors to your site you wouldn’t have otherwise. Better than nothing.
  • If, on the other hand, there’s a sufficient chance that in the future you’ll have better fit with the PH market, wait to post. The value then will be much greater to your product vs. now. Read this post and put together a launch calendar.

You get one bullet; use it wisely.

What if my product is already posted to PH but only in Upcoming?

If you see someone post your product before you want it listed, contact the PH team directly. They can advise on what’s still possible/recommended.

Will you try/like/post my product?

Of course! I love trying new products. Even if I don’t emotionally relate to the problem you’re trying to solve, I’ll still give it a shot for sure. Email me.


Thanks Jason Hitchcock and Ryan Hoover for reviewing early drafts.

How to Product Hunt

A playbook on how to stay cool and not act a fool.

So. There you are. It’s week 8 of team all-hands meetings. You’ve got the first hundred customers for your new product. After all that continuous deployment, your product is in a good place. Not great, but good. With a cold-pressed juice in your hand — your whole team’s got smiles and juices actually, hey does anyone else think this is like elementary school? — you’re on a high note nearing the end of the meeting. Finally, someone says it:

“Is it time for us to post to Product Hunt?”

I’ve been around Product Hunt for a while. You can find me @thetylerhayes. I wouldn’t consider myself an OG but I really like PH. I like studying products that fit into the category of: built for people who like the Internet. PH fits into that category, along with some of my other favorites Disqus, Reddit, and GitHub.

I know a thing or two about PH — some of my successful hunts:

This is what a Product Hunt post looks like.
  • 942 upvotes: Autopsy, “A collection of post-mortems & lessons from failed startups”
  • 143 upvotes: Thrive, “Manage your SMB from your iPhone”
  • 131 upvotes: Upsie, “Get a warranty for all your cool things”

But I don’t know everything — some of my less successful hunts:

  • 60 upvotes, Patient Portal Finder, “Find where to view your results and doctor’s notes”
  • 23 upvotes, Guestlist, “Gorgeous online event registration & ticket sales”
  • 13 upvotes: Meme Generator, “Meme while you Mac”

All of which is to say: I will attempt to share what I know but don’t come to my house if this post doesn’t automatically bring you a $5m seed round.

What is Product Hunt?

Do not skip this section. (I see you scrolling past.)

Product Hunt is, first and foremost, a community. Do not forget that still even in September 2015 roughly only 3,000 people have the ability to 🎯 post products to PH. And “only” 20,000 have the ability to 💬 comment. (Everyone can participate in LIVE Chats. Thanks Ryan 👊 for clarifying.) This is a tightly-run community with an influential core membership.

Like any community, the core community members tend to share characteristics, preferences, and opinions. This is also why only certain types of products can achieve breakaway success on PH.

Nuances to know about Product Hunt’s community:

  1. Positive, optimistic people. Kind, constructive feedback givers.
  2. Generally skews toward people with an appreciation for craft. They like products and makers who care about the details. They won’t shun you if you don’t sweat the details, but they won’t upvote you.
  3. Along with #2, they have an eye for design. As in: the whole experience of a product. They notice little big details. E.g., nice things like including a text-to-download link on your home page so they don’t have to take their phones out of their pockets. Or gross things like if your site takes over their browser’s scrolling.
  4. Makers who spend a lot of time thinking about making.

If you yourself are similar to the above traits, good on you — you will fit in naturally. If you’re not, that’s ok — just be yourself.

Product Hunt likes when you are yourself.

Best practices for Product Hunt

Besides Product Hunt’s own Pro Tips, what tactics should you abide by?

  1. Never post the same day Apple is announcing something.
  2. Your product description is what your product does, not what it is.
  3. UPDATE: Post around midnight. (Outdated: Post around 6am.) PH’s ranking algorithm is always changing (as it should) but generally speaking it ranks for hotness, not just most upvotes. For example, consider two products: Product X has 20 upvotes that it got right away posted at midnight vs. Product Y has only 10 upvotes but was posted an hour ago — Product Y will likely be ranked higher on the home page because it has more momentum. In other words, you are shooting yourself in the foot by posting too early because you’ll lose momentum by the time most people are awake looking at PH.
  4. Get someone else to hunt you.
  5. Get someone else to hunt you whose submission will be featured. This is an important nuance. There are two sections on the PH home page: Featured and Upcoming. Not all PH hunters are equal; some hunters (as best as I can tell, early and influential users) can post straight to the Featured section.
  6. Get as many upvotes you can as early as possible. The winners are picked by lunch Pacific time, if not breakfast. Cf. PH Trend, a great site that tracks each hunt’s movement.
  7. Your goal is to be Top 5 for the day. That means you’ll get a second traffic boost the next day, because the Top 5 get emailed to all PH users in the daily digest the next day.
  8. Don’t expect to be Top 5, or even get many upvotes, unless your product fits into this category: built for people who like the Internet. PH is​ young and​ Silicon Valley. There’s a reason the main category is called “Tech” and not “Products”. It’s not about what vertical your product is in — plenty of telecom, farming, healthcare, etc. products have done well. The point is your product needs a tech spin.
  9. Unless you have to, do not post on the weekend. Weekends have less competition per day, yes. But weekends are more competitive to make the Top 5 because Friday-Sunday posts are grouped into one Monday digest. Not to mention also less visitors per day. Breakaway hunts do happen on the weekend (Autopsy was posted on a Sunday) but it will give you less eyeballs and you are now dealing with extra digest competition. At the end of the day, your product still has to fit with the PH community to be a breakaway hit, and you’re going to have that (or not) regardless of what day it is.
  10. Consider a PH-specific benefit. You don’t have to, just some people do. E.g., offer a special deal code to PHers or move PHers to front of the line.
  11. Don’t re-hunt a product if it’s already been hunted.
  12. Don’t cheat. Don’t game the system. Don’t buy upvotes. Don’t sign up fake PH accounts.
  13. Don’t mimic hunts from well-known products like Facebook and Slack. Their products will get massively upvoted no matter what simply based off their brand. You do not have that brand, so your goal is to cut through the noise. Be concise, specific, and valuable.
  14. Share with your friends. But tell them to go to PH’s home page and upvote you from there. Don’t link them to your product page directly; like Reddit, upvotes on directly-linked pages may not carry much weight.
  15. Get in the discussion. PH is first and foremost a community. Be yourself.

If there’s anything I want you to walk away with, it’s this:

Plan ahead.

Product Hunt will not make-or-break your company — that’s always on you — but it’s not the little leagues anymore. If you have the right product, at the right time, and plan ahead, PH can deliver you tens of thousands of visitors. You have one bullet; don’t waste your bullet. Email me if you want help.

A final thought: Product Hunt is not for getting your first customers. Unless you are a master of product launches and you know PH is pinpointedly your target market, do not launch to the PH market first. I have more thoughts on Product Hunt as part of an overall sound launch strategy but that is out of the scope of this post. Another day.

That’s all I have for now. Go and do great things.

Thanks Ryan Hoover, Andy Santamaria, and Josiah Austin Gulden for reviewing early drafts.


UPDATE: As promised, I wrote another post on How to Include Product Hunt in Your Launch.


Header image: malaysian trio via photopin (license)

Questions To Ask Investors In Your First Meeting

It’s all about you.

Most founders who haven’t fundraised before sit in meetings with investors and try to impress them. They know the investor is looking for a bunch of things and try to tick those checkboxes while also being nice, cordial, and confident.

This is exactly the opposite of what you should be doing. You should be grilling potential investors in your first meeting.

And I mean grilling.

You’re hiring investors

To start with, there are two categories of investors: Value-Add Investors and Capital-Add Investors. The former will give you money and also help with something strategic like marketing. The latter will just give you money. Both are OK. I’ll refer to Value-Add Investors as “investors” from here on. That’s who we’re talking about.

The relationship between investors and founders is typically referred to as partnering. This is not how you should act when meeting investors though. Act like you’re hiring them, because you’re going to work with them.

Again, you should be grilling investors. You know how serious it is when you hire someone? This is 100x as serious as that. These people will give you money, advice, and control your company. This is serious business, literally.

How to do this? Always be operating under the assumption that you will choose no investors to work with. It’s not an easy thing to stomach but you need to truly believe this as truth, not just act like it. There are just as many bad investors out there as bad startups. You need to weed them out.

On top of that, you need as much leverage as you can get. This will give you leverage.

Lots of investors say they know they need you more than you need them. This is hogwash. While this is true overall, pragmatically it doesn’t matter because startups greatly outnumber investors. What this means is: investors have choice. You do not; you need to give yourself choice.

Your decision is way more important than theirs

Do not try to court or woo investors, by which I mean: don’t try to impress them. Others have written about how you should just tell the truth. Yes, that is true; do that. What I am saying is take it one step further. Realize that what matters is how you feel about the investor, not how they feel about you.

Why do I say this? Your decision to work with an investor is 100x as important as their decision to work with you. You will pick 1–2 major investors maybe 2–3 times total. They will invest in 10–20 teams/year, every year, for 10 years.

Every meeting you have with an investor should be about figuring out if they’re right for you. Focus on what you need for your company and then see if they fit that. If they don’t, move on. Move on.

Counterintuitively, just like dating, this is also good because the less you try to impress investors, the more they will be impressed by you. They’ll see you’re focused on what matters: hiring only the best, investors included.

Questions to ask

So then, what to ask?

  1. “Do you ‘invest in the team’? If so, who are 3 of your teams I can talk to who would agree with this?” Many investors say they invest in the team. Again, in reality, they don’t because they don’t have to — they have such deal throughput that “investing in the team” means “investing in celebrity or second-time founders”.
  2. “How much money do you normally invest? What’s the least you’ve invested? What’s the most? Why did you pick this range?”
  3. “How long does it typically take for you to close a deal?”
  4. “How did you pitch your LPs?”
  5. “Here is 1 thing we’re struggling with… How would you solve this?”
  6. “What do you think is 1 thing we’re struggling with that we don’t see? How would you solve this? Who would you connect us with to help?”
  7. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
  8. “What do you think we should be doing differently with our marketing strategy?”
  9. “What do you think we should be doing differently with our distribution strategy?”
  10. “What do you think about our team?”
  11. “What do you think about our product?”
  12. “What do you think of our competitive landscape?”
  13. “What do you think about our timeline so far and going forward?”
  14. “What is the first thing you’d want us to do if we worked together?”
  15. “How do you see this investment playing out? When do you expect to make money? Are you looking for this to become a billion-dollar company or an acquisition?”
  16. “Why did you become an investor?” There’s no right answer.

You would ask all these types of questions when hiring an employee, because they’re being brought on to achieve certain objectives. Investors have objectives too, like making connections and providing guidance; but to start with, they just need to even complete the investment. Hence, ask technical questions about how they treat the matchmaking process. Figuring out how an investor works is a great start into figuring out how they think, and therefore how they’ll be able to help you, if at all.

Again, this is all about you. Investors work for you.

You are being invested in. Act like it

The private investment market is incredibly competitive now and will be for the foreseeable future. Many teams competing for the funding you want are more impressive than you — they have celebrity founders, second-time founders, products with $100,000 monthly revenue.

In summary:

  • Assume you will choose no investors to work with.
  • Your decision is 100x as important as theirs
  • Treat conversations with investors as if you’re looking to hire them. Grill them.

Investors pick winners. Founders should too.


Header image credit: miloslavvonranda/Deviantart

Customers > Product

Stop doing it backwards.

Since doing Techstars last year, I’ve had a number of conversations where I get asked for advice on how to get into Techstars (or, really more commonly, Y Combinator).

Usually it goes like this: here’s my product > what do you think? > is it good enough to get into YC? That’s good. A maker’s mindset is good. But they almost never talk about their customer relationships. That’s backwards. So I ask them this one question:

“Which would you rather have: customers or a product? Pick one.”

The correct answer is: customers.

Think of it like this: say I came to you asking for $50,000. I showed you a beautiful, fully-functional product. I have 0 users, but I know people want this. Now say someone else showed you no product, but a list of 100 people who gave them $10 in return for the promise they’d build a product to solve their problem. Who would you fund? You’d fund my competitor of course, because they proved people want what they’re offering. They have validation, and a much better chance at growth. They’re building for a market.

Investors (YC, Techstars, angels, VCs) care about the same, one thing you should care about: growth.

Growth comes from building something people need, telling them about it, and getting them to use it, repeatedly. If you can get customers before building a product, that’s immediate validation, which is a huge advantage.

That’s worth saying again: get customers before you build a product.

I’m not saying you can get into YC without a product, but I am saying you have a better chance if you at least demonstrate need.

If you find yourself with a product already and no customers, that’s OK. Pause development — now go and find customers. Tell them what you’ve built, get them to use it, and focus on growing. Better late than never.


Header image © Nevit Dilmen CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.

Should I Raise Angel, Seed, or Series A?

What can be said about fundraising that hasn’t been said already?

A lot.

Let’s talk about who to raise from and how to raise from them, depending on the stage of your company.

The answers are actually quite simple and well-known. It’s getting to the answer that is the tricky part because it requires being brutally honest with yourself.

When raising funds, be brutally honest with yourself about specifically which stage you’re at — one of three:

  1. Are you pre-traction? Raise an angel round. Strategy: sell the dream. You don’t have numbers to sell so don’t even try to sell investors on traction at this point. You will only end up with dumb investors. You’re raising money to prove people will use what you make.
  2. Do you have early traction? Raise a Seed round. Strategy: sell the traction. Show off your traction. You’re raising money to figure out how to convert this traction into repeated, up-and-to-the-right growth.
  3. Do you have repeatable, up-and-to-the-right growth? Raise an A round. Strategy: sell the growth. You’re raising money at this point just to cover costs because you’re not generating enough revenue yet, but everything else is up and to the right. “We’ve got a fire; let’s pour gas on it.”

It’s simple. Be honest.

Then go raise the money. That’s also simple: just talk to people until you find out who fits with your vision.

Why focus on traction? There’s no easier way to prove you’re right than traction. Not to mention: if you’re contrarian, it’s the only way.

Worth saying: sometimes you can be in between these stages. E.g., pre-product, post-product without product-market fit, and post-traction without repeatable growth. The answer is still simple: tell investors what stage you are and find investors who are OK with that. For example: if you have a product but not product-market fit, still go after angel investors and just double down on selling the dream. Another example: hardware startups often raise money pre-product.

Fundraising isn’t mysterious. It’s a lot of work.

❤ Tyler

Interstellar

★★★★

Interstellar is momentous.

The world is blighted. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer, née NASA test pilot, harvesting one of the only remaining growable foods: corn. Depression does not reign, but hope is in low supply, ambition even lower, and history has been rewritten to teach children we didn’t actually land on the moon.

Why didn’t we land on the moon? Early in the film, Cooper’s father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) alludes that humans acting like real humans is what got us into this mess in the first place: “6 billion people, every one of them trying to have it all”. We landed on the moon to beat the Russians, the epitome of wastefulness. We brought blight on ourselves.

And now at just the right moment a mysterious force has placed a wormhole in our solar system, linking to another galaxy with 12 potentially habitable planets. Leave everything behind, it says. Rage against the dying of the light. Curious.

So then: humans with destructive goals lead to destruction. Humans with constructive goals lead to creation. All humans love. Love is worth saving. Send the constructive humans to space to find us a new home. Love will ensure they succeed. This is Interstellar. We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible.

Prometheus was an ambitious film. Ebert considered Prometheus magnificent sci-fi for its endless supply of questions never answered. Prometheus looks back at where we came from. Interstellar looks up at where we’re going. One question has an answer, one does not. One is curious, one is frightening.

And so it makes sense every main character in Interstellar is a scientist, engineer, or mathematician. Level-headed folk with big brains and well-reasoned opinions. Two are female, both daughters: Murph (Jessica Chastain) is Cooper’s daughter and Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) is Professor Brand’s daughter. This is story of true explorers, not action heroes. It turns out true exploration is not always easy to watch.

Ebert once said of The Prince of Egypt:

One of the reasons I was so enthusiastic, earlier in 1998, about “Dark City,” “What Dreams May Come” and “Babe: Pig In The City” is that they showed me sights I had never imagined before, while most movies were showing me actors talking to one another.

Nolan is known for exposition. Interstellar is packed with it. Gravity equations this, slingshots around black holes that. Yet so much of the dialogue is decorative. Ornamentation to let us know we are watching real humans so we don’t go as crazy as real humans likely would have in these scenarios, but ultimately that their words are not the focus. Interstellar, more than any other Christopher Nolan film, shows us things no humans have experienced before. That is an understatement. Interstellar shows us the impossible. Again and again, the impossible. (This is a film made to be seen in IMAX, the only format which could do it justice.)

And yet, the very core of Interstellar is that nothing is impossible. Space travel, worm holes, black holes, time travel. Life, always finding a way. Anything is possible.

And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that.

Multiple times throughout Interstellar we hear Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, recited by the illustrious NASA professor Brand (Michael Caine). (Michael Caine, by the way, never out of work as long as Christopher Nolan continues making movies. We are lucky for this.)

“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In every form factor this hypothesis is tested. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) continually fights the impossible. Man vs. Nature on a planet of mountainous waves, followed by Man vs. (Dr.) Mann on an ice planet even Hoth would not be friends with. Mann is the “remarkable leader” of the original crew sent out to investigate the new galaxy, we’re told by Professor Brand (played by a curiously unbilled cast member).

Cooper, as is required by such a script, always overcomes. But not in ways we might expect from directors other than Nolan, given Cooper’s fundamental drive: protecting his children. Interstellar is more Spielbergian than even J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 in this sense. And certainly not with the same repercussions; we are excruciatingly introduced to the implications of relativistic space travel almost immediately. Decades pass on earth while mere hours pass for the astronauts. Children out-age their parents. Most people will cry watching this film. Most people in this film cry. 10-year old Murph’s (Mackenzie Foy) tears most justified of anyone’s. Losing a parent is tough; losing a parent not to death but to the unknown, impossible.

In the third act of the film, packed with more than most other entire films, Nolan asks the inevitable: to what lengths are we willing to go to achieve survival as a species? Do we deserve a new home at all? Multiple characters in Interstellaranswer this question in the absolute. “As far as is necessary” they respond. And yet they do not act the same. We see the diversity of humanity in the diversity of how they aim to achieve this goal. There is nastiness.

This is what makes Interstellar so difficult to watch, not its length: it is unrelenting. King Kong (1933) was an epic at 1.5 hours, as was Peter Jackson’s 2005 3-hour re-telling. They may feel long; Interstellar does not. Interstellar is 169 minutes of constantly leaning forward. There is no time for the characters to pause and think, therefore we are not afforded the same luxury.

As with the very time loop paradox Nolan and film advisor/theoretical physicist Kip Thorne constructed at Interstellar’s core, Interstellar is a mirror to our unrelenting selves. Interstellar is brutal because we are brutal. It is hopeful because we are hopeful. It may lack the non-verbal subtleties of Kubrick’s 2001, but in replacing alien life forms with ourselves as the benevolent-yet-impossible-to-comprehend higher life form, Interstellar is just as reflective on humanity and its bigs and smalls, if not more so. Nolan even subtly manages a Creation of Adam between Cooper and Brand.

Interstellar is hopeful to its core. In one of the film’s few monologues, Brand firmly believes love is the one thing that persists across the universe, which obviously doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny, but that isn’t the point. What else are we doing all this for, if not for love? One gets the sense Nolan poured himself into this film as much as a parent pours herself into her child. I would not be surprised to learn Nolan had collapsed from exhaustion after editing. This may be true enough, after the alleged six months in mixing alone. Interstellar is a massive achievement on every level of storytelling and filmmaking. It undoubtedly will be the study of film classes and inspire philosophical conversations for years to come

On July 20, 1969, we landed two human beings on the Moon. Most people back then thought we’d be on Mars within 10 years. This made sense. We had momentum. But we haven’t walked on Mars, and we likely won’t even in the next 10 years. We only just last week landed a robot on a comet. Why did we stall? Neil Tyson suggests it’s because we’re no longer at war. This is depressing but makes a certain logical sense.

Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.

Originally published on Noble Pioneer.

Sickness And Death Are Unnecessary

I have two goals in life:

  1. To be the first human being in another solar system.
  2. To give anyone the ability to live forever.

More on goal #1 another time…

Problem: You Don’t Have A Choice

What does “give anyone the ability to live forever” mean? It means everyone should be able to live as long as they want, as healthily as they want. The point is: choice. It’s your life.

Sickness and death are unnecessary. They are outdated concepts forced on humans. They remove our choice to do what we wish with our lives. They were a weakness to humanity of the past and will be an ancient memory to humanity of the future.

Advances in human health and longevity are obvious. They have been happening since the dawn of humanity and are increasing faster than ever today. We are already living longer and healthier. Soon we will live a little longer and a little healthier than we are today. And soon after that… and so on. This inevitably reaches a logical conclusion: barring global self-destruction, we will eventually be able to choose immortality.

It’s Your Right

At its core, this is no different than what we all believe today: we believe each individual should have the freedom to choose how they live.

Now it is time to take that belief to its logical next step: if you shouldn’t be denied your right to quality of life while you’re alive, it stands to reason you also shouldn’t be denied your right to length of life as well. If it’s wrong for another individual to take your life from you, it is also wrong for the Universe to take your life from you. You have the right to do with your life what you wish, fully and unencumbered.

Why This Matters To Me

These beliefs are an extension of a question I started to ask myself at a young age, and started writing about four years ago. I have always wanted to live forever myself, but didn’t realize I thought of it as a fundamental human right that I wanted to defend until two years ago — I started to realize a belief: that sickness sucks. When I wrote that, I had arrived at an inflection point but I didn’t know what I wanted to do about it:

I don’t know what my next steps are but the whole idea of Next Steps has been on my mind a lot more lately. Thoughts are brewing and I’m sure I’ll pen them here soon. I look forward to writing this post’s optimistic counterpart. Until then, I’m sick of sickness. It’s not fair to anyone. If I could only accomplish one life goal, and it could be anything, it would be to give humankind the ability to live healthy forever. So maybe that’s what I’ll do.

That was frustrating. But I did have a good laugh looking back at them one year later when we launched Prime. Prime is a direct realization of those final two sentences. Hindsight is fun like that. And Prime has relieved that frustration.

Now, another year later, I can say with complete conviction that those two goals are purely what I want to do with my life. As someone who spent most of my life bordering on perennial anger at not knowing what I wanted to do with my life — I eventually realized I was trying every activity, sport, and program possible to figure out what I liked vs. what I didn’t — this is a welcome change.

And if it’s inevitable, why not start working toward it now? I only have about 10,000 waking days left in my life anyway.

Originally published on my blog, Noble Pioneer.


Header image courtesy via D’ARC STUDIO ASSOCIATES ARCHITECTS.

The Star Trek Future

Fred Wilson, on the limits of capitalism:

When we stare into the future, we see that our cars will not have drivers. We see that the stuff we buy from Amazon will be delivered by drones. We see that the foundations and structures of our homes will be built by 3D printed concrete. We see a world where many jobs will not exist anymore. Taken out by technology. The very technology that many of us here at AVC are working hard to create and that many of us here at AVC celebrate.

[…] People need to work. They need to have something to feel good about doing every day. Work is a big part of self image and self worth. Any system that makes it possible for people to sit at home eating bon bons (as the Gotham Gal likes to say) is not a good system.

I like this line of thinking. I would reframe Fred’s thinking as “people need to challenge and improve themselves” rather “people need to work”, though that may just be pedantry.

mentioned after reading Fred’s thoughts that these resemble what I’ve in private often called the Star Trek Future. This is not an outlandish concept; it is simply the world Gene Roddenberry created in the Star Trek series. A world where money is no longer necessary and people are generally free and able to do what they want, so long as they do not harm others.

That “able to do” piece is key. In this world, this Star Trek Future, the pursuit of self-improvement is the goal. There is no war, no famine, no poverty, no sickness. Those problems have been solved.

And that is the difference between our world today and the Star Trek Future: even in the many countries where freedom to pursue happiness is already a citizen’s right, many of those very citizens are not realistically able to pursue happiness due to war, famine, poverty, oppression, and sickness. Often for interrelated reasons.

So can we get there, to the Star Trek Future? I believe yes we can. And I also believe we will. I believe it is inevitable.

I believe those things because we’re already seeing so many of these problems starting to be solved. For example how massive availability of mobile phones has allowed many in poverty to easily charge for goods and services when they don’t even have a conventional home.

And that’s before we get to greener technologies that are only just beginning to make an impact. For example: the unbundling of healthcare, on which Dustin Curtis recently shared some thoughts about what he wants to exist:

I want a system that continuously scans my body and tells me if I have actionable disease, like cancer or a contagious flu. I want this device to tell me if I have a higher than normal risk of a heart attack, and, if so, which steps I should take to prevent one.

[…] I want doctors to be way less involved with practical medicine, and for computers to diagnose and treat disease; we know so little about the human body, and innovation in medicine moves so slowly, that tens of thousands of people die every day from things that could be completely and easily prevented with technology. I want the human body to be treated medically as a machine, by machines.

There’s no doubt about it: healthcare is being unbundled, just like newspapers were. It’s not that the Internet replaced newspapers so much as specific Internet services replaced sections of newspapers, like Craigslist vs. classifieds.

Wearable activity trackers like Fitbit and Jawbone have unbundled the need for paper diaries to share with your doctor. Newer wearables are now also starting to measure pulse, glucometry, and biometrics. It won’t be long before we’ll have one device that can track all our body’s vitals and activity, before we are able to treat our body like a machine. Thinking of our bodies as machines processing input and output that require maintenance may be uncomfortable but only until we realize that is just a starting place. That doesn’t mean we need to think of ourselves as machines; we are more than our bodies.

I want the Star Trek Future to become our reality. I believe it will happen eventually and therefore I believe working on things that will expedite that reality is the best use of our time. And I am now working every day of my life to push us towards that goal in the best ways I know and am capable of. If you’re doing similarly say hi, let’s talk.

Originally published on my blog, Noble Pioneer.

Collateral Progress

Competition is good.

Competition is good. In the long-term it usually results in a net positive for everybody. If there is a perfect example of this it’s likely the Annual Tech Startup Gold Rush™. For example:

2007: The Year of Microblogging — Twitter, Pownce.

2008: The Year of the Check-in — Foursquare, Gowalla.

2011: The Year of Group Messaging — GroupMe, Beluga.

Pownce. Gowalla. Beluga. All companies chasing the dream in their respective spaces that either shut down or otherwise ceased operating due to competition. And yet all completely necessary for their respective novel paradigms to survive. Even though they no longer exist, each added to our overall awareness of, and comfort with, a new paradigm.

Here’s how the Annual Tech Startup Gold Rush™ works: a company introduces a new paradigm. Others see opportunity and rush in. The paradigm catches on slowly, then faster, and new players bring in their own new consumers. The pool of overall consumers familiar with the paradigm grows larger. Most companies fail/pivot/shut down. Maybe the company that introduced the paradigm is still around, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. The paradigm itself persists on now self-sustaining momentum.

The paradigm reached this point only by all the companies contributing to its growth. Before this point the consumer pool was too small and thus too brittle; any one company failing could mean such a significant loss of consumers from the pool that the paradigm itself is at risk of fading. Now, however, the pool is big enough that when a company leaves the pool its customers don’t. Instead they migrate to another paradigm provider.

Often at this point another notable trend starts: major services adopt the paradigm into their products. Facebook is one of the best at this. Possibly the greatest example of this is when Twitter first introduced the paradigm of the short-burst status update. At the time Facebook had no similar feature. Yet eventually Twitter and others cemented the paradigm of status updating so dominantly that it was recognized as being as necessary as social networking itself. This is when Facebook adopted it.

Sometimes the paradigm author stays the predominant player, sometimes they don’t. Twitter is still around and doing quite well, despite Facebook adopting their core feature, but Pownce certainly isn’t. Yet Pownce necessarily validated microblogging as a thing worthy of more attention. It got more people to ask their friends what they thought of “this whole microblogging thing”. It was collateral progress.

Originally published back in 2013 on my blog, Noble Pioneer.